In Clint Eastwood's film Gran Torino, a widowed and bitter Walt Kowalski, Korean War veteran, watches street life from his Detroit porch as his Hmong immigrant neighbors become the victims of gang persecution. Confounded by the fearful Hmong's unwillingness to help police, Kowalski confronts the baddies, unites the Hmong against the gangs and ends up dead.
It's the classic story of a declining hero who fights injustice, in this case from that very American security blanket - the porch. Our fading hero might be a worn metaphor, but how can you not love the odd pairing of ancient Greek tragedy with Clint's stellar film direction?
This week, during my Milwaukee SafeGrowth class, I saw Gran Torino come to life (sort of) only in reverse. Embedded within the remarkable and successful projects from team members there was a story of young men hanging out on neighborhood porches, drinking beer and smoking dope. Nothing strange in that except these porches did not belong to those young men. They just picked a porch somewhere on the street (where they may or may not live) and then just took it over.
Sometimes those homes were abandoned, sometimes not. As in Gran Torino, residents often don't ask the squatters to leave, presumably due to fear! Residents seldom call the police. Police have made arrests and cracked down but the problem continues. I'm told it has been ongoing for years.
It is Gran Torino in reverse.
SafeGrowth team members didn't think the squatters were gang members or drug dealers (my first thought), but they were not sure. Squatters didn't move into those abandoned homes nor ask residents to join them on the porch. They simply picked a porch and hung out.
I know of dealers who launch open air drug markets and take over abandoned buildings. I know gang members intimidate neighbors by claiming porch turf. But SafeGrowth team members didn't think any of that was the case here.
Why don't squatters stay on their own porches (they were not homeless)? No one knew. A few team members thought this was common across Milwaukee. Others disagreed. Another thought this was common in all low income, troubled neighborhoods. I could not think of any other community with such random, and obnoxious, porch squatting. In CPTED this is what Randy Atlas calls offensible space.
We will never reclaim neighborhoods and prevent crime unless we can mobilize legitimate behavior. Porch squatting is not legitimate behavior! And there is no Clint Eastwood coming to the rescue.
The good news? Based on the high quality SafeGrowth projects and the exceptional team-work I saw this week in Milwaukee, we won't need him.