The Blog in Brief

Cleaning out my Feedly “Saved for Later” folder:

1. I take issue with two recent Greater Greater Washington posts.

First, I’m not actually sure I agree with either the framing or substance of this post about BRT. Maybe it helps for planners or self-defined urbanists to think of BRT as a collection of features, rather than a package, but I think that’s just confusing for the public at large, and it makes it way easier for cities to “cheapen the brand,” as it were, by calling something “BRT” that’s really just signal prioritization or some such tinkering. If I were the head of a transit authority, or a think tank, or writing an influential blog, I think I would try to promote the idea that BRT is, in fact, a package of features that together deliver about as good a transportation service as you can get without actually putting vehicles either underground or on an elevated structure, way cheaper than any train technology. The CTA has stumbled around on this, but eventually found its way to my position: its Jeffery Jump line, which has half-mile stations but dedicated lanes only in peak direction during rush hour and no pre-paid stations, was initially billed as BRT, but now CTA officials take pains to call it “BRT light.” Good on them for that.

GGW also writes:

Even worse is what happens when all the tools in the box are used at the same time—what enthusiasts laud as the “gold standard” that resembles a “subway in the street.” If buses are to carry subway-like passenger volumes, traffic lights and pedestrians can’t get in the way. Gold-standard BRT becomes an interstate-like highway through the city, what urbanists have been fighting since the 1960s.

Except that virtually nowhere in the U.S. are any bus lines likely to carry “subway-like passenger volumes.” The demand just isn’t there; even in Chicago, the Ashland BRT is only likely to carry around 45,000 people a day. But, yes, BRT does require relatively wide avenues with relatively fast-moving traffic. That’s a feature, not a bug. If we choke crosstown surface transportation, we’re reducing people’s access to the amenities, jobs, and other people that are the very raison d’etre of big cities. Not every street in a major city can be optimized for pedestrians with narrow, traffic-calming dimensions.

The other GGW post that made me go “huh?” is this one, claiming that what the DC Metro really needs is to visually differentiate its stations by taking a cue from LA, which does things like put fake palm trees and film reels at its Hollywood station. Supposedly this is because a) people can’t tell one station from the other, which is making them confused, and b) subway stations should be bright and colorful to reflect the joy that is life.

A + B = yuck

lasubway

A + B = yuck

But look: visual cues like palm trees will only register with people who know to associate that with a given station, and those people will already know how to get around. Everyone else is going to take way longer to go through the thought process Giant Fake Film Reel –> We Must Be At Hollywood than they would to just read a sign that said, “Hollywood,” or listen to the driver say, “This is Hollywood.” And as for aesthetics – well, yes, the Moscow subway is truly a subterranean palace, and although I’ve never been there, it looks like LA is doing a good job making their stations inviting, too, in a very different way. But ideas like painting Harry Weese’s honeycombed ceilings blue or orange according to the line that runs there just make me want to gag. It’s a matter of taste, of course, but DC has what is recognized by a good number of people to be one of the most architecturally significant subways in the world. The people who think its aesthetics are grim are unlikely to be swayed by a coat of paint, and they would be right. Make the lights brighter and add signage, if necessary. Don’t try to make it something it can’t be.

(Note that this principle should have been applied to Chicago’s renovated Red and Blue Line subway stations, which might have been restored to a somewhat-less-stark-than-Weese Art Moderne aesthetic, but which instead were slapped with a hodgepodge of more “popular” styles that at best clash with the vestiges of the originals, and at worst look like one long tiled bathroom wall.)

2. At its worst, urbanism as a subculture seems to combine the humorless self-righteousness of activist politics, the impersonal spreadsheet thinking of dataheads, and the bloodless management-speak of business schools. At its best, of course, and at all sorts of points in the middle, it is much more attractive. But even so, I appreciate the attempt by the Wannabe Urbanist to inject a bit of the humanities, or its sensibility, into the  conversation.

I’m not sure that what we really need is more sentences like “Question anyone who uses the term urbanism: does their usage reinforce the dominant forces of capitalist urbanization?”, but I do think that passages like this are a breath of fresh air in the face of urbanist triumphalism:

[F]or regular people, urban living in modernity is about absorbing and adapting to changes often out of our control, and negotiating the practical and emotional consequences….

It is easy to get caught up and distracted by the spectacle of urbanism, the glittering megastructures and brand-name architectural projects; it is just as easy to be seduced by the tactical urbanists and neo-Jacobsians into thinking that if we (and be we, I of course mean the urbanists who clearly know what is best for our cities) all just got together with shovels, we could build the bike lanes and curbside seating areas that would solve all these problems.

The point I am trying to articulate is that the experience of modern urban living is not a set of images; it is the difficult project of being ourselves in cities whose form and function are controlled by forces of capital, whose interests rarely align with those of any other party.

I think that last part actually does the rest a disservice, by limiting the point to the influences of capital. The larger theme is a very powerful one that’s very underdiscussed: the experience of living in a city is terribly humbling for anybody who is remotely honest with themselves. The forces beyond one’s control, whether that’s some other person or collection of persons, or some systemic force that’s not really under anyone’s control, are overpowering. It is challenging both on the level of daily subsistence, and on an emotional, even existential level. Who do you belong to? What do you belong to? The overlapping circles of in-groups and out-groups and territories and allegiances and relationships are almost literally never-ending. Suppressing all those tensions from the conscious mind is possible, I suppose, but they’re always there, and they certainly inform how we feel about the way a city ought to work, and what it ought to look like. It would be nice if the urbanist conversation brought that to the surface every now and again.

Also, points for bringing up the sensual experience of cities, which is especially on my mind right now as I’m reading James Baldwin’s Another Country, a book that makes love to Manhattan on every second page, and claws at its eyes on every fourth.

Correlation and Causation: City Journal Doesn’t Understand the Difference; Also: The Overton Window of Urban Policy

So George Packer writes that New Yorkers are whispering about whether de Blasio is going to return the city to its hellish 1970s past, and four weeks later City Journal helpfully publishes those whispers, in earnest, in the form of a mostly ill-considered post:

Perhaps the most important question in the looming mayoral race is this: Will the next occupant of City Hall remember the hard lessons that New York has learned over the last 40 years, or will the city revert to a functionally bankrupt metropolis with chaotic schools and dirty, dangerous streets?

By far the worst part is this passage about crime:

During Koch’s three terms, crime rates zigged up and zagged down, but in 1989, despite all that he had done to make the city safer, crack ruled the night, and murders jumped to a record 1,905.

