Is there a -phobia word for ‘fear of cities’ or ‘fear of urban environment’? I would find it hard to believe that we have a word for ‘fear of flutes’ (aulophobia) and ‘fear of objects to the right of the body’ (dextrophobia) but nothing for large cities. There’s even a phobia for ‘fear of teenagers’ (ephebiphobia–totally understandable, I admit) and different phobias for fears of flying, falling, gravity, and heights. I’m currently scanning a phobia list on the internet, and if I don’t find any kind of urbanphobia, I totally claim the rights to create such a term because I’m certain that the condition exists.
I live in the suburbs. A sad, sad fact of life. However, I live less than an hour from Vancouver by transit, so I spend my all my weekends and free days roaming the city streets. To be entirely honest, nothing happens in the suburbs. Really. It’s much more interesting to be in Vancouver, where everything is happening all at once, than in the suburbs, where the headline of the local newspaper is about a coyote attacking someone’s pet cat. Until about last April, I was content to live in the slow-paced, suburban life, and saw nothing particularly strange about my fellow suburbanites. And until about the same time, I never realized that myself and the other suburbanites all suffer from what I like to call (for lack of an official term) ‘urbanphobia’.
Urbanphobia is a strange thing. When I tell someone–anyone–in the suburbs that I spend every weekend and every day of the summer wandering the streets of downtown, they are, without exception, absolutely appalled. A fourteen year old girl wandering the streets nine-to-nine alone, without companion or cellphone? They would never dream of doing it themselves. How many times have I been mugged, have I ever been attacked or raped? What kind of awful, neglectful parents would allow their daughter to roam the city unprotected? What am I doing so far from home for so long each day? It never fails.
Last week, my English teacher remarked on the ‘scary’ panhandlers of downtown, how she would never walk the streets alone because people will hassle you for change. On a school trip to the Orpheum theatre downtown to see the dalai lama, we happened to drive down East Hastings, the worst street in Vancouver. All of the downtown east side is essentially forbidden territory for most Vancouverites, never mind suburbanites. And all the while we drove down this street, girls in the back of the bus whimpered about ‘scary downtown’ and how disgusting Vancouver was. I took great pleasure in telling them what I do with my spare time. Priceless.
What I pointed out to both my English teacher and the girls cowering in the back of the bus (and to anyone who expresses grief over my urban wanderings) is that, no, Vancouver is not a scary, dangerous place. Downtown east side, perhaps (my friend’s father drove down E Hastings with his two young daughters clearly visible in the back seat–nevertheless, two women asked him on seperate occasions at the intersection if he was looking for a ‘good time’), but only the truely foolish would walk through that part of town. The misconception that most suburbanites seem to share is that the entire city is one big East Hastings, and that the panhandlers are all muscular, drug-crazed men that will stab you if you don’t drop your wallet in their tin.
I always use my own case in my argument, because it tends to surprise a lot of suburbanites: that I, fourteen year old girl, wander downtown completely unattended from dawn to dusk, and have not even once been so much as approached by a panhandler. The depth of my encounters with them is this: they sit by the sidewalk, tin in front, maybe asking, “Spare change?”, but nothing more. After months of wandering the streets nine-to-nine as a lone teenage girl, that is the absolute extent of panhandling I have had to endure.
Just a thought, really, but also a note to all the urbanphobic suburbanites out there: cities aren’t the scary underworlds people like to think they are.