I made a very brief attempt at starting a blog way back in 2004 and I remember that two of the very first posts were on the benefits of stagnation during a time when growth was cancerous and metastatic, and critiquing the practice of ranking cities using FBI data which specifically states that it isn’t useful for comparisons. It may be that I remember those two because they were the only two that made sense, or it may be that I only wrote two posts! Either way I am proud of those insights to this day, the first lacks the technical knowledge and profundity of The Growth Ponzi Scheme, but it intuits the same idea, the second was the topic of an extended series at RationalUrbanism the ideas elaborated in which have begun popping up in places like CityLab and Planetizen.
In my series on Place Rating specifically as it relates to crime there were two ideas which were key. One related to the tremendous differences geographically and demographically in what is called a city in different parts of the United States. The other was that murder rates were the best guide to determining the overall level of crime in a place. The definitional differences have mostly to do with the fact that there is a tendency for cities in the West and especially in the South to be much larger geographically than their equivalents in the Midwest and the Northeast most particularly. Cities in the South as they have developed in the Twentieth Century have swallowed up neighboring communities and have become municipal megaplexes of 75, 100, 300, and even 900 square miles. In the Northeast a city like my own Springfield which grew up in the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth centuries had the opposite tendency; to be slivered off into separate entities leaving the central city with a limited expanse such that most cities of importance in New England cover an area of less than 35 square miles. This leads to a circumstance where cities in the South and West effectively contain their own suburbs and even exurbs within the boundaries of the city proper and thus alter the frame of reference related to social dysfunction radically given that we live in a time where Americans have isolated themselves geographically along socio-economic and racial lines.
Murder is the best barometer of crime because there are perverse consequences in terms of crime reportage for communities with effective policing and low levels of crime. In areas with the aforementioned characteristics it happens that there is a much greater likelihood that any occurrence of crime will be reported by citizens or discovered by police. Conversely, in areas with poor community and police relations and where crime is rampant criminal acts are less likely to be reported and less likely to be discovered. Murder, on the other hand, is nearly always reported or discovered, with its primary weakness as a statistical tool being that it is a “small number” and therefore liable to fluctuate greatly from year to year. That is why the great caveat with homicide statistics should be that they are bundled in clumps of years with anomalous spikes and troughs tending to even themselves out.
Going back to my ancient writings, the lynchpin of my argument related to Birmingham, Alabama. Somehow Springfield had been categorized as more crime ridden than Birmingham despite that community having a murder rate which was over three times(!) higher. It was and is fairly clear that Springfield suffered from, and statistically speaking Birmingham benefitted from the perverse effects related to the reporting of crime.
I find myself in a very unusual intellectual place this morning. The last few months have been by far the worst in terms of nuisance crime and bad behavior in my neighborhood. Just this last week I found a used condom in my backyard on Tuesday morning, Wednesday night my wife spied a couple underneath our grape arbor doing drugs and having sex, on Thursday night, having locked the gate to our alleyway and our backyard, I walked out the front door to find two men with syringes preparing to “shoot up” on my front steps, and around 2 a.m. Saturday I was awakened by my wife calling 911 because she could see a man storming down the street with a tire iron in his hand seeking to avenge damage done by someone else using a similar implement on his car, a circumstance which led to this array of police cars outside our window:
Trash left by people having an impromptu party in our backyard:
I have a generally optimistic perspective on things most of the time; a quality in me my wife describes as sanguine. I was (and still am) clinging to the idea that gentrifying neighborhood’s actually experience spikes in crime and bad behavior. Perhaps the hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and the dozens of buildings under construction or changing hands are leading to this apparent instability. Maybe, but I was trying to understand the mechanism. And then my wife pointed out the obvious: the formerly vacant, abandoned properties across the street were no longer available as “shooting galleries” and “sex parlors”. People are still doing drugs, prostitutes still need places to pleasure their clients and our heretofore unsecured, dimly lit backyard and alley were the next closest available locations. After locking and illuminating the side and rear of our home, the front steps were a last resort…until I walked out and quite accidentally scared them off.
Within our region we are the under-reporting, under serviced neighborhood. Fewer abandoned spaces, greater police presence, and a very clear situation of flux are leading to some real circumstances of trouble unlike any I have experienced except in great isolation over the decades. Over the last 7 months murder is at an all-time low in the city, at least as of the data being published in such a way that it is readily available on line. This continues a trend from 2 of the last 3 years of a marked diminution of overall crime, including homicide.
But my eyes are telling quite a difference story. I found out just this week that the neighborhood’s biggest apartment building, and greatest source of emergency calls, noise, trash, and drama has been sold. The slumlord who ran it set a high price which a speculator, most certainly betting that the nearby MGM resort will create demand for market-rate housing, was willing to match. Even fewer places for ne’er do wells to do what they do do “oft”. We best prepare for even rougher going I think. The birth pangs of a vibrant city? I can only hope so.