City living and staying safe
August 1, 2010 12:07 PM   Subscribe

I'm new to city living and have some probably unfounded worries about security and safety.

I've just moved to a new apartment in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. Previously I had been living in the suburbs.

It turns out that my apartment is across the street from an homeless persons outreach center/soup kitchen. At night you will see a lot of homeless people sleeping on the street, and when I was walking back home the other night after having had a few beers I was surprised by another coming out of an alley as I was walking by. Not the greatest location for one's home, in retrospect.

Further adding to my doubts, I found out a few days ago that my apartment had been broken into two or three years ago by someone equipped with a crowbar. My apartment is a second level coach house secured behind a locked gate with fencing probably 6.5' - 7' high.

I know I'm being a little prejudiced here, but it is hard not being affected by stories such as this one. Obviously not all homeless people are mentally ill and not all mentally ill are violent. But still.

Plus, I have a girlfriend and I want her to feel safe when she comes to visit. And I want myself and property to be reasonably secure as well.

So have at me. Are my feelings unreasonable? Give me some advice here.
posted by prunes to Society & Culture (28 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
This isn't meant to address all your concerns, but you should get renter's insurance.
posted by ifandonlyif at 12:21 PM on August 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Not really advice, but I lived in what I'd consider a significantly crummier neighborhood on the border of Logan Square and Humboldt Park for 5 years, and never once had an issue. At all. Well, I take that back. My car got keyed once.

There's crime in the city, certainly. But, for the 100 homes that get broken into in a night, there are 1 million that don't. The odds are in your favor.
posted by hwyengr at 12:27 PM on August 1, 2010

I don't know about actual apartment safety, but in terms of living in the city, I would try to get used to projecting an air of "I know what I'm doing."

As a young woman living in Manhattan, I wanted to deal with a minimum of harassment. The way I did this (it works, I swear) is to walk with a purpose. Don't let your eyes wander all over, don't pull out maps while walking on the sidewalk, don't dilly-dally. Look like you have somewhere to be, and like you don't want anyone messing with you along the way.

A lot of it is in the attitude. This helped ward off unwanted attention, people handing out flyers, people with tables set up collecting spare change, all sorts of stuff.

Don't underestimate the power of a tough exterior, even if you are unsure or nervous on the inside.

(This is all assuming you are alone- dynamics change when you're with a friend or a group, of course.)
posted by rachaelfaith at 12:27 PM on August 1, 2010 [10 favorites]

I lived in Chicago for several years and was never attacked, burgled, or otherwise victimized. Partly, I was just lucky, but I was also careful: I didn't walk around alone at night, particularly if I'd been drinking, I never took shortcuts through alleys, etc. In my experience, my male friends and acquaintances tended to be more frequently victimized than my female friends (a couple were mugged, one was punched in the face at random by a group of teenagers), and I wonder if it's because they felt more comfortable walking alone at night. Oh, also, you and your girlfriend should learn the walk-n-scowl for when you do need to walk somewhere alone: no maps (duck into a convenience store and ask for directions if you're lost), keep your face neutral/serious, and walk briskly. Keep a $20 in your pocket for emergency cab rides in case you find yourself somewhere you realize you shouldn't be walking.

But that said, crime is just a risk of city life. Or, more accurately, crime is a risk anywhere, and there are particular types of crime risks when you're living in the city. It's ok to feel disoriented and scared at first, but you need to channel that into decision-making: figure out what you can do to feel safer in your home (self-defense class? move to a different neighborhood? mace? always take a cab after midnight? whatever works for you), and take the steps to make that happen.
posted by Meg_Murry at 12:35 PM on August 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

The one and only time I was burglarized was in Chicago when I was living in a sketchy neighborhood in Uptown. But it wasn't the homeless guys who ever bothered me, nor are they the ones who broke in to take my stuff; based on what the cops saw when they came to check out the scene, the burglar was one or more of the workmen that my shitty landlord had let into my apartment a few days earlier without my permission or knowledge (I just came home and there they were, already in my apartment -- where my tip jar and camera were sitting on my dining table). Turns out they had evidently loosened the burglar bars from the inside, and came back for my money and camera a few nights later when I was at work.

So the moral of my story is: you are right to be safety-minded about your home and surroundings, but be careful not to project all your fears onto a single target. (And raise holy hell if your landlord lets anyone into your home without your permission!)

