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The SEPTA Rape Case Shows Americans Eagerly Believe the Worst About Cities

The original narrative of public transit riders watching a rape in progress has been debunked, but it's part of a long history of Americans believing the worst about cities.
October 27, 2021, 1:20pm
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Moveable explores the future of transportation, infrastructure, energy, and cities.

On the night of Wednesday, October 13, a 35-year-old man raped a woman, authorities said, on a SEPTA train in Philadelphia. This is not, in itself, national news. But it became national news when authorities said a few days later that other people watched the rape occur, even recording it on their phones, but did nothing to stop it.

The story got picked up by virtually every outlet: The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC. Fox News, of course, has run several stories on it. And, yes, this publication reported it, too. It was news, and it was an irresistible narrative that captured the way a lot of people perceive cities—and public transportation in particular—as especially dangerous, places where everyone is only out for themselves. 

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Some people thought it said something more about the moment in which we live. As Upper Darby Police Superintendent Timothy Bernhardt was quoted in virtually every story as saying, “It speaks to where we are in society and who would allow something like that to take place.”

But Daniel Pearson, an editorial writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, was skeptical. He has been riding SEPTA—the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which operates Philadelphia’s buses and trains as well as the regional commuter rail—since he was 12 years old. And this did not describe the Philadelphia he knows. In an interview with Motherboard, he recalled an incident in Philadelphia from 2004 when a man, who had been flashing girls outside school, was chased and caught with the help of good Samaritans. That is the Philadelphia he knows.

Still, his skepticism didn’t carry him far enough to publicly question the widely-reported story. While it is now common practice to question the narrative of events police present, what gave Pearson pause was the fact that it wasn’t just the police saying it. In fact, it was SEPTA itself, which sent out a statement to reporters on October 15 which said in part, “There were other people on the train who witnessed this horrific act, and it may have been stopped sooner if a rider called 911.”

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“I know that there are video cameras on these trains,” Pearson said. “So I made the assumption that this was based on evidence.” 

But, on Thursday, the prosecutor in charge of the case, Delaware County district attorney Jack Stollsteimer, said in a news conference that the narrative that a bunch of people had “watched this transpire and took videos of it for their own gratification” is “simply not true. It did not happen. We have security video from SEPTA that shows that was not the truth.” He identified SEPTA specifically as responsible for this false narrative. (SEPTA declined to comment for this article.) 

This twist raises more questions than it answers. Why did SEPTA forward a false narrative that makes itself and its own riders look worse? Why did the police also echo that narrative? And, perhaps most importantly, if there is video of this entire event, how is it that multiple people watching it came to such drastically different interpretations?

At this point in the case, the only responsible thing to say is we don’t know the full story. The prosecutor has charged the man accused of the rape but has not yet filed a detailed affidavit. Motherboard filed a public records request for the footage, but as of yet it has not been made public. No witnesses have publicly come forward—hardly a surprise given elements of the local and national media spent the better part of a week demanding they be arrested and charged for violating good Samaritan laws, statutes which Stollsteimer has been abundantly clear do not exist in Pennsylvania. 

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Still, what has happened so far is revealing in its own right, because one question we can answer is why so many people were primed to accept such an extraordinary claim on such flimsy evidence, and why so many will be eager to believe the next story of bystanders failing to help a person in need.

On March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered in Kew Gardens, a neighborhood of Queens. Similar to the SEPTA incident, this tragedy was not, in itself, national news. She was one of 636 people murdered in the city that year. But her murder became infamous—and spawned an entire sub-discipline in social psychology to study why people sometimes do not render aid to those in need—because two weeks afterwards the New York Times published a since-discredited story about 38 ordinary people hearing her screams and doing nothing.

Aside from inspiring an entire field of study, the reports of Genovese’s murder irrevocably altered the perception of New York City and U.S. cities in general. In fact, it is difficult to understate the lasting impact. Everyone has heard of Kitty Genovese because the story added a new dimension of terror to city life, and the case became ingrained in pop culture as a shorthand reference to the alienating effects of city life. American cities had long been maligned as dangerous places filled with criminal gangs and desperate low-lifes, but with the Genovese murder, even the upstanding citizens had been implicated. Cities have since been regarded as not just dangerous, but jungles inhabited by monsters. Everyone is out for themselves. No one can even be bothered to call the police when a neighbor is in distress. If you want to die alone and afraid, live in a city. If you want safety, security, and friendly neighbors who help each other out, move to the suburbs.

