Crime Comes to a Madison Neighborhood

Worried residents meet, take action­—and face pushback from liberals.

By David Blaska

I live in a lovely neighborhood.

We greet each other as we walk our dogs, pooper scoopers in hand. We mow our lawns, paint our houses, and keep the noise down.

Like Mom taught us, we’re considerate of one another.

But some of my neighbors’ neighbors, a few blocks south of me here on the leafy southwest side of Madison, 10 miles south of the Capitol, don’t have it so good.

Crime is up 30% in the last three years. Home values have declined at twice to three times the average citywide drop. There are more deadbolt-locked doors, high fences, and fierce dogs.

These streets don’t look mean. Mature trees shade the neighborhoods—Greentree, Orchard Ridge, Meadowood, Prairie Hills, Maple Prairie, Park Ridge. Here and there one can still see the original foursquare farmhouses, somewhat incongruent amid the ranch-style homes built between the 1950s and the 1970s. Church spires are the only features to rise above the tree canopy.

Fabled UW-Madison coach “Hockey Bob” Johnson raised his family here. I moved next door to the home of the late FBI agent who tracked down the Army Math bombers on the UW campus. That old guard pioneered their freshly minted suburban neighborhood in the mid-1950s, when they could look across their fences at cows at pasture.

Raymond Road is our main street and supports a refurbished strip mall anchored by the ubiquitous Walgreens drugstore. In an ominous sign, the meat market moved out recently. There and scattered near other main thoroughfares is that Holy Grail of Madison’s institutionalized left: the duplexes and fourplexes of “affordable housing.”

It is those places that have become ground zero of unwelcome change in my neighborhood.

Kids get knocked off their bicycles and their iPods swiped. Drinking parties are broken up by police bullhorns. SWAT teams entertain bystanders as they surround an apartment house. Heroin dens get busted. Shots are fired into the shopping center in broad daylight. Homes burglarized.

One woman off Hammersley Drive—“Don’t call me a racist! I’m married to a black man”—marvels: “The young people walking across my lawn are using the ‘F word,’ waking up my kids, walking in the middle of the road, not moving for us to drive by, and are loud and disrespectful. They throw garbage and refuse to pick it up, and they come into my driveway to look into my cars.”

Farther south, on Mayhill Drive, a householder says: “I walk my dog down the street, and people I do not know call me a bitch. I wake up in the middle of the night to find grown men drinking beer in my front yard and leaving their Corona beer bottles on the grass.”

Some deprecate such concerns as not constituting actual crime. Not the adherents—Madison Police Chief Noble Wray among them—of the Broken Windows Theory.

The Broken Windows Theory holds that that the troubles on the southwest side of Madison are a continuum. The filthy language, littering, vandalism, intimidation lead to illegal drug traffic, gangs, burglaries and shootings.

The metaphor is that a window broken today will lead to tomorrow’s crack house and the next day’s murder. Social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling explain: “Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.... Virtually all of the evidence we have from studies of the police suggests that restoring order is associated with a drop in crime.”

Some of my more stalwart neighbors have resolved to stop the downward slide before it reaches the tipping point. To do that they’ve first had to fight Madison’s historic liberalism with its mistaken notions of crime, its causes and its fix.

“It’s like Lord of the Flies out here,” observed one young father of several blocks dominated by fourplex rental housing. He was talking about the children who roam, feral-like, in a reference to the classic novel exploring how teenage boys without adults descend into savagery.

He made the remark at a crime-fighting strategy session held at the Madison West Precinct police station this June—we’re big on meetings here on the southwest side of Madison. We’ve been meeting up a storm ever since a shooting death at one of those all-night parties two years ago prompted 750 residents to fill a Catholic school gymnasium to tell Chief Wray and Mayor Dave Cieslewicz that enough was enough.

In those two years we have explored some pretty big-picture issues: the role of government versus the individual, rights versus responsibilities, liberal versus conservative, and the role of race in our society.

Much of this debate has been reflected in my blog, sponsored by the weekly Madison paper, Isthmus.   This old print journalist enjoys the Internet format because it is vibrant and two-way. I state my case and then volley with my readers, who comment and engage me in colloquy. It’s like the town hall meeting that Dave Obey never had, complete with heckling, only online.

