Tuesday, 05 July 2011

Would you choose neighbourhood or housing? So at yesterday's Compass conf I was on a panel about neighbourhoods and 'the good society', and there was an interesting question from the floor: can you have a 'good neighbourhood' with poor housing? It didn't fall to me to try and answer, but the consensus seemed to be 'no'. Our mythology of course says 'yes'. But that could be because it confuses collective resilience with what it might be reasonable to call 'good neighbourhood'. I think for example of the experience of women from the tenements of Edinburgh and Glasgow retold in a super book called She was aye workin' - challenging the idea that 'We may have been poor, but we were very comfortable and cosy' - it's just not true. Their life was hell. It was a constant daily grind against dirt and disease. That reminds us is that a functioning neighbourhood is not just a set of cohesive relations where people support one another out of necessity against the odds. That kind of 'community' may seem laudable to those who know no better but it should not be wished or imposed on anyone, and it's a brutish society that is prepared to do so. In my few words to the seminar I had tried to suggest that the idea of 'community' - far from being the magic solution to a long list of social problems which governments would like to see resolved by someone else at no cost - is a minority interest. Most people are most concerned about house and family, with 'community' a distant third (Lyn Richards' excellent but seldom-cited study Nobody's home brings this out forcefully). So my own reflection on the question - can you have a 'good neighbourhood' with poor housing? - is to ask, if you could only have one, which would you choose?
Stranger out there As our society's long-awaited public crisis of privacy finally sets the politicians' alarms off, here are some thoughts on how the mixing up of private and public can cause odd behaviour. I was driving home from a conference this afternoon around 6pm, the roads busy of course, came up a hill in a single line of traffic and there was a car stopped on a corner near the top, drivers having to slow and take turns to pass. I stopped in front and got out, quickly learning what I have come to expect - the lady had been there for 'an hour' and no-one had stopped to help her. I'm not the sort of person to be suspicious of the story I heard and had no reason to disbeleive it. Her father had died the night before, she'd panicked out of the house with an uncharged mobile phone and an empty petrol tank, and from the hospital was now on her way to see her mum Two kids (and a hamster) in the back and no buggy, so although she had an empty petrol can, she couldn't walk to get it filled. I sorted that easily enough in less than fifteen minutes and they were on their away. So there I was a short while later back in the traffic now busier, with time to think about the possible stats. Let's suppose the lady exaggerated how long she'd been stuck there, perhaps it was thirty minutes, not an hour. There had to be a minimum of 15 vehicles per minute going past in the direction of travel (and a comparable number in the opposite direction). Even if only a few contained more than one passenger, that's at the very least 500 hundred people - and probably coming on for 2,000 - who saw her, without stopping to help. I could have guessed it, but she told me and I witnessed one example - lots of drivers tooted their horns in annoyance and at least one shouted abuse. She was in their way and may have slowed them down slightly, and being very important people they had stuff to do. Some human beings behave so oddly when they get in cars, I suppose because it's sharply defined private space in the public realm and that confuses relationships.

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