When placemaking becomes placebreaking, bank robber style.

The Unholy Relationship Between Burglary and Architecture

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Placemakers: Nov. 28 2016 2:01 AM

When Good Placemakers Go Bad

Show notes

George Leonidas Leslie was perhaps the most sensational—and successful—criminal in American history. An architect by training, he planned and pulled off a series of record-breaking bank robberies throughout the late 1800s and arguably ushered in the modern heist. On this episode of Placemakers, producer Mike Vuolo explores the unholy relationship between burglary and the built environment.

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Rebecca Sheir

Rebecca Sheir has been a host and reporter on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Splendid Table, and the Alaska Public Radio Network. Follow her on Twitter.


Mike Vuolo

Mike Vuolo is the creator of Lexicon Valley, a Slate podcast and blog about language. For many years he produced WNYC’s On the Media. He is currently working on a new podcast about the First Amendment.


J. North Conway

J. North Conway is the author of 13 books, including a quartet of books about New York City during the Gilded Age: King of Heists, The Big Policeman, Bag of Bones and Queen of Thieves. His other works include American Literary: Fifty Books That Define Our Culture and Ourselves and The Cape Cod Canal: Breaking Through the Bared and Bended Arm.


Geoff Manaugh

Geoff Manaugh is the author of A Burgler’s Guide to the City and founder of BLDGBLOG, a site about architecture and design.

View transcript

Rebecca Sheir: Alleyways and elevator shafts, sewer pipes and subway tunnels, the walls around us and the ceiling above. These are the everyday elements of architecture and infrastructure, so ordinary that we hardly stop to notice them.

But some people, like the man we’ll hear about on today’s show, they don’t just notice these aspects of the built environment, they see them as a puzzle to solve. A code to decipher. They’ll look at a building and see its weaknesses, its hidden entry points, its potential, for exploitation.

George Conway: His reputation within the criminal world grew to such a point that he would take something in the vicinity of a $20,000 consultant’s fee just to go in, lay out plans, and devise ways to rob banks and had even gone as far as San Francisco. And in fact the superintendent of New York City police, George Walling, had said he had been responsible for more than 80 percent of all the bank robberies in the country, either by planning the robberies or carrying them out himself.

Sheir: I’m Rebecca Sheir and from Slate magazine, this is Placemakers: stories about the spaces we inhabit and the people who shape them. Though, today, we won’t be talking about placemaking, so much as placebreaking. Producer Mike Vuolo brings us the incredible story of George Leslie: a trained architect who, eventually, went down a very different path.

Mike Vuolo: It’s hard to say what motivated George Leslie to break bad. Maybe it was the thrill of the heist. Maybe it was the challenge of getting away with it. Or maybe it had something to do with what happened back home in Ohio. Leslie was born into a very well-off Cincinnati family in the early 1840s. He studied architecture, opened his own firm right out of college and got engaged to a society belle named Sarah Lawrence. It was looking to be a pretty cushy life for Leslie but then—the Civil War broke out. Leslie was young and healthy and would have been drafted had he not bought his way out for $300. There’s a biography about Leslie called King of Heists. It was written by a guy named J. North Conway, who says that avoiding the war cost Leslie everything.

Conway: So at the end of the war, men like Leslie, who had paid to get out of military service, found themselves the object of scorn and ridicule and Leslie himself was ostracized by many prominent Cincinnati families and friends and former associates. Another irony of this was that in 1863, a gentleman named Jacob Parrot returned to his hometown in Ohio as a hero and he was the recipient of the first Medal of Honor. Sarah Lawrence’s father has the engagement that his daughter has to Leslie broken off, and subsequently she goes on to marry the war hero, Jacob Parrot.

Vuolo: By the end of the 1860s, both of George Leslie’s parents had died, he was considered a draft dodger, and he had been jilted by his fiancée. So he closed up his architectural firm, sold the family brewery—and reinvented himself as a kind of dandy in a place where a lot of people go when they wanna start over.

