Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Behave or We'll Smile at You

Policy Innovations intern Warren Wilczewski writes in from Moscow:

In the Moscow city guide for foreign visitors, Mayor Luzhkov’s team advises: “Mind your manners, and nobody attacks you. As every megalopolis of the world, Moscow has got its problems. .. For your safety, just avoid walking alone in dark and empty places, be careful in crowded places, don’t talk or answer questions of strange people, try not to carry handbags with cash and documents late at night… Terrorism: This trouble may occur in Moscow.”

Not very reassuring for a first-time visitor to this, the largest of European cities. As if that were not enough, news of murdered journalists seem to be coming out of Moscow on a regular basis. Last week, it was Ilyas Shurpayev, a reporter originally from the restive republic of Dagestan. Combined with stories of the Russian mafia, breakdown in the rule of law, and the persecution of foreigners, give the impression that Moscow is not for the faint of heart.

While preparing for my trip, the torrent of advice from all who heard of my destination was consistent: watch yourself. This advice was made all the more relevant by my being mugged just two weeks before departure, at a New York City subway station no less. If one can’t be safe in a city experiencing record lows in crime rates, what of one that is bigger, meaner, and harsher than most. Traveling by taxi in the most expensive city in the world was simply out of the question, so like 9 million other Muscovites, I’ve been moving around by subway since day one.

The first, and most powerful impression one gets of the Moscow Metro is just how clean and, frankly, glamorous it is. Rather than the utilitarian, gritty look of New York City stations, many of those in Moscow are museum-like, with crystal chandeliers, marble tiling, and elaborate statues throughout. What’s more, in this land of risk-takers and go-getters, no babushka or kindergartner will be allowed to stand on the metro--even the meanest looking brute will yield a seat. How, then, has a culture of such proper manners survived the upheaval of the past two decades? New York, a city much richer, and by all accounts safer, than Moscow, has a subway system infamous for delays, flooded tunnels, and muggings. After my own experience an oft-repeated moral booster was "well, you’ve had your New York experience." Looking at Moscow, I wonder if that is the way things should be.

What, then, is the lesson to be drawn from this comparison? Is there a way to introduce a kind of civility to New York that seems to be present in Moscow? Stateside, comparisons are often drawn between the relatively low crime levels of New York and other American cities, yet for a world city, such standards should not be enough. As the global financial capital, the bar should be set higher. Whether a question of culture, policing, or economics, the most prosperous city in mankind’s history should not suffer from rat-infested subway stations and muggings as part of "the experience."

Though time may still tell, perhaps Yokohama is onto something. There, authorities have just introduced a legion of “Smile-Manner Squadron” onto their mass transit system, complete with green-vested seniors with their younger sidekicks, in case their polite pleadings meet with not-so-polite responses. City Hall has already adopted the Prius, and two of our newest museums are designed by Japanese architects (MOMA by Yoshio Taniguchi and the New Museum of Contemporary Art by Sejima and Nishizawa)--could manners be next?

1 comment:

acarr08 said...

I have experienced many metro systems in my life including Paris, Barcelona, London, Rome, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and New York City. Of all those cities I have to agree that the subway system in New York is one of the dirtiest. However, I would also say that it does not stand alone in it’s lack of upkeep and cleanliness standards. Rome system is much in need of renovations as well as Los Angeles’. New York is far from being a safe city and it has always been known for mugging. A subway’s standards does not neccisarly reflect the crime level of a city but rather reflects the amount of local government concern with the condition of transportation. London is one of the safest cities in the world but many of the tube stations are very out dated and people continue to be pick-pocketed on the trains not to mention the horrible events of July 2005 in the tube. However, London’s transit system , despite the fact that it may not be the most glamorous is the best I have experienced and that is probably due to the fact that the Brits invented the subway system in 1863.