Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tijuana: Narco-central

Tropical sunset

A world class cultural center with renowned paintings and sculpture. Diverse shopping, entertainment and exceptional dining along palm lined avenues. A growing, avante garde artistic community. Warm winter weather and Pacific Ocean winds cooling sprawling beaches in summer.

I'm not talking about San Diego, California but rather its slandered sister city just south of the border.

I spent a week recently in Tijuana, Mexico, population around 2 million. It's the so-called nesting ground for narco-traffickers and their associated flotsam.

As a criminologist I was curious whether media and rival tourist promoters have been molding facts to sell papers or lure business away. As an urban planner I go to the "worst" areas, often discovering they aren't as they are seem.

News accounts on Tijuana portray a city of shoot-outs, kidnappings, and murder mayhem. No doubt there is truth to that. Sadly, our data-light and anecdote-heavy media tells us nothing about what's really going on. Has our info-tainment "news" bamboozled us and missed the full story?

One example: LA Times article

What I discovered is that Tijuana, like other parts of Mexico, has indeed suffered greatly over the past two years. After the 2004 million-person march in Mexico City protesting inaction, the government launched a military led crack-down on the drug cartels. In Tijuana a prominent arrest of a drug kingpin and his clan has left a criminal vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum. Consequently, just like Vancouver, Canada, Tijuana is ground zero for a war between gangs.

That much we hear. What do we not hear?

Visiting Santa at the cultural center

Apparently crime doesn't prevent Christmas shopping at the mall

We don't hear murder and robbery rates were in decline in Tijuana from 2000 to 2005 and that most shooting and murder is between rival drug cartels or against the security forces who attack them. We rarely hear about the lively and safe downtown, financial areas, or other low crime neighborhoods.

Public art and sculpture

We rarely hear from everyday citizens in Tijuana. Those I spoke to did not frequent the violent parts of town, such as the unregulated suburbs. Like savvy urban dwellers all around the world - and tourists who pay attention - they knew where not to go. It's no different for savvy urban dwellers in Detroit or Washington, DC outside the circle. In spite of a spike in recent violence this year, the average citizen lives free of debilitating fear and violence.

That is because in Tijuana, as everywhere, crime is unevenly distributed. And in Tijuana there are areas as safe as any American city.

Check out blogger Patrick Osio's take on the issue:
Patrick's blog

My favorite line from his blog:

"I began interviewing, not Mexican nationals but rather American, Canadian and other expatriates. Of the 22 interviews on camera we did, not one single person said they feared for their life. They all stressed that living there they knew the importance of not going to certain neighborhoods and they were not involved in drugs... They had not changed their schedules; they shopped, dined out, attended plays and movie houses, visited friends, all routines in what they consider their own paradise."

No doubt Tijuana has much poverty, immigrant squalor, drug crime and corrupt officials. So does New Orleans! But do tourists avoid the fabulous New Orleans French Quarter because of it? Not likely.

It is easy to be fooled into fear. Tijuana is a work-in-progress to be sure. But it is also experiencing a Renaissance unlike any other I've seen. It'll be fascinating to revisit it in years to come.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Benches and bikes - changing the simple things

Benches for people, not vandals

The Design Out Crime (DOC) agenda for prevention can be simple and effective. Back in June I briefly mentioned the DOC work in the UK (click here).

DOC hasn't made many appearances of late. It's time it did.

The SafeGrowth philosophy is enmeshed in social development, competent neighborhood governance, and informed civic empowerment. In the troubled places we explore in this blog, such lofty themes easily get lost in the grind of fear, poverty and crime. It's easy to slip back into a narcissistic "nothing works". When that happens it's critical to remember this: because something is difficult does not mean it is impossible.

Consider the stories of success in my July entries on graffiti, intersection repair, tackling homelessness, urban gardens and the beginning of Bogota's remarkable renaissance.

There are simpler approaches. While not specifically about neighborhood redevelopment, they too can get things started in a positive way. Some that merit a peek appear in the latest International CPTED Association newsletter this week.

My colleage Lorraine Gamman runs the Design Against Crime Research Center (DACRC) in London, UK and they lead the world in thinking about designing crime opportunities out of simple everyday things.

Check out the latest issue of the CPTED Perspective newsletter and see DACRC's new theft-resistent bike rack and vandal proof (yet user-friendly) street bench.

Securing the whole bike

SafeGrowth may be the eventual evolution of the troubled community...

