Bit by bit, Americans feel safer

Latest crime figures show people, from tire salesmen to toddlers, steadily reclaiming their neighborhoods.

With a bright yellow "S" emblazoned across his chest and his blue cape flowing in the wind, Superman - a.k.a. toddler Jacob Frackman - is taking his aunt to visit his secret fort. "Yes, my fort is in Central Park," he confides confidently.

A decade ago, you'd be more likely to find a drug dealer's den than a child's hideaway in the park. But after six years of declining crime rates, New Yorkers - and many other Americans - are finding cities safer in ways both subtle and significant.

It's not a dramatic change, but a slow growing realization that they aren't looking behind their back quite as often anymore. Many women are comfortable wearing jewelry on the subway again. Cab drivers are going into areas of cities they have avoided. Whole communities are holding block parties to celebrate reclaiming neighborhoods from gangs and drug dealers.

"In some cities they do feel safer," says James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminology at Northeastern University in Boston. "But in general dropping crime rates don't affect the perceptions of many people."

Polls in Massachusetts, Texas, New York, and a handful of other states have found people are now feeling safer in their homes and neighborhoods than just a few years ago. Interviews with cab drivers, engineers, and homemakers across the country also reflect an improved sense of well being.

But for many Americans, an underlying anxiety persists - and television news is a key reason. "The quality-of-life issue tends to be shaped far more by what people perceive is going on out there than the cold-blooded statistical reality," says Charles Thomas, professor of criminology at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

While the crime rate has dropped, the amount of murder, assaults, and robbery covered by the nightly news has not. In fact, it has remained stubbornly the same during the past four years, according to the Denver-based Rocky Mountain Media Watch - and that influences people.

Carline Howes, a home health aid from the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, is an avid news watcher. She doesn't believe the crime statistics. "Every day you still hear of a lot of things going on. I think they're not reporting some things," says Ms. Howes, who doesn't feel safer now than she did a decade ago.

View from Flip's tire shop

But across the continent, at Flip's Tire Center in Van Nuys, Calif., owner Flip Smith has worked hard to change perceptions, by changing the reality of his community.

Six years ago, graffiti was ubiquitous in the community in the sprawling San Fernando Valley. Trash lined sidewalks. Prostitutes and drug dealers hung out at pay phones. Break-ins were common. Business was suffering.

So Mr. Smith, who chairs a local crime-watch group, worked with police, government, and businesses to turn streets around. Pay telephones were modified to make only outgoing calls, and the "pound" key was disabled so no one could access message centers. The drug dealers and prostitutes moved out of the neighborhood.

Every week volunteer teams paint over offensive graffiti. Block monitors sweep trash from the sidewalks. The result: Crime has dropped significantly.

"I feel more secure leaving work in the dark, late at night now," says Smith. "You don't notice it until someone asks you what's different, and you realize you're not looking over your shoulder as much."

The change has been even more dramatic for Marcell McCloud, a high-school senior in Inglewood, Calif., just south of Los Angeles. When he was a youngster, shootings and "gangbanging" were much more common, even on the playground.

"I remember I was riding my bike by a liquor store, and I got caught in the middle of a shoot-out," he says. "The guy ran into my backyard. I was eight years old and too scared [to do anything]. There's still some stuff going on, but, personally, I feel safer. It is safer to walk on the street."

Rising like a Phoenix

In Phoenix, the predominantly low-income neighborhood of Garfield is turning around thanks to a "weed and seed" program. Under the federally funded initiative, police and members of the community work together to "weed" out crime and "seed in" neighborhood improvements.

So far, police have shut down 108 drug houses and arrested key members of a local gang that had been extorting protection money from newly arrived immigrants.

The city has put in new streetlights, sidewalks, and curbs. Some 30 blighted and abandoned buildings have been demolished, while 133 homes were rehabilitated. The community also planted more than 1,000 trees.

"It broke the chain hold on residents because they finally felt they could speak up," says Kim Moody, president of the Garfield Neighborhood Association.

In Philadelphia, the revitalization of the center city district is also changing the reality, along with perceptions, of the city. The streets are cleaner and well-lit, businesses stay open later, and, as a result, night life has returned.

"Downtown Philadelphia has improved tremendously," says Mario Cooke, a cab driver waiting for a fare at the 30th Street train station, which is bustling with people. "You no longer walk around afraid. Many more people go out than they used to. There's been a good dent in crime."

Real estate broker Theresa Rigdon says rentals and sales in center city have never been higher. "I have seen an increase in people selling their suburban homes and moving back into the city," she says.

That trend is being reflected, in varying degrees, in many cities across the country. And the dropping crime rates are a central reason.

But for many Americans, especially those who live in low-income areas that haven't benefited from large infusions of federal or state funds or community revitalization efforts, the reality of life can still be unnerving.

Donna Neill moved into her home on a quiet, oak-lined street in north central Phoenix, unaware of the violence in the surrounding community. She still routinely hears the sound of gunfire and helicopters circling overhead.

"I've been doing this five years," she says. "It's still the same gangs. It's still the same drug houses."

Lingering doubts

Many criminologists believe the fear of violence still outweighs the positive impact of the declining crime statistics for most Americans.

And they contend there is still a long way to go before every American feels safe when walking out the door.

"Crime rates may be down a few percent," says Paul Klite of the Rocky Mountain Media Watch in Denver. "But compared to other countries, the amount of crime in this country is still enormous."

James Blair in Los Angeles, Stephanie Baum in Philadelphia, and Kathy Khoury in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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