We all know that in most cities there are neighbourhoods that are considered “better” and some whose reputation is so bad, that people tend to avoid them. We also know that this reputation has evolved over time and is sometimes so deeply rooted, that nobody knows if it corresponds to reality or not. Yet, even in cases where the hardest facts contradict the rumours, reputation seems to stick to the place like a leech. Indeed, the perceptions of places that people have in their mind can be so powerful that we can often not tell them apart from reality. Not only because we ourselves are not outside the social sphere and thus already have our own concepts in our minds, but also because the way people perceive a place can actually form it in exactly that direction. Let me explain:
Imagine you are looking for a new flat and you obviously have a limited budget. How do you go about? Not always consciously, you create a list of “yeses” and “nos” in your head. Let’s stick to the “nos”. Why do you completely reject some areas? It may be because they are far from your job or your family and friends, but then you will probably find out that there are other places equally far, which you do not exclude automatically. Why is this? If you are being honest to yourself, it is because of those areas’ reputation. Sometimes you simply don’t want to be associated with them, fearing that some of their connotations can “brush off” on you. You’re afraid that people will think “she comes from a working-class neighbourhood so she’s probably working-class herself”. If you can afford to live in a different place (and you mind being considered working-class) you probably will.
Now imagine you are simply going out for a stroll in the city. Again, if there are areas with a bad reputation, chances are that you’d avoid them. But let’s say somebody convinces you to visit that area and you decide to go along out of curiosity. Depending very much on who you are (and some pure coincidences) you may very well be surprised at how different (better) that neighbourhood is from what you thought. But usually something else happens: we tend to interpret things we see around us according to perceptions we have in our heads. If I am convinced (for whatever reason) that dark-skinned people are dangerous, then seeing large numbers of them in the street will mean that I will consider the street to be dangerous. And since the street is dangerous, then the people lingering on have to be dangerous, too, don’t they? It’s a typically circular argument, but when it takes place subconsciously we can hardly control it.
What is the result in the above cases? One possible outcome is that only people who cannot afford to live in a neighbourhood with a better reputation will live there, actually turning perception into reality. It may also be that people who don’t mind being associated with lower classes will move there, either because they feel they belong to that class themselves or because they want to make a political statement. This is a question of choice, though, and quite different from the preceding one. Finally, if an area is perceived as dangerous, then it may well attract criminals by default: anybody else avoids it. What I am trying to say is that, even though we may well find exceptions to the rule, place reputation tends to produce its own reality. I also think this is more often the case of bad place reputations than of good ones. In other words it is easier to stigmatize a place than to market it, though I am not sure exactly why that happens. Maybe the tendency of mainstream media to spread bad news is one explanation. Consider the example below, which is also what triggered this blog entry:
An article (in Greek) in today’s serious Athenian newspaper Kathimerini bore the title “Five squares are turning into ghettos”. The article is about an interesting and apparently very serious research conducted by a group of criminologists headed by Prof. Zarafonitou at the Panteion University, who studied the feeling of fear among shop owners in the centre of Athens in Summer 2010. Now the article itself does not support its own title, which was probably used to catch the eye. On the contrary, what the research group was interested in, was not whether these five squares in Athens are ghettos (horrible choice of vocabulary to begin with), but rather whether people perceived them as being such and if that was somehow linked to the people’s feeling of fear. The article insists on “scientific proof” and “scientific data” (I always think it’s very funny the way that journalists try to justify any piece of rubbish they write by calling it “scientific” and then giving you percentages of anything to boot), to tell us that even though the areas are not yet ghettos (a term which is then defined “scientifically”), they are on their way to becoming so. While the research was on perceptions of fear, the article has turned them into facts on criminality.
The choice of the word “ghetto” is not as innocent as it sounds. It has been standard practice in many countries to denigrate areas (in reality, the people who work, live or spend time in them) by projecting on them all the negative connotations of the word. I am not aware of any indisputable definition of the word except maybe for its origin (as the Jewish Ghetto in Venice), the particular situation of the Warsaw Ghetto and to a lesser extent, but still rather questionable, black ghettos of North America. Of course there are concentrations of people and practices in places: concentrations of the rich, concentrations of criminals, concentrations of commercial clusters, ethnic concentrations, gay neighbourhoods etc. If we consider linking the term of ghetto with criminality, maybe we should be looking at the richer end of the scale.
One of the findings of the above research, though, is that the real decline of the areas was linked to a first phase of “victimization” where the media played a central role (another article on the same research, but with a totally different focus can be found here – in Greek again). I.e. first an image of those areas was created that presented them as threatened; this image created fear in the local shop-owners’ minds; this again, together with very real and existing problems, led the latter to take measures such as arm themselves, use CCTV or private security; the visibility of these measures again reinforced the prevailing feeling of insecurity and the area’s bad image; shop-owners who could afford it, moved out and customers stayed away.
It would be naïve to suggest that these areas do not have issues, some of them very pressing ones, and probably these are to be found behind the prevailing public discourse. But building such a dominant rhetoric, which then reproduces itself, while steam-rolling heterogeneity, can have such material consequences that one can only wonder at the irresponsibility of those who create it. It’s a good thing I am not prone to conspiracy theories.