Right now I am reading (a lot) and writing (a little) about the ghetto. I am reframing a paper I first got published in working paper form in 2015 and (rightly) rejected in paper format by a journal earlier this year. That paper was too hung up on financialisation. In the interests of making myself a better communicator, and of course trying to squeeze through the gates of an increasingly difficult hiring process, I am writing about public housing in Dublin and the use of the word ghetto. In Ireland, the word ghetto is employed to stigmatise specific neighbourhoods, usually those composed mostly of public housing. However, these neighbourhoods are never explicitly named. Listen to Tricky as you read this.
Loic Wacquant (2012) and others talk about the ghetto as a relational thing. This means that the people who live in a stigmatised neighbourhood are assigned ghetto status. There is nothing indigenous to an area of a city that makes it a ghetto. The assignation of ghetto status is an action done by others to specific populations or groups of people. Assigning a neighbourhood and the people who live in it means that they become a tainted population in the eyes of the assignees. People who live in these areas take this on some extent: young people from these neighbourhoods do not mention their residence when applying for jobs, for example. Those who assign it though will never live here: they are related to the ghetto dwellers though. They occupy a different place in the same class structure and often live in the same city. Hence it being a relational construct. There are no ghetto dwellers without the wealthier and untainted others.
Tom Slater has done some good empirical work on this idea of territorial stigmatisation. He calls the ghetto one of a series of “semantic battering rams” (2012) and argues that geographers and others need to drop the “monstrous” construction of ‘neighbourhood effects’. Tainting entire zones and neighbourhoods of a city by imagining their circumstances to be indigenous to those areas is both a denial of relationality of the ghetto and ignorant of the wider class formations that make poverty and deprivation so persistent. Work done by others (Glasze et al. 2012) shows how discursive techniques are employed to isolate and exclude those in housing estates in Germany, Poland and France. In Ireland, Devereux et al (2011) have written about how mass media constructs problem estates by looking at depictions of Moyross. What is clear to me though is that no specific neighbourhoods are ever named in Ireland when the word ghetto is deployed discursively in public. This I argue in my paper, using historical and contemporary examples from Dublin, is mostly because public housing is widely distributed across the city. To actively identify a specific neighbourhood as ghetto means drawing attention to the scale of the concept’s relationality: there are poor people in this place because of rich people in that other place.
I’ve a bit more work to do on this (with thanks to JA and PL) but I think Wacquant leaves a lot unsaid in both Urban Outsiders (2008) and later work. That which is left unsaid is the meaning of the ‘territorial’ part of territorial stigmatisation. Geographers have a lot to contribute to the empirical outworking of this relational construction of territorialised ghetto. There’s an empirical weakness there that makes us both increasingly politically irrelevant and vulnerable to hanging on to the execrable ‘neighbourhood effect’ for the lack of anything more robust.