The North American urban ghetto


In Robert Bevan's Monumental Lies, he argues that monuments, urban planning and architecture form not only material evidence of history but the construction of narratives in the present day. Whether through the message that certain architectural styles are alien to our cities, or when space pretends to be public but is private, or that physical separation is natural, we are being manipulated. In this excerpt, Robert Bevan explores how racially and ethnically segregated urban neighbourhoods, or ghettoes, came to be such a crucial part of constructing race in America since the nineteenth century.

Race, of course, cannot readily be separated from class and class-derived lack of opportunities to live where one chooses, and class has been the ubiquitous organising principle throughout the towns and cities of recorded history. Indeed, permanent settlements (as opposed to hunter-gatherer societies) were predicated upon and enabled accumulation and the formation of hierarchies. This has, however, contributed to the present-day fiction that urban race-based separation is simply the inevitable outcome of varying purchasing power rather than deliberate discrimination that for working class minorities doubly compounds a lack of control over places of settlement. 

Contrary to the accepted narrative, and with the obvious exception of the indigenous Native American population that had been systematically displaced, enslaved, or murdered as settler colonialism pushed west, nineteenth-century towns and cities in America were highly mixed places. Here, racial separation was by no means the inevitable spatial expression of supposed defensive human territorialism and fear of the other. For many centuries, segregation was not even necessary to ensure the continuance of the US slavery economy. This despite the reluctant ‘Great Emancipator’ Abraham Lincoln’s view, in a speech of September 1858, that there was a physical difference between the races that would forever forbid their ‘living together on terms of social and political equality.’

The story of poor Black ghettoes, a defining and semi-carceral experience still today for around a third of urban African Americans, is one whose growth and shaping was not accidental but the consequence of a purposeful policy to limit freedoms. It is a history of racism certainly, but one entangled with class-based discrimination and factors such as industrialisation, de-industrialisation, and the growth of transport infrastructure and suburbs. In the South, for example, Jim Crow did not enforce physical residential separation entirely but instead regulated interaction between Black people and whites, including spatially even when they lived close by. It was purposeful measures and instruments that led to the formation of the North American urban ghetto. 

After the Civil War and manumission, and until the end of the nineteenth century, the southern United States continued with its established pattern of close if unequal living following the characteristic settlement structure of most southern towns where whites lived on the avenues, and Black labourers and servants in humbler side streets and alleyways off these same avenues. 

The idea of the ethnic ghetto in the late nineteenth-century cities of the North was also a myth. Despite the many ‘Little Italys’, ‘Greektowns’, and the like, the vast numbers of European immigrants did not live in national groups but in multi-ethnic, pluralist neighbourhoods of immense diversity. African Americans likewise mixed and prospered and included a notable professional class. The difference between people of European origins and African Americans is that the former could, if finances allowed, move where they like and, over generations, integrate on their own terms with a wider cosmopolitan society. The Black experience became the opposite with neighbourhoods being increasingly separately defined and physically confined. ‘As late as 1900,’ write Massey and Denton in American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, 

The typical black urbanite still lived in a neighbourhood that was predominantly white. The evolution of segregated, all black neighbourhoods occurred later and was not the result of impersonal market forces. It did not reflect the desires of African Americans themselves.

It was enforced, and often more intensely in northern cities than in those of the former Confederacy, especially after the First World War when the corralling of Black Americans into overcrowded slum neighbourhoods intensified. Legislation was one tool. Baltimore was the first city to officially attempt to enforce residential segregation block by block, and from the 1920s, restrictive covenants forbidding white homeowners from selling to racial groups proliferated across the US as part of a multipronged segregation strategy that later included an area-based racially profiled system of home loan lending and investment at the federal level, and efforts by estate agents and developers to exclude non-whites from new housing. 

Among these practices was red-lining on home-lending maps that supported white moves to the suburbs and denied funding, both home loans and infrastructure investment, to Black innercity areas. So successful were these tactics that American cities of the period were more segregated, more forcibly isolated, than pre-Apartheid Johannesburg despite similar efforts there. Extreme violence including the fire-bombing of homes was the regular response for those who had the temerity to escape the ghetto and settle in whiter areas and, it has been argued, this was more important than legal measures in enforcing the ghetto. This was the period when, lamenting disunity within the multiracial working class, W E B Du Bois developed his concept of the public and psychological wage of racialised white identity. Du Bois also wrote of the ‘two worlds with and without the Veil,’ a reference to the segregation barriers that physically protected whites from seeing discrimination and Black struggle.

At the same time, the myth of the self-chosen ethnic ghetto was being cemented by followers of the Chicago School of sociology, a way of thinking that had enormous influence on planners and city-makers in Europe as well as in the United States. In 1933 Ernest Burgess mapped Chicago’s various German, Irish, Italian, Russian, and other immigrant ghettoes. The figures have since been shown to be bogus: ‘Burgess’s Irish ghetto contained only 3 percent of Chicago’s Irish population, and only 50 percent of the city’s Italian’s lived in the “Little Italys” he identified.’ All these areas were diverse with dozens of different immigrant groups living side by side. 

Architectural devices were also used to physically enforce US segregation. Many new residential areas built physical walls to keep African Americans out (or in, if around segregated public housing blocks) and these were implemented by both public and private agencies. In the Detroit of 1941, for example, a developer of an all-white suburb was given Federal Housing Administration mortgage guarantees only after agreeing to pay for a half-mile-long concrete wall to separate the planned suburb from the adjacent Black neighbourhood. Parts of the wall survive as evidence of the practice. Less obviously racist barriers were also a tactic; for example, the Federal Housing Administration’s manual recommended that highway construction could effectively separate the races to protect white property values. In the twentieth century, New York was reshaped by city official Robert Moses, who had ‘low-hanging overpasses’ built over the Long Island parkways leading to Jones Beach to prevent the 12-foot-high buses used mostly by the poor, and so disproportionately by Black and brown New Yorkers, from reaching the seaside. 

– an excerpt from Monumental Lies: Culture Wars and the Truth about the Past by Robert Bevan

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