Blatant or Latent?

Last night, Mark and I went out to dinner in Durham, NC. We went to the area of a few blocks of trendy independent restaurants, bookstores, and retailers intent on appealing to cool college students. We parked in a well-maintained public parking lot, surrounded by a very upscale apartment complex on one side, the shops on the other side of the street, and the swanky restaurant where Mark’s company had its holiday party on a third side. Given daylight savings time, it was still broad daylight.

As we got out of the car and started to cross the parking lot, we were stopped by a 30s-ish white guy in an expensive SUV. He rolled down his window and said, “Excuse me, can you tell me if this area is safe? I don’t know anything about Durham.” I honestly think it took me a couple of seconds to be able to answer him.

To say that he knew nothing about Durham was obviously an overstatement, because he clearly knew just enough about Durham to have 1) found his way to the trendy part of town, and 2) formed a very poor and stereotyped opinion of the city. And just to be clear, he wasn’t asking if this was a safe place to park his car. He was asking if he was going to get mugged or shot.

Durham, as compared to its other Triangle area cousins, Raleigh and Chapel Hill, has always had something of a reputation. It’s the violent city, the city where all the minorities live, the poor city. Of course, it’s also the city with the baseball team, the School of Science and Math, the School of the Arts, a major university that hosts events every evening, and the local public radio station’s recording studio in the big mixed-use event plaza, where the open air music performance series is held every summer. But there was a murder of a graduate student several months ago, and some muggings, and then the student body president at UNC was murdered earlier this month by “men from Durham.”

One of my colleagues lives in Chapel Hill, and she said that the little biweekly local paper that came out immediately after the suspects in the UNC murder were identified as “men from Durham” was full of letters to the editor asking what could be done to keep “those people from Durham” out of their much fairer city. I’m used to dealing with nervous questions about the area from newly arrived visiting scholars who have never been in the US before, who generally have the impression that everywhere in this country is filled with gun nuts. But now, apparently, Durham has taken on the broad appearance of constant danger and menace to people otherwise from North Carolina, who should know better?

Yes, Durham is dangerous if you walk the streets in the middle of the night, which is, incidentally, when all of the crimes above took place. But so are Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and even the tiny town of Grinnell, Iowa, where I went to college. I’d probably be much more inclined to take precautions in Durham now at night, but I don’t go about my normal activities terrified. Parking one’s car on what one can clearly see is a well-lit, heavily populated, well-traveled street with lots of people walking from store to store, in the broad daylight? Not risky behavior, by any measure of common sense. But in scary Durham, we must now ask other white people if we are safe.

Maybe I’m overreacting, but the whole encounter left me really irritated, and it’s stuck with me.

-posted by Dana


5 Responses to Blatant or Latent?

  1. ThaGnat says:

    I think you’re generalizing a little too much (or maybe too little?). Without knowing what state the man was from or anything, he may well have just assumed “I am in a largish city, I don’t want to go to the bad parts of town or the parts where it’s dangerous for me as someone who doesn’t belong there”. I personally haven’t ever really heard anything about Durham before in particular. Perhaps in North Carolina it has a reputation, but I don’t think it really even registers on anyone’s radar in a lot of other places. And not everyone has good common sense. Anyone driving an expensive SUV probably qualifies as not having much common sense at all, and therefore seeing a well-lit, heavily populated street might not register as probably safe. On the other hand, I’ve been to some fairly dangerous well-lit heavily populated places. It isn’t a guarantee.

  2. Dana says:

    I don’t know, I assumed the North Carolina tag on his non-rental car was a clue.

  3. TheGnat says:

    You didn’t mention that =P But, that still is accounted for in my earlier opinion. Durham may have a bad reputation in North Carolina, but I don’t think it does elsewhere.

    If it makes you feel better, the girlfriend of a coworker of mine is terrified of moving from New York City to Iowa City with him. Why? She firmly believes that our fine city is infested with resident serial killers, seemingly on account of it being one of those places that always got hit by serial killers using the rails.

  4. Dana says:

    Well, I wasn’t really trying to argue that Durham had a reputation outside of NC, although the murder of the student body president of a huge ACC basketball team’s school right before March Madness might conceivably have made the news. Within NC, though, it’s been huge, and people here really do get questions from prospective visiting scholars and international students who’ve been looking at the news of the area in preparation for considering a move.

    The idea that Iowa City is infested with railroad serial killers is hilarious!

    And yes, some people are woefully short on common sense of any kind.

  5. Sonetka says:

    Funny, Iowa City always felt almost hypnotically *safe* to me – I lived there when doing a summer job catering weddings and frequently walked about a mile and half to get home at 1 AM. Never had a problem. Now Kansas, on the other hand … 🙂

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