Saturday, November 03, 2007

Safety in Numbers

When I told my dad about my new job in downtown Elgin, he bought me a celebration gift. A can of pepper spray.

My dad’s gift got me thinking about the perception of safety in Downtown Elgin. And about how perceptions are often a few steps behind reality.

The City of Elgin recently conducted a survey to capture the public’s perceptions about a variety of issues, one of which was safety. The survey showed that 89% of people feel safe walking in Downtown Elgin during the day. However, after the sun goes down in the city, only 42% of people said they feel safe walking Downtown.

In reality, the crime rate in Elgin is actually considered low, relatively speaking, despite some recent crime “spikes.” In fact, the rate of violent crime in Elgin dropped 12 percent from 2005 to 2006, according to the Elgin Police Department’s 2006 Annual Crime Report.

Another recent study showed that when compared to eight other Illinois cities of similar size and scope, Elgin was second only to Naperville for having the lowest crime rate.

Surprised? I was. And then I wondered how many dads give their daughters pepper spray when they get jobs in downtown Naperville.

But, in the end, perceptions trump stats. Though stats don’t lie, they also don’t make your heart beat any slower when you’re walking alone at night on a dark, desolate street.

“Dark” and “desolate” are two words that the City and the Downtown Neighborhood Association are hoping to get out of people’s vocabulary when they’re talking about downtown Elgin. And changing the way we talk about Downtown is a big step towards changing others’ perceptions of it.

The City’s downtown streetscape project will replace those bad “D” words with good “B” words like “bright” and “bustling.” Enhanced street lighting is one of the project’s key features. Take a stroll down South Grove Avenue and you can see what they will look like. And brick sidewalk and street pavers, newspaper stands, benches, planters and other aesthetic upgrades will all help to make the Downtown appear more attractive and welcoming for new businesses, residents and visitors.

Increased pedestrian traffic also contributes to the feeling of safety in a downtown. Maybe because we know that there is safety in numbers. Take Michigan Avenue for instance. You probably don’t feel unsafe walking the Mag Mile at night, even though you may be stepping over sleeping street people along the way. It’s bright. It’s bustling. It feels relatively safe.

I’m certainly not advocating to let your guard down, whether you’re downtown or uptown. Being aware of your surroundings is key to staying safe. But I am advocating that as you look at those surroundings when you’re walking downtown, see how they have changed and are changing. Then tell someone about it.