In America’s Safest City: Delinquency and Modernity in Suburbia, distinguished scholar and Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northwestern University, Simon I. Singer introduces the reader to Amherst, New York, which is routinely voted as one of the safest cities in the United States. Singer recollects experiences from his own childhood, while drawing on numerous ethnographic studies, and conducting interviews with and surveys of various citizens of Amherst in order to give a holistic and unbiased view of the juvenile delinquency which exists within “America’s safest city” as compared to other U.S. cities.
Published in 2014 by NYU Press, this 320-page book does a fantastic job of discussing the ways in which more affluent communities are better equipped with resources and opportunities to help youth to avoid or grow out of delinquent behavior which the author describes as essentially intrinsic in all American citizens at some point during adolescence. In the introduction, Singer gives the reader some insight into his own childhood in South Bronx. He reminisces on the story of his friend Chester, who at the age of thirty-two was shot and killed by a group of four young people aged sixteen to twenty-one. It was at this point that Singer began to ponder how life might be different for Chester, and society as a whole, if he had been raised in a more affluent, “safe” city, such as Amherst. Given this central inquiry, Singer began a project centered on a comparative study of juveniles in affluent, suburban neighborhoods as well as those in impoverished, urban ones. With this juxtaposition in mind, Singer developed the central motif that children raised in “safer” cities, although oftentimes equally delinquent by nature, are more equipped to avoid delinquent lives and contact with the criminal justice system through programs and resources made available to them by their community. This study is thorough as well as informative for scholars and laypeople alike, and gives an intriguing explanation for the timeless phrase “it takes a village to raise a child.”
Singer begins this project by introducing the reader to Amherst, New York. He discusses the qualities of Amherst and other “safe cities” that have made suburban living so desirable over the past few decades such as high quality schools and workplaces, as well as low rates of crime. He lays out the main thesis statement that will be prevalent throughout the book: that youth who are raised in affluent communities have “more opportunities to be relationally modern, and therefore are better able to avoid the potentially devastating consequences of frequent and serious delinquencies”.
Singer goes on to further explain the concept of relational modernity, as well as examples of youth succeeding in a relationally modern world despite adolescent troubles. The concept of relational modernity as explained by Singer focuses on the attachment of youth to not only parents, but also other community role models, such as coaches and teachers, and the reciprocal support and attention they give to the youth. This factor, which Singer claims is prevalent in affluent or “safe” communities, is key for youth growing out of delinquent habits and leading successful lives as adults. Singer further discusses how even some physical characteristics of “safe” cities, such as car-dependent streets which tend to lack street corners, can serve to deter juvenile delinquency in the community. In this way, Singer demonstrates how even non-personal factors go a long way in preventing delinquency.
In chapter five, Singer begins to drive home what is probably his most remarkable finding: that children are seemingly equally delinquent by nature alone, and that the support they get from the community is oftentimes the deciding factor of the level of deviance they display as adults. Through a series of interviews with young Amherst residents representing a continuum of delinquent tendencies, Singer was able to display the effectiveness of relationally modern suburbia to be able to lead even the most naturally delinquent children on to successful lives as adults. Singer closes the book in chapter eight by reiterating that no city is completely free of crime and deviance; but when children are able to utilize community resources and interact with parents and other role models in a relationally modern way, like in Amherst, children are less likely to grow up to be deviant adults, making cities where such a phenomenon is prevalent “safe”.
In my personal opinion, Singer does an excellent job of presenting and defending a fairly novel thesis statement while refraining from bogging the reader down in overly dense sociological theory and terminology. Singer focuses many of his arguments around the concept of relational modernity, which is defined in simple terms many times throughout the book, and defends this thesis with first hand interviews and surveys, which give the reader a more thorough understanding of what young life is like in Amherst, New York. This book was particularly insightful as it delves deeper into the subject of neighborhood safety, which is familiar to nearly all American citizens. I particularly liked how Singer spoke of neighborhood safety in a distinctly modern sense. For example, his discussion of the way in which car-dependent streets in modern suburban areas eliminate street corners and, with it, an age-old rendezvous point for juvenile delinquency and gang activity demonstrated the multi-faceted nature of the factors which contribute to “safety” in American cities. However, I wish that Singer would have presented his argument in more of a comparative fashion. He speaks at length in the introduction about South Bronx and the murder of his friend Chester, but I would have liked to have read more research-based details about what makes urban, primarily impoverished cities “non-safe”. For example, I would have been interested to read about interviews or surveys of youth conducted in areas such as South Bronx. Despite this, Singer presents a compelling argument which can effectively change the outlook on “safety” in the modern American city of scholars and laypeople alike.