Did I just move into a ghetto or an enclave? Perception is everything in crime and punishment

Image: AP Photo/David J. Phillip
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I just moved from a slick, overpriced downtown loft apartment to a tiny shotgun house in Freedmen’s Town in Houston’s Fourth Ward. The move means more than a change of address for me. It also means a subtly different point of view when looking at the complex relationship between crime, social justice, and community.

The Freedmen’s Town neighborhood is what remains of Houston’s oldest African-American community, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. Once a vibrant city-within-the-city, Freedmen’s Town was a self-contained enclave of burgeoning Black culture, with businesses, churches, schools, and its own community governance. The roads were paved with bricks individually purchased by freed slaves and their descendants when the city of Houston refused to provide municipal services to Freedmen’s Town’s Black residents.

The last three decades or so of the 20th century blighted the neighborhood. In the 1980s, the crack epidemic hit the Fourth Ward especially hard. For many years, the neighborhood was the most notoriously crime-ridden area in Houston. The brick-paved streets that once symbolized righteous defiance and self-sufficiency fell into disrepair, sadly symbolizing inner-city poverty and neglect. The neighborhood’s shotgun houses, celebrated by architecture historians, became crack houses. This is how an enclave becomes a ghetto.

In the past ten years, devoted residents and concerned activists from outside of Freedmen’s Town—but mostly within the Black community—began pushing for improvements. The dual aims were to renew the community’s infrastructure and to preserve the vestiges of its history. Redevelopment programs rebuilt dozens of historic homes that had become uninhabitable, including what is now my 1,000-square-foot shotgun house.

In the neighborhood, there is still Section 8 public housing—“projects.” And some blocks are littered with trash and lined with dilapidated buildings tilting off their foundations. But there are conspicuous new three- and four-story townhouses popping up in apparently random spots, like aluminum and glass dandelions. Also, there are lots of blocks like mine, where almost exclusively Black residents tend to tiny yards and sit on the porches of humble homes on narrow streets bearing 100-year-old names and dappled with patches of brick.

One of my new neighbors, an older gentleman who’s lived in the Fourth Ward throughout his life, said that the neighborhood is thankfully not what it was ten or 20 years ago, but it sadly is also not what it was when he was a little boy. The Freedmen’s Town I moved into this week is a place in flux, a place with precedent to end up at one extreme or the other. A ghetto or an enclave. Or maybe something else.

What does this have to do with criminal law or criminal justice?


Perhaps I should mention that I am white. A blonde-haired, blue-eyed white woman. Over-educated, if perhaps under-focused. Single, childless. I attended and now teach at a historically Black law school, but I’m hardly the most likely new resident of Freedmen’s Town.

More than one well-meaning friend or colleague met my excitement with hesitation. Is the neighborhood safe? Am I nuts?

Well, sure, probably. Just maybe not in the way that they suppose.

People tend to assume that my new neighborhood is some sort of urban war zone, though many of those same people never noted the crime profiles of the downtown lofts I’ve lived in over the years, nor the various rentals in Montrose, Houston’s artsy, gay-friendly area. No, it’s the Fourth Ward they worry about.

Current crime statistics don’t support this distinction. When searching for a home to purchase, I scoured neighborhood crime stats from the Houston Police Department and elsewhere. I won’t pretend that Houston’s Fourth Ward is crime-free or even “low-crime” by suburban standards. In any given week, there’s plenty of theft crime, some robberies, a few burglaries. Some assaults, but homicides and rapes are thankfully rare. Drugs, of course. Nevertheless, the Freedmen’s Town area is no more crime-afflicted than the last few areas that I’ve called home in and around downtown Houston.

Is it scarier to see a couple of black kids leaning against a building in Freedmen’s Town than to see a pair of white teenagers on the sidewalk in Montrose?

Are black dudes smoking pot in a black neighborhood scarier than white dudes smoking pot in a white neighborhood?

Are poor people scarier than affluent people?

What makes us feel unsafe? Who makes us feel unsafe? Can we always explain why?

How often are our explanations pretense?

While in law school, I lived in the aforementioned Montrose neighborhood. One night, a guy pried open my apartment window and shimmied halfway inside before noticing that I was sitting at a table a few feet away. White, scruffy, apparently rather high, he said, still dangling in my kitchen window, “Man, I wasn’t expecting to see you here.” Shocked, sleep-deprived, and briefing, of all things, cases for Crim Law, I replied, “Well I wasn’t exactly expecting to see you here either.” After a long pause, he wriggled backwards, leaving my window open behind him.

My car got broken into three times in one four-month span, in that same neighborhood, surrounded by hippies and hipsters and artists. People with polite drug habits. People whose un- or under-employment is chalked up to benign—if sort of annoying—bucking of social convention.

In white communities, it’s quirky, even quaint. In black communities, it’s criminal.

Few attitudes about criminality, race, poverty, or community identity are easy to unpack. While thoughtful people may know better than to let racial differences affect their assumptions, they may adopt unreflective stances on economic differences.

When people recite “poverty leads to crime,” they are more likely repeating a platitude than reporting on data. While the data do show certain undeniable relationships between socioeconomic factors and the incidence of crime, making sense of those relationships is complicated business.

A simplistic take on the poverty and crime connection overlooks important questions about causation versus correlation. It glosses over distinctions between poverty’s effect on an individual’s likelihood to be the victim or perpetrator of crime and poverty’s effect on crime rates in a community. It ignores significant differences between urban and rural poverty, between rates of violent crimes and rates of non-violent crimes, between poor black communities and poor white or Latino communities.

A starving Jean Valjean from Les Miserables stealing bread offers a romantic picture, but it’s no replacement for empirically driven, empirically validated analysis.

I worry too that sometimes saying “poverty leads to crime” is another way of saying “poor black people commit crimes,” which is a more socially acceptable way of justifying taking the long way home instead of driving through the black neighborhood.

Perceptions of people matter, but so do perceptions of communities.

How other citizens perceive a neighborhood can affect how they allocate public resources. Do others write off neighborhoods seen a slums? Do they assume that residents of poor Black neighborhoods have particular priorities?

How law enforcement perceives a community matters a whole hell of a lot. Aggressive patrolling in certain neighborhoods can lead to fractiousness between cops and residents. If residents feel harassed, even law-abiding folks are less wont to cooperate with police. This can, in turn, lead to less effective crime control as well as even more hostility from law enforcement officers. And the last thing a Black person in America needs is more hostile treatment by cops.

These are, of course, familiar issues in my professional life, where I think, talk, teach, and write about criminal activity and society’s responses to it. This week, however, as I settle into my new home, it is my personal life that makes me think of new questions and of old questions asked new ways.

This post originally appeared at Fault Lines.