The Migration of the Ghetto

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The term "ghetto" is both misleading and volatile. A quick google search brings up a myriad of definitions:

  • a section of a city, especially a thickly populated slum area, inhabited predominantly by members of an ethnic or other minority group, often as a result of social or economic restrictions, pressures, or hardships.

  • (formerly, in most European countries) a section of a city in which all Jews were required to live.

  • a section predominantly inhabited by Jews.

  • any mode of living, working, etc., that results from stereotyping orbiased treatment.

Applied to cities particularly in North America there's a common yet ambiguous understanding of what the term means ... or has meant. However, with the changing nature of cities due to economic boom and bust cycles, reinvestment in the urban core, the rise of the creative class, and so on it means that even what we have assumed the ghetto was or is continues to change before our eyes.

Urban America is becoming ghetto-less. Instead, places of "social or economic restrictions, pressures, or hardships" are changing addresses and zip codes. In many cities it is moving from urban to suburban. With that in mind it is also even moving rural. That doesn't mean that there hasn't been rural poverty before, but the divide is only deepening between rural America and cities.

Over the weekend I stumbled across an article on NPR titled "Doctor Shortage In Rural Arizona Sparks Another Crisis In 'Forgotten America.'" It even highlights one of the communities on our "Strategic Communities" list ... Bisbee, Arizona. Here's a key exchange in the article:

"Copper from Bisbee, Ariz., is what helped win World War I," [Bisbee mayor] Smith says. "And yet, when we are in need, we are forgotten because it's not convenient — and because it's not a whole bunch of people here that are voters."

Over at Bisbee's Copper Queen Community Hospital, CEO James Dickson goes further.

He sees the doctor shortage as the latest example of why people in towns like this are feeling left behind, untouched by the economic booms in many American cities. It's a likely contributor to the country's growing economic and cultural divide, Dickson says.

"They're starting to call the rural areas 'the new inner city' because we have the same shortages and lack of access to care," he says.

How do you have a thriving economy if you don't have access to health care?

What is interesting in the article is the linkage between struggling rural Bisbee and what the hospital CEO dubs "the new inner city." In other words, he's making the case that places like Bisbee are becoming (or already are) the new "ghetto," especially when we define a ghetto as a place where there are "social or economic restrictions, pressures, or hardships." That certainly defines Bisbee as well as many other similar communities across the continent.

What does this mean? My bookshelves are lined with books detailing the work, development, and ministry of many people who either stayed or moved into America's most dangerous ghettos in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. Now many of those same communities have been thoroughly gentrified that they are no longer deemed as ghettos. Instead, these kinds of places have moved. How then do we adopt the same framework and posture of those who ministered in these kinds of communities in our cities but now apply them to contexts such as Bisbee?