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‘Ghetto’ – an ugly word with an ugly but important history

Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea

By Mitchell Duneier

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

302 pages, $27


By Stephanie Shapiro

Venice is awash in glamorous cocktail parties and glittering fancy-dress balls all this year to mark the 500th anniversary of its establishing the first ghetto in 1516. These events are raising funds to restore the former ghetto area and to support various charities serving the remaining Jews of Venice. Many of them left the swampy neighborhood after Napoleon abolished the ghetto in 1797.     

Although such sumptuous galas may seem incongruent with the reality of the ghetto and the other ghettos that have followed it during the past five centuries, the ugly word “ghetto” fits the ugly realities of these areas of forcible confinement.

The Venice ghetto was locked at night and unlocked each morning. Jews were forbidden to be outside the gates when they were locked. When the Jewish population increased, no land was added.  Rather, the houses grew vertically, producing some of the tallest buildings in the city.

When floods inundated the lower floors, occupants of those homes moved in with residents of the higher stories. All in all, it was a miserable place. Nevertheless, some writers said the ghetto had some positive aspects, such as increased communication among the Jewish community. Others fail to see how locking the gates enhanced communication.

The term also describes the areas in European cities where Nazi Germany confined Jews from all over Europe in crowded, squalid misery enclosed by brick walls put up overnight. Unlike the Venice ghetto, those in Europe kept their inhabitants confined all the time, until they were shipped to death camps and concentration camps.

Using “ghetto” to mean the also overcrowded areas of cities largely populated by African Americans came into use by sociologists only during the mid-1940s. Mitchell Duneier, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, presents in “Ghetto” a fully fleshed-out landscape of the ever-shifting attitudes of scholars and officials toward the plight of Americans trapped in the modern ghettos and the remedies du jour attempted to correct conditions in those neighborhoods.

Duneier has organized great amounts of information in sections, each focused on a particular scholar. He presents a complete picture of the social landscape and plumbs the depths of ghetto suffering without ever losing the thread of his narrative.

He packs great amounts of information into each section and shows us how the behind-the-scenes academic jockeying for status has affected the lives of generations of residents in the ghettos. He names names, tells who demanded what salary and benefits, who got what and who got nothing, all documented with dates and places and what maneuvering came back to haunt which academics.

So much information can be difficult to retain, and it may be necessary to reread a page here and there to get one’s bearings after a pause in reading. So many names and places, so many ideas and ideals can blur into each other occasionally. But “Ghetto” is one of the books that will not gather dust on a shelf. Students, historians, activists, educators all will be referring to it often in years to come.

Duneier’s easy reading style helps keeps the narrative understandable. His journalistic approach, while not neglecting the necessary scholarship, makes all this history accessible to just about anyone.  “Ghetto” is free of the dense academic prose so familiar in the social sciences. Personally, I remember being instructed to revise a paper submitted at a think tank at a local university because it was “not vague enough.” That did happen only once, to be fair.

Duneier is not vague at all. He describes in detail the various schools and other programs devised through the decades in efforts to lift at least the children out of a future of poverty. Some worked for a while, others fizzled. Some studies are still in progress.

Throughout, we see how various researchers have reworked the definition of ghetto to fit new developments in society. Originally a confined, overcrowded space occupied involuntarily by an ethnic or racial minority, the ghetto in its recent form has been redefined by some scholars as based on poverty, rather than ethnicity. Such readjustment then requires changes in the remedies they recommend to ease the social damage inflicted by overcrowding, failing schools and inadequate social and medical services.

“Ghetto” should not be read straight through, front to back, in a short time. Rather, it requires some time for reflection on the events Duneier narrates and on his evaluation of them and their effects.    

The wealth of material here is enough to fuel discussion and further study for a long time to come, and perhaps to reignite an academic or political controversy or two not yet completely extinguished.


Stephanie Shapiro is a former News reporter and editor.