A Burglar’s Guide to the City
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
18 West 18th Street, New York, NY 10011; us.macmillan.com/fsg.
2016. 296 pages. Paperback, $16.
The premise of Geoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City is simple; burglars understand cities, and the buildings that constitute them, better than you do. Manaugh has been exploring a dizzying range of theoretical and esoterically vocational perspectives on the city for well over a decade on his invaluable BLDGBLOG. It is no surprise that his first single-subject book focuses on a profession with a timeless motivation for understanding how buildings work—determining how best to take whatever’s in them.
Manaugh begins his tale with George Leonidas Leslie, a trained architect who, upon moving to New York City in 1869, promptly put his trained mind to work on a series of precisely plotted burglaries. Leslie, the author writes, had a leg up on most of us. Leslie’s example suggests that “none of us understand how buildings really work—how the city operates—and worse, that someone else out there has a better idea and is fully prepared to use that knowledge against us.”
Many burglaries are impulsive and poorly planned: those that mainly interest Manaugh are complex navigations of space. The book is a fascinating survey of the history of burglary: of heists using every possible angle of entry: tunnels from below, roofs, adjacent apartments and buildings, and any other direction that a drill or a hammer could conquer. The one means of entry that burglars often spurn? The door. As Manaugh writes:
“People seemed to take for granted that buildings would be used properly—not sidestepped, punctured, or otherwise worked around. You might have the strongest front door in the world, but if I can hammer my way through your wall in two minutes, what good does a dead bolt do?”
The book—a catalog of thefts real and imagined, from heists during chariot-racing days in ancient Rome to the schemes of Ocean’s 11 and The Thomas Crown Affair—is not so much interested in the flouting of laws as in the flouting of nearly universal conventions about the use of space. It isn’t the police, it’s critics and theorists like Michael Sorkin, Eyal Weizman, and Bernard Tschumi (“To really appreciate architecture, you may even need to commit a murder”) that Manaugh draws upon to explain the deeper spatial transgressions of burglary.
While the book is no encouragement to felonious intent, and provides ample reminder just how destructive and ruinous burglary often is, it does—like the best of guides—offer a new mode of seeing the built world. Manaugh writes, “Burglary’s strange conceptual promise is precisely that the world is riddled with shortcuts and secret passages—we just have to find them.” One retired burglar, commenting anonymously, noted that a detail as insignificant as the placement of emergency exits can, with a knowledge of local fire codes, provide a strong idea of how many units are on a given floor in a building. The replication of plans offers an endless boon to burglars, whether they are burglarizing units in a building, identical tract homes, or a McDonald’s—one burglar took advantage of the identical design of numerous McDonald’s locations to rob them through their roofs.
The book isn’t simply a chronicle of crime: it’s also concerned with the strenuous efforts to prevent it, from the design of safe rooms to the more surreal phenomenon of “capture houses,” which are apartments or homes set up invitingly to attract local burglars—by the police. Watch lest your shortcut take you right to jail.
Anthony Paletta writes the Spaces column for the Wall Street Journal and contributes to Metropolis, Gizmodo, the Awl, the Daily Beast, and a variety of other publications.