A Burglar's Guide to the City

Manaugh plays with the subversive idea that "burglars are... drunk Jedis of architectural space." He walks us through some of the most famous heists in history and how creative uses of the built environment played a role in their success.

A Burglar's Guide to the City

"A Burglar's Guide to the City" plays with the subversive idea that "burglars are idiot masters of the built environment, drunk Jedis of architectural space." Exploring the exotic ways that criminals exploit architectural weaknesses, Manaugh walks us through some of the most famous heists in history and how creative uses of the built environment played a role in their success. He latches on to the idea that burglary is a uniquely "spatial" crime and loving details the evolution of the cat-and-mouse game between those trying to break into buildings and those trying to keep them out.

Manaugh devotes considerable time to Los Angeles, explaining how its highways have helped to shape the city's emergence as one of the major bank robbery capitals of the world. He flies around with the LAPD helicopter surveillance team to understand their perspective on how urban design affects getaway strategies. I loved the bit about the forgotten subterranean creeks used as tunneling routes. I was also surprised to learn that many banks in LA decide to skimp on security, relying on the government's obligation to investigate bank crime... worth digging into deeper.

I endured some detours into now-obsolete lock-picking and convoluted legal definitions of burglary, but my favorite parts of this book were the descriptions of the notorious burglaries. The exuberant, nearly giddy tone of the book made it a fun read, but Manuagh occasionally errs on the side of being too cute and clever. He strays pretty far out on the shaky limb of architectural philosophizing, but I mostly forgive him for these transgressions because of the fascinating subject matter of this delightful book.

My highlights below.


George Leonidas Leslie had been trained as an architect at the University of Cincinnati, where he graduated with honors.

What followed would inaugurate one of the most spatially astonishing crime sprees in U.S. history. Nineteenth-century New York City police chief George Washington Walling estimated that Leslie and his gang were behind an incredible 80 percent of all bank robberies in the United States at the time, until Leslie’s betrayal in the spring of 1878. This would include the great Manhattan Savings Institution heist of October 1878, which netted nearly $3 million from one of the most impregnable buildings in North America. Leslie had been planning the heist obsessively, continuously, down to the building’s every architectural detail, for more than three years — but he would be murdered by a member of his own crew before he could participate.

Leslie would wheedle his way into private gatherings, not just for the cocktails and social camaraderie, but to case the place. Oh, he might say to a wealthy businessman or bank owner at a dinner party, as if he had just thought of something off the top of his head. I’m an architect, you know — I’d love to see the blueprints for your new bank downtown. I’m working on one myself and I’m having trouble with the vault. If I could just take a quick look, I’d be most appreciative. Do you have the plans here? Through good old-fashioned social engineering, Leslie would thus gain access to key documents or structural drawings of future targets—a backstage pass to the entire metropolis — the way a car aficionado might ask to take a peek under your hood. No one thought twice of it — why would they? Leslie dressed well, he had been trained as an architect, and his illicit spatial knowledge of the city only continued to grow.

Leslie’s secret weapon here was a notorious fence of stolen goods, the Prussian-born Fredericka Mandelbaum, widely known as Marm. Her eye for trickery and subterfuge extended even to architecture: she had a dumbwaiter installed inside a false chamber in her home chimney, where she could stash sensitive items in a rush. Rather than opening or closing the flue, a small lever in the fireplace would lift her hot goods to safety. In her own way, Mandelbaum was a Dickensian supervillain, complete with a labyrinthine lair on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Her thieves’ den there boasted multiple entrances, unmarked doors, armed guards, and even a disguised access point through a pub on Rivington Street. These all led into a goods yard where deals and trades could be made.

Arguably, Leslie’s gang was responsible for establishing what would later become the well-worn Hollywood trope of the duplicate vault: a detailed replica of the eventual target, assembled in order to practice and implement sophisticated methods of entry. Think Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job, or even Inception, with those films’ warehouse scenes full of architecturally ambitious burglary crews tinkering amid models and floor plans.

