Urban Perception (Part Two)

"So how do you live down there?" I'm never sure how to answer that question. Just the other night another suburbanite posed the question to me, thoroughly amazed by our urban lifestyle. It's always difficult for me to articulate the appropriate response. Snarkiness would be the most fun way to reply, but it wouldn't be useful. Or I could respond with a guilt inducing statement, such as, "At least I GOT TO CHOOSE to live down here." But my standard response is to merely reveal to them that I feel safe living here.

As a resident, I can attest that it's just not that bad living in the city; as long as you and the people in your household are not engaged in illegal drug trafficking, then you're going to be relatively fine. But, unfortunately, crime does take place here. And it's that crime that causes people to perceive entire communities like ours as dangerous.

So if people avoid Walnut Hills because it's unsafe, what exactly IS safe?

Is it an absence of crime? Is it the ability to leave my front door unlocked over night? Is it the removal of blight from my eyesight? I'd suggest that, for most people, it's an inexplicable state. It's a simple feeling that puts you at ease. An example of this: I spent a few days in downtown Indianapolis last summer for a convention and quite a few people commented to me how they felt safer there than in downtown Cincinnati. I tried to get an explanation as to why, and they couldn't cite any discernible fact. It was just a feeling. Personally, as I've only been urinated upon in one of these areas, I continue to view my town as safer. Still, it is this perceived safety that determines whether or not we will tolerate an area.

It's the perception of safety is the main reason that people prefer the suburbs; when I am safe, the thinking goes, I can let my guard down and feel comfortable. When I lived in a suburban context, many of my daily actions were on autopilot. I wouldn't think twice whether or not I was in a bad part of the 'burbs. The ability to function without thought towards safety allowed me to live life differently. I was, in essence, freer.

But safety is a fleeting concept and must be maintained through effort; there are always threats. In a suburban mindset, maintenance of safety is mostly spatial: if I can keep a buffer zone between myself and what I perceive to be dangerous, I am safe. And this is why the NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) reaction is so prevalent in suburban communities.

A local example: recently, the conversation about public housing in Cincinnati has increased. Some suburban communities that accepted federal funds are going to be forced to increase their number of public housing options, including the Section 8 voucher program. These suburbs are vowing to fight this expansion (even though they have no legal recourse) because they see it as an affront to their way of life. Understand the thinking behind this: increased poverty nearby brings increased crime and a loss of safety. One of these communities is Green Township, the suburb in which I grew up, and a community already losing the safety buffer. Suburban sprawl, which resulted in the net-growth of these community, continues to lead people to resettle further and further from the city core, maintaining this spatial separation of safety.

It's not just happening in Cincinnati; it's an American phenomenon, assisted by the vast amount of land in our nation. With few natural borders to stop it, people can (and will) keep sprawling.

But, eventually, something is going to give.

We've seen it happen in the American southwest, where McMansions sit vacant (and some are subdivided for government housing). Maybe it will be the long commutes, or the flooded housing market, or the revival of the inner-city, or the escalating price of petroleum—whatever the case, people will no longer be able to keep their safety buffer zone. They will be forced to come face-to-face with the very thing they tried to escape.

So if this perception of safety is fleeting, how, then, do we live? More on that soon.