Following the demolition of inner city public housing projects, the murder rate has dropped in the now-gentrifying downtowns, only to soar in previously peaceful suburbs. In the new July / August 2008 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, a long article by Hanna Rosin (email her), "American Murder Mystery" (not yet online) explains why.
You can probably guess the reason. Yet, needless to say, The Experts never saw it coming. Rosin writes:
"Lately, though, a new and unexpected pattern has emerged, taking criminologists by surprise."
Her article resolves a long public debate over the causes of crime between, on one side, the academic establishment, the Main Stream Media, libertarians, moderates, and liberals—in other words, basically, all respectable members of polite society—versus the limited number of realists who will say out loud that they believe their own lying eyes.
The winners: us realists.
One of the most popular excuses on the center-right for the high black homicide rate (seven times the white rate, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics) is that it's really the fault of the government for putting up housing projects in inner cities back in the post-WWII era.
Everybody now agrees now that piling up poor people in soulless modernist architecture was bad social engineering. Accordingly, ever since Bill Clinton signed in 1998 the $6.3 billion "Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere VI" (HOPE VI) bill, federal policy has been to fix all that through good social engineering.
Namely: Knock down the projects and give their residents Section 8 rent subsidy vouchers so that they will disperse into the suburbs. There they will, of course, through what Tamar Jacoby (who else?) in National Review (where else?) called "the great, slow, mysterious absorptive alchemy of assimilation," turn middle class, just like their white neighbors.
Just believe in the magic of the market, baby!
A few killjoys, though, have quietly suggested an alternative theory: while federal housing projects were a bad idea, their worst problem was neither their architecture nor their policies, but their residents.
After all, the Los Angeles area never had high-rise housing projects, and not even that many low-rise projects. Nonetheless, LA was home to the two most feared and emulated black gangs, the Bloods and the Crips. And LA was the site of two of the three most murderous race riots of the second half of the 20th Century. Indeed, in the Florence and Normandie neighborhood, where the 1992 South Central riot broke out, five out of every eight residences is owner-occupied, a higher-than-average rate for LA—typically a small but pleasant single-family home.
Moreover, when I moved from LA to Chicago in 1982, I paid a lot to rent an apartment in a post-WWII Le Corbusier-style high-rise in a neighborhood that was physically very similar to Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project. (Cabrini-Green was the most notorious project in the country because it squatted on potentially invaluable real estate just a 20-minute walk from the Loop). Yet, despite the equally soulless modernist architecture of my 24-story building, remarkably few of my fellow tenants shot each other.
One summer day in 1983, I noticed on the map that Clybourn Avenue, running diagonally through Cabrini-Green, provided a shortcut to my job downtown. Why hadn't any Chicago native, I wondered, bothered to tell me to zip down Clybourn to work?
Unfortunately, when I reached Cabrini-Green, my short cut turned out to be impassable, due to a crowd milling about in the street watching an automobile burn.
In 1988, my wife and I were looking at cheap condos available for rehabbing a few blocks from Cabrini-Green. Another yuppie we met on North Avenue, who had recently invested in the neighborhood, explained that we would make a fortune buying there because the land on which Cabrini Green sits was so valuable that developers would no doubt bribe the politicians into knocking it down, making the property values of the surrounding neighborhoods boom once all the Cabrini-Greeners were gone.
"But which of the other 49 aldermen is going to agree to take 13,000 Cabrini-Green residents into his district? Would you want them?" I asked. (Chicago aldermen have something approaching veto power over developments in their districts, which is why, despite being so multitudinous, they are so famous.)
"Isn't clearing out Cabrini-Green going to require many years? Will this really be a safe place to raise a family in the near term?"
So my wife and I decided that—as promising as the neighborhood's long run looked—in the short run, to misquote John Maynard Keynes, we could be all dead.
And, indeed, demolition didn't begin until seven years later. Even today, after two decades, 2,000 Cabrini-Greeners are still there.
So we were right in the short term. But our fellow gentrifier will be right in the long term (assuming he didn't get hit by a stray bullet before the long run arrived).
Rosin takes 12 pages in the Atlantic Monthly to demonstrate that the fundamental problem with public housing projects was that they were full of public housing project residents. And, when the government finally blows up a housing project, the ex-residents just take their felonious folkways elsewhere.
Shocking! Who could have imagined such a thing?
