Dec 13, 2022Liked by Addison Del Mastro

Thank you for this really thoughtful piece, Addison. You're one of the most consistently interesting writers I read, because you're able to write about contentious issues in a way that transcends the usual partisan talking points.

This piece fits in well with the guest post from Luca Gattoni-Celli last week, in which he argued that YIMBYs need to think more seriously about solutions to the problems faced by urban communities if they're going to get NIMBYs to get more comfortable with increased density. If you're trying to win over people to your cause, instead of just scoring points in a never-ending culture war, you can't just blow off their concerns. Progressives who try to write off concerns about crime as paranoid or racist, or conservatives who try to write off concerns about housing as millennial entitlement, aren't engaging seriously with the issue. It's hard enough to discuss solutions to these challenging problems without one side refusing to acknowledge that the problem even exists.

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It's been an interesting time talking to people about urbanism and city planning, especially to my suburban friends and family. By and large they don't even know of any options other than single family homes or tiny cracker box apartment 100 stories high.

Talking about the "missing middle" has proved slightly fruitful because gentle density that is beautiful is an easier idea to swallow than ugly, brutalistic, soviet-style blocks.

I've also confused some people when I say I'm an advocate for densifying some places - or even just making it legal to possibly build with any density - because they associate density with radical leftists. I'm a right-leaning man from a right-leaning family and the only proponents for density they've ever heard from are indeed radical leftists, so hearing that from someone they consider conservative is difficult to hear.

Right leaning urbansist have a lot of ground to cover to convince people that good urbanism does not inherently entail crime, disease, and poverty. My belief is similar to yours, Addison, it is just that so many people are "invincibly ignorant" to the point they cannot fathom any form of urbanism as being consistent with their politics or desired life.

It can be done, though! We've just got to inform people that there are other ways of building that are good and conducive to human flourishing.

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I'm no conservative, but I'm not an anarchist either. The challenge I always face when people want to talk about urban crime is that the discourse doesn't comport with my experiences as a (white, affluent) city-dwelling American. I grew up in stripmall suburbia but have lived my entire adult life in urban areas. Crime feels like an abstraction in exactly the same way that it did in the suburbs. It isn't something I'm worried about. Because of that, when people express fear about visiting the city it's hard to understand it as anything other than "scaredy-cat suburbanite"-ism.

I know intellectually that it is a real issue that affects mostly poorer people who live geographically closer to me than they do to the average suburbanite, but I don't expect that anyone I'm talking to who is afraid of the city is actually likely to end up affected by the situation in poorer neighborhoods. People who talk about being afraid of Baltimore, where I used to live, act like going out for dinner in Little Italy is the same level of risk as going to intervene in a turf war between drug dealers in Sandtown-Winchester.

All this is to say, it's hard not to feel like concerns about crime are wielded in bad faith to oppose things that do affect me directly, like transit expansion. I don't like ending up on the same side as the ACAB crowd - crime really is bad and people ought to be able to be confident that the police are there to help them. It's just hard not to end up on that side of the discourse because so often the loudest anti-crime voices seem to be about as detached from reality as the anarchists are.

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I’m someone who lives in an affluent suburb that was one of the only ones to vote for a (marginallly) progressive tax on millionaires, and who veers left mainly from my upbringing in an Asian country with a legacy of corrupt leadership, unaccountable military and law enforcement, and extrajudicial imprisonment and killing of leftists. I can’t come up with something profound to add at the moment to a difficult and tricky discussion, but I wanted to thank you, Addison, for good faith intellectual wrangling with difficult topics.

Maybe it’s just the polarization of the moment, maybe it’s just too hard to find a middle ground, but I genuinely appreciate the thoughtfulness on display here. Substackers of various stripes have frustrated me when I try to move outside my comfort zone, because even intelligent folks engage in a manner I find a little too performatively contrarian. When I feel especially cynical, I just figure that’s what gets amplification in various outlets and the subscriber dollars.

The point brought up by Jonah regarding crime in Chicago hits home with me because my sister lives in an ostensibly high net worth area that has been hit by crime. She has skewed liberal most of her life but sounds conservative when she talks about crime in her area. She acknowledges her arguments only go so far given the legacy of the Chicago Police Department and the past reign of Anita Alvarez, historically one of the worst “lock them up” prosecutors in the country before she was voted out. No easy answers, indeed.

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I am not a pacifist. I think it is probably necessary for a functioning society to give some people a limited authority to use violent force in certain situations in order to prevent even greater violence. However, when I look at the behavior of police here in Chicago or other major US cities, I do not see the limited use of necessary force, but a routine and gratuitous use of violence often targeted at those with the least power.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been a rise in carjackings and armed robbery in many parts of Chicago, including my own neighborhood. It is disturbing to me to think I may be out minding may own business and have someone come up and stick a gun in my face. But I also wonder what may lead someone down a path where they believe that pointing a gun a someone and demanding their possessions is an acceptable way to behave. I wonder if some of them may have learned, through their experiences with law enforcement, that this is the way the world works, that those with power demand compliance from those without on pain of violence or death. Maybe they decided that they wanted to be the one wielding deadly force and making demands.