When David Dinkins took office in 1990, hopes were high that the new mayor’s low-key approach and strong support in minority neighborhoods would cool the fevered streets. Instead, the city saw 715,000 felonies committed in 1990, while murders spiked to an all-time high of 2,262. The NYPD didn’t get the tools that it needed until the mid-1990s, when Giuliani adopted the Compstat system of analyzing crime data, along with proactive tactics and accountability throughout the department. Giuliani and the police reduced the number of homicides to 629 in 1998, and all categories of crime fell sharply.

Because Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly retained and strengthened Giuliani’s reforms, crime rates continued to fall.

If you know anything about national crime trends over the last 30 years, which presumably someone at City Journal who read this before it was published does, none of what I just quoted makes any sense. To refresh our memories:

Image

Source: Volokh Conspiracy

So crime in New York peaked in the early 1990s, just like it did in almost every city in the country, and fell dramatically during the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations in the mid-late 90s and 2000s, just like it did in almost every city in the country. Now, we could look at this data and conclude that Giuliani and Bloomberg, far from being New York’s crime-fighting heros, somehow managed to bring down violent crime all over the country. And that would be very impressive. But it’s obviously completely implausible.

So the other, more reasonable, conclusion to make is that the correlation between the change in administrations and the falling crime rate in New York is just that – a correlation – and not, in any major way, a causal relationship, in the same way we might note that homicide rates in Chicago began falling after the Bulls won their first championship, but we have no compelling evidence that one had anything to do with the other.1

This all points to a larger issue with this sort of talk about municipal leaders, which is that it fails to acknowledge that contemporary urban policy in the U.S., at least on the scale of a mayoral term or two, is just not that transformative. Sure, visionary leadership on a particular issue or project can have measurable results, and epic mismanagement can make problems worse, but on the big-picture issues – whether your region is rich or poor, to what extent it’s car- or transit-dependent, whether it will gain or lose residents, how affordable its housing will be – major metropolitan regions and their core cities are mostly following a) national trends and b) path dependency based on earlier policies and national trends. Crime is one obvious example of this. Unemployment, and macro-level economic health, is another: The fact that being a industrial center in the Midwest was highly correlated with being prosperous until roughly World War Two, and since then has become highly correlated with poverty, has nothing to do with a rash of bad leaders replacing excellent ones around the middle of the century in that region, and everything to do with global economic shifts. The fact that Madison, WI, Columbus, OH, and the Twin Cities became economic leaders in the Midwest certainly has less to do with the caliber of their municipal leadership than the fact that they all contain the apparatus of state governments and flagship state schools, which virtually guarantee a huge pot of well-paying jobs that attract highly-educated people.

This isn’t to say that urban policy, at the local, state, or national level, has to be powerless: in important ways, how and to what extent cities provide services can make a huge difference in their residents’ daily lives, and planning decisions can nudge a city’s path-dependency in ways that can become significant over time. And, obviously, in the past, urban planning at all levels of government had serious short- and medium-term transformative power through FHA regulations, transportation subsidies and projects, and so on. In 1963, the Beale Street neighborhood, just southeast of downtown Memphis, looked like this:

Image

In 1968, King was shot there, and city officials became concerned that Beale, which was mostly populated by black folks, was a racial powder keg frightening (white) people away from downtown. So, by 1971, it looked like this:

Image

That was some transformative leadership. But city governments can’t just condemn and raze the homes of tens of thousands of people anymore.

They also can’t radically rezone neighborhoods to allow them to change. The kind of wholesale transformations of the built environment that accompanied economic booms in Chicago, New York, etc., in the 19th and early 20th centuries have been legislated out of existence. Places that approximate it – Phoenix, Houston – mainly accomplish their construction sprees by relegating the vast majority of it to the periphery, where no one lives who can object.

So policies that might actually have radical short- or medium-term effects, like drastically liberalizing density caps, are politically impossible. Transit lines – or, if it’s your cup of tea, highways – through heavily populated areas are similarly verboten. If they’re built at all, they have to be routed in the least efficient possible way to minimize costs and eminent domain claims, which has the effect of making them as useless as possible, which makes fewer people use them, which makes them less transformative to the urban landscape. The Overton Window of urban policy is just too small, too frozen in place, to allow much dramatic change, even in the areas where we know it has the potential.

Now obviously this is not entirely, or even mostly, a bad thing. Our tolerance for Beale-style urban renewal projects, whether billed as slum-clearing redevelopment opportunities or transportation projects, should be extremely low. But as long as we’re unwilling to make much of any substantial change to urban policy, and especially to put any real muscle or funding behind those changes, we should stop talking about individual contemporary political leaders as if they’re the determining factor in what our cities look like, or how they behave.

1 This isn’t to say that there’s no effect on crime from local policies. And one should acknowledge that, in fact, New York saw a much greater decline in its crime rate than the nation as a whole. But it also saw a much greater amount of gentrification, which is highly correlated with lower crime. And the Giuliani/Bloomberg policies most commonly credited with reducing crime, like broken windows and stop and frisk, have been shown to have dubious efficacy.

Homicide Awareness!

Listing every factual error in the most recent of the documentaries released this summer called “Chiraq” – there are two of them – is easy, because its director, British-born Will Robson-Scott, does not actually attempt to make any factual claims. Or, rather, he makes exactly one, which is superficially true but deeply misleading, as I’ll discuss in a minute.

Instead, Robson-Scott gives us thirteen minutes of black-and-white cinema vérité in a genre that might be called Violence Porn. Violence Porn is a cousin of Ruin Porn, the much-maligned and yet perennially popular family of photography and cinema that invites us to gawk at empty streetscapes and rotting theaters in places like Detroit or Camden, NJ. Except instead of asking us to feel sadness or disgust about cityscapes, Violence Porn asks us to marvel at just how incredibly scary young black men in Chicago are.

The folks behind VICE’s HBO show are Robson-Scott’s brothers in this endeavor, having also shot a thirteen-minute piece called “Chiraq,” which came out in June. It’s a bit more ambitious in terms of actually providing information and context, with the downside that almost all of that information and context is completely wrong. Its very first line claims that “in the last two decades, most major cities in America have seen a dramatic drop in violent crime, except Chicago” – curious, given that the homicide rate over the last twenty years has fallen by nearly 50%. It claims that the South Side “has lost most of its schools,” which, despite Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s best efforts to close allegedly underutilized buildings, is not even close to true. It claims, without qualification, that the demolition of public housing has made crime worse in outlying neighborhoods, a proposition fiercely denied by many of the academics who have studied the issue. And it strongly implies that violence is escaping the traditional “bad” neighborhoods and “seeping” into the rest of the city, which is exactly the opposite of what has actually happened in the last two decades: violent crime is more concentrated in certain areas than ever before, with terrible consequences.

