The Broken Promise of American Cities

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The connection between decay and the politics of progressivism has become painfully clear.

Gonzalez-Cities_092019 Minneapolis skyline rises behind a homeless encampment, 2018 (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

It was my penultimate summer in California when two friends from Germany crossed the pond to visit. They rented a room in San Diego not far from the beach, nestled in a palm-tree lined suburb. At some point between setting their bags on the curb and checking in to their summer digs, a man was gunned down behind their rental in an alleyway drive-by. It was a random act of violence as far as San Diego’s finest could tell, and conspicuously at odds with those ubiquitous “Coexist” stickers affixed to cars throughout the state. There is a saying used in California when the going gets tough: “At least we have the weather.” No matter how expensive, dangerous, unclean, and generally inhospitable the state’s cities become, “at least we have the weather,” Californians say, as if to soothe their weary bones. As I watched once-safe neighborhoods decay, I, too, would console myself with that pagan thanksgiving to the sun.

Hope for a better future in California is rapidly becoming a stillborn dream, as the connection between decay and the politics of progressivism becomes painfully clear. The proponents of this secular theology may be getting a wakeup call soon, as the Golden State’s cities teeter on the edge of bubonic oblivion, with rats teeming through the streets of Los Angeles, even forcing temporary, partial closures of City Hall. Skid Row has unfurled its filthy tendrils into the halls of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Central Division station, with officers falling ill as vermin lay siege to their precinct.

But the explosion of the rat population, catalyzed by the feculence of homeless encampments across the state, has not deterred lawmakers from advancing a bill to ban rat poison in the name of human health and environmental concerns. In the progressive mind, even mentioning the risk of disease caused by these policies is somehow tantamount to racist dog-whistling. San Francisco, the rainbow flagship of our brave new world, even has a “no-kill, catch-and-release” policy for rodents. “Once rats are caught,” SF Gate reports, “they’re released right in the backyard.” If only 14th-century Europeans had been so enlightened.

Los Angeles and San Francisco are among the top ten dirtiest cities in America, according to data compiled by cleaning and janitorial services company Busy Bee from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the American Housing Survey, and the U.S. Census Bureau. The data accounts for litter, pests, population density, particulate matter, and air pollution. LA is second only to New York, with San Francisco, the Paris of the West, bringing up the ninth position.

San Francisco is first in one unique respect: the astounding amount of human waste blanketing its streets. This has necessitated a citywide “poop patrol” cleanup operation, as well as a map of human waste “hotspots” to help locals and tourists navigate a veritable minefield of excrement. But there is, of course, the fine weather in which that excrement can simmer.

It took two years for sunny San Diego to extinguish an outbreak of hepatitis A that spread like wildfire due to the filth of homeless encampments. A veteran of the San Diego Police Department told me that Mayor Kevin Faulconer took a more aggressive approach to the homeless only after his wife had been accosted by one. Funny how that works.

Californian cities are in retreat from law and order, from decency, from sanity, from morality itself. I decided it was time for me to retreat as well—to the greener pastures of the Midwest, with my sights set on Ohio. And yet, now that I’m here, I see much of the same decay in this state and in other American cities I’ve visited. The symptoms of this decay seem to be connected by some common threads, including a lax attitude toward law and order, and the spread of homelessness.

Homelessness, analyst Edward Ring wrote in American Greatness, is “concentrated in states that share one or more of three characteristics; a mild winter climate, large urban centers, and liberal politics.” Ring notes that California, fulfilling all three of those criteria, is in first place with an estimated homeless population exceeding 129,000 in 2018. New York, home to the nation’s second-largest homeless population, fulfills two of those three criteria. Though Oregon may not have as many homeless as California or New York, Portland was overrun when it briefly legalized homeless encampments under the “Safe Sleeping Policy.”

Though Portland has since ended that pilot policy, police there do little enforcing, and the results have been predictable. The streets of downtown Portland buzz with the homeless chattering to themselves, and crews are deployed daily to clean human waste and used needles off the sidewalks. Car theft has become common. Vehicles have been reported stolen in every neighborhood, taken from gas stations and residential driveways.

Police have connected the vehicle thefts to homeless drug use, in which cars become their temporary shelters used to drift off into laudanum sleep. One homeless woman stole nine cars in seven months, the Willamette Week reports, for which she served zero jail time. Speaking to the Week, a local named Olivia Layna believes “the reason so many cars are stolen from the Portland and Gresham area every day is because of how easily they get off the hook.” Frustrated police point to a 2014 Oregon Court of Appeals ruling that they say has made prosecuting car thieves in Portland more difficult than ever before. Compassion, it would seem, means protecting criminals from consequences.

