Broken Windows

Today, I helped out the neighborhood in a yearly Oakland ritual of planting daffodils throughout this great city. Over 150,000 daffodils were planted today, and I am proud to have participated.


We planted the daffodils in and around the City Parking Lot between Grand and Walker Avenues. I helped to sweep, trim hedges, pick up leaves, etc. There were just a hand full of us, so it was felt relatively lonely out there, but the work did give me an opportunity to think.

I thought of all the people who walk by the Lot oblivious to the hard work so many volunteers put into it. I thought about the fact that in about a month, the dogs will have kicked the mulch back into the sidewalk, more leaves will have fallen, trash will have gathered in the median, and much of our hard work will appear to be for nothing. So who wouldn’t ask themselves, “why bother? What is this all for?”

Then I looked down and across the street at a house that recently become a sore spot for me. I am bitter because the owner shows contempt for our neighborhood every day he allows his great house that sits at the gateway to our street to disintegrate. It reflects poorly on our neighborhood and is insulting to all the people who spent countless hours every month picking up trash that gathers in his yard, calling the city to insist he mow is lawn just once a year, and all the others who work so hard to keep the entire street looking nice.

Cheney House

What’s it all for when no one seems to care, even some of the property owners?

It is easy to boil the effects of the Cheney House, the trash in the City Parking Lot, the people who don’t clean up after their pets in the street, the overgrown and uncared for yards throughout the neighborhood down to something as simple as property value.

And while property value certainly weighs on my mind, it was my remembering The Tipping Point that helped remember what it is all for. In his book, Malcom Gladwell seeks to understand the miraculous decline in crime in New York in the 1990’s – he attributes the decline a great deal to an approach the NYPD took inspired by the “broken window hypothesis” explained below.

Some of the best new ideas in preventing violence borrow heavily from the principles of epidemic theory. Take, for example, the so-called "broken window" hypothesis that has been used around the country as the justification for cracking down on "quality of life" crimes like public urination and drinking. In a famous experiment conducted twenty-seven years ago by the Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo, a car was parked on a street in Palo Alto, where it sat untouched for a week. At the same time, Zimbardo had an identical car parked in a roughly comparable neighborhood in the Bronx, only in this case the license plates were removed and the hood was propped open. Within a day, it was stripped. Then, in a final twist, Zimbardo smashed one of the Palo Alto car's windows with a sledgehammer. Within a few hours, that car, too, was destroyed. Zimbardo's point was that disorder invites even more disorder-that a small deviation from the norm can set into motion a cascade of vandalism and criminality. The broken window was the tipping point.

Long story short, and I encourage everyone to read this book so that they don’t have rely on one tiny little excerpt, but it’s the small crimes and infractions that in a sense give others “permission” to commit the bigger crimes. The psychology is simple: when there is graffiti on the subway cars, it gives would-be criminals the impression that people don’t care, that crime is “ok” because no one is there saying you can’t by enforcing the very rules meant to deter such activity.

And that is precisely why it is important to plant daffodils. Why it is so important that we all take pride and ownership of our neighborhoods. Because it matters when the mulch is kicked into the sidewalk. It matters if there is dog shit on the curb. It matters if there is KFC garbage in the gutter. Its presence sets the tone for the neighborhood. Conversely, when our yards are all well kept, when our houses all have roofs, and yes, when there are flowers in bloom throughout, it sends message to everyone who passes through it.

1 Comment

Good for you for planting flowers in your neighborhood. When you start throwing social science theory into your blog, you know I have to comment. Especially since most of the time I have no idea what you are talking about when you discuss anything related to computers. I wanted to caution you about the use of Broken Windows Theory in The Tipping Point. For a counter argument you should check out "Illusion of Order" by Bernard Harcourt -- it's fabulous, and discusses everything from why the theory itself is flawed (it designates people as either "law abiding" folks who are petrified of the broken windows and stay home, or "would-be offenders" who are just waiting for an opportunity to sweep in and take over... with no acknowledgment that people's values are not predetermined or fixed) and how thin the empirical literature is about the theory. The problem with wide application of this theory is that people start talking about how poor people don't take care of their neighborhoods and they just invite more crime because of it and then, maybe a politician like Guiliani attaches to this issue and they start going after window breakers and never address the real reason why the windows were broken in the first place. We continue to blame victims of poverty and chaos and never accept responsibility for the care of the most vulnerable in our population. Okay, I will get off my soap box now.

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  • Good for you for planting flowers in your neighborhood. When you start throwing social science theory into your blog, you know I have to comment. Especially since most of the time I have no idea what you are talking a...