Conway: By the time he arrives in New York City, he is well-educated, he’s a handsome man, he’s very meticulous about the way he dresses and the clothes he buys and he has impeccable manners.

Vuolo: Leslie isn’t interested in continuing his architecture career in New York. Instead, he invests a lot of time cultivating his image. He is reputed to have had several handshakes of varying firmness—depending on who he was greeting—that he would practice with a pin cushion. He also had a number of bows of varying depth that he would rehearse in front of a full-length mirror. He rented a room in the exclusive Fifth Avenue Hotel—which was described as “the social, cultural and political hub of elite New York.” The hotel was a popular hangout for what we might now call the Gilded Age robber barons and Leslie immediately fell in with that crowd. He befriended the architect John Roebling, who was just then designing the Brooklyn Bridge. He dined at the ultra-fancy Delmonico’s restaurant with the famous Wall Street guy James Fisk who had just bought an opera house on 23rd Street. But the most influential person that Leslie would meet was not a railroad magnate or a gold speculator. She was a Jewish immigrant on the Lower East Side by the name of Fredericka Mandelbaum—and, for better or worse, she would change the course of Leslie’s life.

Conway: She was known, both in high society and in the criminal world, as a fence.

Vuolo: Now a fence, if you don’t know, is a middleman in the crime world. In this case, a middlewoman. They buy and sell stolen merchandise. Mother Mandelbaum, as people called her, was one of those real-world characters that sounds entirely made up. This is how the New York Times, in her obituary many years later, described her:

Man’s Voice: The woman began her career in this city as the proprietress of a dry goods store at Rivington and Clinton streets, and from this small beginning the establishment blossomed out into the most notorious depot for the reception of stolen goods on this continent. For nearly a quarter of a century she prospered. Her success was in a great measure due to her friendship for and her loyalty to the thieves with whom she did business.

Vuolo: The Times attributed her success not only to this network of pickpockets and burglars but also to the fact that she was able to, as they put it, “pursue her calling without police interference.” In other words, Mandelbaum had the cops on the payroll. She even ran a kind of school on Grand Street where kids were taught various schemes and confidence games. She had warehouses in Brooklyn where she stored a lot of the stolen merchandise, everything from jewelry to furniture. Here’s J. North Conway again.

Conway: Mandelbaum also was famous for throwing these elaborate dinner parties in which you’d find yourself with people like Boss Tweed and newspapermen and judges and police all dining at the same table with known criminals. The only rule she had was: You don’t rob anybody at these dinner parties. So, don’t rob the guests.

Vuolo: It was at one of these parties that Leslie met Mandelbaum, very shortly after he moved to New York, and, I guess you could say they sniffed each other out for the natural born criminals that they both were. Leslie wanted to rob banks but he needed help. Mandelbaum was all ears.

Conway: What he brings to the table is something that she has probably been looking for all this time. He has this architectural background in which he explains: Look, we don’t have to blow things up to get in—we can get floor plans, we can drill into the place, we can find other ways to do it. Mandelbaum seemed to see in Leslie someone who could and would be able to finesse a robbery. No dynamite, no lost loot, no police interference, and no injuries.

Vuolo: The other thing that Leslie brought to the table was an interesting device, recently devised, that he referred to as a Little Joker. It was a small tin wheel with a wire attached to it, which would fit inside the combination dial of any bank safe.

Conway: So he brings this to her explaining: All anyone had to do—and I say all anyone had to do, the “all” is, is a big word—was to take off the dial of any safe, place the Little Joker on the inside of the dial, place the dial back. Now, no one knows it’s in there so when the bank officials open the vault the next day, Leslie’s Little Joker would record where the tumblers stop by making a series of deep cuts into that tin wheel. And the deepest cuts in that wheel would show the actual numbers of the combination.

Vuolo: But in order for this to work Leslie has to get back in the bank. That’s the catch.

