A recent survey of City of Dayton residents by WSU's Center for Urban and Public Affairs as some interesting results on preceptions of downtown saftey:
Respondents were also asked two questions pertaining to their safety while in Downtown
Dayton. First, respondents were asked how safe they feel downtown during the day. More than three-quarters of respondents (77.5 percent) indicated that they feel very safe or safe
downtown during daytime hours. This percentage is similar to 2003/2004 data (which was the
last time the question was asked), when 80.0 percent of respondents indicated that they felt
safe downtown during daytime hours.
Crosstabs by demographic variables revealed that African-American respondents (83.1 percent) were significantly more likely to indicate that they feel safe when compared to Caucasian respondents (73.3 percent). Male respondents (81.9 percent) were also significantly more likely than female respondents (73.2 percent) to indicate that they feel safe.
However, when asked how safe they feel during evening hours, just over half of respondents
(51.3 percent) indicated that they feel very safe or safe. This percentage is almost identical to 2003/2004 data, when 51.5 percent of respondents felt safe downtown during evening hours.
Again, African-American respondents (63.0 percent) were significantly more likely than
Caucasian respondents (44.6 percent) to feel very safe or safe, while males (60.1 percent) were more likely than females (42.3 percent) to indicate that they feel safe.
Note the percentage point differnces for blacks and whites;9.8% for daytime safety and a big 18.4% difference for safety downton at night
Breaking it out by priority board areas, one can see the racial differences play out again:
Feel unsafe & very unsafe downtown during the day/night (day %/night %):
For predominantly black priority board areas:
- Soutwest: 16.6%/38%
- Northwest: 13.7%/34.7%
- Innerwest: 16.9%45.5%
- FROC: 22.9%/43.8% (integrated)
- Northeast: 29%/56.3%
- Southeast North: 30.1%/55.6%
- Southeast South: 25.2%/56.8%
On average there is a 12.5% difference between the white and black areas for daytime safety perceptions and a 16.8% difference for night time safety.
While one thinks this might have something to do with familiarity, it seems there are no obvious patterns, as the white and black areas all don't go downtown much.
Never Go Downtown, or go only 1 -3 times a year:
For predominantly black priority board areas:
- Southwest: 33.7%
- Northwest: 27.4%
- Innerwest: 35%
- FROC: 29.%
- Northeast: 44.6%
- Southeast North: 39.3%
- Southeast South: 33%
...with a 6.8% difference between white and black areas.
So one can see a definite perception difference between whites and blacks.
An Unsafe Downtown as Urban Legend & Community Memory
As most of us who do go downtown quite a bit know, downtown is pretty safe. However, was it always that way? Anecdotal evidence that I've run across, in press reports from the early 1970s, seems to indicate there was indeed a crime problem.
The perception, as well as a reality, of crime also appears in news reports on the problems with the Arcade shopping center in the earl 1980s.
And from a 1998 study on postwar crime trends:
"...in the fifty years following WWII street crime rates in America increased eightfold. These increases were historically patterned; were often quite rapid; and were disporportionatly driven by young, African American men. Much of the crime explosion took place in a space of just ten years beginnning in the early 1960s..."
(Losing Legtimacy, Street Crime and the Decline of Social Institutions in America, by Gary LaFree)
So this observed national trend might have been playing out in Dayton as well, and the racial aspect of it gave street crime a black face to white Daytonians. Since downtown does get a lot of black people due to the RTA hub, downtown "looks black", hence a perception of a potential locus for street crime.
So white people avoided downtown, which was in its death throes anyway, and as time went on, crime rates declined, but the preception of an unsafe downtown did not.
Thus "scary downtown" became an urban legend based on a community memory of a long past crime wave that may have had a lot of young blacks as perps, as well as on the racist assumption that all blacks are potential criminals. This would account for the differential between the white and black perecentages in the survey.
In other words people may hold these views as this is what they've been told by their parents or relatives or co-workers, not based on actual experience of downtown.
At least thats my theory. To really prove this one would have to look at the crime reports for downtown starting in 1960 and then tracking it today; a 40 year time series, and seperate it out by race. If a spike can be shown, there would be some historical basis for modern fears.