Rosin focuses on the research of two University of Memphis social scientists, Richard Janikowski and Phyllis G. Betts. They recently discovered, to their horror, that the much-lauded policy of giving "Section 8" rent subsidy vouchers to the residents of Memphis's inner city housing projects that have been getting knocked down since 1997 didn't reduce area crime overall. In fact, crime may well have increased. Rather than concentrating the criminal element in a few notorious locales, now a large number of neighborhoods have been pushed past the tipping point where the police lose control.
Rosin offers the usual MainStream Media sneer at ordinary folks who don't want their loved ones maimed by criminals:
"They know that their research will fuel the usual NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard] paranoia about poor people destroying the suburbs."
But Rosin shows at great length that it's not "paranoia" at all—poor people really do destroy suburbs. The tearing-down of Memphis's inner city projects, while making Memphis's historic downtown more fashionable for young white professionals, has launched a crime wave in the inner suburbs. As Laura Evans, who herself moved from a Memphis project to what had been a pleasant apartment complex in a suburb only to have her car stolen, points out:
"You know, you move from one place to another and you bring the element with you."
Janikowski and Betts's map of violent incidents in the Memphis area correlates closely with where Section 8 beneficiaries live:
"… the match was near-perfect. On the merged map, dense violent-crime areas are shaded dark blue, and Section 8 addresses are represented by little red dots. All of the dark-blue areas are covered in little red dots, like bursts of gunfire. The rest of the city has almost no dots. … they were amazed—and deflated—to see how perfectly the two data sets fit together."
The same thing is happening elsewhere. Rosin observes:
"If replacing housing projects with vouchers had achieved its main goal—infusing the poor with middle class habits—then higher crime rates might be a price worth paying. But, today, social scientists looking back on the whole grand experiment are apt to use words like baffling and disappointing."
Oh yeah? Of course, there is a simpler, more powerful explanatory model: privately, everybody except the most naïve academics understands that the black underclass is not composed of victims of circumstances who are sure to get their act together as soon as we spend some more tax dollars on them. Instead, everybody rightly sees the black underclass as a giant hot potato. So politically powerful interests, such as real estate developers and environmentalist homeowners' lobbies, are constantly trying to palm that hot potato off on somebody else.
For example, what's happened within the Memphis metropolitan areas has also occurred on a larger scale between today's winner cities, such as New York and Washington D.C., and nearby loser cities, such as Newark and Baltimore. As Rosin points out:
"New York, where the rate of violent crime has plummeted, appears to have pushed many of its poor out to New Jersey, where violent crime has increased in nearby cities and suburbs. Washington, D.C. has exported some of its crime to surrounding counties in Maryland and Virginia."
As native-born African Americans get economically cleansed from Washington by rising costs, the white population of D.C. has grown from 28 percent to 33 percent in this decade. Similarly, the American-born black population of New York City has been dropping since way back in 1979, lowering crime and setting off a baby boom among rich whites in Manhattan.
We are undergoing the Paris-ification of America. The snobbish French always thought Americans were nuts to let Washington, the capital of the country, and New York, the capital of the world, turn into hellholes. Why build public housing projects in the middle of your great cities for riff-raff? The French elite, no fools, kept beautiful Paris for themselves. They warehoused their African immigrants out in the bleak suburbs, where every night is Car-B-Que night.
My theory: much of this relentless churning-about of the American population is intentionally driven by public policy. That's because population change benefits developers, who are politicians' close personal friends—such as Barack Obama's mentor Tony Rezko, who was convicted last Wednesday of 16 counts of corruption.
Unless a rising politician can parachute straight into the Presidency, as Dwight Eisenhower did, he is going to have to deal with developers as he climbs the local and state political ladder. Heck, even Arnold Schwarzenegger, who transitioned from being a movie star to being governor of California, was mostly interested in the job because he is a developer himself. (Back in 1980, a friend of mine lived in an LA apartment building owned by Mr. Universe.)
Sure, naïve academics may be surprised when homeowners flee the black underclass or Hispanic illegal immigrants. But developers, real estate brokers, mortgage brokers and the rest of the Real Estate Industrial complex aren't blinded by political correctness.
They can see what's coming. And they like what they see.
Hence, a major reason for much of what politicians do (and don't do, such as not enforcing the borders) is to roil the population, encourage people to move, in order to give their real estate industry campaign contributors more business.
Here's how politicians think:
Sure, all this construction will waste a fortune that could have been spent competing with the Chinese.
And all this moving about will disrupt lives and friendships nurtured over decades.
But the campaign contributors will be in heaven!