Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

Paul Romer: Urbanization as Opportunity

NYU Economist Paul Romer gave a great talk at last month’s New Cities conference in Dallas. Called “Urbanization as Opportunity,” it’s now online and I’ll embed below. The first 2-3 minutes are warm up then it really gets going. Great stuff around crime, public space, etc. If the embed doesn’t display for you, watch on You Tube.

There are large number of additional New Cities videos online should you wish to browse them.

Thursday, June 12th, 2014

Will the World’s Emerging Megacities Turn the Corner?

My latest post is online over at New Geography and is called “Will the World’s Emerging Megacities Turn the Corner?” There’s an explosion of megacities happening around the world, often in developing countries. These cities face huge infrastructure issues, social issues, poverty and slums, etc. The question is whether they will ever achieve escape velocity from that. I don’t think so. Here’s an excerpt:

Most emerging megacities likely will never turn the corner to developed status and achieve a decent standard of living and quality of life for their residents. They may be important national centers of aspiration, but most of them will never become influential global cities. Their huge size and vast problems will leave them with perpetual entrenched poverty, poor infrastructure and public services, and low quality of life by global standards.

The general rule seems to be that a megacity can only escape pervasive dysfunction if they are a major city in a country that is the world’s current rising economic (or historically imperial) power.
….
In the second edition of Peter Hall’s landmark book The World Cities, he describes a 1970s Tokyo in which the night soil pickup industry was alive and well. Only in an era of national economic hyper growth – culminating in the 1980s – was Japan able to fully modernize its urban infrastructure and clean up the massive environmental problems resulting from its rapid industrialization and urbanization. This was the time when Japan seemed destined to become the world’s leading economic power, and America was fretting as Japanese investors bought trophy assets ranging from Columbia Pictures to Rockefeller Center.

We are witnessing the same today in China. It’s no accident that cities like Beijing and Shanghai are becoming fully modernized at the same time that China is the world’s rising economic power. Even there, serious problems with social integration, pollution, and low quality development remain. China had best hope its economic growth continues until such time as it’s rich enough to solve those problems too.

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

My Master Plan to Win the War For Indianapolis Government Buildings


The Marion County Jail in Downtown Indianapolis. Source: indy.gov

The Indianapolis Business Journal reported that Mayor Greg Ballard is championing a plan to relocate the jail out of downtown. This is an idea I’ve been touting to anyone who’ll listen since at least 2009, so obviously I’m a big fan of the concept. Though let me hasten to add I’m not endorsing any particular plan as I haven’t seen one.

I’ve always encouraged people to think about public transit investments first as about transportation. But also to ask what it is that implementing an expanded transit system like IndyConnect would let you do that you couldn’t do before. This is one of those things.

More about that in a moment. But first, this is only one part of what I see as a long term reconfiguration of city government space in downtown Indianapolis. I call it my “master plan to win the war” because I see it as game changing for the east and southeast parts of downtown. The components are:

  1. Relocate the jail and criminal courts to a new complex on an old industrial site on the near West Side in proximity to the proposed Washington St. transit corridor. (I was thinking the former GM site originally).
  1. Relocate the civil courts into a new downtown state judicial complex. (The state supreme court already wants one of these, so include the appeals court and local courts as well).
  1. Renovate the old City Hall as, well, the new City Hall housing the Mayor, Council, and executive functions.
  1. Move the rest of the office users into leased space. (I was thinking originally about using this to anchor the MSA site redevelopment and add an office component to the mix of use because the site was so close to the old City Hall).
  1. Implode the City-County Building, demolish the jail, and redevelop Marion County Jail II and Liberty Hall. (I kid you not, one of the jail locations is called Liberty Hall. I think it is used for work-release today, so may be viable as that if managed properly and there’s a particular benefit to locating it downtown for access to employment).
  1. Put all the land used by these facilities back onto the tax rolls by selling for development.

The benefit of this is eliminating multiple significant barriers to development, ones that keep the various districts undergoing redevelopment from feeding off each other. And while it wouldn’t fully pay for the projects, it would put large amounts of prime downtown land back to taxable use.

I’m not suggesting that the city should go do all this right away. Nobody has this kind of money laying around. Rather it’s vision to be implemented as the components reach end of lifecycle and need replacement or hugely expensive upgrades. Though to some extent they are all already there.

First the jail. The sheriff claims a new modern jail could be run with his existing staff. This would save money by allowing the city to dump the private contractor that runs Marion County Jail II. (News reports have criticized the sheriff’s spending. So if even the guy who is accused of spending too much money says it can be done for less, take him up on the offer).

And why put a jail on your city’s most valuable real estate? That doesn’t seem to make much sense today. New York and Chicago don’t have their jails downtown. (In fairness I should note the federal government has remand facilities in both CBDs however). A message board commenter noted that even in Indiana, Evansville’s Vanderburgh County Jail is away from downtown.

I actually got this idea when I was living in Chicago and was summoned to jury duty. The Cook County Jail and a criminal court building are located at 26th and California near Little Village. I had some time to kill while waiting around during a recess so I found myself walking down 26th St. spending money. I’m like, if I’m spending money, maybe other people are spending money too.

Downtown, jails inhibit development. But at an old industrial site near a transit served commercial street, a jail could actually inject life into a struggling neighborhood while still being reasonably centrally located. That’s a win-win.

It’s understandable why the jail would be downtown now for historical reasons. And downtown is the one area that’s reasonable to get to with transit today. That’s important when 10% of households don’t own a car. Those families should not be burdened with an inaccessible jail and courts, particularly when the poor are alas too often involved with the justice system. That’s why enhanced transit service on Washington is so important. It’s the link that enables people to get to the new jail. In this case, transit actually facilitates de-centralization, not centralization.