Conway: Using the device, it did require a robber to break into the bank twice, once to place the contraption inside the dial of the safe and the second time to go back in and retrieve it. And it was going to take a very special kind of person to accomplish that. Someone with brains. Someone with patience. And someone, obviously, with nerves of steel. And in George Leslie, Mandelbaum saw that person.

Vuolo: So what did Leslie need to pull this off? Well, he needed a target. He chose the Ocean National Bank in Manhattan, for a couple of reasons I’ll get to. It was at the corner of Greenwich and Fulton Streets, which is where the World Trade Center is now. But you can’t exactly case a bank if you’re not a customer. Not without looking suspicious. Leslie became a customer.

Conway: He deposited a large sum of his own money into the bank. Of course, he later took it out before he robbed it but this gave him an ample opportunity in the months leading up to the big heist to visit that bank in the guise of being a new depositor. So he got to meet and become friendly with the bank president. At the same time, every square inch of the bank became familiar to him and he memorized and committed to blueprints the layout of the bank.

Vuolo: He also needed a crew. Mandelbaum, of course, knew people. People with names like

Conway: Johnny Dobbs and Jimmy Hope and Red Leary and Shang Draper.

Vuolo: The last thing Leslie needed was time. In one of Mandelbaum’s Brooklyn warehouses, he built a life-sized replica of the bank vault from his own blueprints. He bought a similar model safe so that Johnny Dobbs could practice using the Little Joker. Everyone in the crew had a part to play and he timed each step so that it ran, literally, like clockwork. He even made them run through the steps in the dark. These were guys who grew up in neighborhoods like Hell’s Kitchen and the Bowery and Five Points. They weren’t used to this sort of meticulous, methodical rehearsing. But in late June of 1869, Leslie declared the crew ready to pull off its first heist. He’d been in New York for only six months.

Vuolo: To think like a bank robber is to look for vulnerabilities, and the Ocean National Bank had two. It was on the first floor of a five-story brownstone and the basement had office space available. One of the crew members, Jimmy Hope, posed as an insurance agent looking to rent.

He got a room with a door that opened onto Fulton Street and a large sign on it that said “Newcomb and O’Neill” in gold letters. It didn’t say “Phony Insurance Business,” but that’s what it was, right below the bank.

Leslie furnished the office with a cabinet that he bought from a magic shop on Broadway. It had a false back, a place to stash tools and gear leading up to the robbery.

Vulnerability No. 2: The would-be robbers needed an inside man at the bank, someone with access to the vault. As it happens, the bank needed an evening janitor, someone to sweep up after closing. A pickpocket in Mandelbaum’s stable, a kid named Johnny Irving, got the job. He would be able to let the crew into the bank Monday through Friday. But King of Heists author J. North Conway says that Leslie was determined that the robbery occur not on a weekday but over the weekend.

Conway: If they robbed it on Saturday into Sunday the bank wouldn’t open up ‘til Monday, which would give them two full days’ head start to liquidate the gold or jewels or cash or security bonds before the bank even knew that they had been robbed.

Vuolo: So here’s the plan. On a weeknight before the heist, Johnny Irving, the janitor, will sneak into the bank Johnny Dobbs, who will install the Little Joker. Shang Draper, dressed as a woman—in a costume Leslie borrowed from his friend’s opera house—will stand lookout on the street. On Saturday, the crew will enter “Newcomb and O’Neill,” the basement office, and get to work.

Conway: They drill through what would be in the basement their ceiling—the floor of the bank—and they end up having direct access to the bank vault and the safe.

Vuolo: Everything worked just as Leslie envisioned. Here’s how the New York Times later described it.

Man’s Voice: In a corner, behind a desk, a hole about two feet square had been cut through the floor from the office of the supposed insurance agent below. The opening had been effected by repeated borings of a large augur. Ceiling plaster was scattered around; the wardrobe was open and showed several burglars’ tools, and upon a table was a quantity of sandwiches, left by the thieves as a part of their sustenance during the prolonged operations.

