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To the bewilderment of pedestrians in the 1980s, panhandlers, aimless wanderers pushing shopping carts, and other down-and-out individuals appeared with increasing frequency in the downtown areas of the United States. During the same period, in an apparent paradox, the Skid Rows of most U.S. cities were in sharp decline. While New Yorkers were encountering more panhandlers in their subway system, their city's most famous Skid Row—the Bowery—was fading from view. While the number of homeless campers occupying Palisades Park in Santa Monica rose, fifteen miles away, Los Angeles's Skid Row east of Spring Street was losing population. By the early 1990s, the increased disorderliness of the urban street scene had triggered a political backlash. Commentators began to report that the urban populace was suffering from "compassion fatigue." Even in the nation's most liberal cities, mayoral candidates campaigned for greater control of street misconduct, and city councils passed crackdown ordinances. In New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and countless other cities, these legal measures, coupled with a general hardening of pedestrians' attitudes, began to reduce the incidence of disorderly behavior in public spaces. In 1994 alone, voters in Berkeley, Santa Monica, and Santa Cruz—three of the most politically liberal municipalities in California—compelled their local officials to take steps to limit street disorder.

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