Block where Kitty Genovese was murdered.

The block where Genovese was murdered. Credit: New York Daily News Archive / Contributor via Getty.

Indeed, violent crime was rising in cities around the time of Genovese’s murder, and it would continue to rise for several more decades. This was due to a number of complex societal factors such as the white middle class moving to government-subsidized suburban homes—thereby depleting urban populations and the tax revenues supporting the very city services that provide aid to the distressed—as well as a spike in the population of young men, who are far more likely to commit violent crimes than any other demographic. 

But no one wanted to hear such things at the time, to the extent that such things were even recognized. Because people were understandably afraid. As has been true of every generation since time immemorial, people who happened to be relatively older in the 1960s believed things had been better in their day, that something was wrong with the kids today, and that society was losing its morality.

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For people who wanted to see that, evidence was readily and constantly available. Three years after Genovese’s murder, America watched dozens of urban riots in Black neighborhoods on television, wondering how it could possibly have come to this. Vietnam protests showed a youth culture with strange and mysterious values that promoted what elders considered criminal and immoral behavior like destroying draft cards, burning the American flag, and drug use. And, to the kids, the Vietnam War itself was murder on an industrial scale. 

No matter where one stood, the story of Genovese’s murder explained all this; it was a violent and indelible metaphor explaining the callous insensitivity of American society, and Americans, to the suffering of others. It provided the template for every explanation of everything that would come in future decades, from the War on Crime to the War on Drugs: Urban life fundamentally corrupts our morals, makes good people bad, and turns society upside-down. Cities are morally compromised and not worth saving, much less helping. Ford to City: Drop Dead.

Ford to City: Drop Dead

Credit: New York Daily News Archive / Contributor via Getty Images

Call it “the callousness of urban living” or “The pain of living in a city that too often does not care,” but quotes like these have abounded in the Genovese-inspired writing on city life ever since. In 1989, on the 25th anniversary of Genovese’s murder, Bruce O’Connor, who owned the bar beneath Genovese’ old apartment, told the New York Times he had had enough and was moving to Florida. The Times quoted him as saying, “There is no one death that has come since that can compare to it...It is the point we look back to and say, 'That's where things changed—the beginning of the end of decency.’” 

Not quite. Almost 10 years after O’Connor had had enough, the Times ran a story on how the number of murders in 1998 was less than a third than in 1990. Read that article, and one thing will become immediately clear: The Genovese murder is the milestone to which New York marks its safety metrics. The headline specifically mentions the year 1964. That was the year, of course, Genovese was murdered. Genovese herself is mentioned twice, the only victim of any crime in any year to be named in the story.

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The lasting impact of Genovese’s murder on American urban life is not just about crime rates. It is also about the very concept of safety in numbers.

One of urban theorist Jane Jacobs’s most powerful observations in her landmark book The Death and Life of Great American Cities was the concept of “eyes on the street.” Urban neighborhoods, the argument goes, create their own safety and vibrancy through numbers. Even if the street seems deserted, there are windows above, in which dwell people who care. 

But even Jacobs knew perception of urban safety was just as important as reality. If people merely believed cities weren’t safe through a few scary anecdotes, they would either stop frequenting those streets or leave altogether, resulting in fewer eyes on the street and therefore less safety.

Three years after Jacobs published her legendary work, Genovese’s murder became the ultimate counterexample to Jacobs’s idea of eyes on the street. What good are eyes and ears if they don’t result in hands dialing phones or feet running towards the scene? 

So, too, did the ensuing literature on the “bystander effect” simultaneously undermine Jacobs’s eyes on the street theory while also proving how right she was about perception of safety. People became afraid of cities and either moved or stayed away, helping bring about the very dangerous circumstances of vacant blocks and depleted tax rolls that contributed to rising crime rates. 

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Among the many ironies of the Genovese case and the ensuing reporting, it is important to note just how starkly the actual facts don’t align with the narrative that emerged. Some people heard something but not enough to know what was going on. One person did hear the first time Genovese was stabbed and called out the window which forced the attacker to flee. When the attacker returned, two people called the police, and a third, Sophia Farrar, ran to her aid and held Genovese in her arms as she died.

