Neighbors: keep gangster’s house or support replacement McMansion?

Tampa residents are facing a quandary: do they support two possible McMansions to replace the home of a notorious gangster?

The community is rallying around the five-bedroom, 2.5-bath house built in 1952 by Santo Trafficante Jr., a supposed gangster who ran casinos in pre-Castro Cuba as the head of one of the most powerful organized crime syndicates in Florida.

Parkland Estates residents are upset about an application asking the city to split the lot in two at the request of Trafficante’s surviving daughters, Mary Jo Paniello and Sarah Ann Valdez…

“They’ve always been good neighbors and this is kind of a slap in the face,’’ said Anneliese Meier, vice president of the Parkland Estates Civic Club, which vigorously opposes the plan. “No matter what the history is, it’s a gorgeous house and should be preserved.”…

She said splitting the lot might mean the 63-year-old house will be torn down to make way for two larger homes.

“That doesn’t fit the character of this neighborhood,’’ Meier said. “McMansions tear up the community. They are big houses on small lots. Nobody’s happy about it. We’re tired of seeing this happen in our community.”

Both situations could leave the neighbors with some notoriety that they might think could threaten their property values. But, it is interesting that the neighbors quoted in this article think the McMansion is worse than the gangster: the family were good neighbors but a McMansion would pose a more important threat. Perhaps this suggests that neighbors think people are replaceable but the physical structure has a stronger impact. A broader question to ask many Americans would be: would you rather have a bad neighbor in a nice house that enhances the neighborhood or a bad house nearby with lovely neighbors?

Sociologists looking at the “seamy underside” of cities

A number of media reviews of sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh’s latest book highlight his look at the “seamy underside” of New York City:

A finishing school for young minority hookers. A Harlem drug dealer determined to crack the rich white downtown market. A socialite turned madam. A tortured academic struggling to navigate vicious subcultures.

All in all, this might have made a pretty good novel. Instead it’s “Floating City,” the latest nonfiction look at the urban underbelly by self-described “rogue sociologist” Sudhir Venkatesh…

Much of what the author finds out about the seamy underside of urban life has already been discovered by predecessors as various as Emile Zola, Nathan Heard and Tom Wolfe (to say nothing of the producers of “The Wire”).

This reminded me that this is not a new approach for urban sociologists. The classic 1920s text The City from Robert Park and others in the Chicago School looks at some of the seamier sides of Chicago including boarding houses and slums. Numerous other sociologists have explored similar topics including looks at bars, drug use, and criminal activity in cities. This sort of approach works to challenge more cultured American society who can’t understand what motivates urban dwellers involved in these activities, satisfy curiosity.

While this research might help expose the plight of some urban residents, it might have another effect: limit the number of sociologists looking at elites. I remember hearing sociologist Michael Lindsay speak about this a few years ago after carrying out his research with elites. Who is closely studying elites who have both influence and resources?

The effect of race in presidential pardons

An analysis from ProPublica shows that whites benefit more from presidential pardons:

In an in-depth investigation of the presidential pardons process, published this week, ProPublica found that white applicants were nearly four times as likely to succeed as minorities, even when factors such as the type of crime and sentence were considered.

The president ultimately decides who gets a pardon, but Presidents George W. Bush and Obama have relied heavily on recommendations from the Office of the Pardon Attorney inside the Justice Department.

The experts ProPublica talked to don’t all agree on exactly what should be done. Sociologist Frank Dobbin has this suggestion:

“If the goal you want is equivalence for black and whites, the solution should not be to put in more bureaucracy to limit decision-makers’ authority,” Dobbin said. “The solution should probably be some oversight system where the numbers are looked at regularly, and then decisions should be revisited when it looks like there’s some disparity.”

Studies show that more minorities get jobs when companies track race and appoint an individual or board to independently review hiring decisions, Dobbin said.

A number of other experts seem to agree: having an independent board review the decisions would help keep the issue of race at the forefront and help avoid implicit biases.

My first thought when reading this is that why should we expect this to be any different knowing that the criminal justice system is tilted statistically against non-whites and away from white-collar crimes. If traffic stops, convictions, jail time, and death-row decisions are influenced by race, why wouldn’t pardons?

My second thought: are presidential pardons archaic? Do they really benefit society or are they about tradition or political favors (see the recently-revealed disagreement between George W. Bush and Dick Cheney over pardoning Scooter Libby)?

