Changing Places by Changing Ourselves

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Posted in: Law Enforcement

I write today from Providence, Rhode Island, another city where I am studying place-based solutions to crime and disorder. I have written before about these strategies (recently here and here), and if there were ever a city that demonstrated their transformative potential, it is Providence.

By the 1990s, a vast and desolate tangle of land in Olneyville, a low-income neighborhood on the west side of Providence, had become the very picture of urban blight. An old textile mill on the banks of the toxic Woonasquatucket River had burned down years earlier, and the city had simply left the charred carcass on the barren ground, a fitting tribute to the collapsed New England textile industry. The site quickly became a makeshift junk yard; the telltale detritus of urban life—rotting garbage, blown tires, and broken appliances—soon piled atop the crushed red bricks and empty 50-gallon drums. Opposite the lot were two blocks of abandoned street, closed to traffic and pocked with foreclosed and collapsing homes. There were no legitimate businesses, no homes with lawful tenants or owners. Almost no one came to this swath of waste except to buy or sell sex or drugs. Those trades, however, flourished in the accumulated debris.

Today, the vacant lot has become Riverside Park. A bike path winds along the reclaimed river and connects the park to a longer path that weaves through the city. Children race to the giant playground and quickly lose themselves in the timeless joys of swing sets and monkey bars. Residents recently finished work on a much-loved and well-tended community garden. A bicycle cooperative operates under a distinctive red tin roof, fixing bikes for local residents and teaching bike repair to neighborhood kids. The abandoned street has been reopened on both ends. A local community development corporation tore down the old homes and replaced them with high-quality, affordable housing. Some of the new residents own their homes, some rent. But everywhere, the lawns are trim; the paint is fresh; the streets are clean; the prostitutes and drug dealers, the pimps and johns and junkies, are gone. Crime in this corner of Olneyville has all but disappeared.

But the changes that matter most in Olneyville can’t be seen from the saddle of a bike. Before they could change the place, the people with the greatest stake in Olneyville—from the residents and small business owners to the police—had to change themselves. They had to set aside suspicions and forge relationships. They had to create what academics call “collective efficacy,” a clunky name for an ineffable connection imperfectly captured by words like neighborliness, pride, respect, tolerance, and community. The people who live and work in Olneyville are justly proud of these relationships, some of which have matured into close friendships. As proof, many residents point to the bond between police and the community. Unlike in some other cities, in Olneyville the two are not enemies. After the shooting of five Dallas police officers in 2016, a longtime Olneyville resident and community activist contacted a local organizer. “We have to do something,” she said. The result was Lock Arms for Peace, a hastily organized but symbolically potent event that took place in another Olneyville park. Providence cops locked arms with members of the community, one after another, and bowed their heads in silent prayer for the slain officers.

Yet these transformations, as impressive as they are, did not destroy what makes Olneyville special to the people who live there. Olneyville is, quite deliberately, a low-income neighborhood. It has long been a haven to artists and new arrivals to the city, and it wants to stay that way—a vibrant and affordable corner of a city that is increasingly beyond the reach of the middle class, let alone the poor. Folks in Olneyville treasure what several people described to me as “a kind of lawlessness” in the neighborhood. They don’t mean crime as much as freedom from regulatory punctiliousness. As one artist, business owner, and longtime Olneyville resident put it, “No one in Olneyville would’ve called the police on Eric Garner for selling loosies on the street.” The residents of Olneyville have fiercely resisted the gentrification and criminalization of poverty that have wrecked so many working-class communities and displaced so many poor residents elsewhere, and they insist that the solution to their crime and disorder problems is to promote, rather than abandon, the unique history and special character of their home.

It should be obvious that no amount of policing could have created Riverside Park. The police could have arrested addicts and sex workers in the abandoned houses all day and all night, as they did at comparable sites across the country throughout the drug war, with no appreciable effect. Riverside Park and the homes across the street were the result of a robust collaboration that united a bewildering collection of public and private actors—from municipal agencies in Providence and their counterparts in the state and federal government to community-based non-profits; from the line officers and leadership in the Providence Police Department to grassroots organizers and local business owners; from artists to activists. But most of all, Riverside is the product of the residents of Olneyville. Everything else would have been for naught if the men and women who call Olneyville home had not poured themselves into the project, demanding change from a political class that had ignored them as it had ignored a collapsed mill on the banks of a polluted river.

