The Angry City


I used to box at one of those old-school inner-city gyms; the type that was sparsely furnished with only the most basic equipment, and whose patrons were more interested in working up a sweat than admiring their own reflection in a mirror. Much of the conversation with regulars revolved around our work, with many of them contributing stories from their lives as police officers, bouncers and security guards. Some of these were pretty scary guys, whom I would try to avoid in the ring.

One evening, we had one of those "Christmas comes earlier every year" conversations. We weren’t talking about the proliferation of sparkly decorations that seem to pollute the landscape well before December, but about the violence and stress that so often accompanies the festive season. The general consensus was that the stress of Christmas leads to an increase in violent incidents, and the police officers and bouncers were witnessing these episodes as early as mid-November. In their words, people were getting angrier each year.

This alarming notion was confirmed by a friend of mine who works in the emergency department of a Sydney hospital. When I raised the issue with him, he suggested that much of the violence we see from November onwards results from the high levels of alcohol consumed during Christmas "celebrations".

These late-night conversations led me to think more about the levels of anger in Sydney. I set out to collect some solid evidence to discover if my friends were right, and Sydney deserved the tag of "the angry city".

My initial research led to a conversation with Sydney Morning Herald journalist, Sarah Price. The evidence we collected is quite telling. We see Sydney’s population dealing with longer working hours, climbing levels of debt, traffic snarls and a general frustration with the city’s lack of infrastructure.

In her research, Price interviewed Dr Tony Grabs, the director of trauma at St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst. Grabs noted that the number of people admitted to St Vincent’s with injuries from alcohol and drug-related violence has risen dramatically over the last three years.

The statistics are telling. From October 2003 to September 2004, 120 patients were admitted following an assault or stabbing (which included 54 alcohol- or drug-related attacks). Between October 2006 and September 2007, however, the number of admissions rose to 197, 90 of which related to alcohol or drugs. We can assume that these numbers don’t represent the depth of the problem as they do not account for patients who present to the hospital with injuries that do not require admission.

Figures from the Bureau of Crime Statistics confirm the rise in violence, particularly assaults. According to the Bureau, both domestic and non-domestic related violence have climbed steadily over the past 10 years. Similar trends can be found in police data.

Importantly, however, Sydney is not becoming a more dangerous city. All other crimes have either remained steady with the rise in population or have actually decreased as a proportion of population.

It seems that we have seen a rise in violent-specific crimes which can be contrasted with a fall in rates of crime overall. That is, it may be less likely that our car will be stolen, but we are more likely to be violently attacked for no other reason than enjoying a night out and annoying someone.

The most striking of these crimes is road rage, a form of violence that is on the increase and seems to have been behind an attempt by a motorist in May to run down a group of cyclists who had the gall to ride their bikes during peak hour.

This prompted Grabs to conclude that a relatively strong economy and good employment levels were containing violence, but there was potential for this to get out of control if a recession hit or interest rates continued to climb.

Before the rising cost of fuel and the debate over Bill Henson’s images garnered our attention, the main focus of both our politicians and the mainstream media was the apparent "evil" of alcopops. The commercial news stations enjoyed linking alcopops with violence, usually showing two burly guys beating each other as the accompanying footage. Somehow, I don’t think it was alcopops that these guys were drinking – but never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

To understand the rise of violent crime it’s important to look at the reasons Sydney is becoming an angry city. I believe that there are three clear trends that have resulted in Sydney residents becoming increasingly frustrated with their everyday lives.

The first is the rising levels of debt, leading to increased social and personal pressures. Steve Keen, an Associate Professor of economics and finance at the University of Western Sydney, has undertaken some important research demonstrating that the burden of debt we are currently experiencing is comparable to that leading to the economic depressions of the 1890s and 1930s. The level of debt is making us feel vulnerable and increasing the degree of tension between us, especially among young people.

The second is frustration with everyday annoyances such as public transport and traffic delays. While I believe that Sydney’s population is nowhere near its capacity, the neglect of our infrastructure has meant that residents continuously experience delays. Combined with rising work hours, this means there is a general feeling of being "time poor".

The third reason I want to offer here is the rising sense of individualism that has developed from 30 years of neo-liberal reforms. There is little doubt that three decades of economic liberalism has pushed us to think of ourselves as being in competition with one another, rather than as a community of citizens. A recent research project at the Centre for Cultural Research, undertaken with the support Oxfam Australia’s Youth Engagement Program, confirms that the move to a liberalised economy is highly divisive.

The results are obvious: a population that is stressed, feels time poor and is in constant competition is more likely to lash out. If Sydney is becoming an angry city, then there is a need for governments – at all three levels – to respond with more than lamentations on the evils of alcopops.

I’m not saying that alcohol abuse isn’t an issue, but I am arguing that there are more important structural issues to confront. Unless we see leadership on these issues, we are heading for increasing conflict and will be living in an increasingly angry city.

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