Melissa Harris-Perry: It's the Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Today we're starting.
[music-Petula Clark: Downtown]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Downtowns are the core parts of many of our cities. They're often home to iconic architecture, museums, parks, bridges, all those visual markers of a place's unique history and culture.
[music-Petula Clark: Downtown]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Often they're the economic engines, not only of the city but of the whole metropolitan region where big and small businesses keep thousands employed.
[music-Petula Clark: Downtown]
The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
So go downtown
Things will be great when you're downtown
No finer place for sure downtown
Everything's waiting for you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: But if you've been watching the news or check social media lately, downtowns might be looking a little different.
Speaker 2: Many tech executives have taken to social media to say that violent crime in San Francisco is horrific and the streets are unsafe.
Speaker 3: We've been reporting on it for months now. Increasing crime in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Speaker 4: Chicago is a city in crisis right now from the chaos we saw downtown this past weekend to the rise in violent crime.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Elected officials are also raising alarms about out-of-control crime and this isn't just an election season talking point. Here's New York City's Mayor Eric Adams speaking with Fox News last month.
Mayor Eric Adams: So if we don't dam all the rivers that are causing this flow of violence in all the big cities across America, we have a real crisis on our hands.
Melissa Harris-Perry: But there's just one problem with all this. It isn't exactly accurate. A new study out of the Brookings Institution examined how people in four major cities' downtowns are perceiving crime and public safety. Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Seattle.
Hanna Love: We kept on hearing over and over again, it feels like it's back in the 1990s. It's mayhem on the street right now. There's lawlessness. My name is Hanna Love and I'm a senior research associate at the Brookings Institution.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Hanna is a co-author of this study. She and her colleagues spoke with hundreds of folks working and living downtown, and they found that while it is true that particular crimes have increased in cities post-pandemic, it's not actually happening in our downtowns despite the perception.
Hanna Love: People were incredibly afraid of being confined in public transit because of things like public urination or random acts of violence or being pushed onto the train tracks. People, especially in Philadelphia and Chicago, felt as if there had been some sort of spillover effect between crime that used to be confined to neighborhoods coming over into Center City or downtown and really seeing this shift in where a crime was occurring. Something that used to happen maybe over there that didn't affect white-collar workers is now coming into downtown and it feels like there could be violence everywhere.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What do data tell us about the realities of vulnerability to both property and violent crime in our large downtowns?
Hanna Love: What we actually decided to look at with both property and violent crime was whether or not the share of crime that occurred downtown had shifted between 2019 and 2022. That's when we heard the change of perception on the ground. While both property and violent crime was up citywide in all four of our cities, downtowns were not driving that increase. If you just take Philadelphia for instance, citywide property crime was up 38%, but Center City Philadelphia which is what they call their downtown, accounted for less than 1% of that spike.
Then that was the same thing with violent crime. We are seeing the numbers go up, but we're not seeing this shift in the spatial distribution of crime that we heard when we were talking to people. This is not to say that crime is not increasing, it's just not increasing downtown more than it's increasing other places.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Help me understand what are the actual crimes, the actual acts that we are seeing in cities that have increased, even if not so much in downtowns.
Hanna Love: Violent crime, we're talking about things like murder, sexual assault, robbery, battery, et cetera. What we did see with violent crime, particularly in places like Philadelphia and Chicago, is a huge uptick in murders, but that uptick in murders was spatially concentrated within neighborhoods that have long experienced a lot of murders, so this is gun violence, particularly in Philadelphia. That's areas such as Kensington North Philadelphia, and West Philadelphia. In Chicago, that was areas on the south and west side.
There was a large uptick in murder when we're talking about violent crime, just not a spillover. It's basically an intensification of areas that have long experienced economic inequality, disinvestment, and racial segregation, which are the strongest predictors also of violence. I think that this is a larger structural issue that we saw an intensification of. For property crime, we're talking about things like burglary theft and motor vehicle theft. The pandemic did see a huge increase in motor vehicle theft primarily. Also, this includes retail theft.
Some localities do not report out on retail theft specifically, so that can be a little bit difficult to pin down, but those are the types of crime that we are talking about.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What are these downtowns that people are understanding and what do they represent both for people and city leaders?
Hanna Love: There's been a lot of economic development efforts focused on downtowns. I think the primary reason is because they still concentrate the most jobs within a region. These are both higher-wage jobs, which is what we often think about, white-collar workers, office workers, public administration jobs, but also lower-wage jobs in arts and hospitality. They also provide a good space for local small businesses to capture business from maybe suburban commuters and then they also matter incredibly for the fiscal health of entire cities and regions.
