We’ve all done it: riding around in a car, going down a street that has seen better days and saying something like, “This isn’t a nice neighborhood.”

I’ve been a passenger with my friends many times over the past year, and I’d estimate that I would have to use both hands to count how many times I’ve heard someone say a version of this. It struck a chord with me, being from a city that people look down upon because of its name and the media’s portrayal of it rather than because of an unpleasant visit. These comments don’t add anything to the drive.

It made me frustrated, mostly because what I heard came across as a blanket statement for all neighborhoods that looked similarly “bad.” The majority of the places we passed looked perfectly fine — and familiar.

Everywhere we passed looked similar to my neighborhood in my city, Flint. If they thought my neighborhood was bad, what would they think of me? I’ve lived in and been to less-than-affluent neighborhoods in Flint, Detroit, Philadelphia, Mississippi and other areas across the country.

Yes, the neighborhood doesn’t look great, but it isn’t bad. It isn’t “not nice.”

“This isn’t a nice neighborhood” can come across like “I’m used to better — we shouldn’t go in there because in there, crime is possible, and the people there are dangerous.” In reality, those statements might or might not be true. What’s really dangerous is making those assumptions before you meet someone who actually lives there.

There’s a difference between the action of not entering the neighborhood and the reason behind it. It’s perfectly fine to stay away because you don’t feel safe in an area where you don’t know the people. It’s harmful to avoid driving on that street because you assume you’ll get robbed if you stop at a certain gas station, or feel certain you’ll get a dirty look if you make eye contact with a pedestrian. We all face this catch-22, myself included.

The high frequency of crime coverage in the media has given people the idea that bad things and only bad things happen in poorer-looking areas. There’s no message of hope. There’s no story of people working together or of comradery between neighbors. The more negative viewpoint may be the more accurate, but the stories about areas like this never consider that the glass is half-full, not half-empty.

I realize, since I’m from a poorer-looking area, my perspective is different. I’m more accustomed to seeing areas like this, while others aren’t. I’ve had experiences in more run-down neighborhoods, and I came out of those places just fine. Through volunteer projects in places like Detroit, I’ve even left them in a better state than they were when I entered. I’ve seen my great-uncle’s garden (with many stalks of corn!) on Flint’s north side, and have met some of the sweetest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing in Philly and Kokomo, Ind.

While others may not feel safe, I’m kind of reminded of home. I don’t live in the most crime-centered area in Flint by any means, but my neighborhood may look “bad” if someone from out of town visited. Like every neighborhood in the world, we are not immune to crime. I’ve been affected by crime personally, but it doesn’t affect my concept of this area as home to me.

On the other hand, people who live in especially crime-ridden and downtrodden areas may desperately be trying to get out. They may want to leave, and may not feel like their house is their home because they feel uncomfortable and unsafe. Their lives could be at stake. But that gives them the strongest of grounds and credibility to talk about their neighborhood. They’ve lived there and have gone down the same street every day, possibly looking at another neighborhood and saying, “I’d like to live there.”

We’re all culprits of looking down on a neighborhood just because of its appearance. We’ve all been quick to assume, quick to judge a book by its cover. On the outside, we can see an area that’s poor, struggling, dangerous. But the inside might reveal a community living as a team, a group of people who have had tough breaks and are doing their best for a safe place to live.

The assumptions we make can sometimes be well-founded, but it’s also possible we have been misinformed. Until we’re completely certain our assumptions are true or we have lived in the area in question, we shouldn’t say, “That isn’t a nice neighborhood.”

In response to the next time I hear this, I hope to speak up and say that we can’t be sure.

You know what you should say when you come across a neighborhood like this?

Nothing.

Chris Crowder can be reached at ccrowd@umich.edu 

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