The Breakfast Table

Crime and Real Estate

A while ago in the Wall Street Journal an Op-Ed complained that the Diallo case was being used by liberals to revive the idea that you can’t control crime without tackling its root causes, which Giuliani had discredited with his phenomenal success in reducing crime by means of aggressive policing. As if anyone ever denied that crime will go down if the police have free rein to do whatever they see fit! Even liberals know that police states have low crime rates. The issue is how to combat crime in a democratic society. If you can’t stop and search people at will, control their movements, threaten them, and treat them as presumptive criminals, you have to think about why people commit crimes and about the obvious fact that criminality tends to be associated with certain social conditions. Giuliani’s strategy is to ignore democratic constraints when dealing with black people.

With all due respect to your son (and my stepson), he sees New York from the viewpoint of someone who doesn’t live there and has no stake in the city’s race relations or its overall social atmosphere. My first reaction to his comment was, “Midtown and lower Manhattan were always pretty safe.” But then I realized my unspoken qualification was “safe for a city”–and for experienced New Yorkers who know how to avoid trouble. Whereas Giuliani’s goal is to make the city safe for suburbanites, tourists, and others who want the amenities and convenience of the city but won’t accept a certain degree of disorder and danger as the price of urban life. And here is where the issue of crime dovetails with another New York obsession: real estate. Crime lowers property values, while the reality or perception of increased safety attracts suburbanites back to the city and spurs the real estate inflation that is relentlessly pushing everyone but the rich out of Manhattan. I feel safe because I live in Greenwich Village, which has always been very safe (“for a city”). But we wouldn’t be able to afford it if our apartment weren’t subsidized by NYU; in fact, we can’t afford enough space for you, me, and our daughter almost anywhere in Manhattan. People like us used to take advantage of the gap between what suburbanites saw as too dangerous and what we were willing to put up with. But the large, grungy, rent-stabilized apartments in formerly “dangerous” neighborhoods like the East Village are now expensive co-ops.