Thanks in part to fear-focused evening newscasts and crime investigation TV shows, Americans are often scared of their own large cities, expecting trouble to lurk around every corner. Visitors to – and even residents of – large urban areas have gotten the impression that city life is primarily an exercise in dodging bullets and holding onto bags for dear life.
After living in a variety of urban neighborhoods, including some conventionally unsavoury ones, I’ve had the chance to reflect on city safety firsthand. While it’s true that high population density and increased poverty rates do mean more crime, the utter paranoia that I observe daily is largely unwarranted. It IS possible to visit or live in a large city and stay secure but sane. Take these city safety tips seriously, but don’t let the thought of theft or violent crime keep you from exploring new parts of the city.
City Safety Tip #1. Learn about the city. This is more important that anything else. Xenophobia often underlies the paranoia that people have about city living. One of the reasons I am comfortable in virtually all parts of Milwaukee (and Minneapolis/St. Paul) is that I know (knew) my way around. I’ve taken the time to learn about neighborhood histories and even visited restaurants and shops outside of my immediate comfort zone. After all, part of the joy of city living resides in the diversity of neighborhoods – in their architecture, dining, art, shopping, recreation, etc.
Currently, I live in a neighborhood with a large Latino population, where I hear Spanish spoken far more often than English. Sure, I attract some stares for being the goofy-looking, “English-only” guy who ducks into the panaderia for conchas, but the people at the store recognize me and see that I’m supporting the business even though I am not part of the neighborhood’s majority demographic. I don’t feel scared or threatened, and it’s because I’ve taken the time to interact with people instead of cloistering myself away.
City Safety Tip #2. Be confident in your walking, driving, and transit-taking. Even if you’re a little lost or just exploring a new area, move with confidence and a sense of purpose. The worst that can happen is that you stray several blocks out of your way as you regain your bearings. This is preferable to looking panicked, confused, or helpless. I can’t stress enough that tourists or other visitors stand out because of their unusual behaviors, making them targets for crime – or petty panhandling.
What obvious behaviors? I’m talking about:
– staring at tall buildings in awe
– posing for pictures with everything even remotely interesting
– frantically pulling out maps
– wearing any sort of fannypack (it sounds like a joke, but it’s true!)
– talking out loud about where you’re headed and everything you are seeing
– talking out loud about how “safe” you’re being
– gawking at people who are different from you
City Safety Tip #3. Carry your cash separately from the rest of your wallet. Depending on what you normally wear, this shouldn’t be too difficult. In the unlikely event you are targeted for a mugging, you can throw the cash in one direction and head the other way without losing your wallet. Most of us would prefer to part with a few bucks than lose all of our credit cards and ID. I only know one person who was mugged in Milwaukee, and all he lost was $30.
City Safety Tip #4. If you carry a bag, select one that fits you well. Avoid bags that can only be carried by hand, as those are easier for people to grab. They’re also more likely to get left behind when you’re doing other things. If you select a good bag to begin with, you won’t have to worry about clutching it constantly.
City Safety Tip #5. Program your cell phone with appropriate phone numbers. Suggestions include:
– police department / emergency dispatch
– city information line (many cities operate their own 411-type info service)
– public transit
– taxi service
This is a way of being prepared without being paranoid.
City Safety Tip #6. Don’t piss people off. People sometimes position themselves as targets for crime by making derogatory remarks, pushing others physically, or doing other essentially stupid things that provoke the ire of those around them. You shouldn’t avoid interactions with other people, but don’t be rude in your interactions – even if other people are rude to you first. That whole lesson about turning the other cheek is largely relevant here.
City Safety Tips – Final Thoughts:
It’s true that cities have higher crime rates per capita than most small towns and rural areas. But remember that a significant portion of the crime within large cities occurs between gang members, among fighting family members, or as part of the drug trade. These are very serious social issues that deserve our civic attention, but they don’t threaten most innocent, casual visitors or residents who quietly go about living their lives.
So, stay secure but sane!