Thursday, March 09, 2006

Weixian Danwei and the dangers that lurk in Pittsburgh’s Neighborhoods

For most Chinese who live in Pittsburgh, the concept of “neighborhood” is the first thing they have to learn about cultural gaps. Believe me or not, people from countries behind the “red iron curtain” know more about western life than Americans know about their culture. So when I strolled in Oakland on the early morning of Aug 8, 2002, the first day I came to Pittsburgh, I was not surprised to see homeless and white-collar walking along the street with ugly graffiti. However, before the jet lag hit me, my Chinese friend warned me not to walk too far in South Oakland because it was not a safe neighborhood. “Weixian”, the word he used in describing the neighborhood, means “dangerous”. He spoke the word with his eyebrows furrowing, indicating there were potential taped-off, blood-soaked crime scenes around.

Cities in China do not have neighborhoods as they are known in the United States. I grew up from a mid-size industrial city with a population of about one million. (Yeah, it is still mid-sized.) The geology of my hometown is categorized into three groups: within walking distance, within bicycling distance (not applicable if you are bicycling fan) or accessible by bus. Anywhere further is a suburban area.

More importantly, traditional Chinese are bound by where they work. Even though job changing becomes more frequent in big cities, most of Chinese in middle or small cities still rely on their companies. “Danwei”, the Chinese word for company, has the verbatim meaning of “unit”, psychologically indicating confining people inside it. Danwei not only pays your salary, pension, and health insurance but also pays for your apartment. Usually Danwei builds apartment buildings for its employees, which are located nearby. Therefore, Danwei is Chinese “neighborhood”, like the hospital where both of my parents work for the past thirty years. Not accidentally, their workmates are their neighbors, and community board is usually controlled by Danwei. Through the years, the apartment buildings are occupied by the same people-- who work for the same Danwei. Even though these days Chinese tend not to contact with their neighbors often, the familiarity makes them feel safe.

After the conversation with my Chinese friend, I was soon surprised by the fact that so many houses in south Oakland were for rent. The fear and uneasiness stemmed abruptly from the unknown street where I stood, with a row of “For Rent” signs. I comforted myself that all these houses had been transformed ubiquitously into a big dormitory building by the dominating Danwei here: the University of Pittsburgh. And I soon came to familiarize myself by the crowdedness of Forbes Ave. The scene of swarms of people walking around, similar to that in China, made me relax and alleviated my temporary nostalgia. With no trouble at all, I found my first apartment in south Oakland in a cute townhouse, facing a Kara-Okay bar.

Nothing frightening happened to me during my staying at my first apartment, except every Wednesday night I had to use earplugs to ward off the crying competition from the bar. Occasionally, when I was asked where I lived by my Chinese friends, I had to speak out “South Oakland” mumbling under my breath -- as if it was something honorable.

I moved to Squirrel Hill, an upright neighborhood which sprawls southeast several miles from Oakland in the second year. However, I had been missing the convenience of South Oakland until one day I read the news about three consecutive robberies in one night-- blocks away from where I lived before. It was a bomb to South Oakland real estate business: It became a lack-lustrous neighborhood to all foreign students from then on. Tenants moved out, private owners sold houses, and more “For Rent” signs hang these days.

Foreigners care more about safety than the native residents. Being unfamiliar with the cities, they take more precaution (sometimes more than necessary) to protect themselves in selecting where to live, who to make friends with, and what to say. The daily TV news also contributes to their discretion since it seems to favor arsons, gunshots, robberies and car accidents to other peaceful but maybe trivial reports. None of my Chinese friends live in South Oakland now. Most of them live in Shadyside, a yuppie expensive place or Squirrel Hill where I lived before.

It was not until I moved to Northside that I began to think how people evaluate the safeness of the neighborhoods. From my point of view, Northside is a unique neighborhood packed with attractions such as stadiums, and museums, beautiful historical houses (Mexican War Streets area) and ugly junk buildings which have been deserted for years. Even in Mexican War Streets area, if you walk several blocks away from those half-million-dollar houses or Mattress Factory Museum, you may encounter a row of totally deserted houses that could be categorized as an unsafe sub-neighborhood.

People are never rational when they have to consider odds of encountering gunshots or robberies. You won’t like Newton, MA at all if you were robbed there even if it is listed as the safest city in US by “City Crime Rankings” (11th Edition, ISBN 0-7401-0935-9). Based on 2002 Federal Bureau of Investigation Crime Reports, Pittsburgh has 19737 crimes in 2002, with 47 murders, 1616 robberies, 1983 aggravated assaults, 3298 burglaries and 10108 thefts. All the data shows that the city crime level is worse than the average, but within a reasonable range. After all, Pittsburgh has been established with the reputation of a safe and affordable city for years.

However, people go into panic when they hear about the crimes in their neighborhood no matter what the average crime level the city has. Few care to use statistical data when evaluating safety level of one’s neighborhood. If asked when is the last crime happened in your neighborhood and how many thefts happened there last year, people tend to remember the most recent crime well and only one recent crime may totally change the impression of a neighborhood. Particularly concerns of safety can be intensified by a report of crime if memory of last crime has faded away for a while, hence distort one’s feeling about his or her neighborhood.

My neighborhood, Northside, compared to other neighborhoods is relative bigger and therefore are reported more frequently with crime scenes. (It used to be another city called Allegheny before it was merged with city of Pittsburgh.) According to Sperling’s Best Places (, it has a violent crime risk index (zip code 15212) of 7 and a property crime risk index of 7, both of which are higher than the national average level. (The national averages are 3 and 3.2 respectively.) South Oakland has the risk indices of 7 and 6 respectively. However, the yuppie Shadyside has the same level as Northiside, and Squirrel Hill is actually even worse with a violent crime risk of 8. In short, the reality is my Chinese friends are not living in a more secure place than I am even though they pay much more for their apartments.

Actually most neighborhoods within Pittsburgh have the same safety level. Often feared neighborhoods like the Hill District actually have lower crime rates than the places suburban mom’s in Plymouth Caravan’s wouldn’t think twice before visiting. Crimes can easily plague the inner city and its precincts thanks to the convenience of modern transportation. In my view, the Pittsburgh or American concept of “neighborhood” makes people provincial and easily trapped in a naïve way of evaluating their neighborhood safety.

I walk around Northside often, taking pictures and enjoying the grand view of city skyline. Having lived three different neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, I do enjoy the unique variety Northside provides. Being Chinese, it’s much easier to accept the fact that no neighborhood citywide is substantially safer. For me, Pittsburgh, the city I live, is the “Danwei” to which I am currently tightly bounded.

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