Friday, August 16, 2013

Porch squatting in Milwaukee

Milwaukee - photo by Dori at Creative Commons
In Clint Eastwood's film Gran Torino, a widowed and bitter Walt Kowalski, Korean War veteran, watches street life from his Detroit porch as his Hmong immigrant neighbors become the victims of gang persecution. Confounded by the fearful Hmong's unwillingness to help police, Kowalski confronts the baddies, unites the Hmong against the gangs and ends up dead.

It's the classic story of a declining hero who fights injustice, in this case from that very American security blanket - the porch. Our fading hero might be a worn metaphor, but how can you not love the odd pairing of ancient Greek tragedy with Clint's stellar film direction?

This week, during my Milwaukee SafeGrowth class, I saw Gran Torino come to life (sort of) only in reverse. Embedded within the remarkable and successful projects from team members there was a story of young men hanging out on neighborhood porches, drinking beer and smoking dope. Nothing strange in that except these porches did not belong to those young men. They just picked a porch somewhere on the street (where they may or may not live) and then just took it over.


Sometimes those homes were abandoned, sometimes not. As in Gran Torino, residents often don't ask the squatters to leave, presumably due to fear! Residents seldom call the police. Police have made arrests and cracked down but the problem continues. I'm told it has been ongoing for years.

It is Gran Torino in reverse.

SafeGrowth team members didn't think the squatters were gang members or drug dealers (my first thought), but they were not sure. Squatters didn't move into those abandoned homes nor ask residents to join them on the porch. They simply picked a porch and hung out.

I know of dealers who launch open air drug markets and take over abandoned buildings. I know gang members intimidate neighbors by claiming porch turf. But SafeGrowth team members didn't think any of that was the case here.

Why don't squatters stay on their own porches (they were not homeless)? No one knew. A few team members thought this was common across Milwaukee. Others disagreed. Another thought this was common in all low income, troubled neighborhoods. I could not think of any other community with such random, and obnoxious, porch squatting. In CPTED this is what Randy Atlas calls offensible space.

We will never reclaim neighborhoods and prevent crime unless we can mobilize legitimate behavior. Porch squatting is not legitimate behavior! And there is no Clint Eastwood coming to the rescue.

The good news? Based on the high quality SafeGrowth projects and the exceptional team-work I saw this week in Milwaukee, we won't need him.

6 Replies so far - Add your comment

  1. Derrick L.August 17, 2013

    Great correlation Greg, I didn't even think of Gran Turino when we were discussing the issue. I loved that movie by the way!!

  2. Thanks.

    Yes, the film was a classic and reminded me of that odd porch squatting behavior. I'm still mystified by it!

  3. There is definately a coorelation to drug activity and drug turf. These young men will squat on the porches keeping the drugs hidden near by in the bushes or under the porch. Sometimes their guns are hidden in this manner as well. If the police stop and only do a quick inspection they won't find the drugs/guns. If its a vacant board up they only risk a citation (if the contraband isn't found) or a warning and walk away. Of course they come back later to retrieve their belongings. My Clint Eastwood in this case sits inside his house and watches the behavior, quietly calling the officers he knows and directing our activity. This kind of silent partner can guide us straight to the hidden drugs. The offenders are none the wiser as to wear our information comes from and Clint doesn't have to get shot to help his neighborhood.

  4. Thanks for the insight Tom. You suggestion makes sense that the squatters are actually druggies using this to dispose of guns and evidence when the cops show up.

    I suspected as much and even mentioned the drug angle to the class, but there was skepticism. No one seemed sure of the motive. But what you suggest sure makes sense.

    Next step: a thorough assessment of how widespread this behavior is through the city, how many squatting druggies are involved, and the long-term deterrent impact of police enforcement from silent informants like the one you describe.

    I'm particularly interested in the impact on social capital in struggling neighborhoods where squatting druggies take over porches. (Based on SafeGrowth theory I have a good idea on the latter)!

    Your Clint Eastwood silent partner does indeed sound like a neighborhood hero. Good for him. We need many more!

    Thanks again.

  5. On a funny side note and considering your comparison of Gran Torino to Milwaukee. In the photo you used Clint is drinking Pabst. Pabst was originally brewed in Milwaukee and is a big part of our history. The Pabst Mansion and Brewery still stand as landmarks in Milwaukee.

  6. Tom, that is hilarious (and a bit ironic). Good catch.


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