Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Crime Is In Not Facing Facts And Acting On Them

Memphis has always been a tale of two cities – black and white, wealth and need, downtown and Boxtown, golf scores and body counts.

That last pairing comes from two disparate, and ultimately disturbing, reports this week.

The first appeared in an online post by a PGA Tour writer who described Memphis as a magical place and one of only a few cities that can boast of such a defined identity.

The Plague

The second appeared in a 12-page spread in the July/August Atlantic magazine – called American Murder Mystery - that asks the damning question: “Why has Elvis’s hometown turned into America’s new South Bronx?” and then proceeds to use our city as the star of a report into why crime is rising in so many American cities.

Unfortunately, in the report, Memphis comes off like a city that is out of control – “as large as New York City, but with one-seventeenth as many police officers, and a much lower cop-to-citizen ratio.”

The magazine said that the story investigates “why crime has been plaguing so many mid-sized cities...a disturbing trend – one very few politicians will want to talk about.” After this article, it’s should at least be hard for our politicians to remain mute, even a city mayor who professed during last year’s campaign that a mayor can’t do anything to reduce crime.

The Diaspora

Building on the fact that Memphis is America’s most violent city, the article suggests that the diaspora of the Memphis poor to all parts of the city created a “bleak new landscape” for the city. The dispersal was fueled by the razing of public housing and the spread of Section 8 housing vouchers for former residents.

According to the writer Hanna Rosin, the seedbeds of crime were no longer located in a few places, and as a result, it spread like a virus all across Memphis, creating a serious spike in violence and lawlessness that grips the city.

Central to the article are University of Memphis researchers and married couple Richard Janikowski and Phyllis Betts, whose respective work in creating more data-driven crime prevention programs and in analyzing housing data pointed toward the cause for the widespread crime problem.


The voila moment occurred, according to the article, when Dr. Janikowski overlaid his map of Memphis crimes with Dr. Betts’ map of Section 8 rentals. Both progressive thinkers and with finely honed social consciousness, they were “deflated” to see how perfectly the maps matched.

Co-conspirator to the exporting of crime was Memphis’ impressive success with Hope VI grants. While ballyhooed by the news media, the federal grant funds only did more to feed the proliferation of crime, the article said. Unfortunately for the poor, the motivation for the Hope VI projects was more to attract young professionals to the new, attractive, gentrified places than to create a better environment for poor families.

In the end, only 5 per cent of former public housing residents moved back into new homes on the sites of their former public housing projects, locked out by stricter criteria for residents of the new developments. By 2005, the number of people displaced from public housing totaled more than 20,000, and as they moved from the inner city outward, many neighborhoods reached their crime tipping points, the author said, adding that the key determinant seemed to be whether public housing residents moved out on their own or where forced out.

The Cold Hard Facts

Of course, the warehousing of the poor clearly wasn’t working, and even more clearly, it wasn’t even compassionate or defensible, but the lack of coaching and support services as the poor was pushed out into the broader city only exacerbated the malignancy of their problems.

Hope for Memphis, as identified by Dr. Janikowski, will come in the form of information and technology, as reflected in better policing that is better connected to new residential patterns.

We’ve written often about the need for all of us in Memphis to face the cold hard facts and to abandon the search for simplistic answers to complicated problems. This Atlantic article certainly is cold water in our collective faces.

Improved Reality Leads To Improved Image

We’ve also written that while we need to improve our self-image, we first need to improve our reality. No amount of positive marketing can overcome the Atlantic coverage of the underbelly of our city, not because it exposes our worst aspects to a national audience, but because it only reminds us of what most of us already know.

Fortunately, the Memphis Police Department and Dr. Janikowski are working more as partners, producing breakthroughs like the real time crime center. Obviously, more innovations are needed, and at least in the wake of the opening of the new real time crime center, our mayor at least acknowledged his office’s role in fighting crime.

There’s always power in seeing ourselves as others do, and in the end, perhaps that is the greatest impact of the Atlantic article. It’s a wake-up call for bolder strategies and more entrepreneurial public policies.

