One of the most overdetermined places of the contemporary cultural landscape is the so-called ghetto. From the Jewish diaspora in Renaissance Europe to the Black experience in the Fordist US-American metropolis, the concept of the ghetto has historically designated a spatial environment bound by confinement and seclusion. The concept of the so-called ghetto has served as a social-organizational device using space to reconcile two contradictory purposes: economic exploitation and social ostracization. So-called ghettoization has never been, like some sociologists proposed, a “natural area” (Louis Wirth) or an “undesigned and uncontrolled” (Robert Park) process, but the product of collective violence concretized in urban space.
Because of this loaded history, the so-called ghetto has played the role of what Loic Wacquant called a collective identity machine: Towards the outside it has deepened the socio-cultural chasm between the outcast category and the surrounding population; towards the inside, the ghetto has supported a sense of collectivity and pride built upon the stigma imposed from the outside. The so-called ghetto is therefore marked by a fundamental dualism: It shelters as much as it segregates, i.e. it is a weapon as well as a shield.
Contemporary formations of the so-called ghetto suggest that time has added a third dimension to this proposed dualism: In the light of popular ghetto realness, that is, the celebration of mythologically transfigured ghetto qualities, the so-called ghetto is not only a weapon and a shield, it is also commodity. Spatial seclusion have enabled a condition, where narratives on the so-called ghetto can be fully dissociated from any geographical context; they are free floating tales of entertainment, tantalizing adventure stories of lawless violence and pure survivalism.
Two popular places illustrate the astute relationship between the performance of identity, relations of spatiality and forces of global capitalism: Kazimierz, a district known as the former Jewish Ghetto of Krakow, exemplifies how history, commerce and everyday life compete relentlessly over space; South Central Los Angeles, a neighborhood in the city of Los Angeles, exhibits the complex interaction between geographical location, lived experience and high-rating mythological currency. Both places indicate an uneasy relationship between the performance of identity and the construction of place; they suggest the presence of potent intermediary agents, who manage the dazzling images and narratives attributed to the so-called “ghetto” with respect to their image value.
In 1993, the Holocaust drama Schindler’s List put Kazimierz, a district of the Polish City Krakow, onto the international tourist map. After Steven Spielberg shot the scenes of the Ghetto in Kazimierz, the place became widely mistaken as the site of the wartime Jewish Ghetto of Krakow. In fact, Spielberg’s choice of location relied on a poetic translation error: Kazimierz had actually been one of Poland’s most vital Jewish districts, where more than 70.000 Jews had lived before the Nazi invasion of Krakow. After 1939, however, most of Kazimierz’ population was forcibly removed to a ghetto located one kilometer across the Vistula. All traces of this ghetto, and its horror, were erased after the war by robust communist housing projects, and ostentatious glass palaces. Responding to this erasure, Spielberg shot his depiction of displacement in Kazimierz.
After Schindler’s List was released, Krakow’s tourism increased by over eighty percent. Pushed into the zoning of international tourism, businesses in Kazimierz recognized the commercial potential of a selectively composed past: Kazimierz’ pre-war history. Today, remnants of seven synagogues, a bath-house, market square and town house assist visitors in their imagination of how Jewish life might have been before its destruction. What was once the cultural and religious center of Jewish life before the war has evolved into a hub for Jewish-style commerce after the reopening of Poland. Now the districts’ restaurants serve Kosher-style food, local bars fill the air with Kletzmer music, and a sign in a well-stocked Jewish bookstore suggests “Visit Sites from Schindler’s List.” Tour guides direct innumerous tourists through the streets, intertwining stories around locations from Spielberg’s movie and WWII historic sites. Jewish signs and totems are overtly present in Kazimierz; the irony is that there are hardly any Jews still living here.
Of the 70,000 Jews, who lived in Krakow in 1929, only 600 survived the war. The trauma of the Holocaust was aggravated by continuous attacks on Jewish survivors in the immediate post-war period. Most Jews fled the cemetery that Poland had become. Under the communist regime a series of anti-Semitic campaigns completed the destruction of Jewish life. Today, the Jewish community organization in Kazimierz consists of ca. 150 people, most of whom are over sixty years old. In the absence of a significant number of Jews, is the enactment of Jewish-style traditions capable of facilitating insights into a living culture?
