Thursday, June 2, 2005

"It's the Fear"

A lot of people have talked to me about the piece I wrote about neighborhoods for the News & Record a while back; most of them have said things like "I'd like to live in a neighborhood like that," or "I wish my neighborhood had sidewalks." (Those that don't like my ideas, I think, say things like, "I saw you in the paper," or say nothing at all. I appreciate their tact.)

But one old friend broached the subject, and put her finger on one reason why neighborhoods have changed so much in the past 50 years. "It's the fear," she said.

She lives in Sunset Hills, which is one of Greensboro's most beautiful and well-maintained old neighborhoods. Built in the 1920s, it has sidewalks, trees, services nearby, and houses with front porches and walkways, some modest, some magnificent. It is prime Greensboro real estate. But she says many parents there won't let their kids play outside or walk to school, mostly out of fear of abduction or sexual molestation.

And as beautiful as Sunset Hills is, a few shady characters do sometimes drift through it; in fact, a rather suspicious door-to-door solicitor approached me and my friend there once when we were conversing on the sidewalk, and he was a little threatening when I refused to contribute. I've had similar encounters in my own neighborhood, too, and I know it happens in other urban neighborhoods.

Many parents react to this by moving to far-flung suburbs where there is a perception (and maybe a reality) of greater safety, and it's hard to blame them. Some of these folks don't want sidewalks precisely because they want to make it hard for perceived low-lifes to wander around.
But "congregat[ing] in exclusive communities walled in by the invisible fence of real estate prices" has its own social costs, as David Brooks points out, chief among them an increasing inequity between "educated elite and the undereducated masses." Kids who grow up in exclusive communities often end up in exclusive colleges "where they are given the social and other skills to extend class hegemony." Kids who don't, don't.

If I didn't believe that fear of crime in Greensboro's urban neighborhoods was mostly overblown, I wouldn't have stayed in one for 11 years and raised my kids there. On the whole, I'm happy I did it. But in the age of John Walsh and Amber Alerts, it can be hard to persuade other people to do the same.


Anonymous said...

"But she says many parents there won't let their kids play outside or walk to school, mostly out of fear of abduction or sexual molestation."

This is why our neighborhoods are dying, in many cases, I think. In my day, "go outside and play" was what we did. Nowadays, I think you can be arrested if you send your child outside unsupervised. We are all fearful all the time and our trust of neighbors has diminished (in general, not in Hoggfest, the thing everyone secretly is craving, the getting together with neighbors and having friends who live nearby).

Parents meet often through children who are "outside playing," and then barbecues are born. Sidewalks aren't critical (but help). Someplace central to "hang out" is important.

Our families hunger for neighborhood that was; fear has replaced "go outside and play."

Anonymous said...

Yes, sadly, people are afraid to let their kids out now. But, sexual molestation happened back in the 70's and 80's when I was growing up as well - people just didn't talk about it as much. It happened in small towns and big cities. I don't think it's anything new. And, a great deal of the time it's not even done by a stranger, it's done by somebody that is known to the family, often a friend or family member. As for living far out so you can feel safe, that doesn't always work, either. I remember back in 1992, I think - sometime around then, there was a little girl, 12 years old, from Upstate NY who lived in a rural area. She was riding her bike along a rural road when she was kidnapped. She was never seen again. A man named Lewis Lent was convicted of murdering her, but her body was never found. Horrible. But, this happened out in the middle of nowhere where this type of stuff isn't supposed to happen.

Personally, I feel safer when I'm around people. I don't like to be so far away from people that nobody can hear me if I need them. I want to have a neighbor within screaming distance. I've always felt like that and always will.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Kim - I grew up in a very rural area and it always scared me. I hated riding my bike without my friends or even sneaking out of the house unless my firends came to my house first ;o) I feel much safer in an urban enviornment where I know someone is within ear-shot. However, I think that I am blessed beyond words to live in such an awesome urban neighborhood where most everyone knows each other. Some of my best friends are my neighbors and I can't imagine raising my children anywhere else. Props to you David for not only speaking the truth about urban neighborhoods but also living it.

Michael said...

It is unquestionably true that those who wish to abduct children will be turned away by the inconvenience of not having sidewalks. You can just hear them saying, "Drat, another neighborhood without sidewalks. I guess I just have to move on."

While urban areas have more occurrences of crime, that is only because of the greater populations. Urban areas generally have less crime per capita. And large cities like New York are safer than just about anywhere.

Laurie said...

I live in College Hill on the wrong side of Spring Garden (near the railroad tracks), which certainly attracts its share of "street people." People say that the two colleges attract crime. But, I would not trade our sidewalks or the front porches near the front of our lots for a "safer" home in the suburbs. The neighbors on our block know each other and help each other and entertain each other. It becomes a closer-knit community every year as more people choose to stay on a formerly mostly-rental street.

I've also lived way out in the country, and believe me, crime is just as bad there. At least people can hear me scream on my street! I feel a lot safer in the city. Too bad the perception is so off-base.


Anonymous said...

Fear is part of the issue, but a bigger one is social status. People living in walled-off, upper income neighborhoods do provide their children with better opportunities (generally speaking) and they like it that way. They don't really want to share the resource. That may be detrimental to society as a whole, but most people only try to protect and help their own kids.

Seeking higher social status is just as important a motivating factor in decision making is as money. Putting yourself in more exclusive surroundings is important to a lot of people.

Most people still hate to walk. Most people still don't understand that having more people out on the sidewalk makes them safer. I hope this changes.

Billy Jones said...

I watched my neighborhood die when those scared people left. It isn't who moves into a neighborhood that makes a good neighborhood go bad, it's who moves away from a good neighborhood that makes it go bad. People need to learn that by sticking it out their neighborhoods can and will remain safe but that takes real guts and courage that too few seem to have these days.

Anonymous said...

We're are staying away from the 'r' word: racism. In many urban areas, neighborhoods are being integrated and that has caused others to move out. Let's face it: walled or gated communities keep the 'undesirables' out and that means, in Greensboro for the most part, blacks and Latinos.

The recent film "Crash" tells how no individual in this mix of racial/ethnic interactions is free from fear of each other and the sad consequeces that fear has on their lives. It also instructs us that the only way out of that fear is to open ourselves up to each other and dig below the surface. We can only do that, I believe by living with each other, not by living behind gates, whether real or imagined.

Diane Grey Davis said...

We fear what we don't know. You said it so beautifully.

I read somewhere that in many languages the same word is used for "stranger" and for "enemy". Does anyone know if this is true.

Rob Ainbinder said...

Great post.
You said:

"But "congregat[ing] in exclusive communities walled in by the invisible fence of real estate prices" has its own social costs, [...]"educated elite and the undereducated masses." Kids who grow up in exclusive communities often end up in exclusive colleges "where they are given the social and other skills to extend class hegemony." Kids who don't, don't."

To an extent the neighborhoods of Aycock, Sunset Hills and Lindley Park are perceived by my family as being "walled in by the invisible fence of real estate prices" (as you attributed to David Brooks).

I suppose it's a matter of economic orientation. We chose to live "out in the sticks" where a new home met our price sensitivity (sub $118,000) and offered more desireable characteristics (.5 acre lot,proximity to highway, hardwood floors, central HVAC,3 bdrm/2 baths) than anything else in Greensboro at or near that final price point.

My concerns remain the same as any parent; for the safety of my child. On an odd occasion we too have an "undesireable" walk through.

Sorry, no sidewalks here but, I do know at least half a dozen neighbors.

That seems to be the sticking point in modern tract home development. Providing the infrastructure to facilitate forming a social community.

All builders could take a lesson from those neighborhoods of yesterday.