Monday, June 9

When crime is pushed to the suburbs

The shift in violent crime from inner-cities to the suburbs has been one of those slow transitions the media rarely picks up on. However, over the weekend I read an story by Hanna Rosin on the subject in this month's Atlantic (not online yet).

Richard Janikowski, a crime researcher for the city of Memphis, created a map of their violent crime data.

"The inner city, where crime used to be concentrated, was now clean. But everywhere else looked much worse: arrests had skyrocketed along two corridors north and west of the central city and along one in the southeast. Hot spots had proliferated since the 1990s, and little islands of crime had sprung up where none had existed before, dotting the map all around the city."

Rosin points to changes in urban housing policy to explain this phenomenon. For a good portion of the last century urban poverty was concentrated in public housing projects relegated to the the inner-city, but for the last few decades the Section 8 anti-poverty program has been providing vouchers for low-income residents to choose privately-owned rentals. While this dispersal has allowed the more self-motivated recipients to enter into a middle-class lifestyle, others have merely brought the same problems into smaller pockets scattered around the city.

Nobody is mourning the loss of those concrete government projects, but the suburban living arrangements add a host of new problems. The inner-cities at least allowed close proximity to many social services, as well as most things a family would need for daily living. On the periphery of the city access can be limited. The more dense living arrangements also provided a sense of community and fostered an informal economy, however dehumanizing the space was architecturally. Things are also harder on the police now,

"Routine policing is more difficult in the semi-suburbs. Dealers sell out of fenced-in backyards, not on exposed street corners. They have cars to escape in, and a landscape to blend into. Shrubbery is a constant headache for the police; they've taken to asking bushes be cut down so suspects can't duck behind them."

Where I take issue with Rosin is in her overall indictment of the section 8 program as a cause for all of this. Sure, it may not be the magical solution some of its biggest fans have claimed it to be, but I'm not buying that it is "destabilizing cities" around the country. The concentration of poverty and social dysfunction in the center of cities has been a peculiarity of Post WW-2 America, and it appears as if we are becoming more like the rest of the world in the demography of our cities. This leaves us with the massive challenge of building community for those who need it most in a landscape designed around the dissolution of community.

Interestingly, that challenge may apply from the other side as well. The New York Times today reported on the difficulties rural residents are facing with high gas prices. Metropolitan areas may have to find places for an influx of rural residents as well.

No comments: