Spatial stigma is not an abstraction. Ethnic enclaves disqualify residents from employment and getting into good schools; it subpoenas stricter policing; all in all, it crafts a positive feedback loop of unemployment, poverty, rage, and political apathy. Residentially segregated communities in the “banlieues” of Paris along with those on the outskirts of Oslo, Copenhagen and Milan are not —and perhaps have never been—neutral spaces. These suburban spaces or ghettos embody a spectrum of stereotypes that plague their residents, many of whom are low skilled migrants. And so the contemporary use of the term “banlieue” exceeds the stigma of a post code or a place in the social milieu. It is now a euphemism for the “racial other”.
The term “ghetto” only recently evoked revulsions of the Nazi persecution of the Jewish people but Denmark has adopted the terminology to legislate a crackdown on communities inside large housing developments outside city centres. Thirty (30) such decaying districts were identified. They were officially designated as “ghettoes”.
Liberal Danes were in dismay. The move stoked fierce national debate. The usual suspects aroused passionate public sentiment in their own self-interest but in the end, the courageous plotted a way forward for the future of Denmark. The law was passed with the backing of parties on the left and those on the right. The future is built. It will not fall from heaven. After all- God created the world but the Dutch made Holland with their own hands.
Fifteen (15) ethnic enclaves were designated as “hard ghettoes”. Five sieves were designed to aid in the identification of such spaces: (a) 40 per cent of working-age citizens had to be out of the workforce and not enrolled in any programme of study. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the Spanish phrase “ni estudian ni trabajan” or NINI is used to label this segment of youth who are “neither at study nor at work”; (b) the number of residents with criminal convictions in a “banlieue” must have reached a minimum threshold of three times the national average, (c) the sum of persons with no secondary-school qualifications must have exceeded 60 per cent, (d) the average taxpayer’s income must be below 55 per cent of the regional average and (e) more than 50 per cent of the residents must have a non-Western immigrant history. The last filter was the most controversial. Alongside these five strainers, a number of parallel measures were also instituted.
These ethnically distinct communities came under the heavy hand of a new battery of ghetto laws that punish offences in these communities more harshly than elsewhere. Public day-care for toddlers was made mandatory. This promises the inculcation of Dutch values from infancy. Gentrification and urban planning became the drivers of free-market residential desegregation. Ghetto blocks were modernized and upgraded and public-housing corporations were ordered to put the refurbished apartment buildings in these zones on the market to be sold to affluent arrivals.
Fortress-like courtyards were opened up to allow a flow-through of residents to wealthier parts of the city. By enriching the built environment, the state brought the share of subsidised flats down to 40 per cent. Residents who were priced out of accommodation were given state assistance to secure public housing in non-ghetto developments within the city precincts.
It is argued that ethnic enclaves can restrict the residents’ exposure to economic opportunities and cultural knowledge alien to their identities. Conversely, new arrivals to a particular enclave have access to information and the benefit of the connections built by those who preceded them. Moreover, members of the first wave, like Selvon’s Lonely Londoners, become role models. It is also the case that low skilled migrants benefit by being placed among the high skill members of the same group much more than they would have if they settled in largely Swedish districts. In Sweden, low skilled migrants therefore flourished initially when they moved to enclaves of their own ethnicity. These environments however had no effect on high skill migrants. Highly skilled immigrants may have prospered if they were enfolded within communities dominated by Swedes. But this did not happen and we accept now that ghettos harm their residents, in part, by keeping them lowly.
Housing estates like Mjolnerparken in the Norrebro district of Copenhagen, are far from anything that may be considered a slum. Residents ride their Lekker bikes in cycle lanes among neat apartment blocks with kebab and baklava shops sprinkled between Danish bakeries. But Mjolnerparken is dominated by low skill residents and is ubiquitous for violence, drug trafficking and high levels of unemployment.
Since the 1980s, France’s “politique de la ville” singled out its “banlieues” for attention. These “sensitive urban zones” (ZUS) are now called “priority neighbourhoods of the city” (QPVs). They have been listed for direct government interventions in housing, economic development, education, and security for almost forty years. But the policy seems to have institutionalized the stigma and eclipse any benefit. The interventions skirt the root cause and become a “solution façade” leaving untouched the feeling among “banlieue” residents that it isn’t just their physical presence that’s peripheral, but also their identities and histories.