The Art of the Steal

IF YOU WANTED TO BECOME an uncatchable master burglar and make a name for yourself among baffled, admiring police, where would you start? Choosing pragmatism over glamour, Jeffrey Manchester, the renowned thief who became known as “Roofman,” started at McDonald’s. To rob a McDonald’s, after all, is to rob a building whose layouts are virtually uniform, whose staff follow predictable working patterns: Roofman knew precisely when they entered and exited. Alighting on the roof (thus the name), he would excise a portion of the ceiling and descend. The employees he caught unawares were usually teenagers working minimum-wage jobs they no doubt hated, with little to gain from attempts to be a hero. Not that Roofman was violent—he was said to be unfailingly polite, and even enjoined one group of victims to wrap up in coats before he locked them in a freezer. He would eventually rob at least thirty-eight fast-food outlets, from California to the Carolinas. Most were McDonald’s. A company spokesperson said, wryly, that it seemed Roofman was “very brand loyal.”

This was, in fact, exactly right. The very quality customers all over the country prize in McDonald’s and keep going back for—its bland predictability—made it perfect for robbing, again and again. “Roofman had discovered a kind of criminal Groundhog Day,” Geoff Manaugh writes in his new book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City. “His skills—his timing, his movements—would only get better with each outing.” (In telling Roofman’s story, Manaugh inexplicably misses several opportunities to make a joke about the Hamburglar.) What Roofman had discovered, though Manaugh doesn’t say it, was the subversive potential hidden within the workplace design advocated by F. W. Taylor in the late-nineteenth century and still in use today. Create an extremely efficient system to repress and coerce labor and extract maximum profit, and it will produce its own mirror image: The system is perfectly primed to be robbed of that same profit—and its downtrodden workers couldn’t care less.

After finding himself locked up in Brown Creek Correctional Institution in North Carolina, Roofman became the prison’s first successful escapee by observing its routines and one day slipping out hidden underneath a delivery truck. He later spent several months living beneath the stairwell of an abandoned Circuit City that adjoined a Toys “R” Us, where he rigged up a surveillance network out of stolen baby monitors. When police raided his makeshift lair (which was decked out in Spider-Man paraphernalia), they discovered elaborate plans he’d drawn up for a mazelike dream home—living in it would feel like pulling off one long, continuous heist, as you dropped down a trapdoor and crawled through an escape hatch to set the kettle for coffee. For Manaugh, an architecture critic, figures like Roofman are essentially architecture-critics manqués, keen observers of how buildings function. They pay “at least as much attention to the patterns and particularities of built space as architects do,” always alert for hidden weaknesses or opportunities.

But the burglar’s-eye view also operates on a far more ambitious scale, implying a reinvention of the city itself. Burglars, Manaugh writes early in his book, are the greatest subverters of the urban landscape: They “use cities better.” Someone leading the cops on a high-speed chase through a city can suddenly call attention to that city’s layout. You see a different Los Angeles—a gorgeous network of snaking freeways—when you recall that it was for many years the world’s high-speed-chase capital. What is a cause of rush-hour frustration for most inhabitants is a boon for nighttime burglars. In LA, according to Manaugh, property values actually suffer in areas with good public-transit access, as it allows easier escape routes for smaller-time thieves.

A reformed burglar in Toronto who calls himself Jack Dakswin explains to Manaugh how studying the city’s fire code helped him plan his robberies. By knowing the maximum legal distance permitted between an apartment door and the nearest emergency exit, you can calculate the best route through any building. Dakswin, Manaugh writes, “could all but sketch a floor plan simply from looking at a building’s fire-escape system from the street.” Heating patterns in a neighborhood can reveal who is at home, and who isn’t, at any time of day. Everything can be turned to a burglar’s advantage. And some of these figures are more than just ingenious businessmen. The book describes several heists that straddle the line between breaking and entering and performance, like that of the early-twentieth-century burglar who posed as a wealthy tenant: He spent several days removing marble lintels, wood cabinets, and even “an entire carved staircase” from his new home, fending off inquisitive landlords with the claim that he was making necessary renovations. Manaugh examines the work of several artists who betray a certain collegial admiration for the burglar, such as Janice Kerbel, whose book 15 Lombard St. documents her attempt to figure out what it would take to pull off a bank heist in central London.

