Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What does "good" look like? The story of Westville

There's plenty to complain about when it comes to crime neighborhoods. Not enough cops. No social help. Groups tripping over each other. Warehousing the poor into tract housing. The list goes on.

What does the "ideal" neighborhood look like?

I doubt there is an “ideal” safe neighborhood. Still, it is easier to complain about what is bad rather than imagining what good looks like. So imagine this...

Imagine a neighborhood in an old historic city, population 130,000 (300,000 in surrounding areas). Imagine over a third of the population are poor and the city has a long history of crime. There are, of course, safe places sprinkled around as there are nasty gang-ridden crime hotspots. Our neighborhood lies on the north-west corridor of the city.

This is a real neighborhood where I used to live. It is called Westville and it is in New Haven, Connecticut. It came to mind when I thought about good neighborhood development.

You can live in New Haven and never see violent crime, or you can walk in some neighborhoods and see gang shootings. In the 1990s, as elsewhere, crime declined. But murders have changed direction since 2000 and there are worries about teen violence. Youth curfews are discussed even though of 9,000 city teens only a few hundred account for most teen violence. Still, shootings and violence ripple through some neighborhoods like fear-generating tsunami.

Then there is Westville. In the north of Westville, West Rock Mountain towers over some of the poorest homes. In the south of Westville, some of the wealthiest. In the more-or-less center lies a small commercial corridor with restaurants, shops, a nearby park, and mixed housing of various incomes. To me this core area was the most vulnerable to the larger forces of change, change that might go in either direction.

Over the years a small group of residents, artists, and business owners began to turn things around. First they organized pot-lucks, art-walks, festivals, and other informal get-togethers. That got people to dialogue. Then a local activist convinced housing groups to look at Westville. Change at that point was slow.

I went to one meeting where residents told a private developer not to go away, but instead to modify the shape and scale of his multi-unit housing – some of which he did. I saw police work with neighbors at a liquor board hearing to get a bar owner to curb disorder problems at his bar. I watched shop owners fixing their storefronts with city funding and then hiring someone to sweep the street.

On their own these events are unremarkable. Coordinated together over time, they add up. They ignited community cohesion that triggered change. When a plan surfaced to widen streets and increase speeds along the main street through Westville, residents sought and won a historic district designation to stop it. If you've ever read work by famed urbanist Jane Jacobs - Westville is history repeating itself.

Today a permanent neighborhood association has formed to carry work forward. It connects Westville together. Their websites say it all.

See the Westville site
See their neighborhood organization

You could say Westville was successful because rich residents to the south anted up and got cops to tackle crime. You could, but that’s not how it happened. Police played a role. But in many instances they were asked to play a role, not do it themselves. Nowadays you can see from the Westville websites how vibrant the place is today. Take a look at the crime maps of New Haven and Westville.

Look at the crime maps

Search the map from Jan to Dec 2008. You’ll see only a tiny handful of crime reports in Westville compared to everywhere else in the city. At the beginning, when I lived there, crime was more common. I brought my university crime prevention students to Westville to study crime trends. It was a very different place then to what it has become today.

Westville is not perfect. Nowhere is. There are complaints about rowdy students in the new multi-family housing. There is a rash of graffiti. Yet people are speaking up and coordinating their actions in an organized way. Clearly, something positive is going on. We can learn from this.

I once asked what is meant by the term "healthy neighborhood". A healthy immune system lets a person recover quickly after an illness. Same in a healthy neighborhood like Westville. That is what neighborhoods should look like.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Pain and Wasting in Vancouver - A slum facing the 2010 Olympics

I recently attended a workshop on "community engagement" in beautiful Vancouver, Canada. One year from now the winter Olympics will be there. And while reading local media I was reminded that in the heart of Vancouver is the downtown eastside neighborhood - DES - with an infamous reputation for crime, disorder and poverty.

To most locals the DES is the Skid Row area, especially along streets Main and Hastings - what locals call Pain and Wastings.

It's not that Canada doesn't have slums. It's more like this is probably the worst. Stats back that up.

It is the poorest postal code in the country. By some accounts it has the highest HIV infection rate in North America. Thousands of homeless people, drug users, prostitutes, and rampant crime. At one point in 1998 the area averaged one death per day from drug overdoses.

What has been done?

