I Live in America’s Most Dangerous Suburb

Downtown East Point

According to Movoto.com, East Point, Georgia is America’s most dangerous suburb. As an eight-year resident of East Point, I received this news with a curious mix of pride and loathing. On the one hand, anyone who lives in a “most dangerous” anywhere must by definition be tough and manly—and I have always wanted to be tough and manly. On the other, I was not aware that I had been living in a suburb—and I have always, always been an impassioned opponent of suburban living.

Of course, no one should really take the Movoto.com article seriously. It is based upon sloppy methodology, faulty assumptions, and questionable conclusions. To paraphrase Dean Yeager from Ghostbusters, “you are poor social scientists, movoto.com.” But the tragedy here is that people actually do take it seriously. The article made major news outlets, and has had over 100,000 facebook views at present. A local Atlanta-area blogger cited the study in a sturdy admonition to out-of-towners not to visit East Point. Ever. It is that dangerous.

So how did East Point win the crown? The Movoto.com article is brazenly frank about its spare methodology. It analyzed crime data for 120 suburbs across the nation. Or maybe 116. Both totals are cited in the article as the number of suburbs under review. Good start, guys.

Any social scientist knows that the selection of data for a study must be done carefully, with an eye to picking distinguishing features in order to create roughly comparable data for analysis. In this study, then, one would expect that the definition of a suburb—the core unit under examination—was given thorough and careful consideration. So the authors chose the largest suburbs of the 50 largest cities in the country. In the words of Chris Kolmar of Movoto.com: “1. We started with Wikipedia’s list of inner-ring suburbs 2. Then expanded to ‘if Wikipedia says it’s a suburb we used it,’ 3. Then proximity if a big city didn’t have any ‘official’ suburbs or other cities touching it.”

Thanks, Wikipedia. You don’t ruin just undergraduate essays.

Taste of East Point EP 2013 Chili cookoff
Kathryn Mehl/Kish Mir Bubelah Photography 2011-2014

The authors fare no better when they attempt to count crimes. Data was culled from the FBI’s uniform crime report for 2012. The authors composed a data set consisting of: 1) Murder; 2) Rape; 3) Robbery; 4) Assault; 5) Burglary; 6) Theft; and 7) Vehicle Theft. These statistics were then divided into “four distinct groups: murders, violent crimes, property crimes, and total crimes.”

If someone would like to explain how “total crimes” is a distinct group, then … great. And it is not entirely clear whether “violent crimes” includes murder or is intended to mean “other violent crimes.” But precision and rigor are overrated anyway, right?

It gets better. The authors weighted the results “whereby murder, total violent crime, and total property crime each comprised 30 percent of the final score each and total crimes made up 10 percent.” This produced a “chance of crime” ratio for each location. Then the weighted score “was used to determine the most dangerous suburb.” No rationale was given for this particular weighting system. Nor is it clear how the “chance of crime” ratio is calculated, or even what it means. For instance, I learned that I have a “1 in 8” chance of being a victim of crime in East Point. During my lifetime? In 2012? When I walk out the door in the morning?

In order to compare “apples to apples” (a conceit already belied by the selection methodology employed to determine what is a suburb), movoto.com converted all crime rates to per 100,000. This is standard practice in the literature, but it has the perverse effect in this case of exaggerating crime. East Point was listed, for instance, as having had 34 murders per 100,000 people. Too bad the city in 2012 had 12 homicides, a fact that numerous people complained about in online comments. The authors defended their number as being “correct because when you apply the same mathematical transformation to crimes/per person to all cities, the rankings don’t change.”

I’m glad the people at movoto.com can do eighth-grade math. Too bad the education stopped there. I will leave aside, for a moment, the obvious problem in trying to compare “apples with apples” with suburb populations ranging from 11,000 to 225,000. But the authors never appear to grasp how these numbers are generated in the first place. At no point, for instance, do they stop to consider whether crime reporting, particularly regarding property crimes, might affect their numbers. Thieves have broken into my car, for instance, in three different cities. But the only place I reported it was East Point.

And what about crime trends? Criminologists have long understood that crime figures only make sense when normalized and placed in time over a sequential period. Individual years may not be representative and, in any case, are meaningless unless contextualized. But by now you are likely yawning. Why take this article seriously when it is so clearly … not serious?

East Point Farmers Market

There is one obvious reason—I want to make clear that I don’t live in a suburb. East Point is virtually South Atlanta, and to the naked eye there is no distinction between the two areas short of a city limits sign. We suffer the same kinds of crime, the same safety issues, the same economic problems as does a major metropolitan region. And I consider that a good thing. I like the diversity, the intensity, and the edge. I live in a bungalow built in 1946, in a neighborhood where I can buy fresh eggs from a neighbor with chickens down the street, visit the farmers market on weekends in downtown East Point (a mile and a half away), and eat at our local pizzeria where our neighborhood schoolchildren’s art hangs on the walls. We have a sense of place here, a feeling of community. This ain’t no suburb. We aren’t all spread out in ticky-tack tract-housing and pretending to smile at each other across concrete driveways while looking forward to that night’s pilgrimage to a corner strip mall where we’ll ask a server at Applebee’s to defrost a pound of boneless buffalo wings for our passionless enjoyment.

There is another reason I take movoto.com’s article seriously, and it is because of the disservice that it does to the numerous people who work to make East Point a great place to live. I begin by conceding that East Point has crime problems. It has a lot of problems, actually. Much of urban America does, but these problems are complex and deserve to be treated as such. Shoving East Point into a careless “top ten” list when the authors have not even stepped foot in East Point is insulting.