The Mantra

After all, to repeat our mantra, our solutions must create more than incremental progress, because incremental progress keeps us in our same relative position among the 50 largest U.S. cities – in the bottom rungs in most measurements that matter. The greatest challenge to Memphis is not in developing good programs, but in developing transformative ones that leap frog Memphis over competitive rivals in a world economy defined by its relentless competitiveness.

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, and the Atlantic magazine article should be required reading for every city official – appointed and elected – because it gives valuable insight into a problem that plagues Memphis and undermines its opportunities to compete in the knowledge-based economy.

** The Atlantic article is not posted yet on the magazine’s website and when it is, it will also include “video clips on crime and poverty in Memphis."


gatesofmemphis said...

"our solutions must create more than incremental progress" -- then our solutions -- and our system of solutions -- must stop being incremental. The problem-solvers must become more than the Memphis daisy-chain. Memphis' top-down, corporatist incrementalism has not worked, and will work less even in the future.

How do we create more entrepeneurs and fewer CEOs and corporate spokesmen?

Michael said...

A must-read post, if you ask me.

Smart City Consulting said...


There is a new way being ushered in by technology and the Obama campaign proves the power of social networking to create change. We need to embrace and harnass the lessons and apply them to our city.

We also begin by setting the creation of a creative city as our top priority, and we do that by hundreds of grassroots-based initiatives - not the big projects that are always billed as the latest answer to all that ails us - that imbed creativity through our city while at the same time releasing it to have more impact and louder voice.

As we said a few weeks ago, our economic growth plans need to be aimed at innovation and entrepreneurship rather than just seeing the future as a projection of the present. We also need to bring more intellectual firepower to our civic problem-solving, rather than solutions from the same 250 people who decide most that gets done here.

Anonymous said...

The problem with crime is not monolithic. There are numerous causes, some of which are:

1. Fatherless kids in the hood.
2. Kids who can't read or write, yet graduating from high school.
3. Drugs
4. Gangs
5. A dysfunctional criminal "justice" community that is comprised of fiefdoms that do not work well together.
6. Crime sans punishment. - Over 100 people who have been arrested 100 times or more. Over 52,000 who have been arrested between 6 and 15 times.

Laws must be changed and judges held accountable for releasing miscreants back into the community. It is not our job to educate people who should have been educated the first time we paid for it. Our job is to change their behavior, whether by increasing the penalty for doing stupid stuff, or by ECT (Electro-Convulsive Shock Therapy).

The only problem we have is our legislators don't get it - yet. If the public ever gets upset enough, the legislators will do something. The danger in them doing something is they will probably offer an extremely expensive solution (ala Mark Luttrell) that is insanely expensive, will cost 20% more than they say, will not change the thugs behavior, and will steal millions from the taxpayers that could have been spent productively. I'm sure the sheriff's friends at CCA and other corporations would love this proposed boondoogle, but hopefully the remaining councilmen and commissioners aren't on crack.

Midtowner said...

"The voila moment occurred, according to the article, when Dr. Janikowski overlaid his map of Memphis crimes with Dr. Betts’ map of Section 8 rentals. Both progressive thinkers and with finely honed social consciousness, they were “deflated” to see how perfectly the maps matched. "

Well ... DUH!

I could easily see the effects of Section 8 housing in neighborhoods.

Anonymous said...

I've seen seminars for property owners on "how to take advantage of the section 8 program," one of which was conducted by the owner of a I used to live next door to. While all the other homes in the neighborhood seemed to be in a trend of improvement and renovation, his home remained ill-repaired and frequently occupied by people who apparently were working for him in exchange for rent.

