Home Secretary Jacqui Smith says she would not feel secure on the streets of London late at night. So where is it safe to walk?
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
The pavement may be a public highway but when dusk falls and the glow of street lamps intensifies many have to think twice before straying beyond their front door. Crime, or more significantly the fear of crime, is a deterrent for many, including, it seems, the home secretary.
Jacqui Smith says she would not feel comfortable after dark in Hackney, east London, or even more affluent districts like Kensington.
Her remarks were seized on by her Conservative counterpart David Davis, who said it was "shameful you can walk the streets of New York, Tokyo, Paris and Berlin safely at night, but not the streets of London".
Was London in 1870 any safer?
Some, such as shift workers, have no choice. But for most the decision of whether they feel safe outside after dark has more to do with personal experience than a cold look at the statistics, which suggest reported street crime is falling.
In October, the Home Office said robbery in England and Wales was down 9% on the previous year. In London robberies fell 15% in 2007.
But figures do little to dispel fear and they offer no comfort when intimidation roams your neighbourhood. The murder of Garry Newlove in Warrington compounded the feeling that in some areas, usually cities, the streets are not safe.
Were they ever? While some hold the 1950s and 60s up as a golden era when community values held sway, going back another 100 years reveals a different picture altogether.
"London was riddled with crime and walking in many parts of the city was so dangerous that even police would not venture into them," says George Landow, founder of The Victorian Web.
"Thieves with all sorts of specialities existed and some routinely killed people for handkerchiefs."
Nowadays, the fear of street crime and sexual assault is more keenly felt by women. And the home secretary, says Finn Mackay of the London Feminist Network (LFN), is only saying what all women feel.
"Some of them restrict their movement, depending on how nervous they are. Some don't go out in the evening if it means getting the last bus or they'll spend money on taxis or not go out at all. They make changes to their lives all the time."
Reclaim the Night is an annual march staged by the LFN when hundreds of women take to the streets of the capital to protest against male violence. Yet Ms Mackay points out that women are much more likely to be assaulted in their homes than on the street, where men are usually victims.
In 2006-7, more than three times as many men were victims of random attacks in England and Wales as women, according to police recorded crime.
Steve, 34, was attacked in 2004 as he walked to the video shop round the corner of his home in south-east London. It was 8pm in winter.
As he walked past two young men, one of them punched him and he banged his head on the pavement, knocking him unconscious. He suffered concussion and went to hospital but while the confusion and dizziness passed within hours, the mental impact lasted much longer.
Quiet areas are more threatening
"It affected me quite dramatically for probably two or three years," he says. "It happened on the road I walk from the station to my flat, so any time I was out in town, it was something in the back of my mind throughout the evening.
"That stuck around for years. When I was making plans with people I would be thinking: 'That seems like something I want to do but it will mean coming home in the dark. Will I get a cab? Will I walk it?
"If someone spontaneously phoned me up and asked if I wanted to do something that evening, I would struggle. It was only a £4 cab from the station but when I did that I felt a bit pathetic, like it was an admission of weakness."
It is experiences like this, multiplied by their telling to friends and media coverage, and magnified by our fascination with the sinister, which shape fears and behaviour.
But is it really so different abroad? A straw poll of people living in diverse inner-city areas in some of the other cities mentioned by Mr Davis suggests not.
Elisabeth Weber, 27, is an assistant at the university and has lived in the west Berlin district of Neukoelln for five years.
"The perception is that it is a problem area because there are a lot of immigrants and a lot of people without jobs and the crime rate is high there.
"It's very cheap. When I moved there I had been looking for apartments in old Berlin.
Away from the tourists, Berlin has deprived areas
"I felt a bit threatened because I didn't know the environment. But after a while and after nothing had happened, I felt very safe."
Friends who live elsewhere in the city have no problem walking the streets of Neukoelln, she says, but others who don't know the area may feel threatened. People are afraid of being mugged.
"But I was born and raised in Romania," she says. "There it was more dangerous than here."
Laura Flierl, a 23-year-old student, says she reads in the papers about gang violence and stabbings in the area but still walks home at 3am on her own and has never had any problems.
"I feel a little bit scared sometimes but not as scared as I would in Hackney. I had friends there when I lived in London. I would still live there but I wouldn't go home on my own.
"As long as you're not involved in these kind of gangs or in the wrong spot at the wrong time.
"It's not the safest place in Berlin and it has a reputation but it doesn't live up to it."
HELL'S KITCHEN, NEW YORK
Vivek Batra, 40, who works in fashion, says: "Fifteen years ago, you would not have gone out at night in Hell's Kitchen or Chelsea. It used to be so run down but it's become more and more gentrified in recent years and the real estate has gone through the roof.
