Saturday, 03 March 2012

Home consumption 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.
'I want to recreate that sense of community' 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?

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