Amusing afterword: one of the homeless guys in the neighborhood, who I'd become casually friendly with, felt so bad when I mentioned that I'd had a break-in that he went into the liquor store and bought me a beer.
posted by scody at 12:42 PM on August 1, 2010 [4 favorites]

Seconding the renters insurance.

Get insurance. Take pictures of everything you own, write down serial numbers.

It's good peace of mind.

Use Everyblock to keep up with what's happening on your street. (and the ones near you).

You're kinda living in the heart of yuppieville. With the heavy gentrification, there are many clueless targets for the baddies. Be informed, relax, enjoy the neighborhood. But remember... like Morphine said... Sharks patrol these waters.
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 1:00 PM on August 1, 2010

You're going to get a lot of anecdata here. But you're behind a six or seven foot fence and not even on the ground level. Take a walk down your block (really): I bet there are a LOT easier places to break in. As long as you're diligent about keeping that closed and locked, you've got relatively little to worry about.

If your girlfriend's uncomfortable, buy her some pepper spray. Buy yourself some pepper spray.

I also really recommend a self-defense or martial arts class, if you have time for it... not because I think you'll need it but you'll feel 100x more confident, especially once you get in the habit of evaluating strangers and your surroundings. And there are a million other reasons it's a great thing to do.
posted by ista at 1:03 PM on August 1, 2010

Can you get a dog? Not so much for the personal protection, but for the noise. If someone's just casually trying to get in, maybe they'll be deterred by a barking dog?

What about getting to know some of the regulars from across the street, and kind of asking them to keep an eye on your place? Or go introduce yourself to whoever runs the center (maybe volunteer?) and develop a relationship with them, and the center as a whole. Maybe they'll look after their "own" if you become a familiar face.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 1:06 PM on August 1, 2010

Is it possible that the homeless population on your block may offer a degree of protection from crime? It's the dark streets without foot traffic that make the best robbery locations. No criminal wants witnesses, and it sounds like there are folks on your street 24/7.
posted by ladypants at 1:06 PM on August 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

I actually considered trying out learning a martial art, although for not necessarily for personal protection (that would be a nice benefit, but I question how practicable most things you learn in these classes actually are). Anyone have any personal recommendations on places in the area? I saw that there are two Gracie affiliated Brazilian Jiu Jitsu schools that I could get to (one in the Loop, the other around Logan/Nobel Square, I think), another BJJ school on Western near Milwaukee, as well as a Hapkido and a Taekwondo school in Wicker park.
posted by prunes at 1:17 PM on August 1, 2010

City living is fine and there are some great tips here. Here's my few cents on staying safe while out and about.

1) Walk intently. if you're not sure where you are, stop at a street corner and look at the signs. Don't halt mid-block and look confused. If you feel threatened by shadows, head towards light and people, wave, and shout, "hey, Rick! Wait up!" (You can always claim mistaken identity if "Rick" actually turns around!)

2) To carry things, use a backpack or messenger bag. Don't hold stuff in your hands, it makes you clumsy. If you're trucking a lot of groceries around, get a canvas rolly shopping cart; something you can abandon if necessary. It'll also save your back.

3) Frequent a number of small local stores (conveniences) and make a point of engaging the clerks/owners. If you get a good vibe, say you're new in the area and do they have any tips or things to watch out for. Also ask this of your super/landlord. Be a little cagey around neighbours until you get a vibe about them. The street folks can be a great resource. Treat them with respect and occasionally bring them a coffee or a bagel or something. They will look out for you after a while. Local knowledge is key. Overall, trust your instincts.

That's about all I've got. There's lots of door safety stuff but basically don't open it if you don't know who is on the other side no matter what they say. Worst case whoever it is can leave a damn note.

Enjoy your new home!
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:37 PM on August 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Make allies with the homeless regulars on your block (the ones who are not obviously crazy and/or drunk all the time). They are your eyes and ears on the street. And talk with the folks who run the soup kitchen. Bring them a bag of groceries (ask what they need most first). Making yourself less of an Other in the eyes of those who live and work in your neighborhood is never a bad thing.

