Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Boston terror? The reality of street life

Downtown Boston
Last week’s terror bombs in Boston were designed to cause fear. In this extended guest blog, social planner and ethicist Wendy Sarkissian describes recent walks in Boston and New Haven. Wendy discovers fear is not always what it seems. 

As we mourn for those killed and injured in the bombing at the Boston Marathon this week, it’s important to remember that good work is being done in Boston.

Good crime-prevention work.

As a woman, a CPTED practitioner and planner, I feel as though I have eyes in the back of my head. And what a contrast I experienced in the two universities of Harvard in Boston and Yale in New Haven, Connecticut - especially their urban contexts!

In a month teaching at Harvard’s planning program I don't believe I saw police or security guards. They must have been there but I saw no obvious presence. I asked about the security of the projectors in the lobby of Gund Hall where I was teaching and was told that a security guard sits there at night. 

Harvard's Gund Hall school of design
I did not see that person or sense that they were required. I often walked the 15-minute walk alone to Harvard Square at night -- as late as midnight -- and did not feel nervous or at risk. I also noticed the brilliant intervention, at the edge of Harvard Yard by the Science Center -- of a skating rink open til 9 pm Tuesday to Sunday -- with free skating classes and skate rental for $5.

Harvard Skate, surrounded by tables and chairs, is open and free to all members of the Harvard community, their family members and the general public.


The custom-made, 40-by-60-foot Harvard Skate rink in front of the Science Center was built atop the newly paved Science Center plaza, which is undergoing renovations. The installation represents the beginning of the plaza's transformation into a vibrant space that joins campus and community.

It reminded me of the idea of putting a carwash in a parking garage. A brilliant Second-Generation CPTED intervention.

Free hot chocolate at skate rink
In Cambridge and Boston, the buses, the trains and the stations were clean but did not seem to have a great amount of security. I felt safe and comfortable at all times, day and night, weekdays and weekends, travelling to and from the Harvard campus by public transit.

By contrast, a day in New Haven had me powerfully frightened. I took the train from Boston and arrived mid-morning after a gorgeous trip through snow-covered New England countryside. I had not lived in New Haven since the mid-sixties, so it was a nostalgic journey.


I was met - at the train station and throughout the downtown - by a strong odour of grass. As one might expect, there were a lot of unsavoury-looking characters hanging around the train station. They were also hanging around the downtown on a weekday (which I did not expect). They did not seem to be doing anything and, from what I could tell, were not dealing drugs.

New Haven's Union Station
The whole place smelled of grass and I felt uncomfortable. That is funny to say for a person who lives in the drug capital of Australia!

I spent the day walking though residential areas where I had lived in the sixties and then working in the Yale Archives. I emerged from the library as it was getting dark and by 6:30 pm I was seeking a taxi to go to the best pizza parlour in the United States: New Haven’s Frank Pepe's Pizzeria, where I had enjoyed their signature pizzas in the sixties.

I'd come 17,000 miles for my pizza and I wanted lots of time to savour it.

Pepe's Pizzaria, New Haven CT
As I stood waiting for a taxi I found myself hailing vehicles with lights on the top, only to discover that they were either Yale University security vehicles or New Haven police cars. On every corner in the centre of the campus there seemed to be at least one, often two or more police and security personnel on foot or in vehicles. They were everywhere.

That did not make me feel safe. Failing to find a taxi, I thought about walking (it was cold but not unbearably so) to a nearby urban neighbourhood with a few more restaurants, as I was on the edge of the Yale campus. But I thought better of taking a back route, fearing that perhaps all this security and police presence meant that the back streets (with fewer eyes on the street) might be dangerous.

Increased police numbers in New Haven - photo NBC News
What was happening? Why so much security and police? Had there been a violent incident recently? A rape?

As an older woman, I began to wonder. Would I find a taxi? Am I in danger in the middle of the city - in the middle of the campus?

The pizza faded from my mind and fear crept in. At 6 pm on a week night in the centre of the city. What was going on?


These two experiences made me think about the messages that a strong police and security presence sends to a non-native. In New Haven, I knew the geography and could remember where things were. I identified landmarks and felt I had a reasonable cognitive map of the central area. In Cambridge, I had none of those advantages but was able to navigate the streets because the main routes were well-lit and well trafficked.

Even late at night, there is lots of activity in Harvard Square.

Night at Harvard Square

Reflecting on my short visit to New Haven I feel that such an intense security and police presence sends a message that a place is unsafe. It did not make me feel safer; it heightened my sense of vulnerability.

On the other hand, on the Harvard campus, aware of the inherent dangers of campuses generally for pedestrian safety, I was careful. I stayed on the beaten track and I kept my wits about me. I felt safe. Whatever is happening at Yale and in New Haven, it's not working! Not for me. Not for me as a non-native pedestrian.

And at Harvard, whatever they are doing - subtle interventions and careful management - it is working well. 

Frank Pepe’s pizza – when a taxi finally materialized -- defied description. My pizza-loving self will never forget it. But it’s not just about the pizza

My CPTED practitioner self will never forget the brilliant CPTED intervention of Harvard Skate on the plaza outside the Science Center.

A tale of two campuses and two cities. And I can tell you which one I'd like to visit,  alone at night, again.

1 Reply so far - Add your comment

Valeria said...

This is cool!