Is it really a problem when poor areas get richer?
What the American ghetto reveals about the ethics and economics of changing neighborhoods.
by Kelefa Sanneh - The New Yorker, July 11 & 18, 2016
At the Golden Globe Awards, in January, Ennio Morricone won Best Original Score for his contribution to “The Hateful Eight,” the Quentin Tarantino Western. Accepting the award on Morricone’s behalf was Tarantino himself, who brandished the trophy in a gesture of vindication, suggesting that Morricone, despite all the honors he has received, is nevertheless underrated. Tarantino proclaimed Morricone his favorite composer. “And when I say favorite composer,” he added, “I don’t mean movie composer—that ghetto. I’m talking about Mozart. I’m talking about Beethoven. I’m talking about Schubert.” The backlash began a few moments later, when the next presenter, Jamie Foxx, approached the microphone. He smiled, looked around, and shook his head slightly. “Ghetto,” he said.
Tarantino’s comment, and Foxx’s one-word response to it, became a big story. In the Washington Post, a television reporter called Tarantino’s “ghetto” comment a “tone-deaf flub.” A BBC headline asked, “IS THE WORD ‘GHETTO’ RACIST?,” and the accompanying article summarized the thoughts of a Rutgers University professor who accused Tarantino of implying that “the ghetto was not a place for white, European, male composers.” Of course, “ghetto” is itself a European term, coined in the sixteenth century to describe the part of Venice to which Jews were confined.* And Tarantino, in suggesting that the category of film composition was a ghetto, was using a common dictionary definition: “something that resembles the restriction or isolation of a city ghetto.” But “ghetto” is also an idiomatic way of dismissing something as cheap or trashy. And the adjectival “ghetto” owes its salience to the fact that a modern American ghetto is not only poor but disproportionately African-American. Recent census data showed that 2.5 million whites live in high-poverty neighborhoods, compared with five million African-Americans. Earlier this year, Senator Bernie Sanders went further, saying, “When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto.”
What is a ghetto, really—and who lives there? In “Dark Ghetto,” a pioneering 1965 sociological study, Kenneth Clark depicted Harlem, a paradigmatic ghetto, as a “colony of New York City,” defined by both its economic dependence and its segregation. In the decades that followed, scholars argued over the limits and the utility of the term— did it apply to any poor neighborhood, any ethnic enclave? The word may have various definitions but it arouses singular passions, which is why, in 2008, the sociologist Mario Luis Small suggested that his colleagues stop using it altogether. He argued that, in many ways, “poor black neighborhoods” were neither as distinctive nor as homogeneous as “ghetto” implied, and warned that academic theories of “ghetto” life might “perpetuate the very stereotypes their proponents often aim to fight.”
Mitchell Duneier seems to have taken Small’s pronouncement as a challenge; his response is “Ghetto” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a history of the concept which also serves as an argument for its continued usefulness. Duneier is a sociologist, too, sensitive to the sting of “ghetto” as an insult. But for him that sting shows us just how much inequality we still tolerate, even as attitudes have changed. Where the ghetto once seemed a menace, threatening to swallow the city like an encroaching desert, now it often appears, in scholarly articles and the popular press, as an endangered habitat. Academics and activists who once sought to abolish ghettos may now speak, instead, of saving them. This shift, as much as anything, accounts for the vigorous response to Tarantino’s comment: people wanted to know just what was so bad about a ghetto, anyway.
In 1945, St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton published “Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City.” When they wrote about a “Black Ghetto” in Chicago, they were making a provocative analogy. Duneier notes that, in explaining how blacks were prevented from buying or renting homes in white neighborhoods, Drake and Cayton referred to “the invisible barbed-wire fence of restrictive covenants,” a formulation that was calculated to evoke gruesome images of the Third Reich. Despite the long history of Jewish ghettos in Europe, Duneier is at pains to show that the Nazi ghetto was not a revival of European history but a break from it. In the old Italian ghettos, Jews, who were ostracized by authorities, created their own tightly organized communities. The restrictions were onerous but not absolute; residents were sometimes permitted to leave during the day and return at night. (Duneier suggests that some inhabitants of the Roman ghetto might have viewed it as “a holy precinct, its barriers recalling the walls of ancient Jerusalem.”) By contrast, the Nazi version was a brutal, short-lived experiment. Duneier describes the debate, among Nazi officials, between “productionists,” who saw the inhabitants of Jewish ghettos as a useful source of slave labor, and “attritionists,” who preferred them dead.
