Monday, October 16, 2006

Peeling paint and broken windows

Sam Leith is worried.

In his commentary piece in The Telegraph he says "Our front door is no longer a front door. Our front door is a goal. It has been football season in Brixton, and a group of eight or 10 local boys aged between eight and 14 have nominated our road as Wembley Stadium. Bang, thump, whoop they go, all day long – showering elaborate and high-spirited blessings on each other's mothers as they play."

It gets worse for poor old Sam.

"Then little felt-tip pen daubs started appearing on the door frame announcing that "Speedy" or "Jinx" had been here. This, again, we could live with. But when I came home last week, things were more sinister.
The felt-tip pen marks were inside the front door, on the hallway wall. Perhaps a forcefully struck goal tripped the lock. My neighbours, who are more frequently in during the day, have confirmed that "trying to kick the door in" is the new game. Very Picture Post."

Sam wonders why it is his front door that has been targeted. The clue, Sam, is in your opening gambit.

My front door has long been a source of pride and comfort. On the side facing the street is a great deal of hideously faded and peeling blue paint and a tarnished brass numeral showing the house number. A chunk of wood has fallen off and the lock is wobbly. It is in such a state of disrepair that couriers sometimes refuse to deliver to us on the assumption that the house is derelict.

What Sam considers to be a "source of pride" looks to others like a lack of pride and an appearance of dereliction. This is why his house gets targeted and this was the motivation behind the "Broken Windows" policies in the US that helped, along with other measures (part of the much vaunted zero tolerance approach) to reduce crime so significantly. The Broken Windows theory suggests that ....

"Evidence of decay (accumulated trash, broken windows, deteriorated building exteriors) remains in the neighborhood for a reasonably long period of time. People who live and work in the area feel more vulnerable and begin to withdraw."

You see, Sam, that's why your house was targeted. It looked like nobody cared about it so the kids thought "if they don't care, why should we?"

Sam also ponders, naturally, what to do about this - and falls into the trap predicted in the Broken Windows theory. Sam wonders ....

The great problem – and I'm sure this is common to many in the same situation – is of what to do. These kids aren't fearsome, or big, or knife-wielding. But telling them off, which we do, in our mild way, is ineffectual. Reasoning with them, even more so. They're children, for Pete's sake.
As for getting the police round – I'd rather not. These children are local. They know where we live. They have, I dare say, big brothers. And, of course, we haven't really got a front door.
So we are forced, steadily, to cede possession. Our bicycles have retreated from the communal hallway and are now living in the kitchen. The graffiti will, as the kids get bolder, start to creep like a climbing plant up the stairs towards the door of my flat. In due course, that door too will receive the first experimental shove.

As the Broken Windows theory states ...

They become less willing to intervene to maintain public order (for example, to attempt to break up groups of rowdy teens loitering on street corners) or to address physical signs of deterioration. Sensing this, teens and other possible offenders become bolder and intensify their harassment and vandalism. Residents become yet more fearful and withdraw further from community involvement and upkeep. This atmosphere then attracts offenders from outside the area, who sense that it has become a vulnerable and less risky site for crime.

Which is exactly what is happening in Sam's area of Brixton. The law-abiding retreat and the feral gangs take over. Eventually, the residents move out and the house really does become derelict. Before long the street is derelict and every house is a boarded up crack den.

Sam just doesn't get it.

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