Some will no doubt say this is a waste of money and the jail doesn’t need to be replaced yet. It would not appear that there’s a burning platform to do this immediately. And it’s easy to point at Wayne County, Michigan as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong. But let’s be realistic. Anybody who’s been around Indy a while knows that there’s always at least one nine figure public construction project going at all times. With the new Eskenazi Hospital just wrapping up, it’s time for the next installment, and this looks like it’s the one. If a nine figure project is going to happen regardless, it might as well be something that’s actually great.

The merits of spending can of course be debated. But I’d like to suggest one benefit of these projects that’s often overlooked. I’m totally speculating with this, I’ll admit. But I see the implicit commitment to keep these construction projects going as a way to bind organized labor into the governing consensus. Indy has had remarkably few organized labor problems and I suspect this is one reason why. Labor is being taken care of. It also means labor is invested in keeping the city healthy, because a broke city means no more projects which means no more jobs for union construction workers.

Apart from purely debates about dollars, I suspect the most controversial part of my master plan is imploding the City-County Building. It’s a classic modernist era structure on an entire city block much of which is devoted to a plaza (with I think underground parking). Notably, the gorgeous historic Marion County Court House was demolished when the CCB was built. Here’s a picture:


Source: wikimapia.org

There’s not exactly a plethora of this type of modernism in Indy and demolishing it would be a loss. However, in my view it’s not a great building. It’s a massive development barrier/dead zone where it stands. And it needs huge money spent in renovations and is probably costly to operate. In the summer, even the 25th floor (where the mayor’s office is located), has insufficient air conditioning, for example. I say implode it and redevelop the block in the private sector.

Here are pictures of some other buildings I mentioned:


Old City Hall, empty and with the windows closed up. Source: ibj.com


Marion County Jail II (Source: indy.gov)

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Our Jobs Deficit and the Indiana Super City Council by Brian Howey

[ After I put up last week’s post on quality of life’s impact on economic development, Indiana political blogger Doug Masson pointed me to a column by Brian Howey that makes many related points. Brian publishes a weekly newsletter called Howey Politics Indiana and writes a weekly column that runs in many Indiana newspapers. He graciously gave me permission to repost his most recent column here – Aaron. ]

After 16 consecutive months of Indiana’s jobless rate above the national average – it’s 8.4 percent now, compared to 7.4 for the U.S. – the cold reality is that we have a problem with a quarter of a million Hoosiers chronically out of work.

Then came a Ball State University study showing Indiana’s per capita income has slipped from 30th in the nation to 40th with dozens of counties wallowing in wage levels in the 1990s and, some like my old home of Miami, in the 1970s range.

I wrote an analysis in which I noted that for almost the past nine years, we’ve had Republican governors who have made job creation and education reform top priorities, and yet we’ve been over 8 percent unemployment since early 2009.

At some point, a political reality comes into play, perhaps as early as 2014 and if this trend persists, by 2016. It used to be that a jobless rate over 7 percent would mean the boot from voters. Yet, Gov. Mitch Daniels left office with a 60 percent approval rating and President Obama was reelected.

Gov. Mike Pence gets it. Speaking before the Indianapolis Kiwanis last Friday, he acknowledged, “There’s a great sense of optimism, there’s reason to be encouraged as Hoosiers, but this is a difficult time for too many in our state.”

At Hobart, Pence told local Realtors, “I want to see where the young people can graduate from high school and can have an industry certification or even an associates degree right that day.”

There was one interesting response to my analysis, and it came from Ball State University economics Prof. Michael Hicks. “Indiana’s problem is not that the overall business climate for investment is poor (it is great) or that we have too few students graduating from college with the right degrees (they are) or that people outside Indiana don’t know how great these things are (they know),” he explained. “The problem is not statewide (we have 12 counties growing much faster than the nation as a whole). These are just facts. I also don’t believe that the overall problem is one of rapid technological progress or any of the national (and hopefully transient) problems in labor markets.”

No, the problem here is much closer to home. It comes in your city or town.

Hicks explains: “This is a really a local, not state problem. Almost all our local economic policies target business investment, and masquerade as job creation efforts. We abate taxes, apply TIF’s and woo businesses all over the state, but then the employees who receive middle class wages (say $18 an hour or more) choose the nicest place to live within a 40-mile radius. So, we bring a nice factory to Muncie, and the employees all commute from Noblesville.”

The real problem here is that Indiana Republicans parade under the banners of Reaganism, of smaller government and one that stays out of our bedrooms and personal lives. But when our cities and towns seek what we call “local control” over tax options, legislative leaders politely listen, and then tell them to shove off.

A classic example came last year when Republican and Democratic mayors from Whiting to Evansville pleaded with the General Assembly to toughen laws on access to methamphetamine ingredients. They were largely ignored, a watered down law passed, and so far in 2013, we’ve had almost 1,100 meth lab busts that have injured 17 cookers, 18 cops and involved more than 300 children.

They have passed tax caps that have crimped city budgets. The hope was that municipalities would consolidate, but what’s happened has been cuts in parks budgets and a curtailing of school bus service. So when cities compete for that new corporation, and the executives survey a city with shabby parks and kids walking to school in 10 degree weather, they go elsewhere.

Hicks explains, “As Americans became richer, schooling and community amenities matter more. This is an iron law of economics, that the share of income we spend on some goods rises as we get richer. Education and amenities (like health care and recreation) are two of these things. So, the Midwest built its small towns long before the quality of a place made much difference in migration or incomes. Today, quality of place matters deeply, and we are, in many places, unprepared to deal with it.”

