The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Poverty and Violence

Mahatma Gandhi Wouldn’t Need a Mathematical Model to Know Why Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine Neighborhood Leads the Nation in Crime

When my hometown of Cincinnati Ohio has made the national news in recent decades, the reason has seldom been good news. This trend continued yesterday when the website announced one of our inner-city neighborhoods, Over-the-Rhine, as the number one crime-ridden neighborhood in America.

NeighborhoodScout gathered FBI data from years 2005, 2006 and 2007, submitted by seventeen thousand local law enforcement agencies, and plugged it into a complex mathematical model. The results ranked a twenty to thirty square block area, including zip codes 45210 and 45214 – bounded on the north and east by McMicken Avenue and Vine Street, on the west by Central Parkway and on the south by Liberty Street – as the most crime prone area in the nation.

The model predicts any person living in this neighborhood has a staggering one in four chance of being a victim of crime within any one year period. The next most dangerous neighborhoods, as ranked by the model, are Chicago Illinois (between State Street and Garfield Boulevard), Miami Florida (between Seventh Avenue and North River Drive), Jacksonville Florida (between Beaver Street and Broad Street), and Baltimore Maryland (between North Avenue and Belair Road.).

During the three year reporting period, this small area within Cincinnati registered sixty-four murders, 319 rapes, 879 cases of assault, and 2,419 armed robberies. Among non-violent crimes, there were 2,874 car thefts, 5,705 burglaries, and 14,863 cases of petty theft.

Several local sources were quick to issue challenges debunking NeighborhoodScout’s methodology.

The Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (CCCDC) notes that Over-the-Rhine is actually a huge neighborhood, consisting of one hundred and ten square blocks, whereas the study looked at only a small portion and even crossed boundaries into an adjacent neighborhood, the West End. CCCDC argues that crime in many other parts of Over-the-Rhine is down an impressive thirty-seven percent since 2004, a figure that closely coincides with Cincinnati Police statistics for District One.

Randy Simes at agrees, fuming, “This study fails in several regards – outdated data, selective boundary drawing, and lack of human understanding of reality.” While his last criticism lacks easy understanding itself, it is important to note the FBI warns against using the data employed by NeighborhoodScout as a basis for comparing neighborhoods or cities.

“These rough rankings provide no insight into the numerous variables that mold crime in a particular town, city, county, state, or region. Consequently, they lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents.”

I went to the reader feedback areas of two local news organizations reporting this story. The comments I read there fell into two general categories. The first were from people who actually live in/near these neighborhoods or frequently patronize them. These people were inclined to insist, “Hey, c’mon, it’s not that bad here.”

The second were from people living in outlying suburbs. This crowd generated comments along the lines of “I knew that place was dangerous – that’s why I never go there,” “It’s a disgrace the way those residents have no values or respect,” and (my personal favorite) “That neighborhood is never coming back – burn it to the ground.”

These sentiments reinforce the reason why neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine and the West End have and retain significantly disproportional crime rates compared to the rest of the city. It is because Cincinnati, while not necessarily more racist than other medium-sized cities, is still extremely segregated and still highly committed to that paradigm.

My father lived in Cheviot, a neighborhood-sized “city within a city,” bounded by Cincinnati on all sides, in the 1940s and early 1950s. He told me recently that he remembers the Cheviot police, upon finding any black person on the streets after sundown, would immediately take them to jail and hold them there overnight. The presumption was that such an individual must be up to no good and the only way to keep residents safe was to isolate them.

In many ways, Cincinnati still practices virtually, and perhaps subconsciously, what Cheviot once practiced both consciously and literally. For too many suburbanites, black = poor = criminal is an equation of unshakable finality. The answer is to push such problems into antiquated, impoverished, and poorly educated inner city neighborhoods.

The area singled out by NeighborhoodScout is seventy-one percent black, twenty-three percent white, and the rest a smattering of Hispanics and other ethnic groups. It is among the fifteen percent lowest income communities in America, with seventy-six percent of the children living there at or below the poverty level.

The housing in this area consists mainly of small apartments with one, two, or no bedrooms. Most buildings are classified “historic” structures, built in 1939 or earlier. The vast majority of residents are renters rather than homeowners. Property owners typically do not live in the same neighborhood as tenants, let alone in the same building.

Only seven percent of adults have college educations. The local schools rank in the bottom two percent for Ohio and the bottom eighteen percent for the U.S.

Wherever they may rank nationally, these are undoubtedly the worst, most violent neighborhoods in Cincinnati. However, they are not this way because naturally bad and violent people have flocked together. Instead, these neighborhoods are the result of a long and systematic segregation of our city’s problems into one place where police closely watch them and the rest of us largely ignore them – a place filled with poverty but little hope.

“Poverty is the worst form of violence,” Mahatma Gandhi once declared. In that sense, Over-the-Rhine is the perfect example of violence begetting violence. It exemplifies the way a neighborhood can come to blight an entire city when people stop thinking of each other as “we” and instead begin dividing ourselves into “us” versus “them.”

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