As perverse as it may sound, I enjoy discovering irrationality in myself. I enjoy it because, by being open to questioning my beliefs, I sometimes make small steps toward better understanding.
Last week I was invited to the presentation of an exciting plan for a part of the downtown which, after struggling for decades, was then the site of an enormous natural gas explosion. There are elements of the plan which echo excellent suggestions which have been made, and ignored, for 30 years, but the plan also contains some cutting edge ideas as well. In the days before its presentation I was preparing myself to speak more knowledgeably about some things which were supposed to be more controversial about the plan, (namely the restoration of two way traffic to some significant streets in the downtown), but, as no one expressed any opposition to the idea I didn’t speak out in support: “The amateur urbanist doth protest too much”.
The day before though, I had been speaking to my daughter about what she and a friend had done the night before. They had gone down to Main Street to eat at Nadim’s, but had been waylaid by the jazz festival. After that they had spent a few hours at Smith’s Billiards
On Worthington Street
In the Club District
On a Saturday night
I love downtown. But Worthington Street is a free-for-all on a Saturday night. It’s crazy. It’s dangerous. It is the 21st century struggle red in tooth and claw, the war of all against all. So I went into a modified, controlled “Dad” mode:
“Was it crowded?”
“How late did you stay?”
“Isn’t that dangerous?”
-No. Inside the clubs anyone who makes trouble is removed early in the evening. You don’t stay until closing because then the knuckleheads bump into each other en masse outside. You walk back via Main Street and not Dwight Street because the cars go too fast and, as you move away from Worthington Street, there aren’t any people on the sidewalks and it gets creepy.
In other words, I had done to “Worthington Street” what others have always done to Springfield: I had taken sporadic news reports and extrapolated from them that the entire Club District was the Wild, Wild, West all the time, for everyone, at every venue.
Wow! There was a risk-perception gap in my understanding. Because I had little experience with Worthington Street at night, like the association of suburbanites with downtown Springfield, the information I had was nearly all negative with many other equally misinformed people supporting my misperception through their commentary. To quote a risk expert: “The more available something is to our consciousness, the more aware of it we are at the moment ’cause it’s in the news…the more the brain over weights that information. High profile events trigger overweighting of fear because of this particular mental trick, availability.”
Even when I did go to the Club District (to Adolfo’s with my wife) and had a pleasant time and witnessed no bad behavior, I assumed I had experienced an anomaly.
But, to continue to quote our risk expert, “…the media…amplifies; the availability heuristic gets worse the more we over-cover a few plane crashes (or violent events in the Club District) and have conversations like this (or like this well-meaning editorial in the Republican).”
The mayor wants to re-christen the Club District as the Restaurant District, and I would support that. The great news for fans of Springfield is that changing the perception of risk is the single greatest thing which we can do to alter the actual level of risk. Bringing more people to the streets is what will make it safer, whereas heightening the perception of risk will take people,and eyes, off the street and increase the level of danger.
The data shows that cities are safer than suburbs and exurbs for most people. When assessing risk to youth, for example, automobile crashes and suicide are the two greatest risks and they are both amplified by sprawl and minimized by density. How many young people have died or suffered serious harm in western Massachusetts outside the city in these ways in the time one innocent bystander was hit in the ankle by a stray bullet in Springfield?
Yes, drug dealers, gang members, and people in relationships with volatile people have been murdered…but those risks accrue due to behavior and relationships, not location. Of course we should do whatever we can to deter crime and street violence, but at this point the non-gang non-gun related behavior putting us most at risk is the general obsession the local media has for Springfield violence.
By the way, murders are on a pace to decline 27% in the city of Springfield so far in 2014. Not one of the 9 victims has even been called “an innocent bystander”.
Are you in a gang?
Are you buying or selling drugs?
Are you living with someone who might kill you?
What about these questions:
Do you drive a car?
Do you ride in a car?
Do you walk on streets where there are no sidewalks?
Twice as many people die and many times as many people are seriously injured in cars and by cars than by crime. If you move to a place where you drive more often, for longer periods of time, at higher speeds (i.e. the suburbs or a rural area) then you are increasing your risk of death and serious injury. All to avoid the much less likely scenario in which you will be killed by a stray bullet in a gang tussle or a drug deal gone bad.
My daughter gets it. She wants two way automobile traffic on Dwight Street to return. The cars will travel more slowly, more people will walk down that street…and she can take a more straight line course on her way home from Smith’s Billiards on a Saturday night…’cause, otherwise, it might be dangerous!