Oakland's bronze medal in crime

22:27, Jun 25 2013

Oakland, California, my home city of two months now, has just been listed as the third most dangerous place in America.

Now, this is in no way shocking news. We had read the back of the box before we moved, if you catch my drift. I'm also not bringing this up as some hard-edged brag about living in a war zone. I live in a lovely neighbourhood. I look out at a lake and parks and live a short walk away from hip bars, nice cafes and an extremely reputable Saturday farmer's market. 

But for the first time in the past couple of days, spurred by Oakland's bronze medal in the crime competition, I've found myself turning the situation over in my head, more disconcerted than usual by the omnipresent sirens and the occasional local miscreant.  

I'm more aware of crime right now than I've ever been in my life.  

As a man, I'm lucky that sexual assault isn't such a high risk and Oakland's murder rate, though eight times higher than the national average and puttingthe city in the top 10 deadliest places in America, is largely a result of gang violence that doesn't cross over into this part of town.

On a broad level, which does cross over into my area, Oakland places so high in crime statistics because of a robbery epidemic. There were 1086 robberies for every 100,000 people here last year, which if held steady would mean that there's a better than one in a thousand chance I'll get robbed here in any given year. Which is somewhat staggering.   


Snatch and grab, smartphone-and-wallet thefts are unnervingly frequent here. I went away with some friends at the weekend and two of the people in our group of 11 had recently been held up at gunpoint and relieved of their phones in the middle of the day. 

How it (reputedly) works is this. You're walking and a guy approaches you with a gun. He's working in tandem with a second guy who is in a car slightly behind you. You give him your valuables and they're away quickly. Oakland has a short-staffed and stretched police department, who really aren't going to be throwing out APBs and going all Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive because some young professional has to buy a new iPhone. The little bubble I live in is popular hunting ground because we live close to the freeway and an assailant can get away quickly.

When LP and I moved in, we began following a neighbourhood safety group on Facebook. We were quickly unnerved to see recent incident reports from within a short walk of us, at innocuous times of day too.

I spent a while noodling with Oakland Police's crime map before I started writing this blog and was a touch horrified to find that there had been two assaults on the corner of my block in the middle of the afternoon during the past month.

Oakland has some seedy areas that New Zealand would have no match for. But the safety element in my immediate vicinity is made confusing by how nice the area around me is. I'm not overstating it.

So for me it becomes an issue of how to rationalise and address the risk in my mind and how to not forget about that risk without being constantly paranoid.

Being relieved of your cash and phone is a more terrifying version of getting your lunch money taken, right? Oakland is dealing with demographic tensions, an existing crime problem, mixed with a large inflow of people who have been priced out of the San Francisco rental market.

I need to be sensible and make sure I don't carry too much cash and leave my cards and important documents at home. My phone is replaceable. If it happens, the pragmatist in me thinks, I'm out at worst $300. That's not so bad. No one robbing you wants to hurt you. Life for them gets a lot more serious if they do. Besides, I'm six foot four and look tougher than I am, which probably counts for a mugging insurance mechanism.

But for all I say that, I'd be freaked out by getting mugged at gunpoint. It would upset me. I don't want anyone to point a gun at me. My brain is not wired in a way that could just laugh that experience off.

Twice recently I've come home late from town. Both times I was pre-emptively worried and before I emerged from the subway, around 10 minutes' walk from my home, I found myself imagining the terrain I had to cross as if it was a zombie movie. I eyeballed everyone, jogged small distances and crossed the road to make sure I avoided even innocuous-looking people. Both times I was fine.

Oakland's crime rate makes even some of New Zealand's nastiest parts seem peaceful.

I don't like to live in fear (and it's not like I'm living in fear right now). My thinking is usually that with smart choices, you can eliminate the chance of being a victim of crime. For the first time, though, that isn't entirely the case and I need to make good with that.

Thoughts? War stories?

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