American Murder Mystery

Why is crime rising in so many American cities? The answer implicates one of the most celebrated antipoverty programs of recent decades.

It’s difficult to contemplate solutions to this problem when so few politicians, civil servants, and academics seem willing to talk about it—or even to admit that it exists. Janikowski and Betts are in an awkward position. They are both white academics in a city with many African American political leaders. Neither of them is a Memphis native. And they know that their research will fuel the usual NIMBY paranoia about poor people destroying the suburbs. “We don’t want Memphis to be seen as the armpit of the nation,” Betts said. “And we don’t want to be the ones responsible for framing these issues in the wrong way.”

The city’s deep pride about the downtown renaissance makes the issue more sensitive still. CITY, COOL, CHIC read downtown billboards, beckoning young couples to new apartments. Developers have built a new eight-block mall and a downtown stadium for the Grizzlies, the city’s NBA team. In 2003, The Commercial Appeal likened downtown Memphis to a grizzly bear “rumbling back into the sun.” The city is applying to the federal government for more funds to knock down the last two housing projects and build more mixed-income developments, and wouldn’t want to advertise any problems.

Earlier this year, Betts presented her findings to city leaders, including Robert Lipscomb, the head of the Memphis Housing Authority. From what Lipscomb said to me, he’s still not moved. “You’ve already marginalized people and told them they have to move out,” he told me irritably, just as he’s told Betts. “Now you’re saying they moved somewhere else and created all these problems? That’s a really, really unfair assessment. You’re putting a big burden on people who have been too burdened already, and to me that’s, quote-unquote, criminal.” To Lipscomb, what matters is sending people who lived in public housing the message that “they can be successful, they can go to work and have kids who go to school. They can be self-sufficient and reach for the middle class.”

But Betts doesn’t think this message, alone, will stick, and she gets frustrated when she sees sensitivity about race or class blocking debate. “You can’t begin to problem-solve until you lay it out,” she said. “Most of us are not living in these high-crime neighborhoods. And I’m out there listening to the people who are not committing the crimes, who expected something better.” The victims, she notes, are seldom white. “There are decent African American neighborhoods—neighborhoods of choice—that are going down,” she said.

In truth, the victims are constantly shifting. Hardly any Section8 families moved into wealthy white suburbs. In the early phases, most of the victims were working-class African Americans who saw their neighborhoods destroyed and had to leave. Now most of them are poor people like Leslie Shaw, who are trying to do what Lipscomb asks of them and be more self-sufficient. Which makes sorting out the blame even trickier. Sometimes the victim and the perpetrator live under the same roof; Shaw’s friend at Springdale Creek wanted a better life for herself and her family, but she couldn’t keep her sons from getting into trouble. Sometimes they may be the same person, with conflicting impulses about whether to move forward or go back. In any case, more than a decade’s worth of experience proves that crossing your fingers and praying for self-sufficiency is foolish.

So what’s the alternative? Is a strained hope better than no hope at all? “We can’t send people back to those barricaded institutions, like Escape From New York,” said Betts. “That’s not a scenario anyone wants to embrace.” Physically redistributing the poor was probably necessary; generations of them were floundering in the high-rises. But instead of coaching them and then carefully spreading them out among many more-affluent neighborhoods, most cities gave them vouchers and told them to move in a rush, with no support.

“People were moved too quickly, without any planning, and without any thought about where they would live, and how it would affect the families or the places,” complains James Rosenbaum, the author of the original Gautreaux study. By contrast, years of public debate preceded welfare reform. States were forced to acknowledge that if they wanted to cut off benefits, they had to think about job training, child care, broken families. Housing never became a high-profile issue, so cities skipped that phase.

Not every project was like Cabrini-Green. Dixie Homes was a complex of two- and three-story brick buildings on grassy plots. It was, by all accounts, claustrophobic, sometimes badly maintained, and occasionally violent. But to its residents, it was, above all, a community. Every former resident I spoke to mentioned one thing: the annual Easter-egg hunt. Demonizing the high-rises has blinded some city officials to what was good and necessary about the projects, and what they ultimately have to find a way to replace: the sense of belonging, the informal economy, the easy access to social services. And for better or worse, the fact that the police had the address.

