Metropolitan Accomplice

[Image: Photo by Jonas Roosens/AFP/Getty Images, courtesy of the Guardian].

You might have seen the news yesterday that a crew of burglars used sewer tunnels beneath the diamond district in Antwerp, Belgium, to break into a nearby bank vault.

“Detectives in Antwerp are searching for clues in a sewage pipe under the Belgian city’s diamond quarter after burglars apparently crawled through it to break into a bank holding safe deposit boxes full of jewels,” the Guardian reported.

The heist allegedly began across the street, in a separate building, where they dug into the sewer network; one of the city’s many subterranean pipes led close enough to the bank that the crew could then tunnel just a few more meters to make entrance.

A couple of details stand out. For example, the police apparently had to hang back long enough to take gas measurements above the newly opened sewer tunnel, fearing either that the air quality would be so bad that they could risk asphyxiation or that the sewer emanations themselves might be explosive.

Either way, this suggests a possible strategic move by future burglars, who night now know that police—or, at the very least, police not equipped with gas masks—will be delayed due to chemical concerns. Infrastructural off-gassing could become a kind of criminal camouflage.

The other detail is simply that, when the police began investigating the crime, “The first the residents of the central Antwerp district knew of the incident was when police raised all the manhole covers running down the centre of Nerviërsstraat,” the Guardian reported. This otherwise inexplicable sight—law enforcement officers suddenly raising the lid on the city’s underworld—was actually part of a forensic investigation.

I’ve already written at length about tunnel jobs used in bank heists—including a still-unsolved crime from Los Angeles, back in the 1980s—in my book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, so I will defer to that book in terms of addressing specific aspects of underground crime. In fact, I would perhaps even more specifically recommend the book Flawless by Scott Selby and Greg Campbell, about another, massive heist in Antwerp’s diamond district pulled off in 2003.

[Images: Sewer maps and diagrams are now freely available online; the ones seen here are from Los Angeles and detail the same neighborhood in which a 1986 bank heist occurred, where the bandits tunneled into a vault using the city’s stormwater network. Read more in A Burglar’s Guide to the City or in retired FBI agent Bill Rehder’s absurdly enjoyable memoir, Where The Money Is].

Instead, what seems worth commenting on here is simply the very nature of urban infrastructure and the ease with which it can be repurposed for designing, planning, and committing crimes. The city itself can be an accomplice in acts entirely unrelated to the infrastructure in question. A freeway route enables a bank-heist getaway, a sewer tunnel offers jewel thieves a subterranean method of entry, a specific intersection’s geometric complexity means that carjackings are more likely to occur there: the city is filled with silent accomplices to future criminal activity, activities and events unforeseen by most city planners.

Will this intersection lead to more carjackings? is unlikely to be high on the list of questions posed by community feedback, yet it’s exactly that sort of tactical thinking that might allow designers to stay one step ahead of the criminals who seek to abuse those same designers’ finished projects.

(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the tip!)

A Burglar’s Guide to the City

burglars
For the past several years, I’ve been writing a book about the relationship between burglary and architecture. Burglary, as it happens, requires architecture: it is a spatial crime. Without buildings, burglary, in its current legal form, could not exist. Committing it requires an inside and an outside; it’s impossible without boundaries, thresholds, windows, and walls. In fact, one needn’t steal anything at all to be a burglar. In a sense, as a crime, it is part of the built environment; the design of any structure always implies a way to break into it.

You can see burglary’s architectural connections anywhere. Watch nearly any heist film, for example, and at some point there will be an architectural discussion: inevitably, the characters will point at floor plans or lean in close to study maps, arguing over how to get from one room to another, whether or not two buildings might actually be connected, or how otherwise separate spaces and structures—sometimes whole neighborhoods—might be secretly knit together. Seen this way, heists are the most architectural genre of all.

BurglarEntersHouse[Image: “How The Burglar Gets Into Your House” (1903), via The Saint Paul Globe].

When a burglary is committed in the real world, you often see stunned business owners stammering to morning TV crews about how strange the burglars’ method of entry was. They came in through the walls or jumped down through a hole in the ceiling—or crawled in through a drop-off chute—rather than going through the front door as the rest of us would, never using buildings the way they’re supposed to be used.

This notion—that burglary, at heart, is an architectural crime—serves as the core of my new book. It comes out in less than a month, on April 5th, from FSG. It’s called A Burglar’s Guide to the City.

I’m strangely thrilled to see it’s been categorized as “Architecture/True Crime.”

Burglars-FinalCover[Image: The complete front/back cover for A Burglar’s Guide to the City, designed by Nayon Cho].

Researching A Burglar’s Guide to the City has been a fascinating process—not to mention an incredible experience. It took me up into the sky over Los Angeles with the LAPD Air Support Division to learn how police see the city, out to visit a lock-picking group in northwest Chicago to pop open some padlocks and understand the limitations of physical security, and into the heavily fortified modular “panic rooms” designed by a retired New Jersey cop.

I spoke with a Toronto burglar who learned to use his city’s fire code as a targeting mechanism for future burglaries; I talked to the woman who arrested a kind of live-in burglar nicknamed “Roofman” who, incredibly, built a fake apartment for himself inside the walls of a Toys “R” Us; and I met the retired FBI Special Agent once tasked with tracking down a crew of subterranean bank bandits who pulled off a still-unsolved bank heist in 1986 Los Angeles, involving weeks of tunneling and a detailed knowledge of the the city’s sewer system. I spoke with one of the originators of the UK’s surreal “capture house” program, where entire fake apartments are kitted out and run by the police to trap—or capture—specific burglars, and I even visited the grave of a 19th-century super-burglar who used his training as an architect to lead a crew responsible for an astonishing 80% of all U.S. bank robberies at the time.

lapd[Image: Flying with the LAPD Air Support Division; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The book includes tunnel jobs from ancient Rome, a survey of door-breaching tools, an interview with architect Bernard Tschumi about crime and the city, some thoughts on Die Hard, even tips for the ultimate getaway from a reformed bank robber in California, and on and on and on.

In any case, I’m genuinely excited for the Burglar’s Guide to be out in the world. I can’t wait to discuss it with readers, so please check it out if you get a chance.

Meanwhile, there will be a short book tour this April and May. Keep an eye on burglarsguide.com for more information as it develops, but, for the time being, if you’re anywhere near New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, or Washington D.C., save the dates to come by and say hello.

Mossman_Invite_B_Web

The first event will be hosted by the incredible John M. Mossman Lock Collection at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York on Tuesday, April 5, with beer provided by my friends at Sixpoint Brewery and books for sale courtesy of The Strand Book Store. Even better, Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich will be leading a live conversation about the book—and the event itself is free, although you must RSVP.

I could go on at great length—and undoubtedly will, in the weeks to come—but, for now, consider pre-ordering a copy of the book. Thanks!