The reason that there has been such an intense focus on downtowns is really because they are the economic engines of our cities and regions and they support both lower-wage and higher-waged workers. There's been an outsized attention on downtowns over neighborhoods, which has led to a lot of political tension and a lot of infighting about where investment dollars flow. I think the entire purpose of our project is really trying to make the case that in order for cities to prosper and to rebuild more equitably, there has to be an equal focus on downtowns and neighborhoods.
Linking those connections that people within neighborhoods can have more access to the better jobs that exist downtown, and then also to increase access to affordable housing downtown. Historically, there has been this divide that downtowns are seen as exclusive places that are really only working for a certain subset of people that can afford to live there and that can obtain the good jobs there, but that's something that we're really trying to change.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, quick break right here. We're talking about the perception that crime is rising and that downtowns are dangerous and whether or not that perception is close to reality. More right after this. We're back with Hanna Love from the Brookings Institution. She's co-author of the report, The Geography of Crime in Four US Cities. Is this about media? Is this about sensationalizing? Is this about people simply not understanding the geography? Why do we think something's happening that's not happening?
Hanna Love: I think first we have to look at what the pandemic did to our downtowns and the way that downtowns were used prior to the pandemic. Most downtowns had been built and designed as single-use office districts and so when everyone left, there was no one on the streets. What makes people feel safe is often foot traffic and other people around. I think that having our downtown so dependent on offices and then having office workers leave, you really see a drop in the things that make people feel safe.
The only things that are left remaining often are those who have been most marginalized within our economy such as those experiencing unsheltered homelessness and so people are then not seeing other foot traffic and then seeing a heightened visibility of things that may make them feel unsafe even if the presence of unsheltered homeless people is not going to make you unsafe. They may feel that it does, particularly because you're seeing all these narratives and think pieces about ghost town downtowns and doom spirals and all that.
I think that the media had its heightened attention focused to downtown. Then you also see there's been a great study out of Bloomberg that showed the election of Mayor Eric Adams after he was inaugurated, the coverage of crime actually went up I think over 100%. There would be press conferences at the scene of a large crime, particularly in areas that might be in tourist hubs or subway or Times Square or things like that. I think that it's a confluence of a lack of the physical things that make people feel safe, like other people in activity, and then an increase in media coverage as a self-reinforcing loop.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Are there cities that are not allowing a misperception to drive their public policy decisions?
Hanna Love: Unfortunately, I do think that we are seeing many, many cities buckle to the pressure of tough-on-crime approaches because of the increased fear. This is why we wanted to point out where the spatial distribution of crime is actually occurring because if you don't understand where crime occurs within your city, you're going to find the wrong solutions. If you think that the vast majority crime is occurring downtown, you're maybe going to flood the streets of downtown with more police officers.
Rather than taking a look at, "Okay, where's crime actually occurring? Oh, it's occurring in these neighborhoods where it's been occurring for the past 20 years. It's been a daily epidemic." We know that the number one biggest factor for experiencing violence or having violent crime is economic segregation. Then you can point to the solutions, "Okay, how do we actually get at structural systemic solutions that can really meet and address crime where it actually occurs?" I can't say that there is any one city that is doing that right now.
I think that there is a lot of political momentum to think about resource allocation differently and to think about root-cause solutions to crime. It can be thinking about innovative solutions to increase the supply of housing, which benefits everyone. It also needs to be about creating more mixed-use districts that allow for different kinds of businesses to locate downtown which could include intentional efforts to support BIPOC-owned businesses from the neighborhoods to make a profit downtown.
I think there is a real realization that the pre-pandemic status quo wasn't working for everyone, particularly when you just look at the economic segregation within these cities. If local leaders are trying to return to that pre-pandemic status quo for downtowns, we're going to not see any improvement within issues of crime and safety because the neighborhoods are going to be neglected as well. That's where the bulk of the crime and safety issues are happening. I think there's recognition, but it is going to be an uphill battle because it requires an entire change in thinking about development.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do you have advice for elected officials, for media folk, maybe just for everyday folk living in the city about how to balance the fear and the perceptions with the realities?
Hanna Love: It's okay to feel afraid and to want to feel safe and to hear about a friend getting shot or mugged and to worry about it. I think I would ask people to pay attention to who and where people have been disproportionately impacted for a long time and to think about the scale of the issue. Everyone deserves to feel safe, but there are people who have not had access to safety for their entire life. I think that we need to have empathy and understand that it doesn't have to be an us versus them. It doesn't have to be, "Oh, crime from over there spilling into my neighborhood."
No, everyone deserves to feel safe and there are policies that can keep everyone safe. Some of them are as simple as investing in vacant lot cleanups, in built environment improvements, in getting people access to jobs. There are things that can make everyone safe that don't require this adversarial framing of us versus them.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Hanna Love is a Senior Research Associate at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the recent report, The Geography of Crime in Four U.S. Cities: Perceptions and Reality. Hanna, thanks so much for joining me on The Takeaway.
Hanna Love: Thanks for having me.
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