Critics dismiss Kazimierz as a fake Disney style town, but the simulation has proven to evoke some very real effects. Thousands of Jewish tourists visit Kazimierz every year - orthodox Jews treat it as a pilgrim site, Israeli school classes study it as an example of original Jewish life and destructive death, Holocaust survivors revisit their homes, secular Jews engage in history. Today, signs of Jewish culture displayed on Kazimierz’ streets indicate everything from orthodox belief systems to cultural radicalism and cosmopolitan lifestyles. Young members of the local community have begun to rediscover – or fabricate – their Jewish roots. Guided by a rabbi from the US-based Lauder Foundation, a group of teenagers engages in what locally is considered “a mission”, i.e., being Jewish in Poland. Together they study Talmud three nights a week, and begin to timidly reconstruct the foundation of a religious community.
The Polish owners of Jewish-style businesses argue that Kazimierz is a lived space, where Poles find a place to counter their collective amnesia and reimagine their past. If this is the case, the focus shifts from questions of authenticity to those of narration. Here critics argue that since Kazimierz grew popular in the slipstream of Schindler’s List, the area’s redevelopment has been profoundly affected by the Hollywood blockbuster that made it world famous. Contemporary Kazimierz has become the epitome of a multicultural and upscale way of life. Historically, the Jews who lived in Kazimierz before the war were rather poor; more affluent, assimilated Jews lived near the city center of Krakow. In the new Kazimierz, the “ghetto quality” and chic of decay have attracted a new bohemia and potent investors since the mid-nineties; gentrification has nearly doubled some local real estate values. This has brought about an extraordinarily ironic twist of fate: Many of the Polish families, who moved into Kazimierz after the Nazis expelled the Jews, now fear displacement because of Kazimierz’ exhibited “Ghetto Realness.”
“Ghetto Realness” has affected the neighborhoods of US-metropolises in a fundamentally different way. Here representations of the poorest neighborhoods became one of the most profitable locations for the entertainment industry during the mid nineties. Marketed by deeply cynical representatives of the recording industry, narratives on the so-called ghetto created a lucrative imaginary alternative to suburban boredom. The tales of adventure capitalized on an image pool introduced in the seventies, when national commentators portrayed African-American neighborhoods like South Central Los Angeles, Compton and Watts as well as Newark or South Side Chicago as “deadly gang spaces” plagued by random violence, crime and ruthlessness. Linking these places with so-called “ghetto attributes”, reporters hardly ever mentioned the devastating disenfranchisement of the African-American working class experienced during this time: Unions were weakened and massive unemployment prevailed, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were assassinated, the civil rights movement was dispersed and the Black Panther Party prosecuted and forcefully fragmented by FBI’s COINTELPRO. In Los Angeles, a local gang called the “Crips” filled the cultural and social void left behind; and a few years later, an emerging cultural movement called “gangsta rap” preserved rebellious notions of militantism and resistance on the level of style, habitus, lingo and the according sound track.
Hip hop was born during a profound reorganization of the labor market in the eighties; accordingly West Coast gangsta rap reflects what Robin Kelly calls the cultural logic of postindustrialization: While the public sector was radically defunded, big manufacturers started to outsource their production to Mexican border towns. Between 1978 and 1982 South Central Los Angeles lost 70,000 stable, high-wage, jobs; the unemployment rate among black males was approximately fifty percent. According to urbanist Ed Soja, the Los Angeles Rebellion was the first upheaval of the anti-globalization movement.
As working class jobs disappeared in Los Angeles, West Coast hip hop gained international recognition. The concept of the ghetto provided the entertainment industry with a spatial anchor for a profoundly racialized cultural package. It enabled suburbia’s middle class youth to go on imaginary excursions to a locale charged with connotations of danger, menace and sexuality. In effect, rappers recreated the imagery of the ghetto and, in some instances, “ghettoized” their social backgrounds. Ironically, for some performers selling the ghetto also became a way to move up and out of economically neglected neighborhoods.
According to popular mythography, Tupac (2Pac) Amaru Shakur emerged out of ghetto and eventually became that community’s statesman. In fact, his life became a cautionary tale of the inherent cynicism that governed the marketing of the ghetto. Born in 1971 in Brooklyn, NY, to the Black Panther member, Afeni Shakur, the future spokesperson of the so-called ghetto grew up in Baltimore, Md., and moved to Oakland, Calif., during his late teens. In 1991 Tupac produced his first solo album, “2Pacalypse Now” and in the course of the next five years, Shakur’s profile rose substantially based on his music as much as on his public appearances as outlaw and martyr of gangsta rap.
