Thursday, August 22, 2013

Getting it right - Journalism that works

Cover page of Team 4's exceptional SafeGrowth Plan from the Milwaukee training
Trashing media crime reporting is my past-time of late. I've complained how difficult it is to find articles that resist racing to the bottom of the sensationalism pool. One exception from an earlier blog: Joe Schleshinger's writing on the decline of violence.

As if on cue (and dishing me up a welcome plate of humble pie), I've just received two more examples of great journalism - a news article by reporter Ashley Luthern and an opinion piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel following our SafeGrowth LISC - CSI training.

The opinion piece titled "Hiring 100 more police officers will help, but more is needed" concludes, "hiring 100 more police officers in Milwaukee won't by itself curb crime…[they] have to be part of a smart strategy…"

Exactly right!

Suppressing any self-respecting humility, I admit my favorite part is the final paragraph:

"The SafeGrowth Initiative, aimed at creating neighborhood solutions to crime, can help, too. Sponsored by the Milwaukee branch of the Local Initiatives Support Group, SafeGrowth participants have come up with ideas for fighting crime in such places as a residential block, a parking lot frequented by drug dealers and a commercial corridor with a rarely used park and a troublesome tavern. One proposal was to create a better way for police to work with taverns during the design and permitting process to create a safer environment."

Could not have said it better!

Even more important is their suggestion for moving forward.

Milwaukee SafeGrowth team 4 asset map

A prevention strategy in 4 parts

The Journal Sentinal opinion piece suggested 4 strategies for prevention:

1. Deploy cops strategically
2. Neighborhood activation
3. Municipal and grass-roots leadership

That 3rd one is key. In fact (DISCLAIMER: humility suppression alert) teaching city executives how to activate grass-roots leadership is exactly why we developed our new program - Citizen Cities.

The only slip I see is their 4th strategy: "Bring in more help from the state".

True, government has an important role. Funds may be useful to purchase new (and proven) technologies and that can help. But new technologies and tactics hack at the branches, they don't dig at the roots. Plus, government funds come with strings, politics, and snags. Not to mention the risk of funding-addiction - when the money dries up, as it often does, so does the program.

Much better to work with governments, launch an initiative with a police/community angle and then use a portion of those funds to help local groups organize their own independent funding.

Aside from that, the article and the opinion piece are journalistic gems. Best humble pie I've tasted in ages. To Ashley and the Journal Sentinel…well done!

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.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Subtopia rising from the ashes

Urban apocalyptos - collapsing suburban strip malls and abandoned regional malls
The phrase urban apocalyptos came to mind this week - those activists who write about collapsing neighborhoods and make their living by hollering Armageddon. Consider those decay-chic writers who feed on the coolness of reporting blight, gang infestations and acres of abandoned houses. Existential nihilism gone amok!

Of course, sometimes they were (and are) right.

Remember those Michael Moore documentaries on corporate corruption, public fear and government inaction? He was probably right on many points especially the gun-ownership mess and the national health-care travesty (it helped Moore trigger an American renaissance in independent social cause films).

My personal favorite was Roger and Me describing the decline of Flint, Michigan. He targets Big Auto and claims they did little to save their cities, especially General Motors. He seeks out GM CEO Roger Smith to ask why. Against that backdrop Detroit's recent bankruptcy, the largest in US history, is a poignant reminder of Moore's message.

Subtopia - the good news

Subtopia was a term originally coined by UK urbanist Ian Nairn, (and later commandeered in eclectic music videos and by European apocalyptos).

The new subtopia arises phoenix-like from the ashes of the Great Recession. It is an idea similar to Capitalism 3.0, a book about a new economics where citizen-owned, market-based commons trusts purchase back their city.

Subtopia offers a way to rethink dying cities, a kind of survival-through-planned-shrinkage. While New Urbanists return to Mayberry, the Subtopians turn abandoned properties and buildings into community land banks. Fed up with slumlords who let empty homes sit and rot for years, they shut down entire neighborhoods of abandoned homes.

The posterchild for subtopian land use experimentation is Flint, Michigan (Moore's hometown). The hope is they will ignite a renaissance to revitalize blight.

Says the New York TimesThe population would be condensed into a few viable areas. So would stores and services. A city built to manufacture cars would be returned in large measure to the forest primeval.

This came to mind as I read a national plan to bulldoze acres of urban rot and decapitate what was once urban life. Subtopia is an interesting twist with all sorts of possibilities like Karen Dybis's story Designing a Better Detroit.

Is it possible that out of this crisis new ideas will emerge for rebirth?