Otherwise, keep your eyes open, don't dawdle when you're coming home late at night, and get renter's insurance.
posted by rtha at 1:44 PM on August 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm a big believer in the idea that knowledge is power. Certainly Chicago has some kind of online crime tracker, no? In my town, I can go to a government website and enter my address and find out every crime that's happened (well, reported) in my neighborhood for the last few years, including the month and type of crime, to a pretty specific detail. This is a great way to get a sense of what is actually happening, and where.

So, in my in-town neighborhood, which has a fair amount of crime (and is the kind of neighborhood that might scare someone fresh from the 'burbs), I now know it's most likely we'll deal with a bicycle theft or something being stolen from our car. Actual burglaries are low. So, yeah, we lock up the house, but make extra sure the car is locked without stuff in it, and we don't leave our bikes outside unlocked. I also know the cross streets that see the highest amounts of crime. This is great information that actually keeps us safer.

It looks like EveryBlock, which someone linked above, might do just that.

I also think knowing your neighbors is a big help, as you all look out for each other.

Also, if you are concerned, I don't think it's unreasonable to go into the shelter, introduce yourself as a new neighbor, and find out what's going on there. For example, you might find out that they have a curfew of x time, and so anyone out after that isn't one of their residents. I'm just guessing, but it can't hurt to smile to the people you see on the street. Think of them as allies rather than as potential criminals. As long as they're somewhat normalish-seeming.

Also, some quick googling suggests that homeless people are more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators, of crime.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:46 PM on August 1, 2010

Oh, check this out: crimes in your neighborhood up to last week.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:48 PM on August 1, 2010

Nthing renter's insurance.

Also, make sure your landlord has taken all the customary precautions. Here in New York, that's burglar bars, working locks, good lighting, stuff like that. What scody says is also a good point - make sure your landlord/super does not have access to your apartment while you're not home and does not let strangers into your apartment without your consent.

Additionally, there are things you can do yourself.

It's sad that this needs to be said, but always lock your doors and keep windows securely bolted when nobody's going to be around. My last apartment was in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood. One summer all the well-off white n00bs were Totes Freaked Out about a nearby break-in. It turned out the break-in occurred when the occupants left a window open in their ground floor apartment while they were out of town for several weeks. Duuuhhhhhhh...

Similarly, if you have windows that anyone might be able to see into, make sure you don't have fancy stuff lying around in full view.

Know your neighbors (including the homeless guys!) - because they will be able to warn you about sketchy situations, and because that way you'll know when something is off. My last apartment (in that rapidly gentrifying neighborhood) was in a building where many of my neighbors were young black men. AKA "scary" to most people. After getting to know them they all turned out to be nice guys, which enabled me to know the difference between a cluster of neighborhood kids sitting on a stoop on a summer night and a cluster of hoodlums lying in wait to mug people.

What ladypants says is also true. Don't underestimate the power of foot traffic and eyes on the street. Those homeless guys might be the ones to scare off someone who's hassling you, someday.
posted by Sara C. at 2:35 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing taking advantage of the shelter. I'm ridiculously introverted and I find these institutional settings (where, for instance, there's usually someone at a desk waiting to say hello to strangers) far more approachable than normal neighbors, who might be at dinner or arguing about homework or something.

Anecdotally, for the last two years I've lived between a mental health crisis center and a church with an on/off pantry, and my section of my street is the safest (for all types of crime) between the state capital building and the exclusive boy's school, each about one mile from my place in opposite directions.
posted by SMPA at 2:49 PM on August 1, 2010

In my experience (nb: mileage may vary), the folks who take advantage of programs like soup kitchens and outreach shelters are typically not the problematic or dangerous people. If you want to be sure, volunteer for a shift at the soup kitchen, which will give you a chance to interact with the clients on an observed and familiar ground. But I would bet you're probably better off right across the street than you would be a couple blocks away; as people upthread have stated, the presence of lots of friendly eyes helps to deter the occasional bad seed.
posted by KathrynT at 2:57 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Please don't be a NIMBY about the homeless shelter. Please. I have the job of having to stand outside our soup kitchen and politely urge our guests to move towards their destinations as quickly as possible & not loiter in front for even the amount of time it might take them to light a cigarette because of the people who insist that the mere presence of the poor on their blocks increases the chances of crime. the worst these guys do are going through their trash for deposit bottles & cans and maybe a case of public urination (which we strongly urge them not to do since we have available facilities and we will also police it if we see it happening).

