America has long loathed its big cities. At least since Thomas Jefferson’s vision of sturdy yeoman farmers as the backbone of the nation (never mind that Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves), we have looked on our cities as places of filth and disease, low morals and high crime. So obviously, those places where Americans are most fearful are our big cities. Or not. On a list of the 10 cities where people feel least safe, published by 24/7 Wall Street, New York cannot be found, nor Chicago, Los Angeles nor any of America’s largest cities. Instead, we find Beaumont, Texas; Rockford, Illinois; Yakima, Washington; Stockton, California. The average population is 385,555, and only Memphis has more than a million people. Forbes list of the most murderous cities is less surprising: Washington, New Orleans, Detroit are on it. But even here, the average population is 561,546, and only Philadelphia exceeds a million.
We have too long overlooked the roles our large cities play. They are centers of art and culture, commerce and education. For immigrants, the small-town restless and artists, they are destinations, places of opportunity and personal independence. “City air makes men free” went the old adage, and serfs could actually claim their freedom in medieval cities. And cities are not just composed of millions of rootless people. They are characterized by communities, both of interest and ethnicity. Dynamic cities do not fail; stagnant cities do – and it is in our smaller and declining cities, where opportunity has disappeared and communities have eroded, that fear rules the streets.