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

Mitchell Duneier (2016)

Mitchell Duneier transformed a class at Princeton to an online course.

Mitchell Duneier, a professor at Princeton University, on campus in Princeton, N.J., Oct. 2, 2012.

This book was an accident.

I saw a poster at the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore announcing the author’s reading and presentation of his book — Ghetto — and it happened to be that same evening. A convenient location, convenient time, and the title sounded interesting.

So I checked the book out from the library and started reading it that afternoon.

The author is a Princeton University sociology professor and a Jew who grew up on Long Island. His early exposure to the ghetto was listening to family talk about the Warsaw ghetto and the plight of the Jews. His book begins with the first use of the term “ghetto” which he traced back to Venice in 1516 when the city council issued a decree forcing Jews to live in il geto – a closed quarter named for the copper foundry that once occupied the area.

The book is a well-documented and researched history of how the concept of ghetto has transformed over the years.  The Table of Contents provides the first clue.

(1) A Nazi Deception

(2) Chicago, 1944: Horace Cayton

(3) Harlem, 1965: Kenneth Clark

(4) Chicago, 1987: William Julius Wilson

(5) Harlem, 2004: Geoffrey Canada

(6) The Forgotten Ghetto

The author describes the “classic ghetto tool”  and then compares it to how Hitler changed the ghetto tool for his own diabolical purposes. Both versions were used as a tool to separate “us from them” and were considered a mechanism of control.

                        Classic ghetto tool                                          Hitler’s ghetto tool

                                protective                                                      destructive

belief/religion                                              race

porous                                                             sealed

overcrowding                                                starvation

not saved/damned                                      wild animals

During the brief Q & A period following the author’s talk, I asked him for his opinion about the Gaza Strip as a current day example of the ghetto. He simply replied, “yes, Gaza is a ghetto” and turned away.  A most unsatisfactory answer, from my perspective.

Someone should write a sequel to the book, and explain how Israel is now transforming the ghetto tool to contain and control and humiliate the Palestinians. The parallels are so striking, but it might be too difficult for a Jew to write.

PBS Correspondent Jeffrey Brown talks with author Mitch Duneier about his book, “Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, The History of an Idea” at the 2016 L.A. Times Festival of Books.