The City that Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control, by Franklin E. Zimring, Oxford University Press, €18.99, $29.95.
“Dirty, dangerous and destitute” New York of the 1970s and 80s was not for the faint of heart. Between 1965- 84, violent crime skyrocketed. Residents lived in real fear of being robbed, raped or killed. The New York Public Library was an open-air drug market, the subway an increasingly abandoned nocturnal playground for street gangs. And against the backdrop of a bankrupt city administration unable to pay its bills, the crack epidemic swept in a destructive wave through already distressed minority communities. Skip to the present, and New York is unrecognizable. The result, since 1990, of the deepest and most prolonged crime drop ever recorded in an American city. An 84 percent reduction over two decades – twice as long and twice as large as the figure already heralded at the national level as the “great American crime decline.” In his provocative new book, The City That Became Safe, Berkeley lawyer and criminologist Franklin Zimring examines this astonishing transformation in a bid to both understand, and draw lessons from, “the New York difference.” A tour de force of statistical analysis, Zimring has a number of sacred cows firmly in his sights. Chief among these is the received wisdom crediting the city’s crime drop to the adoption of a new form of aggressive, ‘zero-tolerance’ policing famously championed by the then Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Inspired by the ‘broken windows’ theory of urban disorder, the story goes that by focusing on the enforcement of low level but symbolic ‘quality of life’ offences, and cracking down on “squeegee men, panhandlers and petty criminals,” the New York Police Department (NYPD) dragged the city back from the brink.
The truth – at least as reflected in the copious amounts of data assembled – indicates a set of factors less amenable to the pithy sound bites of ‘tough on crime’ electioneering. Ironically, by directly challenging, at the same time, an ideologically opposed shibboleth of criminal policy – the fundamental role of underlying social and economic conditions – Zimring makes a persuasive case nonetheless for the critical influence of policing. The question being, of course, if not implementing a ‘zero-tolerance’ strategy, what exactly were the NYPD doing? It is at this point that The City That Became Safe shifts to shakier ground, and the inherent – though acknowledged – weakness of the author’s purely quantitative approach rears its head. Zimring suggests the key lessons to be learnt relate to the effectiveness of targeted, aggressive ‘hotspot’ policing, as well as the NYPD’s early focus on eradicating open-air drug markets. Without interviews and other forms of qualitative research, however, to sketch a fuller and more nuanced picture of the evolving urban milieu in a dynamic and complex metropolis, the reader is left with numerous sets of numbers and an individual hunch. Ultimately, one is best rewarded in taking The City That Became Safe for what it is – an invaluable and rigorous scholarly text that uses the case of New York to ask some pointed questions about conventional wisdom on crime and policing in the academic and policy worlds. While Zimring shies away from offering unambiguous answers of his own, that is less a sign of weakness, and more an acknowledgement of the “known unknowns.”