Cities and Crime

Jacob Riis, Robert Moses, Nicholas Lemann and others weigh in on the problematic relationship between inner-city poverty and crime

In recent years, local governments across America have demolished inner-city housing projects and distributed rent-subsidy vouchers to their former inhabitants. But as Hanna Rosin reports, in "American Murder Mystery" (July/August 2008 Atlantic), such efforts to free the poor from the destructive effects of concentrated poverty are having some unintended consequences; while these programs have made it possible for longtime ghetto residents to spread out across the city, empirical evidence suggests that many of these cities are experiencing drastic upticks in crime.

In the July/August issue of the Atlantic, Hannah Rosin highlights an unintended consequence of efforts to “free the poor from the destructive effects of concentrated poverty.”

According to Rosin, urban housing projects, despite their concentration of poverty and despair, engender in their residents a strong sense of community. She describes one Memphis housing project as follows: “It was, by all accounts, claustrophobic, sometimes badly maintained, and occasionally violent. But to its residents, it was, above all, a community:”

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.

Meanwhile, as inner-city gangsters have dispersed, they’ve in many ways found that their powers have increased:

Gang members who’d moved to North Memphis might now have cousins southeast of the city, allowing them to target the whole vast area in between and hide out with relatives far from the scene of the crime. Memphis covers an area as large as New York City, but with one-seventeenth as many police officers, and a much lower cop-to-citizen ratio. And 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.

Of course, this is not the first time that the efficacy of poverty reduction programs has been questioned. Over the years, a number of Atlantic writers have debated how best to alleviate the pernicious effects of concentrated poverty in America’s inner cities.  As far back as 1899, Jacob Riis, an influential chronicler and photographer of the poor in turn-of-the-century New York City, expressed concern about the influence of inner-city life on young minds. He told the story of a boy named Jacob, whose environment was so grim that it impaired his moral development. By the age of fifteen, he had been charged with murder.

He was born in a tenement in that section where the Tenement House Committee found 324,000 persons living out of sight and reach of a green spot of any kind, and where sometimes the buildings, front, middle, and rear, took up ninety three per cent of all the space on the block. Such a home as he had was there, and of the things that belonged to it he was the heir. The sunlight was not among them. It "never entered" there. Darkness and discouragement did, and dirt. Later on, when he took to the dirt as his natural weapon in his battles with society, it was said of him that it was the only friend that stuck to him, and it was true. Very early the tenement gave him up to the street. The thing he took with him as the one legacy of home was the instinct for the crowd, which meant that the tenement had wrought its worst mischief upon him: it had smothered that in him around which character is built. … It taught him gambling as its first lesson, and stealing as the next. … There is in both the spice of law-breaking that appeals to the shallow ambition of the street as heroic.

Fourteen years later, an Atlantic contributor named G.S. Dickerman likewise lamented the dark side of urban migration. In “The Drift to the Cities” (September 1914), he warned that as Americans increasingly abandoned their rural communities in favor of industrial jobs, agricultural productivity and prices were being adversely affected. But more importantly, he argued, a new moral laxity was taking hold. “There is,” he wrote, “a more serious consequence … than scarcity of food; it is a lowering of character.” He went on,

People flock to the cities for the advantages there offered, and find disadvantages. Parents sell their wholesome country homes because of their children, and go where there are grand churches, superior schools, and attractive libraries, to find themselves in close proximity to drinking saloons, dance-halls, gambling dens, and indescribable allurements to vice. Is that better for their boys and girls, or is the new atmosphere heavy with influences that are a peril?

Several decades later, in “Slums and City Planning” (January 1945), Robert Moses, New York’s influential and controversial master city planner, argued for the demolition of inner-city projects. He started by describing the evolution of the typical slum:

They begin with the overcrowding of existing buildings and the addition of tenants built by conscienceless speculators to a considerable height on little land, without reference to light, air, sanitation, and other standards of decent living and safety. The place of a single family in a reasonably comfortable house is taken by a number of families, and in the tenements people are packed in like chickens in a coop. Wave after wave of newcomers inhabits these rookeries. As soon as one generation achieves enough prosperity to get out, it moves on and another with lower standards and income takes its place.

But that process, he argued, could be halted. “No city need to tolerate slums,” he wrote. “There are plenty of ways of getting rid of them.” He pointed out that he and his colleagues had already made significant progress in that direction:

My particular little group of demolition and building demons have without fanfare and social worker abracadabra pulled down more old rookeries than all the housing experts and authorities put together. And the best thing about it is that we have substituted nothing for the rookeries but broad highways lined with landscaping and recreation facilities, open to the sun and the elements, and affording the very best incentive to further slum clearance and improvement on their boundaries.

Moses’s approach to slum clearance did not please everyone. In “New Yorkers Without a Voice: A Tragedy of Urban Renewal” (April 1966) Arthur R. Simon, a Lutheran minister living on New York’s Lower East Side, expressed dismay over the high-handed manner in which the city had sought to “improve” his impoverished neighborhood. Without consulting or taking into the account the needs of those living there, he explained, the city had begun redeveloping the area for middle-income housing. This indeed meant an “upgrade,” but it also meant that the area’s poorest and most powerless inhabitants, who couldn’t afford the new rents, were being shunted away into housing complexes created specifically for the poorest of the poor.  Such facilities, Simon suggested, left much to be desired.

In some respects public housing is sick. It is sick primarily because it dumps low-income families into one economically (and often racially) segregated pile. There is nothing intrinsically bad about poor people living together. It is bad, however, when they are systematically excluded from living with others, and when 15,000 people are legally penalized by constantly draining off their most economically successful families and their leadership. This happens because to qualify for public housing, one must not earn more than a specified income (depending upon family size, and so forth). Thus the most stable and helpful members of such developments—precisely those who are best situated to help it achieve some sense of community—are continually being evicted…

Such projects become stigmatized, and residents are often made to feel not quite human for living there. Demoralization sets in.

Two decades later, in  “The Origins of the Underclass”  (June-July 1986) Nicholas Lemann made a similar argument: racially segregated public housing projects, populated by the least well-off, he contended, were fostering a defeatist subculture. He described life inside one notorious public housing project in Chicago, the Taylor Homes:

The worst part of daily life in the Taylor Homes is the constant crime and fear of crime. In a typical four-week period last year seventy-nine felonies and one hundred misdemeanors were reported there—far fewer than the real number of crimes, because in the projects the gangs are more powerful than the police and are known to retaliate against informers. Sergeant Leroy O. Grant, a police-community liaison officer with the Chicago Police Department's public-housing unit, which has its headquarters in the Taylor Homes, told me, "Once, a mother wouldn't prosecute a rape of her fourteen-year-old because of fear of retaliation. I don't know if that happens in any other place in the world. But around here, if somebody knocks on your door at four in the morning to say 'Don't go to court,' there's no man to answer."

To remedy the situation, Lemann argued, the government ought to seek ways to break up these anarchic, crime-riddled projects, so that their residents might become integrated into mainstream society and eventually hope to move up in the world. “The ghettos,” he wrote, “are the product of many generations of complete segregation from the neighborhoods, educational institutions, economy, and values of the rest of the country.  People don't like living in ghettos. They want to get out. Society should be pushing them in that direction.”

But despite the best intentions, efforts to bring ghetto residents back into the mainstream continue to meet with mixed results. As Rosin’s article points out, social programs take time to bear fruit – often a full generation – and when the data are finally in, the numbers are sometimes disheartening. In the end, leaving behind an inner-city subculture may require not only a new address, but also an almost superhuman determination. As Rosin puts it,

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.