21. December 2005 · Comments Off on The Use of Public Spaces · Categories: Ain't That America?, General, Home Front, Local

Ages ago, when my daughter says that dinosaurs roamed the earth, and I was taking post-graduate classes in public administration, one of the lecturing professors related an amusing anecdote about a project that he had been a part of. I don’t remember in exactly which class this anecdote featured as a lecture motif; one of the sociology courses, or maybe the city planning class, or the basic police-force management class. (I don’t think it was the terrorism class, taught by a U-OK prof whose main gig was to do seminars with law-enforcement professionals wherein he would dress up in a kaffiyah and stopped AK-47 and with a select coterie of his grad students, pretend to be terrorists, take half the class hostage and make the other half negotiate their release.) The lecturer had participated in a study in which a late-model, perfectly serviceable and ordinary automobile was parked on a street in a good part of town, and a similar vehicle parked on a street in a not quite so good part. Both automobiles were being constantly monitored with remote TV cameras and a team of grad students.

The results, said the lecturer, pretty well demonstrated where was a better place in which to leave an automobile unattended; the battery of the car in the bad neighborhood was stolen in 45 minutes flat, and it was stripped of everything detachable within three days. The car in the good neighborhood sat unmolested for two weeks. At that point, the creator of the experiment demonstrated the ‘broken window theory’ and broke one of the car’s windows, making the clear point in the good neighborhood that no one was likely to make a fuss about vandalizing or stealing from it. While such did proceed, it was at a much slower pace than the car in the bad neighborhood, and was terminated when the city stepped in and towed it away as an abandoned automobile, presumably to the amusement of the observing audience.

The subtle point made about the difference in the two neighborhoods, however, is about how we share the public spaces— our streets, parks, civic buildings, highways and beaches. Every time we walk out our front door, we are in a public space, and our behavior in that space is constrained by a number of impulses. The first is a mutual sense of courtesy, and what is appropriate, which is sometimes discovered by offense and rebuke. Several months ago, a householder in my neighborhood put an old washing machine out by the curb for trash pickup, although the bulk trash collection (where the city sends a huge trailer and a truck with a mobile arm to remove heavy items like this) wasn’t due for months yet. Within days, I noticed a stern and neatly printed note taped to the side of the washing machine: “This is our neighborhood,” said the note “Not a Dump.” The errant washing machine promptly vanished, from the sidewalk, at least. The message had been sent, received, and the transgression amended; that this is a neighborhood were residents do not place clapped-out appliances on the curb for weeks or months on end.

We have standards, was the unwritten text to the note, and as a householder, you are not meeting them; which leads naturally into the second constraint, the fear of disapproval by others — a powerful constraint, especially of that approval is valued by the individual. And the third constraint is the impartial but comparatively blunt and unsubtle club of civil law, in the form of the city code compliance authorities, always ready to respond with the force of official law to complaints of this kind of thing. One may poke fun, justifiably or not, at the conformity and insularity neighborhoods and communities like this, but at a very minimum, they are fairly open and accommodating places. The streets and parks are attractive, and most people feel safe, unthreatened, and secure in the knowledge that soft power and civil authority will be respected across the board.

One has only to look at a place like urban San Francisco, where the soft power of community disapproval of certain behaviors has been disarmed, and civil authority made powerless, to see what happens in their absence. There has long been bitter complaining by residents, business owners and tourists about homeless people— often deranged, usually unkempt and aggressively pan-handling, living, sleeping, eating and defecating in the streets and sidewalks—- not exactly what wants to contemplate in an urban vista, even though one might very well feel quite compassionate about the homeless, and generous in rendering assistance. Any sort of organized call to do something about the homeless is met with aggrieved accusations of being anti-homeless, and being selfish and heartless about those poor homeless who have no where else to go, et cetera, et cetera. And that public space continues to be noisome and uninviting; since the problem cannot or will not be fixed to anyone’s satisfaction and those residents or travelers who do not want to deal with aggressive and deranged panhandlers will quietly go elsewhere. Just so do responsible residents of a neighborhood under threat of being overtaken over by drug traffickers and gang-bangers, if neighborly disapproval of such goings on is not backed up by civil law, impartially applied.

I began to write this as a meditation on the Australian beach riots, and then was sidetracked on how the pattern was repeating itself one more time; that of a public space freely enjoyed by a varied constituency gradually turned somewhat less free and un-enjoyable— practically no bathing-suit clad woman really enjoys being threatened with rape or told she is a whore and ordered to put more clothes on by officious and bullying young thugs. After all, there are really only two things that happen when a public space is taken over, and civil law proves to be indifferent or incompetent. Either the residents or the regular users of that space withdraw and give it up to whoever is aggressively taking it over— be they homeless, or gangsters, or whatever— or they attempt to take it back, however clumsily and ham-fistedly. Our public spaces are either ours and everyones�, to be shared freely and equally … or they are not.

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