When thinking of a city, your mind may wander to the hustling, bustling streets of New York City, the “city that never sleeps”. Perhaps your mind may be transported to the magical excitement of Orlando and its enchanting theme parks. Or perhaps your mind is filled with the rich, jazzy sounds of New Orleans. The city can be perceived as a place of fun and busyness and excitement; however, the inkling of danger may lurk in the depths of your mind, for with the cover of darkness, that same lively New York City street is perceived as a platform for pimps and prostitutes. That same Disney adventure offered by Orlando becomes a bevy of drug rings and kidnappings. That same New Orleans trades in its scent of warm beignets and Southern charm for the odor of whiskey, debauchery, and urine.
Why? Why would a place that seems to offer so much diversity and diversion bring about a sense of uneasiness. Literature has had much to do with this sense of uneasiness concerning cities because of its early portrayals of them. Romantic literature in particular has strongly influenced this concept of danger brought about because of the institution of the city. I recall Romantic literature such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which the city was the birth place of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. This literary choice did not seem to be accidental or even incidental. The monster was born in the city rather than the countryside because the city was seen as a place of corruption and evil, while the countryside remained a place of purity, nature, and restoration. Likewise, Romantic author Charles Dickens paints the city as a exploitative force upon Little Nell in his Old Curiosity Shop. In this text Nell is continuously sought after to be taken advantage of and exploited whilst she remains in the city of London. However, it is when Nell runs away to the countryside that she is able to find refuge, regain her health, and trust people again. These two Romantic works demonstrate the idea that still seems to remain in many post-modern minds: that cities, while they are exciting and fun, are places where you can be hurt and demoralized. This idea evolves from the logic that because the city is filled with multitudes of people of all walks of life, more people are unknown to you and will likely seek to harm you.
Jane Jacobs seeks to challenge the concept that cities are more dangerous than suburban places in her text, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She actually makes the point that cities offer more sense of security because of the amount of people around at all times. Concerning this she states, “This is something everyone knows: a well-used street is apt to be a safe street,” (The Blackwell City Reader, 275). Jacobs goes on to make the point that because more people are on the streets of a city there are more people present to intervene and prevent a crime (274-277). Thus, the city provides a sense of security that is unable to be presented by a small town or a suburban environment.
On a personal level I relate to the point that Jacobs is making. Having lived in a rural Southern town my entire life, I have been well aquainted with the way that a small town views a big city as a scary and dangerous place. I recall my mother always reminding me to use the “buddy system” when going to the city with my friends. There was an ever present fear engrained in me that I could be harmed in a city of so many strangers. The ironic thing is that, as Jacobs points out concerning the safety of city streets, I feel much safer taking my daily runs down a busy street in Nashville than I do in our small town park simply because of the lack of eyes present on our town trail. Despite the stereotype of the dangerous city, the city seems to offer a web of safety unseen by the small town.
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Old Curiosity Shop, Charles Dickens
The Blackwell City Reader