Vuolo: This is the biggest heist New York has ever seen, and the media is immediately enthralled. The Tuesday after the robbery, the New York Herald publishes a long article, gushing over every detail of the crime scene.

Man’s Voice: The tools which the “machinists” left behind, after securing their golden spoils, included an immense jackscrew, a smaller jackscrew, ten saws, a number of wedges, several copper sledges to deaden the sound, a variety of drills, dark lanterns, two improved pulleys, numerous wrenches, four jimmies made to unscrew in the middle, augurs and bits, several blouses and overalls such as are used by mechanics, and which were saturated with sweat from the bodies of the operators, three pairs of rubber overshoes, to enable them to move about noiselessly, a rope to tie the porter if necessary and handcuffs to secure him or other officials who might disturb their operations. The entire kit comprises fully 400 pieces, which, experts say, is one of the finest collections they have ever seen. This is generally admitted to be the most ingenious burglary ever perpetrated on the continent, and one that is likely to call out the latent energy of the entire force to fathom.

Conway: And they made off with some $800,000. Not a shot’s been fired, not a single person is injured, not a stick of dynamite is used. Considering all of those elements, the newspapers actually gave him credit. The New York Herald made the proclamation that it was a masterful bank job pulled off by one very special bank robber.

Vuolo: Over the following decade, Leslie would establish himself as the pre-eminent planner of bank robberies in America. That stat you heard at the very beginning, about Leslie being responsible for maybe 80 percent of all bank robberies in the country? That was from George Walling, who was the equivalent of today’s New York City police commissioner. But during Leslie’s lifetime, no one ever suspected he was a criminal mastermind. He was cautious and deliberate in his work but reckless in other ways. Under the name George Howard, he married a young woman he reportedly adored—he told her he worked for the Internal Revenue Agency—yet he had many mistresses. Leslie kept drilling through ceilings until, finally, the floor fell out.

Conway: At the time of his death, which was in May, 1878, he had been carrying on an illicit affair with, of all people, the wife of one of his gang members, Shang Draper. From the world of you-couldn’t-make-this-up-if-you-wanted-to, her name was Babe, B-A-B-E. Draper found out that Leslie and his wife were carrying on an affair and he actually lures George Leslie to his death by getting his wife to write a note to Leslie, asking if they could have a rendezvous. He was at Murphy’s Saloon in Brooklyn and someone approached Leslie and gave him the note and he recognized the handwriting as that of Babe Draper, so he leaves the bar. And that’s the last time anybody saw him alive and in June 1878 Leslie’s body is discovered at the foot of Tramp’s Rock in Mott’s Woods, just three miles out of Yonkers.

Vuolo: Leslie was shot twice, once in the heart and once in the head. His identity and the fact of his double-life were immediately uncovered by the police. In fact, it was Mandelbaum and a couple of her associates who identified his body. The New York Times wrote that she was “visibly affected while looking upon the features of the dead burglar.” Someone else was there too at the undertaker’s shop, said the paper, though it’s not clear who. He was identified simply as “a respectable man who had known Leslie while alive, but was ignorant of his true character.”

Sheir: Now, if George Leslie’s story sounds at all familiar, it’s because he inaugurated what we now think of as the modern heist. Floor plans, blueprints, costumes. Even the dapper ringleader. We’ve all seen countless pop culture depictions of robbery—from the Ocean movies to Inside Man to Quick Change. And the common thread among all these stories is the clever exploitation of architecture.

Coming up after the break, we fast-forward to the near present and learn more about the unholy symbiosis between the built environment, and burglary.

Sheir: From Slate magazine, it’s Placemakers. I’m Rebecca Sheir.

Before the break we heard the story of George Leslie: a man who used his specialized knowledge to undo the architectural world around him.

Think about if you had such specialized knowledge. Many cities have a buried network of tunnels and pipes and culverts, secret passageways—like wormholes between one neighborhood and another. What if you could navigate that underground maze unseen? Here again is Placemakers producer Mike Vuolo.

