Oh, how I hate that phrase. Some where along the line the word ghetto has grown from being a word used to describe a slum area in a city primarily occupied by minorities to a catch phrase for describing anything that folks deem to be lower class. Frankly it pisses me off. Recently an acquaintance of mine referred to her neighborhood as being ghetto, problem is she lives in Maine. Yes, we have some areas of low income folks but by and large these areas are packed full of white folks after all this is Maine. Yes some of these areas are a tad rough by the standards of what folks generally think of when Maine comes to mind but I would be hard pressed to say there are any ghettos in Maine. Sorry folks.
See, I am from Chicago and while I grew up working class I can honestly we say we never lived in any area that one might deem a ghetto by the official and technical definition of ghetto. However families being what they are, I did have some family members who lived in what definitely could be called a ghetto. My first images of visiting these family members start at about age 5. My mother was not raised by her mother who left her when she was 8 months old, my mother didn’t officially meet her mother again until she was 16 and she spent many years trying to forge a relationship with her mother and 7 half siblings.
During her early and mid twenties my Mum spent a great deal of time trying to connect with her birth family and that required us visiting them and well they lived in the now gone Robert Taylor Homes on Chicago’s south side. The Robert Taylor Projects along with the Cabrini Green Housing projects were some of the worse housing projects in the country. The place was like a giant concrete jungle, it was not safe for outsiders to just wander in unless they wanted to go out in a body bag, thankfully my mother’s brothers were well respected gangbangers so that kept us safe along with the fact when we got off the el stop nearest to the projects there was always someone waiting to pick us up. One of the things I remember from this period in time is that my father rarely made the trek to visit my mother’s family…to this day I don’t know why.
One of the things I remember most about these visits was fear, entering the building that her family lived in was scary, it was a dark place, it alternated between smelling like an overripe sewer and a urinal. The times the elevator actually worked, it had one bare bulb and smelled like pure piss. Even at 5 I knew this was not a safe place. Yet as soon as we entered my mother’s birth mother’s actual apartment it was like night and day. Well decorated and beautiful, no doubt filled with items obtained through my uncle’s ill gotten gains. I also remember that the food was amazing, some of what we now call soul food.
Occasionally younger cousins would insist I play with them in the hallway and I remembering being afraid. Especially when we played hide and seek, the only bright spot to playing with the cousins was the visit to the candy lady. That would be the lady a few doors down from my relatives who sold candy, pickles and snow cones from her apartment. To this day that still amazes me as I have never seen that any place outside of the ghetto. In part because in many true ghettos it’s not safe for kids to venture out to the local convenience stores on their own, because danger lurks at every turn. These visits stopped around the time my brother was born.
Yet as an adult having chosen to work with the less fortunate sometimes my work in Chicago called for me to travel to areas that were well…ghettos. Last time was about 10 years or so when I had a training to attend on the west side of Chicago and let’s just say it was an experience. Cabs do not go to such areas I learned when I tried to get a cab and at the lunch break a group of us ventured to the only sit down eatery in the area where our transaction for fried chicken at KFC was conducted through bullet proof glass. I remember heading home on the bus after two days of training thinking about how hopeless it must feel to live in an area where transactions must be conducted through glass. Think about that.
My experiences both as a child and as an adult in venturing into true ghettos left me with a very clear definition of what a ghetto is and living in an apartment in Maine is not a ghetto. By and large in Maine even the rough areas are relatively close to nature. This particular area that was called a ghetto is about a 10 minute drive to the ocean, on a good night you can smell the ocean. I can assure you in most true ghettos (outside of perhaps LA) you won’t be smelling an ocean, instead you will smell the stench of hopelessness mixed in with piss.
While I work with people who at times have many of the same issues that my clients in Chicago had, it’s still different here. People are free to leave their houses; their homes are not transformed into virtual forts because getting in and out involves taking your life into your hands. While pockets of hopelessness now exist all across this nation, the fact is to call your area a ghetto trivializes the lives of those who really are living in a ghetto and in some cases to claim such language in my opinion speaks to having privilege that true ghetto dwellers do not.
So if you are one of those folks who like to use the word ghetto and you are using it for any reason other than describing a real ghetto, please find another word. Tacky is a good start and you won’t get any resistance from me.