Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The "Social Issue," Crime, and Inner Cities--Are They Still Important???

Some seemingly random, but I think connected, thoughts on crime, urban life, demographic change, and politics:

I’m working my way through Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg’s “The Real Majority.” Written in 1970, it is in many ways a follow up to Phillips’ “The Emerging Republican Majority.” Though not nearly as exhaustive or as focused on political geography and history, it does grapple with the same turbulent time period—the late 1960’s—and tries to figure out how we seemed to move from LBJ to Nixon so quickly. Whereas Phillips had worked for the Nixon campaign, Wattenberg had worked for Johnson, and later Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Thus, their political leanings (at the time) and agenda differ a bit. Central to “The Real Majority” is the contention that the country’s rejection of LBJ was not rooted, as many have argued, in a disdain for the Vietnam War. While there was certainly opposition, the support for first Eugene McCarthy, and ultimately Nixon, was driven by what Scammon and Wattenberg call the “Social Issue.” Foremost among voters’ concerns was a combination of crime, urban unrest, racial strife, alienation, and other related issues that produced a broad uneasiness or malaise about the direction of the country. Whereas Vietnam may have been the most “important” issue for the country, it was not the “voting” issue that defined politics. In this vein, one can see how politicians like George Wallace, Ronald Reagan (first as California Governor), and even, I’d argue, William F. Buckley in his 1965 race for NYC mayor could tap into the anxiety of voters. Because elections are ultimately about putting together coalitions, the ability of candidates to capitalize on these sentiments and have them (rather than economic concerns, for example) determine voting outcomes can lead to a re-ordering of our politics.

As our country has become both 1) more suburbanized and 2) less afflicted by crime, we tend to forget how big of an issue the problem of our cities was by the late ‘60’s. With mass migration out of the central cities attention turned to other issues. I’ve always been fascinated with big cities—not only their politics, but also how they grapple with issues like crime, housing, education, and transportation. A few weeks ago, the New York Times came out with a fascinating story, and interactive map, on the incidence of murders across the five boroughs over several years. The first thing that we note is that compared to earlier years—especially during the ‘70’s and ‘80’s--the murder rate in New York City is substantially lower today. Whereas there were 2245 murders in NYC in 1990, last year saw only 521. Thus, we might imagine—using the parlance of “The Real Majority--that the “Social Issue” has receded in importance for New Yorkers, and others nation wide. One also finds, and the interactive map is amazing is allowing one to track each murder, that there are definite patterns in 1) who tends to commit murder; 2) who tends to be a victim; and 3) where these crimes take place. The combination of these variables will probably contribute to how people think about the severity of crime and the way it affects them. We see that murders in NYC tend to be concentrated in certain areas and tend to have perpetrators and victims who belong to the same race.

All of this—the rise of the “Social Issue,” issues of race and poverty, and the prevalence of crime—conditions how we view not only our cities, but our politics more broadly. Rarely, unfortunately, do we get the opportunity to take a step back and reflect upon these areas and the people who occupy them. These issues have been bouncing around in my head since I became aware of (and now obsessed with) an amazing photographer who has devoted the last 30 years to documenting inner city America. Camilo Jose Vergara currently has two exhibitions going, one in New York and one in Washington, that showcase his documentation of places (and people) we tend to overlook. While he primarily photographs inner city buildings, his work forces you to think about how our cities change (or don’t) and what those changes mean. He has created a website devoted to his work—Invincible Cities—that takes one to Harlem, Camden NJ, and Richmond CA and allows you to go street by street to see not only how these neighborhoods look today, but how they looked over several decades. His show currently in Washington, “Storefront Churces” presents his look at inner city houses of worship. A central theme to these portraits is that inner city churches have tended to spring up in places previously occupied by businesses, schools, or other, now departed, congregations. By tracking these changes one can get an understanding not only of the importance of religion to these communities but of how our urban areas have transformed themselves over time. Whereas many of the neighborhoods Vergara photographs were originally home to European immigrants, they are now virtually entirely black.

How do we put all of this together??? Ultimately (but perhaps unfortunately), politics and policy is about the issues that we are paying attention to and that we feel directly affect us. A generation ago, crime and the “problem of the cities” were among the top few issues driving our politics. Now these issues would seem to fall far down the list of Americans’ concerns. These urban areas, however, don’t disappear even if their problems get subsumed within the mix of more pressing concerns. Fortunately we have artists like Camilo Jose Vergara who force us to remember and ponder what is going on there.

No comments: