Springfield Voices: Perception of city as unsafe based on old stereotypes

Springfield Cultural District Walking Map Draft

By Alanna Grady

I used to wonder what it would be like going to college in my hometown, how it would be to surround myself with people who were often coming to Springfield the city for the first time. While my experience was overwhelmingly positive, almost every day I heard generalizations about a city in which I’ve lived my entire life. Any loud noise was often followed by the phrase, “Probably a gunshot,” which practically became a cliché. A few times I was asked, “So if you’re from Springfield, how many people do you know who’ve been stabbed?” I found that news stories of crimes were sensationalized and relayed by some students as if the number of crimes committed in the city is some sort of accomplishment. Either that, or the statistics were viewed with complete nonchalance. Violence in Springfield? Typical.

What made me most uncomfortable, though, was the way I heard the city spoken about when I was out in the community. Several times I was embarrassed by the people around me who criticized the appearances of the buildings, made judgments – and assumptions – about the people they saw, or said things like, “I hope we don’t get caught in a drive-by,” or, “There’s probably a drug deal going on right now.” These sorts of attitudes are not just found in the conversations of college students, though. I’ve also heard these kinds of statements from knowledgeable adults in professional settings.

I cringe when I hear people talk as if it’s a personal accomplishment that they ‘survived’ living here.

Springfield is often used as a scapegoat to create false tales of overcoming adversity. I cringe when I hear people talk as if it’s a personal accomplishment that they “survived” living here. Most people who express negative views about the city have never experienced any of its violence first hand. I’ve heard some of my peers from smaller or more rural towns almost bragging when comparing the crime rates of Springfield to those of their hometowns. My concern is the way students and other city residents express these negative views will have an impact on one of the city’s greatest assets – its educational institutions – which are the greatest vehicles for promoting positive change.

The city expects 4,692 new jobs – a number mostly made up of 3,000 expected jobs at the MGM Springfield casino.

There is a way to be honest in discussion about the bad things that happen in Springfield while not encouraging gossip on behalf of the more shocking headlines that often make the news. Whenever I try to disprove some of the negative statements I hear people make about Springfield, though, I am often told, “Yeah, but you’re not from actual Springfield,” or, “Yeah, but you’re different.” I don’t like what either of these responses implies. Statements like these make me an exception, but to what rule? Where is the comparison? Those who are not native to Springfield but live and work in the city, who try to separate themselves by using an “us versus them” mentality, are dangerously close to “othering” an entire population of people and establishing the idea that those who are native to Springfield are in some way inferior. This is also true of people in positions of power and influence who use the city’s diversity as a false diagnostic for placing blame, fueling harmful stereotypes, and trying to justify whatever crime may occur in the city.

gil 1.jpgGil Penalosa, international ‘livable cities’ expert, center, stops by the Seuss exhibit at the Quadrangle for a photo while on a tour of Springfield with city officials recently.

The comparison between Springfield and “actual Springfield” is an idea I don’t quite understand. Springfield at noon is different from Springfield at two a.m., but that can be said about almost anywhere. Avoiding any sort of danger, particularly for those unfamiliar with the area, means making smart, safe choices, not using a place’s reputation – or its demographics – as an easy target on which to place blame for poor decisions. It’s important for people who are part of the city to remember that they are not independent of the city. While we are here, we must hold ourselves accountable for our actions and be responsible citizens.

Determining whose city has more murders per year is a contest nobody wins. People who treat violent crime as something that Springfield residents should come to expect are showing ignorance to those whose daily lives are affected by the city’s problems. While the media may move on to the “latest shooting” or “another murder,” the holes left behind by those whose lives were cut short due to senseless violence will never be filled. The lives interrupted by that violence will likely never go back to exactly the way they were before. Whether we choose to accept it or not, the city of Springfield will impact all of us. It is my hope that if we promote our positive actions to empower the community instead of using old stereotypes and generalizations to speak out against it, we can raise our expectations about what can be accomplished. It takes a lot of people to make that kind of change, and we have the strength in numbers to do so. After all, a city is not just its neighborhoods, its businesses, or its roads. A city is its people, and this city is all of us.

Alanna Grady is a graduate of Springfield College, a literacy tutor at Square One, and a lifelong resident of Springfield. Springfield Voices is a writer’s collective dedicated to presenting an honest and balanced look at life in the metro area in the present and in the past.