Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Ghetto
From Encyclopedia of Urban Studies

Ghetto has a specific historical reference to the segregation of Jews within the Ghetto Nuovo in Venice of the 1400s, from which the name is derived, and to the segregated residential quarters that developed in European cities in the following century. The ethnic communities of Jewish immigrants in American cities were also called ghettos. In more recent times, ghetto has been used to describe African American communities in the inner city, often characterized by high rates of poverty, crime, and social dislocation. Current discussions about the ghetto have raised concerns about the use of the term to define other ethnic communities and about the connections drawn to low-income communities in other countries—the Brazilian favela, French ban-lieue, South American shantytown, and Asian slum. This entry looks at the original Venice ghetto and the subsequent usage of the term in the United States.

The Venice Ghetto

The Jewish community in Venice dates to AD 1382, when the Venetian government authorized Jews to live in the city; the first residents were money lenders and businessmen. The enclosure of the Jews came after an outbreak of syphilis—a disease introduced from the New World that had no certain name, diagnosis, or treatment; it was said to be linked to the arrival of the Marrani Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. By act of the Venetian senate on March 29, 1516, some 700 Jewish households were required to move into the Ghetto Nuovo, an island in the cannaregio sestieri on the northwest edge of the city, with entry controlled by two gates that were locked at sundown (the term refers to the original use of the island as a foundry and is from the Italian verb gettare, which means “to pour”).

The Jewish ghetto would eventually include the Ghetto Nuovo, Ghetto Vecchio (1541), and Ghetto Nuovissimo (1633). Jews emerged from the world of the ghetto each morning to work or to shop, their clothing marked with a yellow circle (for men) or yellow scarf (for women) and spent the workday among gentiles, returning to the ghetto each evening before sundown. Within the ghetto, Jews were free to wear jewelry and other clothing prohibited on the streets of Venice following the Decree of 1512, and, in 1589, a charter of Jewish rights guaranteed the right to practice their religion. There eventually would be five synagogues for the separate groups of French, German, Italian, Levantine, and Spanish Jews.

Although the Ghetto was intended to isolate the Jews from the Venetian world outside its gates, physical segregation provided the community with some measure of protection. When groups of angry Catholics tried to attack the ghetto in 1534 during Lent, the bridges were drawn up and windows closed, and those inside were safe from the outside threat. Bernard Dov Cooperman notes that residents saw the ghetto as a biblical “camp of the Hebrews” rather than as a jail, a holy place en route to the Promised Land. The establishment of a ghetto in Verona was an occasion of celebration.

Segregation from the outside world would also turn the community inward, leading to the development of a religious culture different from other Jewish communities. By the end of the sixteenth century, fear of assimilation and intermarriage led rabbinic courts to forbid dancing between Jewish women and Christian men.

The example of the Jewish ghetto in Venice connects with the racialization of urban space across many dimensions. The process of racialization in this instance begins with the forced relocation of a group of people identified by a particular ethnic characteristic—their religion—to a physical space isolated from other areas of the city. People living outside of the ghetto view the behavior and beliefs of those inside with suspicion, and their bodies are seen as dangerous; as Richard Sennett comments that outsiders saw the ghetto as a place cut off from sun and water, supporting their beliefs that the Jews who lived there were prone to crime and idolatry.

The Venetian ghetto early on became a tourist destination as part of the grand tour of the 1600s and 1700s. Rail travel in the 1800s would directly link Venice with cities across Europe—although by this time there were travel narratives from many visitors from Europe and the United States. The Venetian ghetto is associated in the popular imagination with The Merchant of Venice (performed 1597, folio in 1600). The play likely has its origins in Edward de Vere's visit to Venice in 1575 and 1576, at a time when it was fashionable for young aristocrats to complete their classical education in Greek and Latin literature with visits to Italy. Although the ghetto is not referenced in the play, and none of the scenes are set in the ghetto, popular culture still associates Shylock as The Merchant of Venice and situates the play within the ghetto. In Julia Pascal's 2008 production of the play at the Arcola Theatre in London, a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust confronts a group of actors in the ghetto.

