On Dec. 28, 1990, in the final days of one of the most violent years in the 20th century, the Harrisburg Patriot-News ran an editorial mourning the American city. “Urban life in America is in the throes of a social meltdown,” it read. “The symptoms of decay are everywhere. Violence has become an epidemic, and many major cities will set record rates of homicides this year.”
The image of an urban dystopia proliferated in the 1980s and 1990s, as American cities—abandoned by manufacturers, forgotten by policymakers and besieged by poverty—battled unprecedented levels of violent crime.
At the turn of the 21st century, though, almost as quickly as crime rose, it began to fall. Violent crime has plummeted in almost every American city since 1990, with some cities, including Harrisburg, cutting their violent crime rates almost in half. Harrisburg recorded a violent crime rate of 2,191 incidences per 100,000 people in 1990; in 2014, it had fallen to 1,113. With the exception of homicides, almost every category of violent crime—robbery, burglary, assault, property crimes and motor vehicle thefts—has fallen by a similar magnitude.
But why? Mayors, police chiefs and other students of crime data can say with certainty that cities have gotten safer since the great crime wave of the 1980s and 1990s. How it happened is a subject of more intense debate. Increased policing, prosecution and incarceration have contributed at least partially to the decline in crime, at a significant social cost. Researchers have pointed to other, non-intuitive societal shifts that could have curbed violent behavior, including increased access to abortion, decreased exposure to lead, changes in the economy and even the spread of psychiatric drugs.
Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist and crime researcher at New York University, offers a more encouraging, hopeful thesis for why urban spaces have gotten safer. As the criminal justice system expanded and became more punitive, Sharkey says, another force began to coalesce in America’s parks, streets and neighborhood centers. The people responsible weren’t police officers or prosecutors, but ordinary residents.
In his latest book, “Uneasy Peace,” Sharkey calls these people the “new urban guardians.” He says that local nonprofit groups successfully fought crime by building playgrounds, opening youth centers, organizing neighborhood watch groups and picking up trash. As they slowly reclaimed their neighborhoods, working long hours with little to no pay or recognition, these citizens made a crucial, but often overlooked, contribution to safety in American cities.
“The changes that took place weren’t just about the expansion of the prison system and the increasing aggressiveness of police,” Sharkey said during a recent conversation at Midtown Scholar Bookstore, where reporters interviewed him about his research. “It was also a mobilization among the residents and organizations in the communities hit hardest by violence. That has been completely left out of discussions about why violence fell, but I think it’s a crucial part that deserves much greater credit.”
Sharkey explained that, since the 1990s, the nonprofit sector exploded as residents in neighborhoods mobilized against violence. New groups focusing on youth mentorship and neighborhood enrichment proliferated. This trend was partly a direct response to rising crime rates, but was also enabled by a separate expansion in private, philanthropic wealth, possibly due to strong gains in the national economy in the 1980s.
With the help of a research assistant, Sharkey set out to quantify the effects of neighborhood nonprofits on crime reduction. Drawing on data from the National Center for Charitable Statistics, the pair determined that, in a given city with 100,000 people, every new organization formed to confront violence or build stronger neighborhoods led to about a 1-percent drop in violent crime.
“These organizations were designed to take back city streets, not through law enforcement but by building stronger communities, and they were extremely effective,” Sharkey said.
Someone to Trust
Sharkey’s findings validate what many local community leaders know to be true about the relationship between neighborhood development and violent crime. While many of the active nonprofit organizations in Harrisburg aren’t explicitly involved in violence prevention, their leaders recognize that, by providing essential services to their community—including mentorship, education and beautification—they’ve become participants in the fight against crime.
“Nurturing relationships and building community is an absolute prerequisite to keep violence from occurring,” said Scott Dunwoody, executive director of Bethesda Mission. “We’re reaching out into the community one man, woman and child at a time.”
Founded in 1914 as a men’s ministry and homeless shelter, Bethesda Mission began to expand its programs in Harrisburg at the same time as crime rates climbed. In 1983, it opened a women and children’s shelter on S. 18th Street; in 1990, it started a youth center in an old fire station on Herr Street. Whereas its shelters offer residential programs, Bethesda Mission’s youth center bleeds into the community surrounding it. Today, more than 75 kids from the 1st through 12th grades attend programs there after school, on weekends and throughout the summer. Volunteers help students with homework, teach cooking classes and supervise sessions in the gym or computer lab. These services are so in demand that Bethesda Mission has made plans to expand its youth center into an adjacent building next year, which will allow it to double its programming capacity.