The modern history of American ghettos, then, begins with a misunderstanding: the term acquired its awful resonance because of the Nazi ghettos, even though the conditions in American cities more closely resembled those of the older European ghettos, which were places capable of inspiring mixed feelings, among both inhabitants and scholars. American ghettos were the combined product of legal discrimination, personal prejudice, flawed urban planning, and countless economic calculations. For more than thirty years, starting in 1934, the Federal Housing Authority steered banks away from issuing mortgages to prospective buyers in poor black neighborhoods, which were deemed too risky; black tenants or prospective homeowners were often stymied by banks that doubted their creditworthiness, or by deed requirements that sought to maintain a neighborhood’s character and forbade blacks to buy or lease, or by intimidation and violence. Disconcertingly, white homeowners who worried that integration might erode the value of their homes may have been correct, even as their decision to flee exacerbated the problem. Drake and Cayton described their subjects as less bothered by segregation itself than by its stifling effects. “They wanted their neighborhoods to be able to expand into contiguous white areas as they became too crowded,” Duneier summarizes, “but they did not actually care to live among whites.”
Scholars who studied the ghetto tended to be motivated by sympathy for its residents, which often resulted in a complicated sort of sympathy for ghettos themselves. Clark, making his study of Harlem, spent time with Malcolm X, who insisted that segregation —“complete separation”—was the only way to solve America’s problems. Clark didn’t go that far, but he did express a certain skepticism about the wisdom and the prospects of school desegregation. Better, he thought, to “demand excellence in ghetto schools,” as Duneier puts it. Similarly, the anthropologist Carol Stack, in an influential 1974 book called “All Our Kin,” suggested that the black ghetto fostered social coöperation, knitting its residents together in extended “networks” of families and friends. At the same time, scholars sought to pin down the relationship between “ghetto” and its Spanish-language analogue, “barrio,” and to compare poor black neighborhoods with other enclaves. When an activist named Carl Wittman announced, in 1970, “We have formed a ghetto, out of self protection,” he was calling for a different kind of separatism: he was writing about his adopted home town of San Francisco, in a pamphlet titled “A Gay Manifesto.”
Duneier’s book makes it easy to see how, through all these changes, black ghettos in America have remained the central point of reference for anyone who wants to understand poverty and segregation. By some estimates, African-Americans are more isolated now than they were half a century ago. In a study published last year, scholars at Stanford reported that even middle-class African-Americans live in markedly poorer neighborhoods than working-class whites. And the linguist William Labov has suggested that, during the past two centuries, African-American speech patterns have been diverging from white speech patterns, owing mainly to “residential segregation.” By many measures—marriage rates, incarceration levels, wealth metrics—poor black neighborhoods stand out.
Even so, Duneier’s review of the scholarly literature cannot obscure the fact that the term “ghetto” does seem to have faded somewhat from common usage. In the past decade or so, the adjective has overshadowed the noun: a word that once conjured up intimidating neighborhoods now appears in unintimidating coinages like “ghetto latte.” (This is a coffee-shop term popularized in the aughts, in honor of the parsimonious customer who, instead of ordering an iced latte, orders espresso over ice, which is cheaper, and then dumps in half a cup of milk.) On hip-hop records, “ghetto” has largely given way to the warmer, more flexible “hood,” which sounds less like a condition and more like a community; Kendrick Lamar’s ode to the bad old days is called “Hood Politics,” not “Ghetto Politics.” The persistence of residential segregation has tightened the relationship between concentrated poverty and African-American neighborhoods, and made the word “ghetto” harder to use. “Ghetto” has come to sound like an indictment of a people as well as of a place.
Our doubts about the word may also have something to do with our changing view of cities. Many of the studies in Duneier’s book were conducted in the shadow of white flight and, starting in the nineteen-sixties, rising crime rates. The term suggested that a particular sort of dysfunction was native to urban environments and, possibly, inseparable from them. But fewer people talk about cities that way anymore: among contemporary urbanists, a dominant influence is Jane Jacobs, known for her lifelong commitment to the simple but radical notion that city life can be pleasurable. To judge from the literature, the major preoccupation among today’s urbanists is not the ghetto but a different G-word: “gentrification,” a process by which a ghetto might cease to be a ghetto.