Better policing, better-connected to new residential patterns, is a step in the right direction. Janikowski believes the chaos can be controlled with information and technology, and he’s been helping the department improve both for several years. This spring he helped launch a “real-time crime center,” in the hope of making the department more nimble. Twenty-four hours a day, technicians plot arrests on giant screens representing the city’s geography, in a newly built studio reminiscent of CNN’s newsroom. Cops on the dots is the national buzzword for this kind of information-driven, rapid-response policing, and it has an alluring certainty about it. The changes seem to be making a difference; recent data show violent-crime rates in the city beginning to inch down.

In the long view—both Betts and Janikowski agree—better policing is of course not the only answer. The more fundamental question is the one this social experiment was designed to address in the first place: What to do about deep poverty and persistent social dysfunction?

Betts’s latest crusade is something called “site-based resident services.” When the projects came down, the residents lost their public-support system—health clinics, child care, job training. Memphis’s infant-mortality rate is rising, for example, and Betts is convinced that has something to do with poor people’s having lost easy access to prenatal care. The services remained downtown while the clients scattered all over the city, many of them with no convenient transportation. Along with other nonprofit leaders, Betts is trying to get outreach centers opened in the outlying neighborhoods, and especially in some of the new, troubled apartment buildings. She says she’s beginning to hear supportive voices within the city government. But not enough leaders have acknowledged the new landscape—or admitted that the projects are gone in name only, and that the city’s middle-class dreams never came true.

And beyond this, what? The social services Betts is recommending did not lift masses of people out of poverty in the projects. Perhaps, outside the projects, they will help people a little more. But perhaps not. The problems of poverty run so deep that we’re unlikely to know the answer for a generation. Social scientists tracking people who are trying to improve their lives often talk about a “weathering effect,” the wearing-down that happens as a lifetime of baggage accumulates. With poor people, the drag is strong, even if they haven’t lived in poverty for long. Kids who leave poor neighborhoods at a young age still have trouble keeping up with their peers, studies show. They catch up for a while and then, after a few years, slip back. Truly escaping poverty seems to require a will as strong as a spy’s: you have to disappear to a strange land, forget where you came from, and ignore the suspicions of everyone around you. Otherwise, you can easily find yourself right back where you started.

Leslie Shaw is writing a memoir, and it contains more weather than most of us can imagine. At 15, she left home with a boy named Fat, who turned out to be a pimp. She spent the next seven years being dragged from state to state as a street hooker, robbing johns and eventually getting addicted to crack. Once, a pimp locked her in his car trunk. Another time, her water broke in a crack house. This covers only the first few chapters. She works on the memoir endlessly—revising, dividing the material into different files (one is labeled, simply, “Shit”). She still has two big sections to go, and many years of her life left to record. Her next big project is to get this memoir under control, finish it, have it published, and “hope something good can come out of it,” for herself and the people who read it.

When I last saw Shaw, in March, she had her plan laid out. About seven months earlier, she had taken in her 2-year-old granddaughter, Casha Mona, for what was supposed to be a temporary stay. The little girl’s mother was getting her act together in Albuquerque, where Casha’s father (Shaw’s son) was in prison. Shaw’s plan was to take Casha Mona back to Albuquerque, then begin a writing workshop at the Renaissance Center in Memphis to get her memoir into shape. And just before Easter, she’d dropped Casha off, come home, and signed up for the class. Two days later, she got a call from an aunt in Albuquerque. Casha had swallowed a few crack rocks at her mother’s house; state officials had put her in foster care. More weather. Last I spoke to Shaw, she’d bought another round-trip bus ticket to Albuquerque and was going to get the little girl back.

The writing class would have to wait, or she could do it at night, or … “I’m just going to get on that bus,” she said, “and pray.”

VIDEO: Leslie Shaw demonstrates the elaborate process of styling Casha Mona's hair

Presented by

Hanna Rosin is an Atlantic contributing editor and the author of God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America (2007).

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In