One report claims government has spent over $300 million for housing and support in DES - about $1 million each day! Social activism is rooted here with anti-poverty, housing rights, and social groups waging campaigns and running programs of all sorts.

Over 90 agencies providing health and addiction recovery services. A community court was set up last year. Long overdue plans for redevelopment are finally underway.

The 9 year old "Vancouver Agreement", was supposed to coordinate local, provincial and federal efforts. A Vancouver paper reports a provincial politician saying that agreement has now "largely fallen by the wayside because of lack of political will." Then there is the famous "safe drug injection site" run by the government, the only one in North America.

Study after study, program after program, decade after decade.

If it wasn't so tragic, would it be too obvious to say that the same kind of thinking that got us into this mess will not get us out? It would seem to me a very different kind of imagination is required.

Click here for Lee Hamilton's excellent blog on this

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Preventing crime in LA

Check out this video. It explains the approach adopted by Bratton and mentioned by J. Q. Wilson in the previous blogs.

2007 - From the video clip: "We can talk crime prevention all day...if we're not engaged with the community, if the community is not engaged with us to point out who is doing what...there are too few of us to be in every neighborhood." Jim McDonnell, LAPD Assistant Chief. 2007

1961 - From Jane Jacobs: "The public peace of cities is ...kept primarily by an intricate, network of voluntary controls and standards among people themselves. No amount of police can enforce civilization where the normal, casual enforcement of it has broken down." Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Friday, February 13, 2009

ROTO Nasties - the paralysis of analysis

The Thinker. Academic reports without action - the paralysis of analysis
- photo by Douglas O'Brien, Creative Commons

by Gregory Saville

I was thinking about what folks have said to these posts (thanks everyone for such great comments!) It brought to mind the LA Times article by J. Q. Wilson about inconclusive poverty/crime research. Yet I still can't shake one nagging question: How does our inability to precisely nail down the cause for crime excuse our inaction? I get that we don't want unintended consequences to our actions. Yes, that makes sense. It does make one wonder; What is state-of-the-art in research? So I did a bit of my own research to find out. Here's what I found.


Wilson incidentally is pretty pleased with LAPD's crime mapping and their aggressive policy of searching people on the streets for guns! (No surprise. He's one of the pioneers of the approach in a theory called "broken windows".)

That's not such a bad thing, really. Especially if it makes things better! But notice how aggressive policing is so easily used to explain crime reductions, whereas tackling poor neighborhoods needs more study! That sounds like a double standard to me. Is the "science" for aggressive policing and crime mapping better than the science about poverty/crime?

Not - pardon the gun-pun - by a long shot.

Read Hsieh and Pugh's 1993 article in Criminal Justice Review, "Poverty and income inequality are each associated with violent crime". Or read Kennedy's 1998 study in Social Science and Medicine. What does he conclude? "Studies have shown that poverty and income are powerful predictors of homicide and violent crime."

Are we to believe THAT research isn't good enough yet the crime mapping/zero tolerance research IS good enough?


Then I came across a book by Stan Lieberson from Harvard, Making It Count, Leiberson says that although most social research is non-experimental many researchers treat their data as though it was experimental. Why does it matter? It matters because social science data gets turned into numbers and then chopped and diced and served up as proof of this or that. It is all about counting the numbers. And that, Lieberson says, is part of the problem. Just look at J. Q. Wilson's numbers in the LA Times article.

For me, Lieberson hits a chord:
"There is a double standard used by academics in that evidence supporting an undesirable conclusion or theory is subjected to much tougher standards than evidence supporting other conclusions."

In other words, it seems convenient to trash the poverty/crime link because stats seem inconclusive. It seems simpler to support a get-tough, broken windows theory with zero tolerance enforcement. To be fair, I know LAPD uses other methods too. I also have seen how competent problem-oriented policing paired with updated training methods does make a big difference. Getting the guns off the streets too will help. I agree we should do more of all those things. Those things produce some good short term results.

But we mustn't stop there. Ultimately we must deal with the dysfunctional roots growing in deprived neighborhoods, neighborhoods where gang breeding and violence is cultivated in a bed of broken families and poverty. Those too are the broken windows that need fixing.

Social research is always done in a muddy social world where nothing lends itself to clean, experimental, laboratory tests. If we wait for definitive answers we'll wait forever.