According to the analysis, some other factors that help people get pardons include having “letters of congressional support” and being married.

Not something to be thankful for: the US as world leader in incarceration

The United States is a world leader in incarceration:

The United States has 2.3 million people behind bars, almost one in every 100 Americans. The U.S. prison population has more than doubled over the past 15 years, and one in nine black children has a parent in jail.

Proportionally, the United States has four times as many prisoners as Israel, six times as many as Canada or China, eight times as many as Germany and 13 times as many as Japan…

There’s also a national election in the United States soon. This issue isn’t on the agenda. It’s almost never come up with Republican presidential candidates; one of the few exceptions was at a debate in September when the audience cheered the notion of executions in Texas.

Barack Obama, the first black president, rarely mentions this question or how it disproportionately affects minorities. More than 60 percent of the United States’ prisoners are black or Hispanic, though these groups comprise less than 30 percent of the population.

The fact that this isn’t even part of the political discourse is very interesting in itself. I suspect it is because that no politician can afford to look even somewhat soft on crime. Why is this? Two quick reasons not mentioned in this article:

1. We tend to emphasize punitive punishments in the United States. Not all countries have this same belief – Norway is a good example of a contrasting approach.

2. Crime is so sensationalized and the average citizen really does believe that they are at risk. If people really think they could be victims at any time, it is little surprise that we put so much money into fighting crime and housing prisoners.

And, as the article suggests, there is no arguing that race and social class play a role.

Joliet Correctional Prison may become a tourist site?

One journalist suggests the Joliet Correctional Prison, closed since 2002, may have a future as a tourist destination after a prison in Philadelphia has become a hotspot:

Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829 on a former cherry orchard and housed prison escape artist “Slick Willie” Sutton and Al Capone. The pen closed in 1971 and has been recast into one of the most popular tourist attractions in Philadelphia. Visitors wander through a frozen ruin of crumbling cell blocks, vacant exercise yards, a lonley Death Row and the prison surveillance hub. The joint reopened for public tours in 1994 and is now billed as “America’s Most Historic Prison.”…

“But Alcatraz led the way. The federal government didn’t want to open it up but they did and people kept coming. The same thing is true here, where people keep coming and we really haven’t reached our peak.” In 1994’s first year, 10,450 people toured Eastern State. There were 249,289 visitors in 2010…

Representatives from the City of Joliet have visited Eastern State to research the possibility of making the Joliet prison a similar tourist attraction. After all, the 1-year-old Independent League baseball team in Joliet is called the Slammers. “The prison has become quite a tourist attraction for us on Route 66,” said Ben Benson, director of marketing and communications for the City of Joliet…

“The City of Joliet is interested in acquiring the property but financial resources are not what they used to be,” Benson said.”We’re doing a full study on potential uses of the site. With a grant from a different division of the state, we have added about a dozen tourist kiosks because so many people come by because of the Blues Brothers lore. We had a Blues Brothers band come out and cover their songs on a stage set up in front of the prison. We look at it as our Alcatraz.

I wonder what sociologists might say explains why Americans like visiting prisons: they like violence? They are interested in criminals? They think prison culture is intriguing? Something that Alcatraz and this Philadelphia prison seem to share in common is having some celebrity prisoners that people know about. Prison escape stories seem pretty popular, particularly if the escapees have to try to escape through shark-infested waters.

From a local perspective, I suppose you have to promote whatever possible tourist attractions you might have. It would be interesting to see if people from the Chicago region would be willing to go to Joliet just for a prison. (And perhaps a trip to the casino afterward?) Note: the Joliet Correctional Prison is not the same as Stateville Prison which has been featured in movies like The Blues Brothers  and Natural Born Killers.

I haven’t visited this Philadelphia prison but I have been to Alcatraz. I can see why this place is appealing: it sits in the middle of the bay (hence its nickname “The Rock”), numerous Hollywood movies have been made about it, and it has an intriguing history including a number of famous prisoners and a AIM takeover in the early 1970s. The audio tour they have is also quite good. Here are a few shots:

It also doesn’t hurt to have the ability to sell movie posters with famous movie stars on them in your prison gift shop:

Perhaps prison tourism is the wave of the future in Joliet.

Author explains writing “If Michael Vick were white”

An ESPN piece (and picture) that considered what might have happened if Michael Vick was white has received a lot of attention. The author explains his thought process here:

Tonight somewhere in America two men will be arrested for DUI. Many people get arrested for this every day. Surely some will be black and some will be white. Does the fact that people of both races will be arrested for this prove that it’s not a racial situation? No. Does the ratio of those arrests as compared to the population perhaps prove that it is in fact a racial situation? Sure, but almost every situation is racialized.

