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. 

Comments

  1. Thank you, thank you

  2. Fantastic, and accurate, article! Thanks for writing it Professor Baker.

  3. Ruth Fleming says:

    Terrific article, Rob. Thanks for doing this!

  4. Finally, some justice on the subject. Thanks for this.

  5. You have a great article here, don’t get me wrong. About 50% of my friends live in EP and I feel just as at home at Oz Pizza or EP Tavern as I do up here in my native Lawrenceville in Gwinnett. But you seriously need to recalibrate your understanding of how white flight is impacting the northern suburbs of Gwinnett. Duluth, Lilburn, Norcross, Lawrenceville, Buford, and all of the little unincorporated neighborhoods which tie these cities together (Pinckneyville, Centerville, etc.) are extremely diverse because of continued white flight. Much of Gwinnett resembles DeKalb in its diversity and cultural vibrancy. Sure, we don’t have the fancy local pubs and diners, but I have gigantic Korean supermarkets all around me. I can buy better kimchi, pho, tamales and vindaloo in Gwinnett than anywhere ITP. Come on up to Duluth or Lawrenceville and you’ll know what I mean.

    • If your point is that northern metro communities have been diversified by global and regional migration and deserves more than being reduced to a caricature, then I will cheerfully concede the point.

      • Actually, that was my point, so I appreciate the concession. Honestly, Cobb and North Fulton have earned the ongoing caricature, but Gwinnett is beautifully diverse and is increasing so. Regardless, thank you for your well-thought out article.

    • Virginia Baker says:

      I am a grandmother who visits my granddaughter in East Point at least three times a year. I must say I feel comfortable in this diverse neighborhood and never threatened. I have wheeled her around in her wagon, taken her on walks with a small dog, walked with her to her music lesson, and it never ever seemed worrisome or threatening. Most threatening neighborhood? I don’t think so.

  6. Outstanding Rob. Thank you!

  7. Thank you for writing this, Mr. Baker!

  8. Carolyn says:

    As a person who’s lived in many places ranked as most dangerous, and clearly a thinly cloaked euphemism for racism (namely Oakland, CA which is a gorgeous place to live) I really appreciated this excellent article. I have been to visit Atlanta many times, and I stayed with friends in East Point several times on these visits. I was truly shocked to read that this place could be called “dangerous.” I thought it was a lovely, diverse, thriving community. Diversity is very important to me, and this community was wonderful. What an unfortunate label to give such a sweet community. You know, if our movoto.com peeps were really going to do their danger pointing any real justice, they could at least talk about the rogue chicken gangs! Now, that’s an article I’d like to read! Maybe next time, eh?

  9. >>>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.

    LOL!!!

  10. Noel2010 says:

    Excellent piece, Rob. A lot of us who live on Atlanta’s southside know intuitively what you wrote, but don’t have the academic approach to dissect the problems in the original article. Thank you for that.

    Other than my college years in Athens, I’ve essentially lived my whole life in College Park, Georgia and my wife and I are raising our family here. If anything, Rob’s article is too modest in extolling our charms in the tri-cities area. I realize that every evening this summer when I’m out catching fireflies with our boys, next to our oft-used Free Little Library, after a get-together with friends up the street or dinner at a range of options nearby.

    Do we have continued work to do on the southside? Absolutely. But do I feel more at risk than I would in other areas – raising our two boys adjacent to “American’s Most Dangerous Suburb”? Of course not, or we wouldn’t be here.

    Here’s to what we’ve all built together on the southside so far, and the good things that lie ahead.

  11. Great article!

  12. Erin Halperin says:

    So well written. Every person attempting to write an “informative” article should read this one first! You got me at “Wikipedia.”

  13. I greatly enjoyed your excellent article. I’ve lived in East Point in the past, and have spent 34 years here as a lawyer (in fact you can see my building in the photo you used). Do we have crime and can we do better as to crime? Sure. But we are nowhere near the most dangerous neighborhood in America, or Georgia or even metro Atlanta. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk accurately about the purported study.

  14. Reblogged this on . A.K. Anderson and commented:
    I, too, live in East Point and felt a lot of these same things about that poorly done survey. I see people’s assumptions about my MARTA commute and hometown and I see these numbers and sigh.

    I told my neighbors once that I needed a bumper sticker that read “I don’t want to live where I blend in, I want to live where I belong.” THAT is East Point, at the heart of it.

    • You need to make that bumper sticker! I’d buy it!

    • Noel2010 says:

      Good one, AK – me too! I’ve been a MARTA rider from College Park for 15 years and wouldn’t do it any other way.

      One thing we need to do on the southside is embrace MARTA as an amenity (like downtown Decatur, whose downtown hotspots seem almost predicated on the existence of the lovely MARTA station) and not a downside. As we both know, MARTA is very much an upside!

