Beauty the Brave

22 May 2016

“And there it is again—
beauty the brave, the exemplary,
blazing open.”
-Mary Oliver, “Peonies”

I’m in Boston recharging my batteries after a long semester.  I spent several hours at the Boston Common and the Public Garden. Students from various local high schools were promenading around the Duck Pond, before heading to prom. The boys were in tuxedos, of course, acting as the ground for the figure of the girls, resplendent in gowns of teal, crimson, and cream.  They reminded me of the Winged Victory of Samothrace.


Elsewhere, wedding parties were getting their pictures taken at the verge of the pond, and allowing large groups of sighing tourists to look on, gratis, that their hearts might break a little bit. Two swans were nesting. There was also music—”sudden music,” I call it: a flamenco guitarist on the bridge, someone else playing “Moon River” on a saxophone.

And then, inexplicably, the bells in the Arlington Street Church rang out the “Ode to Joy,” and the miracle was complete.

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Photo by rmgosselin. Click for a larger image.



“Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which straight Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows—only hard with luminous edges—and you will then have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen.” -Edward Abbey, Flatland (1884)

In July of 2013, Dustin Cable, from the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia, gave the world an invaluable document: The Racial Dot Map.

The map displays 308,745,538 dots, one for each person residing in the United States at the location they were counted during the 2010 Census. Each dot is color-coded by the individual’s race and ethnicity…Whites are coded as blue; African-Americans, green; Asians, red; Hispanics, orange; and all other racial categories are coded as brown.

One could spend all day reading Cable’s map. I zoomed straight in on Rochester, NY, where I live. The map reveals the racial topography; natural and man made boundaries carve up the surface like an X-Acto knife:1

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The purplish semicircle to the southwest, pushing out into the Genesee River, is the University of Rochester. Across the river to the west is the 19th Ward, almost solid green. The green and orange dots continue in a clockwise arc toward the northeast, in an area known as The Crescent. In a 2003 article in the New York Times, Michelle York reported that “[t]he crescent is home to 27 percent of the city’s residents and 80 percent of the city’s homicides.” According to the article,

The reasons behind the burst of violence…include the lagging upstate economy, a steady migration of residents to the suburbs and a growing number of abandoned houses prone to become centers of drug sales and use. Rochester also has a school system that performs poorly. Only a quarter of high school freshmen last four years and graduate. Some 93 percent of school-age children live in poverty…

Just south of The Crescent, past the sharp boundary of East Main St., is a wedge of deep blue—the upscale East End. According to its web site, “The East End…is Upstate NY’s premier destination for fine dining, nightlife, entertainment and the arts, doing business and living an urban lifestyle.” Blue dots scatter to the east, south, and west, dissolving into seemingly thin air.

I zoomed out from the Rochester map and started scrolling to the left, to visit Buffalo, when a tiny, dark blip caught my attention. At first, I thought it was another scratch on my antediluvian MacBook, but it was moving. So I zoomed in:
Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 10.39.23 AMThe blue sprinkles at the top represent the village of Attica. The rectangle at the bottom center is Attica Correctional Facility; the smaller one to its right is Wyoming.

At this point, it became like a game, as I zoomed out and scrolled around the map. Whenever I encountered a dark spot, I zoomed back in for a closer look. It was always a densely populated polygon, situated near, or in, a field of scattered blue dots. Here’s Gowanda:

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And Clinton:

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And Albion:
Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 11.02.20 AMAnd Five Points:

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And so on. Try it with your own state. For best results, click on “Remove Map Labels” first, to let these color-coded shapes speak their own hard truths.

For example: Things have not improved in The Crescent since Hill wrote her article. If anything, they’re worse. Paul Jargowsky, in a 2015 report for the Century Foundation, titled “Architecture of Segregation: Civil Unrest, the Concentration of Poverty, and Public Policy,” found that Rochester has the 4th highest Black concentration of poverty in the United States, jumping from 34.2% in 2000, to 51.5% in 2009-2013. Buffalo came in at #6. Syracuse was #1.

