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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Women And The City

I am a strong, independent woman. I love Cincinnati, and there is nothing that will keep me from experiencing the urban core. However, as a female, there are certain stressors in place that keep me vigilant and watchful... just in case. When I walk alone at night, I take extra precautions to ensure I will be safe and not bothered. I separate my valuables and put them in my pockets instead of my purse. I walk briskly with intention, and am aware of what is going on around me. I slap a serious expression on my face that says "don't mess with me, man." And if it's too far, I drive and park closer, or enlist a male friend to escort me to my destination. For the most part, it seems to work. Am I being too careful? Why do I even bother? Cincinnati is amazing, but it is still not always hospitable for women.

The city as we know it today was not designed for females. Our country was founded by men, and our cities were designed according to their desires and needs. Victorian philosophy dictated that a woman's place was in the home, not out in the wild world, where bad things can and do occasionally happen. Thus, public spaces were designed with men in mind; men who could deal with the combativeness and friction of the public realm. If a woman were to wander out in public alone, she was harassed - "what's a nice girl like you doing out here?"

Unfortunately, this still carries through today as I regularly endure catcalls and jeers in public from men of every size and color. Even now, I am one of the only female bloggers writing about urban issues in this region (and on this site - love ya, guys!) It certainly seems to be a man's world out there. Why is this still acceptable in modern culture? What about the urban setting can be so inhospitable toward women... and what can be done to reverse it?

In Dolores Hayden's work, Domesticating Urban Space, she examines the separation between public life and private life. In order for a city to be inclusive towards women and families, she explains, the two spheres need to intermingle. When the public life - experiencing the city- feels more like an extension of one's private living space (safe, hospitable, welcoming, fun), then those who are more vulnerable will be apt to inhabit it.

Local activist and entrepreneur Candace Klein extrapolated along these same lines in her recent editorial which ran in the Enquirer earlier this year. She described her experience of living in Over-the-Rhine for three days without a car, and how it opened her eyes to the community all around her. She is one example of a fearless, independent woman who has figured out how to make the city work to fit her needs. But... does she walk home alone at night?

There are both basic and complicated changes that can be implemented in communities to make experiencing them safer and more enjoyable for women and families. One basic necessity is adequate lighting in neighborhoods. Another is simply for there to be enough activity during the evening hours to increase the amount of eyes out on the street. Both of these details were lacking when I was mugged last November. Hayden describes having a system of safe houses or businesses (much like the Safe Place signs back in the 90's) where anyone could go to if they did feel threatened at all. As neighborhoods become denser and we get to know each other, the cold and faceless city suddenly is colored with life, friends, and a strengthened sense of community.

Hayden writes, "As long as the domestic world remains a romantic haven "outside" of public life and the political economy, politically active women can always be sent back to it, and men can justify the exclusion of women and children from their public debates and analyses... yet... if they (women) can transcend the female world of a segregated place, new kinds of homes and neighborhoods might become the most powerful place in America for progressive political coalitions on urban issues."

I believe that policy and design has moved forward somewhat since Hayden's work was written in 1984. Now women make a whole .75 cents on the dollar instead of .50 cents, and gradually more attention is being paid and gender stereotypes are slowing down. They are not gone completely, but things are improving.

One of the greatest indicators of a truly great city is how safe and comfortable the most vulnerable feel interacting in the city. In the case of Copenhagen, Denmark, babies are left in prams outside of shops to get much needed sunlight, and I had no fears traveling on my own from place to place while living there in 2008. I don't know when that day will come for Cincinnati, but I am looking forward, and doing my part by refusing to give in to fear or intimidation.


Anonymous said...

I've lived many different places in my young life, from NYC to upstate NY to PA and more. I have visited even further spans. However, walking in Cincinnati is one of the few places I just don't feel safe. When I walk down town in the heart of the city by Carew Tower, I feel unsafe. I watch my steps, look over my shoulder a few extra times and hold my purse tight. Even outside my apartment, I do not fell safe when I see those I don't know walking down the road outside the parking lot.

This city is not a women's world at all.

Randy Simes said...

Interesting points. William Whyte has discussed in his books the idea that public spaces should be judged by how accommodating or attractive they are to women.

In his groundbreaking work where he studied New York City's public spaces, he identified women as being an indicator species of sorts. Those public spaces with more women were better designed, and thus more active.

I think you're right that lighting and space design have a lot to do with making public spaces more appealing to women, and all people for that matter. Other key points include how seating is designed, if there is seating, what amenities and attractions exist, and what the overall space is used for.

Jenny K said...

Tania -

I was speaking both specifically about Cincinnati in my experience, but also about cities in general. Cincinnati is not the only place where bad things happen. The point is to not let a spirit of fear and intimidation dictate how you live your life.

Keep an eye out, but don't allow fear to control you. The more strong, independent women (like you and me!) that utilize and inhabit the urban core, the more lively (and ultimately safer) Cincinnati will be.

Unknown said...

I think the biggest factor in being intimidated while walking downtown is, as Jenny mentioned, the fact that there are too few people walking around. I live in OTR and realized how much safer I felt once spring came and the streets were more populated. If there were more women and people in general walking around OTR and downtown, we wouldn't get as many catcalls (or creeps actually pulling over to the side of the road to harass us, as happened to me when I was walking down Liberty toward Staples this weekend), simply because they probably won't have the energy to bother every female that walks by. My friend just moved here from Brooklyn, and about halfway across the Purple People Bridge for an afternoon stroll, she realized that she could be attacked pretty easily, as no one else was around and there was no easy way to get off the bridge. Being "urban pioneers," this is the stuff we have to put up with as more people join us to support walkable, sustainable neighborhoods. Keep up the good work! Maybe I'll pass you on the street one of these days.

Unknown said...

Congrats Jenny on a wonderfully written and insightful article. Micah

librariangrrl said...

I certainly do NOT think you are "taking it to far"... I learned the hard way, and I now take it a bit further :)

Thanks for the book suggestion, I plan on getting it ASAP.

Nice article!

Greg Meckstroth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greg Meckstroth said...

Great piece Jenny. Definitely interesting to hear from a perspective that isn't heard from much in this realm of the blogosphere and yet one that is essential if we are going to establish Cincy and other urban centers as thriving and diverse. Thanks for the post.

Chris S said...

I don't think its really a city thing at all, or even a Cincinnati thing. Have you ever walked past the townie bar as it lets out at night in a small town? Feel safe there? From experience, its often much much much worse on the catcalls/people strolling after you and saying obscene things. It think the commenter who mentioned the number of people out walking hit the nail on the head. Firstly, is it really more dangerous than some of those other places? I mean in terms of assault per people out, OTR doesn't even compare to many big cities, try like 10 percent of the violence per people on the streets at any given hour. I am a large man, and I walk around OTR at all hours of the evening, the alleys, the main roads, everywhere. And I will tell you that I FEEL a lot less safe when there are few people out, but I don't think my perception is really reality. You just get struck with the notion that if I screamed as something happened noone would hear or respond. But if you think rationally about that, people are assaulted in NYC with dozens of onlookers and noone does anything. But, when there are lots of people out, well, it just feels safer, even if that perception is not really reality.

I've been mugged, robbed, beaten, shot at, cut, you name it as far as violent crimes perpetrated on my person, but you know where all of those things happened? Not here, on city streets late at night in rough neighborhoods in large cities, with LOTS of people all around... I am sure I can't fully understand this perception from the perspective of a woman. What I do know is that demeanor says alot as far as whether or not you get attacked. When did those things happen to me? When thoroughly sauced, wandering around neighborhoods I didn't really know, and I am sure anyone that was waiting for a target could see that.

Jane Friedman said...

I agree with Chris S.