Power has become centralized at the Indiana City Council (i.e. Indiana General Assembly), which has capped taxes, overridden local gun laws and constantly tinkers in municipal affairs.

“Both parties have been complicit to some degree in the long march towards centralizing power at the state and federal level that has weakened the capacity of local government to address their problems,” Hicks explains. “It will take some serious assistance, both technical and financial, for a state like Indiana to help most communities emerge from the dire straits they are in. Even then, many places face a dismal future.”

The ironic aspect to this is that the chronic 8 percent jobless rate may be just the thing that flushes the central scrutinizers in the House and Senate out of office over the next two election cycles.

You reap what you sow, senator, if the voters make this connection.

The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.

Monday, August 12th, 2013

The Growing Public Safety Inequality Gap in Chicago by Daniel Hertz

[ Daniel Hertz writes over at his City Notes blog. He was gracious enough to give me to permission to repost the results of his research into changes in crime patterns in Chicago over time – Aaron. ]

Here are two maps:

HOMICIDE RATE BY POLICE DISTRICT

Hom90 hom20

1990-1993 2008-2011

Like the captions say, the one on the left shows homicide rates by police district in the early 90s, when crime was at its peak in Chicago, and the one on the right shows the same thing, but about two decades later.* The areas in dark green are the safest; the ones in dark pink are the most dangerous. The colors are calibrated so that green areas are safer than average for the early 90s, and pink ones are more dangerous than average for the early 90s. The 2008-2011 map keeps the same calibration: green is safe compared to the early 90s, so that you can see change in the levels of violence over time.

And, indeed, the first thing that jumps out from these maps is that there’s way more green nowadays, and it tends to be darker. The city is way safer! Some areas we might consider a bit dicey today – like, say, the Lawndale/Little Village area – actually register as light green, meaning that by early 90s standards, they would be considered relatively safe.

[For those of you craving numbers, the murder rate averaged 30 per 100k during the first period, and 17 per 100k during the second, a decline of nearly 50%.]

Of course, the other thing we notice is that there are some very distinct patterns to safety. These maps are breaking exactly no news by indicating that the more dangerous parts of the city are on the West and South Sides, but it is striking, I think, to see that nowadays, basically the entire North Side is the darkest green, which translates to a homicide rate of less than 6 per 100k. In fact, the dark-green part of the city has a murder rate of 3.3 per 100k.

Three point three. In New York City, which is constantly (and mostly correctly) being held up as proof that urban safety miracles can happen in America, it’s 6.3. Toronto, which as far as North American big cities go occupies a fairy tale land where no one hurts anybody, had a homicide rate of 3.3 per 100k as recently as 2007. The North Side is unbelievably safe, at least as far as murder goes.

But there are none of the darkest green on the West or South Sides. There’s actually a fair amount of pink, meaning places that are relatively dangerous even by the terrifying standards of the early 90s.

This raises a question: Has the great Crime Decline benefited the whole city equally? Are the South and West Sides still relatively dangerous because they started from such a bad place, or because they haven’t seen nearly as much of a decline as the North Side has?

Here is the answer in another map:

CHANGE IN HOMICIDE RATE, EARLY 90s – LATE 2000s

Murderchange

The areas in darkest green saw the greatest decline; red means the murder rate actually increased.

So: Yes, the great Crime Decline is a fickle thing. The North Side saw huge decreases (in Rogers Park, it was over 80%) pretty much everywhere; the few areas that are lighter green were the safest in the city to begin with. The parts of the South and West Sides closest to downtown – Bronzeville, the West Loop, Pilsen, etc. – got a lot safer. But most of the rest actually got worse, including some neighborhoods that were already among the most dangerous in the city, like Englewood and Garfield Park.

This is a complicated state of affairs, and probably goes at least part of the way to explaining why, in the face of a 50% decrease in homicides citywide over the last two decades, many people persist in believing that the opposite is true: because in their neighborhoods, it is. It’s a dynamic that defies an easy narrative, and makes me slightly less angry (though only slightly) at all those journalists who have written in the last year or two about murder in Chicago without mentioning that the city is, in fact, safer on the whole than it has been in fifty years.

Here is one final pair of maps:

RATIO OF POLICE DISTRICT HOMICIDE RATE TO CITY AVERAGE

Homicideratios90s homicideratio2

1990-1993 2008-2011

This is slightly less intuitive. These maps show the how the homicide rate in any given police district compares to the citywide average, using ratios; for example, if the homicide rate in West Town is 10 per 100k, and citywide it’s 5 per 100k, West Town’s ratio is 2 to 1. If West Town were 2.5 per 100k, its ratio would be 0.5 to 1. (Obviously the numbers in these examples are made up.) Blue areas have ratios below 1, and so are relatively safe; red ones above 1, and are relatively dangerous.

With the help of these maps, I’m going to ignore what I said about all this defying an easy narrative, and try to supply one: Over the last twenty years, at the same time as overall crime has declined, the inequality of violence in Chicago has skyrocketed. The pattern of what’s blue and what’s red in each map is mostly the same; I count only three out of twenty-five districts that switched from one color to another. But the colors are much darker in the 2000s than they were in the 1990s. There have always been safer and more dangerous areas here, as there are everywhere; but the gap between them is way, way bigger now than it used to be.

Numbers will help this case. Imagine that for each of these two time periods, we cut the city into equal thirds: one contains the most dangerous neighborhoods; another, the safest; and the last, everything else. In the early 90s, the most dangerous third of the city had about six times as many murders as the safest third. By the late 2000s, the most dangerous part of the city had nearly fifteen times more homicides than the safest third.

