Friday, February 24, 2006

Night time economy and Christian presence

Today, the city centre management hosted a meeting of people interested in the issue of community safety and the night time economy in Cardiff – club owners, social workers, police, loca government officials and others – to hear a presentation given by Sister Wendy Sanderson, the Church Army Evangelist who is licensed by the Bishop to work in the city centre’s clubland, ministering among the staff and 70,000 nightime revellers who descend upon the city at weekends.

Officially, Wendy is a member of Central Cardiff Team Ministry, but the life of the Parish, even one as unusual and varied as ours, is so remote from the cultural and social life of clubland, that it’s difficult to inagine how they may connect. Wendy’s weekend work is mostly at night, and this precludes her from worshipping with morning time congregations. She lives in a neighbouring Parish, and worships there as and when she can, and draws her inner resources from being part of the community of the Church Army, which is the founding sponsor of this outreach project.

She’s been working in the city centre for over two years now. I have been involved in the diocesan group that oversees her work, and we have met from time to time at church conferences and meetings. I had no expectation it would be otherwise, and was determined not to make demands that drew her back from the diffficult challenge she faces. I made it clear that whatever useful support I could offer was there for the asking.

In her second year, the Church Army, facing its own financial difficulties began to put pressure on Wendy and her team to fund-raise for their own work. Not an easy task, even when you have access to a media relations office, and get a fair amount of press and TV coverage about the night time economy. One concern emanating from a long period of listening to clubbers was about the vulnerability of clubbers at the end of a night of partying, drunk, tired, needing to get home, finding taxis hard to come by, and at risk from being picked up by predators masquerading as taxi drivers. Wendy had the idea of opening a night time refuge where people could wait safely, have a cup of coffee, and if needed talk through problems with a friendly volunteer. Great idea, but where to start?

She came and discussed this with St John’s church committee, with a view to using church facilities, but it soon became clear there were too many risks and difficulties attached to opening St John’s at night from the standpoint of public safety. However, when she realised the Church Tea Room had two days a week when it didn’t open for lack of volunteers, she suggested taking on doing one of the days with her team. They did a few sessions of training with other teams and then got stuck in, raising funds for their own work, and evidently enjoying being part of such a successful little enterprise. In fact the extra day a week seems to have helped increase customer flow through the week. We only have Mondays to fill now.

When it was realised that St John’s wouldn’t work as a night-time post-clubbing venue, an approach was made to Ebenser Welsh Independent Church in Charles Street, opposite St David’s Cathedral, which has an unused basement, accessible from street level. After some deliberation the congregation there has agreed to welcome the initiative in their premesis. The Club Network team want to start with running a cafĂ© there on Friday lunchtimes to promote their night-time presence and reach office workers in town who are likley to return later for a night out. Which brings us to the point of the meeting with all the stakeholders in the night time economy.

Wendy’s presentation was designed to solicit their comments and possible support for development. Her ideas were responded to with both interest and caution. She did particularly well, with both an unknown audience, and her new boss present, meeting her on the ground for the first time. It was clear she had identified concerns which they all shared, but had so far not addressed. There are also potential safety problems about the Ebeneser site. It’s quite a way to talk from the epicentre of clubland in St Mary Street. Aware of this Wendy has long wondered about alternative places for a refuge, but now for the first time was in the company of people who could brainstorm from practical experience about possibilities, and talk to her about accessing public funds interested in the aims of her project.

Because of a flat bike tyre and a chaotic start to my day, I turned up late and had to leave early to celebrate the midday Eucharist. Fortunately, I didn’t have anything to contribute to the meeting, except personal support. My co-worker Ian had done the ground work, made the introductions to the City Centre management team, and it all flowed from there. It makes me think that our city centre mission is really turning a corner. A real cause for thanksgiving.

My only observation after the meeting was the extent to which so many of the stakeholders in the meeting were saying in effect : “This city is unsafe in the wee small hours of the morning”. Doubtless someone may eventually pick up my thoughts and try to sensationalise them, and others may say “You shouldn’t write things like that because it’s bad for Cardiff, bad for business.” Well, it’s the business ambitions of a variety of entrepreneurs that have made the city centre into a night-time playground that excludes large sectors of the population who are too old, or can’t afford to stay out late and get drunk. It has created huge public order problems for others to manage. None of this development was ever ‘planned’, nor put through any public consultation process as the re-development of a third of the city’s heart as a new cathedral of commerce was ‘planned’.

The night time economy has just emerged, and is a reflection of contemporary consumer culture and its degree of prosperity. It’s a bubble which any prolonged period of recession would burst. Meanwhile, coping with the fall-out of success is a formidable challenge for public services and policing. And, it has been met so superbly, that other cities grappling with the problems of the night time economy are regarding Cardiff’s operation as a best practice role model. In the midst of all this Sister Wendy’s little band is a quiet voice of conscience and compassion on behalf of visitors who aren’t as aware as they should how to be street-wise.

Cities around the world are moving towards a 24 hour seven day a week level of economic activity in this time of unprecedented rapid change, dominated by the opportunities of global communications technology. Is it universally sustainable? Is there a potential for serious damage to personal and social health, let alone economic health, as a result of this relentless pace and lack of rhythm that permits activity and passivity, regard for times and seasons, so much part and parcel of our evolution so far?

Cities are unsafe at night because their essential functioning has not yet begun to be planned for on a twenty four hour, seven days a week basis. We are still far from running society in a way that makes no difference between night and day, although night-time is now commercially exploitable. It we did this it would have to be done differently from what is presently done - which is a concerted effort to try and minimise the impact and the risk to people who are active when the majority of society is at rest. Will this present development continue indefinitely, through boom and bust? We don’t know. We don’t yet have any answers, perhaps because we’re no longer sure that we are asking the right questions about what it means to be human in the electronic age.

No comments: