Saturday, September 27, 2008

Geography of Fear

While I was a graduate student, I took a couple seminars about the geography of economic development. The orientation was decidedly international. We were being trained to do research abroad. I was uncomfortable with what I perceive to be a type of cultural imperialism. I was interested in promoting human rights, but locals don't take kindly to outsiders telling them what they should do. The best advocates for human rights are the people who live there.

I was reminded of this while reading an article about the value of suburbanites actively helping communities in Detroit:

Through most of college, I thought working in international development would be the best way for me to make the world a more just place -- until someone asked me a difficult question: "Why are you so focused on international issues? You live a half an hour away from one of the poorest, most disenfranchised cities in America. Why aren't you working there?"

The question troubled me. When I answered it honestly, the answer was fear. It was a fear that, when traced to its roots, was born out of years of tension between the city and the suburbs -- the effects of poverty, racism, inequality and injustice.

Strange how half an hour away can be such a greater distance than half a world away. For whatever reason, troubles in a nearby inner city aren't as romantic as destitution in another country. For you social theorists out there, I see an entrenched post-colonial geography at work.

As for the fear, this is the geography of Deliverance. Mythology fills up the space of the lesser know parts of our intimate world. Dehumanizing stories about asocial behavior literally scare you from going to a place where you can't trust anyone. Folk tales are an effective way to transmit knowledge across generations and help you identify other people you can trust. If someone shares your heritage tale, then you she or he will help you.

Communities can only cover so much territory. So, the demonization of inner-city Detroit probably doesn't extend to every other country in the world. There is some anxiety about traveling abroad, but the fear is vague enough to facilitate the adventure. Thus, suburban Detroit often is more connected to regions thousands of miles away than the neighborhoods ringing downtown.


Christopher Barzak said...

This is an incredibly smart post. I'm glad you're writing them. People need to read stuff like this.

Janko said...

I wish I knew of more proactive steps to dispel this fear.

This reoccurring theme of inner-city fear rears its head continuously on our region's talk radio and online chat rooms/newspaper message boards.

And I'm worried that if our public transportation system disappears as it may soon, these problems will only be heightened.

Jim as you said, what happens when there is less connectivity to these forgotten/poorer places?

Burgher Jon said...

I disagree with the book for the most part, but one of the more interesting books I've read on the geography of economic development and that of fear is Confessions of an Economic Hitman . I'm not sure it directly ties to the suburb/city relationship in Detroit (or Pittsburgh), but it's worth the read if this interests you.