Police cars outside the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City
Police cars outside the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Patrick Sharkey, author of Uneasy Peace, talks to CityLab about how the drop in crime has transformed American cities.

Two of the most remarkable trends in recent years have been the tremendous decline in violent crime and the comeback of once downtrodden and written-off cities. In his new book, Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life and the New War on Violence, New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey argues that these two trends are inextricably related. The decline in violent crime has paved the way for the urban revival, and the urban revival has in turn helped to stabilize neighborhoods and make them safer and better places to live. (Full disclosure: Sharkey is my NYU colleague, and I liked the advance copy of the book I read so much that I contributed an endorsement.)

But all is not well. The peace we have today is indeed uneasy. And powerful forces, from the Trump administration to conservative state legislatures, are undertaking policies that can undo it. Cities and neighborhoods must step up and lead—and foundations and private-sector actors must help—if the crime decline and the urban revival it helped to set in motion are to endure.

I caught up with Sharkey over the phone about the key ideas in his new book.

Can you start by telling us a little bit about the Great Crime Decline and what it has meant for cities and urban neighborhoods?

Violence started to rise in the 1960s and stayed at an extremely high level from the ‘70s to the beginning of the ‘90s. That’s when violence started to fall. By 2014, the homicide rate was 4.5 per 100,000 people, and that was the lowest rate in at least 50 years. 2014 was really one of the safest years in the history of the U.S.

It happened because city spaces transformed. After years in which urban neighborhoods were largely abandoned, left on their own, a whole bunch of different actors came together and transformed urban neighborhoods. Part of that was the police. Law enforcement became more effective at what they were doing by using data about where police should be stationed, where the problems were arising. They started to shut down open-air drug markets to really end the crack epidemic, which was a major source of violent crime all over the country.

There were other changes, too. Private security forces expanded. Private companies started hiring private security guards. Home-owners started to install alarm systems and camera systems. Technology improved that made motor-vehicle theft much less successful. Cities started to install camera systems.

So it wasn’t just the police. It was about the transformation of urban spaces, about a set of changes that took place at the same time. Part of that was a very local mobilization against violence that was driven by residents and local organizations to retake parks, alleyways, city blocks, and to confront violence in a way that communities have always tried to do but that they did in a much more systematic and comprehensive way in the early 1990s. These local organizations had a causal effect on violence and their emergence should be seen alongside the expansion of police forces as one of the most important changes that took place in the 1990s.

What about immigration and gentrification in cities?

Let’s talk first about immigration. The neighborhoods where violence was most severe in the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties were places where poverty was concentrated. They were deeply segregated by race.  Many of these neighborhoods saw an influx of new residents, mostly from immigration. The dominant pattern of change was to shift from a majority African-American population to a more ethnically diverse population with new immigrant groups moving into segregated, very poor neighborhoods. These shifts played a role in revitalizing city neighborhoods and reducing violence.

I also find in my research that the drop in violence helped bring about new shifts in population, particularly in high-poverty neighborhoods. But this is not the typical story about gentrification and the displacement of the poor. This is certainly a problem in some cities, but what has been much more common is that as a neighborhood becomes safer, it attracts new higher-income residents, with no evidence of poor residents moving out. I think that’s one of the most important consequences of the crime drop and one that is often overlooked. The crime decline led to a reduction of concentrated poverty.

Jane Jacobs had the famous idea that it’s people and their “eyes on the street” that make places safe. You talk about the notion of a “community quarterback.” To what degree do these things actually make our neighborhoods less violent?

I think the “eyes on the street” concept is exactly right. But it’s not about the presence of people. It’s about who takes responsibility for public spaces: Who are the institutions in the neighborhoods that provide informal sources of authority, respect, trust? Who is looking out for the community to ensure that it stays safe and that kids and the elderly population are taken care of?

That element has to be present; when it’s not present, that’s when things go downhill. The notion of the “community quarterback” comes from an organization called Purpose Built Communities, which tries to build a single institution that will be there for the long haul and develop a plan for change around that institution.

You note that not all cities saw the same kind of crime decline. In some places, like New York City, violent crime declined far more than in others. Tell us about the places that did not see such a large-scale crime decline.

In the early 1990s, close to half of the major cities across the country were intensely violent places. A very small segment of cities is now intensely violent. Most cities are no longer dangerous. So that’s the broad shift: from a situation where city life was associated with violence to a situation where violence is anomalous. There’s no longer that large-scale link between urban life and violence.

But then there are these caveats. The rate of violence in Baltimore is now as high as it’s ever been. In places like Newark, the level of violence has never fallen. The homicide rate in New York City and Newark looked very similar 25 years ago. But it hasn’t changed at all in Newark and it’s plummeted in New York City. Cincinnati also hasn’t seen a fall in violence.

There’s not one clear answer. You have the broad trend and you have the city-by-city reality. A lot of the cities where violence has not fallen have had major issues with corrupt city governments and police forces. They have been dysfunctional places, where the police department, the city, and community organizations do not work well or at all together. This is a common feature of places that are unable to effectively respond to violence.

