Safe neighborhood is basic right

November 20, 2011


This is not about your neighborhood.

Probably not, at least. The demographics of newspaper readership being what they are, you likely do not live in Liberty Square or anyplace like it.

Maria Williams does live in Liberty Square. She wishes she did not. “I’m low income,” she recently told my colleague, Miami Herald reporter Frances Robles, “but I have a right to have a safe environment.” It was in its way a statement of basic human dignity. One is reminded of Franklin Roosevelt’s enumeration of the Four Freedoms. The fourth was freedom from fear.

But one is not free from fear in Liberty Square public housing, which has seen at least 11 shootings in the last two years. The Model City area of which it is a part accounts for nearly a third of all Miami murders. Residents showed Robles bullet holes in their walls. They told how they teach their children to drop at the first sound of automatic weapons fire. One person doesn’t take the trash out without a police presence.

Robles went to Liberty Square to find out how the cameras were doing at combating that. She found they were not working. A $270,000 closed-circuit monitoring system installed several months back by the county housing authority as a crime fighting tool was plagued by malfunctions. One wonders what impact it would have made even if they were working properly. To presume cameras would deter gangsters from gangsterism requires a belief that gangsters are the types to do a risk/benefit analysis before they act. They are not.

Not that cameras and other creative policing tools ought not be used to fight the lawlessness of this place. But you cannot put this right with a single dramatic gesture. It is a complex problem and will require a sustained and holistic solution.

You want to fix Liberty Square and places like it? Fine, improve the policing. But also fix the schools and give every child a quality education. Offer job training. Provide incentives that bring commerce and industry to the area. Encourage the restoration of nuclear families. End the drug war.

The model of holistic solutions already exists in pockets of hope around the country, including Purpose Built Communities in Atlanta and the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York. So there is no mystery here. We know how to fix these bad places. What we lack is the wit and the will.

Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, once spoke of how people resist him investing, say, $3,500 a year to help some poor kid in some struggling uptown neighborhood. But when that kid turns 18, they think nothing of spending $60,000 a year to incarcerate him.

In other words, you can spend less and produce a citizen who pays taxes and otherwise contributes to the system — or you can spend more to feed and house someone who only takes from the system. That ought to be a no-brainer. It’s not liberal, it’s not conservative. It’s mathematical.

That something so obvious eludes us speaks to that lack of wit and will and to a tendency to regard violence and dysfunction as somehow inevitable, unremarkable, intractable, in neighborhoods where people are black, brown or poor.

We owe Maria Williams something better than that sort of moral flaccidity.

No, this is not your neighborhood. But what if it were?

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CST each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


Sunny Parker 6 years, 7 months ago

It's the parents, parents, parents fault! Instead of spending thousands on the high tech cameras, should have spent the money to bulldoze the neighborhood!

50YearResident 6 years, 7 months ago

Those neighborhoods will never be safe until the residents work togather to police their own. Why is it that when you consolidate one group of people into government housing it always turns into a lawless slum? It will never change until the mindset of the residents make it happen. Outsiders can not do it for them.

tomatogrower 6 years, 7 months ago

It doesn't always happen. Harlem's Children Zone - Purpose Built Communities. Read the whole article. The reason the cameras don't work is probably, because the contract was given to some politicians brother who is incompetent. If you read the article, Mr. Pitts shows that there are communities that work, and why aren't other communities following their models, instead of buying ineffective cameras, that would stop crime even if they did function? If you did not get this from the article, I suggest working on reading comprehension. Quit reading your own political dogma into it.

cato_the_elder 6 years, 7 months ago

Headline: "Safe Neighborhood is a Basic Right."

Tell that to the OWS juvenile delinquents who have been violently disrupting urban neighborhoods in America for about three months now.

50YearResident 6 years, 7 months ago

"Safe Neighborhood is a Basic Right."

Well Leonard, please tell us how you would go about making these neighborhoods safe. You brought up the subject. surely you have a workable plan. How are you going to give the "Right" to safety to people that are perfecting their knock down game with the neighborhood old and feable? Print your solution in the next Pitts newspaper article.

tomatogrower 6 years, 7 months ago

"The model of holistic solutions already exists in pockets of hope around the country, including Purpose Built Communities in Atlanta and the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York. So there is no mystery here. We know how to fix these bad places. What we lack is the wit and the will."

