Occasionally, someone will ask me if it’s safe to go to Harlem. Or if it’s safe to go to Riverside Park. Or Morningside Park. Or if it’s safe to leave campus. Or their room. I tend to look at them like this.
No, really, I’m pretty sure this is an exact face I’ve made. Unless I’m laughing.
If, however, they asked me if it was safe to leave their bed, I’d probably say no, because a comfortable bed is second to no place on this earth. But once you’re up and out and in the world, you had best be actually living in, exploring, and engaging with that world.
Often, what makes something seems dangerous is what we don’t know about it---or worse yet, what we’ve heard about it. The stereotypes. The sensationalist news pieces. We get our information from worried parents or shows like SVU, which, let’s be entirely honest, is still worth every second.
Especially in New York, much of our fear comes from the reality of decades ago, back when New York really was unsafe in a lot of ways. But only some stereotypes have stuck around. Midtown is now so family friendly! It’s totally safe! You can take the train and leave your apartment and all sorts of pleasant things like that. Brooklyn is up and coming, the Village is mad chill. But mention the Bronx, or Inwood, or any of those areas that are yet to be gentrified...
Let’s think about this for a second. When you’re walking on the street, and that chill suddenly passes over you---your body gets tight, your heart beats a little faster, maybe you clench something in your pocket or your purse. Where are you?
For me, it can happen anywhere. This little fear, this moment is this: Will I fight? As a woman, it can happen everywhere: when I’m alone at night, when I have to walk through a group of guys in the middle of the day, when someone walks too close to me on the train, when someone looks at me for too long on the street. The real danger in the places we visit are too often tied into our identities---our clothing, our race, our gender, our class, our ability.
I’ll be walking on the Upper East Side in the middle of the day and I’ll cross a street and spot two men leaning against a building or standing outside an office having a smoke and I’ll get nervous---but that’s because I’m a woman. Walking on my own block at night at home, in Queens, I can feel my heart start to beat faster the moment I hear someone walking nearby. Cutting through a deserted park, even in broad daylight, keeps me on edge. But that’s unique to who I am, to my experiences---a quick Google search of "person alone in the park" doesn’t show images of fear or crime but rather, this:
Yeah, that’s a website for Facebook cover photos.
There are reasons some areas are less safe than others. We can throw out lots of statistics to show that. From 2003 to 2011, more homicides were reported in Brooklyn than in any other borough. In November of this year, Midtown Manhattan experienced more crimes per person than any other police precinct. They’re interesting, informative, and (weirdly) kind of fun. But how many of us are basing our perceptions of where is safe and where isn’t on these maps, on actual statistics? How much do those statistics even matter?
“Sorry, friend, I can’t go wait for Student Rush tickets with you, Midtown is statistically less safe than Morningside Heights, so I think I’m just gonna stay here” isn’t something I’ve ever heard anyone say, but man, if I had a dollar for every time someone called the "outskirts" of our own community or outer borough areas “sketchy."
It’s important to be safe, but that requires being aware, being sensible, and being careful wherever we are. Avoiding unfamiliar areas does little to protect us from danger, but goes a long way in narrowing our experiences of the city in which we live in and the people to whom we are exposed.