By Conner Reed
BU News Service
On paper, Abby Bornstein is a near-mascot for young professionals in Greater Boston.
Fresh off of her bachelor’s degree, Abby Bornstein moved to Cambridge’s Central Square in the spring of 2016 to take a position with a local ad agency. Over the past year and a half, she said she’s had a generally good experience with the neighborhood.
“I didn’t choose to live in Central Square specifically because of its reputation for safety,” Bornstein said, “but I’ve found that it’s a very safe place.”
While hunting for an apartment within commuting distance of her new job, Bornstein said that she didn’t think much about perceived safety differences between the city’s neighborhoods.
“I always perceived Cambridge to be a generally safe town,” she said, adding that she doesn’t avoid walking down certain dimly-lit streets at night, sometimes despite her better judgment.
One incident late this summer briefly challenged Bornstein’s perception. In September, during the 25th annual Cambridge Caribbean Carnival near Central Square, two people were shot. Bornstein said it surprised her, but having lived in cities for a good portion of her life, she wasn’t overly shaken.
“That’s the biggest act of violence I’ve heard happening in my neighborhood since I’ve lived here,” Bornstein said. “Fortunately, and knock on wood, no violence has affected anyone I know.”
For longtime Cambridge residents, Bornstein’s outlook might come as a bit of a shock. The city’s demographics have shifted drastically in recent decades, and with them, so have crime rates.
According to the Cambridge Police Department’s 2016 Annual Crime Report, the city’s total rate of violent crime has dropped 53 percent from 1997 to 2016. The report defines violent crime as rape, murder, robbery and aggravated assault.
Bornstein’s comfort on the streets, then, is the product of a fairly drastic shift. Were she searching for a postgrad apartment in 1998, Bornstein would’ve been faced with the knowledge of 370 assaults in the prior year. That number had dropped to 161 by 2016, the year she moved to the city.
While there is no definitive explanation for this shift, there are some speculations.
Craig Kelley, a six-term Cambridge City Council member, said he thinks it has something to do with a shift in the city’s socioeconomic makeup.
“I think it’s both the fact that the individuals in the city have become wealthier, and so has the city itself,” Kelley said, “which allows us to offer a host of services and opportunities and so forth for people to develop skills and not be involved in violent crime.”
Census data supports at least part of Kelley’s assertions. In 2015, Cambridge’s median household income was $104,454, towering above the Massachusetts average of $87,085 and the nationwide average of $66,011.
However, drawing a directly inverse relationship between individual wealth and the city’s violent crime rate emphasizes correlation over causation. Kelley pointed out, though, that with the city itself receiving more tax revenue, he and his fellow council members are able to better fund the police department.
“I’m not sure the Council has a great deal to do with [reducing violent crime], but we fund the police department, and the police department is interactive and they’re out there,” Kelley said. “So to that extent, we’ve had something to do with it.”
Cambridge’s declining crimes rates are not isolated incidents. Nationwide, violent crime took a steady plunge from the early 1990s to the mid-2010s, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting data.
However, national rates have seen small-but-steady upticks from 2014 to 2016, while Cambridge’s rates continued to fall.
In Bornstein’s world, this is grounds for more cautious optimism.
“It’s nice to know the city’s getting safer,” she said. “I still keep my guard up when I’m alone, but I can’t imagine how I would’ve felt 20 years ago.”