J. Q. Wilson should be applauded for heading up a National Academy of Sciences Committee on Law and Justice to look for more answers. But pleeeeese let's not bury the obvious in yet more academic reports. Doing yet more research on the obvious won't change anything. We DO know what's going on there. Let's get going to help neighbors to change it!

True, ignoring research findings isn't wise. But so is more ROTO - Research-On-The-Obvious! ROTO has lots of nasties, like the unintended consequence of hold-backs from government funding while we wait for "conclusive" answers. Or worse; misdirection of funding onto band-aids like zero-tolerance enforcement.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Crips and Bloods in Beverly Hills?

Fact - Poverty and deprivation creates conditions for crime and violence in neighborhoods! Conclusion - We must take a targeted approach and tackle violence in poor, deprived neighborhoods!

Seems obvious. I'm not saying times of plenty are crime free. Some crimes may actually increase then - like theft when there is more around to steal. But overall, a worsening economy is bad news for crime and violence.

Simple. Right?


A California friend recently sent an LA Times article, "Crime and Economy Don't Tell the Whole Story" by James Q. Wilson (a renowned and well published scholar).

See the LA Times story

His conclusion? "Everyone knows that there is more crime in economically depressed inner-city neighborhoods than in affluent suburbs. That fact leads naturally to the assumption that if a community becomes more prosperous, crime rates will go down, and if income levels decline, crime rates go up...A lot of other factors affect the crime rate as well. It often goes up when the population gets younger, and when drug abuse becomes more common. Murder rates are profoundly influenced, at least in big cities, by gang activity."

So I have a question: How long do we wait for research to "tell" us what to do?

I've not compared the number of Crips or Bloods gang members living in Beverly Hills versus South Central LA. But I'll bet the south-centrals of the world lose every time! And my crime mapper friends will tell us, when you look at crime rates in cities, skid row looks much worse than elsewhere. (Apologies to South Central where I hear they've been working to make things better).

I love research and believe it can tell us plenty. But there is an ethical line in the sand. Can we really wait?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Tacoma's Moon Shot - Aiming to cut crime 50% in 14 months

You got to give the mayor in Tacoma, Washington credit for his goal to cut crime 50% within 14 months. Not many public officials are bold enough to make such claims. I remember a former Vancouver BC Police Chief making similar claims a decade ago. Note the word FORMER! (It didn't work out).

Neither is it working out in Tacoma. A year into their extensive program, crime is down only 5% by some accounts - by other accounts it is up slightly. But is that really a "failure" because it didn't reach some early, and perhaps naive, goals? After all, they collected 1000 tons of refuse, litter and debris from city streets. They cleaned up properties. More folks are involved in community efforts than before. Those are all laudable successes. And if crime is down only 5%, at least it is down! Maybe their goal should be to double that for next year.

Through the law of doubling, especially if Tacoma gets skilled at sustaining their work, they may very well reach 50% within 2 years. Not bad if it holds. ESPECIALLY during a time of economic collapse. Check out the newsclip on the program.

See the Tribune Story

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Gathering Storm - Foreclosures Stimulate Crime?

This is the second blog on

I just read a study that Lynn Clark and Brent Teasdale presented at a 2005 Toronto conference predicting how subprime loans and mortgage foreclosures might increase crime. They described how high rates of home foreclosure in one city can cause disinvestment in a neighborhood by the municipality and remaining residents. This apparently led to higher crime rates.

I’m not surprised home ownership and neighborhood tenure turns out to be one important chapter in the urban crime story. But more worrying is this: What happens to thousands of at-risk neighborhoods when we multiply that story hundredfold in today's market crash? A few years ago I read a study called A Gathering Storm: Violent Crime in America that predicted just such higher crime problems in years to come. If there was ever a time for a new way forward - now is the time!

Welcome to SafeGrowth

Safety and crime - our shared challenge

Welcome to the SafeGrowth blog at

If you are interested in, or working on, neighborhood safety, community development, or crime prevention, this blog is for you. Posts will highlight current trends in how to turn troubled communities back from the brink of crime.

I will post anyone who wants to comment. I have only 4 exceptions: posts with abusive, off-topic, or offensive language; any racist, sexist or homophopics slurs; thread spamming; or ad hominem attacks. Those are verboten. All all others are welcome.