In short, he robbed the banks of nineteenth-century America by making copies of them, declaring replicant architectural warfare on the moneyed classes of the East Coast.

This gives Leslie the air of an addict, seemingly unable to resist the lure of an uninhabited architectural space emptied of its workers, unable to turn down the illicit thrill of a bank interior that temporarily belonged to him alone, having realized long ago that the best way to commune with an architectural space was by breaking into it.

He had learned years earlier that architectural expertise is nothing without urban expertise: if you don’t know how to get away from a crime, you might as well not commit it.

Pirates of space-time, dressed in opera costumes, picking bank locks and assembling duplicate vaults in abandoned Brooklyn warehouses, Leslie’s gang and their astonishing success rate set a delirious precedent for future burglaries to come. Leslie thus became both burglary’s patron saint and architecture’s fallen superhero, its in-house Lucifer of breaking and entering. His darkest accomplishment, however, was hardwiring crime into architectural history, making burglary a necessary theme in any complete discussion of the city. Burglary is the original sin of the metropolis. Indeed, you cannot tell the story of buildings without telling the story of the people who want to break into them: burglars are a necessary part of the tale, a deviant counternarrative as old as the built environment itself.

Today, security expert Bruce Schneier would call Leslie a defector: someone who has used his access, training, or skills against the very people those talents were meant to benefit. Think of the doctor who becomes a torturer, the IT expert who becomes a cybercriminal, the corrupt cop who becomes a dealer.

By turning his architectural knowledge into a tool not for increasing the public good but for breaking into the city, he became a trickster figure at the birth of the modern metropolis, installing crime in its very structure like a Trojan horse.

Maybe no one ever taught them how to use a building. Maybe it’s just neurodiversity. We could call it burglar’s syndrome, a spatial disease, something that compels you to misuse buildings.

burglars are idiot masters of the built environment, drunk Jedis of architectural space.

Unbeknownst to the man, he had a kindred soul on the other side of the world in the form of Stephen Blumberg, an obsessive book thief and library burglar who amassed a collection of stolen works that was at one point estimated to be worth nearly $20 million. His many targets included the special collections of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles—which he broke into by shimmying up the chutes of an old dumbwaiter system formerly used for accessing the library’s closed stacks. Deactivated long ago, the shafts were still there, offering an alternative system of movement hidden within the walls of the library itself.

People usually focus on what burglars take, but it’s how they move that’s so consistently interesting. Burglars explore. They might not live in a city full of secret passages and trapdoors—but they make it look as if they do.

the FBI have become twenty-first-century break-in artists extraordinaire, controlling the scenography of intrusion to a degree that would stun even Hollywood concept artists. The FBI’s present-day program tasked with making sure that state-sanctioned break-ins go off without a hitch is code-named, appropriately enough, Stagehand.

They even send themselves to something called elevator school to learn how they might hijack vertical transport through architectural space for their own crime-fighting ends — sometimes standing atop an elevator car for hours at a time, waiting for office workers or building residents to disappear, before making their move on a suspect’s office or home.

They put tape down where a target’s furniture currently stands so that they can slide it all back exactly in place when the operation is over.

As any FBI agent can tell you, Los Angeles became the bank robbery capital of the world in large part because of its freeways.

It’s as if the heist genre had been invented for no other reason than to dramatize the unveiling of floor plans.

One of the most perceptive things I’ve heard anyone say about the built environment came from a man using the pseudonym Jack Dakswin. A retired burglar based in Toronto, Dakswin amazed me with tales of his extensive, homeschooled expertise in the city’s fire code, explaining how the city’s own regulations can be read from the outside-in by astute burglars, turning Toronto’s fire code into a kind of targeting system. Simply by looking at the regulated placement of fire escapes on the sides of residential high-rises, Dakswin could deduce which floors had fewer apartments (fewer would mean larger, more expensive apartments, more likely to be filled with luxury goods) and even where, on each floor, you might expect to find elevator shafts and apartment entrances. He could thus build up a surprisingly accurate mental map of a building’s interior simply by looking at its fire escapes, a virtuoso act of anticipatory architectural interpretation that most architects today would be hard-pressed to replicate.