I'm a young, independent female living in OTR since 2007, and have walked the streets alone in early evening, late night, and dead of night - many, many times. Yes, I'm ultra-aware of my surroundings. Yes, I take precautions. But am I scared? No. I don't see the world as a fundamentally dangerous place. Some call this naivete, but bad things happen to men & women everywhere, every day, often when we have a false sense of security. As Chris says, remote areas and small towns can present the same dangers as the city.

How often do we come to harm from people we know, as opposed to strangers? More than half of women who are victims of violent crime have a passing acquaintance with their attacker. And against common wisdom, men like Chris are more likely to be victims than women of violent crime.

Katie said...

Loved this post, and I must say that it is a refreshing and encouraging change of course for Urban Cincy.

I used to love this blog, but many of the posts over the last few months have felt to me like edited-down press releases. That creates a very top-down feel to the blog - it shows Cincinnati from the light of the power brokers who write press releases, but not from the grassroots perspective of smaller organizations and the diverse people actually living in the city. So much about urban life in Cincinnati is missed with this approach.

But it's intelligent, thoughtful posts like this that examine both the positives and negatives of city life in Cincinnati that keep me coming back. Please do more posts like this.

Randy Simes said...


I'm sorry you have been disappointing with the content on UrbanCincy over the past several months. While UrbanCincy does offer unique pieces like the one written by Jenny here, the site also focuses on sharing the news about what is going on in Cincinnati's urban core.

While some stories do use information supplied in press releases, the vast majority of the stories run on UrbanCincy are stories that compile information and perspectives from first-person interviews and information gathering. Thanks for the comment, we'll continue to work on higher quality content and appreciate readers like you.

Nathan said...

Re: Domesticating Urban Space

Jenny, thanks for the post and the book reference. I'll be sure to check it out. I'll be interested to see how it explores the relationship between private and public space, and how it might relate to an ongoing concern I've had regarding the shamefully increased disregard generally for the value of public space in American society, and how this is linked to private space.

Specifically, for example, I refer to how our public spaces have been privatized, or how private spaces have (attempted to) replaced public spaces. Unfortunately, this has been to the detriment of our culture and civic life. For instance, the mall and shopping center, with their private spaces, have in many ways replaced the public square and public market. But while they may have replaced them in a way, they have not done so in a full sense. They have taken over much of the commercial role of the public square/public marketplace, but not other functions. Our role as consumers is valued, but not as citizens. The fact that private entities have control over these spaces has consequences for the vitality of our civic life, particularly with regard to freedom of speech (as well as commerce). Another instance of the impact is the increased regulation of public spaces, such as college campuses and places like fountain square.

In any case, I am very curious as to how all this might relate to this idea that you mention of intermingling the private and the public!

Nathan said...

@Randy: William Whyte is great! I still recall watching his groundbreaking study "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces" back on Sociology 101 in college. So fascinating! I don't recall him bringing gender into the study very substantially, but not I'll have to take another look back at his work. Thanks for the mention.

Nathan said...

Your call for more activity and "eyes out on the street" is one more call for (a) more pedestrian-friendly urban spaces,(b) more public transit, and (c) more mixed-use development.

When our streets are more welcoming to pedestrians, serving their needs and making them a priority -- instead of oppressing them and making vehicles the priority -- both the perception and reality is streets are safer. Public transit also means more people walking about, of course. And mixed-use development, with people living above shops and offices, means there are eyes literally overlooking our business districts at all hours. (as opposed to the modern(ist) shopping center that is devoid of residents).

In addition, there is a less tangible but nonetheless important simple benefit to our personal and collective experience -- including feelings of safety and comfort that you highlight here -- resulting from these and other factors affecting our communities and neighborhoods: all the small yet substantial wonderful daily interactions that take place in a vibrant public realm characterised by the presense of people walking (and not driving) about. It provides a definitive enrichment of our civic, public, cultural and personal lives.

Randy Simes said...


Whyte expands on his research from "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces" in his book called "City: Rediscovering the Center."

Much of the material is the same, but there is more content and he expands upon much more of the nuts and bolts research published in The Social Life.

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