..but DOC and CPTED may be one way we get started.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Asteroid belts of architectural garbage

If you haven't read the polemical and funny writing of James H. Kunstler about suburbs, you are missing out. If you are interested in vital, safe places, Kunstler is a must. This is the fellow who wrote The Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere.

He absolutely gets why the architectural forms characterizing low density, sprawl do not work. He makes the point that a place must be aesthetic, interesting, and humane in order for it to be truly "civic". This is civic richness.

In a TED.com presentation he describes the failure of suburbs as the "asteroid belt of architectural garbage." Check him out below.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Vancouver - the madness continues

At the beginning of this year I wrote about a slum in Vancouver.

Pain and Wasting in Vancouver

Today's Globe and Mail newspaper makes it clear: The madness continues!

The madness is called Vancouver's Downtown East Side - DES - Canada's fetid slum persisting for decades. It will greet the world throughout February's Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. It's message will not be the glowing success of multi-cultural diversity in which Canada so prides itself. As the world looks to the young and shining athletes striving for medals in one of the world's best cities, it will also see the faces of the drug addicted, welfare-dependent, and depressingly poor who inhabit the streets of DES.

There have been many attempts to fix problems there, including over $1 Billion over a decade. Some successes persist, an exciting new community court, a safe injection site that succeeds in spite of federal government hostility, and others. But they are not enough.

Says Vancouver housing expert Aprodicio Laquian, the residents of other parts of the city don't seem to mind concentrating mind-numbing poverty like this as long as it doesn't infiltrate their neighborhood - NIMBYism at its worst. He also thinks the very social activists who claim to be helping are actually hindering. They oppose what they see as "gentrification" as it will de-place the poor classes for the richer classes and displace povery elsewhere.

For those who know about urban crime, it is clear both ideas are absurd. Concentrated poverty and crime never ends up concentrated. NIMBYers will always be running away.

Secondly, worrying that gentrification will displace a viable neighbourhood elsewhere assumes there is a viable neighbourhood in DES...there is not!

More than anyone, those who make a life in DES deserve better than drug dependent prostitutes, homelessness, street assaults, out of control Hep C and HIV rates, and gang murders. The prostitutes, crime victims, homeless and infected themselves deserve better.

NIMBYism, squabbling welfare agencies, incompetent policies, failed program after program. When will it end?

How can we learn from cities like Bogota, or Portland who have done so much better at tackling festering urban cancers like this?

Long time DES advocate Jim Green (a former New Yorker who remembers the poverty of the Lower East Side) describes how public policies made a bad situation worse - moving the mentally ill out of institutions onto the street, taking out single family homes, are two of the nastiest.

Says Green, "women and children are what gives strength and security to any community. A community that is overwhelmingly single males is going to be really difficult to build, to go forward. By building housing that has mothers and children reintegrating back into society, by democratizing the processes in the community - that's how we are going to move forward. Just doing that makes it a better community, makes it safer."

Vancouver's city council claims, unlike the last world exposition there a few decades ago, it will not cover up the poor nor hide them in a displaced neighborhood far away.

That is as it should be. The world should see the beast with the beauty. It should see Vancouver's shame.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Keeping on point - organizing in Jackson

Drug dealers in Jackson throw running shoes over power lines to advertise they are located nearby

This week I gave a talk in Jackson, Mississippi where I met some terrific, forward-looking folks. They reminded me of Sarah from last blog. Their energy recharged my batteries, especially the lead organizer, John Dinkins a fellow with the right stuff.

Did crime get solved? Not yet. As the Jackson photos in this blog show, fear and crimes exist there and (as elsewhere) have for many years. They won't vanish overnight - especially with our tired methods so ineffective in the past.

What happened at the meetings? We sat around tables talking crime prevention. I told stories of safety and SafeGrowth in other places. We shared ideas. I heard of previous successes and failures.

One Jackson resident uses humor, but expresses fear

We talked about organizing neighborhoods, how SafeGrowth might work there, and virtual e-networking. We talked about more extensively diagnosing neighborhood crimes and mapping fears. We talked about how to bring in more community and expanding this dialogue.

Is this the answer? Not completely. But shared dialogue is how these things get started.

Read the biography Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary, about Jacobs' early days at community meetings. Those meetings decades ago started an urban revolution that transformed for the better our thinking about urban life.

To me the Jackson meetings felt like that - confusing, exciting, necessary. I saw - yet again - a thirst not easily quenched by retribution, fixing broken windows, nor by extinguishing self-interest crime.

It is quenched by building an authentic sense of community in people's lives along with a healthy neighborhood to support it. That, ultimately, is the point.