Why New York neighborhoods are safer

Bucking national trends, the city's crime rate has fallen both this year and last.

A decade ago, the Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn was so riddled with drug dealers and thieves that police called it "the well": They knew they could dip in anytime and pick up as many people as they needed to beef up their arrest statistics.

Today, boxes of fresh white mops and new brooms sit for sale unattended outside Popular Hardware, just off bustling Knickerbocker Avenue. They testify to a remarkable transformation under way in Bushwick and throughout New York.

"It's pretty safe," says Won Yoo, as he sits behind the counter of his store chatting with customers. "Conditions have improved a lot in 10 years."

And they're still getting better – a phenomenon that has surprised many criminologists. With the economy in a tailspin and police preoccupied with the terrorist threat, many predicted that crime would spike upward in the nation's largest city, just as it has done in other metro areas. But it hasn't. Crime in New York is down more than 5 percent so far this year. It was down that much last year as well, compared with a 2.1 percent increase nationally.

Theories abound about why New York just keeps getting safer. They include the so-called "9/11 effect" of people looking out for their neighbors, improved police-community relations under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and increased numbers of homeowners, which have stabilized neighborhoods like Bushwick. Experts, however, say there's no single silver bullet.

"There's the lack of [organized] gangs," says Richard Curtis, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "The drug business here is mostly marijuana and Ecstasy, neither of which are associated with high levels of violence. And then there's the orientation of youths today, which is very conservative."

The climate in the '90s

Throughout the 1990s, New York led the nation with sharp reductions in crime. At the time, much of the credit was given to the improved economy and policing strategies under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Those strategies included the "Compstat" system, which allows police to track crimes weekly and precinct by precinct, so they can shift resources where they're needed. While that undoubtedly has played a role, Bronx community activist Karen Washington says the police's "Rambo-style" tactics also produced deep resentment and undermined their credibility in many neighborhoods.

The Bloomberg administration has kept Compstat, but it has also put an emphasis on better relations with the city's 12,000 community organizations. Ms. Washington says that's helped improve police effectiveness in her Crotona neighborhood.

But she credits the people, as much as the police, for pulling together to take back their neighborhoods. "They just got sick and tired of being sick and tired," she says. "There's less tolerance for stepping over crack vials and less tolerance for kids you knew in diapers suddenly trying to be some big drug dealer you're supposed to be scared of."

Such citizen-fueled transformations are evident all over the city. In Jackson Heights, Queens, where prostitution was a persistent problem during the '90s, Ralph Moreno and his Jackson Heights Action Group got tired of waiting for police to act. So they started visiting prostitution houses to collect evidence to turn over to police. Within a year, the houses were put out of business.

"It's safer because we put a lot of pressure on the police precinct," he says. "And they've worked well with us."

Jackson Heights also has block watches and neighborhood patrols wearing bright orange vests. And like Mr. Curtis, Mr. Moreno says he's seen a change in the young people today. "Kids are more conscientious today. Say with graffiti, they now say, 'That's a crime. That's terrible,' " he says.

When Moreno does see kids and graffiti in the same place, he offers to pay the kids to help him clean it up. "I befriend them, and eventually some of them start to do well," he says.

Graffiti was also a major problem in Bushwick. Peter Martin says that every time he painted the wall outside the S&S Clothing Store where he works, the next day it would be covered by gang tags and kids' street names. Now, thanks in part to police's zero tolerance for even small crimes, that's changed.

Families as stabilizers

Mr. Martin thinks the large influx of immigrant families into the neighborhood has also had an effect. Many bought houses that were built with subsidies. They were designed so that low-income families could begin to have a stake in their communities.

"There are more families here, and that's made a difference," he says, watching dozens of shoppers browse through the sweaters and coat racks as they get ready for the winter season.

There's no doubt that other factors have also played a role in the reduction of crime across the city. Sociologist Andrew Karmen says they include the sharply increased rates of incarceration, the waning of the crack epidemic, and the gentrification of neighborhoods like the East Village – once the home of the counterculture and revolts by the homeless.

All these factors have combined to make a difference. "Bushwick changed from a neighborhood where hope was impossible, to one in which positive things could be seen," says Rex Curry of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development in Brooklyn. "Hope became something that at least seemed to be attainable."

From his perch behind the counter at Popular Hardware, Won Yoo sees that as well. While he notes that people are still dealing drugs just 10 blocks away, for now, he's pleased with his community. "Things are definitely better here. It affects everybody."

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