If either of these documentaries had shown any interest in research or fact-checking, it might be easier to forgive them for having devoted so much time to filming young black men, usually shirtless or in hoodies and preferably heavily tattooed, jumping around in groups, throwing gang signs and flashing guns. But they didn’t show any such interest, and so we’re left to conclude that this, in fact, is the point. Neither documentary allows more than a minute or two to elapse without such a shot, and both devote the majority of their interviews to brief expressions from these young men about how crazy life is on the South and West sides. “We like to eat the body up,” says one man, explaining why murder victims in the city are shot so many times. “We were brought up to beat your motherfuckin’ ass,” says another.

None of this is to say that Chicago doesn’t have a very serious crime problem, or that its crime problem – or that of other cities – isn’t worth the attention of a documentary film. Such a documentary might accomplish one of two things: It might allow us to understand the big picture by telling us what all the news reports add up to, why the problem exists, and what possible solutions might address it. Or it might give us the human story behind the numbers and socioeconomic forces, allowing us to understand what it’s like to live in affected neighborhoods, what the motivations are of people who take part in the violence, and how everybody else copes in their day-to-day lives.

Neither “Chiraq” accomplishes, or even attempts to accomplish, either of those objectives – the big picture facts are either absent or wrong, and it’s hard to get a sense of the interview subjects as people when they’re only allowed a few lines of dialogue each. Instead, the most generous interpretation of the purpose of these documentaries is a kind of awareness campaign, akin to wearing a colored ribbon to draw attention to a deadly but relatively low-profile disease.

But that’s absurd. The first thing that any American – and many foreigners – will say if you ask them about the South and West sides of Chicago is that there is a lot of crime there. Awareness is not the problem.

In fact, you might say that part of the problem is too much awareness – and here we get to the heart of the matter. Both documentaries are called “Chiraq” because they claim (this is Robson-Scott’s only verifiable fact) that there have been more murders in Chicago since 2001 than U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. This, supposedly, is context. But what does it tell us? Are Iraq and Afghanistan less dangerous than Chicago? Obviously not; those figures don’t account for the fact that there are many, many times more people in Chicago than American soldiers stationed in those war zones, and they don’t include casualty figures for locals, who have died at rates hundreds of times higher than people have been killed in Chicago. Does it say something about the relative importance of violent street crime and overseas wars? Maybe; but why is that the comparison? Why not compare it to other, less far-fetched analogues, like the number of people who die in car accidents, or heart disease?

The answer is that these documentaries, and Violence Porn in general, are premised on reinforcing stigma: the stigma of poor inner-city neighborhoods, the stigma of being black, and especially of being a young black man. Car accidents and heart disease are tragedies that might happen to anyone; a war zone is something savage and foreign that belongs elsewhere: not for nothing does the VICE documentary conclude that “the South Side of Chicago is basically a failed state in the borders of the U.S.,” where locals “proudly declare themselves savages or soldiers.” This is why neither documentary can show us anyone in these neighborhoods but young black men who are gang members, or the mothers of young black men who have been murdered: to depict an average citizen going to work, or taking their young child to school, or even just mowing their lawn, would clash with the stigma that gives these films all their power.

Ultimately, the message is that you, the presumably white, or at least middle-class, viewer of the documentary, need to be very afraid of the unhinged people who live in these areas. (At one point, the VICE correspondent looks at a map of gang territory and helpfully volunteers that it “scares the living shit” out of him.) Or, rather, you should continue to be very afraid. Because these places have already been suffering from white and middle-class stigma for decades, pretty much since they were turned into all-black ghettoes around the middle of the twentieth century. I, a white person who lives on the North Side, run up against this stigma whenever I try to take a friend to visit a restaurant or gallery even in a relatively safe black neighborhood on the South Side, and they refuse because they “don’t want to get shot.” (This is usually accompanied by a laugh, to suggest that they’re kidding, but the fact that they actually won’t go suggests that they’re not.) The people who live in those neighborhoods run up against the stigma every day because of the social isolation, lost business investment, and paltry consumer spending it causes, which just furthers the economic decline that the “Chiraq”s are supposedly lamenting. This is not a minor issue: one study by Harvard professor Robert Sampson found that a neighborhood’s reputation was a better predictor of its future poverty rate than actual signs of disorder like graffiti or crime.

And so it’s hard to conclude that these documentaries do anything other than make the problem worse. It would be nice if the next round of journalists who venture into America’s crime-plagued neighborhoods treat the people they find there as people, and not spectacles.

Dept. of Far-Fetched Policy Comparisons

But really, I thought the PTSD-focused mental health initiative I wrote about in Joplin, MO was super interesting, and why does CPS not have this? My new piece up at the Chicago Bureau:

“Increased behavior problems, decreased attendance—every indicator following a disaster goes the wrong way,” Huff said.

To soften the blow, the district implemented an aggressive mental health intervention strategy, hiring extra counseling staff to help students deal with the pain of the disaster and return to normal life.

That kind of support would be more than welcome in large parts of Chicago, where many students are dealing with their own traumas related to street violence, poverty, or drugs, and there are incidents of one counselor carrying a caseload of some 2,400 students.

Also, here is a Google Trends search for “Chicago most dangerous” that my wonderful girlfriend linked me to while I was working on my next piece:

Picture 2

Huh, January 2008. What could have happened in January 2008 that would make people so interested in portraying Chicago as a hopeless war zone? I can’t think of anything…

A few short notes

1. Coalitions to which no one wants to affix their name are in trouble. Thankfully, it appears that the anti-BRT on Ashland people are just such a coalition. (In case you haven’t heard, the CTA and Chicago Department of Transportation want to take one lane of car traffic in each direction on Ashland and turn it into an express-bus-only lane with train-style stations every half mile, which would decrease bus travel time by 80% and increase car travel time by less than 10%. It’s a good idea for all sorts of reasons, which I might elaborate on some other time.)

Streetsblog Chicago really deserves kudos for the work they’ve been doing on this; the city absolutely needs smart, independent reporting and advocacy on transit issues, and they’ve been giving us that.