In addition, here are two charts (click to enlarge):

HomRatio90

Homratio20

The divergence is self-evident. The early 90s look very roughly like a normal curve: most neighborhoods are in the middle, and there’s a clear, if slightly bumpy, slope down towards the extremes.

Today, any semblance of a normal curve has been annihilated. Or, actually, that’s not quite right. Now it looks like there might be two completely separate normal curves, one with a peak at 0.2-0.4, and the other peaking at 3.1-4. Plus a few guys who got lost in the middle.

I suppose there are many, many things that one might say about what this means, but here’s the bottom line: The disadvantages and tragedies that people in “dangerous” neighborhoods experience are both absolute and relative. The death of an innocent person** is an indescribable loss no matter what. And, on that count, things are somewhat better for Chicago’s most violent areas: the homicide rate for the most dangerous third of the city declined from 51 to 39 per 100k in the time period we’ve looked at here. That is a real accomplishment, and hundreds, if not thousands, of people are still with their families and friends because of it.

But in other ways, it does matter if other parts of the city are getting safer much, much faster. When people weigh safety in their decisions about where to live, they do so by comparing: How much safety am I gaining by living in one neighborhood versus another? The same is true of entrepreneurs considering where to open their next business. The same is true of tourists looking to explore the city. The same is true of locals looking to travel to another neighborhood to eat out or go shopping.

On every one of those counts, the disadvantages that are accruing to already-disadvantaged neighborhoods in terms of lost population, investment, and connections to the rest of the city are now much more severe. The hurdles are that much higher.

That’s bad for those physical neighborhoods. It’s also terrible for the people who have good reasons to live there, like social networks, nearby family, or the affordability of real estate.

Because I don’t have the data in front of me, but who would doubt that over these same twenty years, there has also been a growing gap between how much it costs to live on the safe North Side compared to the more dangerous parts of the South and West Sides? Who would doubt that, as the North Side reaches Toronto-level peacefulness, the cost of rent has greatly diminished the number of apartments there affordable to the poor and working class?

In other words, just as the stakes have been tripled as to whether you live in Relatively Safe Chicago or Relatively Dangerous Chicago, it has become much, much harder to establish yourself on the winning side.

So: Next time you hear someone talking about “record violence” in the city, tell them that actually, murders are down almost 50% from twenty years ago. And then tell them that what’s really alarming is murder inequality.

* Why does this data end in 2011? Because I made these maps using data from the Chicago Police Department annual reports, which are available online, and which only broke down crimes by police district in the 1990s. In 2012, the police district boundaries changed, making it not quite an apples-to-apples comparison to prior years. Maybe somewhere data exists by Community Area for the early 90s, and then I could redo all of this.

** And I think reporting like that done by This American Life at Harper High in Englewood ought to challenge conventional middle-class ideas about “innocence” in the ghetto. It is very easy for those who don’t live in the neighborhood to talk about “thugs” and “gangsters” getting what they deserve. It is also very cruel, and very naive about what exactly “gangs” are, and what kind of people join one, and how, and why.

This post originally appeared in City Notes on August 5, 2013.

Monday, July 15th, 2013

Public Safety Is Job #1

I participated in an interesting message board debate a few weeks ago. We were discussing the steep collapse in the urban core (Center Township) population of Indianapolis, a drop comparable to Detroit’s. It lost another 14.5% during the 2000s and even the downtown itself only added less than 1000 people at time with other downtowns were growing more sharply.

Most people were quick to blame schools. I agreed the schools were a problem but suggested crime was a bigger one. Besides which, nobody has yet demonstrated a real turnaround in urban schools, while multiple places have been able to achieve stunning improvements in crime.

What most took me aback was not the debate over which order to rank the two, but rather than many people effectively argued Indianapolis doesn’t even have a crime problem. “It’s not that dangerous” seemed to be the tone, and people talked about how they personally did not feel unsafe or threatened despite living in the city and that suburbanites simply sensationalized urban crime.

I disagree with that in the strongest possible way. While no doubt things can be sensationalized and you aren’t likely to get killed walking down the street, Indianapolis does have a serious crime problem. Almost immediately after our debate died out, someone was shot and killed in the middle of downtown on the 4th of July. And after that there was a series of five murders in one week.

While many cities have seen a drop in murders this year, Indianapolis murders are up 35% and the city is on track for upwards of 150 this year. To put that in perspective, New York City has experienced a stunning drop in murders this year (after a record low last year), and is tracking towards somewhere around 300 murders for the year. NYC has a 10 times the population of Indianapolis but only twice as many murders. When you consider that much of Indianapolis’ population is in outer “suburban” areas that were annexed and have very few murders, the urban core murder rate must be far, far higher than NYC.

Indianapolis Public Safety Director Troy Riggs says the city isn’t more dangerous and points at declines in violent crime overall (query: has it fallen by 80% in the last 20 years, like it did in New York City?). This is exactly the same spin that Rahm Emanuel has been giving to explain away Chicago’s high murder rate.

The people trapped in these neighborhoods tell a different tale. In some Chicago neighborhoods mothers won’t let their kids stand by the window even if they are home because of the risk of getting shot. Someone in Indy similarly said, “I hear gunshots and police sirens every night. I’ve taught my kids how to roll out of bed and get underneath it when it starts happening.”

Make no mistake, the top reason to reduce crime is to keep people from becoming its victims or having to live their lives in terror in neighborhoods like this. But beyond that crime is simply fatal to the urban fabric. Just as one data point, some researchers found that every murder committed causes a city to lose 70 people. Chicago actually would have gained population instead of losing it if its murder rate were the same as New York. Clearly crime is high among the factors driving people out of the central city who have the means to leave, and keeping those who might be willing to move into to it away.

