Years ago, a downtown retailer announced that he was moving his store to the suburbs, and he made a big deal of what he said was the reason: crime was rampant downtown.
That was false. Crime wasn’t rampant downtown then, and it isn’t rampant now. Some neighborhoods in the city do indeed have high levels of crime. But not downtown. Downtown has been and continues to be safe.
If the retailer had said something that damaged the reputation of a person or another business, he could have been sued for libel. But downtowns – entire cities – are fair game for smears.
And so the local daily newspapers published the retailer’s story, accusation and all. And I assume many people believed it.
The store moved to the suburbs, where, for whatever reason, it eventually went out of business. But in the meantime, the retailer had made another contribution to a myth that has plagued downtown businesses, arts institutions, residents, and public officials for decades.
The damage is costly, in the revenue of retail businesses and arts institutions, and in the city’s tax base. But no matter; the myth has been repeated so often that it’s now general public perception. And since perception can smother reality, the myth about safety is one of the biggest obstacles to downtown’s health.
Let me share an example, part of a comment posted last week in response to my column wishing that companies like Wegmans and Paychex would move their headquarters from the suburbs downtown:
“Wow... another article bashing someone else for problems in the city. Moving corporate headquarters to the city isn't going to solve anything. It didn't in Detroit. Quicken Loans received 47 million in tax credits for the move, which jeopardizes all of their employees who must travel into the city.
“According to the latest FBI crime study, Detroit is listed as #1 for crimes. In fact, for 5 years in a row! Maybe Wegmans cares about their employees and doesn't want to see them harmed!
“The first step to attracting people to downtown is to clean up the crime. My answer is build more prisons and make them into self-sufficient businesses so it doesn't cost the taxpayers more money. If prisoners don't want to do the labor, they don't eat. Simple. – Mitch”
Obviously, Mitch believes what he has written. And in fairness, for years the media – television stations in particular – have played up crime stories so much that you’d think the entire city was awash in blood.
Another problem: some of the highest-crime areas are closer, geographically, to a Rochester suburb than they are to the heart of downtown. But our city-suburb lines create artificial divisions in our minds.
Downtown Rochester is safe. Many people have tried to stamp out the crime myth, to no avail. One solution, of course, might be for the skeptics to see the reality for themselves, to join those of us who are downtown frequently as we walk the streets, attend the events, eat at the restaurants, go to the movies, gather with friends.
It has helped, I think, that City Hall has done things like sponsor fireworks and concerts, and that the Jazz Festival and Fringe Festival have brought enormous crowds to downtown streets and venues.
Our reader Mitch may even have gone to some of those events. If so, he must figure that they’re exceptions, and that the rest of the year, he’ll be in danger if he comes downtown.
It’s hard to know what else to do to squash downtown’s big myth. Maybe we can simply appeal to the conscience of Mitch and the many folks like him: regardless of where we live, regardless of our political beliefs, as citizens and as human beings, we have a responsibility to seek the truth, yes? Before we say something damaging about something, maybe we can try to find out whether it’s true.