Safety and Genders: Suburbs vs. Cities

Since we read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, I have been a bit skeptical on her belief that quiet residential areas are less safe than large cities. For example, Jacobs argues that a man is less likely to steal a child with fewer people around because someone is bound to notice him; yet on the contrary, a man may find it much easier to steal a child in a large place with constant crowds. After further researching this comparison, I found it easy to conclude that Jane Jacobs may have a point! For many, including myself, conventional thinking tells us that smaller cities, suburban areas, or small towns are much safer than large cities. Of course, this proved true for some time, but crime rates of small towns are steadily increasing while those of large cities are declining.  Large dominant cities like Chicago, were once sites for violence and unrelenting crimes, lurking around every corner and squeezing down each dim alleyway. However, over the years many skyrocketing crime statistics of large cities have entered back into the earth’s gravitational pull and lowered their rates drastically. Many argue the causes of this change could be due to large cities’ expanding number of law enforcement officers and regaining control of the city, or simply because advanced technology has made crimes more difficult to commit and get away with. Whatever the reason, those who live in large cities are definitely not complaining, but for every closed-door, there is an open window. Though many major cities have shut the door on rising crime rates, numerous small towns and suburbs are reaping the consequences, witnessing their crime rates steadily climbing in through an open window. Why is this? What is to blame for the relentless amount of crime sweeping the streets of small cities and towns?

Patrick Keefe writes of this issue through the analysis of a small city, Newburgh, just ninety-minutes north of New York City. Newburgh has surpassed the violent streets of many large cities, including New York City, to become New York’s most violent and crime infested city in the state, and was crowned the state’s per capita murder capital as well. Keefe claims this has occurred due to numerous factors that prove truly similar to smaller cities across the United States:

         “the city is broke, with few jobs and no public transportation. Part of the appeal of gangs and drugs for young people  in this environment is simply the near absence of viable alternatives. For a marginalized population in a town short on economic opportunities, with no access to the kind of public transportation that might allow you to, say, get a job at a mall in the suburbs, selling drugs in Newburgh is, if not a justifiable career choice, at least an obvious one.”

Keefe also points out that major cities have large taxes bases which gives them the luxury of being able to “throw law enforcement at the problem,” but in Newburgh and many others like it, the shrinking police department struggles to stay afloat. This is only the first curve to the start of a city’s spiral out of control. Without police officers to enforce laws and bring justice to the city,  the crime rates will continue to rise, and as crime rates rise, businesses will begin to close and move to safer,  more profitable regions. Without businesses there is no taxes which leads to less police all over again and ultimately forcing families to not only flee from the city’s dense amount of crime, but also to follow the businesses since they provide employment (which is especially crucial in today’s current economy). Keefe continues by stating that, “while Newburgh is extreme, it’s hardly anomalous. Across the country, many smaller cash-strapped communities are struggling with violent gangs and a rampant drug trade.” A recent study shows that crime is falling throughout the country, but more quickly in major cities than it is in other areas. Keefe concludes his article by concluding,”It appears, in fact, that the conventional wisdom of the 20th century has been inverted in the 21st: these days, big cities are often the safest place to be.”

            When looking at this evolving concept that larger cities are safer than small towns, I found it extremely interesting when applied to Sophie Watson’s  idea that suburbs act as gendered symbolism. In Watson’s text City A/Genders, she explains that the suburban home represents the “haven in the heartless world,” and a home to escape the “hurly burly” city atmosphere. It is also the site where women and children spend most of their time. Watson claims that the outer-city or suburban home represents women because due to the similar way the home and women are viewed. Watson states, “Thus women were constituted in the home as nurturing, passive, subordinate mothers, while men were powerful, public, active and even aggressive.” Watson paints a clear picture of the contrasting binary oppositions of women and the city, as well as men and the outer-city home. We all know women were conventionally meant to stay home while the men went into the city to work, but if staying home is more dangerous than going out and working in the city, will gender roles swap? Will men have to stay home to watch the children and women travel into the city for work? Well in today’s society, it is no secret that the conventional working roles of men and women have become increasingly more equal. It has almost become rare to see women stay at home instead of join the work force themselves. Though there are exceptions, many families can no longer survive on simply one income alone, many need the salaries of both parents to live off. Of course, men and women are still somewhat expected to act within their conventionalized gender roles, however, their roles certainly have changed through the decades. Many also argue that the expectation of conventional gender roles is more evident in outer-city areas, rather than in large cities where gender diversity is more socially accepted.




Jacobs, Jane. “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”. The Blackwell City Reader. Ed. Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 273-277. Print.

Watson, Sophie. “City A/Genders”. The Blackwell City Reader. Ed. Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 237-239. Print.



Filed under City Cultures

2 responses to “Safety and Genders: Suburbs vs. Cities

  1. The article that you linked to really makes sense when connected to some of the issues in Jacobs. You connect the issues to ideas of gendered space: if the city is more safe, will it consequently be seen in more feminized terms? That’s a cool idea, and I wonder if you’d be interested in thinking more about the positive valence of the city for women — maybe Sex and the City or the new HBO show called Girls? Traffic in Souls gives the darkest interpretation of female safety in public space, but Skyscraper will be more mixed to positive.

  2. It’s interesting that you wrote about this topic because I’ve kept coming back to these same ideas in the back of my mind. I’ve always assumed that cities had higher crime rates because they simply have more people. But then again, is it really safe anywhere? Last semester I finished up my Psychology minor, and from all the classes I took, Social Psychology has given me the most valuable insight. One particular social phenomenon that has stood out to me from my studies is the bystander effect. When someone needs help and plenty of people are close by and capable of helping, more often than not, no one actually does anything because everyone assumes that someone else will take the responsibility. This seemed especially common in cities because most people were already minding their own business and just trying to get to where they were going. This is a scary reality because it shows that you actually can’t depend on anyone, even when surrounded by crowds of people. Kitty Genovese ( is the classic example used to explain the bystander effect. On the other hand, there are those few people who will actually decide to take action (this video is much more encouraging): .
    When I really thought about it, it seemed that no place with people can necessarily be “safe” by definition.

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