The news at the end of 2013 was remarkable- New York City once again led the nation in the lack of violent crime. And while violent crime has continued to show a decrease throughout the United States, the numbers in New York appear to be exceptional.  In a nutshell, violent crime fell roughly 50% between 1994 and 2000 in the country as a whole, but in New York the decline has continued, with numbers for 2012, particularly homicides falling to levels not seen since the Beatles got off their plane.

To understand the true nature of New York’s crime decline, however, we have to look at the data not at the citywide level, or even the borough level, but at the neighborhood level itself.  Because there is an enormous variation in crime rates throughout the city, and this variation extends to differences within the boroughs as well.  Let’s look, for example, at Brooklyn.  The area known as Brooklyn Heights, which faces Manhattan from across the Eastern edge of the harbor, registers crime rates as low as can be found.  Last year there was one homicide in this area whose population was around 50,000; walk a mile into the Fort Greene neighborhood, an area with the same number of residents, and the homicide total last year was 6.  The homicide rate in New York was slightly more than 4, in Brooklyn Heights it was 2, in Fort Greene it was 12.  Fort Green had an average of 4 homicides each year between 2009 and 2012. The city had the overall lowest number of homicides in 2013 since the end of the Korean War, but some kind of war is still going on in Fort Greene.

Brownsville - East New York. Picture by author.

Brownsville – East New York. Picture by author.

If you go around the city with a map in one hand and the NYPD crime data in the other, an interesting profile begins to emerge.  Neighborhoods that were at the two extremes – richest and poorest – back when crime numbers began falling after 1994, appear to have changed little since that time.  The city’s wealthiest neighborhood, Manhattan’s Upper East Side, is largely vertical in terms of residential architecture, has little street life, even less commercial activity, and experiences very little crime. The poorest neighborhoods, with the exception of public housing projects are for the most part architecturally horizontal, have little street life, even less commercial activity and experience lots of crime.  While crime has decreased in inner-city neighborhoods like Brownsville and East New York, rates for every category of serious crime are four to five times higher than the city as a whole but the lack of population density masks these numbers when they roll up within citywide numbers as a whole.

Upper East Side - Manhattan

Upper East Side – Manhattan

Where neighborhood profiles and the crime rates have changed most dramatically is in areas that have either gentrified, such as the former meatpacking district in Manhattan, or the great swatches of real estate now occupied by “new” immigrants in The Bronx, Brooklyn, and most notably, Queens.  These populations, who at last count spoke more than 700 different languages, now account for more than 40% of the city’s total population, the first time that such a high percentage of foreign-born have been living in New York since before World War I.

Many of the areas now occupied by new immigrants were former working-class and middle-class neighborhoods whose previous residents fled the city in droves during the economic and fiscal downturn of the 1970s, or held second-generation Americans whose idea of capturing the American dream meant moving out to the ‘burbs.  But the new immigrant populations appear eager to stabilize their urban neighborhoods and their decision to re-urbanize what otherwise might have become more inner-city ghettos is what has driven down the city’s rate of crime.

Between 1970 and 1990 the city lost more than one half million residents.  Between 1990 and 2010 New York made up the entire deficit and added 300,000 more.  Without understanding how this ebb and flow of the city’s population changed the character of neighborhoods in every borough, discussions about crime border on the unreal.  We can talk from today to next year about policing, stop-and-frisk strategies, arrests and everything else, but we should always be mindful of this comment by Jane Jacobs: “The first thing to understand is that the public peace – sidewalk and street peace – of cities is not kept by the police, necessary as police are.  It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.”