My fellow residents of the City of Good Neighbors have probably had this irritating experience many times over. We are somewhere in Western New York where we have occasion to meet new people. Upon learning where we have proudly chosen to live, work, play, shop and worship, the suburbanite unthinkingly offers some subtle or blatant variation on the remark, "Is that neighborhood safe?" or "I heard that's a bad area."
When this happens, these tempting responses whiz through my head:
Tell them what they want to hear: "Yes, it's dreadfully dangerous. But, golly, I'm basically stupid and lazy, so I just keep risking my life and my kids' lives by living there every day."
Gently turn it back on them: "I just couldn't see sending my kids to suburban schools with those violent suburban and rural teenage boys." (Reminder: None of the recent school shooting sprees has taken place in an urban public school.)
Not so gently turn it back on them: "Oh, not to worry. Your kids and their friends buy their drugs in other places." (Reminder: As recent arrests and overdoses illustrate, plenty of drug dealers have suburban addresses and/or clienteles.)
Express gratitude for their concern: "How kind of you to ask! We certainly are struggling with absentee landlords, inept code enforcement and speeding drivers. Since you seem concerned about the health of my neighborhood, why don't you move in and join the block club? There are lots of charming, affordable houses and we'd be grateful for the help."
Assign responsibility squarely: "Interesting that you should mention it. I've done some research, and as far as I can tell, it was a terrific neighborhood until your relatives and their friends abandoned it for the suburbs."
Unmask the covert racism: "Do you think it is a bad neighborhood because you see some black and brown faces?"
Promote communalism: "Yes, every place has its troubles, but my moving to your town won't improve your town or the city, whereas my staying and working with my neighbors on our problems is making a big difference."
Shame them: "Funny how certain grown men and women tremble on the rare occasions when they actually drive through city neighborhoods, but couldn't care less about the safety of the children who have to live there 24 hours a day."
Exaggerate their worst fears: "Oh, it's not so bad! We have nice matching Ralph Lauren flak jackets, we roll up the bulletproof windows in the beamer and take Rocky, our bodyguard, and Fang, our Doberman, with us whenever we leave the house. We crank up WBFO so we're not bothered by the gunfire; our house cleaner comes by twice a week to pick up the used condoms, hypodermic needles and shell casings from the front yard; and Ashley is earning Scout badges by training the rats to do tricks."
OK, I've had my fun. It's time to get serious. I know people who ask if the city is safe aren't trying to seem clueless and rude.
Nevertheless, the question insults every city resident on the receiving end of it. For now, I answer it by citing Buffalo's falling crime rate and rising property values. I brag to my new acquaintances about the wonderful amenities in my quiet, peaceful, historic, community-minded, pedestrian-centered neighborhood.
But I'm putting the city bashers on notice: Your civic manners need work and my patience wears thin.
CYNTHIA VAN NESS, an author and librarian, lives on the West Side.
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