Both Dunwoody and Serina Brown, director of the Youth Center, say they’re in the business of building relationships and strengthening families, not policing the behavior of kids and their parents. But Brown said she wasn’t surprised to hear about the causal relationship between community nonprofits and violent crime rates. While tutoring sessions and leadership classes may not look like violence prevention techniques, they do offer kids attractive alternatives to criminal activity.
“When you’re with someone through the good and the bad in life, it would make sense that it would prevent crimes because you have someone to trust,” Brown said. “Imagine if every family in the city had that.”
When asked how the center measures its efficacy, Dunwoody cites a fact about graduation rates. Over the course of five years, 86 percent of the students who participated in Bethesda Mission’s youth programs graduated from high school—much higher than the city’s district-wide rate of 55 percent. He also points to the North Allison Hill neighborhood where the center is located. Quiet, leafy and well maintained, North Allison Hill has less visible blight and fewer incidences of violent crime than the South Allison Hill neighborhood close by.
“We don’t want to brag and say we’re the reason why this neighborhood is stable, but we are a big part of it,” Dunwoody said. “Centers like this can have an immense role in giving life to a community. It’s the heartbeat.”
Some neighborhoods have anchoring institutions and physical spaces like the Bethesda Mission Youth Center where residents can meet and build relationships. Others have anchoring organizations for citizens to address their shared challenges. These groups, many of which rely on volunteers, are responsible for countless cosmetic and institutional enhancements across Harrisburg.
In 2008, residents in Camp Curtin formed Camp Curtin Neighbors United to address problems of blight and trash, crime and economic development in their Uptown neighborhood. The all-volunteer organization held beautification days, mapped blighted buildings and drafted a strategic plan to outline short-term and long-term neighborhood objectives. They opened a tool co-op on the grounds of Wesley Union AME Zion Church and later started a grant-funded pre-school in the church’s basement. It currently employs two teachers who care for 15 children five days a week.
Jean Cutler, a founding member and former president of CCNU, said that the neighborhood organization has become an organized, effective forum for citizens to voice their needs and find recourse. By investing in education and beautifying the neighborhood through tree plantings and trash cleanups, Cutler and the other members of CCNU hope that Camp Curtin will shed its reputation as one of Harrisburg’s most distressed, crime-ridden neighborhoods.
“Making the environment around you better is a huge part of trying to stop the crime,” Cutler said. “People will be more respectful of the neighborhood, and we will have lower tolerance for outliers. I’m not a criminologist, but most of this is common sense.”
According to Sharkey, that’s sound logic. He explained that having more eyes and ears in public spaces reduces the opportunities for criminal activity and signals to would-be criminals that a neighborhood isn’t theirs for the taking. Essentially, residents must respond to crime the same way they might regard at an unsightly building project or waste site: by saying, “Not in my back yard.”
“Violence doesn’t come out of nowhere; it comes when a place is abandoned,” Sharkey said. “It comes when a place empties out, when there are not strong institutions, when the community isn’t organized, and it’s left on its own.”
Just ask Jeannine and Jeremy Domenico, who literally have eyes on the street from their residence in South Allison Hill. The Domenicos moved into their rowhome on South Summit Street, a narrow one-way that connects the busy thoroughfares of Derry and Mulberry streets, just before Christmas 2013. When they first bought their home, Jeremy (who goes by Jay) wouldn’t let the couple sit in the living room that looks out onto the street. They watched TV and took visitors in another room on the first floor, which was set back from the main entranceway, closer to the backyard. That way, Jay said, any stray bullets would travel farther to hit them.
“There were gunshots every night,” he said. “Our main concern was drive-bys, and we figured, if we were in the back room, there would be four walls for bullets to go through.”
The Domenicos may not have landed in a neighborhood of choice in 2013, but the neighborhood was theirs—and they wanted people to know they were there to stay. By their account, they spent the better part of the next year trying to build a community. They hosted their first block party, which is now an annual event. They led trash cleanups and gained local fame for the elaborate decorations they put on their doors for every holiday – as well as for the four security cameras that keep watch over the front of the street and the alley behind their home.