Additionally, given the impressive record of crime reduction in New York and many other places, including Los Angeles (which has also made huge strides in improving police-community relations from its Detective Mark Fuhrman days), it’s also clear that progress can be made.

I’m not sure that there’s a ready answer for schools. My hypothesis has been that it will be families returning to the city that turns around the schools, not a turnaround in the schools bringing families back. But crime is clearly different. Yes, gentrification will “improve” the crime situation. But NYC and LA have seen dramatic crime reductions even in their toughest neighborhoods, ones that have not seen gentrification.

Crime problems can be solved if there’s the will to do so. That will is ultimately lacking in too many places. There’s a fatalistic attitude towards crime too often, and few politicians have the stomach for the spending it will take or the blowback many crime reduction efforts will clearly generate.

But by contrast look at something like fire protection. It’s well known that if you don’t put out a fire in a timely fashion, your entire city can burn down – including rich people’s neighborhoods – something that has happened again and again throughout history. Hence no city, no matter how poorly run in other areas, ultimately allows its fire protection to fall below minimum standard. For example, even in Detroit, while the fire department has seen major cuts, has tons of broken down equipment, has to deal with a stunningly high percentage of arson fires, etc, there is still a baseline level of fire protection for the city, something that was documented in the recent documentary about the Detroit Fire Department called “BURN.”

That fire protection is generally the best provided public service has been known for a long time. For example, in 1972’s “Report From Engine Company 82,” Dennis Smith (admittedly a fire fighter) had this to say:

The people in the South Bronx know that when the corner alarm box is pulled the firemen always come. If you pick up a telephone receiver in this town you may, or may not, get a dial tone. If you get on a subway you may, or may not, get stuck in a tunnel for an hour. The wall socket in your apartment may, or may not, contain electricity. The city’s air may, or may not, be killing you. The only real sure thing in this town is that the firemen come when you pull the handle on that red box.

Failing to put out fires in a timely fashion is simply unacceptable in a city, while we’ve grown used to tolerating large amounts of crime. Places like New York City have decided that they for one will not accept high crime rates, and have relentlessly attacked it, making stunning progress.

I think we need to acknowledge that macrotrends played a big role in this. Mayors like Giuliani and Daley got big credit for turning around their cities, when in fact many big cities all came back at the same time, suggesting common outside forces played a big role. (Saskia Sassen does a great job of documenting this macrochange in “The Global City.”) The peaking of the crack cocaine epidemic likewise helped incredibly. I’m sure there are many other such common factors.

Yet it doesn’t seem unreasonable to attribute at least something to policing and policy changes. Both NYC and LA saw major changes under the leadership of William Bratton. (Chicago, which tried different methods, has not seen similar results, though has had improvements in the last 20 years). It seems to me a lot of people would rather die than give any credit to Giuliani, Bloomberg, the NYPD, Bratton, Kelly, Broken Windows, etc. Myron Magnet wrote of this, “Some people can’t – or won’t – see what’s in front of their own eyes.”

There is certainly plenty of scope to debate or critique various police tactics (e.g, stop and frisk). I myself am very troubled by the increasing militarization of the police, for example. This is a debate that needs to be had and reforms made where necessary. And the police definitely need to be held accountable when they do wrong, something that requires significant, vigilant oversight.

Yet to me the current crop of NYC mayoral candidates give off a soft on crime air. If the next mayor decides to opportunistically score cheap political points at the expense of NYPD, not just that mayor, but the entire city, may come to regret it. Sadly, too many people no longer remember what it was like even in Manhattan not that long ago. (For a sample to refresh your memory, read this). For example, the New York Times in 2004 asked “Is New York Losing Its Street Smarts?,” citing a woman who thought it was a joke at first when she got mugged.

The Millennial urban dweller who has never experienced anything but urban Disneyland is sadly unlikely to understand what is at stake. And indeed even if NYC takes its foot off the gas on crime, things are extremely unlikely to go back to what they were (thankfully). But even a modest uptick in crime can have a chilling effect, and the crime genie can be fiendishly difficult to put back in the bottle once it’s loose. Just ask Rahm Emanuel. Despite his crime stat rhetoric, he knows the score. He meets the families of the victims and I’m sure desperately wants to end the killings.

As for Indianapolis, it’s hard to argue it has really been serious about crime. Before doing a job search for Public Safety Director, the city council specially raised the salary of the job – to $125,000 a year. That’s for a person overseeing both police and fire with a budget of $525 million. Unsurprisingly, they’ve been unable to recruit somebody with the experience befitting the 13th largest municipality in the United States. The previous occupant came from White Plains, NY. (His contract was not renewed). The current one came from Corpus Christi, TX.

I’m not saying Troy Riggs is no good, merely that this is a huge step up for him. He certainly deserves a fair shot to do the job, which he’s been on less than a year. But Indy is in a sort of lose-lose position. Either they hired another guy who’s a bust. Or if he succeeds he’ll be “gone in 60 seconds” to someplace where they’ll pay him a real salary.

I’ve long argued that Indianapolis public sector pay is too low to do a proper national job search for any key position in city government. But it’s tough to change when locals don’t agree. See, for example, Paul Ogden, who strongly feels differently. But it’s the same elsewhere. Detroit had a recent controversy over the pay of its police chief too.

Call me crazy, but I don’t know anyone in the private sector managing a $525 million budget that’s safety critical who only makes $125K/yr. If that salary was raised by just $25-50K, the field of potential recruits would increase enormously. Skimping on policing is the epitome of penny wise, pound foolish – and it’s the city’s citizens, disproportionately the poor ones, who pay the price.

