Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fear your neighbor? Call the cops!

One of the most interesting aspects about the recent arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. was something that went completely unreported in the US, though I suspect it would have been the first thing on everyone's mind in Europe: why did the man's neighbor call the cops in the first place?

I imagine that most neighbors would know each other, and if you don't you can probably just walk over and see who the guy is -- at least in Europe. In the US, you might be afraid that the guy is going to have a gun and kill you.

Recently, Bob Dylan was arrested. He was standing in the rain in front of a home with a for-sale sign. The people inside the house did not view the man as a potential buyer (Dylan says he was indeed looking to buy the house), but rather as a crazy vagabond who was walking around in the rain. In the US, walkers are often treated with suspicion, and some suburbs do not have sidewalks at all, though there is a trend to have them retrofitted these days. If you simply want to take a walk in many parts of the US, people will assume that your car has broken down (in which case someone may stop and ask you if you need help) or that you cannot afford one and are destitute. Few people will assume that you are simply taking a walk.

It is unlikely that Bob Dylan would have been arrested under similar circumstances over here in Germany. I contend that the average German who notices a strange man standing out in the street looking at their house would probably not even think the man is especially strange. In fact, I am sure that things like this happen all the time; every time I go outside, there are all kinds of strange people looking at all sorts of things.

I haven't called the police yet, but it would be interesting to see if they would take me seriously at all. I wouldn't be surprised if they asked me, "Someone is standing out in the rain looking at your house, and you want us to come by?"


  1. Craig, you've been in Germany too long and are starting to believe the media hype ;-). I'll give you the Bob Dylan thing being weird, but there are several inaccuracies here. First of all, although the media reported it was his neighbor who called the police it was in fact someone driving through the neighborhood. And folks in the Harvard area aren't like the rest of us. They're, uhm how can I put this?, a little snooty at times. Secondly, I walk in my city all the time - in fact I trained for the last 4 months to walk in a 60 mile breast cancer walk and tramped all over the area. And I'm not the only one out there walking. Sure, you have to be a little more vigilant because drivers don't think about pedestrians or bicyclists (or skateboarders) on the sidewalk, but no one has looked at me as if I was crazy for walking.

  2. Maybe I've been in Germany too long too, but the notion that neighbors would first call the police rather than take the time to see what's going on not only has to do with fear, but also with a weird separation that occurs between houses and apartments and lives in the States. When I moved into my own apartment for the first time in Germany, neighbors came over not only to introduce themselves, but also to explain the recycling calendar (everyone has a week to put out the bins) and to ask if I wanted to leave a key with them just in case I get locked out (because of the dreaded automatically locking doors here...) Not as communally minded as I am now, I turned down the offer to give up a key, but I welcomed the recycling information and was glad to know that people cared about their neighborhood enough to personally check out the newbie. Because we have so few common activities in the States (like recycling or stairway duty or whatever), we miss out on a lot of useful contact that can help build stronger communities. I know people in my home state with children who drive them across town to play dates but who have rarely if ever had their children play with the neighbors next door. And don't get me started about walking...the last time I was in the States I stayed at a motel across the street from a mall with a huge parking lot in the middle of which was a restaurant where I wanted to eat. I exited the motel, had to walk out of the driveway and down the cross street (the motel was at an intersection) to get to the sidewalk on the main street, which was blocked off from the motel by a hedge. At the corner there was no crosswalk, probably because there were six lanes of traffic and two turn lanes to cross, so I walked down to the next intersection, which was actually just an entrance to the mall. No turn lanes here, so a there was a crosswalk - with 20 second intervals to cross! No mercy for the weak here! Finally across, I could now see the restaurant, but the "green" area, which was actually a steep ditch with grass planted on it, was not really passable, so I had to follow the road (again, no sidewalk) to another (vehicle) entrance that lead into the restaurant's parking lot within the mall's parking lot. People did look at me as if I was crazy as I crossed that parking lot on foot. And the food wasn't even that good. And no one was neighborly enough to say hello to me. Have I really been in Europe too long? Maybe now I know why. ;) --Paula

  3. Thanks, Jill, I do stand corrected on the neighbor bit, which was (incorrectly) in initial media reports, but I have not followed up on Gatesgate.

    The rest, I'm afraid, is from experience. I once tried to walk across the street at a genuine crosswalk in Memphis only to find that cars were honking at me in the middle of the road - the light was already red again for me! And yes, you can be asked if you need help just for walking somewhere.

    Greetings from London, where the mayor is promoting cycling...

  4. For the record, my next-door neighbors have a key to my place and take out my dog on the rare occasion I'm gone a while and/or can't make it home. Maybe it depends on where you live. My city is very walkable, but then again I chose to move here because it is walkable.

  5. It really depends on where you live in the U.S. I am frequently bothered by "this is the way it happens in the U.S." generalizations because our country is so large and so varied. There's a reason I frequently think of myself as Californian first and American second.

    Either way, I just spent a week each in two of the most walking friendly cities ever: Portland, Oregon, and Boston, Massachusetts. Lance and I relied on our feet and public transit to get everywhere we needed to go, with the occasional ride with a friend who lived in a place. In both of those places, walking is encouraged and easy.

    Now, in Downtown Long Beach, where I live, driving is easy, but so is walking, most of the time. Our city is large, though (50 square miles) so you do tend to drive places within the city. No one is looked at strangely for walking places, but it's not as easy here as in Boston because we only have one train line as opposed to six or seven. Good public transit is essential to walking in a modern city. No one will argue that it is practical to walk 20 miles to a friend's house.

    As far as Bob Dylan, have you seen what he looks like lately? The cops weren't called because he was walking, but because he looks like a psychopath.

  6. (finishing)

    There's a guy in my neighborhood who may be homeless who spends his time walking around my intersection and staring. I haven't talked to him because he's creepy. But my neighborhood has many mentally ill/homeless people, so we've never called the cops on him. It's part of the neighborhood.

    However, a dude looking like him, standing in the rain, staring at my house, in a neighborhood that is not used to this behavior seems like a scene from a horror movie. I don't blame them.

    The creepiness is not fear that he might have a gun (if he looked like a gang member or a Texan, maybe), but that he's probably mentally ill and might shout, babble, possibly become violent, or otherwise make me uncomfortable. How do you deal with the mentally ill wandering around when you are not trained to deal with them? The unpredictability is what drives the fear.

  7. Oh, and your experience in Memphis is because Memphis is a crazy town. I once saw a car driving *backward* down the street at like, 30 MPH in heavy traffic.

    Again, not particularly American, but I've been told by residents that that's par for the course in Memphis.