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What is a Ghetto?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 16, 2024
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In a modern sense of the term, a ghetto is an overcrowded, urban area often associated with a specific ethnic or racial population. Areas like this are usually considered to be slums, where inhabitants live in squalid conditions and must face high crime rates, poverty, illiteracy and significant unemployment. Because ghettos are generally recognized as troubled areas, receiving basic city services can also be problematic. While grassroots efforts to renovate or beautify these areas are fairly common, it is extremely difficult to attract outside businesses to them.

The word ghetto actually comes from the Italian word for slag, an unfortunate by-product of metal production. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Jews were only allowed to live in Venice and other major European cities for 15 days a year. The least desirable property in the city of Venice was near the slag production site, an area also known for its frequent flooding. The entire Jewish population of Venice lived in cramped houses in a two or three block area surrounding the cooling piles of slag.

This practice of maintaining a Jewish ghetto in the most undesirable sections of a city continued for several centuries, although many of the Jewish citizens did manage to improve their financial and social circumstances. Some were actually considered fairly affluent in their day, rivaling their Christian counterparts. By the middle of the 19th century, the last of these areas had been integrated into cities and the Jewish population was no longer restricted to one particular region.

During World War II, however, Adolph Hitler decided to revive the idea of the Jewish ghetto in an effort to contain the European Jewish "problem". Perhaps the most famous one was located in Warsaw, Poland, but a number of other major cities also constructed isolated and guarded areas reserved for Jews and other enemies of the state. Life in these areas was hellish, with severe restrictions on food, medicine and other basic essentials. Suicides were a common occurrence, as residents learned the fate of others who had already been shipped out to the concentration camps. Jewish leaders attempted to maintain their own government within the walls of the ghetto, but the Nazi embargo on essential supplies created nearly unbearable conditions.

In modern times, the term ghetto has been applied to any number of urban areas with concentrated populations of the same ethnic or social group. Originally, the innermost area of a major city was designed to be the most desirable living arrangement for workers. Inner city neighborhoods were designed to provide goods and services for their inhabitants, along with reliable transportation to and from the industrial sections of town. Eventually, however, those who could afford to move into suburban areas abandoned the inner city areas, essentially creating a financial and social ghetto for those who could not afford to leave.

When many of the city-based industries also moved to greener pastures, residents of the inner cities were dealt another financial blow. Unemployment rates in the area shot up, along with crime rates and high school drop-out rates. Many inhabitants of urban ghettos feel trapped in their surroundings, unable to raise enough money to leave but also reluctant to abandon their neighborhoods to gangs and other criminal elements. Life in a modern ghetto is notoriously difficult, but some do manage to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty and work towards improving the lives of their families and friends still struggling.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon337407 — On Jun 05, 2013

What is a ghetto in less detailed explanation?

By anon322723 — On Mar 01, 2013

Thank you for this article. There are many ghetto areas here in Trinidad and I intend to change it as soon as I have enough financial support.

By dega2010 — On May 20, 2011

@stormyknight- There are still many ghettos in the United States. New York is home to some of the worst ghettos. One of the worst is Washington Heights in Manhattan. It is about 75% Dominican populated. Washington Heights used to be known as the crime capital in the 1950’s.

Some of the worst ghettos in the United States are the 5th ward in Houston, Texas, Overtown in Miami, the 9th ward in New Orleans, and The Bronx in New York.

By StormyKnight — On May 17, 2011

Are there still ghettos in the United States today?

By CellMania — On May 16, 2011

@chrisinbama- I agree with you. It was a very sad time. The Jews were forced to live in the horrific ghettos that you and I could not even imagine. There were at least one thousand ghettos in the Soviet Union and the German-occupied part of Poland. Some of the ghettos only existed for a few days but others were there for years.

When the “Final Solution” (the Germans’ plan to kill all of the European Jews) started in 1941, the Germans started destroying all of the ghettos. Some of the Jews in the ghettos were shot and left in mass graves. Others were sent to killing centers to be murdered. A few of the Jews were brought out of the ghettos and sent to concentration camps.

By chrisinbama — On May 15, 2011

It is disturbing to read about how human beings were treated during that time. This article is a great eye opener and a valuable history lesson. Things like this make me more proud to be an American.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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