How much do guns and gun control matter?

The presence of guns makes violent crime much more lethal; this is an empirical reality. And the absence of guns changes the feel of a city. In New York City, when you walk the streets, you know that those around you are not carrying a gun; it transforms every part of city life. The bigger challenge is developing gun-control policies that will be effective, and I don’t think we have clear evidence that will guide us there.

Is violence rising in the suburbs?

Violent crime fell everywhere. We’re talking about a long-term decline in violence that happened everywhere—rural, suburban, and urban areas. That said, we have seen a shift in what the suburbs look like and the proportion of the population that lives there, and that shift has meant that at an absolute level there’s now more violence in suburban areas.

You write: “Local violence does not make children less intelligent. Rather, it occupies their minds.” Can you tell us a little bit more about the interplay between crime, violence, and concentrated poverty, and the broad effects of growing up in a safe neighborhood versus a dangerous one?

The fundamental point in the book is that violence is not something that’s limited to victims and perpetrators. Violence reverberates around communities. It affects everyone. And it undermines the community. You don’t have to be assaulted to be affected by violence.

The first study that I did looked at a survey of children who lived in the same neighborhoods, but as part of a large study they were given assessments of cognitive abilities at different points in time. And purely by chance, some kids were given this assessment just before a local homicide had taken place in their neighborhood, some right after. The timing was completely random, so it allowed me to look at kids who lived in the same exact place and isolate the impact of being exposed to that incident, a homicide, which can completely change the feel of public space in a neighborhood.

The results from that study were disturbing. The kids who took the assessment in the days after a local homicide had taken place scored as if they had regressed back to their level of academic skills from two years earlier. The effects were so large that I thought they were wrong. So we replicated it with an entirely different sample of children, and the magnitude of the second study was larger than the first.

Since that first study, there have been several that have used similar approaches and reached the same conclusions. When you’re walking through city streets, worrying that you’re going to get jumped, worrying that you’re in danger, it is extremely difficult to then sit down and focus your attention on a pop quiz or a test.

Violence is destructive. When a neighborhood isn’t safe, then nothing else works. It affects kids. It makes it less likely that families will invest in a home, that teachers will invest in a school, that business owners will open up shop. Violence undermines the community life in a fundamental way.

What can we do about the fact that many of the places that have seen the greatest declines in violence are also the most unequal?

This is a hugely important question for cities. The decline in violence has not overturned or even reduced the level of urban inequality. What I argue is that it has changed the experience of urban inequality. The poorest Americans are now victimized at a rate that is roughly equivalent to what the richest Americans used to be victimized at. It’s also made urban poverty less persistent, less sticky. In the places where crime has fallen most, kids are more likely to rise up out of poverty when they reach adulthood.

That said, it has not overturned the rise of inequality. We have to develop explicit policies to make sure that neighborhoods are shared by rich and poor, by all segments of the city population, that there is affordable housing that is developed and sustained in every neighborhood in the city. I think the drop in violence is the first step in making these kinds of changes possible, but it’s only the first step.

So, how uneasy is the crime decline? Can it unravel? Does it threaten the revival of our cities?

Right now, it’s fragile. The reason is that the model we have relied on to get here is not sustainable. That model depends heavily on the police and the prison system to confront violence and to maintain public safety. Most cities have police departments that are adapting, realizing that dominating public space with brute force is no longer tolerable.

We’re at a point right now where the peace is extremely fragile, where cities are adapting to a new model for confronting violence on the fly. That goes a long way toward explaining the divergent trajectories of cities over the last few years. I try to lay out a strategy for the shifting role law enforcement has to play and the new role that communities can play.

What can cities do to lead here?

Cities have to lead the way right now. There’s an urgent need for a short-term model to make sure urban neighborhoods don’t fall apart. That has become a major threat over the past few years as violence has risen. We’ve seen the Trump administration try to push us backward to the 1960s in terms of how to develop policies around policing, criminal justice, and urban disinvestment.

How can cities lead the way? We have a chance to harness the different set of actors within cities that can make substantial investment to prevent violence. That includes not only city governments but also universities, nonprofits, and philanthropies. If we think about the types of investments that can make a transformative change in a particular community or neighborhood, those investments typically require resources at a scale that doesn’t often come from the government. That is much more likely to come from foundations or the private sector.

The positive aspect is that reducing violence has such broad support that actors across the political spectrum are all invested in this. It is one of the few ideas that has uniform support across the U.S. The public thinks it’s urgent, politicians think it’s urgent, foundations think it’s urgent. So it’s harnessing that support and using it to make sure that every community has the institutions and organizations that will ensure that they don’t fall apart.

There’s tremendous capacity for residents to play a greater role in this effort as well. If the police are going to step back from the role that law enforcement has played for the past 25 years, then a new set of actors are going to have to step up, and I think we have really strong evidence that residents mobilized in local organizations can play a central role.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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