2. Just like unions and taxes can’t explain Detroit’s problems – guess who else has unions and high taxes? New York! Boston! Most other successful cities in America! – neither can lots of parking lots downtown. Because, you know, Dallas and Houston and so on, which may not be urbanists’ ideas of paradise, but which are providing a lot of people with jobs and affordable places to live and are very, very far from having Detroit-level fiscal and demographic problems. We do ourselves a disservice to pretend otherwise.

3. This is a good thinker on the 25th anniversary of the first permanent New Urbanist town, from Greater Greater Washington.

4. From Greater Greater Education: test scores are up in DC, but why? Is instruction improving, or are demographics just changing? (Remember that despite hype around charter schools and innovative teaching methods, the number one predictor of academic success in the U.S. remains economic status.) Answer: unclear, but probably demographics have something to do with it. Gonna do something similar for Chicago. Watch for it.

5. Finally, this from David Holmes at The Urbanophile is pretty sweet.

What We Talk About When We Talk About “The Riots”

All blockquotes are from Making the Second Ghetto by Arnold Hirsch, except where noted.

During the first two evenings of disorder, crowds ranging from 1,500 to 5,000 persons battled police who frustrated their attempts to enter the project. Mobs broke off their engagements with the police and assaulted cars carrying blacks through the area…. Blacks were hauled of streetcars and beaten. Roaming gangs covered an area…of nearly two miles…. An “incomplete” list…included 35 blacks who were known injured by white gangs, and the Defender reported that at least 100 cars driven by blacks were attacked. Eventually more than 1,000 police were dispatched to the area, and more than 700 remained in the vicinity a full two weeks after the riot had “ended.”

The first time I saw the* ghetto – not just a poor neighborhood, or an entirely non-white one**, but the kind of place where an economic and social bomb had gone off and left its mark on the streets and the buildings and everything else – I was fifteen and taking the train to Michigan. From my seat, out the window, I saw something like this:

englewood

I think I was mostly confused. I suspect that’s the case for many Americans, of all kinds of backgrounds, who have grown up in a country that has its problems but which, at some fundamental level, works, upon seeing parts of that country that so clearly do not work. It may be paired with pity, or revulsion, or fear, or anger, but at the bottom is confusion, because nothing we know explains what we’re seeing. How can a neighborhood be so poor, so isolated, so different, in a rich country where people regularly move and mix themselves from city to city and state to state? If the ghetto we’re seeing is populated mostly or entirely by black people, which it generally is, we may think about slavery and other forms of racism, but do we really believe there has been enough of that – even since the 60s? – to account for this? And in the North? To see that kind of poverty in rural Mississippi, near farms worked by sharecroppers, is terrible, but produces very little cognitive dissonance. But in Chicago? In New York***?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This post was originally supposed to be pegged to the Detroit bankruptcy postmortems, but I’ve been busy, and in any case the phenomenon at hand is hardly that specific.

The following weekend, one hundred and fifty white teens armed with metal rods and bottles rampaged through the park, injuring thirty black picnickers. “Hoodlums” broke the windows of more than twenty-five cars…. Officers refused to escort victims into the park to retrieve their belongings, left several black women and children stranded in a park building as the mob attacked, and again rebuked the picnickers for using the “wrong park.”

But that was a particularly stark moment, since it called on all sorts of people to recount a narrative of northern urban decline. And pretty much every single one I read said something like this, from the Boston Globe: “Detroit’s deterioration, which started in earnest after the 1967 race riots were among the most violent in the country’s history, has accelerated in recent years.” Or this, from NPR: “In the 1950s and ’60s, the car companies started moving factories from the urban core to the suburbs. Many white families followed, but discriminatory practices blocked that option for black families. As a result, Detroit got poorer and blacker, while the suburbs got richer and whiter — especially after the city’s 1967 riots over race and income disparities.” Searching for Detroit AND bankruptcy AND riots gets you over two and a half million hits on Google.

This sounds familiar, if you’re a Chicagoan. Chicago Magazine, in fact, published a post in the aftermath of the bankruptcy entitled “How Highways and Riots Shaped Detroit and Chicago,” which declares that the 1968 riots in the latter city “didn’t have the effect of Detroit’s (much deadlier) riots on the whole of the city, but it did permanently damage whole swaths of it while changing the commercial and racial makeup of the city.” It quotes another article: “Marie Bousfield has worked for Chicago’s Planning Department…for 15 years. ‘It’s my view that the riots were the cause of what you call “white flight,”‘ Bousfield told me recently, though she was quick to add that that’s only her personal feeling…. She is certainly not alone in believing that the riots were at least partly responsible. There’s no doubt that there was a dramatic increase in white flight…during the early 70s.”

The 1971 school year opened with the bombing of ten Pontiac[, Michigan] school buses, followed by mass protests…. [White] antibusing activists…vandalized school buses, puncturing radiators with sharpened broomsticks, breaking windows with stones and bricks, and forcing the district to create a high-security parking lot, complete with a bulletproof watchtower. Sweet Land of Liberty, Thomas Sugrue

This is something like a Big Bang theory of urban violence. There were always problems in American cities, the theory says. There were pressures. The seeds of disaster. But the riots of the 1960s, when black people looted and burned entire neighborhoods – their own, but no one at the time could be sure they would stay there – was the catalytic event that actually delivered chaos and unchecked violence. It was the moment when ghettoes like Detroit, or the West Side of Chicago, were born. The things I couldn’t explain from the other side of my train window – those are the “scars” (as the preferred metaphor goes) of the riots.

Monroe Anderson [Tribune reporter] It was almost a riot. When Harold [Washington] showed up and the press entourage showed up, there was this angry– people were approaching the car. People were out of control. I thought that we were in physical danger. And then we get to the church, and somebody spray-painted, on the church, graffiti that said, “Die, nigger, die.”

Ira Glass On a Catholic church?

Monroe Anderson Yes.

This American Life, Harold, describing events at a campaign stop by Chicago’s first black mayor, in 1983.

To get to the point, this is a theory that is tenable only because we have decided to eliminate all other forms of racialized violence from our collective history. When we talk about “the riots,” context is unnecessary: it is understood that we are talking about blacks, in the 1960s (or, maybe, the early 90s in LA), burning and looting the neighborhoods where they lived. As a result, we don’t even have a word for the things that we don’t talk about. We don’t have a word to talk about white mobs burning buildings in Northern cities, or beating or killing innocent people, who wanted to move into their neighborhoods. We don’t really have a word for this:

Estimates of the Englewood crowds varied from several hundred at the riot’s inception to as many as 10,000 at its peak. “Strangers” who entered the area to observe the white protestors and innocent passers-by…were brutally beaten.

