What Makes a Dangerous City so Dangerous?

The odds of being killed in Baltimore last year were 1 in 2,735

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Baltimore is the second-deadliest city in the United States when measured by murder rate. Last year, 234 of Baltimores 640,000 residents were murdered, a decrease from 282 the year before and an all-time high of 379 in 1993. Even with 2008's improved homicide rate, the odds of being killed in Baltimore last year was 1 in 2,735. Detroit, ranked number one for murder rates, is even worse. But Baltimore provided an interesting case study for pundits to examine the mechanisms that make a city with a high murder rate so bad.

  • Baltimore's 'Two Worlds'  The UK Independent's Mark Hughes finds them quite separated. "One columnist in the Baltimore Sun recently described Baltimore as a city of two worlds. It is in the 'other world', the one populated by drug dealers and gangsters, that most murders occur. Those not involved in the drug trade are apparently as unlikely to be murdered in Baltimore as they are in any other civilised city in the world. Figures seem to suggest that is true. Of the 234 murders last year, 194 of the victims (82 per cent) had criminal records and 163 (70 per cent) had a history of being arrested for drug offences."
  • Misleading Statistics  The Washington Post's Ezra Klein notes that the very violent part of Baltimore makes the entire city look more violent than it really is, since most of the murders happen to people who are convicts anyway. "You see this a lot: Some schools look very bad until you control for income, and then they look pretty much fine for the type of kids who end up in private schools that generally serve kids of higher incomes. That's the problem with statistics: They're not always measuring what people think they're measuring."
  • The Young And Foolish  The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates recalls his old Baltimore home. He that living in a community with a lot of crime tends to tempt younger people into that lifestyle. "I'm not discounting the innocent bystander--it certainly happens. But a lot of the 'survival' that goes on in the neighborhood involves who you hang around, and where you hang within that neighborhood. Everyone there knows certain blocks are hot, and certain young fools are even hotter. That, of course, is the trick of being young--the 16-year-old with the 24-year-old drug dealer boyfriend sees the car, but doesn't necessarily get that she's raising her chances of being murdered. The 16-year-old boy wants to be up in the mix and the excitement, even if he isn't really a crook. He doesn't know that by merely hanging out he's playing with his mortality stats. Or maybe he does, and that's the point."
  • Crime Causes Poverty, Which Causes Crime  Matthew Yglesias explains how a high crime rate destroys a neighborhood's economy. "The bulk of the cost of crime almost certainly isn’t the cost directly paid by victims, it’s the costs incurred in terms of crime-avoiding behavior. Some of this cost is in terms of the efforts people living in high-crime areas go through to keep themselves safe. And some of it is quite far reaching. A dangerous neighborhood may, in fact, be relatively safe for people who live their and know the score. But it’s dangerous to outsiders. Which means that even if you’ve got some great recipes it’ll be hard to open up a restaurant and attract customers no matter how low the prevailing rents are. Which means that jobs serving the food and cleaning up won’t be available, and it means that young people who might get those jobs won’t acquire the skills that would have been involved in working alongside you and learning your recipes."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.