“Poverty is often off the beaten track. It always has been.” Michael Harrington made this observation in 1962, at the start of The Other America, his groundbreaking exploration of the misery hidden from the nation’s middle class. Half a century later, consider the geography of inequality. In 1970, about 15 percent of urban families lived in neighborhoods that were either extremely poor or extremely wealthy. That figure had risen to 34 percent by 2012. Among black Americans, the odds of escaping the poorest enclaves are grim: Four out of five black children growing up in such places have caregivers who were raised in similar neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the number of households within gated communities is up by more than half since 2001.
The rise of economic inequality has become a staple of policy debates and stump speeches. Less visible is the way the rise has altered the landscape of America’s urban neighborhoods. Two books should help change that. Matthew Desmond, an urban sociologist at Harvard, has delivered a jolt with Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, a close-up portrait of life on the lowest end of Milwaukee’s private rental market. In Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea, Mitchell Duneier, a sociologist at Princeton, steps back and turns his attention toward other scholars of poverty, examining how they have changed the way the rest of us understand the ghetto. To begin to explain why upward mobility lags in the United States compared with most other countries in the developed world, Desmond and Duneier agree, we need to think anew about the most isolated neighborhoods—about what keeps those places so separate, and their residents so stuck in them.
For Duneier, two historical iterations of the Jewish ghetto in Europe serve as structural extremes to frame the story he traces of a disadvantaged group—African Americans—cordoned off in the U.S. At one end lies the enclave that gave us the term ghetto: an island in Venice (named for the copper foundry, or geto, once located on it) where Jews were assigned to live in 1516. Gates opened in the morning and closed at night, allowing the Jews to circulate among the general population and take part in economic life by day. Venetian authorities mostly kept out, which meant Jewish community and culture could thrive. At the other end stands Hitler’s ghetto in Warsaw, part of a system designed to ensure complete isolation, control, and, ultimately, annihilation.
Focusing in particular on African American scholars’ portrayals of black ghettos over the past three-quarters of a century, Duneier traces a gradual shift from relative freedom for what he calls “human flourishing” to increasing control, intrusion, and punishment. He turns first to Horace R. Cayton, a co-author, with St. Clair Drake, of Black Metropolis, an account of Chicago’s South Side from the 1840s through the 1930s that remains one of the most comprehensive community studies ever produced. The black ghetto in prewar America was a place of deep poverty and, as Cayton and Drake demonstrated, the product of relentless discrimination in housing and employment, which continued after the war. But it was also a place where African American culture thrived, a “city within a city,” in their words. By the 1960s, when Kenneth Clark focused on youth delinquency in Harlem, northern ghettos had grown, and the departure of middle- and upper-income black Americans—and jobs—had begun. A “tangle of pathology” rooted in a sense of powerlessness, Clark argued, now eclipsed cultural vigor and autonomy. That sense of impotence, he emphasized, was well founded: Forces outside the ghetto had begun to erode the black community. Vibrant neighborhoods were razed to make way for highways and public-housing projects, turning the ghetto into a subject colony.