Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought
Disorderly neighborhoods in the United States were the center of heated debate and much political initiative at the turn of the twenty-first century. Among criminal law scholars, sociologists, and students of policing, New York City drew the most attention, and presented the question whether order-maintenance policing really brought down crime and transformed disorderly neighborhoods like Times Square into high-end, commercially viable, urban communities. In this debate, the NYPD was generally the lead protagonist and crime reduction the dominant plot.
But is that right? Did the NYPD's "broken windows" policing really lead the urban renewal in New York City? Or was it the other way around? Were the leaders or instigators, instead, high-end commercial and residential real estate developers? Or the urban planers who, many years earlier in the late 1970s and 1980s, designated this blighted area for massive development? Could it be that real estate redevelopment reconfigures crime patterns in disorderly neighborhoods, producing crime reduction?
In this essay, I explore the latter hypothesis. I suggest that the focus on the police does not do justice to the processual dynamics of how a neighborhood is redeveloped, gentrified, or commercialized. It does not begin to scratch at the dynamic relationship between real estate redevelopment and crime. There are crucial intervening steps. And in the more complete story, the most important players are high-end commercial and residential real estate developers, city urban planners, and non-profit housing advocates for the homeless. The police and their policing are ancillary.
For purposes of exploring this hypothesis, Los Angeles's Skid Row offers an ideal case study – an ongoing and uncontrolled experiment in an extremely disorderly downtown area. The fact is, still today, L.A.'s Skid Row is unreconstructed. It is described, accurately, as a "wretched" area where thousands of destitute, mentally ill, and drug dependent human beings sleep on the sidewalks, pitch tents, make shelters and encampments out of discarded cardboard boxes, urinate and defecate in the street, engage in open sex, and wander about trolling shopping carts overflowing with all their earthly possessions.
Even though crime has consistently plagued L.A.'s Skid Row, the area is today experiencing high-end real estate development. Beginning in the late 1990s, a number of developers began transforming old buildings into loft space. In this sense, L.A.'s Skid Row affords a window to observe in slow motion – in real time – how an urban downtown area becomes gentrified. And in the process, how issues of homelessness intersect with urban renewal.
In this article, I offer a preliminary snapshot, a rich description of the present condition of L.A's Skid Row. I emphasize that this is an experiment in real time because the changes are occurring as I write, and neither I nor anyone else knows how L.A.'s Skid Row will ultimately evolve, if at all. But I also highlight one salient fact, a fact somewhat buried in the debris and disorder of L.A.'s Skid Row. Somewhat surprisingly, amidst the rancor and acrimony in the battle between developers and homeless advocates, there is an odd and uncomfortable alignment of interests that may ultimately ease or facilitate the transition to the gentrification of Skid Row. The advocates for the homeless and the non-profit SRO-operators, naturally, want to buy as much real estate on the Row as possible in order to increase the housing stock for low-income tenants and to maintain Skid Row as Skid Row. Oddly, the high-end real estate developers may share this desire to retain the Skid Row flavor. For it is precisely that Skid Row flavor that gives the neighborhood its edginess. It is precisely the juxtaposition of high-end lofts and homeless beggars that gives L.A.'s Skid Row a trendy, urban, edgy, noir flavor that is so marketable. This odd fact may very well end up promoting or easing the gentrification. What will happen in the next decade, though, is unpredictable.
Bernard E. Harcourt,
Policing L.A.'s Skid Row: Crime and Real Estate Development in Downtown Los Angeles [an Experiment in Real Time],
University of Chicago Legal Forum, 2005; University of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 92
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/1370