The Sketch App Helps White People Stay Safe In Black Neighborhoods


Yesterday, Crain’s reported on a new app, SketchFactor, set to launch today. Exciting news, right? Yet another totally necessary app has been birthed from the ever fertile minds of two crazy kids. What a great world that tech world is! So ripe with possibility! So what could something called “SketchFactor” possibly be about? Why did this app’s creators feel like there would be a market for it in this crazy world of ours? Well, as it turns out, it’s an app designed to tell users when they have entered a “sketchy” neighborhood, so that they can get right the fuck out! In other words, the two smiling white people pictured above have decided to help the world avoid areas with people who aren’t just like them. Well, that doesn’t sound like a fear-mongering promotion of bigotry at all! Or does it? (It does!)

Crain’s reports: “SketchFactor, the brainchild of co-founders Allison McGuire and Daniel Herrington, is a Manhattan-based navigation app that crowdsources user experiences along with publicly available data to rate the relative ‘sketchiness’ of certain areas in major cities.” Oh, so it’s “Manhattan-based!” That makes so much sense then, really. It would be just terrible for someone from Manhattan to go to an outer-borough by mistake and not realize what a “sketchy” world they’d suddenly been dropped into. Can you even imagine?

Lest you think that this is just a couple of white Manhattanites way of telling other white Manhattanites which neighborhoods are full of people of color, rest assured, McGuire and Herrington insist that’s not the case. McGuire says, “We understand that people will see this issue. And even though Dan and I are admittedly both young, white people, the app is not built for us as young, white people. As far as we’re concerned, racial profiling is ‘sketchy’ and we are trying to empower users to report incidents of racism against them and define their own experience of the streets.” Oh, well then, as long as they admit they’re young white people, the problem is solved. The first step toward overcoming your own racism—conscious or not—is admitting that you’re white. Then the rest is easy. (The second step, by the way, would be if some of your best friends be black, then you’re really on your way!)

Although the app’s website really clearly emphasizes that it’s not racist at all (because true racists always self-identify as such), it’s pretty easy to be skeptical about something that is designed by privileged white people and is expressly meant to help fellow smartphone users avoid whole neighborhoods because of “sketchiness.” Sure, the examples of sketchiness given on the website include rat-sightings, but, let’s face it, a rat sighting isn’t what makes a neighborhood “sketchy.” The whole of the city is sketchy then! No, sketchiness hear clearly means feeling unsafe, which McGuire recounts having felt at one point while walking through a new neighborhood. How terrifying! However, as it turned out, “the neighborhood was not sketchy at all and [she] could’ve walked home. [She] would’ve saved $15 on a sketchy cab. Ironically, [she] moved to that same neighborhood one month later.” (And that, everybody, is the story of gentrification encapsulated into one idiotic anecdote!)

SketchFactor launches today, and while we would not recommend you spend a single penny downloading it, if you do, please be sure to fucking flood the thing with stories of how sketchy Murray Hill and the Financial District and the Williamsburg waterfront are. Because, well, they are. But also because it might help to balance out the extreme bullshit that you just know will be going down on that app otherwise.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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  1. Come on! Really? “Racist”? How does creating an app that informs people of potentially unsafe neighborhoods in New York amount to racism?

    My fiance and I recently went to a bad neighborhood to get something to eat, from a restaurant we heard had great food. We had to park a block away, and I wasn’t sure our car would be there when we returned. Should I feel bad because I was on my guard the ten minutes it took to order our food and get the hell out of there? Should I (or anyone else) feel guilty for labeling a particular neighborhood as dangerous, simply because of the ethnicity of its denizens? Get real!

    • The second to last sentence in my response should read:

      “Should I (or anyone else) feel guilty for labeling a particular neighborhood as dangerous, simply because the residents of said neighborhood might feel offended?”

  2. Uh, isn’t it intuitive to avoid sketchy neighborhoods? The only “racist” element here is (a) that the creators actually felt the need to mention the elephant in the room, i.e. race and (b) the soft racism of “colorblindness” from the likes ny-based publications — cough — which want to shame safety-conscious people if perhaps they make the obvious conclusions regarding the demography of crime.

    See, crime is tied to poverty and is functional of the extent to which the (impoverished) perpetrator is alienated from the market economy and thus resorts to the underground economy (i.e. crime). To ignore the extent to which people of color have been systemically encaged within this cycle of poverty/crime — that is to say, to look at poverty/crime through a “colorblind” lens — is counter-productive to the very people that such an examination is meant to help.

    p.s. to the outraged white writers of ny-based publications: surely you are aware that in unsafe “black” neighborhoods it’s other black that are most likely to be victims of crime and thus stand the most to benefit from this app. (ironically, white women are the safest).

  3. Seriously it seems like a great app! The “experts” of nyc digital rags raging against this are only exhibiting the(ir) white suburban transplant ethos.

  4. I also failed to find an example of this app’s alleged racist intent. Even though some people will feel prompted to use this service because of racist attitudes, the app itself facilitates documentation of only legitimate safety criteria, from what I can see.

  5. Racial injustice is a real problem that deserves to be discussed and addressed. Unfortunately, stories like this one do little to shine a light on the real issue; in fact they diminish it and make it out to be nothing more than a joke worthy of some Likes and comments. Please publish more stories that get to the heart of the issue, i.e. Stop and Frisk, and fewer senseless, counterproductive stories about white people pointing the “you’re a racist, but see, I’m not” finger at other white people.

  6. Sounds like the author is sort of hung up on race. I don’t care for the app nor do I care for any app for that matter, but it’s certainly not racist. If you go to a beach, wouldn’t you like to know if there had been recent shark sightings? That would be a sketchy beach. If I’m traveling to a neighborhood I’d probably want to know if a certain block has a lot of violence occurring on it. That would be a sketchy block. There’s nothing racist about that.

  7. Maybe its just me, but, if I found myself in a neighborhood where I felt unsafe, the LAST thing I would want to do is pull out my (most likely expensive) cell phone to open an app. I think I might, you know, stay alert and keep moving to an area where I felt less threatened. I would hope the average person would have the common sense to know when a neighborhood is “sketchy” (which is different for everyone, making this data only “useful” to people all of the same race/socioeconomic/religious/etc group) without having to consult their phone.

  8. Yeah, it’s racist actually – as well as classist, potentially sexist, and in a city the size and variety of New York, kind of pointless. As a person born here, with living hours clocked in every borough in this city and many different types of neighborhood, I can say without reserve – this whole motherfucker is dangerous.

    For whatever reason, more vehicles jump the curb in Manhattan, between 23 and 86th street , East or West side than anywhere else I’ve seen. Sticking with Manhattan, the last time I heard the stats, there are 8 rats to every one person, regardless of the neighborhood, though I’ve heard there was an uptick in numbers for Brooklyn, after Hurricane Sandy.

    In Brooklyn, if that app isn’t bleeping every step you take, I don’t know what to tell you. I saw some young white “indie” guy, smack the shit out of a girl he was walking with, Williamsburg like 6 in the morning. I was on the roof with some friends doing graffiti ( full disclosure, ha ). I was so shocked the only thing I could think to do was say “HEY” in a kind of whisper-shout. The boy took off and the girl hobbled after him holding her face. If you are a white girl walking down the other side of the street, what do you say? Tap the app and label North WBurg sketchy?

    So I was a kid once, I’ve dabbled / indulged wildly in drugs. The best stuff me and the crew ever had, was usually through white guys, professionals, who hung in the clubs, and you end up back at their ridiculous apartment deep in the W.Village. He has drawers full of narcotics, not hidden beneath the underwear, a separate chest of drawers or whatever, each one stuffed with craziness. I’m from the hood, but I have a mellow, open personality, so for some reason he feels safe sharing this with me. On the walk back to the Christopher St station, some homo-thugs throw a bottle at me for not responding to whatever shit they were talking…

    Saying all this to say, city life, and life in general, is a constantly evolving thing. Be careful with apps or societal notions that could paint you into a very small corner.

  9. The author of this article make even more assumptions than your average racist. Tsk Tsk Kristin..
    I’m assuming that you, as do the rest of us NY’ers, consider where things are (restaurants, plays, concerts, bars) when making our evening and weekend plans.
    Why shouldn’t someone without our knowledge be able to do the same?

  10. Have the critics of this app ever been attacked by — gasp — blacks? Robbed? Beaten? Injured? Shot? Stabbed? Slashed? After one of those events your attitude changes.

    Should whites wander around East New York late at night? Does everyone know when they’ve crossed into a sketchy area? Is the app racist? Who cares?

  11. The word “sketchy” was a horrible foundation to build on. It means too many different things to too many different people and now these good but misguided developers look like anti-color-community-yuppie-racists, and made the author of this article look over-reactionary. (I like words lol)

    Change the name or create a simple definition of “sketchy” and stick to it. Ambiguity like that creates PR nightmares.

  12. Does anyone else feel like real estate developers could probably use this app to plot on which neighborhood to gentrify next?

  13. since the app is not able to determine the race of the user it would be interesting to see where the sketch factor lies. will it be central Harlem? – where for decades was supposed to be sketchy – and now you can’t even get into your local supermarket or coffee shop- maybe the Upper East Side?- definitely a sketchy place for a Black or Hispanic person? Bronx. ? I guess if the app makers start dating –out of their race—what would the app then be called? for the person who went out to purchase food in the ooooh so dangerous neighborhood-parking your car a block away –you obviously thought the hood was dangerous before you went there– and still you went–bought your food-enjoyed your food-and would probably return for more food. I thank the author for this article- no one talks about race in America-NO ONE. The ethnicity of it ‘s citizen??? – Yeah that’s what allows you and your friends to move into low income neighborhoods that allow the rents to be jacked up–race in America- you people are funny. Being Black in America or any other race for that matter is not a game…we are talking people’s lives–lively hood. so thanks for the app — and use it to stay the hell out of our neighborhoods–

  14. Wow…what a bitter, angry article. Maybe they can next make an app that helps people identify bitter angry people to stay away from. That can really be hazardous to one’s mellow.

    As a southerner, I kinda see the whole NE as a sketchy place, especially places filled with self-loathing white liberals. Scary, scary, scary.

  15. Weird. My fiancé and I walked through our neighborhood of Prospect Lefferts Gardens, minding our own business, and suddenly a racist black lady attempted to start a fight with us with her pitbulls (who literally just sat there and looked at us, almost ashamed of their mother(?)) as she shouted, “fuck you, white people! get the fuck out of my borough!” Weird, considering my relatives had nothing to do with slavery, and have been here since the 1800’s. But, good for you, Kirstin Iversen! You’re just so spot on with your generalizations of white people. Why don’t you join us the next time we walk down the same street, and see what you say when some black chick calls you a “skanky ass cracker.’

    Terribly racists journalism, Kirstin. What would your parents think of your racism? I would encourage you to walk through Central Harlem on a ripe Saturday night at about 3am, and then you tell me what you think of this app. But you’re right, absolutely nothing will happen to you. What possibly could happen to such a sweet white female journalist at 3am in Central Harlem? Giggles!

  16. If you are so concerned about racism, you shouldn’t be throwing around terms like “privileged white people,” because “white privilege” is nothing more than a racist concept applied by anti-Caucasian racists to belittle the achievements of any particular Caucasian or to create a false justification for imposing legal disabilities on Caucasians generally.

  17. Who are we to judge? If white people don’t want to go wherever they don’t want to go, why should we care. I don’t see how it’s our problem unless you desperately want the approval of white people to come around you that much, then go ahead, be an uncle Tom and complain about white people trying to avoid you.