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Commentary: Controlling the Loop may make it less appealing

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 13, 2012 - The recent violence that occurred in the Loop area of St. Louis and University City is regrettable but not surprising. As historian David Courtwright tells us, places frequented by young men with time on their hands always have seen more than their fair share of trouble. It doesn’t matter whether those young men are rich or poor, black or white. When enough of them get together, some level of conflict is almost inevitable. Occasionally that conflict leads to violence.

Various tactics have been tried to keep large groups of young people -- especially young men -- from “hanging out” together or at least from causing too much harm when they do. Shopping malls, being private enclosed spaces, may ban youngsters unaccompanied by a parent or guardian or simply eject youths who are troublesome. And concert promoters are able to search ticket holders for weapons before letting them in. Public open-air venues like the Loop, however, face a tougher challenge, both because such places are harder to police and because their very openness is part of their appeal.

Some venues have tried piping classical music through public speakers in an attempt to keep youths from congregating nearby. Others have installed so-called “zit lights,” street lamps that cast an unflattering pink glow designed to highlight facial blemishes. The problem with these and similar tactics, of course, is that they risk deterring everyone, not just youngsters.

In response to the recent violence, the Loop now is planning to install surveillance cameras. The evidence for the effectiveness of such devices in preventing crimes in public spaces similar to the Loop is mixed. But even if they do end up preventing some crimes, that may come at the cost of alienating law-abiding citizens who appreciate the Loop’s atmosphere of tolerance.

There is no perfect solution to the problem of controlling large numbers of young people without destroying the Loop’s reputation for openness and acceptance. One idea, tried in the past with some success, is to hire young adults, mainly men, to walk the Loop in pairs, armed only with radios or phones to stay in contact with the police and one another. They would monitor the street scene, counsel youngsters to remain orderly, seek to prevent large groups from congregating at intersections, and contact the police if trouble arises. This approach to crowd control would supplement, not substitute for, law enforcement, and it is less expensive than increasing the already large presence of police in the area.  It may help to reduce congestion, prevent conflicts from turning violent, and stop violence from spreading if it does occur.

But as long as the Loop remains open and tolerant, which is a fundamental source of its attraction and success, there always will be some crime and disorder. Youths still will be drawn to the area, congregate there and occasionally get into fights. The Loop is not a private shopping mall. People, young and old alike, who prefer the enclosed, climate-controlled, antiseptic atmosphere of the mall always have that option for shopping and entertainment.  But those who value the freedom, vibrancy, accessibility and diversity of dense, urban public spaces will find the Loop more to their liking. Violence should never be tolerated but the occasional gathering of boisterous youngsters is a small price to pay for the many benefits of public life in the city.

Richard Wright and Richard Rosenfeld are curators professors of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.