I'm a bit late catching up with this, but I think it's a delightful example of yarnbombing (via). As with other forms of guerilla art, it seems to work best when it draws attention to an inadequate built environment, with subtlety, humour and harmlessness. It looks like this one does the job.
'The Community Harm Statement introduces a new tool designed to make it easier for social landlords to demonstrate the impact of anti-social behaviour (ASB). Developed by CIH and a range of partners, it provides a recognised template to present evidence to court in a consistent way that properly captures the impact of harm on the community. It gives a stronger voice to communities by helping ensure that the damage inflicted by ASB is properly voiced and listened to when landlords take legal action. It can also be used to support non-judicial actions, casework and partnership working.'
‘Once in the morning I caught one man who also had just dumped his waste in spite of an empty container, and when I showed him that the container was in fact empty, he shrug his shoulders and walked apologetically off (leaving his waste though put). On this and on other occasions I have just taken other people’s rubbish and put it inside the container. It seems a task impossible to some.’
This contrasts nicely with a similar case that I reported in chapter 4 of Respect in the neighbourhood a few years ago, thanks to a picture sent to me by my Belgian friend Jan Steyaert. It shows a standard bottle-recycling facility in Antwerp, with the ubiquitous blue plastic bag on the ground alongside. At the front of the container someone has placed a board with a message painted on it, which reads in Dutch ‘vetzak verboden te storten.’ The English translation is: ‘Don’t leave litter you slimebag.’ (Subsequently I have thought that a better translation would be ‘you fat slob’). The language chosen by our Kings Cross correspondent is quite different. His note read
‘please insert the waste into the container out of neighbourly respect.’
In the book, considering alternative communication options for the person who painted the vetzak message on the board, at the end of a short list I added:
‘In a connected, networked neighbourhood, a comment posted online might have broadened awareness of the problem and produced a collective response.’
I suspect there may be other examples beyond Kings Cross and I’d be pleased to be told about them.
So this phenomenon of almost but not quite properly disposing of litter, what’s it about? Perhaps if you’re carrying stuff in the other hand, you might not easily be able to open the container. Perhaps you dread the stench on opening; or you don’t want to risk getting dirty hands from touching the handle or lid, if you’re off somewhere posh. Maybe you're confused about the separation of different kinds of waste so you'd rather it stays hidden in a single bag. Or you can't quite bring yourself to conform completely. Or you might think it’s easier for the operatives, as I believe they are called, to pick your stuff up from the floor rather than use the technology designed for the purpose. I’m struggling to think of any convincing explanations here.
Ok let’s suppose that some people are less comfortably acquainted with the idea of a public realm and public norms of behaviour, than others are. They have a relatively low level of Public Realm Awareness (PRA) – not close to zero, like the dickhead financier I mentioned recently, but low enough to appear a bit inconsiderate at times.
They know they have to take out their waste, but they don’t know how the system works, the system of behaviour in public. There’s stuff on the ground, and alongside it, theirs looks inconspicuous, and that’s simpler, so down it goes. It becomes part of an apparent routine process. I suppose one could argue that this behaviour, as far as it goes, is consistentwith the public realm, not working against it.
The inconvenience can be absorbed, if such behaviour does not become too common. This might matter more than you think, given that we currently have a government which is keen to see a reduction in general PRA, being ideologically opposed to the notion of anything being ‘public’ in the first place. By reducing the public realm as much as it can, the government very seriously risks increasing the proportion of the population with low PRA. The technical term for this set of policies is 'stupid'.
So much of contemporary neighbouring is about noisiness, but this is about nosyness.
A survey reported as part of the Digital Switchover Help Scheme has found that for 27 per cent of the 2,000 respondents from across London, ‘fear of appearing nosey’ was the reason for keeping themselves to themselves. Disparaging terms like ‘curtain twitcher,’ ‘nosy parker,’ or 'sticky beak' have damaging cultural ramifications.
Fear of appearing nosey might be seen as a consequence of the way we emphasise privacy. We are not allowed to build or extend our houses if they allow us to see each other within. My house was built before such legal insistence, and fortunately a healthy relationship with our neighbours is reinforced by being able informally to keep an eye out for each other.
In the Netherlands, a curious culture of window dressing evolved through the late twentieth century, whereby it was frowned upon to use curtains or shutters, so homeowners would restrict what was visible internally through elaborate decoration (see 1989 article by Hernan Vera).