Yet much is lost in the retelling. If place-based strategies have such promise, why are they not more common? Why are the sort of collaborations that produced Riverside Park the exception rather than the rule? Why do so many police departments continue to wage conventional battles against crime and disorder, trying to arrest their way toward a solution, even in places like the wasteland that is now Riverside Park, where arrests alone offer such little hope for long-term, lasting success?

The problems are many. To begin with, there is simply the magnitude of the undertaking. I met this weekend with the former deputy superintendent of the Providence Parks Department, who led the development of Riverside Park for the city. He told me the remediation of the site alone—removing the mountain of junk, the tangled wreckage of the old mill, and the top two feet of badly polluted soil—took three years and cost roughly $2 million, an astronomical sum to spend on the creation of a single park. He said he was accustomed to creating parks for $50,000; Riverside cost more than twenty times that amount and required significant contributions from local, state, and federal sources.

And yet the entire investment would have been worthless if the city had done nothing about the abandoned houses across the street. In an earlier trip to Providence, I met with a senior officer in the Providence Police Department, who told me of other sites where the city had invested in a location—by creating a park or comparable attraction, for instance—but had failed to do anything about crime hot spots that were immediately adjacent. Before long, the new location had deteriorated into the same magnet for crime and disorder that the city had worked so hard and paid so dearly to replace. Riverside Park would have suffered the same fate if the park had not been developed in close collaboration with the community development corporation that built the affordable housing across the street. And both the houses and the park were built in cooperation with the Providence Police Department, which provided order-maintenance policing to stabilize the site as the remediation and construction were taking place, and made recommendations about environmental design to create more “eyes on the park,” and thereby increase the opportunities for natural surveillance.

This brief history, as incomplete as it is, reveals the core challenge faced by those who, like me, champion place-based strategies. Officers know how to stop, question, frisk, cite, and arrest—in a word, they know how to be a cop in the conventional way. Municipal agencies know how to operate in their narrow lanes, jealous of their prerogatives and protective of their budgets. Non-profit organizations compete for the same small pool of foundation and philanthropic dollars, which gives them an incentive to hoard credit and shun partnerships. Community members grow weary of broken promises and fearful of authority. But changing places demands that the many players in a neighborhood join hands to become part of an active, long-term collaboration. This requires setting aside a long history of profound mistrust, institutional jealousy, and community apathy; it can demand a leap of faith that some are not prepared to make.

Yet as formidable as they sound, these are not the most serious challenges these place-based strategies face. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that distinction is reserved for politics. Like everyone, politicians and those who pressure them harbor a complex mix of implicit and explicit biases. There is certainly evidence that overt racism continues to play a role in the formation of modern police policy. But as elsewhere, the blatant, explicit racism of the past is far less common than once it was. More common but less visible is the insidious, unconscious association between black and crime. When many whites see black, they think crime, and when they think crime, they see black. It is frequently not a deliberate determination to be racist; it is an implicit, subconscious association.

When Ronald Reagan famously called the police “the thin blue line that holds back a jungle which threatens to reclaim this clearing we call civilization,” he appealed powerfully to this subconscious association. The “jungle” needs to be controlled and contained. It needs to be policed. “Our” way of life depends on it. People raised with this view believe that the solution to crime, and especially crime within communities of color, is not fewer police, but more; not complex agreements that reduce the police role, but simple strategies that expand it. They believe that the solution to violence and disorder can always (and only) be solved by imposing more control over communities of color rather than less. Solutions that call for precisely the opposite fly in the face of everything these people have been conditioned to believe. Asking them to accept a diminished role for the police unsettles what they believe about life in an ordered society. For them, the criminology of place is heresy.

We can change places like Olneyville. In fact, changing places is not the hard part: we know how to do it and we know it will work. But first we must change ourselves, and that’s where the real work begins.