Manaugh also spends a lot of time talking to the fuzz, who are often impressed by the lengths burglars go to and especially hung up on the ones that got away. William Rehder, a retired FBI agent, wistfully shows Manaugh his files on the “Hole in the Ground Gang,” who successfully tunneled through the network of creeks underlying Los Angeles to rob a First Interstate Bank smack-dab in the middle of Hollywood. The heist was so masterful that the LAPD suggested they must be miners, experts in soil composition and technical engineering. A second, more brazen robbery attempt, in which the gang tried to take down two banks at once, failed when they tripped the vault alarm, but the bandits rode their four-wheelers off through the tunnels to fight another day. The episode inspired dark fantasies in the FBI

of a network of tunnels under every bank in West L.A., of the ground beneath us laced like a prairie dog village with holes and chambers and secret passages, of waking up one morning and finding five or ten or a hundred bank vaults simultaneously breached and stripped, and legions of bankers and boxholders screaming for vengeance and immediate compensation.

Paranoid images of this kind are the leitmotif of the book. For Manaugh, burglary is ultimately about the metropolis inverted, its every aspect turned into a potential ledge or handle for a criminal. To read his book is to imagine American cities teeming with underground life: a parallel world of cunning criminals hidden just below the surface. But is this actually true? Or is it another police fantasy? Manaugh mentions that the LAPD is now looking into the widespread use of range-r, a sort of radar that can peer through walls to spy on individuals: “Cops don’t (yet) have X-ray vision, but something approximating that technology is on its way.” The LAPD has a sufficiently grotesque history to make any tool that might so drastically enhance its authority seem troubling, but Manaugh presents this detail without comment.

Manaugh is as intrigued by those who go to inordinate lengths to protect against burglary as he is by the burglars themselves. He profiles Karl Alizade, a Vietnam veteran and former state cop, whose business in suburban New Jersey designs “panic rooms” for homeowners fearful of invasion. These are vaultlike structures fortified with concrete that can resist drills, sledgehammers, even rocket-propelled grenades. Manaugh spends far more time marveling at these structures as forms of architecture than wondering what sort of histrionic bunker mentality could possibly justify the construction of so violent an edifice in a largely safe suburb. As Mike Davis argued long ago in his still-extraordinary City of Quartz, security in the built environment is an expression of inequality. For the propertied classes, “security” is not so much about safety as about “insulation, in residential, work, consumption and travel environments, from ‘unsavory’ groups and individuals, even crowds in general.” And its logic is self-reinforcing: “The social perception of threat becomes a function of the security mobilization itself, not crime rates.” Manaugh stops well short of this conclusion. His view is purely aesthetic and technical.

Manaugh’s criminals come to seem more and more admirable in their ability to break out of the hamster wheel, to see and subvert the city-planning systems that affect our lives in ways we barely notice. These figures are so exhilarating to read about that it is something of a disappointment when, at the end of his deeply apolitical book, he tries to dial it back and reassure us—we poor, frightened middle classes!—that he doesn’t see the burglar as any kind of hero, and that the sanctity of property owners is paramount. Burglars, he writes, “wreck the lives and security of others for as little as a necklace—often far less—leaving psychological scars no insurance policy can cover.” True enough, but I wish Manaugh had just once asked himself the classic question posed by Brecht: “What is the robbing of a bank to the founding of one?” Seen from Manaugh’s perspective, the city, stripped of the social and political context that has actually shaped and made it, becomes instead a kind of delightful adventure playground. For Manaugh, the architecture of a place like Los Angeles implies its burglarization: Because it is easy to rob banks and make getaways on LA freeways, people will inevitably do so. Manaugh’s criminals are virtuosos whose antics recall such stunts as Philippe Petit’s sublime tightrope walk between the towers of the old World Trade Center. A Burglar’s Guide often reads as if the author had forgotten the main thing anyone breaks into buildings for. Architectural subversion, in his view, has its own promise and offers its own reward: It’s art for art’s sake.

Nikil Saval is an editor of n+1 and the author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (Doubleday, 2014).