Is Mac-Groveland safe at night?

By Alex Park

How safe do students feel at Macalester? It is a question that arises following the series of robberies, thefts and break-ins that normally occur each year. Each time the answer is dual: promises are made to improve security in the future, and tips for providing for one’s own safety are passed along, but also, we are asked to accept the reality of the school itself. Macalester’s urban location is one of its most attractive traits, but also one of its more significant drawbacks with regard to safety.

“It’s about as safe as any city can get,” said Emily Paulson ’09.

One junior who lives off campus was practical about her approach to dealing with the threat. “I generally feel safe around campus,” she said. “But I don’t like walking home at night, so I tend to bike or carry pepper spray.”

The urban locale of the college has long been one asset worthy of advertising- a trait that might seem laughable to some who come from New York, Chicago, or across the river in Minneapolis who think of St. Paul and the neighborhood that it resides in as particularly un-urban, and talk of crime somewhat exaggerated, at least in comparison to some of their former residences.

One alum who has lived in multiple cities in the United States throughout her life had this to say: “Of the cities I’ve lived in, St. Paul definitely feels the safest. Honestly, I don’t see what the big deal about crime is.”

There is truth in that perception. With a population of over a quarter of a million and a mere sixteen homicides in 2007, St. Paul lives up to its slogan, “the most livable city in America,” in more ways than one. By contrast, Oakland, Calif., with a population of around 400,000, had 127 homicides in 2007.

And the lack of crime does not go unnoticed elsewhere in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, either. In the nineties especially, when Minneapolis was plagued with one of the highest violent crime rates in the country, earning it the colloquial title “Murderapolis,” St. Paul was consistently pitched in tourism and conference brochures as the softer, friendlier of the Twin Cities, and not without reason- its rate of crime was a fraction of its neighbor’s throughout the decade.

For Minneapolis, things have greatly improved since the nineties, but violent crime rates in the city still teeter on being extreme. Following a years-long decline, violent crime in the city surged by fifteen percent between 2004 and 2005, according to police statistics, following the upward direction of the national trend but at six times the national rate.

The reasons for this are numerous: Minneapolis has the highest rate of high school dropouts in the state- a known contributor to juvenile crime and gang violence. Like other major cities in the United States, economic inequality is also more pronounced and more visible in Minneapolis than in St. Paul.

But even with its history of low crime, does being near a city in the midst of a re-emerging crime epidemic put St. Paul, or the Mac-Groveland neighborhood at risk? A 2005 Star Tribune article reporting on the surge in Minneapolis quoted St. Paul city council member Dan Bostrom, who predicted that with time, it would.

“People that do these crimes . will go where there is the least resistance,” he said.

And if recent history around the neighborhood is any measure, there is truth in that statement.

2005 saw an explosion in bike theft at the University of St. Thomas that is still widely suspected to have been the work of an organized group of professional thieves, probably from outside the immediate area.

By 2007, the bike theft epidemic reached Macalester: in the month of September alone, twelve bikes were reported stolen in a similar fashion, according to Facilities Management in a Mac Weekly article. Later in the fall, an entire rack in Kirk Hall was cleared out in the space of a few nights. In October, an MCSG survey that polled results from almost a quarter of the student body found that 12.5 percent of current and former bike owners reported they had had a bike stolen.

Through the eyes of a bike thief, the reasons for targeting Macalester are obvious, and align perfectly with Bostrom’s prediction. To use a police term, colleges are “target-rich environments,” meaning they have lots of bikes. Moreover, the presence of security and the awareness and vigilance of the local population are relatively low compared to other parts of other cities.

Yet apart from these quiet thefts, crime in St. Paul- and violent crime especially- remains a strange phenomenon. When violent crime in Minneapolis surged mid-decade, the rate in St. Paul rose by a modest 1.5 percent, a full percentage point below the national average, and it has been decreasing ever since.

And if that were not enough, the Mac-Groveland neighborhood is an especially quiet part of town. In a sea of relative calm, the area is, statistically speaking, one of the safest places to live anywhere in St. Paul. In 2007, despite accounting for 6.9 percent of the city’s total population, Mac-Groveland accounted for a mere .4 percent of all of its aggravated asssaults. Even robbery, widely thought of as a mainstay crime in affluent residential neighborhoods, is also underrepresented in Mac-Groveland, with just .8 percent of all incidents occurring in the area- the third lowest rate in all of the city’s seventeen districts. Since 2006, the number of rapes, aggravated assaults and robberies have all decreased sharply (see chart, p. 1).

In other words, crime happens, but around here it tends to be rare, especially lately. But can students who do feel unsafe when walking at night find comfort in these official statistics?

Overall, students at Macalester appear undeterred by the lingering threat of crime. In the results of the 2007 MCSG survey mentioned above, more than half reported that they felt “safe” or “very safe” walking on or near campus at night.

But, on the flip side, seventeen percent of respondents reported the opposite sensations.

In a recent interview, Franz Meyer ’09, who was MCSG President at the time of the survey and prioritized safety and security during his term, offered a familiar, if realistic assessment. “Security is an issue that never goes away,” he said. “We are in a real urban area, and things happen all the time.”

In other words, crime is, plainly, a reality that students will have to deal with, at least until the campus relocates to Northfield or somewhere up north. Until then, the issue is one to be managed, not cured. But as students continue to demand greater security, the security budget increases, and new technologies for disseminating critical information and organizing responses are made available, the ways in which Macalester manages the neighborhood crime threat and make students feel safer on and around campus continue to evolve.