I’m reading Emily Cockayne’s history of neighbours and finding various examples of intimate details shared unintentionally in previous ages, due to ‘the thinness of pre-modern walls’ – complicated no doubt by lower expectations of privacy.
The determination to avoid accusations of nosyness obviously reduces people’s availability to respond in time of need; and as soon as a critical mass of people with the same attitude has built up, it’s likely to have an impact on the other side of the equation, readiness to ask for help. This is one of the explanations for what Lilian Linders terms the 'request scruple'. As I noted a year ago, her research shows that this reluctance is more problematic than the assumed shortage in the supply of neighbourliness.
Dilemmas of interference in neighbouring are persistent unless you choose not to occupy your neighbourhood. Here’s my own example, after which I started to wonder if my neighbour thinks I'm nosy for having advised him that his downstairs window was open overnight in the rain.
Monocle 24 had a feature about urban neighbours last week. It included an interview with Lucy Musgrave talking about the public realm – so refreshing to hear someone just use that term these days, in the public realm, let alone speak about it with such refreshing assurance.
There was also a lengthy piece about the garage sale trail, a booming initiative that sees social benefits (including informal local trade as well as environmental advantages) from the systematising of local markets based around household surplus.
And there was an interview with Emily Cockayne about the history of neighbours, heralding her forthcoming book, Cheek by jowl. I’m fortunate to have a review copy on the desk beside me, and will be offering some comments here in due course. For now, a few thoughts prompted by Emily’s remarks.
She put particular emphasis on the way that relationships between neighbours had changed by midway through the twentieth century, with opportunities for less and less contact, which changed expectations. Urban neighbours in previous ages often struggled for the segregation of living space, so the history of neighbouring depends heavily on a consideration of the architectural and design constraints. My take on that is that the notion privacy had to be invented and may not be a given feature of human social relations. (Why isn't there ever an anthropologist here when I need one?)
By 1950, says Emily, if you were a good neighbour it meant you kept yourself to yourself. The point – well-made already in much of the literature but here with a wider historical perspective than, say, scholars like Barry Wellman have adopted – is that since then a shrinking proportion of our friends are now neighbours.
But where does the assumption come from that all or some or any neighbours should be friends? In early modern England, people moved around a lot more than is sometimes assumed, so I’m not too sure about the assumption that one might have known few others beyond the locality, and therefore if you had friends, they’d be neighbours. Allies, certainly, you probably needed as many as you could accumulate within hearing distance. Are we faced with historically fluid meanings of ‘friend’ I wonder? Anyway, contemporary neighbouring to me seems clearer if we accept the distinction between friendship and friendliness (a chance to declare indebtedness to Philip Abrams).
Asked by the interviewer if she favoured any particular age for neighbouring, Emily replied ‘It’s now!’ The golden age of neighbouring is now she says, because we can choose the degree of relationship we want to have. Tell that to the Daily Moan.
I’ve long been curious about the comparison of our age with the late medieval and early modern periods, and I crammed some of that fascination into my reflections about changing attitudes to ‘community’ in Picnic last year. So since I started reading Cheek by jowl I’m finding Emily’s range of sources stimulating, and her highly-readable style is a delight. More soon.
It raises an interesting question about the notion that neighbourhoods should have a variety of housing to accommodate changing personal and family needs over the life cycle. Presumably the houses have been more-or-less suitable throughout the residents’ lifetimes; and the tight local network of support is likely to help them overcome some of the difficulties that in other circumstances cause people to move elsewhere.
Being a neighbour is not necessarily straightforward: managing the relationships can be tricky and stressful. Those of us who have positive, easy-going relationships with our neighbours have much to be thankful for, the value of which is easily overlooked.
One of the problems in engaging with any neighbour at a mutually-acceptable level on the spectrum between provocatively negative and intrusive, is to assess the other’s communication impulse and readiness. Somehow you have to find out where they are on the scale between ‘gab about everything endlessly’ to stubborn dull silence about most aspects of life as it passes by; and they have to do the same for you.
‘in the age of the "big society", professional support is being cut dramatically. Situations such as this are going to become ever more common.’
