Horatio Hung-Yan Law planned an art performance that would span neighborhoods and decades. Musicians would play traditional Chinese instruments in an Old Town coffeeshop. Their audience would watch, via Skype, from six miles away in the Jade District Community Center.
The disembodied piece, projected on layers of fabric, would signify his community's displacement from the inner-city to its outskirts. Law called the performance "A Tale of Two Ghettoes." Sixty people indicated on Faceboook they would attend.
Four days before its premier last month, the nonprofit that runs the Southeast 82nd Avenue community center canceled.
Leaders at the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon told Law they loved the idea of the performance. Yes, they said, Chinatowns everywhere were neglected neighborhoods that confined and controlled Chinese Americans.
But the word "ghetto" was not appropriate.
Ghetto has meant many different things since 16th century Jewish residents of Venice were forced to a gated island on the outskirts of town. It's been a noun and an adjective, a place and a mindset. Today, APANO leaders told Law, "ghetto" is only associated with black culture, black neighborhoods and black people. They worried using it the way Law intended would fray the already tenuous relationship between Asians and African-Americans.
Law, a slight and well-dressed 60-year-old, tends to avoid confrontation in "real life," he said. His art is a different story. He has worked as a professional artist since the early 1990s, when his first piece explored the AIDS crisis through religious iconography. He gravitates toward pieces that scare him.
When he first conceived his Chinatown project, he suspected his elders wouldn't approve. For them, the word "ghetto" is akin to calling their home a "slum." But he couldn't think of another term that spoke to racial segregation and community formed from oppression the way "ghetto" did.
"For me, that word has always connected to how the Chinese were treated," Law said. "If you go with the original definition, where an ethnic group is forced to live in one area, every single Chinatown started as a ghetto."
After APANO canceled his show, friends sent Law research on the word.
Scholars, it turns out, disagree about the precise definition and origin. The word could be Latin or Yiddish. It might derive from the Italian "borghetto," the diminutive form of the word for borough, or from the Hebrew word "get," a deed of separation.
Today, academics use "ghetto" in different ways, said Mario Small, a Harvard sociology professor who studies urban poverty.
Some use it as a technical designation with rigid criteria, including poverty, high rates of crime and few amenities. When Small studied Metro areas, he found only nine zip codes that fit sociologists' definition. He has argued against using the term because it oversimplifies the disparate challenges black neighborhoods face in different cities.
Today, some academics use ghetto as shorthand to describe any neighborhood with a high concentration of African Americans, Small said. Others use it to describe an ethnically mixed yet predominately poor neighborhood.
Sometime after what scholars call the "Great Migration" of African Americans from the American South to northern states, Small said, the academic term became more derogatory slang aimed at African Americans.