Homeless & poor does not mean they are waiting for you to come home and jump you.

Common sense things I see the dumb kids in my area do:
--Don't walk home at night with your earphones in. My cutoff for earphones is 9pm, but I'm a city kid. You need to have all your wits about you and talking to your mom or listening to music at full blast will dull your senses.
--Don't parade wealth. White earphones do that (another reason to not wear them)
--Walk confidently & with a sense of purpose.
--Have your keys in your hand BEFORE you get off at your stop. Don't stop at the door to dig them out of your bag.
--If you're coming home late, don't be burdened with packages. Take stuff home in increments or go home earlier.
--Do not answer the door. Ever. It's fine to ask who it is, but if it's not your landlord or a neighbor who you recognize (and DON'T EVER OPEN WITHOUT LOOKING), don't open it. Don't take "i live downstairs" as a reason unless you've actually seen that person.
--Lock doors, lock windows, don't leave stuff near the window.
--If you buy any nice expensive toys, don't leave the boxes in the trash where they can advertise to everyone that you just bought them. cut the boxes down.

The other tips about becoming friendly with neighborhood merchants is priceless as well.
posted by micawber at 3:37 PM on August 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

re micawber above - many of those would be guidelines I'd use if I knew I was living in a dangerous area suffering through a crime wave.

Most of them are unnecessary if you live in a good neighborhood where you feel generally safe and don't actively know people who've been mugged/broken into recently.

It should be fine for you to stand on your front steps after dark to fish for your keys, for instance - the chances that you're going to be ambushed are vanishingly small in all but the worst neighborhoods.

Same for white earphones - they've been ubiquitous for almost a decade now, you can buy them at Rite Aid for $6.99, and they're not going to get you mugged unless you live in the sort of place where any display of any sort of possession makes you a target.

The 'never open the door' thing, ditto. If your apartment is in Cabrini Green, yeah, you might want to be careful about that. But if my buzzer goes off and the person at the intercom says "Mail Carrier!" or "UPS Delivery!", I'm generally going to assume they're not a criminal trying to break into the building unless it seems really fishy for some reason.
posted by Sara C. at 3:47 PM on August 1, 2010

Can you specify your gender? Knowing your gender will greatly affect the advice and answers you get.
posted by ErikaB at 4:16 PM on August 1, 2010

I'll also add that, if you are new to city life in general, things can seem a lot scarier than they really are. I hate to tell you not to pay attention to your instincts, but the bottom line is that the city "spidey sense" and the country/suburb "spidey sense" are two extremely different things.

It's hard to describe until you've experienced the transition. Basically, a year from now places that seem dangerous will seem normal. And you'll have a better sense of what makes a situation feel unsafe.

For me the biggest thing I can describe is that I learned to tell the difference between seedy and sketchy. My current neighborhood would've given me the wiggins if I'd moved here straight from suburbia. It's kind of dirty, and most of the businesses are chinese takeout, laundromats, bodegas, or African-American hair salons/barbershops. I would guess that a very large proportion of my neighbors are Black or Latino (I say "guess" because studies show that white people are horrible predictors of this). Because it's a predominantly Caribbean-American area, you hear a lot of extremely weird accents on the street and often can't understand what people are saying even though it seems like it's supposed to be English. There are a lot of unemployed black men who loiter on the street all day, and generally sketchy wino types lingering about. It is a rather seedy area.

However, as I've said I know the difference now between seedy and dangerous. The barbershops and bodegas are places where members of the community go to interact - this is a good thing, in terms of safety. And the above businesses, while seemingly unwholesome, all indicate that people in the area are not completely desperate. While I really wish this city did not have such stratospheric unemployment rates for black men, as I've said above these guys are eyes on the street. And as I learn the neighborhood better, I see that they're neighborhood fixtures who know the kids, know the moms, know who belongs and who doesn't. Even the sketchy-looking wino type dudes have their role to play. I love the community's strong ties to their language and culture - again, it implies that people here aren't completely adrift. So while my neighborhood is definitely seedy, I don't feel unsafe here because I know how to read the social cues.

