People occasionally ask me if I have any juicy robbery or assault stories from my three years of living in Philadelphia. I tell them all the same thing: that I feel just fine living in the city, and that I believe the vast majority of people—regardless of race, class, or ethnicity—are fundamentally incapable of serious violence. But one never knows what can happen and where. The first time I was randomly assaulted, I was idling in my car when a man kicked in my door so hard the car started to lift. It needed more than a grand in body work. The second time my assailant had the advantage of a car while I was on foot. When he failed to run me down the first time, he backed up and tried again.
It isn’t hard to imagine such bedlam in the city of brotherly love. According to a Gallup survey, only 53 percent of Americans think it is a safe place. Truthfully, I do get a little nervous walking down vacated streets at night. Not necessarily because of the two times I was attacked—those both happened in a small town in California with 4,200 people. But when I tell people how I grew up in such an idyllic place, no one asks if I’ve been shot, stabbed, robbed, or, more to the point, nearly run down by a madman in a BMW. The public image of most major cities, at least in terms of safety, has improved since Gallup started surveying national attitudes on this question in 1990. Still, only 40 percent of Americans say New York is safe, even after its dramatic drop in crime and a murder rate that is the lowest since the city began keeping reliable records in 1963.
These polls, which survey all Americans, not just those living in the 16 major cities in the questionnaire, are more reflective of the exaggerated images of inner city life that come off the Hollywood conveyor belt. Anti-hero Travis Bickle’s apocalyptic New York depicted in Martin Scorcese’s Taxi-Driver was a fiction even in the Bronx-is-burning days of the 1970s. So was the ultra-violent and ultra-laughable Death Wish, in which “the vigilante” played by Charles Bronson murders his way to justice because crime in New York is just too much to handle for the incompetent NYPD. Ditto for its recent successor, The Brave One, with Jodie Foster taking on the Bronson role after the NYPD wouldn’t bring her husband’s killer to justice.
Why do we think of cities as such cesspools? That question is too big for one web log, but it’s clear that cities have a serious image problem. Enter this year’s presidential election. You don’t exactly see any of the candidates on a major ticket bragging about their big city values. Forget Sarah Palin’s rhetoric. Listening to Barack Obama talk about his background, you’d think his values and world view were derived solely from El Dorado, Kansas (whose “small town virtues” we need to “rediscover”), not Boston, Chicago or New York. The fact that he has lived in all three of these major metropolitan areas is more of a liability than an asset in the culture war that pits the Chicago of Tony Rezko and Jeremiah Wright against Palin’s virtuous Wasilla, Alaska. In reality, the $27 million in federal dollars netted by Palin for tiny Wasilla would impress even the most gratuitous Chicago fat cat.
Even though these urban versus rural tactics seem to work, I can’t help but think that the Obama campaign tacked the wrong way. For someone bent on proving he’s in touch with “real Americans,” he’s sticking way too close to the cable news definition of the term — working class whites, and no one else. That’s why El Dorado, where Obama has never actually lived, makes such great theater on the theme of “real Americans.” According to the 2000 census, 94 percent of its 12,000 citizens are white, and the median income of the town is less than the national average. But why isn’t Obama expanding on this narrow conception of “real Americans?” After all, there are also 2.23 million very real Americans in Queens who speak nearly 170 languages. Many of whom are just as working class as Obama’s faux home in Kansas. Obama should emphasize the commonalities that all of these voters have, especially in terms of economic interests. He could start by calling out the Republicans for painting small towns as inherently virtuous and cities as shiftless dens of crime and corruption, creating a phony divide for political advantage.