“After the Fall,” by Adam Gopnik. The New Yorker, 2/12 & 19/2018.
A major social change has occurred in the past roughly 30 years, but it has gone almost unnoticed. It has been called “the great crime decline.” Violent crime on our city streets has declined precipitously everywhere, and no one is sure why. Even if you never go into a city or have never been mugged, you have been affected by this change. High crime has driven white flight to the suburbs and fueled the rise of Richard Nixon. Oddly, no one saw the decline coming, and once it arrived, no one publicized it.
NYU sociologist, Patrick Sharkey has just published a book, “Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence.”
Now, suburbanites are more willing to travel into a city after dark, and even move back into the city. New Yorkers remember in the 1970s night baseball games at Yankee Stadium drew thousands fewer fans than day games. Sharkey tells us, “Spaces that had been created to support public life, to be enjoyed by all, . . . were dominated by the threat of violence. . . . In a city [New York City] where 2,000 people used to be murdered each year, 328 were killed in 2014.”
Even last year in Philadelphia, “There were fewer violent crimes than in any other year since 1979, the fewest number of property crimes since 1971, and the fewest number of robberies since 1969.” Police Commissioner Richard Ross described the results as a step in the right direction but said police would continue seeking to drive the numbers lower. (Said like a true commissioner.)
Crime fell in other cities as well: Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Washington, and not by a little but by a lot.
Improvement in the quality of life has been noticeable. The gap between poor and nonpoor neighborhoods has narrowed. Customers are returning to buses, subways, and all forms of public transportation. I have posted several entries on exploring Philadelphia (see the category, “Philadelphia,” at the bottom of the right column), and I have been surprised at the number of comments on my bravery for setting foot in the city, especially using public transportation. I had never thought about it.
Author Gopnik partially blames the media for missing the change. “If there is little news value in Dog Bites Man, there is none whatever in Dog Does Not Bite Man.” And, to be fair, many other news-worthy items were vying for public attention. (I gave up looking for news about the government shutdown during the Eagles parade.)
But, too, the sharp decline results from a feedback system. An initial decline in the fear of violence brings out more eyes on the street that further adds to the decline.
Rats raised in a cage with a cat outside that they could not avoid or outwit, did worse on rat intelligence tests. Children do worse on human intelligence tests shortly after a neighborhood murder. Brains under stress become frozen.
The great crime wave of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s seemed only likely to increase. Its end seemed naively improbable. Gopnik credits most of the improvement on local community organizing: commitment by many supplemented by technology (such as surveillance cameras) and increased incarceration (getting the bad guys off the streets).