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Wednesday, 13 November, 2002, 15:03 GMT
New York's crime clean-up success
Trendy bars and shops have replaced no-go areas
Matt Wells

As the British Government outlines plans to crackdown on crime, the BBC's Matt Wells looks at how neighbourhoods in New York have been transformed by a policy of zero tolerance.

"Fifteen years ago, we would not be here and we wouldn't be having a conversation," said Lucien Redwood, 43, co-owner of the Sardine Can bar and cafe.

We are talking in a converted loft apartment right above his trendy eatery in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn.

Even five years ago, neither place existed. The building was part of an eerie post-industrial landscape that was a perfect incubation area for violent crime.

Lucien has known the neighbourhood since the early 1980s, and his description of how it used to be is difficult to grasp.

We took a lot of guns and dealers off the street. Now Williamsburg is little Bohemia

John Cornicello, NYPD
There were dozens of rundown and vacant properties that were ideal for the sale and consumption of hard drugs.

"I'm a tall African-American guy and coming over from Manhattan to this area was a total no-no, unless you were somebody who wanted to lay their hands on some 'angel dust' or crack.

"I've been a lucky man at avoiding trouble. I've had plenty of friends and room-mates who weren't."

Lucien and his two business partners are emblematic of the 'new' Williamsburg.

Turning point

Ordinary working-class guys who, thanks to the crime clean-up and the influx of new tenants to the area with disposable income, were able to create a new amenity which pays its way.

John Cornicello, the commander in charge of the NYPD's Brooklyn North Homicide Squad, said the last time there was "a real incident of violent crime" in the area was on 23 June.

"There was a stabbing followed by an arrest," he said.

Mr Cornicello points to the so-called 'zero tolerance' period in the mid-1990s under Mayor Rudy Giuliani as a turning point, when many of the triggers for violent crime in rundown neighbourhoods like Williamsburg were removed.

Supakorn Chaikasemchok, restaurant owner
Supakorn Chaikasemchok runs a trendy restaurant
"There were the vacant buildings, but the other element which turned it around was 'quality-of-life' crime enforcement.

"If you have four guys drinking on a street corner playing dice, and one of them has a gun, something can easily go down."

By clamping down on small crimes - such as drinking in public - before they escalate, the streets become safer and gentrification can set in, so the argument goes.

"We took a lot of guns and dealers off the street. Now Williamsburg is little Bohemia.

"You can't find anywhere to park the car around Bedford Avenue, it's so popular," said the lieutenant.

With its close proximity just across the East River from Manhattan, and more space for your dollar, the gentrification process is continued at breakneck speed.


Supakorn Chaikasemchok, 28, is one of the shareholders in the newest swanky neighbourhood restaurant to open its doors, Sea.

"This cost more than $1m to open but we're confident that our investment is safe," he said.

"There are lots of artists here and the food is good value. People here have good taste."

Mayor Giuliani
Mayor Giuliani introduced zero tolerance to New York
The idea of a Manhattan-based restaurant group opening a flagship unit in Williamsburg 10 years ago would have been laughable.

Another factor which is peculiar to New York that has kept crime hotspots confined, is neighbourhood ethnicity.

Williamsburg has a large orthodox Jewish population, that is in effect, self-policing. During the dark years of drugs-related crime, just four blocks away, the streets were quiet.

Stewart Slater, 73, grew up in an apartment above the pharmacy where he still works, although his daughter now runs the family business.

No no-go areas

For most of his life, there were clear street boundaries beyond which Jews did not venture for safety's sake.

"Whatever was happening the other side of Broadway didn't affect us," he said.

"The story of our area is that it's got bigger as more streets have been moved into, and we managed to push the crime out. That's got to be a good thing."

For the first time in Mr Slater's life, there's no real no-go area in Williamsburg. But Lieutenant Cornicello - who has spent most of his 21-year policing career in Brooklyn - warns that things could go into reverse.

It's a self-serving observation, but the zero-tolerance strategy relies on heavy manpower for law-enforcement. The city of New York is facing a potential budget shortfall of $6bn next year, and all departments face cuts.

In East New York - only a few miles further into Brooklyn - there are 23 murders being investigated right now.

To borrow from the New Labour handbook, it's hard to see how the causes of crime in these hugely deprived areas of the city are ever going to be tackled.

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08 Sep 02 | Breakfast with Frost
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