Saturday, January 14, 2012

ELIZ BISHOP | Key West 1938-46

Friends of Libraries USA Plaque.
January 14, 2012 - Yesterday morning Alice and I went to the well-run (privately owned, partly for the benefit of Hemingway’s three sons and their families) Hemingway House. 

In the afternoon I went to pay my respects to Elizabeth Bishop at her house on 624 White Street. 

It was a downer. Alice made the better choice of going to the Butterfly Conservancy, which she reported to me later was wonderful.

The Only Resident in Sight
I was disappointed by the unkempt nature of the Bishop House. The door was wide open and the only living creature at home at 4 pm yesterday was a black cat that barely gave me a glance (see photo at right). 

The most positive thing I can say is that among the overgrown trees and plants and superannuated bikes were signs of equipment for repairs. Could someone be in the midst of making an improvement? 

It was a disappointment because Bishop was such a careful craftswoman. Her reputation, like that of another Key West resident, President Truman, has grown as the years pass.

Front Door (open) at 624 White St.
For example, The Key West Reader [links to a site with free sample pages], edited by George Murphy, is deeply respectful of Elizabeth Bishop's contribution. The editor says that Bishop drew people to Key West just as John Dos Passos lured Hemingway to Key West after Dos Passos made a trip there on a whim in the 1920s on Flagler's newly built railway. He says: 
In the late 1930’s, Elizabeth Bishop, on a fishing trip, found the island perfect for a new home and later, in turn, piqued the interest of other writers (p. 18). 
The Reader includes Bishop’s poem “A Norther–Key West”, which was in her first collection of poems in 1946. The Reader’s editor says that the poem “is, in part, a tribute to Winslow Homer whose painting of the same name graces our cover.” He says Bishop
Do Pipes Mean Repairs on the Way?
is considered the American poet’s poet, a genius, whose pure, inspired, and precise work has greatly influenced many other important contemporary poets. More, perhaps, than any other Key West writer, she fell in love with the tropics and, upon her departure from Key West, moved further out, to Brazil.
The Reader also includes a “Poem for Elizabeth Bishop”, called “something of a love letter from poet-biographer John Malcolm Brinnin who, when he first came to Key West, made a pilgrimage to the house of his friend and found himself inspired – and amusingly mistaken."

Higgledy Piggledy Chairs and Pillows
Another Bishop fan, Professor Barbara Page at Vassar, maintains the Elizabeth Bishop at Vassar College site, which sums up Bishop's reputation as follows:

Elizabeth Bishop now stands as a major mid-twentieth century American poet, whose influence has been felt among several subsequent generations of poets. Highly regarded by critics such as Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, her rising reputation rests on the admiration of poets, including, among the Americans, James Merrill, John Ashbery and Jorie Graham, and, among world poets, Nobelists Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott. Her place in the canon of American poetry is secure.
Bike, Ladder
For more links and brief excerpts from web sites that mention Elizabeth Bishop’s place in the annals of poetry and her time at Key West, go to the page with her name on my Time Travel site.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Skewed Crime Reporting - Nothing New

The New York Times has a year-end story on the under-reporting of crime. There's a New York City commission at work studying crime reporting. The Times story shows how when someone notifies the NYPD of a crime, the degree of interest shown by the local police precinct can affect what is actually reported.

Time travelers will be interested in some of the antecedents of this story. The FBI processes local police reporting and sets the framework for recording crimes that are summarized in the Uniform Crime Rates published by the FBI.

Back in 1973, the Council on Municipal Performance published a report comparing crime rates in the 30 largest U.S. cities. I was involved in preparing the report, spent some significant time reading about the contemporary variability of crime reporting in big cities, and prepared a report on what the Council learned from its work.

Eight topics regarding crime reporting dominated the report. Only one related to systematic police under-reporting:

1. Systematic under-reporting was found most likely during election years. The cities of Chicago and Philadelphia were singled out as two big cities with big systematic swings in crime reporting. Police chiefs eager to retain their positions would get the word out to precinct captains that lower crime rates would be helpful to the Mayor and therefore to the police department.

2. Crime rates would systematically rise when police budgets were being reviewed. Under-reporting is only half the picture. When police departments were interested in budget increases, crime rates would rise.

3. Grand larceny was an easy number to skew. Back in 1973, the difference between grand larceny (which was reportable to the FBI for the Uniform Crime Rates) and petty larceny was a matter of estimating how much money was stolen. The cutoff was $50. So all it took to reduce reported crime was to raise or lower the bar for deciding whether someone's purse and contents were worth less or more than $50. An issue for the FBI was that state laws regarding the definition of larceny varied (states where the definition of grand larceny was the stealing of something worth $5 or more did not update their laws).

4. Grand larceny had a built-in inflation bias. The $50 FBI threshold for grand larceny had not been changed for many years, so that reported incidents of grand larceny rose steadily every year. This was fine by J. Edgar Hoover, who would intone each year about the gravity of the ever-growing crime wave. Subsequent to the Council on Municipal Performance raising this crime-incident-inflation issue in the press, the FBI raised the threshold. It is now $250. But how does a police officer recording the incident value the loss of, say, a credit card or a car with 150,000 miles on it? There are legitimate definitional questions that are worthy of the attention of the New York City crime-reporting commission.

5. The hardest number to fudge is homicide.  It's not easy to explain away a corpse. The easiest assumptions are accident or suicide, which are not crimes. But except for anonymous homeless people, the police will have relatives following up. So the homicide rate tends to be pretty reliable.

6. Cultural trends influence crime reporting over time. The woman's liberation movement made it much more acceptable for a woman to report being raped. The rise in the number of rapes was most like the result not of an increased incidence of rapes (quite likely the opposite), but of the willingness of women to file reports with the police.

7. Cultural differences affect reporting among cities and neighborhoods. An assault in one part of town might be considered criminal whereas in another it would be considered a crime. Police precincts may vary in how they handle assault complaints. They most likely vary systematically among cities.

8. The best way to ensure uniformity in crime reporting is through internal and external audits. The FBI has its own standards when reviewing city crime reports. In the past it has refused to report city crime numbers that it considered hard to believe or inadequately documented. To ensure credible reports, cities have themselves hired outside auditors to review their crime reporting systems on a precinct-by-precinct basis. Internal auditors should be at work in every big-city police department making sure that the standards for classifying crimes are being uniformly disseminated and applied.