In many states you can be charged with burglary simply for unnecessarily using a side entrance or coming in through the garage rather than the front door: an indirect approach to the built environment is considered legally suspicious.


If there is a general law of urban criminality here, it’s that cities get the types of crime their design calls for.

As I was to learn on my helicopter flights with the LAPD, surveillance missions often occur at heights of ten thousand feet or more, making those helicopters invisible to the naked eye, even while they meticulously track a single car or pedestrian for hours at a time.

The LAPD’s “Burglary Prevention” page specifically suggests that Angelenos should “mark your address with large, reflectorized numbers on the roof of your building for high visibility to police helicopter patrols,” clearly implying that most buildings currently lack this identifying feature.

This was the anticipatory geography of crime, where the helicopter crew’s job was to preempt any possibility of escape: to guess where the suspect might go next and to have police officers there waiting.

It’s hard to know which is more dystopian: the idea that your every move is being studied by occasionally malign figures of anonymous government authority, or that everything you’ve done in the public sphere has for years now been secretly recorded for no particular reason, by people who would rather be doing almost anything else, in an apotheosis of archival bureaucracy that you yourself pay for through tax.

That NASA was involved suggests that L.A. was considered so alien both to police officers and to scientists that it resembled the landscape of another world. There is Mars, there is the moon, and there is Los Angeles. The resulting report, called “Effectiveness Analysis of Helicopter Patrols,” drawing on research by NASA’s Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was published in July 1970.

The idea of studying the urban and architectural — even numerical — visions of police is by no means new or unique to my own research. Thomas More’s Utopia is a foundational text in the peculiar genre of describing the ideal metropolis; it is equal parts political theory and moral treatise, with a strong undercurrent of speculative design. What is the perfect city? More asks. What would it look like and how would it work? As it happens, one of the book’s earliest passages is a reflection on how to prevent not just crime but specifically theft and robbery in a perfect society. Prior to writing Utopia, Thomas More was undersheriff of London. He was a cop.

Using the rules of four, Burdette told me, he could navigate to basically any building in Los Angeles.

“The way the parcels work in the city of Los Angeles,” Burdette began, “is that Main Street and First Street are the hub of the city.” This is also where the LAPD built its headquarters, a huge new building I was able to visit later for a meeting with detectives from the Burglary Special Section. The LAPD is thus literally at the very center of the metropolis, its numerological heart: it is the zero point from which everything else emanates, with Los Angeles a kind of giant mandala built by the police, airborne lords of the spiderweb.

But most of our burglaries are not like that. Windows aren’t used nearly as frequently as you would think. Doors aren’t used nearly as frequently as you would think. There are a lot of tunnel jobs. There are a lot of roof jobs. There are a lot of very creative ways of gaining access to restaurants or residences — including driving a car through the wall.”

“I’ve seen people take tools and cut out the back of a Dumpster,” he said. “What they then do is pull the Dumpster up to the side of a building and chip away at the wall for several days. They just pull the materials and debris back into the Dumpster with them so that we can’t detect it. You can look underneath it and you can look all around it, but you won’t see anything because the Dumpster is up against the wall. In that Dumpster they’ve got a place that’s quiet where they can tunnel in peace.

In the 1990s, Los Angeles held the dubious title of “bank robbery capital of the world.” At its height, the city’s bank-crime rate hit the incredible frequency of one bank robbed every forty-five minutes of every workday.

In a 2003 memoir called Where the Money Is: True Tales from the Bank Robbery Capital of the World, retired special agent William J. Rehder devotes considerable attention to the ways in which the design of Los Angeles facilitates — or even leads to — bank crimes.