Vuolo: Since George Leslie’s time, banks have naturally gotten wise to the whole basement-vulnerability issue. But in June of 1986 a group was able to rob a bank with nothing below the vault but the foundation and the earth. It stood at the corner of Sunset and Spaulding in Los Angeles.

Manaugh: These guys, and it’s assumed that they were men, found a storm water tunnel capturing all of the rainwater and the runoff from the Hollywood Hills and then brought it down underneath the city into this labyrinth of pipes that eventually goes down to the sea.

Vuolo: This is Geoff Manaugh. He’s the author of A Burglar’s Guide to the City, which is where I found out about this heist, pulled off by what FBI now calls the Hole in the Ground Gang. And their technique? It puts George Leslie to shame.

Manaugh: They were able to get down there and find a place where they could set up a kind of digging camp and they were then able to dig about a block into the basement’s vault of a bank and actually robbed the bank from below. At one point, in fact, the FBI thought that maybe these were disgruntled employees of the Department of Water and Power because they understood the storm sewer network so well, even though they’re actually riding these Suzuki four wheelers that you might take off into a national forest for the weekend. They’re driving these things underground in pipes that are barely wider than the four wheelers themselves. They’re using those to bring their tools down, these big drilling equipment, et cetera. But also, when they came back about a year later and they actually tried to rob two banks simultaneously from underground and were interrupted in the act—their escape route was actually a seven-mile underground ride from the location of the bank all the way down to this thing in Los Angeles called Ballona Creek, which is one of those outdoor concreted over waterways in L.A. But the fact that they knew how to ride these four wheelers underground for seven miles and they knew that they could get away. They knew that they weren’t barreling up a dead end. That there were no locked gates. That there were no debris in the way, et cetera. It really shows that they knew the city with a kind of granularity that could be used against that city in order to become these super burglars that they became.

Vuolo: Now, if you or I tried to dig a tunnel a block long—at least 100 feet—up through the earth, it would probably collapse. So the FBI suspects that maybe these guys had experience in the mining industry. They understood soil compaction and the physics of the earth. They were also, Manaugh says, pretty damn good electricians.

Manaugh: One of the ways that the bank employees began to suspect that something was happening was that all of these strange electrical disturbances began to occur inside the bank. The lights would flicker on and off. At one point one of the managers was there late at night and then all of a sudden the Muzak turned on. There was no evidence that anybody was in the vault, that anybody had broken in, so the security team said just don’t worry about it.

Vuolo: Because they were underneath the vault. In the ground.

Manaugh: Exactly. So at one point the employees began joking that the bank had a poltergeist which I think is really funny, but what became evident after the crime was that these guys had also been tapping into the bank’s own electrical power and wiring up their digging machines to the underground cables for the bank. What they were powering were things like a concrete coring tool that after they’d used it to drill upward basically into the vault and open up a kind of manhole sized space so they could crawl up into it. After they had done this and they got away with the crime and the FBI took photographs of the concrete coring work and showed it to local technicians and said, “Hey, have you ever seen anything like this?” Apparently they were so good that even some of them actually according to the FBI whistled with admiration. They were a really talented group of guys.

Vuolo: I almost wish that George Leslie and the Hole in the Ground Gang could somehow team up in some alternate universe and become this unstoppable force for evil.

Manaugh: Or good. But yeah, that would be a pretty unstoppable group of super burglars.

Vuolo: Let’s take a step back for a moment. For an architect like George Leslie—or utility workers if that’s what the Hole in the Ground Gang were—to become a burglar is sort of like a firefighter becoming an arsonist. In other words, burglary is an architectural violation. Literally. Architecture is baked right into the very definition of the crime. The original description of burglary, in old Saxon times, was very specific. A burglar was someone who “in the night time breaketh and entereth into a, house of another, of intent to kill some reasonable creature, or to commit some other felony, whether his felonious intent be executed or not.” Let’s take that apart for a moment. The crime involved breaking, entering, at night, a house or dwelling, of another person (since you can’t burglarize your own home). Burglary had to involve something called “felonious intent.” So it was a pretty specific crime under the law back then. But the definition of burglary has gotten wider and wider over the centuries. A legal theorist named Minturn Wright wrote a paper in the 1950s lamenting just that. For instance, “breaking” no longer requires force. Simply opening an unlocked door became breaking. Nighttime became any time. Even entering was no longer “entering,” says Geoff Manaugh, who told me about an another criminal who, technically at least, committed burglary.

