Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Championing the City of Champions

I haved lived and taught in Bridgewater -- just south of Brockton -- for fifteen years now. I meet a lot of people who have lived near Brockton for as long or longer than I have, who have never been in the city! (Zipping through the western edge on Route 24 does not count.) The reason, it turns out, is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of racial diversity, fear of being shot.

As one downtown minister pointed out in the aftermath of a Christmas-day shooting, the city's hard-core criminal one percent has managed to overshadow the 99 percent of Brocktonians who go to work or school every day and contribute in many ways to the strength of the community. But that one percent -- or whatever proportion of the populace is responsible for high-profile pathologies -- has a disproportionate influence on perception, particularly among those whose intake of "news" is limited to television, commercial talk radio, or tabloid newspapers. (Even the Brockton Enterprise, which tries to accentuate positive stories about Brockton, also leads with the grimly sensational any day that it can.)

The disportionate fear of crime arises from several factors, but as John Allen Paulos points out early in his book Innumeracy, it is a symptom of a country with limited ability to use and apply math in everyday life. The results can be amusing, if disheartening. A few years ago, a student in my Geography of Brockton course wrote an essay about a Saturday-morning drive around town (what geographers call a "windshield survey") on which I had taken some of the students. This athletic, seemingly confident young man reported relief at surviving the journey and surprise at how normal everything had been. He wrote of people doing yard work and other chores, and how the houses and cars looked better-kept than he expected. Growing up in the region but not the city, he had avoided the area entirely, and his mental map of Brockton was like a scene from Grand Theft Auto. I since realized that thousands of people in this region skirt around the edges of Brockton on a regular basis, envisioning the worst in center of their regional mental map. It is as if the dragons at the edge of an ancient map had been dragged to the center. (Cartographic aside: Peter van der Krogt argues that such maps never were made.)

I do not write this to trivialize the crime that does occur. One reason that this article has taken so long for me to write is that while I was writing, I learned of a database that ranks Brockton's crime rate in the top 100 nationally, while listing my own town of Bridgewater among the 100 safest. Those rankings are somewhat fickle, and shift somewhat depending on details of methodology, but they make clear that the stereotypes mentioned above are not without some basis in fact: dangers in Brockton -- particularly in the center -- are real.

Those dangers need not define the city, however, as Brockton native Mary Beth Meehan makes clear in her work. I have seen some of it, but have not yet taken the time to explore all of it. As shown below and as discussed with Megna Chakrabarti on Radio Boston, Meehan has created a most unusual photographic exhibit. She places photography of the everyday in public spaces, so that Brocktonians and their visitors can see the people who define their community. This celebration of what people bring to the city -- from all corners of the Earth, as it turns out -- can help to recast downtown as a bit more nuanced than headlines and stereotypes would suggest.

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