The Price of Making New York “Safe”


By Mark Naison (July 31, 2015)

It is great that neighborhoods in New York that were once violent and fear ridden have become safer, that people can once again take their children to and from school, go to and from work, and go to the corner store without worrying that they or their family members will be hit by a stray bullet. As someone who spent time in those neighborhoods trying to create jobs and school opportunities for young people trapped in the cycle of violence, I appreciate that change But what haunts me, more and more is two things.

First, that the people who lived in those communities at the height of the violence (1985-1995) have been priced out and pushed out, that as soon as their communities became safe, wealthier people started moving in, developers took notice, and the rents started skyrocketing to the point where longtime residents had to move out and the stores that served them had to close. These residents thus faced a double sacrifice; first living in communities where the level of violence was one which middle class New Yorkers would never tolerate; and secondly, being pushed out when the violence was finally checked, in part through their heroic efforts.

Second, that the prime strategy for reducing the violence was not creating jobs, offering more recreational programs, and making sure schools were open around the clock, as some of us pushed for, but expanding and militarizing the New York City police force so that young people in the most dangerous communities were put under constant surveillance, in their schools as well as in the streets, and were constantly being arrested for minor crimes so they could be searched for drugs and guns. These coercive tactics, supported by desperate residents as well as public officials, turned young people in those communities, especially those living in public housing, into prisoners in their streets and schools while sending huge numbers of them to jail and prison.

To quote Dead Prez (“Behind Enemy Lines”) ” You don’t have to be in jail to be in prison, look how we livin'”

I like many others, love the fact that I can walk down New Lots or Prospect Avenues without worrying about being hit by a stray bullet. But I am haunted by the collateral damage of an approach to public safety than emphasized militarized policing and resulted in massive displacement of poor and working class residents from communities where the violence was once greatest.

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