In 1971, Oklahoma City opened a desperately needed public housing project for families with children.
In 1976, 60 percent of the handsome, new townhouses were abandoned and boarded up. Crime and vandalism in the project had spilled over into surrounding middle-income communities. Homeowners fled, defaulting on mortgages. The slum grew.
This summer, the overall crime rate in the project was down by an incredible 85 percent. There is less crime in the project now than in Oklahoma City as a whole. The houses are restored and fully occupied.
"What we have done down here might be a model for others," said Oklahoma City Housing Authority director Joe E. Poe in a telephone interview.
Poe's program was designed by New York architect Oscar Newman who, some years ago, changed the minds of those who house the poor with his book "Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design." Newman demonstrated that apartments, particularly highrise apartments, in which tenants have no personal stake and no sense of belonging and "territoriality," suffer crime rates as much as three times higher than housing with built-in defenses and community spirit.
Much of Newman's insight and research -- a follow-up, in a way, of Jane Jacob's approach to urban problems -- as well as other recent studies, provide the philosophical basis of President Carter's program to combat crime in public housing.
Newman and the Oklahoma City Housing Authority have essentially done four things:
1) They have made the houses and the cars of the residents more defensible against robbers, thieves and vandals. To cut costs, the townhouse rows were free-standing, without front or back yards, let alone fences. Anyone could climb into an open back window. Automobiles were parked in the open space between townhouse rows, out of their owners' sight. Anyone could steal or ransack them.
Now the cars are parked in front of the houses where they can be watched. The open spaces between the rows of houses are enclosed by secure but attractive iron fences. Every house has its own back yard and residents are given wood fencing with which to define their private territory.
The Housing Authority also built play areas for small children within the enclosure but close to the street where they can easily be watched. Separate playgrounds for teenagers, also in clear view, are kept deliberately small to attract neighborhood groups rather than hordes.
The houses were painted in a variety of colors to give the project a brighter image.
2)Newman and the Oklahoma City Housing Authority have changed the overall mix of the people who live in the project. When it opened in 1971, it was "first come, first serve" and almost 90 percent of the first tenants were black, one-parent families on welfare. Oklahoma City, it turned out, also has large numbers of white, Indian and Spanish workingclass families who can't afford decent housing at market rates. They were actively recruited and carefully screened to bring in more parents and working families and achieve an ethnic and racial balance.
3)Newman and the Housing Authority changed attitudes: Tenants no longer feel that crime is beyond their control -- something management, the police, the government must take care of.
A new Residents Security Coordinating Council keeps reviewing all security measures. It has developed close working relations with the police and persuaded young officers to move into the project.
4)Newman and the Housing Authority have instituted a teen-age police cadet corps within the project. The kids are professionally trained by police officers, wear uniforms and receive pay. It is more fun for them to play cop than robber.
The Carter program will fund similar efforts in some 30 public housing projects around the country.
Awkwardly named "Urban Initiatives Anti-Crime Program" and lamentably limited to $30.25 million plus small matching grants, it was authorized by t9e Public Housing Security Demonstration Act which Congress passed last fall. It is administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in partnership with the Department of Labor and nine other federal agencies.
"The feds just don't spend enough money to do the job right," said Joe E. Poe a bit bitterly.
But despite disappointments, those who house the poor acknowledge that the Carter program is on the right track.
It rejects the reactionary neo-conservative philosophy, scientifically expounded by criminologist James Q. Wilson and urbanist Edward C. Banfield of Harvard, which holds that criminal behavior is inherent rather than the result of frustration and poverty. All that can be done, according to this school of thought, is to punish the poor for their poverty, get tougher cops and judges, more hardware and more jails.
But, Lynn A. Curtis, the director of the anti-crime program, also rejects the Pollyanna notion, held in some Great Society circles, that more psychiatric social work and citizen participation will make our streets and housing projects safer.
Carter's program does not attempt to cure the disease but would make public housing residents more immune to it.
"Police forces operating without community consent, direction, and control are a wasted effort -- more irritant than deterrent," wrote Oscar Newman. "Means must be found for bringing neighbors together, if only for the limited purpose of ensuring survival of their collective milieu."
"When people begin to protect themselves as individuals and not as a community, the battle against crime is effectively lost."