Thursday, March 12, 2009

Portrait #77: The Ghetto Lives On

I spent my early adult life living in a stubbornly divided city of the United States, in which there were a variety of different neighbourhoods - all of which fell into one of two categories: poor drug-ridden black, and lovely ritzy white. The first category was referred to by many as "the ghetto." To me, ghetto was defined as inner-city, usually African-American, usually a drug problem. But I always felt a bit of an affinity to the ghetto, because it was where I lived.

And I just love the phrase "ghetto-fabulous" - who wouldn't want to wear that badge of honour?!

Eventually (yes, I am a bit slow) I realised that the term "ghetto" was borrowed from a radically different context, the only similarity being that it was where the racially disadvantaged lived. European ghettos were, in essence, Jewish neighbourhoods in European cities. Ghettos became a key point in history lessons after World War II, when the Warsaw ghetto was the site of countless atrocities: starting with restriction of movement for all who lived there and culminating in mass murder.

Photos of those ghettos generally portrayed nice and normal looking neighbourhoods where people lived in poverty. Houses with nice architecture but with sallow sad children sitting in the windowsills. Abandoned houses next to overcrowded flats. Constructions pocketed with bullet holes and gates with guards deciding who entered and who left. Kids playing on the street, mothers running errands, and everyone looking just a bit frightened. My mental picture of European ghettos spoke of a fading glory that had was quickly being replaced by despondency and despair.

All these photos were, of course, in black and white. Because they are a history lesson: they told a tale of the evils of Nazi Germany and the centuries of European racism that preceded that.

Well, this week, I entered a European ghetto. I felt like I was walking into a coloured version of the ghetto photos. Except instead of a synagogue, the large building in the centre with the crumbling paint was a Serbian Orthodox church. There was no gate and there were no guards, but the entrance to the ghetto was marked by a terribly neglected, pot-holed alleyway.

Directions to the ghetto: drive to the outskirts of town, but just before you leave the city, look for the entrance to the right that's in the worst shape - in fact, you might think it's just someone's back garden because it's not even paved. Turn there, head up the hill and around the corner, and there you are.

I was only there for half an hour, but the look on the faces of the students I met there mirrored perfectly the look on the faces of the kids in the photos of Warsaw ghetto windowsills. Hopeful and hopeless, empty, content to enjoy a simple pleasure, trusting, frightened.

There was a bit of a sinister silence in the neighbourhood. I was told that most of the people who live there don't really ever go down that pot-holed alley to enter the city at large. They just rush from school to home and to their friends' home, and to church if there's something going on there.

I knew it was a ghetto because I'd seen photos of ghettos before. I was told it was an "enclave." That's what they call them these days. The political and cultural issues which pushed the Kosovar Serbs into "enclaves" are complex, and I don't have any reason to hold this fact against the government or majority population here... but nonetheless, there was something deeply unsettling about the discovery that the ghetto is still alive and well in Europe.

1 comment:

Robert Martin said...

I've seen the term "ghetto" used even for self-separation from society. In your portrait and in the WWII situations, ghettos were enforced by the "powers that be". However, there are some cases where a ghetto is something the people do to themselves to separate themselves from society.

Western Christianity is starting to do that and it's scary. We're retreating into our own enclaves and ghettos of "Christian music", "Christian books", and "Christian movies", letting the world outside do it's own thing. And the effects are eerie... while we're separating ourselves, society is picking up on this and doing what it can to make sure we stay there.

I don't think God intended that for his people...

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