I Dreamed A Dream: The Incurable Uncertainty of City Life

“Traffic in Souls” breaks away from the more casual, generally harmless gender differences found in city life and focuses on the serious issue of enforced slavery, or human trafficking. Although I’m not overly familiar with the documented history of human trafficking, this film was likely one of the first to take on the role of silently addressing this serious political and social issue. The film was, after all, notoriously “immoral” because it was released at a time when the public had reached a heightened frenzy over trafficking and other similar sex crimes. The topic of human trafficking was, consequently, banned by the motion picture association at the time. Nonetheless, the film was an overall box office success. Audiences were terrified, but also fascinated; how could this be happening? They wanted to know more.

But seriously – how could this be happening? Were people truly unaware that this was going on behind only semi-closed doors? Once they became aware, why didn’t they do more to stop it? The answers to these questions clearly remain somewhat of a mystery. Human trafficking and enforced slavery are still major issues in contemporary society, even in the United States. Nonetheless, perhaps some analysis of city life provides marginal insight into how this issue has managed to survive for decades without any true intervention. More importantly, it might suggest how the issue may eventually be solved, if it may be solved at all.

Jane Jacobs explains in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” that in order for a city to be safe from “strangers,” it must have three things: a clear distinction between public and private space, eyes on the street at all times, and a steady flow of sidewalk pedestrians (276). Therefore, the cities must be lacking all or some of these things in order for it to be so unsafe that human trafficking has become relatively commonplace and even unavoidable.  Making sure that cities adhere to these requirements would, ideally, ensure the city’s safety. There’s only one problem here: this is seemingly impossible.

Marking off clear areas for public and private existence is simple, in theory. However, it seems impossible to completely eliminate any and all mixing of the two. Hotel buildings, for example, combine private and public life in extremely close quarters. The lobby areas of most hotels are open to anyone; they have to be, unless they only accept reservations. By walking onto an elevator of a hotel, though,  one is steadily moving closer to that private domain. Walking down the halls of hotels puts strangers directly on the other side of the door from private life. Thus, public and private domains have clear boundaries, but these boundaries are thin and malleable. How could you possibly avoid this, other than to only allow in “non-strangers,” which defeats the purpose of a stranger-safe city? It seems that even the strictest boundaries may be tested and broken.

Keeping eyes and people on the streets at all times also seems improbable, at best. In most major cities, it is highly likely that there are a number of people awake at any given time, day or night. Nonetheless, there are not enough of them to watch out for each other and move about in an open and conspicuous manner. Is there any way to force a sufficient number of people to be awake and mobile at all points in time? I would think not. At some point, the city has to sleep. Unfortunately, though, evil does not.

Jacobs proposes a few solutions to these issues in the rest of her essay, yet these, too, make some seemingly unrealistic assumptions. Is there any way, then, to enforce all of these things in a city and consequently ensure a safe, stranger-resistant city? Or are we doomed to consider slavery and trafficking part of the uncertainty of city life that one cannot avoid and must simply accept? Perhaps analyzing city life cannot solve these major societal problems, but it does seem to suggest that finding solutions to them is an increasingly daunting task.




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.



Filed under City Cultures

4 responses to “I Dreamed A Dream: The Incurable Uncertainty of City Life

  1. cmb0030

    I agree with your opinion that, “a city must sleep but evil does not.” Absolutely correct. I do believe that awareness and advocacy of the dangers the city possesses is a responsibility that many times is ignored because they city does not want to portray any part of itself as negative, or the dangers are assumed to be understood when many times it is this assumption that leads to the freedom that many crimes have. I think there needs to be a rejuvenated movement of cities educating their citizens about the reality of these dangers. Education is key.

  2. Definitely a thoughtful and interesting response. I wonder what you think about the kinds of positive surveillance that are present in the film? Does it seem like the police will eventually prevail or that there are just too many bad people who don’t internalize that panoptic sense of being observed?

  3. tinyopinions

    I agree with a lot of what you said, but the three things that Jacobs says must be present for a safe city aren’t always enough. Specifically, think of the scenes in Traffic in Souls where the woman from the country and the two Swedish girls are kidnapped – there were people on the streets, yet they were still taken by these seemingly-nice strangers. Rather than a belief that “a clear distinction between public and private space, eyes on the street at all times, and a steady flow of sidewalk pedestrians” will make a city safe, I think people need to be more distrustful of strangers and aware of their surroundings. Yes, there are nice strangers out there, but the mean ones don’t wear neon signs warning you to stay away… even on a crowded sidewalk, people get mugged or lured into bad situations.

  4. bkl0002

    I think that although Jacobs proposes these solutions, she doesn’t necessarily imply that meeting all of these will ensure absolute safety. I just think these requirements are the bare minimum and that it is difficult, if not impossible, to meet even those. I definitely agree with tinyopinions, though; people should certainly be more aware of their surroundings and less trusting of strangers. It kind of relates back to Mitchell’s concept of people having security bubbles. If everyone honored the idea that you should really hesitate to let people into your “bubble,” then perhaps safety would be less of an issue. I also agree that the internalization of responsibility, or lack thereof, is largely to blame. The idea of panopticism, like Jacobs’ solutions, is great in theory, yet sort of eliminates the human nature variable. It assumes that everyone is aware enough to recognize/care that they are constantly being observed by society, which is sadly not the case; if it were, crime would be practically non-existent.

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