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How to Read the Streets

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By the author of Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City and The Ultimate Survival Gear Handbook

Most people are born equipped with the basic senses and instincts to navigate life. However, different habitats, lifestyles, circumstances, and experiences will lead to either the development or atrophy of specific abilities and skills as a natural adaptation mechanism.

When it comes to survival in urban settings, I consider a decent level of situational awareness and some street smartness important no matter where one lives, as predators and sick people exist everywhere. Those skills, however, are vital in some regions of the world, above all in hostile parts of developing and Third-World countries.

Being capable of reading the streets – and reading other people, too – goes along that as a way to better orient oneself and also deal with known and unknown environments, identify threats, and avoid potentially risky situations.

With so many crises converging, violence and crime have been plaguing previously safe and civilized cities in First-World countries, making ‘special’ urban skills more necessary than ever in these places as well.

Risks are increasing everywhere.

The thing is, the average person living in big cities does their activities within limited zones, as people get absorbed in their routines. It’s another form of adaptation for maximum efficiency, which is fine if everything is normal and the social fabric intact. However, that prevents them from having a more profound, broader, and nuanced knowledge of their town, and I don’t need to remind you we’re not living in 2019 anymore.

I dedicate an entire chapter in my Street Survival training book to the prospect of studying the city for safer and more productive mobility during a crisis or SHTF. The idea is to improve street smartness and, above all, the capacity to observe and interpret the signs and characteristics of each zone or neighborhood to our benefit.

In this article, I condense and pass on some essentials I learned while in the streets and from other street people. Consider that what I present may vary according to location, as is the case with anything involving cultural and social aspects, practices, and signs. However, modern Western society is uniform enough that most concepts and propositions are still valid.

How to read the streets: general principles

There’s a variety of telltale signs of a place’s condition and that can be applied to buildings, streets, neighborhoods, districts, and cities. We must know what to look for and what to make of those signs and clues to form a general idea but also detect opportunities and potential hazards.

Before moving on, a caveat: it’s practically impossible for an outsider to know those meanings or make any meaningful (and valuable) connection, and tribal signs can be purposefully cryptic for the most part. Even long-time residents and natives may have trouble detecting and interpreting all the signs.

I’ve lived in the same town since my family moved here in 1980 when I was 10. Like most kids at the time, I was raised free-range and have been in the streets for my entire life, even living and interacting with the homeless and other street people as survival training. Despite all that, there’s more I don’t know about my city, its places, and people than otherwise – lots of stuff I have no idea about and never will, even if I live here for another 100 years. That’s partly because it’s a vast city with 13 million souls but also because it’s a living organism and everything is constantly changing. Even street people can’t know everything.

What we want, then, is a series of essential abilities and general principles that can be applied to a variety of situations, people, and places – flexibility and adaptability. Knowing what to look for and observing with method and intention is how we can step up our awareness.

Visual clues

Some of the below may sound obvious. However, it’s not always so obvious for for those entering the street game, visiting a new place, or wandering the city with their heads in the cloud (and there are way too many like that, even here where I live, which is a dangerous place).

Visual signs are reliable indications of a place’s condition, but we must pay attention and know what to look for, so here are some tips on that:

  • The presence of graffiti is not only an indicator of declinee – the more, the worse – but drawings and symbols have meaning and can be used to send messages between locals and foreigners.
  • Going one step further, how does the graffiti look? Fresh, old, or worn out? Does it contain aggressive statements or direct threats? Or is it more expressive, “artistic”?
  • The language used in graffiti, signs, plaques, shops, buildings, etc., is an indicator of the prevalent population. It may or may not imply specific meaning (i.e., risk or danger, usually revealed by accompanying indicators) but can be used as orientation. As you travel through town, pay attention to the changes in language and also the commerce, architecture, and signage between changing neighborhoods.
  • Flags, banners, and plaques are also signs that can provide a lot of information about a neighborhood or community regarding political, religious, and other affiliations. This matters for obvious reasons, even more so in this day and age.
  • Pay attention to people  – how they dress, their tattoos, how they speak and gesticulate, and their posture. In general, you want to detect if the people or specific groups around you are the norm (residents) or the exception (outsiders, visitors). Notice how others react to them, too.
  • Boarded storefronts and “for rent” signs indicate economic decline. A dead or dying commerce is either a precursor or harbinger of economic and social decay.
  • Blacked-out walls (from fires), syringes, discarded food containers, and clothing pieces indicate the presence of homeless encampments and drug users. If these are present, drug dealers, criminals, and deranged elements also wander around. Stay alert.
  • Public illumination in lousy conditions, malfunctioning or nonexistent, also denotes a bad and dangerous area, not only when it’s dark but at all times. However, lamps and posts looking purposefully vandalized rather than simply abandoned can be indicative of criminals actively setting up the place for attacks.
  • The state of the buildings tells a lot about the community: pay attention to barred and broken windows (or windows and doors with iron bars); graffitied, dilapidated, and worn-out facades; and lots of clothes hanging on balconies.
  • The state of sidewalks and driveways serve the same purpose: the condition of the asphalt and horizontal signaling, the presence or absence of potholes, stoplights, and the form of public furniture tells a lot about the neighborhood.
  • The state of parks and green areas: are these clean, well-groomed, well-lit, and showing signs of exemplary conservation? Or are there tents and huts, homeless and drug users sleeping around, trash thrown around (especially food and beverage packages)?
  • Abandoned and dilapidated vehicles and broken appliances (sofas, washing machines, TV sets, etc.) are another clear sign of decline (and danger too). Stay alert and keep your distance.
  • Vandalized buildings, monuments, and furniture mean the law, and the state and the local community have abandoned the neighborhood.

