HOUSTON -- After establishing her business in Houston's midtown area, Tamika Fletcher decided three years ago to move her hair salon called Natural Resources to the more upscale environs of the Rice Village.
"Besides the fact that I needed more space, I like Rice Village because it's centrally located," Fletcher said. "It felt like a safe place. My clients can walk if they have breaks to eat and shop."
But her sense of security in the quaint shopping district was broken one afternoon last May, when three brazen thieves smashed the windows outside a diamond store next door and stole an estimated $100,000 in jewelry. Her employees still talk with their customers not only about the crime that unfolded in broad daylight on a bright spring day, but also about a general feeling that the streets aren't as safe as they'd like.
"I have noticed a lot more cars broken into, glass on the street," Fletcher said. "You can tell when something's happened. So that's definitely something we're still talking about."
Indeed, much of the city is talking about the same trouble. When pollsters conducting the KHOU 11 News - KUHF News Election Poll asked voters about the city's biggest problem, almost a quarter of them -- 24% -- cited crime.
"The crime rate's a puzzling one," said Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist and KHOU political analyst who conducted the poll. "Crime rates in Houston and all over the major cities in this country are down. And yet, people think crime is up, or at least they think crime is a problem, probably because of the media."
The idea that the media are fueling fear of crime seems confirmed in Fletcher's shop. The television sets inside the Natural Resources salon are constantly tuned to local television stations emphasizing crime stories. Some of the women fixing customers' hair swear they've spotted patterns that tell them which areas of the city are the most dangerous.
"We see the high speed chases," said Cierra Slay, a stylist at the shop. "We see just killing, car wrecks."
Still, another way to read the data in our poll indicates that crime isn't nearly as troubling to Houstonians as the problems associated with getting around the city. On a list of the top issues popping out of this poll, the second, third and fourth most important concerns are all about mobility.
Street and road problems are second in the survey, cited by 14% of voters. Traffic is the third most cited problem at 13%. And public transportation matters, like buses and rail transit, are mentioned by 6%.
So added together, these mobility-related issues collectively are cited as the most important problem by 33% of surveyed voters.
"Many of these problems, particularly the traffic and congestion and street road conditions, are probably the ills of a prosperity period," Stein said. "People have moved into our cities. People have gotten jobs to which they're commuting on roads that are more congested."
No surprise that crime and traffic rank as the city's top problems. Those two issues typically jockey for the top spot in polls of Houston's voters during the last two decades, although the same poll conducted two years ago produced a different conclusion.
"What's interesting here is that two years ago, in the midst of a recession, people were most concerned about the economy, cutbacks in city services, unemployment," Stein said. "Now that's all vanished as the economy has come back, at least in Houston."