Death in the City

One of the themes often sounded when people talk about cities is the high previlence of crime and danger to one’s person. Particularly discussed is muggings and murders. Even locally, whenever a crime is reported to have happened downtown, a virtual chorus of “I told you downtown is a bad place” erupts on KnoxNews in the comment section.

So, is downtown a dangerous place? Do people get killed here?

Summit Towers, Just off Summit Hill Drive, Knoxville

It happens that recently there have been three deaths by unnatural causes in downtown Knoxville. The recent bout started with a January 4 suicide when a man jumped from Summit Towers. It was later reported that the man, in his fifties, struggled with mental illness. The next death, just nine days later, happened in the same place, Summit Towers, which is a home for people with various struggles, particularly handicaps of one sort or another. In this case, a woman stabbed her husband to death, which apparently followed a bout of extreme drinking and involved a handy butcher knife. Finally, a week and a half after that, Jon Womac, a worker on the Henley Street Bridge was killed.

Police prevent a suicide attempt on the Gay Street Bridge. November 2011

Prior to this, I believe there had been two deaths by jumping from the Gay Street Bridge. I know there have been two talked out of jumping from that bridge, and I think there have been others. The local police and other groups charged with this difficult task do a good job. The above picture was taken last November when I happened upon one of these situations which had a happy outcome.

So, there is one murder, one accident and a couple of suicides. What does this tell us?

The murder was not the result of an innocent person walking down the street and getting attacked. A street attack fits the idea that some people have about cities and it hasn’t happened once in the time I’ve lived downtown. Domestic disputes ending in death, sadly, happen often and happen in every part of the city and country.

The suicides, I think have to do with the nature of the housing provided at Summit Towers and with the availability of high places from which to jump. Most of the people who attempt suicide from one of the bridges are not people who live downtown. In one of the cases, the sucide victim actually was from another state. Tall buildings and bridges will attract people who choose this way to end their life.

The worker who was killed, interestingly, is the one person who I feel does reflect the particular reality of a city. Construction is a dangerous job and, in some ways, the larger the job, the more dangerous. I’m sure this person was not the first person to die for us to have the buildings and bridges we have downtown. There has even been murder associated with downtown building: The general contractor for the construction of Church Street United Methodist was gunned down and killed on the construction site in 1930.

So, is downtown a dangerous place? I don’t think it is anymore dangerous than many places and much less so than some. I feel safe on the streets, though anyone should always assess risks and take precautions. It is, as the story of the worker illustrates, a dangerous place for the people who build it for us and to them we should be respecfully grateful. It is an irony that his death came in doing a task designed to keep others safe.