Not the least of these factors is that many banks, Rehder explains, have made the somewhat peculiar financial calculation of money stolen per year versus the annual salary of a full-time security guard — and the banks have come out on the side of letting the money get stolen. The cash, in economic terms, is not worth protecting. It’s not altogether wrong to suggest that as a conscious business strategy banks outsourced their security needs to already strained local cops and the FBI, who were federally obligated to investigate bank crime.

I’ve come to realize after many meetings with retired FBI agents that they often arrive with files, as if unable to fully leave behind the archives and documentary evidence so central to the Bureau’s investigations.

Rehder’s widely known and recognized expertise in all things bank-crime-related led to the surreal accolade of being tapped to serve as an outside consultant on the 1991 film Point Break, starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze and directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

But even more interestingly, the sewers themselves were not built haphazardly through the canyons of Hollywood; they were constructed to follow the old streams and waterways of the natural landscape, a landscape now buried, invisible, beneath the streets. The ancient watershed of Los Angeles still flows, but it has been entombed in concrete and forgotten.

The methodology of the Hole in the Ground Gang bears superficial resemblance to an earlier heist on the other side of the Atlantic. Over the long Bastille Day weekend of July 1976, a team of burglars successfully broke into the vault of the Société Générale bank in Nice, France, stealing nearly $8 million worth of cash and goods from the safe-deposit boxes inside. They had been tunneling for two months.

Bank vaults built on heavy Manhattan bedrock are not going to see many tunnel jobs; those built on soft London clay, crumbly Berlin sand, or the fertile soil of South America are immediately vulnerable, provided one is willing to get one’s hands dirty.

Burglary is topology pursued by other means: a new science of the city, proceeding by way of shortcuts, splices, and wormholes.

By breaking into just one safe-deposit box, you could steal the code to New Songdo City — the operating system of an entire metropolis. In a scenario straight out of science fiction — the heist of the century — the digital engine behind every electronic door lock, every elevator, every streetlight, every fire alarm, every subway tunnel, every bank vault, and every surveillance camera would be under your control. You could rob every building in the city.


After the publication of his memoir, Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief, in 2003, Mason appeared on CNN to look back at his long and successful career.

“People who take care of apartment buildings,” Mason suggests, “are underappreciated masters of many arts. They do the work of electricians, plumbers, carpenters, masons, painters, locksmiths, glaziers and machinists, often all in the same day.”

These urban fire codes also govern which internal emergency exit doors in a building are meant to be left unalarmed.

Emporis describes itself as “a global provider of building information” that “collects data on buildings of high public and economic value.” It’s practically tailor-made for burglars.

He lamented that, to his mind, burglary seemed to have lost its cultural appeal, its romance, its hold on the popular imagination. Now people just steal PINs or send phishing e-mails. Dakswin is at least quantitatively right: burglary is on the decline. According to the NYPD, it has plummeted nearly 85 percent in the last twenty years alone in New York City.

burglary was originally only possible in a household or dwelling; the very word contains an etymological variant on the Latin burgus, for “castle” or “fortified home” (from which other words, such as burgher and even borough, also derive).

What’s unique about Wright’s disdain for endlessly proliferating microdefinitions inspired by and based on other microdefinitions is that he eventually, casually, and seemingly offhandedly suggests at the end of his article that we could simply rewrite the law altogether and eliminate the crime known as burglary. Some men just want to watch the world burn. His logic rests on the fabulous conclusion that, legally speaking, architecture is a form of “magic,” one that has no place in an otherwise rational system. Architecture is the “magic of four walls,” he writes, referring to its power to fundamentally transform how certain crimes are judged and how their perpetrators can be sentenced.

