A Plea For A Right To A Safe Neighborhood

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 is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.)

(c) 2011 The Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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