Robbed at Gunpoint #9: Finding Out about the Neighborhood

A few years ago I was looking at some apartments and found some lovely old apartments in the Gulfton area (approximately near Bellaire and Chimney Rock). Driving around during the day, I was impressed by the neighborhood’s charm and the proximity of parks and libraries.

But my parents were horrified. “The Gulfton area is a den of crime,” they told me. They saw all sorts of crime reports and murders on the local news as well as in the Chronicle newspaper. I didn’t really know, but a quick check of the newspaper revealed some basis for their belief; also, apartment locators (who tend to be pretty well-informed) seemed to agree.

There is perception, and there is reality. Watch the local news, and you’d think that this city is teeming with murderers, child molesters and carjackers. At the same time that local news provides new evidence for paranoia, national (and even local) crime statistics seem to be relatively stable or even declining. When you live in a metropolitan area of over 3 million people, there will always be more than enough incidents to fill up a newspaper or 23 minute newscast. It would make anyone paranoid.
Instead of Gulfton apartments, I moved into Walden of Westchase, a small geek apartment complex that was relatively quiet and crime-free. During my three year stay, there were “incidents” and flyers put on our doors to notify us. For a while, there was a string of robberies by the same person around the neighborhood (not just that complex). Luckily no murders or violent assaults. Sure, there were car breakins, looting of the vending machines and random acts of vandalism (my bike was vandalized in my last month there). All this for a relatively safe and quiet complex.

But 3 years later I was ready for a change in scenery and found an apartment complex 4 miles west with outstanding recreational facilities, a competitive price and a nearby park. I was sold. Yet the neighborhood was close to the Alief high schools (translation: lots of teenagers running around), and the apartment was just bigger (probably 2 or 3 times the size of my old one). Instead of attracting single yuppie geeks, it attracted families and immigrants. So yes, it had more activity, more people out and about, more social interactions, both friendly and dangerous.

But does that translate into more crime? Compare the situation to my parents, who live in a gated retirement community in west Houston. They felt much more safe than before (and in fact, they moved there to escape a deteriorating neighborhood in Mission Bend). But the price they paid was isolation. The neighborhood was new, and deed restrictions prevented younger couples from living there: it was only for retirees.

So is buying a house in a gated community the only way to be safe? Actually though, my parents (who follow local crimes more closely on the TV) feel even less secure than I do; Whereas a crime incident may seem to a young adult to be just a normal consequence of city living, older generations may feel more threatened by it, more burdened by its inconveniences and more helpless to take countermeasures. But personal security often depends on perceptions rather than reality; how then can an individual find out about the realities of crime in a neighborhood?

The Houston police department publishes crime bulletins by neighborhood, which is immensely helpful. But my apartment complex didn’t have a single incident in 6 months (even though the neighborhood itself probably has a higher-than-average incidence of crime). Who really knows how to interpret the data? For example, a complex twice the size of another might have twice the number of crime incidents.

Another way to ascertain a complex’s safety is to walk around with the leasing agent and notice things. But during the daytime, there’s only so much you can tell. At one apartment complex I was considering, I visited at night (walking through the gate after a car). I walked around a bit and noticed the amount of activity and noise level. In this case, all kinds of cars were out and about; gangs of teenagers were congregated everywhere. Based on their appearance, they looked like thugs…or could they simply be minority National Merit finalists chatting about science projects? Really, you can never know. gives excellent ratings from residents about each apartment. But can you trust them? This rating board tends to attract “sour grapes,” usually people who have been robbed or had squabbles with the apartment management. It’s hard to form conclusions based on feedback which is almost uniformly negative. Some of the commenters are outright bigots (complaining about the number of minorities or influx of New Orleans people, for instance). Still, it gives you something to look for when inspecting a property.

The minority issue is a touchy one. Yes, there are Mexican gangs here in Houston, and certain African-American teens (judging solely from their outfits) are either gangsters or could play one convincingly on TV. Then again, what do I know? I no longer have a clue about what kind of look already was “mainstream” and what outward signs were genuinely meaningful. In my high school days, potheads wore Van Halen and Black Sabbath T-shirts, but so did the geek crowd (sometimes); even then I had trouble figuring out who really was “dangerous” and who simply was dressing the part. In this neighborhood, the African-Americans were really from Africa; they were Nigerian immigrants studying for pharmacy school or working at network administrators. Surely, that’s not an indication that the neighborhood the place is “going downhill”?

The best way to find out about the neighborhood is to ask people who live there. In the past, I have stopped random residents before they enter the complex and ask them for an opinion about the area. (The information is not THAT helpful. Almost everybody gives basically upbeat assessments; remember, they are the ones who haven’t yet fled the place).

I’ve lived in apartment complexes for almost 20 years (both here and overseas). It’s rare that I talk to my neighbors (except if we have a blackout or some emergency that brings us outdoors). Aside from apartment incident reports (which tend to be vague about details), it’s hard to know who’s getting robbed and why and what the apartment complex is doing about it. If you don’t know your neighborhood, how on earth will you find out when they’ve been robbed? Really, the only way to know is to see the police car in the parking lot.

One idea I liked at my old apartment complex was that someone set up an email mailing list for residents (remember, Walden of Westchase had a lot of geeks with webservers!). Managing a mailing list can be a pain, and it probably could bring community issues to the forefront that others don’t want to confront. But in an age where we’re more likely to keep up with the day-to-day affairs of a blogger in Canada than those of our next-door neighbor, sometimes the only way to find out about what’s happening under your nose is to read about it in your Inbox.

Robbed at Gunpoint

(homemade sign I made to warn my apartment neighbors).