Negotiating boundaries: a theoretical reflection on Jewish urban segregation

Rather than considering residential segregation as a singular measure of a group’s separation from society, the paper shows that the relationship between the two can be modulated to allow for a softer division between public and private domains.

Last week I gave a paper at the XXVI International Seminar on Urban Form 2019 – Cities as Assemblages, hosted by the Cyprus Network of Urban Morphology. Following is a summary of the main points set out in the paper, the full version of which is currently being edited for publication.

If we go back to Venice 500 years ago, we find the preeminent example of the ghetto, the term we frequently use as equivalent to the most extreme form of segregation. Despite its apparent singularity in meaning, the Venice Ghetto provides the perfect example of spatial complexity. While it restricted the movement of the city’s Jewish inhabitants at night and limited their freedom during the daytime too, it also provided bodily security against religious persecution. In addition, despite the perception of the ghetto solely serving as an exclusionary device, history shows that there were quite high rates of commercial and cultural interchange between the Jews of Venice and wider society.

Of course I’m not saying that ghettos were objectively a good thing, but to use the term without understanding, for example, that walls can be simultaneously both restrictive and protective – or that where the ghetto itself is located will shape opportunities for encounter between populations – is to lose much understanding of the spatial nature of the ghetto.

But what about the connections within the community? The Jews of 16th century Venice were obliged to hide their synagogues, and a combination of a shortage of space and a consideration of potential conflicts, meant that their places of worship remained hidden within Jewish-owned property.

The Venice Ghetto. Image credit: Dr Kayvan Karimi

While internal religious and social connections were intensified by the high density living within the ghetto, it was commonplace to venture outside the ghetto: to shop for books, to work in the print-shop of Christians, to gamble, to visit gentile friends, to give instruction to gentile students, to appear in court at St. Mark’s.” Equally, despite a certain exoticisation of the Jewish community, it was frequently the case that Venetians, as well as visitors from farther afield, breached the ghetto bastions to hear a Rabbi’s sermons or to observe Jewish ceremonials, as can be seen in diary accounts from the 17th and 18th centuries.

A few decades later (1655) the much older Jewish community of Rome was enclosed within another ghetto. Strangely, despite the holy city having a much stronger desire to reinforce Christian boundaries, the ghetto was not only centrally located, but had a thoroughfare running through it, enabling commercial activity to continue.

Nolli Map (1748) of Rome, highlighting approximate area of the Ghetto

Thus, the central argument of my paper is that one cannot use a singular definition of segregation, even when looking at historically extreme cases such as the Jewish ghettos of pre-emancipation Europe.

Only rare examples of religious freedom allowed for a more equal interface between the synagogue, the street and the city at large. The example of 17th century Amsterdam is one such case, with the synagogue being situated, similar to other minority groups of the city, in a prominent location at the junction of the new canal and major thoroughfares. Yet while it was prominent, the synagogue was set back from the street within a courtyard, similar to the slightly later synagogue pictured here. This delicate interplay between visibility and accessibility is at the heart of the way in which urban morphology shaped boundaries and thresholds between the minority community and the city at large.

Stalpaert’s City plan for Amsterdam of c. 1662 and Portuguese Synagogue (1675)

The prominence of Amsterdam’s synagogues was unprecedented and remained so until the more widespread emancipation in cities conquered by Napoleon, which meant that starting from France after 1789, Jewish communities started to emerge out of the ghetto.

A few decades later, Jewish communities across the Ottoman Empire saw a similar increase in religious freedom, with a parallel shift from modest synagogues set back from the street to newer synagogues designed to directly face the public street.

Synagogue in Chalkis, Greece, c. 1855 (image
Site plan and floor plans of the synagogue in Chalkis (excerpt from Messinas, 2011, p. 121)

Over in London the situation was different from continental Europe. In the first period following Resettlement under Cromwell in 1656 (the Jews of England were expelled by Edward I in 1290), synagogues were typically splendid, but hidden spaces, constructed as enclosed sanctuaries “away from public gaze”, as Sharman Kadish has put it.

Throughout the 18th century there was a steady trickle of Central and Eastern European Jewish immigrants to London. With increasing political freedom came increasing confidence in the architectural disposition. Yet even when full political freedom was achieved in the 1860s, it still seen as provisional. Even grand synagogues such as the West London, left their splendour to the interior, with a relatively unassuming facade facing the street (with the street itself being relatively segregated).
West London Synagogue synagogue, built 1870, with its unassuming facade, set at the same line as its surrounding buildings, leaving elaborate decoration to the interior.

A period of devastating pogroms on the Jews living within the confines of Russia’s Pale of Settlement led to a mass migration westwards: mostly to the US, but with many settling in major port cities in the UK. In London the East End became a focus for settlement by a large number of mostly impoverished Jews who brought with them a different mode of prayer. The synagogue itself was more of an association, formed around a common place of origin, or trade.