Or this:

A crowd of 2,000 descended upon the two-flat bought by Roscoe Johnson at 7153 S. St. Lawrence…. They started throwing gasoline-soaked rags stuck in pop bottles. They also threw flares and torches.

Or this:

In Calumet Park, as dusk fell on the scene that saw whites attacking cars occupied by blacks, white handkerchiefs appeared on the antennas of cars driven by whites so that, in the diminishing visibility, the rioters would suffer no problems in selecting their targets.

Or this:

A mob of 2,000 to 5,000 angry whites assaulted a large apartment building that housed a single black family in one of its twenty units. The burning and looting of the building’s contents lated several nights until order was finally restored by the presence of some 450 National Guardsmen and 200 Cicero and Cook County sheriff’s police.

Or this:

When a black family moved to suburban Columbus in 1956, whites greeted them with a burning cross and cut telephone wires.

Or this:

From May 1944 through July 1946, forty-six…residences were assaulted [in Chicago] (nine were attacked twice and one home was targeted on five separate occasions)…. Beginning in January 1945 there was at least one attack every month…, and twenty-nine of the of the onslaughts were arson-bombings. At least three persons were killed in the incidents.

But they all happened, and they deserve to exist, at least, in our collective memory.

And more than that, the white riots – the 48-hour flash-bang ones, and the slow-burn, once-a-month terrorist bombings – deserve to have as prominent a place in the narrative of northern urban decline as the black riots currently enjoy. Not to make white people wallow in guilt, or even to “blame” them (although those who participated, many of whom are still alive, probably should feel pretty bad about it, if they don’t already), but because any discussion of “what went wrong” that doesn’t mention white violence is just woefully incomplete, and yet that is pretty much the only discussion that we have. It’s like analyzing the causes of World War Two without having heard of the Treaty of Versailles.

And it’s why I, and so many other people, are so confused when they see a ghetto for the first time. Without this context – without the knowledge that the advent of black people to previously all-white urban neighborhoods caused a total breakdown of public safety pretty much immediately as a result of these white mobs – none of it makes sense. So we have to invent a narrative to explain it, and we tell stories about how black people burned down their own homes and businesses, and maybe, depending on our politics, about a “culture of poverty” or “welfare dependence.”

We also, of course, tell a story about economic devastation wrought by de-industrialization, automation, and offshoring jobs. But we never explain why black neighborhoods seem to be overwhelmingly the ones that are decimated, while the white ghetto, as a northern urban phenomenon, is practically unknown. True story: cross-racial comparisons of social indicators like teen pregnancy and street crime that control for neighborhood poverty are impossible in most large American cities, because there are no white neighborhoods as poor as the black ghettoes.

But if whites were so freaked out by the arrival of black people that they bombed their houses and even the buses that their children went to school on, maybe it makes sense that they (consumers and bankers) also pulled every dollar out of the commercial life of their neighborhoods when they decided they had lost the battle against their black neighbors. Maybe it makes sense that these places became as shunned and isolated as they did.

With this context, the black riot-Big Bang theory of urban violence becomes absurd. In the 1950s – years before Watts, or Detroit, or the King riots – Philadelphia lost a quarter of a million whites. Chicago lost 400,000. Detroit lost 350,000. The scale of the abandonment, as with the anti-black violence, was massive from very, very early on.

The web of political and economic and social causes that brought about that abandonment is, of course, extremely complex. I am not suggesting here that white violence was the only, or even overriding, cause. I am suggesting, however, that a conversation about urban decline without it is impossible, both because it was important in its own right and because it illuminates so many of the other causes.

As I said previously, this is emphatically not about white guilt; it’s about getting the story right both for its own sake, and for the sake of getting the remedies right. I’ll take up the remedy side at a later date.

* I vacillated here between using “a” and “the”; obviously, poor, segregated neighborhoods are tremendously diverse in a large and diverse country, and I don’t wish to portray them as homogenous. On the other hand, especially for the purposes of this post, I wanted to talk about the ghetto as an institution, which exists with certain important commonalities in almost every city in the U.S. So “the” it is.

** Of course, originally the word “ghetto” meant exactly that: an entirely segregated neighborhood of an ethnic minority. But in the American context, it has such distinct economic and social connotations that it’s obviously unfit to describe place like Chatham, even if it’s almost entirely black. This, for example, is not what Americans mean by a ghetto:

CHATHAM-Splash

*** These rhetorical questions are meant to be from the perspective of someone who isn’t familiar with the relevant histories of these places, which I think covers most people. But obviously if you grew up in one of them, you are not shocked to find that there is desperate poverty there.

The End of One Thing or Another

Based on the interviews and excerpts I’ve read, the title of Leigh Gallagher’s new book seems to be one of those cases of publishers thinking a book isn’t catchy enough unless the cover oversells its thesis:

Whatever things look like in ten years—or twenty, or fifty, or more—there’s one thing everyone agrees on: there will be more options. The government in the past created one American Dream at the expense of almost all others: the dream of a house, a lawn, a picket fence, two or more children, and a car. But there is no single American Dream anymore; there are multiple American Dreams, and multiple American Dreamers. The good news is that the entrepreneurs, academics, planners, home builders and thinkers who plan and build the places we live in are hard at work trying to find space for all of them.

In other words, the suburbs aren’t “ending”; they’re just becoming less hegemonically desirable. Even the most aggressive line in her Washington Post interview (“Yes, absolutely [there will be some winning suburbs]. But it’s the end of a certain kind of suburb. I stand by that.”) really just suggests that the growth of non-walkable exurban areas may stall out, and they may become inhabited by people of modest economic means. (As opposed to, you know, actually ending, i.e., ceasing to exist.) But “The Slow, Relative Physical And Economic Decline of Many Recently-Built Exurban Areas” isn’t a catchy title. I get that.

Still, I think this points to a major problem with the communication of urbanist ideas to the general public, viz. the “urban”/”suburb” terminology. As has been pointed out by people like Alex Block, the words obscure more than they clarify, mostly because they refer both to political entities and styles of development. You can have unwalkable development within a central city (most of, say, Dallas), and walkable development in a suburb (say, Cambridge, MA). When Gallagher says “the suburbs,” she means unwalkable development. When Thomas Sugrue writes about the effects of white flight to the suburbs on the financial viability of Detroit, he’s talking about political boundaries. Different things. They need different words. (I, for example, have decided to use “walkable” and “unwalkable” here to describe the different styles of development. “Sprawl” is also common, but that’s more subjective and, I feel, inherently judgmental, whereas “unwalkable” is a simple description, even if it’s obviously on a sliding scale.)

