About 10 years ago my wife and I lived in London for about 18 months. For much of that time we lived in Bow, in the East End. Even back then London in general and the East End in particular seemed in decline/in decay and it there was the general impression that it wouldn't take much to prompt a complete breakdown.
In the middle of winter, we'd often have groups of teenagers huddling in the damp, freezing stairwells of the estate we lived in, and I can remember wondering what sort of home life they must have for this to be preferable. And not just home life. There must've been literally nothing else for them to do.
There was a general feeling of apathy at one end and fear at the other. Any attempts to improve the community were quickly quashed. We lost count of the number of times the glass was smashed out of the phone boxes on the edge of our estate, until they just didn't bother trying to fix it anymore. Someone tried to open a slightly trendy cafe across the road, and within a day someone had smashed the plate glass windows. After it was fixed, the glass was smashed again. The cafe closed down shortly after.
One night, my wife was walking home from the tube. She saw a group of kids (early teens) trying to smash a light in a railway underpass. She asked them to stop doing that. They followed her home, yelling abuse at her and joking that they should rape her.
Whenever I tell people this story, they remark that it wasn't a smart thing to do, telling them to stop. And maybe not, in the context. But maybe if more people stood up to these kids, London wouldn't be where it is now. You should be able to try and maintain order in your community, without fearing for your safety, right? Londoners are relying on the police now, but clearly that's nowhere near enough.
Another time, my wife was on the bus and there was this old woman yelling abuse at a black man. Really nasty stuff. And everyone just sat there, staring down, not wanting to get involved. It took my wife to say something before anyone else would.
Shortly before we came home, one of our flatmates was mugged on the steps, coming up to our flat. They stole her Christmas shopping. She made a complaint to the police. Our flat was egged. A brick went through the window. I don't know what, if anything, happened to the muggers. But whatever it was, it certainly didn't make us feel any safer.
The thing was, we could leave any time we wanted. There was this guy on the next floor up, he was in a housing commission place. He had no choice. He was stuck there.
And I think about those kids, sitting in the stairwell. Trapped there. Nothing to do. No options. Living in a community that's falling apart and that's not going to get any better.
What have they got to lose?