So are we ready for it, as a moderately-sized society? How good are we at connecting at the right level – not too close, not too easily drawn-in, but close enough to react fast in case of real need - with neighbours whose mental health is not what it might be? It’s hard to think of anything more important to get right, at local level; but I fear there will be many tales of avoidance, misapprehension, ignorance and recoil.
I’m not doing this to be mischievous, honestly. I read the following paragraph, the sort of statement that reaches me about once a week on average:
“I grew up in [N], in a neighborhood where my family knew everyone on the block and we all looked out for each other. All the kids played together, and if we did anything wrong our parents would hear about it from one of the neighbors. I wanted to recreate that sense of community.”
And for some reason, you know how it is, this is what I interpreted:
“I grew up in Placetown, in a neighbourhood where my family knew everyone and truly nasty rumours abounded and there was a lot of obvious domestic violence that no-one talked about and if you were gay you just had to suppress it, and if you were disabled you were patronised if you were lucky but doomed anyway. All the kids played together (except of course that little disabled girl, can't even remember her name) so there was no end of bullying that you had to put up with and if we did anything wrong our parents would hear about it from one of the neighbours, who made it their business to exert control because they’d missed out on promotion in the army during the war, and my god they could be vindictive and brutal. I want to recreate that sense of community, cos I’m like that.”
Yes maybe I'm being a little unfair.. But the rosetinting of community really is unhelpful, because it stifles serious policymaking about neighbourhoods. I know that many neighbourhoods in the past were much better in some respects and much worse in others. Now, can we move on?
From time to time I have a stab at the habit of using a mobile phone while driving, because it combines two themes powerfully relevant to neighbourhood life - community safety, and respect.
The logic is stark: if someone uses their phone while driving past me, I get an unequivocal message that they think their communication is more important than my safety, or that of the child I might happen to be walking with. Straightforward, brazen disrespect.
Some time ago, walking round my area and watching carefully, I calculated that in 1 out of every 20 cars that passed me, the driver was using their phone. That was just for voice communication.
OK, you wanna get into email and social networking? Research – proper research - claims that eight per cent of drivers (and 24 per cent of 17-24 year old drivers) admit to using a smartphone for emails and social networking while driving. (For sources, see the IAM press release).
Surprise surprise, follow up research by the Transport Research Laboratory shows that accessing sites such as Facebook while behind the wheel had a more dramatic impact on reaction times and driving awareness than texting, alcohol and cannabis.
‘Participants who were sending and receiving Facebook messages saw their reaction times slowed by 38% and often missed key events. They were also unable to maintain a central lane position or respond quickly to a car in front changing speed.’
Somewhat forlornly, the report hopes that
‘it may be possible to develop a smartphone application which restricts access to some functions of the phone while driving.’
This is the worst case of junk accumulation I have seen documented (except perhaps in Dickens's novels), although I've heard a few tales. A house in San Jose, California, is apparently disappearing under 'a 10-foot-tall tidal wave of rusty chains, oily mattress springs, filthy animal cages and garbage bags...'
Never mind the possibility of it being tidal, the house is being consumed by its junk. And apparently the stench, when something is burned within, is worthy of note.
Three points are striking about this story.
First, we are told that a neighbour trapped 23 cats and six kittens living on the property and took them to a shelter. Another neighbor then said the place is now overrun with rats, which the feral cats had at least helped keep in check. You can't win - but should neighbours be put in that no-win situation in the first place?
Secondly, it seems that the fire service has declared the house an 'official fire hazard.' But nothing has been done. As a neighbour, what value would you place on the words 'official fire hazard' as a trigger for 'official' action on a problem that has festered for a decade or more?
And thirdly, consider these remarks from the county code enforcement manager:
'I certainly appreciate and understand the neighborhood's sense of frustration. We have a certain toolset at our disposal, and it works for most people. When you deal with someone who just doesn't respond, you're faced with a last-resort scenario.'
We can understand this in the fading light of 'big society' thinking, which implies quite reasonably that citizens have a responsibility to handle the local problems that they can, before turning to agencies - which should be seen as a last resort. Here we have an agency which is confounded by the discovery that it is the last resort, and seems to be startled and paralysed and cannot take action.
Mysteriously, the article reports not a single word of complaint against the local authority. This could be explained by (a) poor journalism; (b) uncritically pro-council journalism (which is a variant of (a)); or (c) a cultural over-emphasis on individual responsibility at the expense of reference to the state. I have no idea which it might be.