Conversely, people like Joel Kotkin use the same terminological ambiguity to score points by describing absolute population growth in suburbs and core cities, downplaying or leaving out entirely the distinction between walkable and unwalkable suburbs. Or, for example, in his recent Forbes article (delightfully entitled “How Can We Be So Dense?”*) he points out that polls show about 80% of Americans would prefer a single family home over living in an apartment or condo. He leaves out that 60% of Americans would rather have a smaller single family home in exchange for being able to walk to local businesses and friends’ homes.

A cousin of the terminology problem – one that’s encouraged, I think, by the night-and-day implications of the fictional urban/suburban divide – is the idea that one either has to live in exurbs or a very dense, East Coast-style city. Which is of course fraught not only with all sorts of implications about lifestyle changes you would have to make in order to live in a big apartment building in a huge city, and inconveniences you would have to accept, but also with a kind of elitism and snobbery, since those things are associated with big, wealthy, liberal bastions like Boston and New York and DC and San Francisco and (to a lesser extent) Chicago.

In fact, in her Washington Post interview, Gallagher’s questioner asks:

This is a conversation between somebody who lives in a very nice portion of Manhattan and a person who lives in a pretty nice part of the District. Is it possible that the rest of the country likes driving around in cars and living in houses that are not that expensive?

Which rests on the assumption that A) walkable areas cannot also be driveable, B) dense neighborhoods have to be more expensive, like New York and DC, and C) an American who enjoys living in dense cities is probably a little odd, which, despite being on the surface a self-deprecating thing for a DCer or Manhattanite to say, is also an idea that is frequently expressed by such people and which I tend to believe is actually a form of self-congratulation and, indeed, elitism, and which in fact suggests that the very terminology problem I’ve been discussing is partially fed by the ego of urbanites who would like to consider themselves an enlightened minority, but which beyond that is probably beyond the scope of this post.

So let’s stick with A) and B).

A) is belied by evidence to the contrary from most outlying neighborhoods developed between, say, 1900 and 1940. QED.

B) is more complicated, since dense areas in the U.S. do tend to be more expensive, but suffice it to say that very few people I am aware of who study the economics of urban housing believe that density is inherently more expensive per unit. In fact, it’s usually cheaper, since you’re using less land and building smaller living spaces. This is why, for example, Houston is estimating the average cost of a new home will fall from $400,000 to around $300,000 with the doubling of density caps in its Inner Loop.

To the extent that dense central cities are more expensive, it’s usually because they’re not dense enough, or at least not dense enough to have enough supply to meet demand. This is well-worn territory represented by various smart people with a range of ideologies, like Ed Glaeser, Ryan Avent, Paul Krugman and Matt Yglesias. A large part of the solution to the problem of urban housing affordability, then, is in lifting government restrictions on supply and allowing the market to actually build more places for people to live, where they want to live.

Finally, the problems of terminology and either-or-ism also associate walkable areas with non-elite issues, such as child-unfriendliness. This is, in fact, Kotkin’s third and final attack on walkability in his Forbes article. But, as discussed previously, cities are mostly considered child-unfriendly because of bad schools and crime, and neither of those are inherent to a particular style of development.

EDIT: Plus it occurs to me that the urbanist focus on the walkable-unwalkable meaning of “urban” and “suburban,” which is important enough, obscures the fact that the political divide between urban and suburban municipalities (and, indeed, between wealthy and less-wealthy suburbs) is a terrible miscarriage of justice.

We’ve Talked About Homicide In Chicago At Least One Million Times But I Don’t Think This Has Come Up

Here are two maps:

HOMICIDE RATE BY POLICE DISTRICT

1990-1993                                       2008-2011

Hom90 hom20
        RateLegend

Like the captions say, the one on the left shows homicide rates by police district in the early 90s, when crime was at its peak in Chicago, and the one on the right shows the same thing, but about two decades later.* The areas in dark green are the safest; the ones in dark pink are the most dangerous. The colors are calibrated so that green areas are safer than average for the early 90s, and pink ones are more dangerous than average for the early 90s. The 2008-2011 map keeps the same calibration: green is safe compared to the early 90s, so that you can see change in the levels of violence over time.

And, indeed, the first thing that jumps out from these maps is that there’s way more green nowadays, and it tends to be darker. The city is way safer! Some areas we might consider a bit dicey today – like, say, the Lawndale/Little Village area – actually register as light green, meaning that by early 90s standards, they would be considered relatively safe.

[For those of you craving numbers, the murder rate averaged 30 per 100k during the first period, and 17 per 100k during the second, a decline of nearly 50%.]

Of course, the other thing we notice is that there are some very distinct patterns to safety. These maps are breaking exactly no news by indicating that the more dangerous parts of the city are on the West and South Sides, but it is striking, I think, to see that nowadays, basically the entire North Side is the darkest green, which translates to a homicide rate of less than 6 per 100k. In fact, the  dark-green part of the city has a murder rate of 3.3 per 100k.

Three point three. In New York City, which is constantly (and mostly correctly) being held up as proof that urban safety miracles can happen in America, it’s 6.3. Toronto, which as far as North American big cities go occupies a fairy tale land where no one hurts anybody, had a homicide rate of 3.3 per 100k as recently as 2007. The North Side is unbelievably safe, at least as far as murder goes.

But there are none of the darkest green on the West or South Sides. There’s actually a fair amount of pink, meaning places that are relatively dangerous even by the terrifying standards of the early 90s.

This raises a question: Has the great Crime Decline benefited the whole city equally? Are the South and West Sides still relatively dangerous because they started from such a bad place, or because they haven’t seen nearly as much of a decline as the North Side has?

Here is the answer in another map:

CHANGE IN HOMICIDE RATE, EARLY 90s – LATE 2000s

Murderchange

DeclineLegend

The areas in darkest green saw the greatest decline; red means the murder rate actually increased.

So: Yes, the great Crime Decline is a fickle thing. The North Side saw huge decreases (in Rogers Park, it was over 80%) pretty much everywhere; the few areas that are lighter green were the safest in the city to begin with. The parts of the South and West Sides closest to downtown – Bronzeville, the West Loop, Pilsen, etc. – got a lot safer. But most of the rest actually got worse, including some neighborhoods that were already among the most dangerous in the city, like Englewood and Garfield Park.

This is a complicated state of affairs, and probably goes at least part of the way to explaining why, in the face of a 50% decrease in homicides citywide over the last two decades, many people persist in believing that the opposite is true: because in their neighborhoods, it is. It’s a dynamic that defies an easy narrative, and makes me slightly less angry (though only slightly) at all those journalists who have written in the last year or two about murder in Chicago without mentioning that the city is, in fact, safer on the whole than it has been in fifty years.

Here is one final pair of maps:

RATIO OF POLICE DISTRICT HOMICIDE RATE TO CITY AVERAGE

1990-1993                                       2008-2011

Homicideratios90shomicideratio2

RatioLegend

This is slightly less intuitive. These maps show the how the homicide rate in any given police district compares to the citywide average, using ratios; for example, if the homicide rate in West Town is 10 per 100k, and citywide it’s 5 per 100k, West Town’s ratio is 2 to 1. If West Town were 2.5 per 100k, its ratio would be 0.5 to 1. (Obviously the numbers in these examples are made up.) Blue areas have ratios below 1, and so are relatively safe; red ones above 1, and are relatively dangerous.

With the help of these maps, I’m going to ignore what I said about all this defying an easy narrative, and try to supply one: Over the last twenty years, at the same time as overall crime has declined, the inequality of violence in Chicago has skyrocketed. The pattern of what’s blue and what’s red in each map is mostly the same; I count only three out of twenty-five districts that switched from one color to another. But the colors are much darker in the 2000s than they were in the 1990s. There have always been safer and more dangerous areas here, as there are everywhere; but the gap between them is way, way bigger now than it used to be.

Numbers will help this case. Imagine that for each of these two time periods, we cut the city into equal thirds: one contains the most dangerous neighborhoods; another, the safest; and the last, everything else. In the early 90s, the most dangerous third of the city had about six times as many murders as the safest third. By the late 2000s, the most dangerous part of the city had nearly fifteen times more homicides than the safest third.

In addition, here are two charts:

HomRatio90

Homratio20

The divergence is self-evident. The early 90s look very roughly like a normal curve: most neighborhoods are in the middle, and there’s a clear, if slightly bumpy, slope down towards the extremes.

Today, any semblance of a normal curve has been annihilated. Or, actually, that’s not quite right. Now it looks like there might be two completely separate normal curves, one with a peak at 0.2-0.4, and the other peaking at 3.1-4. Plus a few guys who got lost in the middle.

I suppose there are many, many things that one might say about what this means, but here’s the bottom line: The disadvantages and tragedies that people in “dangerous” neighborhoods experience are both absolute and relative. The death of an innocent person** is an indescribable loss no matter what. And, on that count, things are somewhat better for Chicago’s most violent areas: the homicide rate for the most dangerous third of the city declined from 51 to 39 per 100k in the time period we’ve looked at here. That is a real accomplishment, and hundreds, if not thousands, of people are still with their families and friends because of it.

But in other ways, it does matter if other parts of the city are getting safer much, much faster. When people weigh safety in their decisions about where to live, they do so by comparing: How much safety am I gaining by living in one neighborhood versus another? The same is true of entrepreneurs considering where to open their next business. The same is true of tourists looking to explore the city. The same is true of locals looking to travel to another neighborhood to eat out or go shopping.

On every one of those counts, the disadvantages that are accruing to already-disadvantaged neighborhoods in terms of lost population, investment, and connections to the rest of the city are now much more severe. The hurdles are that much higher.

That’s bad for those physical neighborhoods. It’s also terrible for the people who have good reasons to live there, like social networks, nearby family, or the affordability of real estate.

Because I don’t have the data in front of me, but who would doubt that over these same twenty years, there has also been a growing gap between how much it costs to live on the safe North Side compared to the more dangerous parts of the South and West Sides? Who would doubt that, as the North Side reaches Toronto-level peacefulness, the cost of rent has greatly diminished the number of apartments there affordable to the poor and working class?

In other words, just as the stakes have been tripled as to whether you live in Relatively Safe Chicago or Relatively Dangerous Chicago, it has become much, much harder to establish yourself on the winning side.

So: Next time you hear someone talking about “record violence” in the city, tell them that actually, murders are down almost 50% from twenty years ago. And then tell them that what’s really alarming is murder inequality.

* Why does this data end in 2011? Because I made these maps using data from the Chicago Police Department annual reports, which are available online, and which only broke down crimes by police district in the 1990s. In 2012, the police district boundaries changed, making it not quite an apples-to-apples comparison to prior years. Maybe somewhere data exists by Community Area for the early 90s, and then I could redo all of this.

** And I think reporting like that done by This American Life at Harper High in Englewood ought to challenge conventional middle-class ideas about “innocence” in the ghetto. It is very easy for those who don’t live in the neighborhood to talk about “thugs” and “gangsters” getting what they deserve. It is also very cruel, and very naive about what exactly “gangs” are, and what kind of people join one, and how, and why.

Inversion v. Migration

I just finished reading Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion, about the mass gentrification of American inner cities over the last generation or so. It’s got a lot of interesting tidbits, including – as an aside – an incredible pessimism about Philadelphia that I would love to be able to examine with either someone who knows the city better than I do, or a visit there myself, or better yet both. 

As far as Contributions to the Discipline go, my favorite is probably how the book navigates in an elegant and eminently sensible way past the dumb Atlantic Cities v. New Geography debate over whether cities or suburbs are “winning the future.” Ehrenhalt concedes that there is no “mass migration” towards the city center – that, for the moment at least, the balance of population in pretty much every metropolitan area continues to move farther and farther from traditional downtowns. But he points out that there is, undeniably, a “demographic inversion”: the professional classes are moving to inner city neighborhoods that, 30 years ago, were either slums or totally uninhabited, and suburbs are seeing faster growth in traditionally “urban” populations of immigrants and low-income people. Neither of these points is exactly breaking news, but it’s still refreshing to see it laid out with a clarity that the partisans on both sides tend to muddle.

