Is urban survival syndrome alive and well in big cities? If you’ve ever lived in a rough neighborhood, then you know that feeling. That feeling you get when you leave the house in the morning, wondering how many windows will be broken when you get back from work. That feeling as you walk down the street; don’t smile, don’t show weakness, and keep that game face on. That feeling of relief when you lock the door behind you. That feeling right before you go to sleep as you go through your mental checklist: the back door is shut, the front door is good, windows are locked …
Big City Fears Unleashed
Whether we like to admit it or not, living in a dicey neighborhood can mess you up. In 2014, a study published in the Peer J journal found that spending time in a crime-prone neighborhood made research volunteers significantly more paranoid. The surprising part is just how little time is needed for the paranoia to set in; less than an hour, according to researchers.
“We … bused volunteers to one or other neighborhood at random, and had them walk around for 45 minutes,” explained researcher Daniel Nettle, a professor of behavioral science at Newcastle University.
“We found that by the end of the walk, the volunteers in the high-crime neighborhood also said they trusted others less and felt more paranoid,” he said.
Nettle continued by pointing out that after their “short visit,” to a rough part of town, his research volunteers experienced what it was like to be in the mindset of “the residents who lived there.”
“It’s interesting because it shows not just that our environment affects our state of mind, but that it does so very rapidly,” he added.
However, this isn’t the worst part. A separate 2016 study by researchers at Duke University and King's College London found children living in violent neighborhoods exhibit higher rates of psychotic symptoms. Then there are the victims of violence themselves, who can suffer PTSD at rates comparable to soldiers who have experienced front-line combat. Put simply, the science shows that rough neighborhoods dramatically shape how both locals and visitors alike experience the world around them. Is it time then, to revisit the long discredited Urban Survival Syndrome?
What is Urban Survival Syndrome?
The notion of Urban Survival Syndrome was long ago dismissed as little more than a poor excuse for unacceptably aggressive social behavior. Urban Dictionary describes it as a “fear-thy-neighbor mentality” that causes its victims to “feel they have no way of protecting themselves from crime or violence, except by killing anybody who threatens or harasses them.”
“Such mentality is usually the result of living in violent, crime-prone (typically inner-city) areas for long periods of time and/or watching too much television (no joke),” the internet’s most authoritative dictionary explained.
At this point, almost everyone who has lived in a rough neighborhood is probably nodding. If you haven’t felt the tug of Urban Survival Syndrome yourself, you probably know someone who shows signs of it. Despite this, the supposed syndrome has long been dismissed as simply a lame excuse used by paranoid individuals with anger management issues.
How Urban Survival Syndrome Died
Its slide into cynical internet joke started before the internet itself really took off. Back in 1994, Urban Survival Syndrome was used as a defense in the trial of Texan African American teenager Daimion Osby. Osby was facing two counts of first-degree murder, after gunning down two unarmed men in a parking lot. The backstory: the two men had been hounding Osby for months over the outcome of a game of street craps.
“Our guy [Osby] just didn't show these fellows the proper respect … and they just increased the level of violence until he was fearful for his life,” defense attorney David Bays told The Washington Post at the time.
In other words, Osby’s defense was simple: he had been so terrorized that he believed it was either kill or be killed.
At the time, the case became a media sensation, as Osby’s lawyers experimented with what is now known as the Urban Survival Syndrome defense. Used much like the classic temporary insanity defense, the idea looked like it could catch on. The original trial ended with a hung jury, spurring a wave of interest in this new legal defense.
“It's just like open warfare,” another of Osby’s lawyers, Bill Lane argued.
“And if you're to survive as a young African American in that neighborhood, you have to take steps necessary to protect yourself,” he told The Seattle Times.
Critics, however, argued Urban Survival Syndrome was an excessive step towards “individualizing” justice; in other words, applying different standards of conduct to different people. For critics like John Monahan, a psychologist and law professor at the University of Virginia, the ultimate question is simple: where do we draw the line?
“If we allow urban psychosis as a defense to a crime, what would be next?” he rhetorically inquired during an interview with The New York Times.
“Suburban psychosis, marked by a pathological fear of lawn mowers and barbecues?”
This entire debate abruptly ended with the conclusion of Osby’s retrial, which saw him convicted on the two murder counts and sentenced to life in prison.
The Urban Survival Syndrome was dead, at least as a legal defense.
Are Bad Cities Driving Us Crazy?
However, two decades later, is it time to rethink Urban Survival Syndrome? Not as a legal defense, but as a way to understand our society’s growing tension. We live in a time where people are increasingly stressed, depressed and utterly overwhelmed. Since the Osby case, violent crime has overall fallen dramatically across the U.S., but public fear has skyrocketed. Throw in a tense political climate, social media alienation, and frustration with the growing wealth gap, and it’s perhaps no surprise Americans are feeling increasingly helpless, frustrated and outright angry. Clearly, there’s no single explanation for society’s growing tension, but maybe we need to take a break from blaming politics, the news and Facebook for our collective psychological woes, and instead put our physical surroundings back under the microscope. After two decades of urban decay, it’s time to ask ourselves the same question Osby’s jury grappled with: is the state of our cities literally driving us crazy?
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