In Seattle, shigella bacteria, which causes fever and bloody diarrhea, is spreading at an “alarming” rate, writes Vianna Davila in The Seattle Times. Trench fever, spread by lice, also has broken out among the homeless. Encampments are littered with “needles and trash and soaked in urine,” attracting rats and paving the way for pestilence, Davila wrote. Two Seattle superior court judges have complained that a string of assaults on jurors and courthouse employees, along with the pungent stench of excrement and garbage near the courthouse, “are creating a frightening atmosphere.” It’s gotten so bad that jurors are reluctant to report for duty. There is a palpable fear of crime and a frustration at the city’s inability to effectively combat it.

 

“Compassionate” crime reform sailed through the California legislature in 2014, mandating the early release of prisoners, even those sentenced for violent crimes. “[I]t’s cool,” Semisi Sina, a 30-year-old career criminal in Los Angeles County told the Los Angeles Times. “I can go do a burglary and know that if it’s not over $900, they’ll just give me a ticket and let me go.”

The year after the reform bill passed, “[V]iolent crime in the [Skid Row] area was up more than 57 percent over the previous year,” writes Heather Mac Donald in The War on Cops. “[S]hots fired were up 350 percent, and property crime had increased more than 25 percent. In July, a man was nearly decapitated with a machete.”

Then, in 2016, another reform bill, which placed early parole within reach of some 25,000 nonviolent state felons, was approved by well-meaning California voters. One such nonviolent minor offender had been arrested and released five times in seven months—before he murdered two men in one day, including a police officer.

Meanwhile, plastic straws have been banned with a $1,000 fine attached to their illicit distribution; “misgendering” recently became a crime punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and a year in prison; knowingly transmitting HIV-AIDS was downgraded to a misdemeanor, punishable with no more than 90 days in jail; and, amid their own rodent and homeless problem, the Berkeley City Council has voted to replace the word “manhole” with “maintenancehole.” A true victory for peoplekind.

The police can’t do much about the addicts, our new neighbors in Ohio say. Drug dealers and addicts know the game and getting arrested is part of the fun for them. A friend who grew up in the West Park neighborhood of Cleveland now points out the closed stores, failed businesses, and myriad of sketchy characters prowling through his city. “The area I grew up in has seen a rise in drug-related crimes and violent crime, as well as a drastic decrease in economic stability,” he told me. FBI data show Cleveland is the most dangerous city in Ohio, with 5,999 violent crimes reported in 2017, accounting fully for 17 percent of the state’s totals.

A 2019 analysis by 24/7 Wall St. of data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report show that violent crime has, in fact, risen in virtually every state, primarily in major cities. Their analysis examines the number of murders, robberies, rapes, and aggravated assaults for every 100,000 people in a given year. “In some cases,” writes Samuel Stebbins of 24/7 Wall St., “the incidence of violent crime has more than doubled since 2012.” The Auburn-Opelika metro area in Alabama, for example, experienced a crime increase of 113.7 percent between 2012 and 2017. Meanwhile, figures compiled by data journalist Niall McCarthy from iCasualties.org, the Chicago Tribune, and the BBC, show that between 2001 and 2016, homicides in Chicago had exceeded the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined in the same period.

Despite this rise in crime rates, citizens are reporting fewer crimes to police. The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) annual survey asks 90,000 households of Americans ages 12 and older whether they were victims of crime, regardless of whether they reported those crimes to the police. Only 45 percent of violent crimes tracked by BJS were reported to police in 2017. Just about a third of all property crime was reported. “Would not or could not do anything to help,” is among the most common reasons the survey respondents said they chose not to report serious crimes. In Cleveland, for example, half of homicides remain unsolved, and police cite a lack of witness cooperation.

The results of the BJS survey suggest citizens are increasingly resigned to the sea of violence and vice around them. The fear citizens feel when walking about their cities, their reluctance to perform their civic duties, or to even communicate with law enforcement—these things suggest Americans are losing faith in government’s ability to safeguard life, liberty, and property.

 

“Democracy,” said H. L. Mencken, “is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” In few places has this been so true as Philadelphia.

Under District Attorney Larry Krasner, Philadelphia has seen a spike in gun-related crime. Krasner campaigned on releasing criminals, rather than prosecuting them, and promised social reform and a reduced inmate population. Though Philly’s police force is understaffed at a time when violent crime is on the rise and criminals can’t seem to be kept behind bars, the city has pulled 72 officers off the streets for politically incorrect comments they made on Facebook— and at least 13 have been fired. The City of Brotherly Love loves its protectors least. But now that Philly is getting what it asked for, some are having second thoughts.

