I went to church in downtown Hartford last Sunday and learned that a man had been shot and killed across the street in the church's parking lot at 1:30 a.m. on the preceding Saturday.
The victim was identified as Joel Hightower, who may have been celebrating his 20th birthday downtown. The young man's death attracted nowhere near the publicity that the brutal mugging of former Deputy Mayor Nick Carbone and the hit-and-run assault on 78-year-old Angel Arce Torres did earlier in the month, but it had one of the same themes. It was in a place not usually associated with criminal mayhem.
The conventional wisdom is that most violent crime in Hartford is among rival drug dealers battling at certain hot spots. That's only partly true. Police maps of last year's 32 homicides, and of the 188 firearms incidents from March 16 through May 10 of this year, show somewhat of a concentration in three North End neighborhoods but representation in all of the city's residential neighborhoods.
If violent crime has spread more around the city in the past decade — it's still light in a few resilient neighborhoods — an article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic has a troubling explanation. "American Murder Mystery" by Hanna Rosin suggests that the demolition of large public housing projects has spread violent crime to what had been safe areas.
In many cities — Rosin's focus in Memphis — much of the crime was centered in and around large public housing projects. Hartfordites who remember Charter Oak Terrace, Stowe Village and Bellevue Square will nod in agreement.
But in the 1990s, through the auspices of the federal Hope VI program, the big projects were torn down. In Memphis, police began seeing spikes in crime in previously peaceful residential areas. Two researchers correlated the crimes with relocation statistics. They matched.
The hope in Hope VI was that people would leave the projects, move to middle- or working-class neighborhoods, adopt the values and improve their lives. Some doubtless did, but many seem to have reassembled in moderately poor neighborhoods, causing them to become poorer.
As The Courant's Mike Swift reported in 2002, the demolition of large housing projects in Hartford reduced poverty rates in those areas, but was to some degree responsible for increases in poverty — and crime — in other city neighborhoods.
Rosin cites the work of housing expert George Galster of Wayne State University, who compared cities split into high- and low-poverty areas with those dominated by medium-poverty areas. He concludes the latter is likely to produce more crime and more bad neighborhoods.
The problem with this analysis is that it doesn't lead to a solution. The housing projects were a disaster and had to come down. It's possible that former residents are having trouble getting the social services that were available at the projects — child care, job training, health clinics, etc., and perhaps these can be better provided where the folks live now. But as Rosin correctly observes, social services didn't solve poverty and crime in the projects. Other factors, such as unemployment and drugs, add to the deep problems of urban poverty.
What to do? Hartford has one advantage Memphis doesn't have: It is relatively small. City officials could devise a block-by-block strategy, with teams of police, educators, social workers and job trainers, and see if they can't help residents get squared away.
The new school plan is promising. Any kind of mentoring or travel programs help. Why can't there be more jobs in the city? If nothing else, use the Community Court model and pay people to clean the streets and parks.
Tomorrow at 7 p.m. at the Bushnell Park band shell, there'll be music, dance, poetry and a candlelight vigil as part of the new Hartford Cares initiative. There'll also be a chance to volunteer. If you'd like to get in the game, come on down.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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