Non-visual clues: noises and odors

Even though we rely a lot on sight (our ears and noses aren’t as sensitive as those of animals) sounds and odors are helpful for survival and potent allies of urban dwellers. Scents travel far in the right conditions and can warn us about stuff and help identify the conditions we find ourselves in, as well as detect decadence, dangers, and threats – sometimes before we can spot them.

Everyone is hardwired to recognize sounds and smells that mean trouble as a survival mechanism. We tend to run away or look for protection from loud noises, shots, screams, and breaking stuff. Likewise, a red alert immediately goes on the second we smell smoke, rotting stuff (dead animals or people), trash, or something strong and unpleasant. Marijuana and other drugs leave a strong odor that spreads around in large areas, and crack has a distinct, repulsive scent that sticks to the places where addicts consume it.

While we cannot change the sensibility or accuracy of those receptors, we can train our brains to use them in much more efficient ways. For instance, by improving our “library” and creating meaningful references, consciously paying more attention and making connections.

It’s also possible to discern between the smell of different decomposing organics (food, animals, etc.) and drugs, sewage, chemicals, and lots more. Or to detect powder, grease, diesel, gasoline, gas, kerosene, alcohol, and tobacco and even accurately tell how long a substance has decomposed. You’ll never forget the smell once you enter an accumulator’s home.

Trained senses can detect drugs being used in the area or someone high on alcohol or some other substance and can determine if someone has been low on hygiene for some time. Those things are enough to support other cues and signs used to form a view of the area you’re crossing. Learn the difference between human and animal odors (feces, urine, death, drugs, etc.).

No-go zones

Every medium and large city anywhere in the world has areas of land ruled by gangs, militia, mafias, religious factions, drug traffickers, gangsters, and criminal organizations – sometimes more than one. It can be a single street, a neighborhood, or a district. France has more than 750 zones where Sharia is the law. In Rio de Janeiro, if you make a wrong turn, you can get shot without warning by heavily armed sicarios. The same can happen in LA, Caracas, Chicago, or Mexico City.

Gang territory and others where criminal activity may be recurrent usually show repetition of symbols and direct messages. Crossed-over or overlayed marks and graffiti could mean turf war or criminal, tribal, political, or religious disputes. And so on.

Even many ultra-civilized cities have perilous places, and most people don’t even know about these no-go zones. If you take just one thing from this post, make it to know about and avoid these at all costs. You can research them on the internet, or if you’re in town for the first time, by asking the right local people, which leads me to the next part.

Seeking advice

When traveling or moving in, seeking advice is the best and quickest way to gain basic local knowledge. But you must know who to ask, and this is less about how honest and more about how knowledgeable and objective is the person being asked. Whatever the case, think critically about everything you’re told regardless of the source, double-checking and cross-referencing with other sources whenever accuracy is critical.

The most knowledgeable street people I know are mailmen, field technicians (water, electricity, telephone, internet, etc.), and bus and taxi drivers (full-time professionals). These workers are common people out there all day long, every day, year-round, in the streets, dealing with all sorts of people and situations, traffic, emergencies, and all kinds of weather. They know sh*t.

Law enforcement agents are great sources of information, but they are more used to dealing with the scum and thus overly focused on that side of the city and human nature. Next are frontline tourism workers (hotel clerks, guides, servers, etc.). These may or may not be open and straightforward about the actual situation of a city, neighborhood, or specific attraction, thanks to their incentive to paint a more rosy scenario.

Please note these are just general rules.

Once again, to drive the point home, you must always be critical and listen to your instincts. I focused on signs and clues derived from human activity, but you should also pay attention to geography and other aspects of the different regions you’re traveling through, such as rivers, mountains, and so on.

Not into the deeper “science” of street reading but still want to improve overall urban capabilities and safety?

These quick techniques are not silver bullets, but can help most people in most places. Briefly focus on your breathing and posture and relax. That help expand our senses, empty our minds, and eliminate preconceptions when out there. Think of yourself as a distant observer:

  • Detach from the landscape: zoom out and don’t “assume” it’s safe or otherwise.
  • Take a good look into your surroundings and also into the distance (a couple of blocks down in each direction).
  • Try to get a general ‘feel’ of the place and people – trust your instincts.
  • Next, quickly try to pick up specific signs, particularly those “odd” or standing out.
  • Once you’ve done that, turn on street smart mode again: remain relaxed but alert, and don’t get back to smartphones, headphones, and other distractions.
  • Stereotyping can save your life. Don’t feel guilty about doing it. Awareness can be a better defense than a 9mm.

One last tip: if you want to learn more and faster about your neighborhood or city, walk, bike, and take public transportation. Enjoy the movement, the people, the places, the architecture, the variety. Yes, you can drive, but it’s limited experience and won’t afford nearly the same benefits to the mind or the body.

What are your thoughts?

How do you detect danger in your environment? Are you often in urban settings? If not, have you seen changes to your small town as the economy worsens? What signs of decline have been evident? Do you have tips to add?

Let’s discuss it in the comments section.

About Fabian

Fabian Ommar is a 50-year-old middle-class worker living in São Paulo, Brazil. Far from being the super-tactical or highly trained military survivor type, he is the average joe who since his youth has been involved with self-reliance and outdoor activities and the practical side of balancing life between a big city and rural/wilderness settings. Since the 2008 world economic crisis, he has been training and helping others in his area to become better prepared for the “constant, slow-burning SHTF” of living in a 3rd world country.

Fabian’s ebook, Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City , is a practical training method for common city dwellers based on the lifestyle of the homeless (real-life survivors) to be more psychologically, mentally, and physically prepared to deal with the harsh reality of the streets during normal or difficult times. He’s also the author of The Ultimate Survival Gear Handbook.

You can follow Fabian on Instagram @stoicsurvivor

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