There is a plan. Why don't you try reading the article and research what is working in these areas. Duh. Read much?

Sunny Parker 6 years, 7 months ago

It's their 'right' to move! No one forces them to live there!

geekin_topekan 6 years, 7 months ago

Really! Same goes for that 9% who are unemployed (which you claim is O-Dude's fault). Noone is making them stay here in AMerica. If your job was shipped off to CHina, SOuth America or India, noone says that they can't go with it. Move to where your job went and quit whinin'!!

deec 6 years, 7 months ago

The two month anniversary was last Thursday The Occupiers are adults, not juveniles, of all ages. I guess you think college age students and grandmothers are juveniles?

jhawkinsf 6 years, 7 months ago

I suspect that if the police were sent in in large numbers to enforce quality of life crimes, Mr. Pitts would be the first to complain that the poor were being singled out. A greater police presence would reduce crime, giving those in the neighborhood greater safety. I doubt Mr. Pitts wants that. What he really want is more money being spent in those neighborhoods, hoping that will make everyone there a little happier and less likely to commit crimes. Maybe he's right. But once we are being asked to take money from someone who earned it and spend it on people who have not, then we also have the right to ask some basic questions. Like why is this person poor? Do they deserve the charity that is being asked for? Is there a better way to end this cycle? And a million more questions. There are too many questions Mr. Pitts leaves unanswered for me to agree with the premise that throwing money at this problem will solve anything. I agree with 50yearresident, we need more specific ideas from Mr. pitts before we go on a spending spree.

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

Research the project he spoke of in Harlem.

It's quite clear that preventing these kinds of situations is in fact less expensive than waiting and then jailing people.

You don't mind spending much more money to arrest/prosecute/jail people than it would cost to help them not wind up that way?

Sunny Parker 6 years, 7 months ago

Spend nothing on them! Can't help those who won't help themselves!

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago


Then we wind up spending lots of money to incarcerate them instead, in fact more than it would cost to help them (perhaps help them to help themselves).

Why is that better?

geekin_topekan 6 years, 7 months ago

Hmm, somehow this "the money is already spent" angle is troubling. Yet, it makes sense. Spend $10,000/yr now (school) or spend $60,000/yr later (prison). I am sure some would rather kill the criminals but then we'd be no different than our enemies, those who we claim some sort of superior civility over and beyond. One of the bi-products of that pesky higher standards that we have, right?

If you are going to spend the money of "them" anyway, wouldn't it be better to spend the money on something that works (education) than 6Xs the amount on something that doesn't work (prison). I know noone who has left prison a better person than they went in, but I know plenty who leave school a better person.

50YearResident 6 years, 7 months ago

There is no guarantee that spending $10,000 per year now is going to prevent spending the $60,000 for the next 50 years. Looks like it might be both, unless attitudes of the "you owe me" people change. I'm having trouble seeing changes anytime soon.

geekin_topekan 6 years, 7 months ago

No, college does not guarantee anything. Look a Bernie Maddoff or all those KU ticketing thieves. Of course I will assume that no or few public funds were spent on their education but the outcome did not remove the criminal mindset. So, is it education that curbs criminal activity or does the prison system curb criminal activity? Neither apparently but how many released from prison are returned and how many college graduates go on to commit crime? The numbers are there somewhere.

tomatogrower 6 years, 7 months ago

Look how long it took to bust Maddoff. If you are rich, you are almost untouchable.

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

College is not the education that's being discussed.

It's much much earlier education, in the grade schools, that's been shown to have a very positive effect on preventing crime.

Check out the Harlem project mentioned above - it includes education, parenting classes, etc. and has been very effective.

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure".

No system or external structure can eliminate basic human flaws like greed, of course, but they can certainly help provide people with more tools that make it much more likely they'll be able to find better options than turning to a life of crime.

Sunny Parker 6 years, 7 months ago

'a safe neighborhood' is not a right! People always wanting the govt to save everybody!

geekin_topekan 6 years, 7 months ago

SO vigilante justice is your preferred method? If we are placed in a position of dependence by the government that it is that gubment's responsibility. Can't have it both ways.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.