Urban Perception (Part One)

Some things set me off more quickly than others. This past weekend, the Cincinnati Enquirer published an article concerning the merging of municipal services of some of our region's smaller towns and villages. No big deal, really; it's an economic reality in this day and age. But while the article was mediocre, the introductory paragraph that caught my eye. It read:

"After enduring the frequent Bang! Bang! Bang! of gunshots while living in Walnut Hills, Phillip and Erin Smith wanted to move to a safer but affordable community."

And there you go.

It might not seem like much to you, but it was a very big deal to me. That opinion statement about my neighborhood, delivered as fact, continues to mesh into our metropolitan's psyche. I know that the vast majority of Greater Cincinnatians have never ventured into Walnut Hills out of fear. They somehow think it's godless Gotham in need of a Dark Knight. But I know dozens of people in this neighborhood who absolutely love living here and wouldn't think of living anyplace else. So I shot off this letter to the editor:

The Enquirer's stereotypical opinion of our region's urban communities is tiring. In a recent article about the merging of municipal services, reporter Steve Kemme utilizes his opening paragraph to continue this negative polemic. By describing Philip and Erin Smith's move to "a safer but affordable community," and by using the onomatopoetic, "Bang! Bang! Bang!" he likens my neighborhood of Walnut Hills to the lawless Wild West. It could not be further from the truth.

I have lived in Walnut Hills for six years now and have rarely heard actual gunshots. In the summer months, you might hear children setting off fireworks that, to the untrained ear, can be confused as gunfire. I heard guns discharged much more frequently when we lived in Cincinnati's northern suburbs than I have living in the inner-city. And our dropping crime statistics attest that Walnut Hills is much safer than local media would ever care to report.

My wife and I are excited to be raising our five-year-old daughter in Walnut Hills. While some may not view it as attractive as a secluded suburban enclave, it is our paradise. Living among a socio-economically, racially, and ideologically diverse people presents us with unique opportunities that cannot be quantified. Throwaway insults, which denigrate neighborhoods like ours, continue to prove that this newspaper is out of touch.

Steve Carr, Walnut Hills

They posted my letter in their online edition and it elicited several responses. Nearly all of them were typical for when such an opinion is stated.

"Walk down the sidewalk outside Walnut Hills Kroger along MacMillan then get back to me."

Good suggestion. Actually, I do walk there very much. I've never had any problems with anyone.

"Maybe there's a lot of background noise by Steve's residence or possible he has his house for sale. What ever it is, his reason for living there smacks of balderdash."

No background noise that I'm aware of. Now we did have the house for sale last year. We were trying to exchange the house for a condo, staying in Walnut Hills. But I still don't fully understand the rationale behind that comment. Still, kudos for using the word, "balderdash."

And, finally, my personal favorite: "Well Stevie, I live in New Haven and NEVER hear gunshots. You only hear them 'rarely'/ Isn't that still too much????"

I love how he calls me "Stevie." We must be friends. But let's focus in on this response.

I have been to New Haven. It's a blip of a town outside Harrison, Ohio. You're a good ten minutes drive into civilization (if you consider Harrison as such), but you're basically living rurally. Chances are, this anonymous commenter was reared in a rural/suburban environment and moved out to New Haven to get the best of both worlds: living secluded but within distance of amenities. The commenter preferred to live in a safe place, removed from the possibility of harm. This is his (making the assumption that the commenter is male) paradise.

To him, Walnut Hills is the antithesis of this dream. So not only does he choose his lifestyle, but he feels obligated to take pot shots at communities like mine because it affirms the decision he made. This New Havenite is not alone in this position. Read the forums on local media websites and you will observe all sorts of vitriol against urban areas. And, in my opinion, the Cincinnati Enquirer panders towards this position. It is people like this commenter who consume their product. And, in an anemic newspaper market, sales takes precedent over objectivity. If you were to spend a week trolling Cincinnati media, you would find numerous examples of this perspective interwoven in news stories, painting the inner-city in a negative light.

"But the inner-city is where the crime is taking place," the cynic responds.

I will agree, to a point. While violent crime obviously occurs in urban areas, it does not discriminate by context; for example, just weeks after we moved to Walnut Hills, a young girl was murdered within half-a-mile of our former suburban abode. While these stories are reported, the media tends to paint stronger connections between crime and community in the inner-city than it does elsewhere. And even though it's subtle, it's a subliminal message that will entrench itself into viewers' minds. Don't believe me? Watch your local news and be on the look out for the easiest sound byte a reporter can get is, "I can't believe it could happen here."

Of course they can't. Because they've become inclined to believe that crime can only happen where it's supposed to: in "those bad neighborhoods." And that's why they chose instead to live in their safe community. So when crime comes to their front yard, they're shocked. This reality on which they've based their life now has gaping holes. Paradise lost.

All of this gets me to the issue I want to wrestle with: how does our perception of safety affect our lives?

More on this soon.