By: Patrick Sharkey
W.W. Norton & Company
It is hugely satisfying for me that Professor Patrick Sharkey’s important new book, “Uneasy Peace” concludes something that I have long suspected: in big cities across the country, violence has fallen as a result of the revitalization of public spaces by non-governmental organizations. Professor Sharkey, the Chair of the Sociology Department at NYU, argues that it has not been aggressive policing alone that produced the urban revolution of 1990’s, but rather the reestablishment of order in public spaces made a major contribution to the perception of public safety downtown.
My sense has long been that our work in the revitalization of Bryant Park (with its sister BIDs, Grand Central Partnership and 34th Street Partnership), along with that of the Central Park Conservancy in Central Park, was at the forefront of changing perceptions about urban public space. What the implementation of the “Broken Windows” philosophy as articulated by George Kelling and William Bratton is really about is high quality maintenance and programming in public space (fixing the broken windows) along with the presence of private, unarmed security personnel, rather than the kind of aggressive policing that produced the deeply intrusive and out of proportion “stop and frisk” policy that came to an end with the return of Bratton as police commissioner under Mayor Bill De Blasio. In my view, that kind of aggressive police engagement with the community is both dysfunctional and a distortion of what “broken windows” is really about.
Broken Windows thinking, along with the public space insights of William H. Whyte, were at the center of our work in midtown in the 90’s. I believe it also produced a remarkably positive result in the last ten years in downtown Jamaica, Queens. For example, in Jamaica, we took money that we had been using to hire a third-party security contractor to monitor our parking facilities to create our own, in-house, security program, the Jamaica Alliance. We used those funds to hire an outstanding retired New York City Police officer, James Vaccaro, along with a dozen community members. They were paid much more than minimum wage and received a full complement of benefits, including health insurance. Those individuals were well-trained by Jim to patrol Downtown Jamaica and report anti-social activity. Most seemed to love their jobs and were highly motivated by the possibility of making a contribution to their community. Many went on to even better positions – creating the possibility for hiring and training new members of the Jamaica Alliance team.
These “guardians” or “advocates,” both terms used by Sharkey to describe what he thinks are key roles in decreasing urban violence, were unarmed and carried mobile phones on which they reported antisocial conditions which were conveyed to the local precinct. They not only patrolled the parking facilities owned and operated by Greater Jamaica Development Corporation’s parking affiliate, Jamaica First Parking, but they also walked between those lots and garages (and rather far afield in order to cover the entire Downtown), providing a positive, visible presence on the street all over the Downtown. I believe that their being unarmed is important (unlike the off-duty cops described by Sharkey as being employed by the Hollywood business improvement district) – because it conveys a stronger sense of the functioning of social order in the downtown (not requiring the use of firearms). Jamaica Alliance “ambassadors” provided directions to visitors, broke up the occasional fights among high school students and ultimately assisted in eliminating street homelessness in Downtown, Jamaica (along with Alliance staff member Thomas Crater, Jr. and outreach workers from service provider, Breaking Ground). I am convinced that the work of the Alliance was a major ingredient in the recent turn-around in Downtown Jamaica, leading to hundreds of millions of dollars in new private investment. Professor Sharkey’s research and data seems to confirm that this kind of thing is happening is neighborhoods across the country.
Sharkey’s other conclusions, which are original and important, are that the decline in urban violence is real and that the decline in violence has most benefitted for the most disadvantaged segments of American society, particularly young African-American males. The book, which is lucidly written and a pleasure to read, parses data demonstrating the increased life expectancies of black men as a result of the reduction in urban violence over the last twenty-five years is a significant achievement.
Where Professor Sharkey’s research and my experience differ, however, is in his prescriptions for dealing with income inequality and improving conditions in low-income neighborhoods going forward. Sharkey suggests the expansion of a range of community-based social service programs and the creation of neighborhood “advocates,” much like BID ambassadors, but without the trappings of a private security service and with a broader agenda of improving community social conditions. My admittedly limited and anecdotal experience suggests that while social service provision has the capacity to assist individuals and families with the medical, mental health, housing and bureaucratic challenges that confront them, there is not much evidence that they actually do much to promote measurable structural social change.
His recommendations rely on non-governmental organizations to play a key role in implementation. However, it has been my more recent experience that, at least in New York City, government has grown increasingly unwilling to allow non-governmental organizations much latitude in doing their work. This strikes me as odd, given the many successes that Sharkey describes, especially in the management of public spaces by not-for-profits. But over the last decade, New York City government agreements with not-for-profit service providers have attempted to assert more control over these organizations and to actively prevent them from taking risks and engaging in creative programming. City government has also worked to control the leadership of such organizations, and at least wants veto power over the selection of chief executives, if not the ability to make the selection (as with smaller organizations). BIDs in particular have been constrained and politicized. This is certainly understandable, as city government seeks to prevent problems and surprises from organizations it does not formally control. But at the same time, these strictures prevent creative problem solving and adaptation to new conditions – making them unsuitable vehicles for the kind of service provision Sharkey contemplates. I don’t see this as possible to change.
I have concluded, by contrast, that the most effective path towards community revitalization involves improved perceptions of public spaces leading to “voluntary” (as opposed to government mandated) ethnic and economic integration. This is a social force generally derided as “gentrification,” but it is the most positive change that has occurred in cities, and particularly low-income neighborhoods, in the last two decades as the book points out. Professor Sharkey astutely recognizes that the term “gentrification” actually means two things. First it means an improvement local retail and restaurant offerings, which is generally a good thing for all local residents – expanding the quality and mix of products and services available to the community. The second meaning of “gentrification” is better termed “displacement.” That is a fear that rising rents will mean that long time community residents will no longer be able to afford to live in the neighborhood. Sharkey acknowledges that there is little research that demonstrates that such displacement is actually taking place. In fact, the quality research of which I am aware actually holds the opposite. Median rents rise in a gentrifying neighborhood because rents in newly rehabilitated or constructed units are higher.
My take, based on my experience, is that the best way to address the shocking economic inequality that successful cities now face is to nudge social institutions towards racial and economic integration. The obstacle to this is not just from the usual sources – but also from the low-income or formerly low-income communities themselves that seek to preserve the “character” of their communities and control over “their” schools.
I received a call last year from a highly respected community leader in Southeast Queens. He called to express his concern that all of the new development activity in Downtown Jamaica was going to produce traffic congestion, parking problems and “new people.” He complained that the community was losing control of its situation. I was taken aback! I said to him, “but isn’t this the economic development you worked to bring to the community for your entire political career?” I suggested that these kind of social and economic forces are not susceptible to fine-tuning.
My experience and the data seem to indicate that the best way to improve community schools is to introduce higher income, often white, families into them. Social integration seems to be the rising tide that lifts all boats – but more research on this certainly needs to be done. Professor Sharkey is a subscriber to the “root causes” of urban violence, the common sense idea that urban crime is the result of poverty and lack of opportunity, and therefore the best way to reduce violence is to improve those social and economic conditions. My experience suggests something else. By making better places of low-income communities, and attracting a more ethnically and economically diverse population both communities themselves and the life circumstances of the worst off in those communities improve.
I am hoping to more fully develop these ideas in the book I am now writing about strategies and tactics for public space revitalization, which should be announced soon.