Student leaves city due to area crime

by Beacon Staff • November 16, 2005

After the sun sets, the Theatre District, once known as the "Combat Zone," plays host to a number of drug dealers, prostitutes and occasional outbreaks of violence, all of which have prompted one Emerson student to make the decision to move out of the city.

"I was sure I was going to be mugged," junior broadcast journalism major Jacqueline Couture said of an evening she was followed home from her job at the Bennigan's restaurant on Stuart Street. "This guy started chasing me, but luckily I was able to run into my building in time."

Couture, who transferred to Emerson from the University of Connecticut this last January, said events like this have left her feeling uncomfortable and unsafe, despite living only a minute's walk away from classroom buildings. Her Warrenton Street apartment overlooks the parking lot outside Venu Nightclub, where two men were fatally shot in October.

Couture said the area wasn't visibly unsafe when she moved there in January, but she said she has noticed an increase in vagrancy and violence this semester.

"One night after I was leaving work, I was almost knocked down by someone rushing past me to fight someone else," Couture said. "As a resident here, I shouldn't have to feel unsafe walking home, but I do."

Incidents like this eventually led Couture to call Mayor Thomas M. Menino's office to complain, but she said she got no response.

Couture, who is from suburban Pelham, N.H., is moving back home on Dec. 15. While she plans to continue classes at Emerson, she intends to take them only twice a week so she can commute from her home into the city. Until then, Couture said she is doing what she can to stay safe.

"I have my manager from Bennigan's walk me home at night, and most of the girls that work there carry pepper spray," Couture said.

The Beacon reported increased drug use in the area this September. It also reported the Warrenton Street shooting, sexual assaults committed by a man posing as a cab driver at Faneuil Hall and the sexual assault on an Emerson student all in October,

Still, Director of Public Safety William McCabe said the overall amount of crime around campus has not increased.

"Levels of crime and violence are almost always the same," McCabe said. "There are occasional spikes, but there is always going to be a medium of crime in every city."

Aside from the October shooting, McCabe said there have been two other murders in the Theatre District in the past 10 years, and neither involved Emerson students.

Some students, like Couture's roommate, senior Priscila Amescua-Mendez, a film and performing arts double major, do not feel the area is unsafe. Amescua-Mendez grew up in Mexico City and said she is used to dealing with the realities of an urban environment.

"While the Theatre District could use more security, I'm used to the pace of life one experiences in a city, and so I don't really feel threatened living here," Amescua-Mendez said.

Still, the recent crimes have caused other students to worry and take precautions.

"I don't feel comfortable wearing a skirt around here," said Samantha Wu, a senior marketing communications major and resident of 62 Boylston St., located across the street from the Little Building. "I get a lot of comments from questionable characters."

Other students said they feel safe in the area, but use discretion to determine where they travel, and when.

"While I don't feel threatened, I would still never walk around the Downtown Crossing area by myself at night," said Abby Okon, a freshman writing, literature and publishing major who lives in the Little Building.

According to McCabe, Emerson Police presence has helped curb crime since the school moved across the Boston Common in the early 1990s, but it is impossible to eliminate it entirely.

"Until about 6:30 at night the Theatre District is relatively safe," McCabe said. "The presence of working people on the street helps. As soon as it gets dark, however, hustlers, pimps and prostitutes always find their way to the streets."

Ziad Odeh, an employee of New York Pizza across from the Little Building on Tremont Street, said that he has been working there for about 14 years and has grown accustomed to crime in the area.

"I'm used to the junkies and hookers," Odeh said. "While it's better now than when I started working here, there is still a lot to be done. Tourists who see what goes on here at night will be left with a bad image of the city."

Dean of Students Ronald Ludman said Boston is generally a safe city if one exercises caution. He also said that the student handbook features a number of safety tips for students, and that newsletters containing tips on how to be "street smart" are available to students through Off-Campus Student Services and Student Life.

Boston Police Department Spokesman Michael McCarthy said current statistics on crime in the Theatre District were not immediately available. According to the BPD Web page, police presence in the area, known as District A-1, increased by 10 percent in 2002, and a number of anti-crime initiatives, such as "Operation Vice Grip" lead to over 456 drug-related arrests that year.

Some sources interviewed said they felt the actions of the BPD are not enough and that more steps need to be taken.

"After the October shooting, there was a police car stationed in the parking lot by my apartment for a few nights," Couture said. "That made me feel much safer, but now that the car is gone, I feel like anything could happen again."

For Couture, the Theatre District is just not the right place for her, and as soon as the semester at Emerson is over, she will return home.

"I have to commute to my internship at WCVB-TV in Needham, which means walking through the heart of the Theatre District to South Station," she said. "I just don't feel safe doing this anymore. At home, I can still commute to my job and my classes, but I will feel much safer. For me, this is the best choice I could make right now."