The First Ghetto Is Founded, and the Reverberations are Felt Centuries Later

The First Ghetto Is Founded, and the Reverberations are Felt Centuries Later

On March 29, 1516, the Venice Ghetto was established by decree of the Venice Ruling Council.  The very first ghetto, it was a tiny 2 1/2 block area on a small, dirty island housing over 4,000 people.  The name comes from the Italian getto meaning “casting,” or Venetian geto meaning “foundry.”

The Venice Ghetto, long after the walls were torn down. Via

The Venice Ghetto, long after the walls were torn down. Via

With its establishment, the ghetto became the only place Venetian Jews were allowed to live — a gated area within which its residents were locked at night.  The Jews of the ghetto were surveilled, limited in their movements and the professions they could practice, and forced to wear yellow markings on their clothing when they left the ghetto.  In the years that followed, similar ghettos were established in cities throughout Europe.  Venice’s gated ghetto survived until 1797, when Napolean stormed the city and tore down the ghetto walls, ending the restrictions on Jewish life.

The legacy of the founding of the Venice ghetto just over five hundred years ago cannot be overstated. Not only did it give birth to the concept of a “ghetto” as a place where marginalized groups where forced to live in cities under trying conditions.  But this type of anti-Semitism eventually led to a mass migration of Jews from Europe to the New World, particularly to New York’s Lower East Side, including the present-day East Village.  Here, these immigrants shaped and utterly transformed our city, nation, and especially our neighborhood.

The Lower East Side Jewish "ghetto", 1922. Via

The Lower East Side Jewish “ghetto”, 1922. Via

In fact, four centuries later, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, covering the area from 14th Street to the Brooklyn Bridge, became a new type of ghetto.  Home to nearly half a million Jews, by 1916 it comprised the world’s largest Jewish community at the time.  As in the Venice ghetto, the Jews of the Lower East Side lived in unimaginably crowded conditions; packed into just two square miles, this was one of the densest areas of human settlement on Earth.

But unlike the Venetian Jews of the 16th century, the Jews of the Lower East Side and present-day East Village, including my own grandparents, could come and go as they pleased.  And while they faced enormous challenges and obstacles, they also created an incredibly vibrant and vital community, evidence of which remains with us to this day.


1920 New York State Legislature map showing various “immigrant districts” of Manhattan.  Red is Jewish; Tan is Italian; Lavendar is German; Green is Irish; Yellow is Chinese; Light Orange (top middle) is Scandinavians/Finns.

So on this anniversary of the establishment of the Venice ghetto, we thought we’d take a look at just some of the legacy of Jewish life on the Lower East Side and in the East Village.

  • The East Village/Lower East Side Historic District was designated in 2012.  Covering more than a dozen blocks and several hundred structures, the spine of the district is Lower Second Avenue, once the “Yiddish Railto” and the heart of Jewish life in what is now called the East Village.  GVSHP advocated strongly for designation of the district and its expansion to include more than a dozen additional sites.


Clockwise from upper left: Congregation Mezritch Synagogue; Town & Village Synagogue/Congregation Tifereth Israel; Saul Birns Building; Third Magistrate’s Court/now Anthology Film Archives.

If you liked this post, you might also like How Bohemians Got Their Name and this post about the origins of the name of Gay Street.

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Andrew Berman

Andrew Berman has been the Executive Director of Village Preservation since 2002.

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