A couple weeks ago, in my newly adopted neighborhood of Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, a woman stopped me outside my house. "I'm looking to move into this area," she offered with little introduction. "Do you think that this is a...safe neighborhood?"
Our brief conversation - in which I informed her that I had moved into the area just days before, but so far was quite enjoying myself and the neighbors - clearly left her unconvinced, nose wrinkled in a nervous smile as she trotted off toward the subway. I had a sneaking suspicion she probably wouldn't move here.
"Is this a safe neighborhood?" When this unknown white woman asked me The Question, groups of young black children and Hasidic men passing on the street, I felt the weight of her subtext. Will those people hurt me? Can I keep my distance from them without feeling bad about myself? Is there a Whole Foods nearby? In today's New York, coded language is the dialect of young white people toeing the Venn diagram of gentrification and prejudice.
I've long balked at discussing "safe neighborhoods" with white people for fear of indulging myself and others in a probably-racist conversation about "diversity" and "demographics." But this most recent confrontation made me think about what it even means for a neighborhood to be "safe." I've been asked The Question several times since I moved (3 weeks ago), and I always answer truthfully that I feel perfectly secure in the sleepy, green streets of PLG. But the reality is that no, I don't feel that it's a safe neighborhood. And that's because I've never really walked around any neighborhood and felt safe.
Stop Street Harassment released a report recently, in which they surveyed over 2,000 Americans on their experiences of street harassment. Mother Jones covered the story with the clickbait headline "Now We Know How Many Women Get Groped by Men in Public." Which, ugh, no, we don't. These statistics provide a good glimpse at how pervasive and varied the experience of street harassment is. But we should also assume that the responses in this survey, like all such surveys, underreport harassment to an extreme degree. Here's some highlights:
So, given this widespread experience of verbal harassment - never mind experiences of sexual and violent assault - how do we define "safe?" Are you asking whether I experience the sensation of bodily danger when I leave the house? Well, then the answer is yes. But I also feel that danger when I am on any subway line; walking down wealthy Manhattan blocks; in the bathroom line at my co-working space; grabbing lunch; going on a first date...basically anytime I am within yelling distance of a male-bodied, straight-presenting person. I've actually experienced very little harassment of any kind in my new neighborhood, for which I am grateful. But it's hard to unlearn years of training to avoid eye contact, hold keys between my fingers, walk in the middle of the street, and perform other meager attempts at giving the illusion of safety.
My expectations of being harassed have been justified again and again, to the point where the only effective coping strategy is finding humor in the absurdity of men using aggressive patriarchal behavior in the pursuit of female attention. That, and bitching to my girlfriends. Have I experienced physical violence from men on the street or subway? Not in a long time, and certainly not in my new neighborhood. But does that mean I'm safe? And what of others less physically and mentally able to sustain themselves in a degrading environment? My numerous privileges give me the means to both avoid and cope with harassment and assault. But for many, that's not the case.
When we ask whether places and spaces are safe, we must consider that that word describes both a real and a perceived reality. There are statistics that measure safety, and by those metrics I'm perfectly safe in this neighborhood and most places I've ever lived. But "safe" has a limited utility in describing the lack of fear of violence. If leaving the house means bracing myself for a day full of come-ons and verbal aggression, then "safe" is far from an accurate description of my experience. But that's not because of an unsafe neighborhood; that's because of an unsafe society. Until we recognize that "safe" means more than how many crimes have been committed at your local subway stop, we won't be able to have the nuanced and radical conversations we need to have around building secure, supportive, and stable communities.
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