One black driver may be arrested because the police who notice him are hypersensitive to black drivers in BMWs, so he’s the victim of Driving While Black even though it turns out that he also had a little too much to drink. Meanwhile maybe another black driver is swerving and it’s obvious he’s a problem before the officers can clearly see his face. The point is race is too nuanced to be looked at in a simplistic way. And this “switch test” should be discredited and thrown out…

Am I saying that we’re in a post-racial society and race no longer matters? Absolutely not. “Post-racial” is a meaningless term that people who have a sophisticated understanding of race do not use without an ironic smirk. I hate that dumb term and am dismayed at the number of people who think it’s indicative of modern America. It is not. Race still matters. But I think nowadays it often matters, or comes into play, in ways that are more subtle or nuanced than we care to admit.

The key points here:

1. Race still matters.

2. Race is complicated.

Both of these points should be remembered when talking about this article or about other matters that involve race.

This reminds of one reason that I am a sociologist: we don’t rely on singular situations like this. Thinking about Michael Vick can be a helpful exercise but ultimately, it is just one case. Had a number of factors been different, Vick’s skin color, background, football performance, etc., the outcome would likely be very different. But if we look at the more complete picture, whether it is all NFL players or all of American society, we can see how race still matters. Take NFL players: there has been some interesting research about the quarterback position and how race plays into conceptions of who is able to take on that role. Take American society: there is plenty of evidence that the criminal justice system heavily penalizes certain kinds of crimes more than others, certain groups have much higher incarceration rates, and certain groups are treated differently by the authorities.

Another question we could ask: how does the Michael Vick situation illustrate different approaches of justice? I’ve suggested before that it seems like some will never be happy that Vick has tasted success again and this raises questions about whether Americans should pursue retribution or rehabilitation through the criminal justice system.

Comparing the treatment of prisoners in Norway and the US

If I was teaching Intro to Sociology right now, the stories about Norway’s treatment of prisoners presents a fascinating contrast with the United States:

Norway “takes the mantra of rehabilitation to an extreme,” Foreign Policy’s Robert Zeliger explains. “The Norwegian prison system takes seriously the philosophy that inmates should be treated as humanely as possible and that jail sentences should be seen less as punishment than as an opportunity to reintegrate troubled people back into society.”

Norwegians tend to see “acts of extreme violence … as aberrant events, not symptoms of national decay,” Time Magazine’s William Lee Adams reported last year. Norwegian prison guards undergo two years of training, “don’t carry guns … and call prisoners by their first names and play sports and eat meals with them,” Adams reported.

That approach — and its underlying premise that people who commit crimes are troubled who should be given a second chance and prepared to live again amongst society — can perhaps be credited with Norway’s extremely low prison-recidivism rate—only about 20 percent of those imprisoned in Norway commit a repeat crime that sends them back to prison. Recidivism figures in the United States and the United Kingdom, by contrast, are much higher– 50 to 60 percent, Time reported.

Indeed, Norway, a country of 5 million people, only has about 3,300 prison inmates, according to Time. That gives Norway a ratio of prison inmates to the country’s overall population roughly ten times lower than that of the United States.

Since the figures in this story suggest Norway’s system works (fewer prisoners return to prison, saving money down the road and improving society), why doesn’t the United States pursue similar policies? Here are a few possible reasons:

1. The United States is not as innocent. Perhaps this could be tied to the violent American culture and history.

2. The United States has a lot more people than Norway. It could be more difficult to maintain order with more than 300 million people than just under 5 million people.

3. The United States has a wider gap, wealth and status, between different groups, leading to more violence and more repression.

4. The United States is more individualistic and therefore puts more emphasis on punishment rather than restoring someone back to society.

Put together, these reasons suggest a significantly different cultural outlook between these two nations: one wants to lock up prisoners and throw away the key while the other has only a 21-year maximum sentence and wants to restore prisoners to society. Such cultural perspectives are not easy to change. Think of how US politicians are punished by pundits and voters if they happen to release a prisoner who then goes on commit futher crimes. But perhaps the pragmatic nature of budget deficits might push some more US groups to advocate for rehabilitation over retribution?

(For a more detailed description of a low-security Norwegian prison, read this.)