Manaugh: His fingertip crossed the windowsill as he was trying to jimmy the window open. And even though he was caught before physically entering, by our standard definition of entry, that fingertip and the fact that it broke the outer plane of the building was enough to get him nabbed for burglary. And so it turns into this really strange argument over whether or not something is inside or outside. At heart, that’s the kind of conversation you’d expect to find in a, maybe like an avant-garde architectural theory course at an Ivy League university where everybody is lost on talking about how many angels are on the head of a pin. But instead, it’s this argument about interiors that is taking place in courts of law and taking place inside police stations and then of course obviously in the legal literature as well.

Vuolo: This idea of an interior and an exterior can get pretty absurd, as Manaugh suggests. When exactly have you entered a structure? And what is a structure anyway? Does it have to have four walls. Not exactly. To help figure out whether someone has committee burglary, the law has invented a concept called “breaking the close.”

Manaugh: If you break the enclosure of private property what you’re doing is violating this plane that is defined by law and otherwise invisible to you and I, but lawyers can see it. When you see something like a Jeep Wrangler parked on a street without its top on or even a convertible parked on the street without its top up, what’s to prevent someone from just reaching in and grabbing something and just taking that umbrella out of the back seat. And so if the top of the Jeep was there that’s considered this geometric plane that defines inside from outside. Where that becomes really complex and interesting from an architectural point of view is when you start considering things like a screened in porch that maybe doesn’t have screens installed. Well legally speaking that surface, those screens, are still present and that’s considered the close. What that leads to is this sort of bewildering efflorescence of arguments about where that limit might be. You can imagine, and in fact this has happened in some cases, where if somebody puts an ornamental gate at the edge of a garden and somebody walks through that ornamental gate, technically speaking that’s breaking the close and so now they are inside even though they’re still outside. Defining, locating, describing, and getting invisible shapes entered into a court of law becomes a strange key part of this whole burglary equation.

Vuolo: OK, not doubt about it, George Leslie broke the close. So did the Hole in the Ground Gang and it wouldn’t be necessary to contrive some elaborate, invisible shape to prove that. But burglary has ballooned into a kind of catch-all crime that Manaugh calls a “magic augmentation spell” for prosecutors. Think about it. Most crime takes place in or near an architectural structure, invisible or not. So just about any felony can also be burglary. Heck, just overstay your welcome somewhere and commit a crime. Congratulations. You’ve just added burglary to your rap sheet.

Manaugh: Burglary is defined as well as “surreptitious remaining,” which is a legal phrase I really like—which is that, for example, after this interview is over and if you escort me to the door but I don’t actually leave the building and I surreptitiously remain here and next thing you know it’s 1 o’clock in the morning, if I have the intention to commit these other types of crimes that are nonviolent I could still be charged with burglary. And so examples of those which I think are quite funny: check fraud is a felony; tax evasion is a felony. So if I were to pretend that I was maybe mailing retail goods out of state whilst signing checks that I couldn’t back up or were on someone else’s accounts and I did it here at 1 o’clock in the morning without permission because I surreptitiously remained here, technically speaking I’ve committed burglary. You can see from that example I think that burglary really has kind of lost the plot as my wife would say. There isn’t a common thread that connects these other than the fact that vaguely somewhere out there’s an architectural space that that person was in at the time and that’s why I think Minturn Wright was responding with such exhaustion to where burglary law has gone.

