Marginalized neighbors don't help strangers
When Jane Jacobs wrote about her experiences witnessing strangers helping others, I was not sure if she was writing about New York or another planet. Thinking about my Queens neighborhood, I don't think most people would try to protect a little girl, if that someone thought she was being kidnapped, or shout directions to a bus stop from a few-stories-high building. I think the author missed a big point when she did not mention the social and economic factors that make the streets safe. Aside from poorly built sidewalks, dark streets, and lack of shops, marginalized neighbors also make the streets and side-walks unsafe.
My current residence by the Queens Malls has offered a far different experience compared to my past residences in Manhattan, one of them in the East Village. My former neighbors in the East Village apartment-complex building took an active role in being familiar with one another. There were the occasional 'hello, how are you' or 'what do you do', and the building maintenance employee who went as far as getting to know everyone's personal garbage, and then policing the guilty culprits about not properly recycling. In stark contrast, no one checked up on me and my roommate in my Queens residence when I screamed for help and banged on my neighbors' doors most recently.
I was living with two people at the time; my roommate and her significant other. Her boyfriend happened to pass-out one morning when my roommate was gone. His entire body was hanging down, supported by his head that was stuck between the bathroom wall and the cabinet. His faint breathing was a cross between choking and snoring, and either's cell phone wasn't in sight. After few attempts to get him out in vain and then find either's cell phone, again in vain, I started screaming for help. When no one came, I sprinted to my neighbor's apartment on the second and third floor and began banging on all the doors, asking for help and trying door knobs. People were home but no one opened the door or called 911. Realizing that I was on my own, I came back down and I continued to pull and tug at his head and his body, finally dragging him out onto the kitchen floor and slapping him back to consciousness. He eventually went to work, and everyone else quietly exited the building fifteen minutes later after he left. Obviously, everyone was late for everything that day.
After fuming for a few days about the horror of feeling helpless that morning, I began to understand why no one helped. First of all, let's talk about being marginalized by a language barrier or immigration status. I don't speak Mandarin, and my two Chinese landlords, who live on the third floor, are both in their late 50th and don't speak English. All correspondence was always done through one of the roommates who speaks Mandarin, or the landlords' older daughter who speaks English but does not live with them. The adult female on the second floor, who was home at the time, does not speak English. Although English comprehension was not necessary to understand that something was wrong that day, perhaps someone felt that the language barrier was a factor in calling 911. But then again, there were neighbors on the other side of my apartment 'wall' (same building) that morning, and English comprehension is not a problem for them. But, perhaps someone's immigration status was.
If the language barrier or immigration status were not the factors, then learned environmental behavior may have been the reason. I'm the only white, European-American living in the apartment building and the entire block. All my neighbors, and the majority of the residents in the surrounding blocks around my apartment, are Chinese. I suspect that my neighbors in my building and next-door may still follow a learned environmental behavior, as a result of China's policies, that helping others is highly costly. For instance, if you bring someone to the hospital or call 911 in China, you are responsible for that person's health bill and other associated costs. Strangers have went to jail, saw their property seized, and their families ended up on the street -- all because of helping others in need, and then refusing to (or not being able to) pay the stranger's health bill. This brings to mind a viral video that made US-headlines about a year ago about a little girl in China. The security camera caught three cargo trucks driving over her body throughout a 15 minute time period, all thoughout different time intervals. The drivers continued to drive, even after pausing and realizing they ran over a girl. Meanwhile, none of the street passangers attempted to move her body onto the sidewalk thoughout the entire time. It was not a busy street either, but there were people passing by. The torture ended 20 minutes later when an elderly street sweeper called the ambulance, and the mother found her bleeding daughter. There was an international outpour of monetary aid for the little girl, but she died a few days later.
I don't want to believe that no one attempted to help me that day, or at least call 911, because I am not Chinese. Either way, you probably would not see this disregard for others' safety in the East Village, Manhattan, at least not in my old apartment building.