>Until I left for college, I lived with my family in the uppity northern suburbs of Chicago. When I was an ambitious junior high student, I decided that I wanted to attend Northwestern University, which is only about 15 minutes from the home which my parents purchased six months before I was born. This pleased my parents immensely. However, by the end of my sophomore year of high school, it occured to me that college would be an excellent opportunity to live in another city. I set my sights on Boston, New York City, and Washington, DC.
My dad forbid me to apply to school in New York. While working at a CPA firm in the mid-1980s, he was sent to the City once a year to do an audit for a client. He hated everything about it: the crowds, the dirt and grime, and the crime. Why on earth would he send his precious eldest daughter to Sodom when she could stay in Chicago or go to other nice places, like Boston or DC.
The irony is that by the time I applied to school in the fall of 1993, New York was already one of the safest cities in the world. DC has always had an outrageous murder rate; almost 2/3 of the metropolis were and are significantly more dangerous than New York. But since New York had not shed its image as the Rotting Big Apple, my dad thought that DC was a better place to live.
Today, I work in the South Bronx. Many people continue to associate the area with the arsons, burned out buildings, and air of desperation that pervaded it in the 1970s, when the Yankees played a championship game, Howard Cosell saw fires in the surrounding community and announced that the Bronx was burning. I walk through a housing project to get to my office from the subway (which is actually an elevated train up here, just like in Chicago). I've never felt threatened thus far. Yet, I read on CNN that 15 people were shot and killed in Chicago in the past two weeks. I'm not sure there's been one murder in the entire City of New York in the same time frame. (Probably there was, but I refuse to watch the doom-and-gloom that is the local news, and I didn't notice anything in the Metro section of the Times).
Perceptions and fear play a big role in how we live our lives. Although my childhood community is held up as a paragon of educational excellence, I frequently think about how racism and classism influenced the educational opportunities that were offered to my best friend, who has half Dominican, versus me, who lived on the "wrong side of the highway (as did my BF)," versus the wealthier kids. When people say that they are afraid to go to Israel because of terrorism, I think about how my friend from high school moved to Israel after college. While she was back in the US for a visit with her Israeli boyfriend, the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center flew over her head as she boarded a ferry to the Statue of Liberty. It is the only terrorist attack she ever experienced; her boyfriend said he would never return to the US because it was too dangerous here. When people in Europe hear that I am from Chicago, they ask me about Al Capone.
In a media saturated culture, it is hard to get away from perceptions. I found that it took me years to really understand New York, and now I am scared of the dark empty sidewalk of the subrubs when I visit my parents. How do you decide where to go and what to do?