The Improbable Transformation of Inner-City Neighborhoods: Crime, Violence, Drugs, and Youth in the 1990s

Article excerpt


At the peak of the crack epidemic in many American cities--when people seemed ready to write off inner cities as hopelessly lost--a remarkable transformation began to take place. In a global economy where the gap between the haves and the have-nots continued to increase at an alarming rate, inner city neighborhoods defied nearly all expectations and with minimal outside intervention, mounted an improbable comeback.(1) The most visible and trumpeted manifestation of this rebirth was a plummeting crime rate which, in the latter half of the 1990s, fell to lows not seen in more than thirty years.(2) Incumbent politicians and law enforcement officials rushed to take credit, while the media and social scientists scrambled to explain how this seemingly unlikely turn of events could have happened in cities that had been unflinchingly described as being undermined and overrun by drugs, crime and violence.(3)

The reduction of crime was startling because it contradicted two powerful assumptions about life in the United States. The first was that cities were becoming progressively more dangerous places to live. In this formulation, not only were Americans more at risk for becoming victims of violent crime, they were also more likely to become perpetrators of crime as a result of the deterioration of civil society and greater exposure to violence and an unsavory environment.(4) With great alarm, the media, social scientists and policy makers proclaimed that the hegemony enjoyed by white middle class culture was being steadily eroded by the insidious spread of an amoral lifestyle characterized by crime, violence and drug misuse that percolated out from inner city neighborhoods to infect suburbs and rural America.(5) In the drive to overtake the hearts and minds of America's youth, this self-destructive city-born subculture violated the taboo boundaries of race/ethnicity, gender and age. The threat to mainstream America was no longer exclusively embodied by black urban males, but increasingly included whites, females, country folk, and, most disturbingly, children.(6)

The second assumption was that children, the least prepared to withstand the rigors of life in a postmodern world, were becoming more violent.(7) Forced to grow up too soon, kids could no longer be kids and the critical period of adolescence was squeezed out as they transitioned directly into adulthood. Rushed along by care givers who force fed them in preparation for the working world or, alternatively, ignored by self-absorbed parents and left to fend for themselves, children experienced puberty at a much earlier age and the powerful hormonal cocktail that coursed through their bodies was left unregulated by the missing reins of moral reasoning or the calming influence of family and community. Bereft of guidance and safe passage to adulthood, children were increasingly cast adrift to define themselves in a hostile world.(8) Many children found that they must "pack guns instead of lunches"(9) to fight their way out of childhood in an upward spiral of violence. Some researchers maintained that the "concentration effect" of living in inner city environments greatly increased the likelihood of using violence to resolve disputes and that exposure to "deviant models" characteristic of inner city life invariably led to greater drug abuse, violence, alienation and apathy.(10) As Sullivan notes, however, very little research has been done on the impact of growing up in a violent environment and how it may contribute to greater or less violent behavior as an adolescent and later in life.(11) Clearly, social and/or environmental factors shape developmental trajectories, but increasingly, researchers are interested in what people do and the choices they make within the parameters that bound their everyday lives. Ethnographic research has shown that people, even drug users,(12) have agency and possess the capacity to intervene meaningfully in their own lives, though not always in ways that they intend. …