In 1996, after Shakur had released nine albums, starred in five movies, and served three sentences in prison, he was shot dead at age 25. The police dismissed the killing as rivalry between East and West Coast rappers; no one was charged in the murder case. It took the FBI seven years to start investigating allegations that a Los Angeles police officer orchestrated the slayings along with rap mogul Marion “Suge” Knight, the founder of Death Row Records, to initially punish Shakur for threatening to leave his record company.
One year after Tupacs death, SoundScan survey noted that two-thirds of all hip hop recordings were purchased by white consumers, most of whom where under 18. In 2000, hip hop outsold country music and became the second most popular music market besides rock, which was primarily catering to the baby boomer generation. By now a wide range of suburban teenagers engaged in what bell hooks called “parasitic white coolness.” They not only listened to, but also impersonated “blackness” and “ghetto chic” in music, style, lingo and habitus. Perhaps Shakur had forecasted this in 1991 with his track, “All You Want to Be - A Soldier Like Me.” From the culture of minstrelsy originating in the nineteenth century to today’s rap culture, white impersonator performances have generally celebrated blackness as a pure semiotic signifier. Their love for black culture shields them from challenging their supremacy and the phantasm of the so-called “ghetto”.
In Kazimierz and in Los Angeles, the performance of identity is connected with the politics of place, but the relationship doesn’t follow a predictable pattern. The performances of Jewishness and that of Gangstarism are far from naturally embedded in a predetermined spatiality; instead, the performances are a significant part in the negotiation of the particular meaning of the place. In effect, both sets of articulations – identity and place – are made, unmade and remade based upon non-necessary relations and, hence, context.
Like executives of mainstream culture have defined sites of marginality as resources of coolness, residents of Kazimierz and South Central LA have challenged as well as reaffirmed the currency of Ghetto Realness with everyday culture. Recognizing the context-bound interdependency of geography, history and subjectivity actually liberates notions of identity from prescribed spatial entrapment and vice versa. It opens up space for negotiation, rearrangement and re-articulation. In Krakow, a mega-mall-train-station Nowe Miasto is supposed to mark the city’s modernity, and Kazimierz is in danger of becoming a historicized open-air museum. In Los Angeles, in April 2003 the city’s Council voted to erase the place called “South Central Los Angeles” from the map and replace it with “South Los Angeles.” After all, the Council argued, the ghetto is just a mythological place.
This essay is based on research conducted in the context of APART (Austrian Program for Advanced Research and Technology), funded by the Austrian Academy of Science.
Loïc Wacquant, “What is a Ghetto? Constructing a Sociological Concept,” in: Eurex Lecture Nr. 5, 2003 @ http://www.lboro.ac.uk/gawc/ ↩︎
Loïc Wacquant 2003. ↩︎
Anette Baldauf, “Selling the Shtetl, Industries of Prosthetic Memory,“ in: Architektur Aktuell, March 2002. ↩︎
According to the Cracow Real Estate Institute tourism increased from 1.3 to 2.3 million from 1992 to 1993. In 1993, a quarter of the tourists were foreigners; compared to 1991, international tourists had increased 100 percent (Cracow Real Estate Institute 1995, 16). ↩︎
Duda Eugeniusz, The Jews of Cracow Wydawnictwo Hagada and Argona Jarden-Jewish Bookshop. Krakow: 1999, 115. ↩︎
Halkowksi Halkowski Henryk, Kazimierz Yesterday and Tomorrow. In: Judaica Foundation, Center of Jewish Culture. The Jews in Poland. Volume II. Jagiellonian University Printing House: Krakow 1999, 227 - 234. ↩︎
Brian Cross, It’s not About A Salary. Rap, Race and Resistance in Los Angeles. Verso: London/New York 1993; Katharina Weingartner, “Die Bullen haben mit allem angefangen,” in: Spex 10/93, 22. ↩︎
Melvin L. Oliver et al., “Anatomy of a Rebellion. A Political-Economic Analysis,” in: Robert Gooding-Williams (Ed.). Reading Rodney King. Reading Urban Uprising. Routledge: New York 1993, 122. ↩︎
Chuck Philips, “Former officer investigated in rapper's death,” in: Los Angeles Times, March 24, 2004. ↩︎
Marc Weingarten, “Large and In Charge,” in: The Los Angeles Times, July 26, 1998, 8; Recording Industry Association of America, 2000 Consumer Profile. ↩︎