Social Tweaking in the UK


The Level in Brighton sits between roaring Lewes Road and the colourful boutiques of the North lanes, a scrubby no-mans land from which you can see the stars when wandering a late-night shortcut, a place of wafts of weed and barbeque smoke in summer populated by small groups and dog-walkers, students, groups with cans of special brew and a dog and somebody with a broken leg, old men playing Boule on a Sunday morning.

It was sitting on the Level that I first realised that the police had the potential to be sane, reasonable human beings. Some friends and I were sitting enjoying an afternoon can of beer on a soft September day when over walked a young police officer. This is a designated public place, he said, and as such you aren’t allowed to drink here. You don’t seem to be causing any trouble, he said, the problem is that if everybody sees everybody else drinking then they think it’s the sort of place where you can do that, and then you do get people causing trouble. So if you just keep your beers a bit more hidden, he said, and continue to behave yourselves nicely, then that should be fine.

We did so. It was. I always found that encounter interesting; for one thing, when my political young friends enraged from encounters at demos told me that the police were all violent and evil it never rang universally true, my experience from quieter times had shown me that at least sometimes the police would do as much as they could to let us do what we wanted, even if it was illegal – as long as it was reasonable. The other interesting aspect was the idea that simply covering up my beer would somehow change the situation.

A while ago I read, by pure coincidence, two accounts in a short time period of the sudden decline in crime in America in the 1990s. The first book, “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, had it a result of such tweaking of atmosphere, a sudden turnaround thanks to efforts of local government to crack down on graffiti and reduce the general level of dilapidation in areas of high crime. The result, Gladwell argues, was that a more civilised atmosphere resulted in more civilised behaviour.

The other account that I have read of the American crimewave drop has a very different overtone. It appears in the book “Freakonomics” by Levitt and Dubner and argues that the reason that crime dropped is because the people likely to commit it simply didn’t exist. It happened around 2 decades after abortion was legalised.

The authors argue this very carefully, explaining the social conditions and that many of these abortions were motivated by the dangers posed by bringing a child into a family that was unable, psychologically, financially and otherwise, to care for it. You can read more about this in this paper authored by Levitt and Donohue, published in the quarterly journal of economics, in which they carefully compare the trajectories of crime rates in different states with different histories with regard to legalisation to put together an empirical basis for their conjecture. Abortion, they suggest, helped to reduce the number of impoverished, disenfranchised young adults on the streets 2 decades later and their hypothesis is persuasively supported by the statistics.

Walking past the level in the few weeks since its reopening, the change is remarkable. Thus far it looks as it must have done in a councilman’s glowing imagination, populated by clean-living, upstanding citizens enjoying their moments of free time, standing and chatting in groups in configurations straight out of an architect’s drawing; the children’s playground is picture-perfect, even the placement of paths spot-on, the space is well-lit and clean and seems free from those undesirables that caused fear to night walkers. Now that it’s reopened it is the most popular council initiative that I have ever encountered. But it isn’t as if those that society doesn’t want to see have simply ceased to exist, as if a new polished environment simple cancels out anybody perceived to have fallen through the cracks of our supposedly clean-living society. You can’t just paint over something that you consider a social problem and have it disappear.

I collect photos of painted-out graffiti. Those are the squares you see in any back street, a slightly different shade of grey covering up whatever stencil or tag lies beneath it; never quite the right colour, they cover but the surface they leave is not clean, it becomes a patchwork history of negations and cover-ups. The graffiti lies beneath, a tag covered up by the stronger territorial markings of the local council or homeowner, covered but not removed. The architect’s-drawing utopia feels false to me; we can’t congratulate ourselves on reducing the visibility of a thing without having done anything to understand it.

But there is a flip side, no pun intended. Cut to 8am on a Sunday morning. Walking past the level to catch a bus, I would normally expect to have the occasional stop-out student and pile of morning soup for company. But approaching the skate park, I hear wheels and voices, shouts and scrapes. There are at least a dozen young people out there, flinging themselves up and down steep slopes on their various wheeled vehicles, practising and perfecting and playing to the crowd.

And a crowd they have. Early dog-walkers, families with wakeful young kids, old boys out for the paper; when it’s out in the open instead of hidden behind a hedge the skate park makes for hypnotic entertainment for anyone, whatever the background or biases, and the skaters feed off it. The now-standard observer’s phrase, “We’ll just watch until someone falls over,” belies the previous minutes spent involuntarily watching with an admiration that a population seldom admits toward its disenfranchised youth. I don’t want to make over-optimistic predictions based on little first-hand experience but I have friends who are further into the skate scene, or have experience working with youth offenders, and they seldom shy away from arguing the value of such interests in forming a young person’s life. And perhaps those skaters taking on a performer’s role, showing off their skills to an audience with whom they might otherwise have little reason to interact, might serve to nurture a tentative but genuine relationship between people who in Britain’s strange contemporary social climate have had little left to them in common.

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