In a one-page geometry exercise called “The Burglar in the Suitcase,” columnists Kristyn Wilson and Chris Achong relate the tale of a Polish man—the eponymous burglar—who had been sneaking onto buses at the Barcelona airport by hiding inside a standard traveler’s suitcase. Once the bag was locked in the hold of the bus among the other luggage, he would unzip it from within, rifle through everyone else’s goods, and steal whatever seemed of worth. He’d then curl back up inside his suitcase, zip it closed, and wait for an accomplice to pick him up at the next bus stop.

the Burglary Special Section of the LAPD — a tight crew of veteran detectives assigned to some of the country’s most difficult burglary investigations, from diamond thefts to stolen Picassos

Perhaps your house is close to an on-ramp, bus stop, subway station, or train depot. If so, it is more likely to be burglarized: think of all those strangers coming and going through your neighborhood, given such an easy way to get both in and out. If that just sounds like a cynical attack on public transportation — access to public transit often makes land values fall in parts of Los Angeles out of fear of itinerant criminals

Sliding doors can easily be popped off their tracks without breaking the glass — then just as easily reset upon departure.

Multiple panes can make so much noise when broken and pose so much more of a safety risk that good windows can deter even the bravest criminals. Of course, some burglars will carry a roll of tape, throwing up a quick X across the window glass—as if anticipating a hurricane—before shattering it. That way, broken pieces of glass will just hang there, stuck in a web of tape, far less likely to fall and noisily shatter.

BEWARE OF DOG signs are, in fact, effective deterrents.

Incredibly, as many as 70 percent of residential burglaries are estimated to be committed by drug addicts.

“Capture houses” are fake apartments run by the police to attract and, as their name implies, capture burglars.

What remains so interesting about the idea of a capture house is this larger, abstract notion that the houses, apartments, bars, shops, and businesses standing all around us might be fake, that they exist as a police-monitored surrogate of the everyday world, a labyrinth of law-enforcement stage sets both deceptive and alluring.

No less a figure than legendary magician and escape artist Harry Houdini confirms this in his 1906 book, The Right Way to Do Wrong.

An even more astonishing example of social tracking comes from the case of the jewelry-store owner in Kansas City whose shop was robbed of up to $300,000 worth of merchandise. During the ensuing investigation, police found that the owner’s car had been tagged with a GPS device — even her son’s car had a tag — with the implication that their movements had been tracked for days, if not weeks, as the thieves waited for the perfect moment to strike.

Roman popular culture provided would-be burglars with plenty of ideal opportunities to strike, Toner explained. Consider the astonishing popularity of Rome’s chariot races: it is estimated that nearly 75 percent of the city’s residents would attend the stadium on race days, leaving an all-but-deserted metropolis behind them, its homes unwatched, its private goods there for the taking.

Stanley Kubrick’s early film The Killing, from 1956, in which a heist at the local horse race sets up a disastrous sequence of events for the perpetrators.

Sacking a city was nothing more than militarized burglary — breaking and entering applied to an entire metropolis. Look at Troy, for example, its walls breached, its soldiers deceived by a hollow horse. In retrospect, it’s not entirely inaccurate to suggest that the Trojan War was decided by an ingenious act of burglary now enshrined in popular mythology through the metaphor of the Trojan horse — the original and most consequential burglar’s tool in Western history.


Over the last decade, locksport — the organized recreational picking of locks by amateur enthusiasts — has grown tremendously in countercultural appeal.

Mississippi, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia, where, as of this writing, it is illegal to possess lockpicks.

Indeed, the heavily worn lockpicks used by President Richard Nixon’s burglary crew to break into the Watergate Hotel in 1972 are on display even today as nationally important artifacts in the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.

John M. Mossman Lock Collection at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen in Manhattan.

Towne is attempting to recover—in some cases, even reconceive—patents for locks lost in a catastrophic fire at the U.S. Patent Office in 1836.

Faced with digital smart locks and even biometrics, lock-picking is a weirdly anachronistic activity.

TOOOL describes itself as “a growing group of enthusiasts interested in locks, keys and ways of opening locks without keys,” and now has a handful of chapters around the world. It runs free monthly workshops at various locations throughout the United States, from Austin to Los Angeles, the Bay Area to Philadelphia. Chicago also has a chapter.

