The most common question I hear from those who view my work in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx is, “How do you stay safe? Have you been attacked? Please be careful.” It’s well intentioned, but it also displays a fundamental misunderstanding of both my subjects and the neighborhood they live in.
Hunts Point by many metrics is awful. It’s the precinct in New York with the highest level of violent crime per capita. It’s a member of the poorest congressional district in the United States. The average annual family income is $18,000.
I have written before how being scared is insulting. To walk into a neighborhood, to meet a new person, and to be afraid is presumptuous: Personal racial profiling.
Beyond that, fear of safety is a misunderstanding of crime and statistics. In Hunts Point in 2011 there were five murders, eighteen rapes, 432 felony assaults. One percent of the population suffered a violent offense. One in a hundred were victims.
In wealthy neighborhoods, like where I live, those numbers are much smaller, with the rates being ten to thirty times as low, almost .03%, or one in a thousand, to one in three thousand.
So while I am ten to thirty times more likely to be a victim of a violent crime in Hunts Point than at home, I still personally have only a small risk.
(Outdoor church service)
Put another way, let’s make the simple assumption that for each victim there is a different assailant who is part of that neighborhood. Where I live 99.5% of the people are playing by the rules, in Hunts Point it is 97% of the people. The overwhelming majority are decent folks looking out for each other.
It’s actually much better than that. Many crimes are the result of the same person or group of people. The percentage of the population who have ill intent is much smaller.
In addition, much of the crime in Hunts Point is conflict resolution between parties operating in the black market. It’s a self-imposed legal structure. If you stay out of their business, and I am not buying or selling drugs or sex, then you are far more safe than the statistics allude.
Poverty increases crime. That should surprise no one. The wealthy, such as myself, often throw money at our problems, via lawyers. That’s how our society has been structured: More money, better access to problem solving. The culture of poverty is often by its very definition, missing that route, legal recourse. Take away one tool, replace it with another.
This is not just about me. It’s about a broad misunderstanding of poor neighborhoods. Misplaced fear only makes the problems worse, magnifying the problem. It keeps resources away. Businesses shy away, schools suffer as teachers request “better” postings, etc. It has also brought about inappropriate policy response, a lockdown by the police. It all ends up leading to unfair stereotypes about the residents.
It’s unfortunate. The Bronx has as rich a culture as I have seen in New York. Fear has kept most New Yorkers from seeing that. It leads to the belief that if a neighborhood is poor, or rough, that it does not have a culture worth understanding or saving.
The 97% or so of the residents who are just playing by the rules, trying to get by, they suffer the most, from both the crime and then from the resulting fear and overreaction. Crime is awful, but the response to it can often be just as bad.
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