If this interests you, at all, I'd strongly suggest reading Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities.
posted by Sara C. at 4:28 PM on August 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

A small tip (courtesy Nellie McKay, oddly enough): carry a decoy wallet to give to a mugger. This is a cheap wallet with 10 or 20 bucks and some random crap cards that don't reveal your identity.
posted by werkzeuger at 5:48 PM on August 1, 2010

It might help if you get to know people on your block who aren't threatening, maybe the people who run the shelter. I wouldn't be overly friendly to anyone you don't want to have an ongoing relationship with, but it always helps to have people watching your back, people who know who is supposed to be in your apartment and who isn't, and generally someone to call/talk to who is local if something happens. They'll also be able to give you a better idea of what/who to really worry about in your neighborhood, and what not to worry about. They can also give you really location-specific tips--and tell you how they deal with the situation.

Best of luck!
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 6:39 PM on August 1, 2010

I wonder which part of Wicker Park you're in?

I lived in WP for 5 years (moved last month) and still work there. I ride my bike late at night after work to get home, and before that, I would walk 5 blocks after midnight. I *personally* have never had a problem.

It really depends on where you are in the neighborhood, though. There has been an uptick in person on person crime that I've noticed lately, but the incidents have been random and kind of bizarre.

The only problems I've had - my car window got busted once. Someone stole ONE pedal off my bike.

Use common sense and you should be fine.
posted by bibliogrrl at 9:52 PM on August 1, 2010

also, Prunes - the martial art place right on Milwaukee just south of North/Damen is a good school, from everything I've heard.
posted by bibliogrrl at 9:54 PM on August 1, 2010

What rachaelfaith said is the damn truth. It's gotten me through 26 years in a tough hometown, and 5 years in a decent neighborhood of NYC. It's your home, you belong there. Own that attitude, no matter where you go.

It helps that when I'm not talking/engaged with someone I look really mean/angry (it's how my face is built, I'm nice, really). But my advice has always been to not look to scared or impressed. Even if you don't know where you're going, act like you do. Worst case scenario, you walk around the block.
posted by AlisonM at 10:19 PM on August 1, 2010

Any time I see this question in other advice columns, someone recommends The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. It seems to boil down to projecting confidence, being aware of your surroundings, and paying attention to your gut feelings in any situation.
posted by anotherkate at 11:30 PM on August 1, 2010

My experience in the city, far worse neighborhoods than Wicker Park, pretty much echos the above.

There will be random crime. It happens everywhere; it is just a function that x% of the population are deadbeats. More population, more assholes.

As far as feeling safe and comfortable, what works wonders for me is not (so much) to look angry and/or in a rush, but to look confident, and engage those around you. Have, and project, situational awareness and confidence. The advice of well-meaning but misguided people to "don't look 'them' in the eye" is dead wrong. Purposefully ignoring someone you are walking past telegraphs a lack of confidence. Plus, it is rude. If you do happen to encounter someone with crime on the mind, they will be more likely to make you their mark if they see that lack of confidence, and are pissed off that you refuse to acknowledge them as a fellow human being. Just the tiniest moment of friendly eye contact serves to communicate that you are, indeed, a real person; that you acknowledge them as one too. It fosters a tiny moment of 'fraternite'. If they have an "us versus them" mentality, it makes you a part of their "us".

Since I have adopted that outlook, I have had FAR fewer unpleasant encounters with strangers. A microcosm of this would be the icewater/tube-sock/bag-of-oranges vendors and pan handlers at intersections. When I would just ignore them, about 1 in 4 would be banging at my window. A friendly wave before they get to me, however, has reduced that to nothing. If I'm walking down the street, at most I've gotten is "hey, you don't have a couple of dollars for me, do you?" Which I usually respond with "sorry, I don't have it, all I got is change for the meter," with the implication that I feel badly, but I'm just out working my own hustle too. The worst thing that has happened is the occasional nut decides I am their friend- I give them a few seconds to tell their story and wish them well.

But more often than not, I just get a reciprocal acknowledgment, and we are both on our way. The vast majority of interactions with strangers on the street become honest "hey, do you know where the X is?" or "what time is it?"

Other than that, it is the common sense stuff. Lock your doors, call the cops if something weird seems to be happening, etc.

It's all about mindset. Accept that city life is more chaotic- prevent what you can, deflect/diffuse what you can, and be prepared to kick 'im in the nuts if all else fails.
posted by gjc at 7:58 AM on August 2, 2010

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