At the end of the day it’s simply a matter of priorities. You could buy a lot of policing for the cost of even one of the $500 million stadiums that dot the American landscape. You can be sure that if a major fire ever again did wipe out a good chunk of a city, state and local government will do whatever and spend whatever it takes to make sure it doesn’t happen again. One hurricane in New York and Bloomberg puts $20 billion in improvements on the table for better withstanding future storms. Yet crime and other ills have effectively destroyed big chunks of our cities, and we’ve just let it happen.

I find that urbanists seem to rarely talk about public safety unless it’s about some controversial incident with the police. I think that’s a mistake. Most cities in America aren’t seeing the strong investment flows and growth of a New York, San Francisco, or Seattle. Outside of a “green zone” downtown many places are still in decline. There’s nothing more important to restoring confidence in those places – and put and end to the ongoing human tragedy in too many of their neighborhoods – than fighting crime. Public safety really is Job #1.

Sunday, May 5th, 2013

Replay: Parallel Societies

This post originally ran on November 11, 2009.

Until recently I had an apartment in the Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis. Fountain Square is a small commercial node surrounded by houses on the near southeast side of the city that has long been my favorite ‘hood in the city. I’ve been hanging out in the area for over 15 years.

Fountain Square was a sort of lower working class neighborhood. The South Side of Indianapolis is notably more Southern in character than the north. In fact, some have said that Washington St. (or I-70) is the real Mason-Dixon Line. In the case of Fountain Square, it is literally Southern. A good chunk of the population is from Appalachia. This has been true a long time. Back in the 1960’s, then Mayor (now Senator) Richard Lugar commissioned a study called “The Appalachian in Indianapolis” to study the question of whether or not the city’s Appalachian community needed special help like other minority populations. The epicenter of Appalachian Indianapolis is Fountain Square. Even today, many people are new arrivals from places like West Virginia. There’s a lot of circulation back and forth. Sometimes kids who get in trouble in Indy get sent back home to West Virginia to stay with relatives there, for example. In effect, Fountain Square is an ethnic immigrant neighborhood, but instead of traditional immigrants from places like Poland, Italy, or Mexico, it is made up of domestic migrants from a particular region and with a distinct culture. New arrivals are, in effect, straight off the boat. As with waves of immigrants from elsewhere, they are seeking better opportunities. Fountain Square is the traditional port of entry for people from West Virginia and similar places to Indianapolis.

The area is about a mile and a half from the center of downtown, and is one of the few intact commercial nodes left in the city. So it was long targeted for development. A few enterprising people bought and refurbished the Fountain Square Theater Building, which now houses restaurants, a duckpin bowling alley, and a boutique hotel. A former department store was converted into cutting edge art galleries and studios. An indie rock club has opened. Many restaurants dot the area and it is really a destination dining district in some ways. (Santorini on Prospect is the best Greek restaurant I’ve ever eaten at). A lot of artists and culturally inclined types have moved in. My apartment was previously occupied by an assistant curator of contemporary art the Indianapolis Museum of Art, for example.

When the artists started moving in I was originally very worried about gentrification and the area becoming unaffordable to anyone without lots of money, like Lockerbie Square or Chatham-Arch, displacing all the original residents. But that didn’t happen. Housing remains extremely affordable and despite the influx of newcomers, they are still a minority.

What’s notable about Fountain Square, and similar areas in other Midwest cities, is that a lot of these artists are able to buy homes. This means they are likely here to stay even if prices go up. That’s in contrast to NYC, SF, or Chicago, where the artists rent.

In any case, while Fountain Square may go upscale, wholesale remaking of large chunks of the city a la Chicago is not likely to happen. Despite the increase in demand for urban living, there is not enough demand to materially increase prices outside of selected district because of the vast acreage of land that has fallen to nearly zero in value. It is a huge overhang. Also, the type of wage inflation and resulting salary gap that you see in bigger cities, which I’ll argue in a future piece is a big driver of their two-tier societies, didn’t happen in Indianapolis. For example, a partner in a major local law firm told me that a few years ago the salary difference for new associates between Indianapolis and Chicago was 30%. Now it is 100%.

So unlike in so many other cities, in Indianapolis yuppies and artists can live side by side with traditional neighborhood residents for a long time. When I lived in West Town in Chicago, my area was probably 30% Mexican, 30% Puerto Rican, 30% yuppie, and 10% other white ethnic. But that was only a transitional period presaging a yuppie takeover. In Fountain Square though, I expect the Appalachians aren’t going anywhere for quite some time, even if the core area around the commercial district does gentrify. (Perhaps the arrival of a spur of the Indy Cultural Trail may by a catalyst for that – we’ll see). I often describe the demographic of the neighborhood as “Artists and Appalachians”, though that doesn’t do it justice since artists are a minority of the new arrivals, who are often professionals, especially those who merely patronize businesses in the area, and there is by my eyeball estimate a 10% or so African American population.

But just because two groups of people live side by side doesn’t mean they interact socially. With some exceptions, I rarely observed much in the way of interaction between them. The upscale restaurants and art galleries are not affordable or perhaps even of interest to West Virginia refugees. Similarly the rent to own stores for yuppies or arts crowd.

There are some older institutions that are, however, used by everyone. One of them is a greasy diner called Peppy’s Grill. If ever a place deserved an exemption from the smoking ban, this is it. The place just hasn’t been the same. Good burgers, great atmosphere. But not a lot of conversation between the two sets of customers.

Another is the Liquor Cabinet, the neighborhood package liquor store. They carry a large inventory of 40’s along with a cooler of top end microbrews from the likes of Three Floyds – all behind a bulletproof glass shield. There’s a drink for every taste and budget.

