Locks and the City: Reviewing A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh

A Burglar's Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh encompasses nearly 2,000 years of heists and tunnel jobs, break-ins and escapes, offering an unexpected blueprint to the criminal possibilities in the world all around us.

We think we know how buildings work. You pass through doors, look through windows, hang pictures on walls, walk on floors, and ignore ceilings (unless they leak).

Burglars have different ideas. They ignore doors, pass through walls, hang pictures on windows, walk on ceilings, and cut through floors. They subvert the very notion of a building; theirs is an architectural crime.

That’s the thesis of Geoff Manaugh, author of A Burglar’s Guide to the City—where architectural criticism collides with true-crime reporting. He believes that burglary is nothing less than a radical reinterpretation of structure and urban design.

Manaugh (a futurist and former editor for Dwell and Gizmodo) looks at the problem of burglary from all kinds of angles, not all of them obvious. He talks to former burglars, the LAPD Air Support Division, FBI Tactical Operations (the people who covertly enter, search and surveil suspect locations), Las Vegas casino security, the maker of an all-but-impenetrable safe room, recreational lock-pickers, British police working with that nation’s infamous CCTV systems, architects, and various other people or organizations with a piece of this action.

Burglary has been with us ever since there were buildings. (Burglary is different from theft in that the former requires “breaking the close,” or entering an enclosed space used as a residence or business.) Ever since, there’s been an arms race between those who want to break in and those who want to keep the others out. Architecture and urban design were drafted into this war, almost as soon as those disciplines appeared. Egyptian tomb robbers were, essentially, ambitious burglars, and the curse on Tut’s tomb may have been the ADT of its time.

Urban design may actively encourage particular types of crime. Los Angeles’s web of freeways overlaid on a regular street grid may have created the drive-by bank robberies that exploded in the 1980s. Thieves could roll off a freeway, rob the bank in the mini-mall at the foot of the offramp, then get back on the freeway in a matter of minutes. (Now, of course, nobody would consider an L.A. freeway for a fast getaway.) In cities like London and New York City, more burglaries and robberies happen close to subway stations. Manaugh tells tales of burglars manipulating traffic (à la The Italian Job) or using sewers or storm drains to get to or from their targets.

Nobody understands the effect of urban design on crime better than the cops who have to deal with the consequences. Sir Thomas More (who had some experience with law enforcement) laid out his ideal city in Utopia in a way to make it easy to patrol. Paris benefitted twice from this urge to combat crime: first in the 13th century, when a regular street-lighting program gave the city its nickname; and again in the 19th century, when Haussmann’s overhaul of the street plan eliminated the old rat’s nest of cul-de-sacs and alleys, making the city both beautiful and more easily policed.

Yet finally, it all boils down to the head-to-head competition of burglar vs. building. George Leonidas Leslie, the pre-eminent bank robber of 19th-century New York, was a pioneer in developing today’s familiar heist-movie tropes: building full-scale mockups of interiors, timing and charting the movements of the employees, collecting locks and safes to practice on. Leslie was, by the way, a trained architect. 

Manaugh introduces Jack Dakswin, a now-retired burglar, who learned the Toronto fire code so thoroughly that he could figure out the layout of an office block or apartment building by the placement of fire escapes and emergency exits. 

Bill Mason, a successful ex-jewel thief, says, “People who take care of apartment buildings are unappreciated masters of many arts.” Mason had been a building manager and learned about buildings from the maintenance guys and supers, the people who know best how a structure really works. Manaugh calls men like Dakswin and Mason “first-rate spatial voyeur[s]” and “autodidact[s] of architectural exteriors.”

This isn’t a how-to guide; it’s more a tweaked piece of architectural criticism. Don’t expect to be able to knock over your neighbor’s house once you’re done reading. Unforgivably for nonfiction, there’s no index. Also, the author seems to believe that a point worth stating is worth repeating and rephrasing over and over. This and the book’s somewhat disjointed flow may reveal its roots in Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG blog.

Still, if you can get over these hurdles, A Burglar’s Guide to the City is a fresh take on an old problem. It’s a true-crime book that focuses on the victim (or, if you will, the accomplice) rather than the criminal. It may give you new respect for Bernie Rhodenbarr or Thomas Crown. I guarantee that you’ll look at doors differently.


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Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. The characters in his international thriller Doha 12 and his near-future thriller South tend to emphasize the “breaking” part of “breaking & entering.” His Facebook author page features spies, shipwrecks, art crime and archaeology, among other things.


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