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A Strange Cultural Difference (Or Feeling Unsafe in Peaceful Suburbia)

Danger Due To Zombies, Toronto, 2011

Dan­ger Due To Zom­bies, Toronto, 2011

Ask any Ottawa native what neigh­bor­hood they con­sider to be seedy in the National Cap­i­tal. “Rideau!” they will likely reply. “Vanier. And Caldwell!”

Rideau, one of Ottawa’s busiest and most cen­tral areas, has a bad rep­u­ta­tion because of all the home­less shel­ters dot­ting King Edward Avenue—The Mis­sion, the Shep­herd of Good Hope, etc. Because of its loca­tion, Rideau Cen­tre, the shop­ping mall, is also where all kind of peo­ple tran­sit and hang out (yes, you will see rebel teens smok­ing cig­a­rettes and other stuff by the McDon­alds). It attracts the crowds and quite a few panhandlers.

Vanier has suf­fered a bad rep­u­ta­tion as a run-down area of Ottawa, mostly a renters neigh­bour­hood (and by “renters”, peo­ple often mean “immi­grants” or “low-income fam­i­lies”), often called Ottawa’s most vio­lent neigh­bour­hood. Same goes with Cald­well, on a smaller scale.

But really, no place in Ottawa is truly stretchy or dan­ger­ous by most stan­dards. I’m not say­ing all Ottawa res­i­dents are law-abiding cit­i­zens but over­all, this city is very safe—as is most of Canada.

Of course, per­sonal safety is a very rel­a­tive notion.

I was fairly street smart by the time I set­tled in Ottawa. I had back­packed in China alone, had trav­eled through most of Latin Amer­ica and had dealt with all kinds of nui­sances all over the world from get­ting cat­calls to being mugged, from los­ing my wal­let to being fol­lowed by drunks.

I found Ottawa pretty sedate com­pared to Rio, Guatemala City, Tegu­ci­galpa or even Paris.

But do you know where I felt uneasy? Suburbia.

As a French and as a woman, I have always been taught to stay in well-lit area after dark, and to avoid empty streets, empty sub­way sta­tions, empty buses, etc. The logic behind the rea­son­ing is that you want to be able to call for help if you run into trouble—or if trou­ble runs into you.

I know, crowds can be prob­lem­atic too—you have to watch out for pick­pock­ets, pervs, etc. But still, I always feel safer when there are peo­ple around. For instance, I have never really minded walk­ing around in Paris’ infa­mous Bar­bès neigh­bor­hood because despite being quite a colour­ful area, small busi­nesses stay open late at night and you can eas­ily duck into a kebab place or a café if you feel threat­ened or if you get a bad vibe. How­ever, I always avoid Gare du Nord and its empty mile-long tun­nels lead­ing from one end of the sta­tion to the other.

In Ottawa, I dis­cov­ered “the sub­urb”, also known as “the world stops where my lawn meets the side­walk”. The small house we lived in was only a fifteen-minute drive from Par­lia­ment Hill but it felt like being on another planet. Despite liv­ing in a semi-detached, I barely saw or heard the neigh­bours on the other side of the wall. It was win­ter so peo­ple rarely ven­tured out­side for a walk. Cars would drive by in the morn­ing around 8:30 a.m., and then the neigh­bor­hood would be dead quiet until the end of the office work­day, around 5:00 p.m. I felt I had been cast for “I am Leg­end”—I was lit­er­ally the only per­son tak­ing walks or going to the mail­box dur­ing the day. And at night, I couldn’t hear a noise—Canadian neigh­bours were appar­ently trained to have con­ver­sa­tions, argue or make love in silence.

Feng was work­ing late-night shifts so I was often alone at home in the evening. “What would hap­pen if I need help?” I’d won­der. “Who would I reach to? This area feels deserted! Hello, hello, is there any­body out there?”

I was used to liv­ing in the city cen­tre, in an apart­ment build­ing, where neigh­bours were often a nui­sance but a some­what wel­come pres­ence. You could always bor­row a can opener or some flour from someone.

Yet, Cana­di­ans feel bet­ter in sur­bur­bia, the ideal place to start a fam­ily and raise your lit­tle one shel­tered from the big bad world of down­town. For some rea­son, they tend to think that crowds are dan­ger­ous, and that empty places are safer. “Well, if there is no one around, there is no one to bother you!” as I’ve heard many times.

My best expla­na­tion to this strange per­cep­tion of per­sonal safety is that North Amer­i­cans value their space… and there is a lot of space here. Peo­ple are used to liv­ing in big houses instead of apart­ment build­ings, dri­ving a per­son vehi­cle rather than tak­ing pub­lic trans­porta­tion, enter­tain­ing at home rather than sit­ting at a ter­race out­side. There­fore, shar­ing “your” space with strangers could poten­tially lead to problems.

I still feel extremely safe in Ottawa, in both so-called “seedy” areas and in sub­ur­bia. But I’d rather be sur­rounded by peo­ple than alone in sedate and deserted suburbia!

How about you? Do you con­sider your city safe? Even been both­ered by any­one in the street? Do you feel safer sur­rounded by peo­ple or on your own?

25 comments

  1. I feel you. I think this is a major dif­fer­ence between North Amer­ica and Europe. When liv­ing in a big city in Europe we are so used to being sur­rounded by peo­ple, noise, traf­fic and 24-hour action that, when we cease to have it, it feels almost too quiet. While Amer­i­cans love their space, as you say, and there­fore feel much more secure in suburbia.

    I’m not sure whether I could. I don’t like depend­ing on cars to go to places and I like to have local shops or food mar­kets close by. For me, that’s qual­ity of life!

  2. Com­ing from Mex­ico City I find any street of Ottawa (in down­town or in the sub­ur­bia) essen­tially empty and very quiet. I was shocked to walk on the streets and not hear­ing any sound that indi­cated that peo­ple were alive. In Mex­ico, it is nor­mal to see peo­ple hang­ing out with neigh­bors in the streets, chil­dren play­ing foot­ball at any time, and lots of activ­i­ties. Here in Canada it seems that there is not any sort of activ­ity tak­ing place in the streets, and the lit­tle things that hap­pen inside houses are done quietly…

    It is strange but not hard to get used to it :)

    • I hear you! This is one thing I miss… street life. This is why I love going down­town Ottawa, where it’s a bit more lively. I enjoyed Latin Amer­ica a lot of that, the sounds, smells of life 24/7… although I did get sick of hear­ing car alarms all the time there :lol:

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