Un-neat and Untidy

I spent time last week discussing with a student whether or not graffiti was an index of social disorder.

Index of Social Disorder – Alatamira Bison

Index of Social Disorder – Alatamira Bison

My student took the view that more graffiti equals more disorder. She noted, correctly, that one of the spars of New York’s zero tolerance policies of the 1990s which so successfully returned the city to a state of relative law and order after decades of spiralling decline was the responsibility given to residents for maintaining the fabric of their own buildings. Thus, no broken windows, and no graffiti.

The root of this approach lie, ironically, in the liberal thinking of Jane Jacobs who wrote, in The Life and Death of the Great American Cities, of the need for people quietly to police their own streets and communities, to be empowered to work on the fabric of the city themselves.

I do not disagree. Many projects of urban regeneration, from Bogota to Detroit, have focussed on getting people on to their own streets again.

However, I disagreed about the graffiti. I wrote a post some time back about the Heron graffiti that has sprung up like a rash across the walls of Cambridge. I am not unpleased to see it, when I do. And while some graffiti aspires to the level of street art, I am not suggesting that graffiti is pleasant to look at, or that its value lies in its decorative functions. I just think it is a sign of life. It would be too easy, I think, to equate signs of disruption or disorder with malaise; graffiti is a form of protest, certainly, and not always an elegant or mature one, but a tag is a reminder that not everyone is going to assert their presence on the earth and in the city by voting and owning a house. And I am not convinced that I want to live in a society which outlaws chewing gum, or hounds graffiti artists in a policy of zero tolerance, merely because we (i.e. the established) prefer things in general to be neat and tidy.

Cambridge, of course, is neat and tidy, on the whole. I was speaking with my student about New York, London and Paris. But Cambridge has its untidy corners, its moderately hard edges, its low-grade wildness. If you’re not careful, someone might pinch your bicycle. Or tag your wheelie bin. And life goes on.