No Broken Windows

In 1982 a couple of social scientists, James Wilson and George Kelling, came forth with something that’s become known as the broken window theory (BWT). The idea is based on the following example:

“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.”

We’ve all seen examples of this. Abandoned buildings that have become the targets of vandals and neglected properties welcoming more neglect. With the burst of the housing bubble in 2008 there are no shortages of foreclosed and abandoned homes and commercial buildings throughout America. A quick drive along the streets of my hometown will take one past any number of such properties, immediately obvious by the overgrown lawns that long ago went to seed. According to BTW each such property is an invitation for the neighborhood to follow suit. What would happen in a neighborhood if the guy next door took the time and a couple of gallons of gasoline and mowed down the weeds? If one neighbor showed interest in the aesthetics of his surroundings would others follow in his steps? BTW says they would.

Petersburg school today. Click to enlarge.

One example of the negative impact of BTW is the old school building in New Petersburg. I don’t know what the buyer had in mind when he bid on the property at public auction but what has happened is an almost total lack of attention and maintenance. Weeds grew up, someone threw something through a window, and now there is hardly an intact window in its three stories. The side door is ajar and God knows what may go inside during the dark of night. How much of this blight could have been prevented if the guy across the street had immediately walked over and repaired the first broken window? Would it be a message to the vandal that such behavior wasn’t to be tolerated? Would it have been a signal that there is a quality in this community that simply won’t be diminished?

BTW is not without critics but I think it has basic validity. The citizens of Charleston, SC made a decision decades ago that the historical heritage of their city was worth protecting. They passed and enforced a series of preservation codes demanding certain behaviors of property owners. The result being the uniqueness of Charleston that has made it a major tourist destination.

Greenfield has, and is, making similar decisions. During the Bryant and Baal Administrations a number of abandoned eyesores were demolished and blights were removed from neighborhoods. The issuance and recent enforcement of cemetery rules is a statement that certain set standards must be adhered to, a broken window won’t be accepted. The recent imposition of a fee for yard/garage sales and the creation of a committee to oversee the maintenance and planting of trees are both examples of BTW.

Waiting for the village government to come to the rescue is not the answer, however. Greenfield is just like most other communities today, strapped for cash with very limited resources. If litter blows down your street like tumbleweeds in an old John Wayne movie take the initiative to organize a couple of neighbors to perform a little TLC. After all, isn’t that what the Duke would have done?

PS: After writing this I was watching CBS Sunday Morning and they ran a piece about an Ohio town where a man began a project to “paint the town.” It is an example of just what the BWT proponents are saying. Click HERE to watch the segment and just consider the sense of community being created. 

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