"I walk round there late at night. I think you have to be careful in any major city at night but on 8th, 9th and 10th it's fairly safe but the further west you go it gets more industrial, more warehouses so you have to be a little bit more careful.
Many New Yorkers feel safer now
Former mayor Rudy Giuliani's crackdown killed off the nightlife in the city, he says, but did lead to a fall in crime that has probably made New Yorkers feel safer as a result.
"But there are places I would think twice about walking at night, like East Harlem, and you should be careful in the East Village."
A regular visitor to London, he says he feels safer in the UK capital than in New York.
Just south of Chelsea in Greenwich Village is Norm Berg, an interior designer in his 50s, who says walking in the area is fine because there are so many people around.
"However, as in any big city there are occasional muggings that take place but to avoid any possible problems, it is always best to walk on main streets where it is well-lit and where it is not dark and deserted.
"The people that are usually targeted for muggings or robberies are usually older people that are easy prey. A few years ago you would walk down New York streets and see car windows broken, cars broken into and car radios stolen.
"The streets were glittering with what looked like diamonds, but it was shattered car window glass. But today, you do not see that anymore."
18TH ARRONDISEMENT, PARIS
Catherine Ankova, a 36-year-old journalist in Paris, 36, has lived in 18th arrondisement since 2001. It is a racially mixed part of the city where property prices have rocketed due to an influx of predominantly white professionals in recent years.
"Between 2am and 5am I will always get a taxi for security reasons. Between 11pm and 2am if I have to come back from work on my own I would walk but be very aware of who is in the street.
Night falls on Paris
"Before 10pm it's fine, there are so many people in the street. After 11pm I would be very cautious, meaning if I hear someone shouting or someone drunk, it never happened to me, but I feel I would be happy to walk backward and take the Tube or find another way home.
"But it never happened to me, this is based on an impression. And it's not just because of reputation. When I arrived, friends said to me I was very silly, it's very scary, it's dangerous, you have drugs, you have prostitution."
That was evident, she says, but once a police station was put in the heart of the district, the area cleaned up and the drugs dealer and prostitutes were out of sight.
She feels more threatened in more affluent areas, like 16th arrondisement, she says, because there are no shops and pubs so no-one would be around to help if she was assaulted.
Ms Ankova lived in London for 18 months and had a friend living in Hackney. "She told me the street next to her was Murder Mile but I didn't feel threatened, maybe because I wasn't in Paris or because I never saw anyone drunk or people arguing."
Chitra Banerjee, 68, has lived in the borough of Hackney for 22 years. Her very active retirement - dancer, actress, volunteering for Age Concern and London 2012 - means she regularly walks home on her own after dark.
She says she is comfortable doing that and recalls one incident in that time.
"A long time ago, I was threatened with an imitation gun. He pointed it at me and pushed me against the wall. He pushed it against my forehead but I pushed him away. I'm a brave girl and I was away again.
"I don't know what he was looking for, I didn't care. It didn't affect me. These things can happen to anyone anywhere. In my opinion Hackney is all right and my friends who live here are all right. It's good to live here and I think it's safe."
Diane Abbott, the 54-year-old Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, invited the home secretary to join her for a night-time stroll around the borough's streets.
"Jacqui is quite wrong to suggest that Hackney is a no-go area for women after dark. She is feeding a culture of fear which is bad for our many bars, restaurants, art galleries and other entertainment venues.
"Comments like hers make women unnecessarily fearful. Jacqui needs to get to know inner-city London. She will find it is not the nightmarish scene from a Hogarth engraving that she seems to imagine."
Below is a selection of your comments.
I must be on the wrong side of the statistical curve! I have been punched to the ground by football fans in central Manchester, attacked on a train near Oxenholme (the police got him at the next station), threatened with robbery on a train in Cheshire, punched to the ground from behind by a road-rager in Stoke (the police took no action)and driven off the road and attacked in Leicestershire. My son has been assaulted on a bus and my daughter attacked in the street and required emergency treatment for a head wound, both in Staffordshire. So far London has been a haven and overseas has been very safe. It's not Hackney, it's England (and my fellow Englishmen), I am sorry to say; not a foreigner amongst the assailants. Until you see policemen on the streets in sufficient numbers as New York achieved, it will be difficult to change matters.
I am sure that as a cyclist and motorist I am far more likely to die or be seriously injured on the roads than I am by walking on the pavement at night. Yet everyone still drives to work everyday as if its the safest thing in the world, while believing the nights are unsafe.
I always aim to look confident and to know exactly where I'm going even if I don't. In St Petersburg where I lived in the early 90s I crossed the city alone and on foot in the middle of the night several times and never had a problem, just drunks sometimes trying to be friendly. I never carried a bag or wore good clothes. A Russian friend and I were mugged outside a country club which was miles from anywhere in a forest by a lake! My daughter and I were mugged in hackney near her flat because we hesitated for a minute on a corner before deciding on our next move and that caught the muggers attention I suppose. He had a knife but I threw a little bag full of change at him and he stopped to investigate and we ran away home.
I grew up in Glasgow, but have since lived in Wick (North East of Scotland), Bristol and Dundee. None of these places feels anywhere near as intimidating to me as Glasgow. Nor do any cities I've visited as a tourist: including London, Paris and Amsterdam. But maybe it's true what they said about personal experience having a strong effect on your perception of safety. In Glasgow I was mugged once and another time someone punched me at a bus stop. This made me very cautious. That sort of thing has never happened to me anywhere else.
Amanda, Dundee, Scotland
I used to live in a small pit village outside of Durham. Population approx 300. In the 25 metres walk to the shop I endured intimidation, threats of violence, thrown stones / beer cans. Bottles were thrown at the house and back yard. I saw buildings set alight and property damaged. Elderly people told me of similar intimidation to them.
Here in a city, I feel anonymous, safe and people are around all the time.
For most of the past 40 odd years I've lived in inner city suburbs in London, Sydney and Munich. People walk in these areas at all hours of day and night, they use public transport and their windows are close to the pavement. Far less scary than suburbs where nearly everyone lives at the end of a driveway or garden, most of them move around in hermetically sealed cars, and they shut themselves off from the rest of the world. Three rules apply wherever you are: keep your keys in your pocket not a bag, walk purposefully like you know where you're going, and avoid the obviously drunk.
Sue , Hammersmith, London
David Davis, who said it was "shameful you can walk the streets of New York, Tokyo, Paris and Berlin safely at night, but not the streets of London" is the biggest loser in this discussion. When will politicians realise that they don't have to always condemn the opposition. I live near Manchester - and the majority of people I know would never dream of walking alone in the centre of Manchester, Moss Side etc. If I was to do so - and something happened - I would be ashamed at not taking sensible care of myself. I am not ashamed of being nervous. Shame on the people who criticise we who apply common sense before the horse has bolted - not after.
Jean Farrell, Stockport, UK
I've lived in London nearly all my life, and I've wandered it's streets at night, sometimes drunk, and nothing bad has happened to me. If you walk around like you own the place, and as if anyone who bothered you would be easily seen off, that's a form of protection on it's own. If you walk around hunched in fear, flinching at every sound and peering nervously at every passing man, you might as well write 'victim' across your forehead. London has a great nightlife - Jacqui Smith should get out there and enjoy it!
Try walking around Prague, as you feel very safe at all times even around 4/5 in the morning and using public transport feels just as safe not like a lot of places in the UK. Where I work we have a lot of young ladies who come back to the hostel at all times of night and have felt quite safe.
Peter Law, Prague
I don't know why Hackney is singled out as a particularly dangerous place to walk at night. This is just playing on old stereotypes. I live in East London and often go through Hackney late at night when I have been out. I have never come across a threatening situation. Obviously you have to take care as you would anywhere, but there are always plenty of people around at any time of night.
I have been based in Munich for a while now and can honestly say that I feel much safer here than in England. To me it seems as if crime doesn't even exist here. I have never had a problem nor have any of my friends told me of any incidents. I have often wandered through the English Gardens (the largest inner city park in the world) late at night after an evening in the Beer gardens. I couldn't imagine ever doing that in Hyde Park or alike.
Chris Murphy, Munich, Germany
I believe that women do have an apprehension of being out alone at night. I live in Aberdeen and the tension in the air on a night out is palpable, I rarely go out without my husband of an evening, not for want of invitations to go out with the girls (and hence find my own way home) but simply from a safety point of view.
Gillian Passman, Aberdeen, Scotland
I have lived in Japan for nearly two years and have never felt threatened at any time of day or night, in the street or on a train. I have no fear of being burgled either. I have never witnessed any violence and quaintly, there are police officers on the streets in cars, on bikes and on foot. It is undoubtedly a cultural thing....Japanese people know how to behave and those who don't are not tolerated. I am dreading my return to the UK later this year.
Jim Reid, Tokyo, Japan
Believing the streets are unsafe is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If good people don't go out on the streets, of course the criminals will treat them as their own domain. Statistically you're very unlikely to be attacked, so why let it ruin the way you live your life?