Clichy-sous-Bois: Not the best model.

Photographer: Dominique Faget / Getty Images

What Not to Do After Baltimore

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Sandtown-Winchester, the area of Baltimore where riots broke out on Monday after a black man died in police custody, has a lot in common with Paris suburb Clichy-sous-Bois and London's Tottenham, where rioting was set off by police violence against blacks in 2005 and 2011, respectively. The governments in France and the U.K. have had years to fix those broken places, and they have largely failed. U.S. authorities should avoid making the same mistakes in Baltimore and elsewhere.

These neighborhoods were all ghettos, with poor people, most of them non-white, trying to eke out a living in barely adequate housing, with not enough work but plenty of drugs on offer. When police shot Mark Duggan in Tottenham, where 200 first languages are spoken, the unemployment rate in the area was the highest in London. When Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore were electrocuted in Clichy-sous-Bois after hiding from police in a power substation, about one in five of the area's residents were out of work, double the national average. In Sandtown-Winchester, the 20 percent unemployment rate is double that for Baltimore as a whole. They erupted in similar ways, with looting and the mindless violence of youths with nothing to lose.

It was a natural impulse for the French and U.K. authorities to try to eliminate the root causes of the riots. In 2012, the mayor of London commissioned a panel of independent experts to figure out what to do about Tottenham. The resulting document, called "It Took Another Riot" (like Baltimore in 1968, Tottenham saw an earlier wave of violence in 1985), recommended conscious gentrification to bring more offices and white-collar workers to the neighborhood. It also mentioned community-building measures like youth training, enterprise support and hiring more locals as cops.

"The benefits of physical regeneration are often questioned," the report said. "Does it lift people out of poverty or simply price them out of living in the area?" It concluded: "Physical regeneration alone may not enough, but it is surely necessary, even if not sufficient."

When the plan was largely adopted, new development became the focus, to the detriment of anything else. It was easier to do -- after the riots, the U.K. government had allocated hundreds of millions of pounds to construction and transport development in the area. Perhaps the local council hoped the poor families would just go away.

Local activists weren't happy. They couldn't see how the construction of a new soccer stadium and new office buildings could solve the problems of unemployed black youths. "Regeneration is not about moving the existing community OUT so more up-market people can move in," an association of residents' organizations and traders calling itself Our Tottenham Planning Working Group wrote last year. More recently, a study found "little concrete evidence as of yet of property-led regeneration leading to significant change in the socio-economic profile of Tottenham’s deprived localities, at least in the short term." The unemployment rate in the area has declined slightly, but much less than in the nation as a whole. 

The planners of the Tottenham reclamation could have asked the residents of Clichy-sous-Bois about the viability of their approach. There, increased government attention after three weeks of rioting in 2005 spawned some nicer residential buildings, which make it look as though the place is no longer a ghetto. Yet they are more expensive to live in, and residents are not particularly interested in keeping them clean. The idea was to sell some of the apartments in the new buildings to middle-class people to create more of a mixed community. But no one wanted to move in next to yesterday's rioters. Clichy still has more than 20 percent unemployment and its residents still complain about being isolated from the civilization of Paris just 15 miles away. It's in neighborhoods like this where radical Muslim organizations get recruits for attacks like the one on Charlie Hebdo earlier this year.

Inevitably, after the Baltimore riots, there will be talk of fixing Sandtown-Winchester. Perhaps money will be allocated in the name of attracting investment, cleaning up the streets, replacing the area's numerous vacant homes with pretty houses, shops and offices. It's impossible to develop all poor areas out of existence, and governments need to figure out how to build relations with disadvantaged communities so that they don't erupt. As the authors of "It Took Another Riot" pointed out, "the social regeneration is harder, and will require drive and innovation."

The government could start by training cops not to automatically treat people in such predominantly black neighborhoods as criminals -- a practice that crushes opportunity and engenders incidents that can spark riots in places that have endured high unemployment and poor living conditions for decades. Better schools would help, too. Tackling social woes becomes a lot easier if people in poverty can see a way out.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net