In over fifty years of urban living, I have until recently, when my present Brooklyn neighborhood got some trend, lived in what are described as high crime areas, and it is not surprising that I had a heightened concern about crime near home. On the other hand, I ran in many other places in New York and its environs, and crime was often an issue in these neighborhoods, too.
The urban concern about crime a generation ago had a strong racial component. Why was mine considered to be a high crime neighborhood? Perhaps statistics did show more crimes there, but the label generally was applied to any place where whites were the minority of residents, and that was true of my neighborhoods. But a broader dynamic was at work. High crime areas were usually black. This easily led to the thought that black neighborhoods in general were dangerous. If blacks reside or congregate in a place, the feeling then went, watch out for crime. And this led to a most insidious feeling that blacks are dangerous.
I was not immune to these racial concerns. For example, I felt it at night on one side of Prospect Park, Brooklyn’s “Central Park.” The park is a little over a mile from my house, and the run to and from the park and around its perimeter sidewalk made a decent-length afterwork run of about six miles, and I did it regularly.
The five-sided park had different kinds of neighborhoods abutting it. My run generally started on the western edge, the Park Slope side, a largely “gentrified” neighborhood—a code for “white.” I seldom felt fear on this mile of the run or when I made a left turn bringing Windsor Park, a white neighborhood, across the street. My senses, however, got heightened with the next left turn. At first ball fields were across the street, and then apartment buildings about which I knew little. Then another turn. I knew this was black West Indian territory, and I had a white reaction to it. Black equaled increased danger, and here my senses became heightened. I tried to look in front, left, right, and behind simultaneously. My pace may picked up a bit. My behavior was being driven by a fear of crime even though nothing ever happened to me or anyone else I saw there.
I did not have the same concerns about the Prospect Park run during the day. Then there were many others about, and this brought a feeling of safety that did not depend on the racial composition of those I saw and passed. Of course, there are generally fewer people out at night, but fear of crime reduced that number even further a generation ago. I saw the irony in this. If there was no one else there, surely there was no danger, but the senses never trusted what they registered. Was there really no one else there? And if I saw at night only one person on the walkway or sidewalk, the apprehension increased. And if I saw two or three young black males in front of me, my concern increased even further.
I had similar reactions on many runs after dark, but I had heightened concerns even during the day in some places. At one point, I worked in White Plains, a suburb north of New York City, and I took long runs between my office and the Bronx or Manhattan. I often traversed neighborhoods, like the South Bronx, where few whites ventured. While I saw a few minorities in the road races I ran, the ghettoized neighborhoods had few runners, so I was doubly noticeable–white and a runner. This brought stares and comments, generally from young males who I pegged at twelve to fourteen testing out their wiseassness and testosterone. Mostly it was good-natured, but some of the sarcasm had the undertone of a threat. I learned to diffuse the tension in two ways. Through hand gestures or perhaps an oral challenge, I would encourage a young boy from the group making comments to run with me or more often to race me to the corner. His jeers would usually stop as would those from others on the street as they watched the contest. I invariably lost.
If I could not get the impromptu race, I looked for a young woman with a stroller, who could almost always be spotted. Then I would stare at the baby and smile as broadly as I could at the mother. This was nearly guaranteed to bring a look of pleasure from her that seemed to diffuse any hostile intent from others on the street.
These human contacts worked in almost all neighborhoods where I was uncomfortable, but Harlem was different. The comments there often came from older males, who were not about to be cajoled into a smile by racing me. Elsewhere the remarks often made fun of me because I was jogging, but in Harlem many were racially tinged with a more explicit underlying threat. Soon Harlem was one of the places I avoided.
(concluded May 17)