In the early 1990s, about 15 people were robbed on the streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side every week. Thugs assaulted 200 residents every year. People whose families had immigrated to the neighborhood decades before were moving away in fear.
You know the next part of the story. Crime drops dramatically (murder in the area falls 73%, robbery 66%). New immigrants restore the creaky dwellings of those who fled. Yuppies arrive. Ray's Chirpin' Chicken on once dangerous Clinton Street is replaced by a restaurant that offers seared scallops atop black-olive risotto cakes for $20, about the price of four hits of crack in 1993.
Other cities have nearly matched New York's plunging crime rate. Nationally, murder and robbery rates declined by nearly a third between 1991 and 1997. But can it last?
Maybe. Because so many factors lead individuals to commit crime, it is extremely difficult to predict trends. For instance, the crime rate usually slides during good economic times. But that isn't always true, and in any event, no one knows when or even if the Wall Street party will end.
We do know young people commit more crimes than older folks, so the baby boomers' grandchildren should stop playing Sega and start menacing the rest of us any day now. But that indicator too is unreliable. Many of these "echo boom" youngsters reached their teens during the 1990s, yet crime still plummeted. Experts say the good economy gave these kids something to do (even if it was just taking orders at McDonald's instead of robbing it). More important, the decline of crack removed a crime-soaked job opportunity.
Other, smaller factors have put downward pressure on the crime rate and should continue to do so. Better technology means you can install more sensitive alarm systems in your home and carry less cash on the street. The wane of Jack Daniels (and the rise of Evian) has yielded fewer drunken rages. Finally, although the prison-building boom sparked protest from those who insist we should spend the money on rehabilitation, no one can argue with cold reality: jails and prisons today lock up nearly 2 million people, and you simply can't knock over a 7-Eleven if you're reading Playboy in cell block C.
Crime, of course, will always be with us. But as long as the economy remains strong, chances are we'll have less reason to fear one another. Alfred Blumstein, who directs the National Consortium on Violence Research, gets asked all the time if crime will keep retreating. He likes to joke that if trends continue, the homicide rate will turn negative in 2007. "Obviously," he adds, "that would have to happen on Easter Sunday."