Sunday, July 29, 2012

The unconscious way SLC citizens keep the peace (The Salt Lake Tribune, 6/30/2012)

The unconscious way SLC citizens keep the peace

After working for two years in Salt Lake City following years of living in New York and Boston, I left Utah last month for work back on the East Coast. A few months ago I wrote about my transition from New York City to Salt Lake City in “Why in the world would you move to SLC?” (Opinion, Feb. 12).

In that article I wrote about how my overall experience in Salt Lake was positive, particularly with respect to the friendliness of the people. Now that I have returned to familiar territory, I am struck by the differences between geographic areas but also the effect my time in Salt Lake has had on what I value in a city.

One unfortunate incident in my new city sent my mind reeling back to my life in Salt Lake. Three days after moving to New Haven, Conn., my wallet was stolen. After signing up for my library card I accidentally left my wallet in plain site while browsing the stacks.

While this error could have led to theft in just about any community, a very disappointing difference played prominently in this case. 

According to the officer with whom I filed my police report, a library patron reported seeing a wallet to the circulation desk employees. To my surprise, they proceeded to do nothing, and the wallet was subsequently stolen. While I do not hold anyone responsible for my carelessness, I couldn’t help but think, “You know, in Salt Lake, the librarian would have just picked it up and held it behind the desk.” 

Maybe I’m giving the citizenry of Salt Lake too much credit, but my gut says otherwise.

I use this example not to highlight urban crime but rather to contrast the sense of community or lack thereof certain cities evoke. While living in New York City I learned to love the independent every-man-for-himself vibe. However, the communal feel of Salt Lake charmed me and shifted my perspective on what I value in city life.

In my theft case, certainly all of the requisite municipal services were well-executed, including the swift arrival and professionalism of the New Haven police, even considering the relatively low-level nature of the crime. Despite the appropriate police response, I will never forget how I felt as I left the library. 

Once all the paperwork was done, I walked out into the street with only my new library card and two books, past hurried sidewalkers who avoided eye contact, didn’t smile or say hello. At that moment, the financial loss and bureaucratic headache of replacing my identification and credit cards felt immaterial. Instead, I couldn’t shake the great city paradox of feeling completely alone in a crowd.

When I think about my situation I recall the writing of urban theorist Jane Jacobs: “The public peace — the sidewalk and street peace — of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as the police are. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.” 

I believe Salt Lake is a city wherein such an unconscious standard prevails. A police presence would not be the impetus for a Salt Lake librarian to use common sense and pick up an accidentally misplaced wallet. Rather, picking up a wallet is a choice to preserve the public peace that does not require a sidearm, badge or uniform. 

For all the advantages and resources of my new home, I will miss those simple acts of kindness that serve to bind the Salt Lake community. 

Arjune Rama completed his psychiatry internship at University of Utah School of Medicine. He will continue his psychiatry training at Yale in July.

© 2012 The Salt Lake Tribune