Over time, they say, the space around them transformed. They no longer had to lead trash pickups—neighbors were doing it themselves. Gunshots sounded less frequently, and drug dealing no longer took place on their street. Cars still speed down the street the wrong way, but the activity that drove them inside their homes has dramatically fallen.
“It’s easy to go inside and shut your door when you see bad behavior,” Jay said. “It seems like, if you live in a bad area, you get terrorized into staying in your house. But, when we’re outside working, we messed up people’s game plans.”
Repaying a Debt
The idea that social cohesion can inoculate neighborhoods against crime isn’t lost on law enforcement officials.
Capt. Gabriel Olivera, chief information officer for the Harrisburg Police Bureau, said that line of thinking is “absolutely” consistent with trends he’s seen in the city over the past two decades. He pointed to Harrisburg’s Midtown neighborhood as one example. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he said, the intersection of Green and Muench streets was known among police officers as “Green and Murder.” Over time, as residents bought homes, beautified streets and formed a neighborhood watch association, the police bureau received fewer calls to the area.
The progress that’s been made against urban crime has relied, in part, on vast amounts of unpaid labor by volunteer residents. If crime across the country is going to continue its downward trajectory, Sharkey said, the people who fight it at every level ought to be compensated.
“The people who volunteer time to make communities safe are doing work on behalf of their city,” Sharkey said. “When they’re given respect and that role is valued, it makes a huge difference.”
Mayor Eric Papenfuse said that he finds that argument compelling, and paying the work of community organizers is something that the city can consider in the future.
“It’s an intriguing concept, and one that warrants thoughtful consideration,” he said. “There are some serious questions surrounding implementation, but I’m willing to explore them and possibly put forth some funding in next year’s budget.”
But not all of Harrisburg’s urban guardians agree that they should be paid for their work.
Claude Phipps, a community organizer who lives in Bellevue Park, has seen local institutions wax and wane in Harrisburg his whole life. Growing up at 6th and Peffer streets, he watched the city reel from the devastation of Hurricane Agnes in 1972 and from financial hardship that followed. He reckons that the city hit “rock bottom” in the early 2000s and made a turn for the better in 2010.
Today, Phipps said he’s happy to volunteer his time as a neighborhood watch coordinator and conflict mediator. He sees it as “repaying a debt” to the long-ago neighbors who guarded over him as a child.
Cutler, the Camp Curtin advocate, said that citizens ought to have “sweat equity” in their neighborhoods.
“When you fund salaries, there’s no money left for projects,” she said. “There needs to be some volunteerism, because, bottom line, you’ll need money to do these projects.”
I posed the question of pay to a coalition of faith-based community leaders, who were meeting in the chilly basement of Derry Street United Methodist Church to plan a summer camp for children. They stressed that the diminishing funds in a crowded nonprofit sector made it hard to ensure programming year to year.
Bill Jamison, a leader of the Allison Hill Ministry, which provides after-school mentoring, outdoor education and field trips for students, said that he earns $17,000 a year while working 60 hours a week. Some years, his program receives more funding; other years, it gets less. He wouldn’t object to more funding for his volunteers, but he also knows his work is too essential to cease over money disputes.
“If we take these services away, that’s where crime comes from,” Jamison said.
But Nashon Walker, CEO of Hoodrise Global, a mentorship program that works in Harrisburg city schools, thinks that community leaders and mentors should demand more pay for their work.
“Inner-city outreach has been underfunded and undervalued,” Walker said. “I don’t have a poverty mentality.”
Walker also pointed to an irony that has led politicians and researchers across the political spectrum to call for criminal justice reform. America’s incarceration spree, effective though it may have been in curbing criminal activity, has borne immense social and economic costs.
“This country pays billions to incarcerate,” Walker said. “Why can’t we pay now to set people free?”
When presenting his research, Sharkey is careful to note that America’s progress against crime is tenuous. Many cities across the country are seeing upticks in violent crime after years of decline. This crossroads, he said, should force American lawmakers to trade in the country’s punitive criminal justice policies for programs that focus on reinvestment and economic development in cities. The good news is that these programs could look a lot like what is already in place in cities like Harrisburg, where neighborhoods self-police by tending to their public spaces, their children and their shared social bonds.
“This is how violence is confronted in a sustainable way without the collateral costs of locking up half the community’s population,” Sharkey said. “It’s an alternative model, and it should be the model.”