Placed at about 40 randomly assigned public-housing developments across the city, the lights led to as much as a 59 percent nighttime decrease in serious crime, according to a working paper circulated this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
For context, the drop is about the scale researchers would expect from a 10 percent increase in police staffing. It suggests that spending on improved living conditions may be a more effective way to reduce crime than spending on increased police presence.
The researchers placed an average of seven mobile light towers in each development, affecting an estimated 40,000 residents total. Even when they considered a larger two-block radius around each development, in case criminals shifted their activity to avoid the lights, they found a reduction of at least 36 percent.
City neighborhoods that emptied out of white people in the 60s and 70s also emptied out of services. Cities don’t repair potholes as fast and they don’t plow as much and they certainly don’t pick up litter in places where the residents are unlikely or unable to complain or organize, or be noticed. Where other places get more and brighter lights, more and better services, the streets … look better. Perception, when buying or selling or even just visiting, is everything and half the places that get tagged as “bad” are just … lacking landscaping.
A landlord in my neighborhood would never be able to get away with letting a house rot with plywood and graffiti on it, for example. Why is a landlord six blocks east allowed to? Why do the banks that own half the vacant lots along the train tracks not have to keep them clean and secure and trim the weeds thereupon?
If the streets are dark, covered in trash, the fences are rusting and people who are working three jobs don’t have enough time to be on the phone every day yelling at the city to fix it all, that creates conditions for people to feel like nobody gives a shit about them. Putting more cops on the street to hassle them about sitting on their porches or selling cigarettes or whatever it is we’re shooting people for these days isn’t going to help. Investing is.
Investing in more than just one shiny patch of play equipment, or one nice new building. Investing in the grinding, average, day-to-day stuff that government really has to do because nothing else is big enough. Charity drives and block-club cleanup days are nice but this isn’t a special-occasion thing, this is a “we pay our taxes, pick up the garbage on time” thing.
Increasing the number of building inspectors and adequately lighting dark places and supporting the things that create community elsewhere — libraries, parks — would do what we think rolling up with the Third U.S. Army would. Resurfacing every alley that floods when it rains. Fixing the stoplights. Making it clear: People care about this place, so think twice about tearing it down.
And yes, city services are also often weaponized against the poor, so hardship exceptions to things like “peeling paint” should be made when the owner of the home is a 90-year-old whose grandson said he’d fix it three weeks ago and can’t get off work until Sunday. But there’s no reason to let some out-of-town management company skimp on mowing the lawns of the apartments they own. There’s no reason to allow long-term vacant properties to become eyesores without extracting the kinds of fines and fees usually aimed at people whose nosy neighbors are mad they don’t mow the lawn enough.
This isn’t just cosmetic. People die in house fires when cities don’t crack down on occupancy limits in apartments and require landlords to upgrade their fire safety plans. Heat and cold kill people every summer and winter because there’s no safe place to go to warm up and cool off. If I can’t walk down the street without stepping over a hundred pieces of broken glass then the next person who doesn’t see one is going to cut their foot open. Have to go to the hospital. Miss a day of work. Get fired. Lose their home.
There are all these tiny things that cause cascading waterfalls of misery and we can fix some of them by just goddamn cleaning the place up.