September 9, 2012

Eyes on the Street: The Importance of Civic Responsibility

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This past Sunday, two separate sexual assaults, and one incident of harassment were reported to the Cornell University Police Department. Our thoughts are, first and foremost, in support of the survivors of these incidents. When events like these occur, theychange the lives of the survivors, their loved ones and also their communities.

I rolled over in my bed early last Saturday morning to check the time. With one eye open, I peered through my emails. One particularly caught my attention: “Crime Alert: A rape reported…” Instantly, I was awake.

I read the email three times, unable to process the information dispensed. As a senior, Ithaca and Cornell are somewhat of a home. I feel safe on campus and throughout town and rarely have concerns about safety. This was a violation of my safe haven.

My mind could not abandon the subject. I thought about how many nights I’d trekked alone, regardless of the time. In my attempts to emulate Kurt Vonnegut, I often walked home from The Sun in solitude, thinking of his words, “I was happiest when I was all alone — and it was very late at night, and I was walking up the Hill after having helped put The Sun to bed.” The exercise was often therapeutic, as the streets were quiet and serene.

When I lived on West campus during my sophomore year, while most of my friends lived either on north or in Collegetown, I often walked home alone or across campus in the middle of a night out. I was never bothered and rarely uncomfortable. I suppose I should consider myself lucky, though I don’t particularly consider it a privilege to be able to walk on your own and be safe. In fact, I’ve always considered it a right.

As a woman, the idea of needing to be “walked home” has always infuriated me. I am not made of sugar; I will not melt. I am fully capable of caring for myself. The very idea of dependence is frustrating.

Regardless of my sentiments, the statistics show a pattern: Women are more vulnerable.  The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), reports that while three percent of men have been victims of rape or of attempted rape, almost six times that amount, 17.6 percent of women, have been in the same situation. According to the Justice Department, one in five women will experience rape or attempted rape during college and less than five percent of these rapes will be reported.

This is a reality. So, how do we make our streets, campuses, neighborhoods and cities a safer place to be? It seems that the initial responses from students and staff point to taking people off the streets. Services, like blue light cars, TCAT buses and shuttles during finals weeks, are meant to transport students via automobile and prevent the entire issue altogether.

Instead, what if a culture of walking and watching was created? The “eyes on the street” theory may be a viable solution. Renowned journalist Jane Jacobs wrote one of the most influential books about urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. As an outsider to the profession, Jacobs critiques urban renewal and challenged many conventional theories. With the philosophy of “eyes on the street,” Jacobs presents this idea that activity on streets is essential to the life of a city. She calls on shop owners, citizens and police alike to walk often and keep streets populated. Additionally, she calls on them to monitor what happens in their environments so that abnormalities can be addressed immediately. Jacobs refers to such action as “do-it-yourself surveillance.”

While Jacobs’ theories are fascinating, they are based mostly on her own perception and experiences, not on concrete surveys or statistical data. I understand that to many, this might seem naive or maybe even absurd. But I wonder what could happen if such an initiative were put forward.

If we all conducted our lives with a sense of responsibility to the place in which we live and the people we live with, perhaps our communities would be stronger. Especially in the ever-transient world of college, fostering a stronger civic responsibility to people who live within a space could be transformative. This is about more than physical safety. It’s about conducting everyday life with consideration for yourself and others.

Katerina Athanasiou is a senior in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. She is currently a Senior Editor at The Sun. She may be reached at [email protected] Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Katerina Athanasiou