Consider the shockingly successful Antwerp diamond heist back in February 2003, when more than $50 million worth of diamonds were stolen from a high-security vault in the center of that city’s well-protected jewelry district. To a great extent, the extraordinary ease with which that crime was carried out came down to simple objects bought from the local hardware store. A broomstick, a brick of polystyrene, some black electrical tape, a can of hair spray: these were enough to subvert and neutralize more than a million dollars’ worth of high-tech security sensors, as if a rewards shopper at Home Depot had somehow managed to rob Fort Knox.

In Canada, he explained, they are known as Crown keys. These are issued to Canada Post workers, used to enter (and deliver mail inside) multiunit apartment buildings. Give a burglar a set of Crown keys, and you’ve given that burglar keys to half the city. Dakswin added that obtaining Crown keys is often the suspected goal whenever a Canada Post worker has been mugged.

He just likes lock-picking. He likes the people; he likes the events, such as Locktoberfest, an annual gathering of locksport enthusiasts who hang out over beer, brats, and padlocks.

In his book The Right Way to Do Wrong, Harry Houdini described the “sofa game.” This was simultaneously “a confidence game and a first-class burglary job,” employing a hollow piece of furniture.

One name came up again and again during my conversations among the lock-pickers: Marc Weber Tobias.

his most famous feat: the alarming discovery of vulnerabilities in Medeco high-security locks, which are relied upon by the U.S. government to secure military and nuclear sites. Tobias is also the author of Locks, Safes, and Security: An International Police Reference, an exhaustive — at times, exhausting — catalog of doors, locks, and the tools used to break them.

Tobias points out, for example, that older combination locks had a significant vibrational vulnerability — they could be vibrated into opening. “This was such a pervasive problem,” he writes, that during long ocean crossings, these “safes used to open themselves on some ships.”

Tobias’s lists and discussions of the tools used for breaking into the built environment are the most relevant here. What is particularly striking about these devices is that, for the most part, they are off-limits to civilians such as you and me. In almost all cases, when I reached out to companies that manufacture these tools, hoping to learn more about their function and clientele, I came up against an emphatic no: without a connection to law enforcement, I was told, I did not have the right to know anything about the equipment. Their sale is also tightly regulated. Merchants as well-known as Gerber, a manufacturer of camping knives and multitools, also have a “tactical” division where many items are marked “Credentials Required.”

The burning bar—also known as a thermal or thermic lance—is an interesting piece of equipment. It was originally developed after World War I to help cut through battlefield ruins, dismantle tanks, and demolish concrete bunkers... Perhaps you’ve seen Michael Mann’s 1981 film, Thief, starring James Caan. Thief includes an extraordinary scene showing this tool in use.

The somewhat obvious implication is that firefighters have at their disposal house-breaking technology that could easily be repurposed for burglary—or that, should you want to commit the ultimate act of breaking and entering, you might want to rob a firehouse first and liberate their best equipment, including elevator keys and tactical cutting-torch kits.

Alizade has been on a tear of design innovation in architectural security. He has developed new, high-strength concrete recipes, mixing bauxite and metal wire into his concrete to form an intensely abrasive, harder-than-rock conglomerate that can resist .50-caliber sniper rounds and wreck almost any drill head applied to it.


Now something of a cult classic among architecture students, The Manhattan Transcripts diagrams a fictional murder in Central Park, implying that the crime could be used to reveal previously unknown or repressed forensic insights about how people really want to use the city, whether or not what they choose to do there is legal. For Tschumi, the murder mystery was as architectural a genre as any other.

Subtly guiding people onto an escalator almost immediately upon entering a casino might seem to be an example of bad architectural design, but it works as an ingenious security protocol. Nearly every visitor to the building dutifully lines up to have his or her picture taken, not just once but multiple times, from nearly every conceivable angle, as people are carried from the entrance to the gaming floor.

thorny plant called trifoliate orange—nicknamed the Rambo bush — is sold as a low-cost living barrier. It is marketed under the name Living Fence. Trifoliate orange is so dense and fast-growing that it can stop speeding vehicles; it is used by the U.S. military to help secure the perimeters of missile silos and armories; and its razor-sharp thorns make it a great fit for domestic security needs.

