Book Review: Ghetto and Place

Mitchell Duneier, ­Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)

Review by Jacob Bruggeman

“Today, the ghetto has become grist,” writes Mitchell Duneier in his new book, Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea, a grist “for the most advanced experimental and statistical methods bent on measuring change in the short to medium term.”[1] Duneier is not too concerned with the ‘short to medium term’; rather, he is interested in the long term, and the equally interested in the weight of the long past.

Ghetto presents an abridged five-hundred-year history of ghettos, the beginnings of which he traces to a Venetian island.[2] Duneier, despite his introductory use of Venetian history, explains the history of the ghetto in the context of American cities, and with specific reference to communities of blacks that lived within them. The work is bounded by chapters on Nazism and the history of the Ghetto in Europe, and Duneier’s own analysis of the ghetto in his closing chapter, “The Forgotten Ghetto.” In between its European origins and Duneier’s theorizations about its future, the concept of the ghetto is presented through four chapters on the two cities of Chicago and Harlem, and four scholars who studied and lived within them. Specifically, Duneier focuses on Chicago in 1944, Harlem in 1965, Chicago, again, in 1987, and Harlem, again, in 2004. As mentioned above, his analyses of each city are presented through the lives and works of innovative scholars and activists, namely Horace Cayton (a sociologist of Chicago’s South Side), Kenneth and Mamie Clark (two (married) psychologists and educators who founded the Harlem Youth Opportunities Board, and both of whom were involved in the Civil Rights Movement), William Julius Wilson (a renowned sociologist and University Professor at Harvard), and Geoffrey Canada (an influential activist, educator, and President of the Harlem Children’s Zone), all of whom correspond chronologically with Duneier’s chapters on Chicago and Harlem. These four scholars each evaluated the state, and thus definition, of the ghetto differently, leading Duneier to extrapolate from each “the significance […] for understanding the situation of poor blacks today.”[3]

Duneier complicates the history of the American ghetto with ambiguity, conveying all the different histories that are built into today’s ideas of what a ghetto is, and thus reminding the reader of the historical diversity behind phrases such “segregated housing patterns,” “racial residential segregation,” and the word “ghetto” itself.[4] In all its variations, though, Duneier outlines nine ways in which—both as a built space and explanatory concept—has contributed to the perpetuation of “restriction[s],” “prejudice,”[5] “[control of black communities] by outside institutions,”[6] and the “intergenerational phenomenon” of the ghetto as “as expression of a series of vicious cycles within the realms of education, work, family life, violence, and local politics.”[7] Using Chicago and Harlem, but to a greater extent the four scholars operating within the two cities themselves, Duneier demonstrates that ghettos—or at least the normative conception of “the ghetto”—are not concrete, but in fact as multifaceted and dynamic as the communities they house.

As social scientists and urban planners move forward in what might be called the “Century of Cities,” embarking, as they will, on projects of “renewal” and “regeneration,” remembering the rich histories of American ghettos might steady their hands as they take a seat at the drawing board, and perhaps, as Duneier delimits the concept of the ghetto, even lead them to realize the limits of social science.



[1] ­Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 228.

[2] Ibid., ix.

[3] Ibid., 222.

[4] Ibid., 220.

[5] Ibid., 223.

[6] Ibid., 225.

[7] Ibid., 227.

About Stephen Norris