I haven’t written a lot in this space over the past few weeks thanks to travelling for the holidays and generally trying to unplug for the six weeks NYU gives us for the winter break. Over the past few weeks, though, I’ve been doing a lot of reading (it’s harder to do much reading during the semester, especially when I’m biking and not riding the subway) and I’m processing how all the books I’ve read come together. Broadly speaking, they’ve fallen into two categories that won’t surprise anyone: cities, race, and cities + race. Only one of them was a total dud and it was, inevitably, the one that I asked for for Christmas and so the only one that I own. Oh well.
The books (in the order I read them) were:
- The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Post War New York
- Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America
- How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood
- A Colony in a Nation
- Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea
- The Blood of Emmett Till
I sprang for another purchased book (Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence) that’s being released today, and hopefully also being delivered by Amazon. The author, sociologist Pat Sharkey, and Matthew Desmond (author of 2016’s Evicted) are giving a talk on Pat’s new book on Thursday at NYU – if you’re in the city, you ought to come.
I wish that I had some great synthesis of all these books together, because I’m not convinced that many people are reading all of these books in conjunction with one another. They should be. Anyone who is talking about gentrification in American cities needs to be talking about race and policing. In one of the pieces I wrote last year that I had a lot of fun with, I tried to spend some time developing an idea of what it means to be a young, white person moving into a neighborhood that’s historically black. I’m thinking here in particular of stop-and-frisk. Before being ruled unconstitutional in 2013, the practice was widely used in New York City and led to the wild targeting of black and brown youth throughout the five boroughs. As many people have written about (James Forman Jr and Chris Hayes treat it in Locking Up Our Own and A Colony in a Nation, respectively) being searched by the police is a common experience for teenagers in minority communities. The evidence on the effectiveness of the program is mixed – some researchers say it contributed marginally to safety in cities, but that conclusion is far from clear. What is clear, however, is that even the largest estimates of crime reduction attributed to the program pale in comparison to the costs (both financial and social) of the program. Few people argue that the program was particularly effective, and even fewer people argue that it was a cost-effective way to reduce crime.
For each black and brown body targeted by the police for a stop-and-frisk in a changing neighborhood, however, there’s the possibility of a white onlooker seeing the law enforced in her or his neighborhood. Whether or not the program actually reduced crime, white people could move around in newly “discovered”* parts of the city and feel safe. Increased policing and harsh enforcement against black and brown bodies in cities like New York and gentrification are two sides of the same coin. For much of the twentieth century, black communities were radically under-policed, a condition that begat violence. When some members of the black community were convinced that the police wouldn’t protect them, they naturally took self-preservation into their own hands. Today, much of the policing that happens in black communities is centered on drugs, despite the fact that blacks and whites use drugs at the same rate.
In How to Kill a City, Peter Moskowitz shares an anecdote about a gentrifying neighborhood in New Orleans. Newer, whiter residents wanted to hire private security forces to ensure order in the public spaces that they were now frequenting. Longer-term members of the community pushed back, however, noting that police and security forces generally would be likely to harass them in their own neighborhoods. Folks like me and folks like my neighbors who perceive police presence in really different ways – I see protectors, while they are more likely to see antagonistic enforcers of bias.
This is where Chris Hayes’ book really shined for me. Hayes, a host on MSNBC, does two things in his book. The first is pretty straightforward, and not unexpected. He draws parallels between the black community in the United States today and the experience of American colonists chafing under British rule in the eighteenth century. In both cases, a group of people had little power to influence a system that imposed severe restrictions on their communities. It’s a compelling argument.
But the best part of A Colony in a Nation, in my opinion, was his reflections on his own relationship with the city. Hayes lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with his family. Park Slope is a fancy part of the city that has changed pretty dramatically over the past 50 years as an enormous amount of wealth has cascaded into the area. Hayes does a great job of wrestling with the fact that the safe, clean, open city that he loves has been achieved in large part thanks to the city cracking down on marginalized communities. He offers no final word and no pat solution, and he would have been wrong to do so. Rather, he acknowledges his participation in and benefiting from the system, and notes that he’ll have to give something up if justice in the city’s policing is to be achieved.
So I don’t know. I’m kind of all over the place, without a final word on any of this. But I think we need to do a better job of understanding the back-to-the-city movement within the context of what our policing practices are doing to minority communities. Even today, there are people who are surprised when they find out where I live thanks to the violence and crime that were present in my neighborhood a decade or two ago. Obviously the decline in urban crime** is due to many factors, and it is a great thing. And across the board, minority communities have benefited the most from the trend. But there’s also a more pernicious narrative just below the surface. There are neighborhoods in our cities that are policed in appalling ways and, just as they become safer, white gentrifiers move in. It’s no surprise that in some communities, lower-income residents see the police as an advance guard, clearing out the dangerous natives before the new comers arrive. It’s something all of us need to be aware of as we talk about policing in minority communities.
*In The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, Suleiman Osman does a great job of highlighting how even the earliest gentrifiers used words like “discovery,” “exploration,” and “settlement” to describe parts of the city in which large lower-income communities already lived.
**Yes, despite our beloved leader’s pronouncements, American cities were safer in 2017 than any year since the 1950s. In NYC, there were fewer murders in 2017 than in any year on record – despite a record-high population in the city.