A few hours after a homeless guy named Virgil died of an overdose in the portable toilet, the blue plastic outhouse at 6th and San Julian streets was back in business. Not as a toilet, but as a house of prostitution.
T.J., who keeps her wardrobe in one of the outhouses ... is wearing a sheer red top, nothing underneath, and skin-tight black pants. She's bummed a Newport and has it to her lips, but can't find a light.
As she speaks, a rat skitters up from the sewer and through a grate, past a discarded brassiere, a smooshed apple and an empty bag of Fritos. Rats run into, under and around the portable toilets with a brazen sense of entitlement, as comfortable as house pets.
Sights like this are common on L.A.'s skid row, a rock-bottom depository and national embarrassment. A place where disease, abuse, crime and hard-luck misery are on public display and have been for years, conveniently out of sight and mind for most Angelenos. No matter how many times I go in, I come out shocked all over again.
The above is an excerpt from the Los Angeles Times journalist Steve Lopez, who was famously portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. in the 2009 movie, The Soloist. Lopez wrote countless segments for the paper describing the crime and depravity in L.A.'s Skid Row. Law enforcers, researchers and sociologists have long scratched their heads about places like this — a seeming third-world slum nestled inside the world's wealthiest nation. How did it come to this? Can it at least be tamed? They wonder (and wonder still) about the best way to keep such areas from spiraling out of control.
In the early 1980s it was suggested if a community tolerates quality-of-life offenses, such as drug use and prostitution, it signals to all potential lawbreakers that it doesn't care what happens to it; more serious crime will soon result. The theory was first posited in a 1982 article in the Atlantic by criminologist George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, a political scientist at Harvard. The "Broken Windows" policing theory has been examined and reexamined. To some it's a common sense approach, while others say it's nothing more than "wishful thinking," that any concerted effort to clean up crime problem areas, or "hot spots," is basically akin to maneuvering that crime next door.
Regardless, researchers are still putting the model to work. The city of Lowell, Mass., conducted its own up-close experiment in 2005. In the Lowell study, researchers and police concentrated on 34 crime hot spots. In half of them, authorities repaired street lights, cleaned up trash and secured abandoned buildings. Mental health services and homeless aid referrals expanded. At the end of the experiment, it was reported calls to police in those areas that were cleaned up decreased by 20 percent. On February 9, 2009, as the study concluded, the Boston Globe called the experiment a "breakthrough" in linking crime with conditions.
The Lowell study
Lowell Police Superintendant Kenneth Lavallee, a deputy superintendant at the time of the study, was tasked with managing officers and ensuring the study was kept legitimate and valid. "There was a lot of work involved with putting additional resources into areas that were problematic … officers would meet on a monthly basis, and I would make sure everyone was doing exactly what they were supposed to," recalls Lavallee.
On patrol, officers were more attuned to issues they typically were not expected to recognize. A dumpster overrun with trash, for example, was a major problem, creating "the appearance that nobody cared for that particular area," says Lavallee. "Trash would grow and grow and end up in the sidewalk and onto the street."He maintains that even the small act of cleaning up an over-stuffed trash bin helped reduce crime in the neighborhood.
On another side of town a drug-drenched, dilapidated housing project was demolished and replaced with single-family houses — bringing the crime in that area down to literally zero.