OPINION: Is it the ‘bad side of town’, or just the poor side of town?

We’ve all heard it before. You’re going to St. Louis for the afternoon, or maybe taking a day trip to Chicago. Perhaps it’s something as simple as a trip across your hometown to a specific restaurant.


In any of these situations, someone in your life — a family member, a friend or even a coworker — is bound to say those fateful words to you: “Oh, be careful! Watch out for the bad side of town.”


As an Alton, Illinois native, I’ve lived fairly close to “the bad side of town” my entire life. Mainly, I’ve never understood how referring to certain neighborhoods as “bad” is anything but racist.


Think back to every neighborhood that’s been labeled as “the bad side of town.” I can almost guarantee that all of those neighborhoods are the ones with a predominant racial or ethnic minority group, or just poorer people in general.


I once had a friend tell me that, when driving through East St. Louis, Illinois, you shouldn’t stop your car fully ever, even at a red light or stop sign. Their reasoning was that if you do, someone will run up to your car, pull you out and steal it.


This same friend told me that information with such seriousness and stone-faced intensity that it was hard not to just laugh at them right then and there. There was so much that made no sense about this story. Wouldn’t I still have my cell phone, to immediately call the police? Wouldn’t someone else nearby see this happen? What if the car is one of those new ones, with a Bluetooth connection to the key, and I have the key in my pocket? Wouldn’t the carjacker just be stuck eventually?


The concept of “bad sides of town” is very closely related to the "broken windows theory", created by criminologist George Kelling and political scientist James Wilson in 1982. In an article in The Atlantic from that year, they theorized that the best way to curb crime rates was for police to crack down on minor offenses. A broken window in a neighborhood led to more broken windows, which led to a lower quality of life, and then, higher crime rates.


But, as Bloomberg reported in 2019, that’s not true. The Broken Windows Theory didn’t lead to lower crime rates, but it did lead to more fear of the police, and people in these neighborhoods feeling more unsafe.


If you stop and think about the Broken Windows Theory for more than a moment, it immediately becomes clear that the idea is completely outrageous. To assume that more policing on minor infractions will solve the socioeconomic problems in the U.S. is nonsensical. There’s no easy fix, and if there was one, it certainly wouldn’t be to make the lives of people in lower-income neighborhoods even harder.


People in these lower-income neighborhoods are born into these situations of being looked down upon by society, and then, because of this idea of “the bad side of town,” less people want to live in or visit those neighborhoods.


Fewer people moving into those neighborhoods means less support for the small businesses there, and so, the people in those neighborhoods are stuck in their situations even more so.


Even if a neighborhood is completely ridden with crime, drug deals and everything that could scare off someone who’s never been to a big city, how would that affect you, as someone driving through the town?


If a drug dealer, for instance, was peddling something illegal and had a name for himself on a street corner, why would that drug dealer want to rob a random car driving by? Or, even if you’re certain that a certain gas station or grocery store is also a drug front, do you think going into the store means you’ll instantly be arrested or associated with the crime?


The simple fact is that there’s no way every single individual living in a neighborhood is consciously working to sustain a criminal enterprise. It’s such a strange concept, but some people instinctively assume this and think about the issue no deeper.


However, deeper thought on this is incredibly necessary. Sometimes people do get robbed or hurt in these neighborhoods, that’s true. But that’s also true in any neighborhood anywhere. With less fear of these “bad sides of town,” and more understanding about what causes neighborhoods to be seen that way, we can improve the situation for the people residing in those neighborhoods.


I’m not asking for droves and droves of people to move into these neighborhoods and inevitably gentrify them so that the original residents cannot afford to live there anymore. I am merely asking that we, as a society, remove the stigma that these neighborhoods have had ascribed to them.


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