Wednesday, July 18, 2007

What is a "dangerous" neighborhood?

I am reading Mary Pattillo's book Black on the Block. In the final chapter on violence she discusses briefly the concept of what makes a neighborhood dangerous or at least what causes it to be percieved as such.

Pattillo follows Sally Engle Merry by primarily considering the issue of danger around the concept of the "unknown". Contexts in which we don't know what to expect leave us fearful. We don't know how to expect people to act. That sense of unknown makes us fearful.

I think there is great merit in this. Often the various public housing communities in Chicago are labled as dangerous neighborhoods, yet in 8 years of regularly being in and around such communities I have never been physically harmed or threatened.

I read an article in the Chicago Tribune last year (I wish I would have saved it!) that compared two suburban communities. One black, one white. Other than race very similar demographics (median income, age of community, density, etc...) but the crime was higher in the white community but percieved to be higher (or presumed or prejudged to be) in the black community. This of course caused the appreciation of the real estate in the white (higher crime, more dangerous) community to far out strip the black (lower crime, safer) neighborhood.

So in my experience that the concept of a dangerous community is often more about perception that reality -- and labeling communities that way is unnecessary and harmful. When I discuss such areas with people from the burbs I often use positive descriptors of the community as follow up to the "dangerous" labels that my interlocuter has posited. Usually this changes their language to somewhat neutral and they seem to realize thier own lack of awareness of what actually goes on there.

Then again, there are truly high crime areas, high crime blocks, high crime corners. But on and around those corners are young children growing up. There are people celebrating, laughing, loving, spending time together. In other words to someone those places are home -- not "that dangerous place".

So what is a dangerous neighborhood? First, in Christian terms I have to say that it is a place in which people live -- "Beings" then who are by definition created in the image of God and therefore worthy of lables of dignity. Second, it is fair to say that these places are usually places that are widely misunderstood, marginalized and ignored. Third, they are places in which people reside who did not "make the neighborhood" that way. Fourth, they are usually places of rich and nuanced history combined with a crushing wieght of "the forces that be". Finally, again in Christian terms, they are places where sinners live, as is every other place.

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