What this means for the cycle of incarceration is clear. In the words of Tony Gaskew, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Director of the Criminal Justice Program at the University of Pittsburgh,

The road to redemption for an incarcerated Black male returning to his community is paved with temptations, disappointments, and failures. When he goes home, unemployment will still be high. Our educational system will still be broken. He will still have the greatest opportunity to be victimized by a person within his own community of similar race or ethnic background. There will still be more liquor stores than schools in his neighborhood.2

James Baldwin captured this process in his short story, “Sonny’s Blues“—which is itself almost 60 years old—during a cab ride shared between the narrator and his brother, who had just been released from prison: “So we drove along, between the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, toward the vivid, killing streets of our childhood. These streets hadn’t changed…”

And we wonder why recidivism rates are so high.

“These neighborhoods,” says Jargowsky, “are not the value-free outcome of the impartial workings of the housing market. Rather, in large measure, they are the inevitable and predictable consequences of deliberate policy choices.” The Racial Dot Map reveals the consequences of those choices. The problem is clear, hard with luminous edges. Can the same be said of our national resolve to fix it?

1 Images Copyright, 2013, Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (Dustin A. Cable, creator)

2 NEW DIRECTIONS FOR COMMUNITY COLLEGES, no. 170, Summer 2015 © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published online in Wiley Online Library ( • DOI: 10.1002/cc.20145

Fortress New York

18 Oct 2011

Other than a few communities in upstate New York that are worried about free labor for their winter carnivals,  it’s hard to imagine anyone not liking the recent study by the Poughkeepsie Journal, also published in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, which shows a 22% drop in the number of state prisoners over the past 11 years. Here are some numbers:

  • A 62% decline in the number of people serving time for drug crimes today compared with 2000.
  • Nearly 7,700 fewer black people incarcerated in state prison in 2011 compared with 2000.
  • Among the 50 states, New York charted the biggest drop in its prison rolls from 2000 to 2010.
  • In 2000, the most common top crime for which inmates were incarcerated was third-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance—with almost 10,000 people sentenced. That’s now down to about 3,000.

At first blush, this seems to be a positive step in the drawdown of the “PIC,” or Prison Industrial Complex, and it has a lot of experts very happy, as well.

“The drop itself is really quite extraordinary,” said Michael Jacobson, director of the Manhattan-based Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit center for justice policy research. “This is very intriguing stuff and encouraging,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that has criticized sentencing policies as racially biased and counterproductive.

What’s causing it? According to the Journal, the trend is the result of, among other things, better drug treatment programs and the ongoing challenges to the Rockefeller Drug Laws. So far, so good. The report then goes on to cite lower crime rates, especially in New York City:

There, aggressive “stop-and-frisk,” zero-tolerance and computer-driven anti-crime programs have been employed, some say, with remarkable results.

Granted, “stop-and-frisk” is highly controversial, with “600,000 people…frisked in 2010,” and “90 percent of them minority,” but, says the article, “there’s little doubt of the city’s mighty contribution to the state’s prison reversal.” A lot of studies have been done of this particular “mighty contribution,” and they all find pretty much the same thing, which can be seen here and here.

One thing the Journal article does not mention, though, is the increasing use of the city’s SkyWatch platforms, 2-story mobile towers that allow police to watch an entire area of the city from one spot. The towers are made by FLIR Systems, Inc. According to the company’s web site,

SkyWatch™ mobile observation towers provide a high level platform for an array of surveillance options. Every portable tower includes the basics for the comfort and safety of the officer inside through adjustable heat and air conditioning, tinted sliding glass windows and comfortable seating. And no matter the application, only one person is required to set up and deploy a unit.

There are 2 models of tower: the Frontier, which is designed for military deployment, and the more basic Sentinel.

The SkyWatch Sentinel facilitates a completely customized surveillance platform. This unit provides the additional line of sight and command and control capabilities necessary to high-level, impermanent security ventures. Compared to a mobile force, the SkyWatch Sentinel provides constant deterrence with nearly unlimited location flexibility. The SkyWatch Sentinel is ideal for commercial and civilian security operations.

Jeremy Bentham, who first created the idea of the Panopticon in the 1700’s, would undoubtedly be very proud.

So here’s another “mighty contribution” that the Journal article failed to point out. What with all the corrections officers on the streets, who have the power to stop anyone at will, and the strategic placement of guard towers on various corners of the city, New York may have simply realized that, instead of sending people to prison, it’s a lot cheaper to bring the prison to them.