David Meni: When exploring D.C., look past the headlines

I live and spend most of my time in parts of D.C. that my parents once told me to avoid at all costs. I remember driving down Georgia Avenue as an incoming student, the trunk nearly bursting with move-in essentials.

“Promise me you won’t come to this part of town,” my parents told me, worried that I would get hurt or find myself in danger.

A few years later, there are probably even more concerned parents of freshmen starting at GW this fall. By now, students and parents alike have probably heard news about the rise in homicides in the District, as well as in some other major cities. So far this year, the number of killings in the D.C. region — 182 as of this week — has surpassed the total number for 2014. And over the summer, two recent alumni from American University were killed in separate incidents.

But it’s important to note that violent crime and murder rates in D.C. are still at historically low levels, nearly half of what they were in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

There’s one piece of advice I hope people in the GW community can take to heart. Don’t let what you’ve heard about certain D.C. neighborhoods prevent you from experiencing some of the most essential components of this city’s culture, history and energy.

Some of the news coverage lately might elevate people’s fears by making the situation seem much worse than it is. One writer at The Washington Post, for example, wrote that this summer has been “so lawless in D.C., it feels like the Wild West.” And local blogs like Borderstan and PopVille many times only fuel unnecessary panic about crime.

But if I never went to places my parents warned me about, I would have missed out on some of my favorite D.C. memories — from summer afternoons on Georgia Avenue to the amazing hilltop view of the city at Fort Stanton Park in Southeast.

A lot of people will tell you, especially around the beginning of the school year, to get outside the “Foggy Bottom bubble.” But if your only excursions outside of Foggy Bottom are to Dupont Circle and Georgetown with the occasional night out in Adams Morgan or U Street, there’s a whole universe you’re missing.

Of course, the increase in homicides compared to 2014 isn’t something to ignore completely, and when you go out, you should take all the normal precautions of living in a city. Travel with a friend, or, if you decide to go alone, always make sure someone knows where you’re going. And please, don’t walk around wearing headphones at night.

For some freshmen, transfer students and new graduate students, this may also be your first time away from home or in a big city. It’s perfectly valid to be concerned about your safety, especially if you’ve been following the news.

Know that getting comfortable in a new city takes some time, and don’t be afraid to take things slow. Even if you’re staying on or near campus, there are plenty of resources available to you. Be sure to take advantage of services like 4-RIDE and download the GW Personal Alarm Locator app.

Personally, I feel just as safe now as I have at any time in D.C. As a young white man, I recognize that I may feel perfectly safe in situations or areas that would make others uneasy. And of course, there are countless issues of race and class that factor into crime and violence. But those issues deserve their own conversations that incorporate the voices of people who have lived those experiences, unlike myself.

In conversations with friends and neighbors who live in places like Parkview, Petworth, Columbia Heights, Shaw and Cardozo, I’ve found that most haven’t experienced the kind of fear or anxiety that news reports often portray. Most of my friends say they feel no less at ease in their new neighborhoods than they did in Foggy Bottom.

And most of the time, I feel more protected living in Columbia Heights than I did around GW. Having neighbors I know sitting out on their porches is a much more reassuring atmosphere than the abandoned streets of the Golden Triangle after work hours.

As students, it’s important for us to recognize that our Foggy Bottom location naturally puts us in a sheltered, privileged space. If we take news reports and hearsay about other neighborhoods at face value, we can miss out on an essential part of our education and time here.

We need to push our personal boundaries and comfort zones by exploring the city in its entirety — not just cherry-picking neighborhoods.

David Meni, a graduate student studying urban policy in the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.