Reproduction of map of Jewish East London from Russell and Lewis, 1900, with overlay of synagogue locations dating from 1800-1940 identified by Samuel Melnick.

The above map of synagogues in the East End of London reveals that as the number of immigrant arrivals increased, so their numbers burgeoned. By the close of the 19th century there were at least 40 active small houses of worship in the East End and its immediate environs. The following analysis of a sample of fourteen of these smaller synagogues is extracted from a study of the spatial patterns of Jewish settlement in England. The project compared the building-street relationships between synagogues and churches in a sample area of Whitechapel in London’s East End, in order to assess the way in which the Jewish inhabitants of the district shaped their social-cultural relationships with their surroundings. It’s detailed analysis is laid out in a blog post from 2016 . The key points are that Jewish London served as an example of the interplay, even following emancipation, between political confidence, and a desire to remain self-effacing so long as a minority group’s position in society is still uncertain – although it should be pointed out that the morphology of synagogues was also shaped by the dire economic conditions of their users.


Four types of synagogue found in Whitechapel, 1899 from top-left to bottom-right, examples of prominent, converted, passage and hidden types, highlighted on the Goad Plan of 1899. Image is (c) Crown copyright and Landmark Information Group

The translation of this confidence (or lack thereof) into built form is reflected in the synagogue’s position on the street, as well as its architectural detailing, hinting at the way in which public-private interface was being modulated in the 19th century. As I have written elsewhere, the street setting (as well as the mode of organisation) of small synagogues meant that they created an interior world, which allowed the Jewish community – in all its multiplicity – to negotiate their way into the urban environment, able to take advantage of a setting that was spatially integrated at a large scale, but locally segregated. We also have both a highly spatialised community, realised in its communal institutions and kinship networks, but also a transpatial community, knitted together through common practice and common language (Yiddish) across time and space.

My paper proposed a new formulation of the conception of the binary of segregation-integration. Rather than considering residential segregation as a singular measure of a group’s separation from society, it showed that in some instances the relationship between the two can be modulated to allow for a softer division between public and private domains. The spatial configuration of façade, steps and/or courtyard can shape the interface between the two, with wider city-home relationships being shaped by the constitution of the residential settlement within the urban sphere.

Sample references

Calabi, D. (2017). Venice and Its Jews: 500 Years Since the Founding of the Ghetto (translated by Leonore Rosenberg). Milan: Officina Libraria.

Cohen, M. & Rabb, T. (1988) ‘Introduction’ to The Autobiography of a Seventeenth-Century Venetian Rabbi. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Fenster, L. (2018). Exilic Landscapes: Synagogues and Jewish Architectural Identity in 1870s Britain. ARENA Journal of Architectural Research, 3(1).

Kadish, S. (2004). The ‘Cathedral Synagogues’ of England. Jewish Historical Studies: Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, 39, 45-78.

Katz, J. (1978). Out of the Ghetto – The Social Background of Jewish Emancipation 1770-1870. New York: Schocken Books.

Kershen, A., & Vaughan, L. (2013). There was a Priest, a Rabbi and an Imam…: an analysis of urban space and religious practice in London’s East End, 1685-2010. Material Religion, 9(1), 10-35. doi:10.2752/175183413X13535214684014.

Marcuse, P., & van Kempen, R. (2002). Of States and Cities: The Partitioning of Urban Space. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Messinas, E. (2011). The Synagogues of Greece: a study of synagogues in Macedonia and Thrace. New York: The American Sephardi Federation.

Michelson, E. (2017). Conversionary Preaching and the Jews in Early Modern Rome. Past & Present, 235(1), 68-104. doi:10.1093/pastj/gtx013

Sekkour, I., & Vaughan, L. (2018). The Casbah of Algiers: from a fortified city to a “ghetto”. . Paper presented at CyNUM 2018, Cyprus Network of Urban Morphology, Nicosia, Cyprus.

Sibley, D. (1992). Outsiders in Society and Space. In K. Anderson & F. Gale (Eds.), Inventing Places: studies in cultural geography (pp. 107-122). New York: Wiley.

Steinhoff, A. (2011). Nineteenth-Century Urbanization as Sacred Process: Insights from German Strasbourg. Journal of Urban History, 37(6), 828-841. doi:10.1177/0096144211413229

Stiefel, B. (2011). The Architectural Origins of the Great Early Modern Urban Synagogue. The Leo Baeck Institute Year Book, 56(1), 105-134. doi:10.1093/leobaeck/ybr006

Ueno, M. (2013). “For the Fatherland and the State”: Armenians negotiate the Tanzimat reforms. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 45(1), 93-109. doi:10.1017/S0020743812001274

Vaughan, L., & Sailer, K. (2017). The metropolitan rhythm of street life: A socio-spatial analysis of synagogues and churches in nineteenth century Whitechapel. In Colin Holmes & A. Kershen (Eds.), An East End Legacy. Essays in Memory of William J Fishman (pp. 184-206). London: Routledge.