It is an inelegant term, and must have seemed a strange one when it was first introduced, in a 1964 essay by Ruth Glass, a British sociologist. Glass, who wrote under the influence of Marx, was distressed to see that “the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle classes.” As the gentry moved in, the proletariat moved out, “until all or most of the original working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.” The story of gentrification was, curiously, the story of neighborhoods destroyed by desirability. As the term spread through academic journals and then the popular press, “gentrification,” like “ghetto,” became harder to define. At first, it referred to instances of new arrivals who were buying up (and bidding up) old housing stock, but then there was “new-build gentrification.” Especially in America, gentrification often suggested white arrivals who were displacing nonwhite residents and taking over a ghetto, although, in the case of San Francisco, the establishment of Wittman’s so-called “gay ghetto,” created as an act of self-protection, was also a species of gentrification. Even Clark’s “dark ghetto” was a target. In 1994, Andrew Cuomo, who was then at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, told the Times, “If you expect to see Harlem as gentrified and mixed-income, it’s not going to happen.” He was, in due course, proved wrong.
A gentrification story often unspools as a morality play, with bohemians playing a central if ambiguous part: their arrival can signal that a neighborhood is undergoing gentrification, but so can their departure, as rising rents increasingly bring economic stratification. Stories of gentrification are by definition stories of change, and yet scholars have had a surprisingly hard time figuring out who gets displaced, and how. In 2004, Lance Freeman, an urban-planning professor at Columbia, and the economist Frank Braconi, who ran the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, tried to answer the question. They produced a paper called “Gentrification and Displacement: New York City in the 1990s,” which has been roiling the debate ever since. In the paper, which was based on city survey data, they came close to debunking the very idea of gentrification. Looking at seven “gentrifying neighborhoods” (Chelsea, Harlem, the Lower East Side, Morningside Heights, Fort Greene, Park Slope, and Williamsburg), they found that “poor households” in those places were “19% less likely to move than poor households residing elsewhere.”
While traditional gentrification narratives suggest that poor residents, if not for the bane of gentrification, would have been fixed in place, the truth is that poorer households generally move more often than richer ones; in many poor neighborhoods, the threat of eviction is ever-present, which helps explain why rising rents don’t necessarily increase turnover. And gentrification needn’t be zero-sum, because gentrifying neighborhoods may become more densely populated, with new arrivals adding to, rather than supplanting, those currently resident. Freeman and Braconi suggested that in some cases improved amenities in gentrifying neighborhoods gave longtime residents an incentive to find a way to stay. At the same time, New York’s rent-control and rent-stabilization laws have protected some tenants from sharp rent increases, while others have an even more reliable refuge from rising prices: subsidized apartments in city buildings. “Public housing, often criticized for anchoring the poor to declining neighborhoods, may also have the advantage of anchoring them to gentrifying neighborhoods,” they wrote. When two scholars who took a dim view of gentrification, Kathe Newman and Elvin Wyly, did their own investigation, their conclusion was mild. “Although displacement affects a very small minority of households, it cannot be dismissed as insignificant,” they wrote. “Ten thousand displacees a year”—this was one estimate of New York’s total—“should not be ignored, even in a city of eight million.”
Newman and Wyly’s paper was called “The Right to Stay Put, Revisited,” in tribute to a decades-old question in urban sociology: Do tenants have a political right—a human right—to remain in their apartments? In New York, regulations like rent stabilization not only limit the amount by which some landlords can raise rents but also restrict a landlord’s ability to decline to renew a lease. In Sweden, the rules are tighter: rents are set through a national negotiation between tenants and landlords, which means that prices are low in Stockholm, but apartments are scarce; a renter in search of a longterm lease there might spend decades on a government waiting list. Another solution is to allow more and taller buildings, increasing supply in the hope of lowering prices. Often, the steepest rent increases are found in places, like San Francisco, that have stringent building regulations: a recent study of the city found that fewer poor residents had been displaced in neighborhoods with more new construction. In seeking to preserve what Ruth Glass called the “social character” of a neighborhood, antigentrification activists echo the language that was once used to defend racially restrictive covenants. Arguments over gentrification are really arguments over who deserves to live in a city, and the notion of a right to stay put is sometimes at odds with another, perhaps more fundamental right: the right to move.
Earlier this year, in the pages of National Review, Kevin D. Williamson devoted a typically astringent column to the kind of poor community that is rarely called a ghetto and even less often targeted for gentrification. A fellow-pundit had suggested that Donald Trump, unlike many other Republican politicians, spoke to and for white voters living lives of economic frustration and opioid dependency in towns like Garbutt, New York. Williamson, no fan of Trump, responded with a withering attack on Garbutt and its ilk. “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die,” Williamson wrote. Their inhabitants, in his view, “need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need UHaul.”