Today, the Museo Communita Ebraica in Campo Ghetto Nuevo offers tours of the ghetto, with visits to three of the historic synagogues. There is a guided tour in the footsteps of Shylock (to connect us back to The Merchant of Venice). The ghetto remains a tourist destination, somewhat off the beaten path even though it is very near the train station; and there is an official tourist map available in English, Japanese, and other languages at the Venetian tourist offices.

The Ghetto in the United States

Given the usual narrative concerning the influence of the Chicago School of Urban Sociology, one might expect that the beginning point for discussion of the ghetto in American cities would be the publication of Louis Wirth's classic study, The Ghetto. But although ghetto was used by African American scholars to describe segregated neighborhoods as far back as the 1890s, it was not commonly used in the social sciences to refer to black settlement patterns for another quarter century.

Early References

References to the ghetto were commonplace in Jewish popular culture from the late nineteenth century onward. Children of the Ghetto (1892) by the British journalist Israel Zangwell (1864-1926) was dramatized and performed in England and America (he also published a series of biographical studies titled Dreamers of the Ghetto, 1898). Abraham Cahan (1860-1951), the Russian American journalist, immigrated to New York in 1882 and published Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1898). This work presents the ghetto both as a historic entity and contemporary place and refers to the continuity of “ghetto culture” from the old world in New York's Lower East Side.

During the same period, African American scholars used ghetto to describe urban neighborhoods with significant Black populations. In The Black North: A Social Study, W. E. B. Du Bois describes the growth of the Black population in Philadelphia's Seventh Ward, which he says was a residential area for 50 years before African Americans were forced into “a ghetto bordering the Delaware River.” The ghetto here refers to an area of first settlement.

Louis Wirth's classic study of the Chicago ghetto, completed under the direction of Robert Park, was published first as an article in the American Journal of Sociology (this was common for the Chicago School studies) and appeared as a book a year later in 1928. Wirth gives a historical overview of the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt and other European cities before describing the Chicago ghetto, where he traces the movement of the Chicago ghetto from the Maxwell Street neighborhood (the area of first settlement known as the ghetto) into North Lawndale (called “Deutschland” because this was the area of second settlement for German Jews) and notes that already there was a movement out of this area into the north side neighborhoods. (This was not the first discussion of the Maxwell Street ghetto, as the area is described by Manuel Zeublin in The Chicago Ghetto, published in 1895.)

Robert Park's race relations cycle provided the theoretical narrative; according to Park, the first stage of contact would be followed by competition, then accommodation, and finally assimilation. For Wirth, the Chicago ghetto was similar to other ethnic enclaves, an area where first-generation immigrants live and over time become assimilated to the mores of the larger society. Wirth's description of the assimilation of Jewish immigrants in The Ghetto would serve as a model for the acculturation of other ethnic—and later racial—groups. Although his work is cited in many of the Chicago School studies, it is important to note that in these studies the ghetto is used strictly to refer to the Jewish ghetto, not to other poverty neighborhoods (these remain slums), not to other ethnic neighborhoods (these remain Little Italy and the like), and not to African American areas (this will remain the Black Belt in the Chicago School literature). St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton's classic work Black Metropolis (1945) presents a study of Bronzeville, as the south side Chicago had become known. The term ghetto is used in only one section (it does not appear in the index), and it is used as a geographical reference to describe the poorest area of Bronzeville. Clearly, the ghetto was located within Bronzeville, but Bronzeville itself was not a ghetto.

Denoting African American Communities

Gilbert Osofsky's landmark study Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto (1963) marks the common usage of ghetto to refer to African American communities (the second edition of the book was published in 1971 with a concluding chapter titled “The Enduring Ghetto,” which argues that the essential nature and structure of the ghetto have remained in the north since the end of slavery). Osofsky's work was followed by many other studies of the history of Black settlement in the urban north, including Allan Spear's Black Chicago (1968), Kenneth Kusner's The Making of a Negro Ghetto (1976), and Thomas Philpott's The Making of the Second Ghetto. In geography of the same period, Harold Rose would describe the African American ghetto as a new urban subsystem and refer to suburban Black communities as mini-ghettos. By the 1970s, the use of ghetto to describe not just specific areas within the city, but African American communities as a whole, had become solidified.

