I took this picture, my little “Mary Poppins” having pointed out the rainbow, as we neared the intersection of Main Street and Harrison Avenue…where the events transpired which inspired this essay:
Perhaps the single most important word in the evolution of everything I’ve done on the website “Rational Urbanism” is perception. Most of the time it drives my efforts to demonstrate that the city is more livable than it is believed to be. But often times I am required to acknowledge just how significant the impacts of perception are on reality. Walking down my hometown’s beautiful Main Street and by the classic Court Square again last night, and cutting through a nearly empty Market Street I could not help but contemplate the connection.
When I was younger, in junior high school perhaps, Main Street was gap-toothed and ugly with seedy storefronts, broken sidewalks, empty lots, and cobra-head street lights, there was trash and broken glass…but people. Lots and lots of people. Springfield was what a city was, what every city was from Times Square to the Combat Zone: the left over old world from the old way we used to do things before the ubiquity of the car and its primacy in our lives. I was told back then that the city, the downtown, were shells of their former selves, but the hustle and bustle combined with the beauty resting just underneath the patina of decline and decay sucked me in and I loved it more than anyplace else on Earth, as I still do.
Now the streets are nearly spotless, the façades are nearly all restored to their original grandeur, the sidewalks are brick, the street lamps are vintage, and except when there is some special event, the streets are almost never bustling with people. Walking home with my step-daughter we planned to cut down Market Street because she was in a mood to swing her umbrella around and its car free condition would make it ideal for just such an enterprise. As luck would have it, on this night at 7:45 there was only one other person walking down Harrison Avenue from Main Street to Market Street. He was on the other side of Harrison Avenue, he was hooded and swaying slowly as he walked, but he clearly took note of us.
As I have mentioned before, my 25 years of living in the same neighborhood do nothing to protect me from the perception of others that I am out of place, lost, and perhaps an easy mark. The hooded man slowed and seemed to be waiting our next move. I said something to Luna so that she would slow enough for our mirror on the other side of the street to commit to a certain path. She did, and he did, and we crossed behind him and started down Market Street.
You can think me paranoid, but I have had enough uncomfortable experiences relating to requests for money and just knuckleheaded aggressive behavior that I look for signs in certain other people as their movements relate to mine and I know how to engage in subtle tricks to avoid them. What is important to understand is that I only have to enter into this dance of avoidance when the streets are nearly empty…and with that we have come full circle. How is it that such amazing people-friendly places, well designed streets, and magnificent buildings are so empty on such a beautiful evening? It is mostly due to the perception that they are dangerous, which they only are, in my experience, when people abandon them.
The data shows that violence and crime are on the decline and nearing lows which most Americans have never known. Put another way, most Americans have never known an America with safer cities than we have right now. In just the last few days, on the other hand, two people (here, and here) in this area alone have died on suburban streets in traffic accidents (make it three)in a time when the region’s most notorious urban center, Springfield, has had only two murders in the entire calendar year and both of them, by all appearances, were much more to do with interpersonal relations than random street crime. But as people stay away the isolation of solitude makes the city streets uncomfortable, if not actually dangerous, to those of us who venture thereon.
And that’s a real problem.
As much as I love the city, as much as I adore walking with my kids to dance class, and art class, and school, knowing that a few minutes here or there, or a few blocks this way or that, can mean that I must be on alert for angry people, drunk people, aggressive panhandlers, or just idiots who enjoy making others feel uncomfortable alters my perception of my neighborhood.
Just a few more people “here and there”, “now and again” could change all this. It’s an intermittent problem at worst. On most days, on most streets, most of the time, during daylight hours at least, walking down the street is nothing but a pleasure. Getting that to extend to even more times and places, even into most of the evening hours, requires a change in perception, the perception on the part of the knuckleheads, the perception that we don’t belong here, that we’re lost, that we’re probably confused outsiders. That would go a long way toward changing reality for those of us who choose to live downtown but, frankly, want to live otherwise ordinary productive lives. Perhaps I should start a rumor about gentrification, about the millennials moving into the city, about downtown being the place everyone wants to be right now, then maybe the bad guys would not think we’re so alone at 7:45 on a Thursday night walking down Harrison Avenue.