Management & Operations

MBTA calms teens with Gershwin's rhapsody

Posted on August 1, 2002 by By Steve Hirano, Editor

Each afternoon after school lets out, several thousand boisterous and often combative teens pass through or congregate at the Forest Hills station at the southern end of the Orange Line subway in suburban Boston.

Fights, sometimes as many as two or three a day, have been common. The police agency for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), maintained a strong presence but found that arresting the offenders did not stop the madness. Thus began their search for non-traditional methods of crime-fighting.

An unlikely solution
John Phillips Souza, an unlikely peacemaker, led the MBTA to a musical solution to the youthful disorder. William Fleming, interim chief of the MBTA police force, says he noticed that teens returning from a Fourth of July concert that featured Souza's patriotic standards were in a relaxed, generally non-combative state.

This curious finding led Fleming to ask a couple of interesting questions: What would happen if strains of calming music were streamed into the Forest Hills station? Would the lilting melody of Gershwin's "An American in Paris" leach an adolescent's desire to bury his fist into someone else's forehead?

To find out, Fleming had speakers installed at the station and began to flood the area with Boston Pops-style light classical music.

Gershwin calms kids
Now, instead of the sounds of teen hysteria rising into a high-pitched frenzy, subway riders at Forest Hills were treated to the civilized sounds of George Gershwin and Keith Lockhart.

"A lot of the kids like the music," notes Fleming. More importantly, the music has curtailed the violence, either by driving away some teens or by tranquilizing them.

"We really haven't had many fights because the music calms the kids down," says Fleming. "It calms the cops down too."

Which is a good thing because it wasn't too long ago that transit cops were forced to use mace and police dogs to control the crowds at the station, a popular youth hangout because of the pizza and popcorn vendors and convenience stores.

"Forest Hills is the Venice Beach [in Southern California] of Boston," explains Fleming. "It's a place where boys meet girls." He says as many as 7,000 to 8,000 teens stream through the station after school ends.

Fleming admits there have been a couple of stabbings near the station recently, but he notes that they occurred outside the station beyond earshot of the soothing melodies.

Other stations eyed
Fleming says he's considering the same music therapy at another station — Quincy Center, near the southern terminus of the Red Line — where teen misbehavior has been a problem. "It's just a matter of hooking up the speakers," he says. "But this will be in front of the station because that's where the kids hang out."

Fleming denies that the music is designed to drive teens away from the station. "We're just trying to calm them down," he says. "They can stay as long as they're smiling."

Should the kids at Forest Hills return to their bellicose ways, Fleming says he'll be forced to take stronger action: "If the kids get out of control, we'll escalate by playing elevator music." He's also toying with the idea of introducing Beethoven. "I've been listening to it in my car,' he says mischievously.

Fleming adds that the success of the piped-in music has allowed him to reduce police presence at the station, helping him to stay in line with his $14 million annual budget.

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