I agree with the whole program in concept, but maybe someone needs to be more proactive on ensuring that rental property owners are more responsible and accountable especially to the neighborhoods they impact.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I'm comfortable with blaming crime on section 8 housing vouchers. It seems more like a chicken or the egg problem. Section 8 housing vouchers are given to people in low to moderate income areas. Crime isn't necessarily concentrated in low income areas, aside from violent crime, which is. What the real issue is is inequality. Take for example the area around Bruce elementary school. It is south of Union on the east side of 240. That is one of the worst crime areas of the city. I almost got car jacked there myself. To reach a sizeable concentration of Section 8 housing you have to head a mile south of the school. So why is crime so bad on Peabody, Vance, and Union? What about Idlewild school. Again, section 8 is a mile away, but crime is still through the roof around that school. (note the violent crime isn't as bad)
Inequality is driving crime. There is just as much correlation with median household income and crime as there is with Section 8 and crime. Educational attainment as well. Unless people really want to start talking about class and race issues (which dominate everything here), blaming section 8 isn't going to help. (Another thing that pisses me off, do you know how many section 8 properties are owned by people that live in Germantown, Collierville, etc. Plenty of slum lords are respectable, rich white folks living in the county and going to mega-church on Sunday. Fucking vultures picking at the carcass of the city.)

A final note, Memphis was featured on a nationally syndicated shock jock radio show last Thursday and Friday. Memphis came across as a fun but dangerous town like we always do. Of course it was frequently mentioned that the city has a disproportionate amount of slums (This coming from a radio show based in Cleveland.) I'm pretty sure more possible tourists heard that radio show than will read that Atlantic monthly article. First 48 has also done a tremendous amount of damage to the city's reputation. I have friends in college out of state. They say fellow non-Memphian students think Memphis is Beruit circa 1984 and have a strong negative opinion about the city.

Anonymous said...

Are we talking about a true increase in crime, or is the perception that crime is everywhere the result of the dispersal of a criminal element that used to be concentrated in and around public housing?

FBI released preliminary figures today that show a decline in violent crime and property crime for Memphis in 2007.

Anonymous said...

Low morality, low IQ and no values or work ethic are behind crime. Period.

Anonymous said...

Low morality and low IQ and no values. On the contrary, I think the values are much the same. Don't link IQ to achievement. If you drop out of school to work at McDonalds to help Mom pay the bills, want to achieve the same amounts of wealth as everyone else, then you take it when you can. Same values, different means of achieving the security/wealth for family. Frustration with a system designed to keep the poor where they are is also not helping.

Anonymous said...

Low IQ? You've just displayed it, anon 9:46.

Heather said...

First of all: Great article! The kind of discussion it has stimulated proves that many people care about Memphis and about these issues.

Here’s my response:

Section 8 housing may be a perfect match with crime areas, but this still does not mean that poverty is the root of crime. Crime occurs at every level of society. The potential for crime is always there. It happens when criminally-minded people find a place or situation where they think they can get away with it. Poor people live where no one else wants to, and these places tend to encourage crime not the other way around. The continued frustration of many poor people who cannot make any progress (partly because of the location in which they live) only intensifies the tendency toward crime.

If an area must be intensely policed in order to be safe, there is something fundamentally wrong with the area’s urban fabric. Section 8 housing is sometimes of a typology that creates unsafe dead places where people can commit crimes unmonitored. Such housing is also typically located in already undesirable areas (in the vicinity of abandoned lots, old decaying buildings, large anonymous highways and so on) where not much is happening. These gray areas in the city bore people if not actually repelling them. And they cannot attract new investment and improvement if they cannot attract people. What makes a location within a city desirable? One that is ‘alive’- particularly a location that provides a diversity of use that is mutually supporting. A 'dead' city area encourages crime because the social network and presence of many diverse city users during day and night is lacking.

“Networking” is a word constantly used and successfully practiced by the business world and in social circles. The same concept can be applied to the urban fabric. Networks obviously occur at many levels of society and are often becoming more and more virtual. But people who have connections that crisscross city, state, country and international lines are not limited to depending on their own neighborhood for these networking opportunities. The poor citizens of our city, however, have less access to these indirect connections. They need the physical network that a diverse (and densely populated) neighborhood provides to maximize opportunities for improvement and provide alternatives to crime.

