Since moving to this country, I have been home in the States many times and have often taken this or that Austrian along for the trip. In 30 years, there has never been a single one who left with a negative impression of the country. Some experiences seem almost universal – like the way they all remarked with some degree of surprise on how open and friendly Americans are. How they didn’t see any one with a gun. How Americans are not generally obese after all. How normal and safe everything is compared to what they had expected from the movies or TV. Though, in this last point, something has definitely changed over the past three decades.
Before my husband came over with me the very first time – way back in the late 80s – I had had to reassure a bit him that my hometown was not the crime-ridden cesspool he might have imagined. After arriving at the seedy bus station in Milwaukee, we were waiting for my mom to pick us up when a very friendly black man walked up and asked us if we wanted to buy any drugs. I said no thanks. He wished us a nice day and walked on. We were picked up and arrived at my mom’s house a short time later, just in time for the evening news. It was reported that six people had been shot and killed in the city that day.
“Six?! That seems like a lot!” I said. I seem to remember my husband’s eyes widening and his face getting paler (but my memory might be making that up.)
“What?” asked my mom, somewhat distracted by the next news report. “Oh, yeah. Six. I don’t think it is usually that many.” She went on watching. Somehow, I don’t think her unemotional response made my husband feel any better.
Two or three years later we were back with one of my husband’s friends in tow. It turned out that the first new English phrase he picked up was “bad neighborhood”. My mom gets credit for that too. On our first day in town, she offered to drive us around the city – the place she has lived almost her entire life – and show us some interesting places. She was really enjoying herself and got uncharacteristically adventurous. She headed toward the north side. As block after block of street scene passed through our line of sight out the car windows, the grass, trees, stores, and people slowly decreased. “Closed” signs, vacant lots, bars, broken glass, storefront churches and garbage increased. The cars sharing the streets with us morphed into old rust buckets before our eyes. At some point my mom said, “Maybe you should lock your doors. This is a bad neighborhood.” The grand finale of this little tour was a drive-by of Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment building – he had just recently been arrested, if I remember right, and there were still tenants in that building that hadn’t moved out yet. My mom told us to duck down as we drove past. (I don’t know why, but something about that memory still makes me laugh.) The entire building was torn down a few years later.
I find myself wondering – sitting here now, far away and almost 30 years later – if things back then were really as bad as they seemed at the time. I know for a fact that crimes of all kinds peaked at that time and have been going down slowly and steadily ever since then. And not only in my hometown, but in the entire country. I’ve heard it said many times about New York – how much safer the city has become. I experienced it for myself last summer on our trip there. Walking around Harlem?! After dark?! That would have been unthinkable in the 80s and early 90s and yet, it turned out to be one of my favorite parts of town.
One of our hosts there was a biologist and worked in some area of (international) public health. I remember talking to him about this supposedly inexplicable drop in crime. He said that scientists and biologists in particular, had some intriguing theories about the causes. The major one had to do with lead. Once it became clear how badly it affected the human body – especially the brain development of kids – links were made between lead exposure and all sorts of behavioral problems, up to and including a propensity toward violence. All the efforts made to get lead out of gasoline and paint and pipes could be one big reason for the lower crime rates today nationwide.
Once again, I had to think of my mom. Around the same time as those early visits, she helped my brother move his family out of some run-down old rental to a nice little house in a better neighborhood. When I remarked on her generosity, she explained that she just couldn’t stand the idea of her young grandsons growing up in a place with chipping lead paint or barely maintained heating furnaces and plumbing. It was an investment in their futures and her own peace of mind.
Of course it is Flint Michigan that has gotten me going on this subject. All those children. In the absence of a whole army of my moms, they are trapped. And with no apparent relief in sight as the governor goes frantically in search of solutions, by which I mean more people and institutions to blame. Anyone who has seen “Roger and Me” must be thinking the same as me: how many hits can one city take? I wish Michael Moore would return to the scene of his first (and in my opinion, still best) movie and make the sequel – “Rick and Me”. He can document the next six months of his futile attempts to get a meeting with the Governor. All he will ask is that Mr. Snyder joins him on a trip to Flint where he can drink a tall cold glass of tap water.