In the process, I have learned that Wisconsin political guru Brian Schimming was right: On the crime issue, you can always count on liberals getting it wrong. Let me enumerate their arguments.

1. Problem? What problem?

Denial, as the new senator from Minnesota would say, is not just a river in Egypt. It’s a liberal trait, tinged with paranoia.

A local bicycle advocate (two-wheelers are the most powerful pressure group in Madtown) offered this dark conspiracy theory:

“I am left wondering if this whole crime issue has been trumped up by Blaska et al. purely for the purpose of imposing some otherwise unneeded conservative ‘reforms’ on the city of Madison. Such a ruse would certainly be consistent....”

Wait a minute, I’m getting a tweet from Karl Rove.

Early this summer, an Isthmus columnist pooh-poohed our concerns with crime and quality-of-life issues, suggesting that they were overblown and that everybody needed to “take a deep breath.”

The irony was that five days after those words were published, 17-year-old Karamee Collins Jr. took his last breath, deep or otherwise, thanks to the bullet fired into his back.

The “Lord of the Flies” meeting had barely adjourned before young Karamee was gunned down on a nearby street corner shortly after 10 p.m. The lad managed to crawl to a nearby residence, ring the bell, and die in front of the horrified residents.

Three 16-year-old boys were soon taken into custody, two of them charged with first-degree murder as adults. Four lives ruined and a neighborhood traumatized.

Just the day before, police held a press conference in a neighborhood park appealing for help in solving a string of nine shootings up to that point that injured three people.

But it takes more than gunfire to stop the liberals.

2. Cultivate the cult of victimhood.

Don’t blame criminals for crime. No, that’s being judgmental. And who are we to judge? The liberal credo holds that people are not causative agents but passive victims—the sum total of their societal inputs. Better to blame some long-ago historical event like slavery. Or cite a macroeconomic force so dense it would seize up Barack Obama’s TelePrompTer.

Stu Levitan, the chair of Madison’s Community Development Authority Housing Operations Committee, went on Blaska’s Blog to attribute crime and the breakdown of social order in Meadowood on “the lack of employment opportunities, affordable health care, and adequate mass transit.”

Lack of affordable health care? The gangbangers are sending each other to the emergency room to promote “the public option” in Nancy Pelosi’s health care plan!

The left has long believed that poverty causes crime, never considering that it’s the other way around. Back in my reporter days, when I covered the Republican National Convention in 1988, a black delegate from Kansas City got it right: “Poor people have poor ways.”

If they are victims, it is a case of self-victimization. Of not planning, not studying, not working, not saving, not observing the law.

3. Adults should shut up.

This has to be some of the residue from the Woodstock Generation. Trust no one over 30, right?

There is a basketball hoop at the corner of one park, virtually under the eaves of neighboring homes, where the thump of the ball is drowned out by the vociferous exhortations of the M-F word. Can’t the city do something?

My online editor countered that young people have always acted inappropriately: “As long as there have been parks, there have been teenagers engaging in behavior in them that is unappreciated by the elder population.”

I parried that, as long as there have been adults, those adults have taught the teenagers the inappropriateness of their conduct. That is what helps teenagers become adults. At least, until the present day.

“It’s easily ignored,” was another comment to my blog. Yes, these young people are accustomed to being ignored, especially since so many of them do not have active fathers.

The Broken Windows Theory tells us that such indifference sends a powerful signal that no one is in charge, that no one cares. That one may now feel free to indulge still other urges. At what point do we intervene? At the sentencing hearing?

4. Don’t trust the pigs.

The irony is that young Karamee Collins met his doom only weeks after the Common Council voted down an enhanced youth curfew that—had it been enacted—would have enjoined the accused 16-year-old killers from being footloose at that hour.

Instead, Madison’s liberal council actually made the curfew even less restrictive!

More space dust from the Woodstock Generation. Liberals feared that the pigs—er, the police—would wantonly pull over young lasses hauling their cellos home from band practice.

The Isthmus critic asked: “Does our community really believe the best way to confront at-risk kids who are out at night without adult supervision, engaging in no criminal activity, is to put them in the back of a squad car?”

