Community crisis: Something is rotten on the Crawford Estate

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The Independent Online
This is an old-fashioned sort of estate, really. A lot of people leave their front doors open, the children wave and call to you when you pass by. Everybody knows everyone else. The Tenants Association run a best-kept balcony competition every year (first prize is a pot-plant, a Woolworth's voucher and a round of applause from the crowd at this month's annual general meeting).

In the tenants hall, throughout the summer, Lucinda, an artist, is running a mosaic project for the younger children. Calling All Children] Exciting Summer Project] read the notices throughout the estate. Come along and bring all your broken china] The plan is to build a mosaic outside the hall.

Inside the hall is a giant mural, painted by the children a couple of years ago, depicting the parties, the yoga, the t'ai chi, the bingo, the jumble sales, all the events that happen here. And there are framed pictures of Captain Puwgash and his crew drawn by John Ryan, the creator of the pirate epic, who came to talk to the children last year,as part of their pirate project.

There is also an annual play, usually around Christmas time, written and acted by the junior children themselves, under the guidance of professionals. It is hard-work organising the grants and filling-in the masses of paperwork associated with all these projects; but it's worth it. They help hold the community together.

And togetherness is something we need a lot of right now. It is not all sweetness and light on the Crawford Estate in Camberwell. Unpleasant things are starting to happen. Something is going wrong and many of those open front doors are closing. We hear talk of vigilantism, revenge attacks and even riots.

In recent weeks, two women have been sexually assaulted, a man has been thrown 20 feet off the balcony of one of the blocks and there have been numerous other instances of violence. Knives have been drawn. People's lives have been threatened.

The atmosphere is changing. Oh, sure, there have always been problems here; but they were always self-contained. We knew the perpetrators of vandalism and graffiti. A small council estate is like a village: you know the idiot and the mischief-makers. A quiet word to the parents or a visit from the home-beat bobby and that was the end of it. Now, however, such tactics no longer work.

Community always seemed to have power. Where it was strong, it had control. People respected it. Now it seems that, temporarily at least, we have lost some of that control.

Tempers are high on both sides. You can feel the tension even when it is quiet. There is so much anger floating around people chuck it at anybody regardless of blame. The mere fact of a group of youths sitting on a wall will drive some of the adults to apoplexy.

People have come to the stage where they expect trouble, and so of course there is trouble. The kids on the wall - perhaps understandably outraged by glares and mutterings - dissolve. They disappear. Then a car being joy-ridden roars through the estate and, in its wake, a dozen shouting and screaming teenagers: unfocused, undirected, they are a block of violently released energy.

Outside agencies - the police, the council, our local MP - offer help, but no one seems capable of coming up with new ideas. You need imagination, and the resources, both financial and human, to act on that imagination to solve this kind of problem. Blind force won't work. In fact, it would have the opposite effect. If you are a bored teenager, nothing could be more fun than seeing a squad car zoom on to your patch; and if it be a van full of riot-squad policemen, yo, so much the better] Violence generates violence: it feeds on itself. And grows and grows.

Something has to happen from within. And the people best placed to act are the Tenants Association. We have held meetings with representatives from neighbouring estates, we have talked with some of the teenagers themselves. We have had discussions with the agencies mentioned above. All talk, so far, and little action.

We know that trouble doesn't come out of thin air, it is not an act of God: there are reasons. The underlying problem is that most teenagers have nothing to do once they have left school. No jobs and nowhere else to go, either. Nothing to do but hang around. Waiting for nothing.

We want to turn that dull, stupid energy into something productive. What we need, of course, is a team of full-time youth workers. There is so much potential among these youths. They are bright and intelligent. Within them are great football players, actors, actresses, musicians, acrobats - it's all here, waiting.

We are looking around for such help. We have got one or two leads already. Maybe something can be done. Maybe not. But we are trying. We know that we don't have forever.

(Photograph omitted)