As an aside, is there any better example to show why, despite what one may think, Indianapolis is not an overgrown small town? I mean, physically, it basically is one. I’ve long noted that a residential street in Indianapolis is not that different from one in the first state capital of Corydon, population 3,000. Heck, Fountain Square is like a literal small town, with its fading Main St. shops along Virginia Ave., the Theater Building and its surrounding streets the courthouse square, and the tidy rows of small, single family homes that have seen better days around it.

But appearances can be deceiving. Function does not always follow form. How many Indiana small towns have a liquor store like that? Or a piece of contemporary architecture like the Craig McCormick designed Ragsdale House on Pleasant St.? Or several edgy contemporary art studios? Or an indie rock club?

Need more proof? Just look at the city’s blogosphere. One of America’s leading LGBT blogs is based in Indy. The leading Republican blogger in the city is gay. A hardcore libertarian anti-tax activist is a former professional dominatrix. And a prominent political pundit is a cigar smoking, whiskey sipping Black Muslim stand-up comedian – and Republican.

No, my friends, this is no small town. And it has a lot more character – and characters – than you might think.

Back at the Liquor Cabinet, a variety of people come together to buy their nightly libations – but I don’t see any real conversation or interaction. Only occasional light banter of the type one might make with strangers – because that’s what we are. There’s no connection or bond that has been built between the different groups, with some limited exceptions such as at the Community Development Corporation.

Long time readers know I care a lot about the notion of a “commonwealth”. That is, a city and region where people feel that their fates are linked together, where they rise an fall together, where they feel like they have a stake in the system and in a shared prosperity for everyone.

I think it is harder to view ourselves as sharing a common destiny with people who are very different from ourselves. But if we get to know them personally at some level, there is generally some base commonality there. How do we foster that type of connection, not just of the “Isn’t this weather nice?” variety but some type of real relationship?

I’ve thought about this a bit and it often seems to require some type of pivot point or area of mutual concern people can connect around. I think about, for example, how back in the early 90’s a lot of heavy metal bands and gangster rappers started hanging out together and promoting each other’s stuff. They saw the marketing possibilities yes, but also a way to tap into the common alienation and marginalization their respective audiences felt from the mainstream.

Because each pivot point is likely to involve a subset of people, it is best to have multiple of them. Then you start creating all sorts of cross-network pathways. I thought about this with regards to Fountain Square and came up with a few ideas.

  • The obvious neighborhood institutions: neighborhood associations, local schools (such as the area charter school), the library branch, the CDC, etc.
  • Back to our musical example, a shared sense of being marginalized in a community felt by both artists and Appalachians. Certainly both of those groups have a shared interest in not seeing runaway real estate prices. The artists already had a scare recently when the Murphy Building which houses many of their studios and such was put up for sale.
  • Bicycling. Fountain Square is the heart of Indy’s bike culture. One of the people behind the Indy Cog blog lives there and is brave enough to live in Indy with only his feet and bike for transportation. Joe’s Cycles on Virginia is a local gathering place. But in Fountain Square, lots of people ride. It’s not just hipsters or people making an alternative transportation statement, it’s kids and regular neighbors, people black and white, a true neighborhood cross-section. Seems like an opportunity.

These are a few examples in only one neighborhood. The bigger point is that a big part of what makes a city is its social infrastructure. It’s not just bike lanes and buildings. It’s people and relationships and networks. Especially where there is so much traditional distrust between groups who have often had big differences in interests, finding ways to bring people together across those boundaries, at least at some level, is a way to help strengthen civic social capital. A mixed neighborhood is of limited benefit if people do not, in fact, mix. We should be looking for ways to break down barriers that too often create parallel societies.

Friday, February 8th, 2013

Why Are There So Many Murders in Chicago?

My latest blog post is online over at New Geography. It is called “Why Are There So Many Murders in Chicago?” In it I take a look at why Chicago has so many murders compared to other large global cities.

Some commenters already pushed back saying that there are lots of cities with higher murder rates. Perhaps true. But do you really want to say that Chicago’s peer group is made up of places like Detroit, Flint and St. Louis? After all, Chicago aspires to be an elite global city, and it is against other elite global cities by which it should be judged. Thus places like New York and LA are the right peer group.

I don’t claim to know the exact answers, but I explore some possibilities related to policing, demographics, and housing policy. Whatever the case, Chicago would be well served to do some detailed comparative analysis to figure out what it needs to do differently to stem the murder tide given that there appears to be little progress being made through the current approach. (This January was the deadliest in over a decade, for example).

One item I know I mis-worded. Talking about the NYT piece, my intent was to say that Chicago’s gun laws are pretty tough and broadly comparable to NYC and LA, and so you can’t blame Chicago’s murders on differences in gun policies. That doesn’t mean Chicago and America can’t do better when it comes to guns, but to blame gun laws is really just blame shifting by people who don’t want to take responsibility for what’s going on on the streets of Chicago.

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

Transforming Bogotá

Lots of folks have heard of the positive changes in transport in Bogotá, Colombia, including things like the Transmilenio BRT system, bike lanes, and the ciclovia. But I don’t think most folks are familiar with all that happened and the journey to get there.

A 2009 Danish documentary called “Bogotá Change” does a good job of telling the story. I’ve only been able to find it online in a seven part You Tube series, which I’m presenting here. It’s an hour long documentary, but strongly recommended for anyone thinking about how to transform their city, especially how to transform the culture, expectations, and norms of behavior.

