In 2008, Hanna Rosin investigated the troubling patterns of violent crime in Memphis that cast doubt upon what we thought we knew about urban crime prevention. This fascinating, in-depth article is nearly four years old, but just by taking a look at a 2012 ranking of America’s most dangerous cities, it feels just as relevant now. That’s because, as Hanna Rosin describes, the patterns of urban crime in the U.S. are changing, and rather than our largest cities also being home to the highest crime rates (Chicago’s recent homicide troubles notwithstanding), mid-sized cities like Cleveland, Orlando, and the story’s focus city of Memphis are now showing up on these lists regularly. In Rosin’s words, she wonders, “why has Elvis’s hometown turned into America’s new South Bronx?”
But the crux of Rosin’s article is that within Memphis, the destruction of concentrated public housing hasn’t brought down city crime rates nor has it granted low-income residents new opportunities for improvement. Instead, the results of decentralizing the city’s public housing (via new, smaller developments and Section 8) has broadened the geography of crime throughout Memphis, bringing gang activity, drug dealing, and violent assaults to once quaint, care-free neighborhoods. This flies in the face of what so many sociologists and urban theorists have been led to believe, including myself, since the failure of public housing towers in the 1960s and 70s: mix low-income families throughout middle- and upper-income communities and they will be raised out of poverty and crime through stronger social and economic networks.
But as Rosin points out in her analysis, de-concentration shouldn’t take all the blame for Memphis’s crime woes because the fundamental problems facing the urban poor in large part remain and haven’t been addressed in full. This actually reminds me of the well-intentioned but incompletely thought-out plans for public housing in the 60s that would house hundreds of families in giant “towers in the park”. The new buildings started out clean and new, and there was an assumption that these beautiful surroundings would inspire people to be lifted out of poverty. But if the services, maintenance, and general long-term upkeep plans aren’t established, things fall apart quickly. This roughly sums up the saga of Pruitt-Igoe, a story I’d like to go more in-depth on in later posts. Just as towers in the park were ill-equipped for long-term habitation, perhaps so too are the HOPE VI-style public housing that still fails to address core needs. For example, Rosin notes that one major problem facing the relocated poor in Memphis is that the services they depended on remained at their old sites or were concentrated downtown, leaving many with less support than before the move.
For a more eloquent exploration of these issues, I highly recommend this read. In particular, the video featured alongside the article featuring Phyllis Betts from the University of Memphis describing the current the national dialogue on urban crime is really fascinating.