Homegrown Paranoia

by Steve Sherman


In June of 2010 I landed in Nairobi, Kenya and was immediately taxied to a mall in Westlands, a posh Nairobi suburb. Outside the mall were tall men with M-16s. I had samosas for dinner there. From the mall I started walking on red-dirt footpaths alongside razor-wired cement walls protecting stucco mansions.

Askari stood guard at these walls. Askari is the Nairobian Swahili term for a private security guard. They nodded at me strangely—by being white and not driving, I was sending signals they couldn’t interpret. After another kilometer I got to my residence and met my home’s askari, Frederick. That summer Frederick spent his work nights in a small, unclimatized booth while covered in blankets, listening to World Cup games and eating passion fruit. He was from the countryside and made up for his lack of English by smiling and nodding.

UN-HABITAT, the U.N.’s agency for human settlement analysis and policy, is headquartered in a massive compound in northwestern Nairobi, and that summer I was a demographer there. Rest assured, most every foreign worker (and most of the locals too) live under 24-hour security and behind barbed wire and cement.

“Nairobbery” has no shortage of crime—a U.N. report from 2001 stated that one in three residents experience a robbery in a year. Nairobi is also home to Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa and a place where it’s often so unsafe to leave your home at night that, rather than using the flooding shared toilets, residents will often shit in plastic grocery bags and bolo-throw the bags as far as possible. Bloody stories circulated around the U.N.’s open-air cafeteria—such and such’s kids were kidnapped and murdered, someone in UNEP had to pay a 500,000 Kenyan schilling ransom, someone in HABITAT was shot in a carjacking, etc.

It wasn’t the gruesomeness of the stories that was surprising; it was how quickly the subject came up. “Hello, my name is Steve, I’m new here” would be followed quickly by a “Here’s how you stay safe …” This came not just from foreign workers but also longtime residents; from Europeans and Africans; rich and poor.

Nairobi’s been on my mind a lot since I moved to Tulsa, for not since Nairobi have I had as many phatic conversations about security and crime.

With department store cashiers at the Promenade, people at coffee shops, young and old (though more often old)—there’s a prevailing need to warn of eminent threat. The not-so-subtly racialized “stay out of North Tulsa” is the most common informational tidbit, followed by “always park your car in a visible location” and “don’t go downtown at night.” Besides these conversations, I have yet to live in an American city in which I’ve seen as many walled-in front yards or tinted windows.

For all its uniqueness, Tulsa’s coming across a lot like Nairobi. I am new here and apparently I should be scared.

* * *

These talkers might have a point. For American cities with more than 250,000 people, Tulsa is in the top 10 for aggravated assault and burglary. Compared to Houston and Dallas—much larger and more diverse metropolises—in Tulsa you are statistically more likely to be burglarized, assaulted, and forcibly raped. Arguably not an ideal place to raise a family.

You can capture robbery stats in a spreadsheet, but it’s far harder to quantify someone’s choice to spew paranoia on a newcomer. So what happens when an obsession with crime begins to run deep, as it does here?
And what is that obsession costing the city? To answer these questions, I’ll need to go back to Nairobi.

In Nairobi, since most rich residents barricaded themselves at home, the gathering spaces of the general public were considered dangerous. Informal sidewalk markets where people sold fruit, phone cards, and candy would be rendered unusable overnight. This was done by hammering dozens of foot-high posts into the ground at regular intervals, and then tying a grid of barbed wire around these posts.

Mass transit suffered the stigma as well. The major matatu stands—which are essentially crowded private bus stations—were often teargassed for impulsive reasons by corrupt, overworked police officers. Since all the richer residents had askari, the political will to finance the police was lacking.

The second great casualty of the security obsession is the city center, once the seat of Nairobi’s wealthy colonial merchant class. These residents had since vacated to palm-lined suburbs like Westlands or even Gigiri, the 91st and Yale of Nairobi (and the location of the U.N. offices). To picture a place like Westlands, imagine a beautiful Maple Ridge home. First, change the roof to Spanish tile; spread stucco over the brick; replace the Green Country flora with palm trees; then put a cement wall around it; cement broken glass into the top of the wall; string razor wire over the broken glass; pay a man from the Rift Valley province $100 a month to stand in front of all of this, and then maybe give him a gun. It was in such homey places that wealthy Nairobians lived. Today, downtown properties away from the core government center are relatively run-down and cracked, crowded with local vendors selling bootleg DVDs and SIM cards and mandazi pastries.

Thirdly, as a white man in Nairobi, my presence broadcast a relative safety. Illustrative anecdote: my landlord, a middle-aged Roman, once told me how happy he was to have a white American in his boarding house, because that way potential renters would assume it was a safe place. If a white American is someone to be trusted, the obvious flipside is that it’s black Africans you should fear. The public gathering places for the mass of black Nairobians—those aforementioned mandazi-scented markets and matatu stands—were projected as unsafe much more often than, say, the U.N. cafeteria, an expat bar, or a Westlands condominium.

