Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

thinking about cities 3...

Inner city crime is a thing, and it is not a small thing. But, how can any community curb their crime when their responsible homeowners and residents flee to the hills? Instead of staying behind and forming community watch operations and working with local community leaders to create a healthy, happy community, the American method is for individual households to save up enough money to escape, and then to escape. Imagine what would be different about the mythical inner city if the drug dealers had no great concentration of poverty to exploit. They can mark their territories and lay down their exploitations, but they wouldn’t be pushing against powerless people without money, but the very landed gentry who can buy security measures and operate effectively with lawyers and politicians and policemen. In some sense, the us versus them aspect of race and class relations might exacerbate, but on the whole, I suspect that staying and fighting in our blighted communities would make it harder for crime to operate unchecked, harder for blight to take root, and easier for the young people in those neighborhoods to see a better way of living. But, it would be asking us to be fighters, and asking our kids to be fighters, and it is a hard thing to ask, when the community at large does not support the idea. We chase property values. We fly out to the hills and edges of our towns and communities. We see the encroaching decay not as a call to action, but as a call to flee.
One of the great myths of urban crime is the relationship between crime and poverty. In fact, the vast majority of impoverished people commit no crimes whatsoever. [http://www.citylab.com/crime/2013/08/hard-data-proves-housing-vouchers-dont-cause-crime/6404/] The small percentage of people who commit crimes will commit them whether rich or poor. The difference is, in urban planning terms, in the environment where the crime occurs. Concentrated poverty creates an atmosphere of hopelessness and decay that creates a system of crime recurrence in the community.
To protect the value of our personal investment in homes, we flee.
Ergo, the people who do not flee the encroachment of urban blight for reasons of wealth or personal values or a sense of community in their neighborhood will be damaged by the escape of those who can afford to leave, and have a low-enough commitment to their neighborhood that they can leave without feeling a loss.
In this, we reward people who have no connection to their community. We punish people who would stay and push back against the encroachment of decay. The property values of people who move into these gates suburban communities at the edge of cities are rewarded with a false sense of security. [citation: http://science.time.com/2013/07/23/in-town-versus-country-it-turns-out-that-cities-are-the-safest-places-to-live/] The rising crime rate is not in our inner cities, but in our suburban communities, where gun violence is on the rise. [http://www.nationalreview.com/agenda/348922/urban-poverty-and-suburban-poverty-reihan-salam] Depression, alcoholism, drug use, all are on the rise in our suburbs. They are on the decline in inner cities that have exactly one common thread: viable public transportation. When the situations of poverty are allowed a release valve into the larger community of jobs and opportunity, the people who live in those areas find less crime in their areas.
Critics will argue that it just means criminals have a broader base from which to operate their illegal actions. Again, there are criminals everywhere. Some percentage of the population will engage in criminal action no matter where you live. The alleviation of poverty conditions does change the cost-benefit-analysis of crime for a large number of people living in poverty, because it reduces the desperation that would otherwise drive marginal members of society into the true fringe where crime becomes the path of least resistance.
The most dangerous thing we do, every day, is drive. Nothing else we do has the potential for severe bodily injury and dismemberment and sudden death. Increasing the distance we drive everyday has a direct correlation to our level of personal safety. Extending the taxbase out into the hills around the city, and permitting more and more construction farther and farther away from the city center ensures that risk goes up across the community.
Infrastructure does not always follow our housing developments into the hills, and the winding loops that prevent casual entry and cross-through in our neighborhoods make it harder for emergency services to access our communities.
And, fear stalks the streets out in the gated communities. People live in fear of difference, of declining property values, of imagined criminality spilling out from the inner city. It causes the continued criminalization of our brown-skinned young men, and the targeting of them by violent, terrified white people. [I would love to see statistics between the number of crimes committed by white men upon black men versus the number of crimes committed the other direction.]
The castle mentality does not extend to land management.
The most irrigated crop in America is turfgrass. It is irrigated with potable water, that has been treated and includes chemicals that are mostly fine for people but bad for soil, like chlorine and flouride. Exacerbating this incorrect water usage, turfgrass, itself, is a monoculture that provides no meaningful pollination opportunities for insect life, and chokes out competition for other plant species that might thrive on native soils without the continued watering, overwatering, and overwatering - in a serious national drought, no less! - of turfgrass. Lacking enough resources in the soil to maintain said turfgrass, fertilizers and weed killers are purchased en masse. [citation needed about fertilizer sales figures and weed killer sales figures] These additives salt the ground with excessive mineral content, causing the need for more and stronger fertilizers, which exacerbates the issue. The effect of these chemicals on our environment, on a large scale is clear. [citation needed about run-off of fertilizer and weed killers in the environment.]
The manor house mentality, again, traditionally was primogeniture. The eldest would inherit the home and grounds upon the passing of the head of the household. The land was managed to provide not just for the peace and happiness of one person, but viewed as a legacy that is to be passed down from generation to generation. In our modern iteration of that mindset, the house is sold upon the passing of the head of the household, and the home value is what is passed on. The land, itself, then, is managed by everyone to promote high home prices. The community that forms around children and homes does not extend to the next generation. Once again, the people that are willing and able to disconnect from the community, and from the land itself, receive the highest rewards in our culture.
The material rewards are highest for people who have no connection.
Is it any wonder our society is fragmenting into gated communities, politics is polarizing, and we are becoming a lonely bunch of depressed people, living in giant, empty palaces with few real-life friends?
The homeowners associations that exist to maintain home value do so because that is more important than existing to promote charitable works for residents. Keeping up appearances is more important than addressing the isolation that plagues our communities. Keeping out people who might not be able to keep up with the Jones’ with the maintenance of homes is more important than reaching out to other communities.

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