What can maps tell us about society?

Professor Laura Vaughan’s spatial analysis of historical maps has uncovered a depth, nuance and texture to the city often missing from pure statistical data.

What can maps tell us about society?
Section of the Goad Plan of 1899, sheet 323, showing the diversity of land uses present at the time of the Booth surveys, illustrating the spatial juxtaposition of economic, cultural, communal and religious activity in London at the time.
Credit: Crown copyright and Landmark Information Group


Cities, it’s often said, are continuously and rapidly changing – catapulting through time, buffeted and transformed by often uncontrollable and unpredictable environmental, social and political forces. “My argument is in many ways the opposite,” says Laura Vaughan, Professor of Urban Form and Society at The Bartlett School of Architecture.

“There are some deep structures in cities that are very hard to shift, such that poverty areas that were apparent in Charles Booth’s London 120 years ago continue to persist.”

Booth’s famous maps, documenting 19th century patterns of poverty in London, were foundational when it came to Vaughan writing her 2018 book Mapping Society, which pulls together two decades of her research to offer a spatial reading of the social patterns of major cities – such as London, New York and Chicago – over the past 130 years; from the distribution of ethnic quarters and poverty to the spatial cultures of street gang activity and the persistence of health problems.

What emerges through her space syntax analysis of historical maps is a depth, nuance and texture that can be missing in data that’s purely statistical. “The importance of the spatial analysis of historical data is not to be underestimated,” says Vaughan, who is also Director of The Bartlett School of Architecture’s pioneering Space Syntax Laboratory.

Going beyond simply reading data from a chart or map, to a deeper analysis of geographical patterns, she adds, unveils the long-term impact of decisions taken in the past and points to the significance of urban design and planning as a practice for shaping cities over time. For example, she says, segregation in cities is shaped by different forces today compared with Booth’s era:

“While in the past, we might create types of housing that formed isolated pockets differentiated by class, race and religion, today a combination of market forces and the speed of change are leading to sharper divisions between the rich and the poor than ever before.”

What can maps tell us about society?
Photograph of Sandy’s Row, corner of Frying Pan Alley, taken on Saturday April 20th 1912 by C.A. Mathew. The alley was situated in the heart of the Jewish neighbourhood in London’s East End. The socio-spatial patterning of immigrant settlement is discussed in Professor Vaughan’s book ‘Mapping Society’.
Credit: Bishopsgate Institute

Unveiling rules about how cities work

Spatial analysis also means a researcher can consider the commonalities and interactions between specific trends, and control for spatial effects when analysing social patterns – unveiling fundamental rules about how cities work.

“For example, if we label an area as segregated, we account not only for it containing a particular mix of population, but also the environment that shapes opportunities and might create barriers, [such as] environmental degradation or constraints on mobility,”

“In a recent study I conducted with EU-funded scholar Jonathan Rokem, we found that patterns of ethnic and social segregation in cities such as Paris, Stockholm or Jerusalem are not just about where you live – what is really important is mobility. The city itself is an important factor in shaping an individual’s opportunities, economically and socially.”

Vaughan’s expertise in this field means she has helped shape London’s planning policies and British transport design decisions, as well as advising the government on such issues as how urban design could be used to combat social isolation and to tackle uneven access to healthy and unhealthy food.

What has also emerged through her research is the political salience of mapping exercises: “A side product of this inquiry has been the discovery of the extent to which social cartography is frequently used not only as a tool for communicating information, but also for propaganda, to collate evidence or to support scientific argumentation.” It’s their less prevalent use, as an analytical tool, that Vaughan’s book champions.

The Space Syntax Laboratory sits within the Bartlett School of Architecture, which is internationally renowned for innovative research and teaching that is academically rigorous, critically informed, design-led and interdisciplinary. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL’s Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more:

Debunking Suburban Neurosis and the ‘mundane trap’ of the suburban villa

(This blog post was first published on this blog’s sister site, Towards Successful Suburban Town Centres, which centres on my suburban research with colleagues at University College London)

Prompted by a blog post by the Wellcome Trust on suburban neurosis and the Peckham Experiment, I’m jotting down here my own reading on this supposed illness. In the blog post, Giulia Smith points out that the Pioneer Health Centre (developed by Dr Innes Hope Pearse and Dr George Scott Williamson) was intended to ameliorate the prevalent ‘anxieties about the ability of low-to-middle-class mothers to raise their children by themselves in the privacy of their own houses’. These ideas were based on a hypothetical illness, suburban neurosis, which would mean that ‘unhappy mothers would be unable to produce happy, healthy offspring’.