By the end of the century, the ghetto migrated from popular culture to scholarly research and then back into popular culture—with a vengeance. Indeed, the ghetto is ever present: in popular music, in the cinema, in consumer products (boom boxes became known as ghetto blasters), and of course, in the ever-present labeling of speech, behavior, and dress: that's so ghetto!

The ghetto remains a central concept in sociological research and in urban studies more generally. William Julius Wilson has published important books based on two decades of study in Chicago (The Truly Disadvantaged, When Work Disappears), and Loïc Wacquant reprised his own research from the same inner-city Chicago neighborhoods and the Paris banlieues in Urban Outcasts. Mary Pattillo has suggested that the boundaries of the Chicago ghetto (roughly the area encompassed by Drake and Cayton's Black Metropolis—although they did not consider all of Bronzeville to be a ghetto) should be expanded to include segregated neighborhoods for Blacks even if they are not poor, arguing that this would be more comparable to the original use to define Jewish communities. In 2007, City magazine published “Banlieues, the Hyperghetto, and Advanced Marginality: A Symposium on Loïc Wacquant's Urban Outcast,” a 60-plus-page collection of essays focusing on the work of Wacquant. And a recent symposium on the ghetto in City and Community invited scholars from several disciplines (and three continents) to discuss the usefulness of the term ghetto in the study of urban communities. This symposium notes that the gen-trification of former ghettos such as Harlem and the Fillmore District in San Francisco, depopulation and gentrification on Chicago's south side (the area studied by Wilson and Wacquant), dispersal of African American populations from inner-city neighborhoods in other cities, and the like suggest that it is time to evaluate the conceptual merits and usefulness of the ghetto for understanding emergent patterns of social exclusion across the metropolitan region. In Chicago and Harlem, the visitor may take guided tours of the ghetto, and the earlier zones of exclusion now appear in the official city websites for tourists. With the commercialization of ghetto spaces, important questions emerge as to the usefulness of the ghetto to understanding the social exclusion of ethnic and racial minorities in the United States and other countries.

See also

Banlieue, Chicago, Illinois, Ethnic Enclave, Favela

Further Readings
  • Chatterton, Paul “Banlieues, the Hyperghetto, and Advanced Marginality: A Symposium on Loïc Wacquant's Urban Outcast.” City 11 ((3)) : 357-421., 2007.
  • Curiel, Roberta and Cooperman, Bernard-Dov (1990). The Ghetto of Venice. London: Tauris Parke.
  • Davis, Robert C. and Ravid, Benjamin, eds. (2001). The Jews of Early Modern Venice. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Drake, St. Clair and Cayton, Horace (1945). Black Metropolis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Hutchison, RayHaynes, Bruce “Symposium on the Ghetto.” City and Community 7 ((4)) : 347-98., 2008.
  • Pattillo, Mary. “Expanding the Boundaries and Definitions of the Ghetto.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 26 ((6)) : 1046-57., 2003.
  • Sennett, Richard. (1995). Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Wacquant, Loïc. (2008). Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
  • Wirth, Louis. (1928). The Ghetto. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Hutchison, Ray
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Articles

    Full text Article GHETTO
    Dictionary of Race, Ethnicity & Culture

    (It. ghetto ; Fr. ghetto ; Ger. Ghetto ) The term ‘ghetto’, from the Venetian dialect ghetto , originally and principally refers to a...

    Full text Article ghetto
    Dictionary of Jewish Lore and Legend, Thames & Hudson

    Restricted urban area set aside for Jews where they were separated from their Gentile neighbours. The term is derived from the Italian for an...

    Full text Article Ghetto
    Encyclopedia of Urban Studies

    Ghetto has a specific historical reference to the segregation of Jews within the Ghetto Nuovo in Venice of the 1400s, from which the name is...

    See more from Credo