For one thing, I got to think the back of a squad car might be one of the safer places in Meadowood. If Karamee Collins or his attackers—all of whom have been tied to gangs—were sitting in the back of a squad car the night of June 9, his evening might not have ended with a bang. For another, it affords some quality time with a responsible adult, even if it is the hated police officer.

In our parents’ generation, police were the keepers of order, a slightly better armed agent of the community who walked the streets and settled matters right then and there while the fathers were busy in the factories or at well-deserved rest watching Uncle Miltie with a bowl of popcorn and a bottle of Schlitz.

Today, the police are but one cog in the criminal justice system, their primary focus not to keep order in the community but to apprehend criminals after the crime has been committed—and to do so in such a way as to withstand the onslaught of endless appellate court second-guessing.

5. Give us your poor, all of them.

Liberals like to talk about people coming to Madison “for a better life.” In most cases, they are walking into the welcoming arms of open-minded, nonjudgmental Madison.

But listen to what Karen Sielaf, who has volunteered to lead neighborhood picnics, holiday parties, neighborhood clean-up days and safety walks, has to say:

“Given the problems we’re having today, I can’t say these efforts have been fruitful. Having lived in my neighborhood for 13 years, I no longer feel safe walking on our streets alone at night,” she confided.

Similarly, Chief Wray told me: “We do have a strong migrating population from Chicago that really does impact this city from a crime standpoint.”

Meadowood community police officer John Amos makes the same point: “Gangster Disciples and other groups are coming up here, and they are used to ‘taking care of business’ in a different way. The level of violence and the threat of violence is greater than normal.”

The particular conceit of this Berkeley of the Midwest is that it can solve the world’s problems on a mid-sized municipality’s budget in an already high-tax state.

Dennis Lochner, who owns a hardware store in the Meadowood Shopping Center, was quoted in the Wisconsin State Journal: “As a community, we facilitate freeloaders and bad lifestyles.”

New arrivals can sup from a smorgasbord of subsidized goodies—the state’s BadgerCare health care, the federal Food Stamp program, Social Security disability payments and Madison-issued “bus passes for the working poor”—except that you don’t have to be actually, you know, working.

6. Celebrate Section 8, the gift that keeps on taking.

The mother’s milk of “come and get it” is the Section 8 housing voucher.

I thought about that after one neighborhood association president complained about a loud party that did not end until 4 in the morning on a weekday. Police had to break it up.

About 60 merrymakers—apparently without needing to report to work that morning—were playing music, drinking in the street, smashing bottles, using drugs, and arguing. Parties in the hood always seem to devolve that way. Which raises the question: Don’t these people have to get up in the morning for work?

You don’t have to turn this page upside down for the answer. On the smorgasbord of subsidized goodies, none is more generous than the federal Section 8 housing voucher program.

The program combines the worst of both worlds: Uncle Sam’s deep pockets, administered by the city of Madison’s bleeding hearts. Section 8 picks up 70% of recipients’ rent which, in Madison, averages $810 per month in housing vouchers to 1,478 renters this July.

“Too many people use the excuse of being poor so they can get free money everywhere and benefits,” one landlord told me.

“They were my worst tenants,” recalls Nick Dorneanu. “The worst traffic, loitering, drugs—the most police calls. We have too many people coming from Chicago with the high-crime attitude trying to get low-income housing so that way they can have extra money for their drug habits.”

It is a pattern that criminologists have observed elsewhere.

Memphis, Tenn., demolished its public-housing projects and gave the former residents Section 8 rent-subsidy vouchers, encouraging them to move into stable neighborhoods. It was part of a nationwide experiment “to free the poor from the destructive effects of concentrated poverty.”

Guess what? The neighborhoods destabilized. Memphis University researchers discovered a one-to-one causal relationship between the Section 8 diaspora and dysfunction, the July-August 2008 Atlantic magazine reported in “American Murder Mystery.”

But, wouldn’t you know it, both Dane County and the city of Madison prohibit discriminating against “lawful sources of income” such as Section 8. In addition, landlords must rent to ex-convicts and cannot check for illegal aliens by seeking a Social Security number. Then city officials complain about landlords not doing enough screening.