The conception of suburbs as a mundane trap were widespread amongst the cultural elite. See for example George Orwell’s excoriating ‘A line of semi-detached torture-chambers where the little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and the wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches.’[1]

suburban villa_image from MoDa
Image courtesy Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, Middlesex University

Simultaneous with Orwell’s novel, came supposed medical confirmation that suburbs were bad for family stability and structure, and indeed for women’s health. A doctor from the Royal Free, based his The Lancet note, ‘The Suburban Neurosis’ on his work in in hospital’s outpatient department, claiming that a new group of ‘neurotics’ had come to his notice. ‘Less poverty stricken’ but worrying about money, with few friends and not enough to do or think about.

snip from Taylor_1938_1

What wonder that the underdeveloped, relatively poor mind of the suburban woman seeks an escape in neurosis…

And as long as life offers the suburban woman so little to live for, so long will she continue at last to pluck up her courage and add to the numbers in our out-patient waiting halls…

We have, I fear, let matters go too far in the jerry-building, ribbon-development line…

If the house can be disposed of, a flat near a few friends may work wonders.[2]

snip from Taylor_1938_2

Yet, as Judy Giles points out, escaping to the suburbs from the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of their parents’ poverty was a sign of progress in which ‘modernity means a bathroom, an indoor toilet, and an ‘up-to-date drawer space’ (p. 49).[3]. Suburban modernity was embraced rather than spurned, though this is not to say that ordinary women too did not feel the same longings as modernist male literary elites.

Young housewife Bill Brandt

Young housewife, Bethnal Green, London, 1937. Bill Brandt (copyright Focus Gallery,

The diagnosis persisted for decades more, further reinforced by a study by Margot Jeffreys of a group of relocated East Enders, who moved into an out-London housing area South Oxhey, in the 1950s. In fact, ‘Jeffreys found ‘no definite symptoms of a higher incidence of a psycho-neurotic illness than women of the same age elsewhere’.[4] One of the authors of the suburban neurosis paper actually refuted it in 1964[5] and, as Mark Clapson has pointed out, many problems were attributable to initial settling in, so a transitory situation, coupled with high numbers of ill people at top of list for allocations to the area.[6] Nevertheless, a review of the literature today will find that suburbia and the New Towns are continuing to be being blamed for female neurosis, or its analogue: New Town Blues as distinct from the general phenomenon of moving home.

The Oxhey estate near Watford, built soon after 1950 to house people from inner London, had a rate of mental illness higher than the national average, despite having a good layout, greenspace within the estate and good access to Oxhey Woods … Possibly this is an early example of the “suburban neurosis” that has been widely reported from Britain’s New Towns.[7]

The above-quoted article is in fact associating poor mental health with a lack of social contact. There is some truth in this: social isolation (or loneliness – though they are not synonymous) can be as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,[8] but the suburbs aren’t necessarily the cause of poor health per se. My new collaboration on the Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network will hopefully shed some more light on the role of the built environment in this complex issue.


[1] Orwell, G. (1939). Coming Up for Air. London, Gollancz.

[2] Taylor, S. (1938). “The Suburban Neurosis.” The Lancet 231(5978): 759-762. Intriguingly, Taylor refers to the Pioneer Health Centre at Peckham as a model (though without the health facilities) for the sort of solution he offers: to establish a sort of club that would contain, under one roof, “a swimming bath and gymnasium, a cafeteria, a day nursery, the public library and reading, smoking and games rooms.”

[3] Giles, J. (2004). The Parlour and the Suburb: Domestic Identities, Class, Femininity and Modernity. Oxford, Berg.

[4] Jeffreys, M. (1964). Londoners in Hertfordshire. London: Aspects of Change. Centre for Urban Studies and R. Glass. London, MacGibbon and Kee. 3: 207-255.

[5] We found no real evidence of what one of us (Taylor) twenty five years ago described as ‘the suburban neurosis’, nor of what has more recently been described as ‘new town blues‘”. Taylor, L. and S. Chave (1964). “Mental health and environment.” Mental Health and Environment.

[6] Clapson, M. (1999). “Working-class Women’s Experiences of Moving to New Housing Estates in England since 1919.” Twentieth Century British History 10(3): 345-365.

[7] Douglas, I. (2005). Urban greenspace and mental health. Manchester, The UK Man and the Biosphere Committee (UK-MAB).

[8] Holt-Lunstad, J., et al. (2015). “Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review.Perspectives on Psychological Science 10(2): 227-237.