Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee: Fetish of fear in the ‘new ATL’

I’m sure I’ll be killed a few days after this column is published, shot in the face while walking to my Midtown apartment, and everyone will sneer, “Told you so!” Not much is more satisfying than when an exaggerated fear is validated.

A growing majority of Midtown residents seem surprised to learn that bad things sometimes happen in good neighborhoods. Specifically, the chorus woefully sings about the “new boldness” exerted during the “crime that has plagued the area since midsummer.”

This is at least the third purported “crime wave” that has terrorized Midtown in the 12 years I’ve been a resident. Listening to my neighbors, one would think the neighborhood is steadily descending into twilight, instead of rapidly evolving into the most prosperous, and enviable, area of Atlanta.

Atlanta Police Department Zone 5, which includes Midtown, ranks an average of fourth out of six police zones in major crime categories in 2015, including being fifth in car thefts and homicides, and last in residential burglaries and robberies. Only in car break-ins is Midtown the most dangerous part of Atlanta.

I don’t belittle the trauma of being violated by criminals, as I remember how shaken I was after being mugged twice within a six-week period when I was 15. Crime victims have every right to believe their surroundings are more dangerous than ever, but it’s insulting for city officials to indulge such paranoia.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and police Chief George Turner vowed last month to activate overtime patrols, install more surveillance cameras and hire more officers to restore safety to Midtown. Residents of more dangerous parts of the city might wonder what makes their Midtown counterparts more deserving of police responsiveness and resources, although anyone paying attention to American history since 1619 can form an educated guess.

It’s the reason our country needs constant reminders that black lives matter, because a handful of incidents in a mostly white neighborhood constitute a more dire emergency than the daily crisis lived in some parts of the city.

It’s easy and reassuring for Midtown residents to believe expanded policing is the solution to their woes: jail answers everything, at least the questions worth asking. No need to consider the disproportionate development Midtown has enjoyed for two decades, aesthetically and economically, while poorer neighborhoods are neglected until they are razed or their residents replaced.

Atlanta has a long reputation as a black mecca, but there is a new ATL emerging, and it is wholly uninterested in the parts of the city that originated and exported the cultural brand. And because a walk through Piedmont Park or along the Beltline would yield few hints of being in the heart of a “chocolate city,” the popular narrative about crime in Midtown fosters the suspicion and fear of any young, unfamiliar black male in the neighborhood.

My nephew is such a young man, having moved to Midtown from the South Side of Chicago. I’ve yet to develop the facial muscles to tell him, without laughing, about how dangerous our neighborhood is, but I’ve tried to make sure he understands, without fear, how his new neighbors may perceive him.