Vuolo: So let’s tie this all together. From the perspective of a placemaker who designs buildings and infrastructure, what’s interesting about George Leslie and the Hole in the Ground Gang and people like them is their ability to conjure a way into a structure that is unintuitive. I brought up that codemaking analogy to Manaugh. A good codemaker at the National Security Agency, say, has to think like a codebreaker—and vice versa. In other words, to create something that is secure, you have to imagine the ways in which it’s not.

Manaugh: Yeah, and that’s one of the things that really drew me to this topic in the first place. You know, coming out of the world of architecture and design you become very used to the notion that there is a set way to use the built environment. That we are meant to go through the doors that an architect puts there for us. We use the streets in the way that we’re meant to by urban planners or by the police. But there are these other people out there who are engaging with the exact same things that everyone else is seeing, but they’re using them in these incredibly different and albeit illegal but very creative ways. And so it fascinates me that somebody like George Leonidas Leslie would look at a building and realize that the best way to get from one room to the next isn’t through a door at all, but though the wall or maybe through the floor or maybe through the ceiling.

Vuolo: It’s like a criminal game of parkour.

Manaugh: Exactly. I sometimes say it’s as if there is this three-dimensional puzzle that has been surrounding us all along, but only a handful of people are actually brave enough to try to solve it. And so the Hole in the Ground Gang is kind of the same thing. They look at the infrastructure of Los Angeles, they look at the streets, they look at where the banks are, and they realize that in fact everything is already connected. It’s connected from below. That you can get from one neighborhood to the next without ever seeing daylight. That you can connect to the city in a way that even the FBI themselves weren’t expecting. Their own reaction actually when they realized how the Hole in the Ground Gang had gotten away almost bordered on psychedelia. There’s this realization of, My God the earth is hollow beneath us, that there might be tunnels everywhere. And in fact William Rehder, the FBI agent, had this great reaction of comparing it to feeling as if he was standing atop a prairie dog village and that there might be tunnels into banks all over West Los Angeles. There could be a dozen other banks right now that are being robbed from below and that we simply can’t see the activity.

Vuolo: Let’s return to that image of “criminal parkour” for a moment. I’m reminded of that scene in Casino Royale. Daniel Craig is chasing Sébastien Foucan through a construction site in Madagascar, the steel skeleton of a high-rise surrounded by tall cranes as the two men jump over, under and around everything in their way. It’s actual parkour on an actual architectural site. Placemaking and placebreaking occurring simultaneously. Something tells me George Leslie would be right at home in a Bond movie.

Rebecca Sheir: Our episode today was produced by Mike Vuolo and Matthew Schwartz.

Special thanks to Geoff Manaugh, author of A Burglar’s Guide to the City, and J. North Conway, who’s written a number of books about New York’s Gilded Age, including King of Heists, about George Leslie, and Queen of Thieves, about Fredericka Mandelbaum.

Placemakers is a production of Slate magazine and is produced by Mia Lobel, Dianna Douglas, and Michael Vuolo, and edited by Julia Barton. Our researcher is Matthew Schwartz. Eric Shimelonis does our mixing and musical scoring. Our theme was composed by Robin Hilton. Steve Lickteig is our executive producer. I’m Rebecca Sheir.

For more information about today’s show and other episodes of Placemakers, go to Slate.com/placemakers. You can drop us a line at placemakers@slate.com. And follow us on Twitter: Our handle is @SlatePlacemaker.

Coming up next time on Placemakers:

Most planners will tell you a well-designed city is built of, by, and for the people: It’s pedestrian-friendly, community-oriented, and full of mixed-use development. But what if we could do the same not just for cities, but everywhere?

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk: We have always tried to say it’s not rocket science. It’s something that everybody can get to know. Because we understand the benefits for community, for the environment, even the economic benefits of working in this way.

Sheir: We’ll meet the internationally renowned architect, urban designer, and planner who’s saying goodbye to cookie-cutter suburbs and McMansions, and hello to New Urbanism. A conversation with Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, on the next—and final—episode of Placemakers.

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