7. Community standards are a bad thing.

Think back to the 2004 reelection of George W. Bush. Remember how liberals puzzled over the phenomenon of “values” voters? Neighborhood leaders on the southwest side codified “values” when they formulated a neighborhood code of conduct. It reads, in part:

  • The premise of the code is to promote personal responsibility, respect, and civility. This code is part of an overall strategy to address inappropriate behavior and foster a community climate that supports a positive quality of life and a safe community.
  • Purposes of the code are: To insure that all members of the community are treated with dignity and respect.
  • They can confront bad behavior in their neighborhoods and be supported in doing so by other residents and police when necessary.

Or as Park Ridge neighborhood association president Brian Frick says: “No resident should have to lower his standards to a level set by newcomers. If someone wants to live in these neighborhoods, it is his duty to raise himself to the level that is acceptable in the community—not the other way around. They don’t set the rules; we do.”

But “community standards” are fighting words to liberals. “Who are you to set rules for the neighborhood?” some asked. I gave them my name.

The only thing we’re doing is codifying rules that seemed to work in our parents’ generation.

“The police can’t be everywhere at every minute,” says David Glomp, a neighborhood association board member. “We need to step up and confront behaviors that are bothersome to us. It’s our quality of life.”

8. So’s your mother!

At yet another meeting in a public school gymnasium, a unionized public school teacher, one Alyssa Kass, demonstrated her command of moral equivalence. One of the Code of Conduct provisions prohibits loud noise after 10 p.m. weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends.

“Where is the prohibition against leaf blowers at 7:30 in the morning?” she demanded.

Clever, that. Of course, who runs leaf blowers? Old white men, she inferred.
Indeed, the Wisconsin State Journal disparaged the progenitors of the Code of Conduct as “all older, white men.”

But schoolteacher Kass wasn’t done yet: “Just because someone is different doesn’t mean people are bad,” she said, demonstrating a flair for tautology. Not to mention injecting the race issue like a plague bacillus.

9. Racist!

Calling someone a racist is the left’s way of short-circuiting an honest discussion. It’s the ultimate political flame, today’s McCarthyism.

When Ald. Thuy Pham-Remmele argued her proposed curfew would help prevent children from “going over to the dark side,” the only minority member of the Common Council was accused of racism.

A guilty white liberal told the Wisconsin State Journal that: “When people talk about teenage boys wearing their pants low enough to show their underwear, you’re really targeting the African American community.... Underlying all of this is a discussion about race and class.”

Umm, that would be yours truly. On a ride-along in a Madison police squad car, I spotted a teenage boy with pants down around his knees. “Let’s make a bust right here and now,” I exhorted. Madison has an ordinance banning lewd and lascivious behavior. Good luck making that case in court, the officer explained.

The low-pants thing is said to derive from doing time in prison and the lack of belts. The parent in me says someone whose pants are falling down, who emulates jailbirds, and whose mouth is functioning as a sewer pipe cannot have good self-esteem. It’s the broken windows thing. He’s in quick need of a good fatherly swat upside the head, and I’m happy to oblige.

At a neighborhood meeting, our facilitator, Madison parks commissioner Emanuel Scarborough, promised to address “the elephant in the room.” That being the issue of race.

Yes, let’s say it here: Most of the new troubles seem to occur where poor black people predominate. But the issue is behavior, not race. We don’t mind living next to the Huxtables. Or next to Chief Wray, who appears to be black, now that I think about it. Or next to any other hard-working black family.

I’m telling people to read the book Bill Cosby and the psychologist Alvin Poussaint wrote in 2006, called Come On, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors. They point out that in 1950 there were twice as many white people in prison as black. Today, the number of blacks exceeds whites behind bars.

“These are not political criminals,” they write. “These are people selling drugs, stealing, or shooting their buddies over trivia.”

Sure, discrimination and racial profiling occur, Cosby and Poussaint acknowledge, “but there is less than there was in 1950.” Indeed, “there are more doors of opportunity open for black people today than ever before in the history of America.”

At another meeting, across the street at the Meadowood neighborhood center, a liberal asked, in essence, how does a white person speak to a black person. At that meeting, I pointed to my mouth: “With this.”

What do these liberals want me to do: Hold people of different races to lower standards of conduct? Isn’t that the epitome of racism?

David Blaska is a former Democrat, former aide to Gov. Tommy Thompson, former Dane County Board member, former Capital Times reporter and editor and a former farmer. He is the proprietor of Blaska’s Blog.