Which neighbourhoods are dangerous, and which ones offer safe places to walk? I happen to be in possession of a great deal of evidence on this subject, but it is all low-grade evidence – participant observation growing out of the fact that, since I was 15 years old, in 1956, a favourite past-time has been walking the streets of cities wherever I happened to be, and observing whatever there was to see. The evidence I’ve gathered in these observations, though purely anecdotal, is interesting, because it contradicts almost everything I have ever been told about personal danger in cities, and therefore suggests a question for research.
In order to explain the findings from my observation, I have to provide some personal background. About the time I began to take an interest in city streets, my older sister, who has spent most of her adult life as a professional editor living in New York City, married a young New York lawyer. Because my sister and I are white, and her new husband was an African-American, there were, in 1950s America, very few places where they could expect to live openly and in peace as a racially integrated couple. So they settled in one of the exceptions to that rule, Morningside Gardens, a racially integrated, middle-class co-operative housing development a few blocks from Columbia University on Manhattan’s upper west side, and just two blocks from 125th Street, the main drag of Harlem.
Conventional wisdom had it that 125th Street was a prime example of the kind of street where it was not safe for a white person to walk, but from my sister’s experience, and soon from my own, I learned that the conventional wisdom was wrong. The rules on 125th Street, as I learned to understand them, were the same as they were in my hometown: Don’t make a point of looking at people, but don’t avoid their eyes either, don’t point fingers, and don’t show fear – in other words, “act normal”.
Some years later, I was a graduate student doing research on the politics of land in Kenya, a subject that eventually became the topic of a book and a series of articles. Even before I went to Kenya, and many times after I arrived, I was warned, by white people and occasionally by Africans, that danger lurked everywhere, but especially in every place that was frequented by poor Africans. In Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, I was first introduced to a phenomenon that has become an increasingly common feature of cities. I call it the tourist bubble, an area of the city marked by fine buildings, well-kept streets and parks and very little evidence of poverty – an area very different from the rest of the city. This, I was given to understand, was the safe part of the city.
My research in Africa was to consist of participant observation, personal interviews and document collection in areas frequented by poor people, so I knew from the outset that I would have to choose between heeding the warnings and doing my research. Thanks in part to my earlier experiences in Harlem, it was an easy choice. In fact, it was a relief, and a wonderful learning experience, to escape the atmosphere of fearfulness that pervaded the expatriate community, to learn Swahili and to learn, once again, that people are just people, and that they do not generally differ fundamentally from each other according to the place where they happen to be located, or even according to their income.
As a result of these experiences, it became my habit to ignore warnings of danger in cities, to walk the streets that are supposed to be off limits. In almost 50 years of doing that, I’ve learned a great deal about cities that I might not have known otherwise. In all those years, I’ve never been attacked and, as best I can remember, I’ve been victimized by thieves six times. That doesn’t seem to me to suggest a lifetime of taking foolish risks, but even more significant is the fact that only one of those times did the theft take place in an area inhabited by poor people. (I lost my wallet to a pickpocket in a crowded room in a small town in Kenya.) All the other times, the theft took place, either in Nairobi’s tourist bubble, or in the middle-class area where I lived (once in student housing in Syracuse, New York, and twice in the back lane behind my current home in Winnipeg).
In short, my experience suggests that, contrary to conventional wisdom, city streets are not particularly dangerous places, but that the danger that does exist, exists mainly in affluent areas. Is that experience representative of reality? This is a question that, to the best of my knowledge, has not been researched, but it could be, using crime statistics, surveys, or more detailed ethnographic methods. Such a study could focus, either on a sample of different types of neighbourhoods in particular cities, or on categories of neighbourhoods in a large number of cities. The key would be to separate out random violence from such things as family violence, gang violence and drug-related violence – which would not be targeted at strangers walking streets at random – and to do a count of the incidence of different types of random violence in different neighbourhoods. Such a study would pose a number of methodological problems, but not ones that are likely to be irresolvable.
There is no doubt that many terrible things happen in poor neighbourhoods. Newspapers provide disquietingly graphic accounts every day. It is equally beyond question that a substantial proportion of the crime in low-income neighbourhoods is not random. People are targeted by others who know them, victimized by drug dealers, abusive family members, or ordinary bullies. None of this is likely to affect a stranger passing through the neighbourhood.
If the findings of research that distinguished between random and targeted crime confirmed my purely anecdotal findings, or even showed that the level of danger on the streets of low-income neighbourhoods is lower than we imagine it to be, it might give us all a good reason to be a little less fearful of cities, other people and neighbourhoods we have not seen. If so, it could enrich the life experience of others in the same way mine has been enriched by walking the streets that children of privilege are taught to fear.
Want to find out more? A related article on the issue of street safety is: Evan Lowenstein, What do we mean by “safe”?