  15. Margarita says:

    Well said! Thank you!

  16. And Ballethnic Dance Company Inc. celebrates it’s 25th Anniversary January 15th…based at 2587 Cheney St. in East Point. July 5th presenting a free outdoor event for the community…the Cheney Cultural Cul De Sac which will begin at 6pm and end on the corner observing the East Point Fireworks. Food, fellowship, and fun…right in East Point. Be sure to see the Ballethnic Community Garden as this event takes place on newly renovated Ballethnic’s Outdoor Stage. Vendor space is available. Also 5 minute performance slots available. The many people that have joined Ballethnic from many parts of metropolitan Atlanta have come to realize that East Point is much better than the snobs who mislabel it! Contact 404-762-1416 for Information or Dance Classes http://www.ballethnic.org

  17. I was born in East Point and grew up in nearby Riverdale. My mom owned a beauty shop in East Point (Tri-Cities Plaza — with the old McCrory’s) so I spent a lot of time there as a kid. I now live in Washington, DC, and I can tell you that our traffic is worse than Atlanta. It’s nice to hear that East Point is making a come back. It’s a great location and it was so sad to see it deteriorate for years. Whenever I visit Atlanta I always use MARTA. I’ve always found it safe and clean.

  18. Thank you! As someone who lives just outside of Clarkston — another “bad” neighborhood — I get tired of fighting the stereotypes based in racism. We aren’t as vibrant as East Point- — yet — but we have a strong community and are growing.

  19. I’m a seven-year resident of East Point who fully recognizes that we have many challenges and hard work ahead of us to help the city reach its full potential. But, as somebody else posted above, it’s far from being the most dangerous suburb in metro Atlanta, much less the entire country. Movoto is little more than a poorly written blog that regularly churns out poorly researched “top 10″ lists simply to drive web traffic to its real estate site. Their quest for additional business blinds them to any sense of accountability related to the damage such lists can inflict on the reputation of communities like East Point. I accused them of such in the comments section of the original story, making many of the same points in this article. Needless to say, my comment never made it through the editorial review process and was deleted. That should tell you everything you need to know about the moral compass of Movoto.

  20. spiritequality says:

    An excellent piece!

    Even though I was raised in New Orleans and thereby I am bound by civic pride to not show too much affection towards Atlanta (urban rivalry, doncha know) or the greater Atlanta area, I still feel the pain of anyone whose city (or “suburb”) is misrepresented by some hack writer. There were plenty of these types arguing that New Orleans shouldn’t be rebuilt after the faulty levees the government built for us failed. Stay strong! Maligning urban (or “suburban”) areas filled with black people is a proud American tradition. We all have to keep fighting the good fight with truth and a bit of burning sarcasm.

  21. Good article. When I moved to Atlanta, everyone said, “move North of the city.” I’m from Chicago, I’ve lived in Detroit and LA. And I’ve worked in many tough locations. Have been through the Atlanta EP area a number of times now and it looks fine to me. Basing status on generic statistics is really a dangerous political statement. There are more important questions to ask; How are the schools? What type of situations commonly result in local crime? Is there a Racism or Harrassment conflict issue in a community?
    God bless EP!

    • I’ve been out of town and away from internet (by way of quick apology for a late reply), but I wanted to reply to this post. If only because I too moved here from Chicago. (Uptown then Ravenswood.) I chose to live in East Point because I believed in the community I found here and how willing it was to rise to the challenges that you list–creating good schools, addressing local crime, and achieving tolerance and goodwill. These are struggles that are not judged on the basis of victory, but by the intensity of the struggle itself. I am proud of all those in my community who has put his/her foot down and demanded good schools, tolerance, and a better life for everyone. So thanks for your intelligent reply!

  22. Wonderfully, powerfully written. Thank you for highlighting the spirit of your neighborhood as well as dissecting the facts. As a nearly 10-year resident in East Atlanta, I can empathize with this sort of negative spotlight on a neighborhood that speaks to your core. I wish I could fast forward just 5 years or less for you to the time when folks are a buzz about your zoned public school being the bomb instead of crime stats.

  23. jeff Tidwell says:

    My Sociology professors would have give an F on this study for that blatant disregard to the guidelines for sample size and criteria. Looks like the people who performed the research, wanted to skew their data to intentionally get the desired outcome they wanted.

  24. Bravo! I live in downtown East Point. It is NOT a suburb. It is Atlanta. It’s just not Sebastian Davis’ Atlanta – which probably doesn’t have an African American women with dreadlocks and a Masters’ in Psychology, employed by a Fortune 500 company at the executive level. East Point does.

  25. It’s become increasingly clear to me that, for the bloggers at thrillist, “We” refers exclusively to young, straight, white men.

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