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When Chris and Carolyn Clemans moved 2 1/2 years ago from a suburb of Syracuse, New York, to the city’s gritty Near West Side, they were among the first urban pioneers to join an effort to revitalize one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. Today, a dozen formerly rundown homes in the vicinity have been fixed up by new owners  and the neighborhood seems to be on its way to a surprising comeback.

The Clemans run a custom cabinetry business, Cabinet Fabrication Group, in a small downtown factory within walking distance of their home–so they’re betting their future on Syracuse. There are several factors in the Near West Side’s change of fortunes, but the key one, according to Chris, is that the new residents have changed the culture of the neighborhood. “Criminals are more comfortable operating in an area where people tolerate them. We don’t tolerate them,” he says.

The unwillingness of residents to accept criminal or even nuisance behavior is one of the key factors in determining whether an urban neighborhood can be stabilized or make a comeback, according to research conducted by a team of five IBMers who performed a deep analysis of Syracuse’s housing vacancy issues this fall. The team is part of IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge program–where the company sends teams to help cities worldwide assess and solve some of their most challenging problems. The Syracuse team recently presented a report laying out their findings and recommendations to municipal leaders. Their message: Armed with accurate information that correlates causes and effects, the city can craft successful strategies for revitalizing neighborhoods.

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The team’s core insight relates to an observation that author Malcolm Gladwell made in his 2000 bestseller, The Tipping Point. Gladwell cited a phenomenon he called the Broken Windows Theory: “If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a a signal that anything goes.”

In Syracuse, a crucial indicator was the frequency with with residents of economically distressed neighborhoods call police to report drug-related activities. If they don’t call, the neighborhood is likely on a slippery slope. But, “when somebody calls to complain, the police respond and make arrests. It means the neighbors care,” says Jing Shyr, a distinguished engineer at IBM who was on the Smarter Cities Challenge team.

Overall, Syracuse doesn’t have an especially bad housing vacancy rate–just 4.6%. But that’s misleading. When you drill down and look at individual neighborhoods you see that several of them have vacancy rates topping 10% and others, on the bubble, have rates between 5% and 10%.  Rates that high are strong signals that a neighborhood is in trouble and, left alone, could get a lot worse.

Shyr and her colleagues examined vast amounts of information about crime and police activity, real estate trends, poverty rates and other socioeconomic indicators for Syracuse’s 32 neighborhoods. They found some correlations between socioeconomic indicators and vacancy rates that surprised them. For example, in neighborhoods where the male unemployment rate was lower than the rate for women, vacancies typically weren’t that bad.  Digging deeper, the team found that lower-income men and women frequently compete for the same jobs. In neighborhoods where many woman have jobs, a lot of men are idle–which can lead to drug use and crime.

Before the IBM team performed its analysis, Syracuse leaders had strong impressions about what’s wrong with their most troubled neighborhoods, but they didn’t know for sure. Now, armed with more detailed information about causes and effects, they can craft responses with a higher likelihood of success.  Also, based on data trends, they can predict when a neighborhood is about to go down hill, and act proactively to stabilize the situation. “You’re using data to help the people in the community fix their community,” says Shyr. “You can help them reach a consensus. It’s no longer about who shouts louder. They have a mathematical model that helps them do more scientific decision making.”
Like the Clemans, Shyr now has a strong desire to help turn around Syracuse. She has no plans to move to one of its impoverished neighborhoods, as they did. But she’s willing to do statistical analysis work for  the city on a volunteer basis. She says: “I said, ‘Call me. I’ll help out.’”

Here’s a related blog post by Leslie Plant, one of the IBMers on the Challenge team in Syracuse.


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