The Data We Choose Not To See

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My wife and I sat down at the counter of our favorite weekend breakfast spot. Per usual, we chatted with a couple of the regular servers before ordering, shared some laughs and caught up on the week.

Somewhere in the conversation, we were talking with one of the ladies behind the counter about Downtown Rochester and the progress being made. Another server walked by and grimly piped up.

“I’m not going down there. There’s nothing there and you gotta watch out for the bullets flying.”

Knowing full well it wouldn’t make a difference, I chimed anyway.

“It’s much better than it used to be, there’s a lot of development, more fun places to eat and drink… they are working on the Strong Museum expansion…”

She interrupted with complete dismissal and contempt.

“I remember going downtown when the Midtown Mall was there. There was shopping, the city was nice. Now they are all just killing each other down there. They drove everyone away. It’s not safe, I’m not going down there and getting robbed. They fight in the bus station. You see them all on the news and the internet, fighting in Wal Mart… they ruined it.”

Her blatantly racist tone every time she said “they” dug at me like a rusty hook. Again, I knew I wasn’t changing her mind, so of course I went ahead and tried anyway. I quickly pulled up an image of FBI crime data on my phone.

“Here’s a graph showing that crime has been cut in half nationwide since the early ’90s. Rochester’s crime rate alone decreased by 33% from 2006-2016. We are safer than we’ve been in nearly 50 years!”

The predictable response.

“I don’t believe it. That’s wrong,” she said with the matter-of-fact finality of a judge about drop a gavel.

I tried.

“These are FBI statistics,” I said. My wife even spoke up.

“I’ve worked downtown every day for years and I’ve never had a problem.”

It was no use. The server was unmoved by any fact-based attempt to lessen her urban stigma. The difficult pill for me to swallow was that the decrease in local and nationwide crime since the 1990s is one of the easiest to find and most bountifully displayed pieces of information. Like literally… type Crime In The United States on Google Images and this is a screenshot of what you get…

Every line graph shows the same thing, a drastic decrease in crime in the last 15-20 years. And of course there are countless studies and scholarly articles to accompany these graphs, providing valuable information about the falloff of crime in our nation and our cities. This dynamic is one of the easiest social trends to see and understand. Far easier than trying to take data from 7 different sources to show how narrow roads are better than wide roads for local businesses, safety and walkability, or how automobile infrastructure breeds urban poverty. These are difficult concepts that take an understanding of economics, sociology, even urban history.

But crime? Crime is easy. The decreased crime numbers are right there for everyone to see, and yet this woman wasn’t about to believe them. There’s no “interpretation” of necessary… there are simply fewer crimes being committed!

If you’re like me, you’ve had this conversation hundreds of times. It really does become exhausting, and eventually you know when you don’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell to change someone’s mind.

So why am I writing this? For fellow Urbanists, or “city boosters” this is an “I’ve been there as well” moment. We’ve all faced the frustration of someone who doesn’t want to review even the simplest of facts, but we can’t give up. Some people will never change, and that’s unfortunate. But others will listen, we all have to keep trying.

For everyone, we also have to be aware of our own biases, the ones that might be quelled by a simple visit to our computers for some research. And I’m not talking about news giants like Fox News or CNN… I’m talking about going to sites like City-Data.com, or clicking on the link to the actual study instead of just reading quoted statistics. It is on us to go to the next level and learn something new about our cities, our surroundings and our people.

The data is there. Sometimes it’s simple and sometimes it takes some creative research. But let’s all make an effort to drop our biases and search for something that might change our perspective!