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Story pick: Crime moves from city to suburbs. Is that progress?

After spending some years reporting about rough inner-city neighborhoods and affluent suburbs, I harbored a theory about what it would take for this country to get serious about fighting crime and addressing its roots: A migration of violence from the inner cities to the suburbs that first flourished in part as an escape from the troubles of America's cities.

Well, now we're living through that migration, and boy, was I wrong. As Hanna Rosin reported a couple of summers ago in "American Murder Mystery" in The Atlantic magazine, the best of motives prompted government efforts to take people out of crime-saturated neighborhoods and help them move to places where they would be safer and happier and crime would fall. Tear down decrepit old housing projects and you'd eliminate concentrations of crime, the thinking went. And certainly that's been the driving force behind housing changes in Washington over the past decade.

But Rosin, a former Washington Post reporter, writes that what actually happened was equally logical, yet sad and disappointing too: Crime has been resurgent in those areas where the former residents of those demolished housing projects moved, even though those new locations are primarily in suburbs and smaller cities that had previously enjoyed lower crime rates.

Falling crime rates have been one of the great American success stories of the past 15 years. New York and Los Angeles, once the twin capitals of violent crime, have calmed down significantly, as have most other big cities. Criminologists still debate why: the crack war petered out, new policing tactics worked, the economy improved for a long spell. Whatever the alchemy, crime in New York, for instance, is now so low that local prison guards are worried about unemployment.

Lately, though, a new and unexpected pattern has emerged, taking criminologists by surprise. While crime rates in large cities stayed flat, homicide rates in many midsize cities (with populations of between 500,000 and 1 million) began increasing, sometimes by as much as 20 percent a year.

The most celebrated government efforts to take families out of inner-city crime hot spots and move them to suburban areas with better schools and better housing have produced mixed results at best:

The schools were not much better, and children were no more likely to stay in them. Girls were less likely to engage in risky behaviors, and they reported feeling more secure in their new neighborhoods. But boys were as likely to do drugs and act out, and more likely to get arrested for property crimes. The best [Susan] Popkin [of the Urban Institute] can say is: “It has not lived up to its promise. It has not lifted people out of poverty, it has not made them self-sufficient, and it has left a lot of people behind.”

Rosin concludes that the rush to tear down the densely populated housing projects of the 1950s and 60s neglected to recognize that whatever their problems, those were communities where people knew and watched each other, where social lives, family ties and community services existed--which was more than you could say about the new communities into which many families were plopped.

Demonizing the high-rises has blinded some city officials to what was good and necessary about the projects, and what they ultimately have to find a way to replace: the sense of belonging, the informal economy, the easy access to social services.

Overall, even with the current epidemic of unemployment, poverty has clearly moved out from the inner cities to a more dispersed set of neighborhoods and towns. But that has created neither a dramatic decrease in poverty nor a new and more effective approach to combating crime. And despite my hopes that feeling crime closer to home might push more voters to clamor for attention to the difficult issues that create dysfunction, there's little evidence that the geography of crime alters the topography of politics.

This fascinating piece of reporting came to my attention now because of a splendid site called givemesomethingtoread.com, whose editors look at what people are reading and saving on instapaper.com, a site that lets you find and save good, longer reads for display on a portable device or any old computer.

By Marc Fisher  | July 23, 2010; 8:52 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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Comments

Susan Popkin's letter to the editor in response to Hanna Rosin's article is at
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/09/letters-to-the-editor/6939/2/.

Stu Kantor
Urban Institute

Posted by: StuKantor | July 23, 2010 5:37 PM | Report abuse

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