Our Cities Are Not Our Headlines

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This afternoon, I noticed an unusually high volume of traffic to The Urban Phoenix homepage and posts relating to Utica, New York. I hadn’t posted a piece in nearly a week, so why the sudden influx of new traffic to some very old content?

I checked the “referrers” tab on my analytics page and found the surprising culprit, the website Jezebel.com, which calls itself “A Supposedly Feminist Website.” Digging deeper, my heart sank as I found that the traffic was specifically originating from the horrific story of a teen girl from Utica who was murdered this past weekend. Apparently, many commenters were making disparaging remarks about the Central New York city in response to this unfathomable crime. One individual decided to counter the negativity by linking to some of my positive pieces about Utica in an effort to show the city’s strengths. While I was thrilled someone used my writing in an attempt to temper the negativity around the city, I was saddened by the reason.

The murder of a teenage girl is senseless and tragic. My heart goes out to her family, friends and anyone who was touched by her life.

But horrible events like this happen because of bad and deeply disturbed people. They are not a reason to tear our communities down from near and far. They do not give us the excuse to throw a judgemental lasso around a population and condemn their existence.

Our cities are not the criminal who slays a young girl. They are not the crime stats quoted on the news, or the “Top 10 Most Dangerous” lists propagated by click-bait websites seeking advertising traffic. They are not the oversimplified damnation by those who choose to cast stones without understanding complexities.

Violent crime is complicated. It’s not exclusively urban, but in general, the closer you bring people together, the more the extremes of our society show their true identity. Our cities are places of unparalleled efficiency, opportunity and productivity (for those who think it’s the other way around, I’m sorry, you’re wrong). But occasionally, they also expose the worst of our humanity. But the roots of it are very difficult to understand. Social disenfranchisement, socioeconomic disparity, behavioral disorders and mental illness, institutionalized racism, poverty, lack of access to resources, opportunities and education… all of these and a million other variables contribute to a mind-numbing network of environmental drivers that engender criminal behavior. And even if you might somehow find a way to isolate these variables, violent crime would still exist.

Far too often, our cities are scripted as “war zones,” when in fact a very small percentage of people commit crimes. But the headlines in the paper and the social media sharings of terrible events paint the canvas of a toxic environment. We make general assumptions, we cast stones from afar, all based on the sensational media that’s forced upon us every day.

But making disparaging remarks about our cities and communities based on the negative actions of a few undermines the effort of all the good people that are trying to make a difference. I have the great fortune of knowing so many people from all walks of life that are doing everything they can to make their communities better across New York State and beyond. To attribute a single atrocity, or a pattern of behavior to the norm of a city or community is simply irresponsible and unfair.

I’ve said it again and again… helping our urban communities will lift all of us. We must stop seeing our cities as havens of criminal activity, and start seeing the incredibly positive efforts of our community leaders that are helping to make our cities better places every day.

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