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Daily RC Article 112

Evolution of Urban Enclaves: From Ghettos to Diverse Communities


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Ghettos refer to sections of cities populated by minority ethnic or religious groups, that is, neighbourhoods in which the minority is a majority. Some argue that their roots can be traced to Roman persecutions of Jews. During the Middle Ages in Europe, ghettos consisted of Jewish quarters in overwhelmingly Christian cities (e.g., the famous Warsaw Ghetto). Venice had a Jewish ghetto by the 14th century. Jews were forbidden from owning land outside the ghetto, and Jewish ghettos often had walls around them and were the subjects of vicious pogroms.

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The nature of ghettos has changed over time. As Jewish ghettos were gradually disbanded during the 19th century, the term ‘ghetto’ came to refer to other ethnic minorities such as Indian, Bangladeshi, and Jamaican immigrants to British cities. Although most ghettos tended to have below-average income levels, they were defined primarily in terms of ethnicity, not class.

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The reasons for the formation of ghettos involve a combination of external constraints and internal motivations. External constraints include economic and political discrimination against the minority population, including formal or informal prohibitions against employment and the purchase of housing. Internal motivations that help underpin ghetto formation include the desire to be near one’s ethnic group and language, the availability of marriage partners, access to culturally specific foods, and the informal webs of mutual assistance common among some ethnic groups…

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Often the cultural assimilation of one group over several generations and its dispersal into other predominant […] communities, which varied from group to group, led to the group’s replacement by another, less assimilated ethnicity. Thus, although the ethnic division of labour that underscores ghettos may be temporary so far as any individual group is concerned, it tends to be a permanent part of the urban landscape.

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The arrival of Chinese immigrants generated the first Chinatowns in New York and many West Coast cities. The migration of African Americans to northern cities circa World War I led to the formation of black ghettos, many of which were middle-class communities. Some ghettos (e.g., Harlem) became the centre of rich artistic and political movements. The growth of the Latino or Hispanic population has generated the formation of Spanish-speaking barrios in cities such as Los Angeles... In many large cities that are the destination of migrant streams from around the world, it is not unusual to see ethnic communities of Armenians, Koreans, Thais, and Vietnamese, among others.

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The transformation of American cities after World War II, particularly suburbanization and deindustrialization, changed the nature of American ghettos decisively. The intersections of class and race increasingly rendered minority-dominant neighbourhoods poor with high levels of unemployment and crime. Increasingly, the term ‘ghetto’ came to be associated with the black urban underclass and more generally with poverty, leading to the popular equation of ghettos with slums. However, some use the term to refer to gay or artistic enclaves in contemporary cities. In short, ghettos reveal the intersecting dynamics of ethnicity, the urban division of labour, and residential segregation as they affect different groups under different historical circumstances.

Ghettos, initially Jewish quarters, have shifted to encompass diverse minority neighborhoods shaped by historical, cultural, and economic factors. These areas reflect the intersection of ethnicity, urban life, and residential patterns across time, evolving from religious divisions to encompass various immigrant communities and urban enclaves.
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