Philly Police Commissioner Richard Ross, Jr., worried that Krasner’s soft-on-crime approach has emboldened gunmen, who now “fear no consequences.” Not long after Philly benched its peacekeepers for indelicate speech, a mid-August drug-bust-turned-shootout left six officers wounded. Before the nature and number of casualties were even clear, Philly’s Mayor Jim Kenney, of course, said the real problem is “someone having all that weaponry and all that firepower.” The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-control advocacy group, ranks Pennsylvania as having the 10th most strict gun laws in the United States.

That Philly loves its criminals most of all should come as no surprise. The city’s Public Health and Human Services Committee passed a bill in 2017 to reduce the amount of bulletproof glass between storeowners and criminals, on the grounds that such barriers are implicitly racist. “We want to make sure that there isn’t this sort of indignity, in my opinion, to serving food through Plexiglas only in certain neighborhoods,” Democratic Councilwoman Cindy Bass said. The bill leaves open the possibility of a full ban by 2021.

To the south of Philly, Baltimore recently fell into public view after President Trump spoke frankly: Baltimore, he said, is a “disgusting...rodent infested mess.” It’s true— Charm City has lost its charm. Orkin pest control rates Baltimore the eighth most rat-infested city in America, and the most bedbug-infested.

Worse pests abound. Baltimore has surpassed both New York City and Chicago in homicides per capita. Figures from USA Today and the Baltimore Sun show 2019 is on track to exceed 300 homicides for the fifth year in a row. The Baltimore Police Department’s annual homicide analysis found that more than half of 309 homicide victims in 2018 were shot in the head—a testament to the brutality of the city’s criminal element. “Motives for a large majority of homicides are unknown,” reports Jessica Anderson of the Baltimore Sun. In other words, these are seemingly random killings that don’t make national news.

Waves of bloodshed have swept through Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray. Gray was said to have died due to injuries suffered at the hands of bad cops while in custody, but that narrative has since been discredited, with a medical examiner even stating that his death was a “freakish accident.” Nevertheless, what has been dubbed the “Ferguson Effect”—or the emboldening of criminal elements in light of the riots that followed the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri—has resulted in a nationwide war on cops and a consequent increase in gun violence.

Gray was Baltimore’s Brown. Police have become fearful of being vilified and are demoralized to the point where they are reluctant to perform their duties. On October 2016 in Chicago, “a black suspect beat a female police officer unconscious by banging her head repeatedly into the pavement and ripping out handfuls of her hair,” writes Mac Donald in The War on Cops. The officer later said that she had refrained from using her weapon for fear of being called racist.

 

“What is to be done?” as Lenin might say. Part of the problem may very well stem from the fact that his intellectual disciples have snatched the levers of power in too many of our cities.

Analyst Edward Ring has proposed several articles of policy that appear pragmatic and effective. Overturning Jones v. Los Angeles, he says, would make it easier to get the homeless off the streets in California. That ruling, and similar rulings in Idaho and Washington state, prohibits the removal of the homeless unless “permanent supportive housing” is available. Making it easier to incarcerate the mentally ill, too, would go a long way, if we consider that roughly 15 percent of the nation’s homeless are certifiable.

Ring’s prescription for crimefighting would overlap the issue of homelessness and organized crime: “Untie the hands of law enforcement.” By which he means “Broken Windows” policing, where police actively crack down on low-level crimes and maintain an aggressive neighborhood presence.

Indeed, I believe America’s problem isn’t that there are too many, but too few violent criminals behind bars. Proactive measures have already proven fruitful in Hammond, Indiana. The implementation of an array of cameras and aggressive policing throughout the city has resulted in a dramatic decrease in homicide. Though bordered by the more violent cities of Gary, Indiana, on its east and to its north by southside Chicago, Hammond saw just five homicides in 2018, and so far, just one in 2019.

Policy is the political manifestation of philosophy. The absurd, counterproductive, and dangerous programs that have taken effect in America’s most troubled neighborhoods are the manifestation of progressive philosophy. It is this intellectual and spiritual corruption that is at the heart of our urban decay, entwining itself within our cities with the warm promise of social reform, and then strangling the life from them in their failure. It is a philosophy of compassion for the criminal, not for the victim. It is charity for license, at the expense of virtue. It is impotence disguised as pacifism. It is a permissive attitude toward the impermissible that has rearranged our institutions not around the highest moral good, but to accommodate the lowest low.

Cutting the rot out from America’s cities will only come with a change in our social philosophy. Americans living beneath the heel of criminality, on islands of disease, vice, and disorder, will continue to lose faith in our ability to affirmatively answer Alexander Hamilton’s “important question”: whether “societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.” If there is yet time, “the crisis at which we are arrived may,” as Hamilton wrote, “with propriety, be regarded as the period in which that decision is to be made.”

The time to act is now, while decay may still be a matter of choice.

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