Philadelphians were riveted by accounts of hundreds of teenagers congregating in Center City around the Fashion District last week, leading to breathless social media posts and TV newscasts about an increasingly dangerous and lawless downtown.

A new study from the Brookings Institution, however, found that Center City remains one of the safest corners of the city. After crunching data and conducting extensive interviews in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Seattle, the authors didn’t find much evidence to base fears about downtown crime.

“We found that in four cities, downtowns accounted for an almost negligible share of total citywide property and violent crime,” said Hannah Love, a senior research associate at the Brookings Institution and one of the study’s authors. “Center City is significantly safer than the rest of the city as a whole.”

Crime remains a big issue for Philadelphia: The homicide rate, while lower than in the past few years, remains on pace to be near a three-decade high. Violent crime has long been concentrated in neighborhoods outside the center city, such as Kensington, North Philadelphia, and parts of West Philadelphia, where residents endure high levels of poverty, blight, and other systemic disadvantages.

But the story of shootings or violent crimes plaguing downtown in ways they didn’t before the pandemic isn’t true. expressed some fear About the blocks surrounding the proposed 76ers arena.

Does crime keep workers away?

The research by Love and his co-author, Tracy Hadden Loh, originated in a project on the persistence of remote work. In interviews with 100 people in four cities — from office workers and small-business owners to corporate and government officials — they heard that the number one barrier to individuals returning to work was fear of crime in the city’s business district.

When Love and Loh crunched the numbers, however, they didn’t find much to support those concerns.

In Philadelphia, property crimes such as retail theft and burglary increased by 38% citywide between 2019 and 2022, but Center City accounted for less than 1% of that spike. Violent crime is also up — and murders in particular are up — but again, downtown accounts for a small proportion of such incidents. (Seattle was the city studied that saw the largest share of violent and property crime take place outside the city.)

Crime has spiked in Philadelphia since the pandemic, but in Center City they have remained steady — despite a handful of sensational incidents..Read moreBrookings Institution

“In Chicago and Philadelphia in particular, two more segregated cities, there was a misconception that crime from the neighborhoods was bleeding downtown,” Love said. “There are serious and very real fears of gun crime, but people often aren’t paying attention to the data on the geography of crime.”

Why do people think city crime has increased?

In all four cities, while the share of crimes committed downtown remained stable between 2019 and 2022, the proportion of property crimes committed downtown actually declined in Philadelphia during that time.

So, what accounts for the widespread sense of unease?

More visible street homelessness and drug use have something to do with it, according to the study. In Philadelphia this is especially true on SEPTA trains and the stations commuters use to get downtown. On public transit, some research has linked lower ridership to an increase in crime.

Although people living on the streets are more likely to be victims than to commit crimes, Love said, their presence is often taken as a sign of disorder and danger.

In many of the cities covered by the report, foot traffic has not returned anywhere near pre-pandemic levels, which could make any public drug use or antisocial activity more apparent because fewer people are around.

Correspondingly, this can drive storefront vacancies, which contributes to some passengers experiencing a sense of danger, according to the study. All this can lead to a recursive loop in which people do not feel safe in the city due to empty streets, so they do not go there, contributing to the lack of foot traffic.

But Love said that Center City Philadelphia is actually more vibrant than other cities studied in his report, due to its large residential population.

“Center City is so far ahead [foot traffic]” said Love. “Even compared to other cities, Center City is incredibly safe.”

The gun violence crisis in Philly

But Philadelphia as a whole is going through a gun violence crisis, with homicides up 44% between 2019 and 2022, according to Brookings. (York City’s homicide rate was five times higher then than it is today.) Those crimes were not occurring almost entirely in the center city, but in systemically disadvantaged neighborhoods where there was much violence before the pandemic—and where it has gotten much worse. .

Many neighborhoods plagued by spiking gun crime are low-income and predominantly non-white, as can be seen in the results of a recent Lenfest Institute survey that found black respondents were twice as likely as white respondents to say that gun violence had a “major” negative impact on their lives.

But sensationalist television news coverage and ubiquitous fearful, context-free videos shared on social media may be driving the perception that crime is out of control, too, in an area packed with offices, tourism and shopping, according to the study.

Crime is up in Philadelphia, and in the country at large, but it’s steady in the center city..Read moreBrooking Institution

“There’s been a lot of media coverage of crime, especially in New York City, and especially in the middle of last year,” Love said.

The solution to crime and disorder can be similar

In combating both crime and disorder, it is important to address indicators in the built environment such as litter, poor lighting, and untidy spaces and buildings. In Chicago and Seattle, city governments are testing programs to encourage pop-up small businesses in vacant properties to help revitalize business districts.

Love says efforts by the Center City District (CCD) to keep downtown clean and staffed, including unarmed officers, have helped greatly.

“If every neighborhood had the kind of resources that the Center City District has to address safety, I think Philadelphia would be a lot safer,” Love said. (CCD’s leader, Paul Levy, has long argued that his organization provides services to the city, so the city can focus on neighborhoods.)

The Brookings Institution’s research indicates where law enforcement and other crime-fighting interventions should be targeted. Love notes that cities like New York have focused more police resources on tourist-heavy areas like subway stations around Times Square, to little effect.

“The best use of public funds would be investing in safety infrastructure in high-crime neighborhoods, rather than, say, adding more police officers. [downtown],” she said.

The Brookings Institution report highlighted that Chinatown business owners and residents in each city reported more safety concerns than stakeholders in other cities.

“In addition to reporting fears of theft and robbery, they also cited concerns about heightened anti-Asian racism and hatred during the pandemic,” the report notes, “leading many business owners to question whether to stay within their district.”

Prem and Loh plan to release a separate report on crime statistics and sentiment in Chinatown.

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