When the Bubble is Burst: Crime in Irvine

The trees lurked with danger.

Under the darkening September sky, a series of loud cracks shot through the twilight—screams in the cooling air, silence and sirens.

At 7:17 p.m. on Sept. 13, 2009, gunshots shattered the silent Sunday evening at the Palo Verde graduate housing complex. UCI had just experienced its first murder on campus.

The gossip buzzed for the next two weeks, but as fall quarter resumed, shock was swallowed in the pages of books and long hours of lectures as students and faculty all seemed to move on. The airs of safety and sequestered peace descended again with the lengthening autumn nights.

Irvine, at least on paper, is the perfect city. Its citizens live in walled-off neighborhoods with names like Turtle Ridge, Woodbury, Quail Hill and Shady Canyon. It is a modern day suburban utopia of private neighborhoods, streets that are more like freeways, an abundance of chain stores, large shopping malls and a network of excellent schools and universities.

You could live your whole life in Irvine and never have to leave. It has everything an American family should want. It rivals the most perfect fantasy of a Disney movie, but a rotten heart always seems to fester in the heart of paradise.

According to the recently released FBI data for 2009, Irvine earned the distinction of having the lowest rate of violent crime in the nation for the sixth straight year in cities with populations more than 100,000. Irvine also had its lowest levels of violent crime in history, and recorded the lowest instance of Part I crimes (murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft and arson) in the nation.

But this safety, this perfect standard of living, comes at a price made painfully acute when crime enters this insular bubble.

UCI’s safe image was shaken on two separate occasions in the 2009-2010 school year. The first was the murder on Sept. 13. The second was the series of suspicious letters reading “Black Death,” which contained a mysterious white powder, mailed to UCI faculty in early January 2010.

“Why here?” UCI public information officer Tom Vasich said. “Why UCI? It seems so random.”

Vasich’s confusion reflects many people’s reaction to crime in Irvine or at UCI. In the face of the highly publicized safety, in the face of all of the statistics, it seems bizarre that crime this serious could occur here. This kind of crime is only supposed to effect rough neighborhoods and big cities.

Irvine was born in 1959, conceived as a suburban utopia of townships and villages linked by large streets, all leading to a university at the center. Architect William Pereira worked with planners from the Irvine Company and drew up plans for a city of 50,000 surrounding the university. They zoned off areas for industrial, residential, recreational and commercial use with belts of green, undeveloped land interspersed throughout the city. In December 1971, Irvine residents voted to incorporate into a larger city, and Irvine as we know it was born.

“Irvine’s noteworthy, present-day status didn’t evolve from happenstance,” says Irvine’s city website. “It’s the outcome of mastermind planners, and those engaged to institute the plan … For more than 30 years, residents and businesses have been choosing the City of Irvine because of its dedication to maintaining its reputation as one of the safest, master-planned, business-friendly communities in the country.”

It is natural then that residents expect to maintain their pristine standard of living. No homeless wander the streets. Homes in each village are homogenized into thematically set landscaping and construction styles. Many villages set up governing bodies and homeowners associations that provide amenities like members-only swimming pools, tennis courts and parks.

It appears then that this city and university are still struggling to come to terms with the expectations of perfection fed by all the data and statistics and hype, and the realities that accompany life in any city. For now, Irvine citizens will have to enjoy their safety while leaving behind any naïveté to adopt a more mature view.