How should we go about reducing gun violence? According to The New York Times, we need to adopt a ‘public health strategy’ based on lessons we learned in reducing fatalities from accidents involving cars. The approach favored by the less-compassionate crowd; i.e., Vladimir Trump and the NRA, is to ‘get tough’ on crime and lock all those ‘street thugs’ right up.
In fact, we seem to have a remarkable example of a successful drop in gun violence within New York City, where homicide numbers in 2017 might end up at the lowest level since the 1950’s, as well as representing nearly a 90% drop from the 2,245 homicides recorded in 1990, an all-time high. To give you another perspective on these numbers, this year the city of Baltimore may finish with more homicides than New York, even though Baltimore’s population is around 650,000, whereas more than 8.5 million call the Big Apple their home.
To explain what’s going on, the Times turned to our good friend Frank Zimring, whose book, The City That Became Safe, attempted to explain the decline through a combination of more effective, data-driven policing focused on specific high-crime ‘spots’ rather than the more generalized ‘quality of life’ policing tactics such as looking for ‘broken windows’ or stop-and-frisk. But Zimring’s book only went through 2010, and homicides have dropped nearly 50% since that time. What’s driving the decline now? It’s “utterly mysterious” says Zimring, who is hardly alone in not being able to figure it out.
With all due respect to the criminologists and social scientists who have looked at New York’s crime stats again and again, I’m going to throw out a little theory based on an element of the urban landscape in New York and other places which appears to be overlooked. It’s a phenomenon I call ‘re-urbanization;’ i.e., the reclaiming of distressed, inner-city neighborhoods not through ‘urban renewal’ plans, but on a block-by-block basis by newly-arrived residents who move into cheap, marginal housing which they renovate, upgrade and slowly but surely create a stable environment where middle-class families can work and live. Know why New York is a ‘sanctuary city?’ Because it’s those new immigrants, those documented and undocumented ‘aliens’ whose presence brings many distressed neighborhoods back from the dead.
Several years ago I took a ride in Brooklyn all the way down Atlantic Avenue from the Brooklyn Academy of Music to the border of Queens, a trip which took me through parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville and East New York. When I was growing up in New York in the late 1950’s, these three neighborhoods comprised the worst part of the Brooklyn ghetto; going from the corner of Sutter and Rockaway Avenues to Times Square was like going from the Earth to the Moon.
The four police precincts covering these neighborhoods – 73rd, 75th, 79th, 81st – patrol a combined population of 246,050 which in 2000 racked up 289 homicides; last year the homicide total was 54. These same four precincts made 458 arrests for illegal weapons in 2000; the 2016 number more than doubled to 979. Want to reduce gun violence? Get rid of the guns.
What really struck me as I drove and walked through these neighborhoods, however, was the extent to which I could see again and again the degree to which new pockets of residential housing and commercial enterprise were springing up all over the place. Take a look at this apartment complex on Gates Avenue in Bed-Stuy. The tab to live in what the developers call ‘historic’ Bedford-Stuyvesant begins at $2,500 bucks a month. Check out a rehabbed building at 1365 Fulton Street; no vacancies at the moment but if one comes up the monthly for a one-bedroom will only run you two grand.
People moving into those apartments don’t expect to be robbed or shot. And they won’t be because for all kinds of reasons as an urban environment becomes more prosperous, it also becomes crime-free. Want to reduce gun violence? Try upgrading a neighborhood where gun violence occurs.