Not only are the actual facts of Genovese’s murder only known decades afterwards, but the bystander effect remains woefully misrepresented today. It has little to say about the relative safety of urban life, or whether or not living in cities erodes one’s morals. 

Instead, it is a theory that suggests the more people present, the less responsibility any single person feels to intervene. But even this basic story has a lot of complicating factors, as a 2011 meta-analysis of four decades of bystander effect studies found. To name just a few: What exactly is happening? How far is the person from the incident? How busy is the bystander? Will intervening involve physical risk? And most of these studies either predate or don’t attempt to capture the complexity smartphones add, since calling 911 is much easier than it used to be and videotaping a crime in progress can be, in itself, its own form of aid, especially for someone such as an elderly or small person for whom physical intervention poses serious safety risks.

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And at least some recent studies that rely on security footage of violent incidents rather than controlled studies cast doubt on the entire concept of the bystander effect at all. It turns out that whether or not someone will intervene in a disturbing situation is highly dependent on the specifics.

Which brings us back to the SEPTA case. Much like the Genovese coverage, the only specifics the public were informed of were lurid details (”he proceeded to rip her clothes off”), the duration of the rape (”roughly eight minutes”), and moral aggrandizing. ”Anybody that was on that train has to look in the mirror,” said the police, “and ask why they didn’t intervene or why they didn’t do something.” The public wasn’t just being nudged towards the desired conclusion. It was being shoved. 

What the police didn’t say, and indeed nobody has revealed so far, are a number of relevant, although far less salacious, details. How many people were in the train car? Did they have headphones on? Where in the car did the attack take place? How long was each person in the car? The answers to these questions could undermine the picture painted of a bunch of strangers allowing a violent rape to occur in their midst.

Which returns us to what was actually revealing about this situation: The fact that, rather than actively investigate these questions, SEPTA officials and police who watched the tape assumed the worst about the people in the car. 

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Pearson said this dynamic is to be expected, as SEPTA, with a majority-minority ridership, has long been run by a board dominated by white-majority suburban counties with very low SEPTA ridership who, if they do use SEPTA, typically use the commuter rail lines, not the city lines like the El where the alleged rape took place. It belies a widespread attitude towards SEPTA riders perhaps best encapsulated by state representative Daryl Metcalfe, who said a few years ago that SEPTA and other transit systems are “just more welfare.”

If the coverage of the Genovese murder serves as any guide, things are going to get worse for U.S. public transit. Even though it is remarkably safe to ride transit—far safer than driving everywhere, an activity that results in about 40,000 deaths a year—people will avoid it out of fear. And as Jacobs explained 60 years ago, that will mean fewer eyes in the train car. 

Almost every transit rider will tell you that—in direct contradiction with the supposed literature on the bystander effect—the more crowded the car, the safer they feel. But more empty cars will make for more scary rides, more scary stories, and more people opting not to ride transit, a narrative that was already taking hold late last year despite statistical evidence to the contrary. If 2021 is the new 1964 for public transit, there are some very dark years ahead indeed.

I am hopeful that’s not the case. For one, we didn’t have to wait decades for the SEPTA bystander story to be debunked. Instead, it took about a week; and just as importantly, the debunking was reported just as widely as the original story. 

In a 2014 New Yorker article about the Genovese case—just as a mountain of evidence was being unearthed about the falsehoods of the original report—Nicholas Lemann wrote that “the real Genovese syndrome has to do with our susceptibility to narratives that echo our preconceptions and anxieties.” That syndrome is still with us. The rapidity with which the false SEPTA narrative caught on suggests to me the same anxieties and fears about cities lurk. Many Americans, for whatever reason, are afraid of cities. They see the worst in us.

One of the details that the district attorney corrected about the SEPTA case was an illustrative one. Initially, the police had stated that someone recorded the attack but did nothing. When Stollsteimer, the DA, held his press conference, a member of the media asked about this person, who had been cast in the media as some kind of perverted voyeur. 

Wasn’t that person a “callous bystander?” the reporter asked.

“No,” Stollsteimer replied. “You’re assuming that’s not the person who called for help.”