Is fare evasion a problem? Yes, probably, but a small one. It's definitely not in the top 10 problems the city of Chicago faces, and probably not in the top 100. If the proposed solution is putting cops armed with guns in transit stations to arrest gate-jumpers, then this is a solution that will almost certainly be more costly then the problem it purports to fix, both in terms of financial and social costs. What's my alternate solution? I don't have one. Maybe one exists, I don't know. Sometimes it's better not to solve a problem then to implement a solution that creates worse problems.

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"zoning largely functions as a crude, suboptimal insurance scheme for affluent homeowners."

I've said this repeatedly myself. Unfortunately, I have yet to come up with a convincing pitch that the insurance scheme is unnecessary.

"density somehow spawns crime"

Saying that it "spawns" crime is a bit extreme, but it certainly appeals to the criminal (and less harmfully, to the panhandler). We view a city as having a concentration of amenities; he views a city as having a concentration of targets. Both of those views are technically correct.

Good urban governance needs to understand this, and to avoid the temptation to justify the crimes as somehow rooted in poverty or injustice, as if criminals are representative of the poor and oppressed.

"I am not a 'carceral urbanist' (I wince at the phrase itself). I do not dream of throwing the teens jumping the fare gates into a police van. I understand that crime has social and economic causes, and that if any of this were simple of easy, we would already have figured it out."

I honestly wouldn't mind the label if anyone ever cared enough to apply it to me, and when it comes to fare evasion, the odds are pretty good that it's not the only antisocial and criminal behavior that these teens engage in. Using their fare evasion as a reason to stop them presents a chance to address the other stuff, and signals that the city government takes its laws seriously.

As far as the social and economic causes of crime: I'm curious what you would cite? I've read hypotheses recently that range the gamut from "drug dealers are higher-status mates for women than guys who earn an honest living at a fast food joint" to "high minimum wages and strict labor laws severely reduce opportunity at the bottom of the labor market".

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Why not talk about crime? I'd answer with this quote, from an article by Jerusalem Demsas about homelessness.

"By and large, the candidates challenging the failed Democratic governance of high-homelessness regions are not proposing policies that would substantially increase the production of affordable housing or provide rental assistance to those at the bottom end of the market. Instead, these candidates—both Republicans and law-and-order-focused Democrats—are concentrating on draconian treatment of people experiencing homelessness"


I don't trust the people who want to impose law and order to actually want to solve the problems they decry. A lot of them just want to punish rulebreakers (who are frequently from disfavored groups--racial minorities, homeless people, etc), not fix systems.

If you want to send people to prison, you're going to have to convince me that the prison system is actually interested in rehabilitation rather than punishment for its own sake. Think Norway, not the American prison system.

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Dec 12, 2022Liked by Addison Del Mastro

As a perfect example of this, check out the comment by Chris Renner on this post. He explicitly advocates "using [teens'] fare evasion as a reason to stop them", on the presumption that "the odds are pretty good that it's not the only antisocial and criminal behavior that these teens engage in".

The vision here is one where "disorderly" people are kept out of the view of decent folk, by force if necessary; to Chris, they're a problem to be solved, rather than people whose needs and interests matter, and imprisoning them doesn't count as a cost or a negative outcome. People like him are why I can't put down my guard and collaborate on the real problems of disorder in public space.

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This is so interesting. Your last sentence makes perfect sense. But what I hear from people to my right is "I don't trust anyone who isn't willing to plainly condemn crime to be honest about anything else in urban affairs." Now do they mean that - that all they want is acknowledgement, and *not* draconian enforcement? See, that's kind of where I come down, but I may not be representative. (I'm also not someone who minimizes offenses committed by motorists, which is something else they often do.)

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"The vision here is one where "disorderly" people are kept out of the view of decent folk, by force if necessary; to Chris, they're a problem to be solved, rather than people whose needs and interests matter, and imprisoning them doesn't count as a cost or a negative outcome."

Good grief, do you realize that the vast majority of police interaction - even those that involve an arrest - don't end with anyone going to prison? Read my comment again and tell me where I advocated for anything like keeping people out of view.

There are plenty of opportunities to be sensibly lenient in punishment, but none of them are viable without swift and certain enforcement.

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I apologize if my post was a mischaracterization. I'm just saying that if you want to convince skeptics who are sympathetic to ACAB, you should start by emphasizing that you see over-incarceration and over-policing as a real problem, and propose solutions to that as well as emphasizing the need for public order. I didn't get that from your original post.

It's especially glaring given the way that our society treats different offenses (this isn't directly inspired by your post, Christopher, just a broader observation). Fare-jumping gets handled via direct confrontation with the cops, with all the possibly negative consequences that entails. Illegal parking or defaced license plates that defeat speed cameras isn't treated as the same kind of public disorder; frequently, it's the cops doing it themselves. The double standard is very noticeable, and it breeds cynicism about what talk of "enforcement" is really about.

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For a really good way to have this conversation, read this from Darrell Owens. It's well worth your time. https://darrellowens.substack.com/p/the-allure-of-san-fran-sicko

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