Hey! What happened? New York City was supposed to be a very safe place. But yesterday the Mayor and his Chief of Police announced that homicides in the city during January and February had jumped by almost 30 percent over the same months in 2017, and if this murder activity continues at the current pace, the Big Apple will once again be known as a city where the streets aren’t so safe.
What caught my eye about this situation, however, was the geography of where those murders took place. Most of them were in neighborhoods that have always been centers of poverty an violence, places like Upper Manhattan, Bed-Stuy (Do or Die) and Brownsville in Brooklyn and Jamaica in Queens. But one other neighborhood jumped out at me, which was a neighborhood known as Parkchester which is in the northeast corner of The Bronx.
I attended high school in Manhattan from 1958 to 1962, and I was a student at one of those specialized schools – High School of Music and Art – which drew kids from throughout the city. Several of my friends lived in Parkchester and I often visited them in their homes. I thought that Parkchester was a public housing project (it certainly looked like one) but in fact it was a private apartment development built in 1939-40 by Metropolitan Life. It was also racially segregated when it first opened its doors, which I guess is the reason why I never recall seeing a person of color when I walked to the apartment of one of my high school chums.
According to the 2010 census, Parkchester’s population is now at least 75% Hispanic and Black. And given the spike in murders, I suspect that the demographics of the community have steadily gone downhill. What this means is that possibly the geography of what we refer to as ‘underserved’ urban neighborhoods is changing in New York or in some areas getting worse.
What’s DeBlasio’s plans for keeping violence under control? The 43rd precinct in Parkchester will get some more men, there will be a greater presence of the CeaseFire street monitors to intervene in gang disputes and here’s the one I really like, increased efforts to get guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. – that’s a direct quote.
Maybe these efforts will make a difference, maybe they won’t. But if the Parkchester complex is beginning to attract the kinds of folks who put a dent into someone’s head with a baseball bat or a hole in their head with a gun, we may be looking at a more general problem, namely, the degree to which violent crime seems to go up as socio-economic conditions in a neighborhood go down.
Next week I’m going to review a new book, An American Summer by Alex Kotlowitz, which is a series of first-person narratives from residents of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods, in which these folks talk in graphic and chilling terms about the violence they see all around them which is often violence caused by guns. This book is a clear departure from most of the social science that explores urban violence because it doesn’t attempt to present a solution to the problem, it simply gives the reader feeling of what life inn these brutal streets is all about.
Over the last several years, there have been any number of projects mounted by organizations trying to reduce gun violence in which the survivors of shootings tell what happened to a family member who was a victim. You can listen to a collection of these stories collected by our friends at The Trace here.
The news out of Parkchester, however, is a reminder that you just can’t reduce something as complicated as violence, particularly gun violence, to the usual data on income, housing, economic opportunity, all the issues which are always thrown up to explain why some people feel the need to grab a gun and let it rip. We really have no idea why the streets around Parkchester have become unsafe, and I’m not sure we even know how to figure it out.