Most Americans probably think first of Mayor Enrique Peñalosa as the poster child for this transformation. And we see a lot of him in the film. But less well known is another mayor who played arguably a more crucial role in setting the stage, particularly for the cultural change. That was Antanas Mockus. Mockus is even more colorful than Peñalosa, if that’s possible.

To give you an incentive to watch this, I’ll share two brief anecdotes from the film. The first is that Mockus came to fame because he publicly mooned people who were heckling him. The second is that Mockus disbanded the entire notoriously corrupt traffic squad of the police department and replaced them with mimes that shamed drivers into better behaviors. I’m not making this up. So like I said, watch the film.

Part One. If it doesn’t display, click here.

Part Two. If it doesn’t display, click here.

Part Three. If it doesn’t display, click here.

Part Four. If it doesn’t display, click here.

Part Five. If it doesn’t display, click here.

Part Six. If it doesn’t display, click here.

Part Seven. If it doesn’t display, click here.

Thanks to Henry Lanham for sharing this video with me originally.

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

Chicago, Summer Crime, and the Slide Towards Detroit by Mark Bergen

[ Mark Bergen writes a blog called Econometro at forbes.com. He wrote this piece about the rising murder wave there. I’m including it as part of my State of Chicago series, but I should note that it was written independently and is not intended to endorse any of my particular views regarding Chicago – Aaron. ]

Here in Chicago we are fretting about crime. Philadelphia is hosting a jump in violence, with an 86 percent rise in homicides in June alone. But, otherwise, we are mostly alone. Other major cities are continuing the decades-long decline in crime rates, while Chicago has seen a nearly 40 percent spike in murders this year. (You can see a nicely visualized breakdown of the city’s crime, by ward, with this newly released interactive tool.)

The crime spike recently spread to the Magnificent Mile, the squeaky clean shopping district downtown. It led one Alderman, granted anonymity perhaps to escape the wrath of Mayor Emanuel, to suggest that these shootings in safe areas mark “when we start becoming Detroit.” That taps into a huge fear here—turning into the gutted city up north. Lines like that, though, are usually associated with simple, sensationalized ideas about urban violence.

One person who has spent much of his career dispelling these easy notions of crime is Jens Ludwig, a researcher at the University of Chicago. He has an op-ed in Crain’s this morning laying out three reasons why Chicagoans should be concerned with crime. One, in particular, has enormous implications for business in the city:

Third, no one should want Chicago to turn into Detroit — but that’s the direction that violence leads cities. Research by my University of Chicago colleague Steve Levitt and Julie Cullen of the University of California, San Diego, showed that for every homicide that occurs in a city, total population declines by 70 people. The 2010 census showed that Chicago had shrunk by 200,000 people in the past decade. If Chicago had New York’s success in controlling violence (that city’s homicide rate is about one-third ours right now, even though our rates were similar in the early 1990s), Chicago’s population would have held steady or even grown the past 10 years.

This, I believe, is the research he cites. Crime isn’t the only factor pushing city residents out; for that decade of Chicago loss, violent crime rates were steadily falling. But it is a factor, and population loss certainly is a drag on a city’s economic prowess.

That parlays nicely to New York, where the city continues to suppress its crime and expand its economic force. The legal scholar Franklin E. Zimring has a lengthy, nuanced article titled, tellingly, “How New York Beat Crime”:

Once again, the simple explanations are not of much help. Some of the authorities’ more prominent campaigns were, in fact, little more than slogans, including “zero tolerance” and the “broken windows” strategy — the theory that measures such as fixing windows, cleaning up graffiti and cracking down on petty crimes prevents a neighborhood from entering into a spiral of dilapidation and decay and ultimately results in fewer serious crimes. For instance, the NYPD did not increase arrests for prostitution and was not consistent over time in its enforcement of gambling or other vice crimes.

But other campaigns seem to have had a significant effect on crime. Had the city followed through on its broken-windows policing, it would have concentrated precious resources in marginal neighborhoods rather than in those with the highest crime. In fact, the police did the opposite: they emphasized ‘hotspots’ a strategy that had been proved effective in other cities and that almost certainly made a substantial contribution in New York.

Despite the myths of a tough crackdown on crime, pushed by, among others, one-time mayors, New York’s imprisonment rate fell relative to other cities. A sharp fall in illegal drug use in the city helped quite a bit. Zimring also touches upon the role of aggressive, stop-and-frisk policing in the violence decline, though he notes its impact is small, its costs potentially large. Like every other factor, it eschews simple explanations. For those interested in crime policies, the whole thing is worth a read.

Following Ludwig, Zimring does arrive at a simple, cost effective recommendation: “First of all, cops matter.” In loads of studies, more police seem to be the only factor neatly correlated with reduced crime. Facing red budgets, both Detroit and Chicago have shrunk their forces. Unlike leadership in the former city, Emanuel seems to be avoiding the broken windows tactic, opting, according to the Times, to strategically target gangs with the statistical approach of Superintendent Garry McCarthy, the police chief who oversaw much of New York’s decline. McCarthy’s current department, though, has roughly 450 uniformed positions unfilled.

That Times article ends with a Chicago resident lamenting that “we’ve lost our way.” It’s a natural expression for someone at the center of truly depressing violence, and a fine capstone about a subject, city crime, bereft of easy answers. But the idea that a kid in Chicago is locked into a criminal path, or that the city is on some unstoppable decline, isn’t necessarily true. Here’s Zimring:

Perhaps the most optimistic lesson to take from New York’s experience is that high rates of homicides and muggings are not hardwired into a city’s populations, cultures and institutions.

Chicago need not become Detroit, and Detroit need not remain itself.

This post originally appeared at forbes.com on June 26, 2012. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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