Gentrify the entire city and make everyone a homeowner.
The falling murder rates have produced at least one distressing subtrend. Over the past three years, as homicides have dropped 13 percent, it has become increasingly likely that a New York City murder victim will be a person of color and that the murder will occur outside Manhattan. In 2007, according to police statistics, 90 percent of the city’s homicide victims were black or Hispanic, up from 86 percent in 2004.
When ex-convict Glenn “China” Martin returns to his old block in Prospect Heights, he wonders if New York solved its crime problem through the relocation of high-risk populations. The street outside his mother’s apartment, once a dangerous heroin supermarket, is now a quiet enclave of mostly white professionals and their fancy dogs. One of Martin’s greatest regrets is that he didn’t buy in when the first building on the block went condo. In 1993, $130,000 for a Prospect Heights apartment seemed insane. “Today,” he says, “it’s more like, ‘I’ll take two.’ ”
Martin, a 37-year-old native of Grenada, served six years behind bars beginning in 1995 after a lucrative career in jewelry-store robberies was cut short. With the honest money he now brings in advocating for just-released prisoners at Manhattan’s Fortune Society, he’s already bought two apartments deeper into Brooklyn, hoping to catch the next wave of gentrification. Martin is a big believer in the crime-suppressing power of private investment. When you have lots of property owners living in a community, he says, residents are less likely to let a drug dealer set up shop on the corner. “People are then willing to stand up and say, ‘Not in my neighborhood.’ ”
But while Martin is pleased that his mother can now return from her Manhattan clerical job without fearing the short walk from the Brooklyn Museum subway stop to her rent-stabilized apartment, he worries about the other poor families on Lincoln Place who’ve been priced out. The men Martin served prison terms alongside, he says, aren’t building new lives in up-and-coming Prospect Heights. They’re taking apartments in Brownsville and East New York, or moving to smaller cities upstate, often carrying their troubles with them. “I wouldn’t live in those places,” he says. “They’re too dangerous.”
That comment would mean less if East New York and Brownsville weren’t among the only neighborhoods in the city that recorded rises in homicides last year. In northern Brooklyn’s ten precincts, shootings were up 11 percent in 2007. It’s too simple to say that the city has succeeded merely in displacing crime, driving it outside the boroughs’ boundaries or corralling it into a few unlucky New York neighborhoods. After all, East New York and Brownsville are much safer than they were in 1990, and Commissioner Kelly is sending more cops to those neighborhoods to address the violence.
Is something more radical needed? Would a government-sponsored mass home-ownership program eliminate crime in New York? Of course not. But a city that still witnesses the senseless loss of 500 of its citizens each year can’t afford to become complacent, nor can it ignore the opportunities that years of growing public safety provide. Now is a very good moment to consider the kind of city New York should be in the future, and the kind we don’t want it to be.
The persistence of crime within a handful of neighborhoods feeds a worry that adds to the urgency. Another citywide epidemic is never out of the question. What might it take to unleash one? It’s hard to imagine that the police would suddenly forget all they’ve learned in the last two decades. Still, it has been a long time since law enforcement has been tested by a sustained economic downturn or the arrival of a new market-making street product like crack or the semiautomatic handgun. Looking around the city today, Glenn Martin sees plenty of reasons that even economically challenged young men would choose legitimate paths to stature and wealth. “Crime,” he says, “is just not as cool as it used to be in a city that’s taking off economically.” No one really knows, though, if the same calculus will hold true tomorrow.