Is Houston a violent place?

Where we live, when we go to work, how we go to work, when we take a walk, where we keep our TV or our little treasures can all be influenced by violence. There are stalkers in the med center area. Friends have been pushed off their bicycles and robbed. At Rice University we periodically get warnings about thieves, usually young, slim men, about 5′ 10,” just like most of our male students. They grab purses, kick in doors, and do much, much worse. I wish it didn’t happen. Some of it is just evil. Some of it is from misfortune. All of it diminishes our ability to life fully.

I remember a fight I witnessed in front of an apartment building at Richmond and Hazard as I was driving to pick Anna up from Lanier Middle School many years ago. It was almost quaint, because it was a fist fight between two men. There was blood, apparently from a nose. There was anger too, but no knives, no guns, at least not at that moment, and that is what made it quaint. Then there were women, pulling their crazy men apart.

The closest we’ve come lately to violence is the Houston Greyhound bus stop shooting that our wonderful UK postdoc, Neil Buttery, happened to be all too close to. The suspect killed himself and had been wanted for killing in California. Here is what Neil said about his Saturday stroll: That’s the last time I leave my Midtown/Montrose Houston bubble; hit on by a prozzie and then having to dash behind a building because I inadvertantly walked into a massive gang/police shoot-out. Welcome back to the USA Dr Butters! Only it was one guy, and several cops. No gang, but two terrifying waves of bullets.

Maybe it was a Jared Diamond account that I remember of two men meeting in New Guinea, frantically trying to find connections as to how they might be related so they wouldn’t have to kill each other, their back-country rules not working so well in the city. The architect we met in St. Louis was not at all close to violence, but we still talked ties, and quickly found them, in a colleague, and in the love of northern Michigan lakes. Ties enrich human bonds, as do areas we are different. But I suppose you don’t have time for this with a purse snatcher. Respect, equality, ties, reduce crime.

I could tell you how safe we feel in Houston generally, that we’ve only ever been robbed at home living in Geneva, Switzerland, or pick-pocketed in Rome by gypsies. But many in Houston are not safe, and that lack of safety can so easily escalate to death with the American obsession with guns. The sociologists will tell us that crime increases with inequality, and income distribution in the US is become ever more unequal. There are also cultures with more violence than others apart from this, and ours is right up there on the violence scale. But we can’t stay inside all the time, so I lock the house, and tell my kids they are safer in groups, ancient human advice.

Neither Houston nor St. Louis come out particularly well on violence, but one is home and one will be home. We’ll do our best to stay safe from violence, from car crashes.

I used to get asked if I didn’t feel afraid of doing nighttime field work deep in the prairies and forests of Texas, all alone. Generally I did not feel fear when I was alone in the field. A summer Texas night can be deeply peaceful, only slightly cooler than day. My heart might pound if I scare a deer and hear its hoof-pounding warning, or if I disturb a nest of bumblebees in a tussock of grass. But the only time I actually changed my path out of fear was when I smelled cigar smoke wafting across the meadow. It probably came from far away, but stumbling on this animal alone in the night was something I did not plan on risking.

So, yes, Houston is a violent place. Inform yourself on keeping safe. And try to do something for others so children can grow up into a more peaceful city.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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