This diagnosis sparked an outcry. But was Williamson wrong to insist that people are more important than places? Arguments about gentrification sometimes imply that places matter most. Jane Jacobs, for instance, could seem to cherish Greenwich Village more than she cherished the people who lived there, to say nothing of the people who might have liked to join them, if only there had been more and cheaper housing. When it comes to the neighborhoods that Duneier would call ghettos, there is some evidence that the most humane approach is not to improve them but, in effect, to dismantle them, by encouraging their inhabitants to move. A program called Moving to Opportunity, which was initially judged a failure, now provides modest evidence that removing children from high-poverty neighborhoods can have lasting positive effects on their lifetime earnings. And a recent study by Deirdre Pfeiffer, a professor of urban planning, suggests that racial minorities encounter “more equitable” conditions in newly built suburbs than in cities.
The uneasy way we discuss ghettos and gentrification says something about our discomfort with the real-estate market, which translates every living space into a commodity whose value lies mainly outside our control. Things that happen across the street, down the block, or on the other side of town affect the worth of our homes, and this lack of control is predestined to frustrate capitalists and community organizers alike. “Bushwick is not for sale!” Letitia James, New York City’s Public Advocate, announced at a recent anti-gentrification protest in Brooklyn. She was hoping to get the city to force developers to set aside more units for low-income families, but she was also voicing a familiar and widely shared distaste for the way the character of a neighborhood is hostage to its market price. The opposite of gentrification is not a quirky and charming enclave that stays affordable forever; the opposite of gentrification is a decline in prices that reflects the transformation of a once desirable neighborhood into one that is looking more like a ghetto every day.
In a recent Times Op-Ed, the Harlem historian Michael Henry Adams lamented the changes in his neighborhood, complaining that “poor black neighborhoods” were “irresistible to gentrification.” But New York is an unusual place, and it’s possible that the conversation about gentrification has been distorted by our focus on neighborhoods like Harlem. A recent study found that Chicago neighborhoods that were forty per cent or more African-American were the least likely to experience gentrification. This statistic was cited by the journalist Natalie Y. Moore in her new book about her city, “The South Side.” She recounts the pride she felt when she bought a condo in a seemingly up-and-coming South Side neighborhood: she paid a hundred and seventy two thousand dollars, and she was shocked when, five years later, an assessor told her that its value had depreciated to fifty-five thousand. She writes about herself as a “so called gentrifier,” adding, ruefully, that “black Chicago neighborhoods don’t gentrify.”
In May, on CNN, the comedian W. Kamau Bell hosted a one-hour program about gentrification in Portland, Oregon. He has a keen eye for irony and a high tolerance for awkward situations, so he walked around the city, chuckling at hipsters—a word at least as hard to define as “ghetto” or “gentrification”—and listening sympathetically to residents of the city’s dwindling African-American neighborhoods. An older woman named Beverly said that her neighborhood was gone; standing on the porch of her mauve-trimmed house, she gestured across the street at a new apartment building going up, which seemed likely to ruin her lovely view. To hear the other side, Bell met with Ben Kaiser, a local developer, who was unapologetic. Bell told him, “I talked to an older black woman in this neighborhood, and every so often somebody knocks at her door or calls her and is offering to buy her home, even though she’s made it clear that she wants to keep her home. And somebody’s telling them to make that phone call.”
“We always think it’s a somebody, and in my opinion it’s an economic force—there’s no one orchestrating this outcome,” Kaiser said. “What’s happened, historically, is they’re offered a tremendous amount of money, and they’re kind of nuts not to take it. At some point, her kids—or she—will say, ‘I am nuts not to take this offer.’ ”
Bell was unconvinced. He wasn’t sure how many new “twelve-dollar juice bars” and “high-end vegan barbecue” restaurants the neighborhood needed, and he worried that the old neighborhood wouldn’t survive. In the ghetto narrative, a poor neighborhood falls victim to isolation; in the gentrification narrative, a poor neighborhood falls victim to invasion. These stories are not necessarily contradictory—they reflect a common conviction that the sorrows and joys of neighborhood change tend to be unequally shared. One effect of gentrification is to make this inequality harder to ignore. The call to save a neighborhood is most compelling when it serves as a call to help a neighborhood’s neediest inhabitants. That might mean helping them stay. But it might also mean helping them leave.
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Jews in sixteenth-century Venice were confined to the ghetto by papal decree. The papal decree applied to Jews in Rome.
Kelefa Sanneh has contributed to The New Yorker since 2001.
This article appears in other versions of the July 11 & 18, 2016, issue, with the headline “There Goes the Neighborhood.”