But I finished the book wondering whether “inversions” and “migrations” are, in fact, as independent of each other as Ehrenhalt implies. Think about the many-decade-long period when overall population and wealth were both headed in the same direction, i.e., to the suburbs. There were many reasons to want to move out of the city in, say, 1960: preferential mortgage treatments, more space, less crime, better schools. (Also, if you were white, fewer black people. Not a good reason to want to move, but an influential one.) By the 1970s and 80s, as commercial and office functions started decentralizing wildly, you could add convenience to shopping and work to that list as well. And, of course, the suburbs had cache: that’s where you went if you were a successful, mainstream adult, especially with a family.

But look at that list: with the exception of space, none of suburbia’s benefits are inherent to a particular style of development or geographic location. Suburbs had better schools, safer streets, and better access to retail and jobs because that’s where the middle and professional classes lived. As the Great Inversion proceeds, those class-based amenities are going to shift to a greater and greater extent to central cities. In many cases, it’s already happened: the North Side of Chicago and Manhattan, two of the most intensely urban areas in the country, aren’t too far from Toronto-level crime levels. For the first time in history, San Jose is recording more homicides than San Francisco. Companies who want to attract young workers are moving their offices back downtown. Retailers and restaurateurs are moving to gentrifying neighborhoods. Elementary schools in Chicago, New York and elsewhere are being colonized – there really is no other word – by middle-class families, whose children are bringing up test scores dramatically.* Since pretty much no one sees the tide of inner-city gentrification turning back, these trends are only going to become more and more pronounced.

All of which changes the math for a generic American household – one that, like the vast majority of households, is unswayed by romantic notions of “urban authenticity,” or “hipness,” or whatever – considerably. If the prosaic quality-of-life measures by which most people decide where to live are a wash between any number of suburbs and the central city, and maybe even tilted towards the city in some places, you would expect to see many, many more people begin choosing to live in the city.

In other words, it seems like the logic of demographic inversion leads, eventually, to mass migration, as the broader part of the population chases the amenities that the wealthy have accumulated in their corner of the metropolis.

I can think of two obvious roadblocks to this process: space and housing costs.

As to space: There will, of course, be a good number of people who prefer a larger house to a smaller condo, who want their kids to have a yard, and for whom, as a result, living in the country’s densest neighborhoods is out of the question. But even on this count, the suburban advantage is much less pronounced than one might think. The vast majority of American cities have plenty of single-family-home neighborhoods in close proximity to downtown. Most American inner cities never looked like Manhattan, or even Brooklyn. Space may have been an issue, but it wasn’t like middle-class people in mid-century Kansas City or Cleveland or Dallas were fleeing airless tenements. The issue was crime; it was schools; it was economic and racial status.

Housing costs seem to me like a much more serious problem. Unlike low-density suburbs, where even within a “favored quarter” there can be plenty of room to continue building housing supply within reasonable driving distance of existing malls and job centers, American central cities tend not to have an enormous amount of easily-buildable vacant land, and also tend to have ferocious controls on densification of existing neighborhoods. In other words, once a neighborhood becomes desirable, demand can very quickly outpace supply and make it unaffordable to a large range of people. Now we’re in Ryan Avent’s “Gated City” territory, where the spoils of America’s mass affluence are hoarded by those who can afford to live in the wealthy central city, and everyone else has to contend with inferior schools, retail choices, and higher crime.

So even in the event of mass demand for living in central cities, it’s not clear that American cities are prepared to construct the housing necessary to accommodate a major increase in inner-city populations, and, as a byproduct, make living in the inner city affordable to a broad swath of Americans. We’re certainly a long way from facing that problem in most neighborhoods in most cities. But people who would cheer a mass migration back from the suburbs for reasons economic, environmental, social, whatever, should be looking to the places where it already exists – New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco – and trying to figure out how to fix it.

* This reminds me of something an urban planner friend told me recently. The common belief that the middle class won’t return to cities until the schools improve, he said, gets it exactly backwards. The schools will be the last part of the neighborhood to improve. The middle class will move in, tempted by proximity to jobs, shopping and restaurants; many won’t want to give those things up after they have children; and so, sooner or later, a critical mass of them will send their children to public schools, whereupon the schools will become “better.” We forget, he pointed out, that despite all the talk about teacher quality, charter schools, and new curricula, by far the greatest influence on a school’s test scores is the economic profile of its students. Urban schools are now “bad” because they are overwhelmingly made up of poor students. They will stop being “bad” when that is no longer the case.

Murder and the media

The title of this post suggests a more comprehensive look at the issue than I’m planning. Eventually, maybe.

Instead, for right now I’ll just grumble slightly about this post from Carol Felsenthal at Chicago Magazine. (With the stipulation that, generally, Felsenthal does interesting things when she drops by once every two months to write a blog post.)

Basically, Felsenthal says that we shouldn’t be happy that Chicago’s murder rate declined 40% over the first four months of the year from 2012 (and 7% from 2011, a more “normal” baseline), because a bunch of people got shot on Tuesday night. Which – sure, of course, that’s true, I guess, as far as it goes. And yet the fact that a lot of people got shot Tuesday night, and the fact that violence continues to be a huge problem, does not really address the fact that, were this year like last year, more people would have been shot. And fewer people shot is good.

It’s a fine line, of course, that one must walk – how to be genuinely cheered by progress when there is clearly so far to go. (And when the relatively innocuous words “so far to go” mean, more concretely, a tremendous amount of human tragedy and suffering.) But if we don’t cheer progress, how are we supposed to carry on? How do we know when we’re winning? The cynical refusal to celebrate the lives we haven’t lost because the murder rate has declined is a rejection of the value of those lives, it seems to me, just as much as apathy towards the entire situation. And if that seems like a macabre way of thinking – well, maybe it is. But we live in a sometimes macabre world.

Also, her final line – “The number [of non-fatal shootings] might shock Chicagoans into doing something—anything—to strangle the hold that street gangs have on our city and its future.” – irks me because it repeats a common idea that makes absolutely no sense, which is that somehow Chicago hasn’t been able to deal with its murder problem because Chicagoans just don’t want to enough. Otherwise, we would do “something”! Of course, Felsenthal doesn’t say what that magical something might be. That’s because she doesn’t know.

In most neighborhoods in Chicago that deal with serious violence problems, you don’t have to walk very far – often less than a block – before you see evidence that, in fact, the people of that community have been doing “something” to reduce crime. You see CeaseFire signs in a living room window and posters advertising marches against violence or after-school programs for teens in churches and libraries.

The people who are affected by this violence aren’t passive. They are, in fact, doing “something,” and almost certainly if they weren’t the problem would be worse. But there is no magic solution that would eliminate homicides, but which they – we – have not tried because we don’t care enough.