How to Read the Streets: A Survival Skill That’s More Important Than Ever

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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

Picture of Fabian Ommar

Fabian Ommar

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  • When I worked in Alaska, I would look for the sights and sounds of ravens ahead of me. Ravens on a carcass would substantially increase the odds that a brown bear could be around a kill. Ravens are a raucous lot on a carcass and the sound and excitement in their calls are unique.

    Also, the lack of usual tundra sounds. GrayJays, parka squirrels, red squirrels, etc. could mean anything, but usually meant bad weather was closing fast.

  • We have gotten a bit more skilled at deciding where we gas up when traveling in the last few years. When we see a certain name of a civil rights hero on signs (there is this street in every major city I swear), we know we probably want to keep moving & not stop when pulling a travel trailer. It has gotten much worse in the last 3 years with people who clearly need some help just wandering about at gas stations, restaurants & convenience stores. It saddens me honestly.

    Thank you for saying stereotyping can be a life saver. Everyone has been profiled at one point, there’s a reason for it. I’ve found looking a bit bitchy, angry & walking like ‘yeah I’m having a bad day, come at me’ helps keep people away ;). It’s sad we’ve gotten to this point.

    • A couple years ago I was gassing up at night and was approached by a couple of sketchy characters; I commanded them to “Get back!”, like I would a stray dog. And they left me alone, I didn’t have to escalate the situation, because I exhibited a non-compliant attitude. Don’t be a victim.

      • Not only that, but by refusing to allow them to enter your personal space they would have no way to overpower you or easily injure you. If there is any ill intention, their job becomes infinitely harder to accomplish.

    • Gas stations/convienence stores usually combined in one place in my area, I ‘m in Alabama, also, loitering around these stores more in Florida or here in seedy parts of town ( run down areas older houses, housing projects.) I try to get things done early in the day or as late as right after lunch. Since car jackings are more common now in parking areas, we need to be aware going back to the car. Be alert in rest stops along interstates/US hiways, concealed carry best.
      Robberies also happen in parking lots later in the day or after dark (hold ups for money and jewelry) esp. in malls. One incident involved a fatal shooting.

      • We were back in Tulsa for a visit and I went into a convenience store. I asked the clerk for cash back with the my purchase. He told me they didn’t do cash back, which surprised me because that same chain gave cash back in Texas. I asked him why not, and he said “Look around”. I hadn’t before but I did then and it shocked me. I had attended high school in that same area back in the 70s and it had been solidly middle class, and much nicer than my home neighborhood. Now, I find out that locals are afraid to go to the library at night and gunfire is frequently heard. It’s really. really terrible what has happened to Tulsa. It used to be a beautiful, clean city.

  • Great article. I was wondering whether you could clarify the phrase “horizontal signaling.” I interpreted it as street signs that had been yanked out of the ground and were lying there, but I wasn’t sure.

  • Living near St. Louis I’m definitely familiar with these telltale signs. There are plenty of areas to clearly avoid but then again downtown STL has gotten extremely dangerous as well. The homeless recently took over the grounds of City Hall. They were able to get them moved out but only to the next building. Not only is it unsafe but it’s really a bad look for anyone visiting. There is so much to do in the city but with the high crime we won’t even go to an MLB game at night. The fans are often targeted leaving the games because the criminals know they aren’t armed. Washington Ave is a beautiful street and very popular among visitors. However, you’d never know by it’s appearance that it’s also known to be one of the most dangerous downtown STL. This is where it’s good to talk to locals. Anytime we go on vacation we always ask for recommendations where to go and places to avoid. I think the main thing is just be aware of your surroundings and let people know you’re aware and not distracted.

  • Good article – I am rural, a senior, and frankly rarely go ino the small cities near by one 85,000 and other 40,000 – I can see I need to be more alert when I need to go into town – thank you! It is becoming more and more important to be situationally alert! I remember the later 40s and 50s where we were so fortunate to live in a time where we didn’t lock our doors! A time that is lost forever now!

  • one of the major faults floating around the US urban landscape is racial denial >>> you have plenty today turning a blind eye to logical street fears because they are sooooo freaking bent sideways trying to be WOKE ….

    better keep the social manners and predicates where they make sense and start following some practical common sense >>> if it looks – sounds bad – and yes even smells bad – it’s probably bad ….

  • Right after our son got out of the army and moved back to Texas with his family, he wanted me to go with him to an antique mall in Dallas owned by some friends of his, so I did. I’m only slightly familiar with the city and knew nothing about the neighborhood we were in. When we left and were walking back to the car, a man was walking down the sidewalk, yelling and carrying on about what he wanted to do to white people. He was obviously high or mentally ill, and if my son hadn’t been with me, I would’ve been very afraid. As it was, I couldn’t wait to get out of that area and haven’t been back since.

    That being said, we’ve had several occasions to go to the V.A. hospital in Dallas, and it’s not in a good area. We stopped at a new, shiny convenience store and it had a heavy police presence and their security guard reminded me of Dwayne Johnson and was well-armed. The main V.A. clinic in Ft. Worth is also in a sketchy area, but is surrounded by empty fields, so at least it feels like you could see trouble coming.

  • I hate to say it but human dead and dead deer on the side of the road smell really, really similar. A fact I wish I didn’t know. Also, how is someone supposed to educate themselves on the different smells of crack, meth, and other drugs? Make friends with a junkie? You also forgot the biggest indicator of a “safer” neighborhood or situation versus a no go situation: Women and children. If there are women and children in the street it is probably OK. If there’s no kids and no women except professionals it is not safe.

  • I live in a very small town. We go to a larger place with big box stores for shopping. That place is really quite safe, or so we thought. Went the other day and were told of an incident that happened the day before.
    Carjacking by gunpoint.
    It happened at a fast food drive through. First car was not successful and they called police. 2 minutes later the second try got the car. The thief drove off (thankfully the owner was not in the car anymore) and a few blocks later was involved in an accident. The thief was killed and the person he hit was critically injured.
    Just a warning to be aware of people around you. Distraction in the drive through is possible.

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