While the problem is complex and stems from many sources, I believe that an intensive effort to combat suburban sprawl and deal with the current (and inevitable future) suburban ghettos by giving priority to higher-density, mixed-use, and mixed income-level development will go a long way toward fighting crime in Memphis.

Anonymous said...

"These gray areas in the city bore people if not actually repelling them."

OH, There's my 'voila!' moment!
If the cuz's weren't so bored they wouldn't be doin' the crime!

I know, let's throw em a UDC charette. Just bring a cooler of
40's and a turntable! smokin!!!

Heather said...

Re: anon 8:44
No, I think this was misunderstood.

I'm not talking about criminals being bored. I'm saying that grey, dead, boring areas are empty areas. Because no one wants to be there, they encorage crime because the environment communicates "nobody's going to see or care"

Anonymous said...

I have to admit, section 8 housing in once so called "prominent" areas are bringing down property values and increasing crime. It's not to say that people who received section 8 aren't good people. Also, I've seen whites and blacks in section 8 housing. So it's not an issue of race. The issue is the fact that most of these low income families who were displaced after moving from the grazed projects were not taught how to care for their property. they never had to mow the lawn, sweep the curb, etc living in the projects. There's a "it's not mine attitude" so they really aren't concerned. It's not the section 8, it's the illiteracy of maintaining and caring about your neighborhood.

Zippy the giver said...

The program itself is missing oversight in the "no thugs" catagory. Background checks for recalcitrant criminal behavior would yeild surprisingly bad results if a retroactive searches were done.
In my neighborhood we had a "known" section 8 house, the landlord was absentee and unreachable by the neighbors no contact on records. The tenants were always violent felons, crack dealers/users, protitutes, domestic violence was very common, the property was covered in litter and the tenants were always beligerant. There were other houses in the neighborhood with similar problems, after a search they were also section 8 houses, then we searched the entire neighborhood for houses and voila' all the crime occurred at or originated from section 8 houses, we tallied how much property damage was done, how much devaluation had occured and told the city we were preparing to sue to the tune of a few billion dollars.
It's also funny to note that all these problems occured in districts where the city council people, who are still in office, are conspicuously not doing anything to help. Local police were doing as little as possible to nothing about recalcitrant crimes with witnesses willing to testify, once the police came to respond to a call and the city council person stalled them till the perp could get away.

joeinmidtown said...

Local radio talk show host Ben Ferguson greets his callers with, "Glad you haven't been shot."
Crime is deeply rooted in Memphis' culture, and, while I applaud and support Smart City's vision for our city, our unchecked and seemingly insurmountable crime problem will not let that vision be realized. Those creatives will either move away or stay away.

Zippy the giver said...

Oh, I think I can use my creativity to find and impliment ways of eradicating it.
I took pictures of the blight (80 houses) and sent them to code enforcement, voila, now there is an effort "neighbor by neighbor",
I took pictures, over 150, of the gang thugs and placed them in houses and sent them to the Sheriff and Police, voila realtime crime and webcams,
I wrote letters to everyone who should know,
I posted all the crime data stats broken down by crime on our neighborhood webpage and emailed it to neighbors with pics of all open warrants, sex offenders, and drug houses voila "cyberwatch",
I got the neighbors to CALL THE POLICE.
When it was clear that local officers, and those directly higher up were involved in "not doin nuttin 'bout it" and hiding evidence, they got moved out.
When you keep the same officers, seargents, leiutenants, captains, inspectors, in the same area for years, they become too familiar with the recalcitrant criminals to be effective at abating crime, worse, they become partners first though favors to families, then, through tacit complicity, then through partnership. It evolves silently and invisibly.
They have to be rotated and the only way to do that is through constant training to ensure capability, a commonly recognized mission that calls officers to be the best they can be, and rigorous oversight. Taking the Job of Chief off the appointee list and putting it on the employee list keeps the chief from being beholding to any political agenda too, not that ours is.