A Burglar's Guide to the City

The boundaries of an idea often require oppositional thinking to uncover. This is very clear in computer security, where you have to “think like a bad guy” to force out the vulnerabilities of a system, whether that means attempting to hack your own code, writing fuzz tests, or publishing proof-of-concepts. A Burglar’s Guide to the City brings this clarification-through-antagonism to the architectural world through the character of the burglar.

A building, and a city, Geoff Manaugh reminds us, guide the movement of people. Burglars subvert this guidance. They climb through vents, reverse engineer fire escapes to tell which floors have luxury apartments, and break through walls, roofs, and floors. They take advantage of the urban environment to rob banks near highways, escape into subways, and use underground sewers to tunnel into banks.

The burglar is elevated to mythical status in this book, and despite all of the stories of bumbling failures, the few successful heists leave a sense of magic that the book doesn’t dispel. Although Manaugh reminds us that burglars are “assholes”, the notion that burglary is a uniquely architectural crime is so strongly stated that it becomes easy to imagine that in a perfect crime, no people are hurt.

At the fringes, though, you get a glimpse of how the fantasy unravels, revealing a pathological and dehumanizing dimension. Roofman, a burglar who earned his nickname for specializing in burglarizing McDonald’s through their roofs, was known for his “politeness” because he would ask employees to wear their jackets before locking them in the freezer. The violence of this is understated in the book. What if someone had died? He later escaped from prison and lived behind a partition by a bike rack at a Toys ‘R Us, where he set up a fantasy headquarters filled with Spiderman paraphernalia and a surveillance station made out of baby cameras. When his perfect heist of Toys ‘R Us was foiled by an off-duty police sheriff, he punched her in the face, and ran away.

The narrative of people whose lives are upended by burglary is sorely missing. Even in the conclusion, where he tries to clarify that burglars deeply hurt people, he doesn’t manage to capture how invasive it can be. This is very visible in chapters where he talks about law enforcement and war. He skims over the IDF’s use of architectural theory to “walk through walls” (warning: pdf). I do think it was appropriate for inclusion in a book on burglary, but I also think it was a missed opportunity for discussing how traumatic and humiliating home invasion is. Consider this quote from a Palestinian woman:

Imagine it – you’re sitting in your living room, which you know
so well; this is the room where the family watches television together
after the evening meal.... And, suddenly, that wall disappears with a
deafening roar, the room fills with dust and debris, and through the
wall pours one soldier after the other, screaming orders.  You have no
idea if they’re after you, if they’ve come to take over your home,
or if your house just lies on their route to somewhere else. The children
are screaming, panicking....  Is it possible to even begin to imagine
the horror experienced by a five-year-old child as four, six, eight,
twelve soldiers, their faces painted black, submachine guns pointed
everywhere, antennas protruding from their backpacks, making them look
like giant alien bugs, blast their way through that wall.

Without voices like these, there is no perspective from which to make sense of burglary at all. Why is burglary a crime, rather than just trespassing and larceny? There is no burglary if the emotional damage of it is erased. It becomes easy to argue as well that breaking through living room walls is just “rewriting the syntax of the streets”, a new form of warfare. It takes a narrative of devastation to put into context what is really at stake, not just with burglary, but actions of nation-states that resemble burglary.