It is no exaggeration to say that when I arrived in 2006, Bogotá was safer than
it had been for half a century. Compared to the turbulent 1980s and 1990s,
crime and vio lence had dramatically decreased and security had improved.
Yet there was something paradoxical about this change. Although the at-
mosphere was more relaxed— outdoor cafes and restaurants were flourish-
ing, public parks bustled with carefree activity— many of the old anx i eties
remained. It was as if Bogotá was still in the grip of a violent and dangerous
past. During my twenty- month stay, friends and strangers alike urged me to
see the city as a threat- ridden place and proposed strategies for negotiating
it. This began from the moment of my arrival at my hotel, close to midnight,
when the friendly night watchman, Manuel, sat me down with a map to
orient me within the city. First he explained how the street names worked,
with the calles running east to west and the carreras north to south. He then
shifted to where I should and should not go. He drew a boundary around
the “safe zone,” a narrow corridor that excluded most of the city, running
north from the central Plaza de Bolívar and hugging the mountains. “What
happens,” I asked, “if one lives or works in the areas that are unsafe?” Don’t
worry,” he responded reassuringly, “you won’t ever have to go there.”
Manuel was the first of many to offer me the same lesson. “I grew up in
Philadelphia,” I would joke, “I know how to take care of myself.” But I soon
realized these warnings were prompted less by my status as outsider than
by a pervasive sense of the city as a space of danger. In Bogotá, it was not
just a matter of distinguishing safe areas from unsafe ones, a skill vital in
any city. From obvious precautions, like shutting car win dows in traffic to
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