Kerbel has an eye for criminality and infiltration. She is most well-known for a project called 15 Lombard St., a widely imitated artist’s book that explored what it might take to pull off a bank heist in central London.

The irony here is that even someone such as the psychotic, ax-swinging character Jack Torrance from The Shining still believes in doors: he hacks his way through the Overlook Hotel by way of preexisting routes laid out for him by others. Even Jack Torrance was too timid, hemmed in by architectural convention and unwilling to question the walls that surrounded him. He should have thought more like Bill Mason. A surreal and altogether more terrifying version of The Shining would have been the result, with Jack Torrance hidden somewhere in the hotel, sharpening his ax, unseen — until he comes bashing through the walls again, moving through the building as a burglar would, popping up whenever and wherever everyone else feels most safe.

Die Hard is easily one of the best architectural films of the past three decades; it is, in many ways, a film about the misuse of architecture.


In nineteenth-century Paris, for example, acting under instructions from Emperor Napoléon III, urban administrator Georges-Eugène Haussmann instituted an extraordinarily ambitious series of urban improvements. He ordered the demolition of entire neighborhoods, the erasure of whole streets from the center of Paris, and the widespread replacement of them both with the broad, leafy, and beautiful boulevards Paris is known for today. This was not motivated by aesthetics, however, but was explicitly a police project, a deliberate — and quite successful — effort to redesign the city so that the streets would be too wide to barricade, the back alleys no longer winding or confusing enough for insurgents and revolutionaries to disappear or get away. The urban landscape of Paris became a police tool, its urban core reorganized so aggressively that popular uprisings would henceforth be spatially impossible.

For now, the art of the getaway is still an analog undertaking, one whose most basic outlines date back to a former Prussian military officer named Herman Lamm. In the 1920s, following his emigration to the United States, Lamm developed something like a mathematical science of bank robbery — an ingenious series of clearly defined steps with reproducible results.

Nonetheless, Walter Mittelstaedt points out in his book about Lamm — whom he calls the “father of modern bank robbery” — this kind of militaristic precision and foresight was passed down to a new generation of master burglars, including, most notably, the gang run by legendary bank bandit John Dillinger.

GPS jammers are tiny devices you can plug into a car’s cigarette lighter to flood the immediate area — usually about thirty square feet — with a white noise of radio signals pitched at the exact frequency of the satellite-based Global Positioning System. This makes a car, truck, or even container ship impossible to track using GPS — forcing police to rely on direct, visual observation — with the flick of a simple switch.

As Marc Goodman concludes in Future Crimes, “A confused GPS unit equals a successful heist.”

Think of the bank bandits who, while fleeing Los Angeles police back in September 2012, started throwing handfuls of cash out the windows of their SUV, hoping to clog the road behind them with local residents running out to collect free money.

Even the region’s flight paths have come to influence how criminals use the city, he explained. The heavily restricted airspace around LAX has made the area near the airport a well-known hiding spot for criminals trying to flee by car.

Some successful getaways do leave a trace. Think of an ingenious June 1995 bank heist in Berlin, Germany, where, unbeknownst to the bank’s managers or the city’s police, burglars had dug an escape tunnel for themselves beneath the target vault; rather than enter the bank through this tunnel, however, they saved it for the getaway.

Seen this way, Jason Bourne’s superpower is simply that he uses cities better than you and I; he is the ultimate urbanist, a low-tech master of the getaway.


That we constantly line up to see new films about burglary — or that we buy so many crime novels featuring ingenious ways to break into bank vaults and buildings — suggests that something is fundamentally lacking in our own relationship to the city, and that there is something universally compelling about the abstract idea of breaking and entering.

Burglary reveals that every building, all along, has actually been a puzzle, Stamp said, a kind of intellectual game that surrounds us at all times and that any one of us can play — in fact, that each of us does play, even if that means just sneaking into a girlfriend’s bedroom for a late-night kiss or tiptoeing down the hall to use the bathroom without waking up the rest of the family.