I can already hear the protest from movoto.com—we just looked at numbers! We didn’t create the crime report, we just interpreted it! But this is precisely the problem. In our current society, big data rules. Nate Silver has proven this beyond a doubt, although I should be clear that Nate Silver, unlike the folks at Movoto.com, has the statistical expertise to use big data effectively and responsibly. But whether competently assembled or not, numbers carry authority. They are neutral. Objective.

And this is precisely why we should not trust numbers. We must approach them critically, questioning how they are assembled. We have already seen how movoto.com’s methodology is hopelessly flawed and careless. But critical reception of numbers requires more than just questioning their assembly and deployment. We must also be aware of what they can show us and what they cannot.

What makes a suburb, city, or any place, “dangerous”? Crime rates alone do not help us here, as they cannot tell us how or why crime happens. Nor do the crimes movoto.com used to create its rankings really make sense. Take vehicle thefts, for instance. Unless we are talking about a carjacking, a vehicle theft is not dangerous to one’s person. Just one’s car. But never mind. “Crime = crime,” explained Chris Kolmar of movoto.com. And so the numbers are now pressed into the service of labeling East Point “dangerous,” a word freighted with cultural implications.

In the case of East Point, it comes down to race. East Point is a city with a majority Black population, abutting the Black majority of South Atlanta. It has been so for a long time, but was made infinitely more so when a federally-subsidized highway system and the Civil Rights Movement’s challenges to legal segregation sent many white families rushing north to any number of suburbs in Cobb County and … wherever. This demographic trend was not limited to Atlanta and is a well-known epoch in our history. It coincided with a period of deindustrialization that visited staggering unemployment and poverty to urban working-class neighborhoods, many of them Black. Crime predictably followed.

So too did the pernicious racial myths. Cities, populated by Blacks, became loathsome places. Suburbs, lily-white, were idylls. This is the cultural assumption that movoto.com takes into its use of numbers, which it announces in its lead in: “Suburbs are supposed to be safe havens from the crime of big cities.” This is naked racism, rooted in ignorance and served up in a snappy hip “top ten” list.

Destination East Point 2012
Kathryn Mehl/Kish Mir Bubelah Photography 2011-2014

In the last two decades, the children of white-flight have begun a slow return to the city of Atlanta. Intown living is now fashionable. Midtown, once an open-air sex market, is now fully gentrified. Just east of downtown, Inman Park, once crumbling, is now thriving. The Old Forth Ward, once a great place to score smack, now vaguely resembles Williamsburg in Brooklyn—all trendy restaurants and cocktail bars and artists living in repurposed warehouses.

But if these areas are becoming “safe” again, or at least safe enough for what remains of America’s middle class to poke around in, East Point clearly is not. Witness blogger Sebastian Davis of thrillist.com listing among the “18 things you have to explain to out-of-towners about Atlanta,” that you just don’t visit East Point. Davis explains that “it was just rated ‘the most dangerous suburb in America’ for a reason,” and provides a helpful hyperlink to movoto.com’s article.

Translation: stay out of the Black part of town.

Sebastian Davis might protest that he did not intend it that way, but the rest of his article pretty much confirms his thoughtless racism. “No one rides MARTA,” proclaims Davis. Well, the ridership of MARTA is overwhelmingly Black, making them all, apparently, “no one” in Davis’s estimation. “Our traffic is worse than your traffic,” Davis tells the out-of-towner. “We’re not touching the interstate between 4 pm and 8 pm.” Well, this is true if you live in one of those white-flight northern suburbs, where traffic is possibly the worst I’ve seen. (And I’ve lived in Los Angeles.) But traffic is moderate on the southside interstate, where, again, we have a majority Black population. But we are not part of Davis’s “We.”

And the point, emphatically, is that Sebastian Davis uncritically took movoto.com’s authoritative labeling of East Point as America’s most dangerous suburb as fact, in essence reinforcing his own cultural assumptions about what the Black part of town must be like.

Which is sad. One wouldn’t know from these pernicious stereotypes that East Point is a diverse and tolerant community. We have a sizable gay population, and the East Point Possums put on the Southeast’s largest drag show here every year. The Tricities 5k/10k is a great event for runners, while the Dick Lake Velodrome draws amateur and professional outdoor bicycle races. For Halloween parties, I’ll put up Bryan Avenue against any neighborhood in the metropolitan area. Residents there annually recreate the zombie apocalypse, complete with special effects and staged set pieces for the delight of thousands of East Pointers. The police do barricade the street at both ends, but just to keep the cars out. Makes it slightly less dangerous, I suppose.

None of these things fit the narrative of the “safe haven” suburb and the “dangerous” city, especially if you are trying to label a suburb “dangerous.” In fact, not much of what makes East Point special translates into “chance of” rates or statistical summaries. I would wager that this is true of most things that make life worth living.

There is a silver lining. Movoto.com’s article doesn’t actually rank East Point America’s most dangerous suburb! Rather, the authors write that “we’ve determined that Camden, NJ is the most dangerous overall.” The list which then follows ranks East Point most dangerous and Camden second.

Even my first-grade child can do better than that.

H. Robert Baker teaches history at Georgia State University. He writes primarily about the Constitution and slavery, having published two very good books on the subject. He is currently working on a book about Napa Valley in the 1970s and 80s.