A paranoia regarding public space, corrupt cops acting on impulse, a city center irrationally feared, mass transit stigmatized, a racialized perception of criminal offenders, and hanging over all of these a pervasive security obsession: Sound familiar yet?

I came to Tulsa for work, or rather Tulsa brought me here from Iowa. In March, I took a job with the city’s planning department. I’m an entry-level planner working on the small-area planning team. I spend my days trying to take PLANiTULSA’s ideals to the neighborhood level.

Among PLANiTULSA’s ideals and guiding principles (outlined in the “Our Vision for Tulsa” document, available online) are that “newcomers should feel welcome to move to Tulsa, find a home and join the community.” Tulsa is a welcoming town: My landlord even gave me a roll of quarters when moving in (“Move-in gift, for the laundry machines downstairs,” he said). And some people I meet at public meetings have offered to give me driving tours of town.

Yet, according to some Tulsans I shouldn’t even be on North Peoria without carrying Mace.

* * *

The main distinction to make is that between the perception of crime and crime itself. Crime doesn’t create a security obsession; the perception of crime does. Criminals create crime, yet who creates the perception of crime?

The two obvious perpetrators are 1) a crime-obsessed local media and, 2) that subset of the real-estate industry that is guilty of steering. And ironically, both are hurting themselves by feeding the obsession.

Tellingly, the Tulsa World website’s “News” section has two parallel vertical columns: one marked “Latest Headlines” and the other being “Crime Watch,” which shows sensational stories about meth-addled antics, child strangulation, etc. A journalism secret: crime reporting of that sort is easy. The reporter only needs to request the arrest report from the cops, get a mug shot from public records, and maybe get a quote from a neighbor. Over-the-top crime stories get the news media more eyes with a smaller capital investment. Or if you have money for a demonstration, you can be like Fox23 and run a story about the risk of car break-ins in which your attractive, perky reporter scampers around smashing windows with a hammer. “And here’s how you can protect yourself …”

Regarding the real-estate industry: Multiple property managers, before moving here, told me not to live downtown or anywhere north of the Broken Arrow expressway. (I was similarly instructed in Nairobi—live northwest of the City Center.) Muggings and car break-ins would await me if I chose to live only two blocks north of Cherry Street. I moved in anyway.

I live in Forest Orchard, near 13th and Peoria, in a Deco-era building with central air and a great view of downtown. My neighborhood has excellent tree cover, and is no more than 1.5 miles from a grocery store, pharmacy, and my office. And I’m only three blocks from all of that stuff on Cherry Street, and if the weather’s nice I can take a long walk to Woodward Park or to services at Temple Israel or to Utica Square.

Sounds like a legit Death Wish dystopia, right? A real Kibera.
So why didn’t the real estate agents who steered me away from my neighborhood with fear-mongering try to sell me on the benefits of proximity? They could expand their market and, simply put, make more money. Instead, they employ these steering strategies with such a heavy hand that I am writing something in public forum that could potentially raise my rent. And the news media might likewise expand their local advertising base if they decided not to paint the town (and particularly certain neighborhoods) as some drugged-up Road Warrior set piece.

I have lived in Tulsa unscathed. I can’t say that about elsewhere: I’ve been through one mugging (Belfast, 2004), one robbery (Sofia, Bulgaria, 2006), two attempted muggings (Nairobi, 2010 and New York City, 1997), and one attempted break-in (Iowa City, 2008). The Nairobi incident happened in a crowded market on a Sunday afternoon; two men sandwiching me in a coordinated shakedown. I elbowed one, a good Samaritan tackled the other, and the muggers got nothing.

But vigilantism can turn ugly: When cops can’t be trusted, and you can’t afford askari, a mob is the surest means of safety. A fellow U.N. intern, while driving through the countryside, witnessed a mob hang a burning tire around a thief’s neck. I thankfully never witnessed such violence. But earlier this year Oklahoma passed a law allowing open carry. With more people playing cowboy, maybe I’ll get my chance to see something after all.

Despite the stress that accompanied this state of forced fear, I liked Nairobi. I miss passionfruit and milky tea and the cool summers and my family friends in Jericho and Lamington. But not since Nairobi have I lived behind a gate, as I do here. Of course, there isn’t barbed wire, and I don’t think there will ever be a Kibera-esque tarp-and-corrugated-tin slum in Tulsa. But there’s still the sad fact of a gate.

Maybe one day my Toyota’s window will be smashed or I’ll be stabbed by a tweaker. If that happens, then maybe I will start scaring sense into every doe-eyed new Tulsan I meet. Maybe I have a handgun to show him. Maybe I tell him what parts of town to avoid and where to park and where to rent: “How you stay safe” is a series of locational choices.

The irony is that even though I chose to locate in Tulsa, I still feel I’m in Westlands, living amongst fear and behind a gate. There are a lot of unique things to love about Tulsa: the laid-back attitude, the Art Deco gems scattered around town, the ubiquity of country-fried steak specials. But the crime obsession isn’t unique, nor is the fact that it’s ultimately a detriment. And unlike crime, it’s something that noncriminals can control.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 3, Issue 16. Aug. 15, 2012.