From the ghetto of Venice to ghetto fabulous

Dr. Sasha Goldstein-Sabbah (opens in new window) (Jewish Heritage Network)

Hearing the word ‘ghetto’, most people will think of a poor urban neighbourhood inhabited by a single minority group.

The term ghetto is actually several centuries old, referring to a specific area of Venice in which Jews in the city were forced to live from the 16th century onwards. Although the etymological origins of the word are cloaked in mystery, the term soon came to signify neighbourhoods where Jewish people were housed involuntarily.

Prior to Jewish emancipation in the late 18th and 19th centuries, Jewish ghettos were found throughout Europe. In some cases, Jews were required to live in these designated areas whereas in others it was simply a matter of choice.

Often Ghettos would have defined gates to demarcate the area.

The neighbourhoods were often overpopulated as expanding the ghetto was not allowed. For that same reason, many ghettos had high tenement-style apartment buildings.

Even after emancipation, when Jews were no longer forced to live in neighbourhoods allocated to their community, the term ‘ghetto’ persisted as a pejorative reference to predominantly Jewish areas. For example, the Lower East Side in Manhattan was called the New York Ghetto.

During World War II, Jews were once again forced to live in ghettos in Europe. The majority of the community either perished due to malnutrition and disease or after being deported to concentration camps. The photograph below shows a street in the Podzamcze ghetto in Poland, where 30.000 jews lived in exile before their deportation in 1941. In the foreground, you can see the white armbands the Jewish ghetto inhabitants wore that identified them as Jewish.

The most notorious ghetto in World War II was built in Warsaw, established in 1940 and liquidated in 1943. It is estimated that almost 100,000 people were killed in the Warsaw Ghetto whereas another 300,000 residents died in the concentration camps.

Slowly, the term ghetto has shifted in its association away from Jews and has become more indicative of poor city quarters. In the United States, the term ghetto often refers to a predominantly urban area with a mostly African American community. In fact, African Americans have used this term since the early 20th century to refer to the segregated neighbourhoods in which they live.

Elvis Presley famously popularised the song In the Ghetto, originally composed by Mac Davis, to decry the plight of those living in the Chicago ghetto during the 1960s.

On the other hand, in Montreal, the neighbourhood next to McGill University is referred to as the student ghetto and here, the term carries no negative connotation. It goes to show that, by the end of the 20th century, the word had entered into the dictionary of popular culture aesthetics. In the 1980s and 1990s, a ghetto-blaster became a common synonym for a boombox.

Similarly, the expression ghetto fabulous has come to be used to point out a specific lifestyle, the aesthetic concepts and materialist culture associated with it. Hip-hop icons such as Sean Combs, Jay-z, and Kimora Lee Simons have even designed fashion labels around the concept, which is certainly a far cry from the 16th-century Venetian neighbourhood where the roots of the ghetto lie.

This blog is part of Europeana XX, a project co-funded by the European Union that focuses on the 20th century and its social, political and economic changes.