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Teenage Girls - Their experiences of safety in their NYC neighborhoods.

An interview with three teenage girls, ages 13, 15 and 16. These are their experiences and insights about safety and growing up in their respective neighborhoods. The girls live in low income urban neighborhoods in New York City. Two live in the same NYC public housing project in the South Bronx. One lives in East New York, Brooklyn. The public housing projec has a population of 2000 tenants and is composed of 6 tall buildings. They are connected by footpaths a few small common public spaces.

Photo of Bettina Fliegel
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      The recurring theme elicited from these young women was that they feel safe where they know people, friends and family. In these neighborhoods there often are extended families and multiple generations living nearby. The areas are diverse, neighbors and friends speak multiple languages and are of multiple races.  They feel safe here because of their community, their circle.  "Somone always has your back."   They meet friends "in the park at the buildings", in friend's homes, or at McDonalds.  "There aren't enough community centers for us - safe places where you need to show ID to get in. There is no Y around my neighborhood."
     The community they describe is a small segment of their local neighborhood.  It can be a group of buildings in a housing project, or one city block.  It is not the greater community or neighborhood.  
     In the same conversation they reported that they often walk with a box cutter in their hand  "in case someone jumps me."  "I know the blocks that are not safe."  On the one hand they report feeling safe but on the other they report that there are shootings all around them and they know people with guns.  "I know what to do.  Lie down on the ground and cover my head."   Again, the perception of safety lies in having a community who looks out for you, in the midst of a dangerous situation.
     They all reported primarily staying within their local area.  If they do leave the neighborhood it is usually by car, or taxi, disliking "the train" where "it is disgusting and guys stare."  They reported knowing kids who were robbed in the subway.  They do not feel safe alone there.
    How do they cope with the feeling of being unsafe, or having gone to a known unsafe space - they prepare - bring a box cutter, know where they will run to, call a cab.
    Who do they reach out to for help?  Male friends.  One young woman reported she does not trust the police, another disagreed.  They all report feeling as if police do not arrive fast enough when called and that if there are emergency boxes in the area they never work.
    Visual cues of safety? 
  1)  Family and Friends -  again unanimous, and being of primary importance.
  2)  Police towers,  checkpoints, police cars and precincts in the housing projects.

   What safe space would they design in a community?
   A community center with security, and where one would need to show ID to get in.  There are current plans to build one in one of the communities discussed.  They strongly remarked to me that it was going to have a glass facade.  "Why would they build it with glass?  It can break when rocks are thrown at it.  It should be bullet proof."  

  What safety measures would be helpful in their neighborhood?
1)  A YMCA
2) More Police.  One young woman remarked that there are now more in her community, "because of what I did.  My neighborhood is hot now."
3) Emergency Boxes that actually work.  "We know where they are but they don't work."
4) Housing units/projects that are gated and that require a security pass code to enter.  One teen reported being at a community like this in East Harlem.  
5) More lights in the local parks.  Less trees and bushes.
  More flowers.  They are also pretty but they are safer.
6) More police patrolling the parks.
7) Fences to close the parks at night?  No - " we jump over them."
8) Police in subway stations.  More of them. 
9) A girl only subway car?

    Safety hazards in their neighborhoods that are worse for guys than girls?  With strong voices and unison - DRUGS, GANGS and GUNS.
"Boys think they are supposed to be in a gang.  That is how they get respect.  They grew up around it so they want to do it."  Girls see that "as a man's job."  The man protects the "hood" and holds that weight.
There is much less pressure for girls to be involved in these ways.

    Family + Friends = Community
    Community promotes safety.

     Every neighborhood has multiple communities. There are networks and layers.  They overlap and intersect.
   How can we start to identify them?
  How can we harness the power of each one and build bridges between them - in an effort to bring safety to young girls and women in these areas?
    Who are the identified leaders - of the girls, the women, the boys, the men?  Can education and increased community services change the culture of violence so that young people with leadership skills use them in more positive ways in their communities?  



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Photo of Meena Kadri

Great insights, Bettina. We thought you might also like to check out Yennie's series of interviews which affirm many similar aspects: