If New York City can be cleaned up, why not Watson Lake?

Dear Uma: Having winter time on my hands, I have been re-reading Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, paying particular attention to the section which features the Broken Windows Theory and the Power of Context Principle.

Dear Uma:

Having winter time on my hands, I have been re-reading Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, paying particular attention to the section which features the Broken Windows Theory and the Power of Context Principle.

Although the example of the proven success of putting into practice this theory and this principle is related to the amazing cleanup of New York City’s crime scene, it does not require a great feat of the imagination to see how both these ideas could be applied to any city or town, even those as small as our Yukon communities.

The Broken Windows Theory was the brainchild of criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling who maintained that crime was the inevitable result of disorder.

People walking by a broken window will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken and a sense of anarchy spreads to the street, sending a signal that anything goes. Relatively minor problems like aggressive panhandlers, graffiti and public disorder are all the equivalent of broken windows and will invite more serious crimes.

Kelling was hired by the New York Transit Authority in the mid 1980s and with the job came an opportunity to put the theory to the test.

All subway cars carrying graffiti (and back then that meant every car in the system, inside and out) were taken off duty and painted. Once a car was “reclaimed” it was never again allowed to be used with any graffiti on it. No car was allowed to see the light of day until it had been repainted and no dirty cars were to be used with clean cars. It generally took three days for the “artist” to do his work; there were reports of some of them crying as they watched their work being obliterated. The graffiti stopped.

The second stage of reclamation of the subway system involved the immediate arrest of anyone cheating payment of the fares. So common was the problem that even the more respectable people cheated, assuming if others could get away with it, why should they pay?

All offenders were apprehended and handcuffed together on the platform until there was a full catch. This meant there might be a lawyer handcuffed to a drug dealer, or a sales clerk to a drunkard. There were some embarrassing linkages. A retrofitted bus cut the time of processing these arrests to an hour.

In the beginning, this was very unpopular with the police. But they soon came to love it as it often yielded someone carrying an illegal gun or a knife, and many had an outstanding warrant for a previous crime.

In 1994, William Bratton, another advocate of the Wilson/Kelling ideas, was appointed to head the NYC Police Department and he applied the same strategies to the city at large, instructing his officers to crack down on what he dubbed the “quality of life” crimes, such as public drunkenness, littering or even minor damage to property.

“Previous police administrations had been handcuffed by restrictions,” Bratton said. “We took the handcuffs off … if you so much as peed in the street, you were going to jail.”

The end result of these and other efforts to clean up New York City led to it now being one of the safest cities in the USA to live and work, a dramatic turnaround for a place that was once deemed one of the dirtiest, most frightening places to be.

It took years and a lot of money to make this happen, but there has been more money and time spent on less valuable efforts. It is hard to put a price on the simple goodness of living in a clean, safe place.

I was sitting with a friend in Baked, my favourite coffee bar in Whitehorse, talking about Gladwell’s newest book Outliers, when I suddenly realized that never once in the three years I have been coming to this place had I seen anyone drunk or disorderly, or being asked to leave the premises for any reason.

When I asked my friend Tom, a longtime resident of this town and a daily frequenter of this coffee shop, if he had ever witnessed such an event, he said he had not.

In other coffee bars, we realized, we had both seen people, who were clearly under-the-weather in some way or another, being refused service, or asked to leave the premises.

In Baked, we agreed, everyone was cheerful and, mostly, very sociable. It was nearly always busy, with the buzz of conversation creating quite a din, albeit a pleasant one. Anyone sitting alone was generally reading a newspaper or a book, or was online, clearly demonstrating a choice in the matter.

What made the difference? We talked about this over the next 20 minutes, or so, exchanging related anecdotes.

We mulled and pondered, finally agreeing the only thing we could see that might be making Baked invulnerable to the invasions of those who disrupted cheerful places was the embodiment of the Broken Windows Theory and the Power of Context Principle in action.

Could it be so simple? Could it be that here was a living example of positive energy repelling the negative?

This little coffee shop in this little town somehow demonstrated to anyone entering its doors that antisocial and disruptive behaviour was not acceptable. There was an unspoken understanding that customers would share tables and chairs and willingly move them to accommodate a larger group. Lineups would be orderly and polite, and dishes, for the most part, would be placed in the bins upon departure.

How could these models be applied to a larger scene?

I have an issue with messy yards in Watson Lake, both residential and industrial; they mar the prettiness of the town and create an impression of carelessness and sloth.

If the town of Watson Lake were to become totally proactive about the debris, levying fines and making the rules apply to everyone, the landscape would be cleaner. The message would be that we are not a dirty little village full of slobs. The message would be closer to the truth: we are a dirty little village with some slobs who, for some reason, are allowed to be irresponsible.

The message here is that there is no one in charge, no one cares, so let the garbage litter the yards and the old vehicles multiply, leaking toxins into the ground while the fences fall apart and the paint peels.

It seems more and more that good behaviour must be legislated, must be made law, in order to occur. We had to create human rights legislation to get people to be simply decent to one another.

Maybe our new mayor and council could do some reading on the Power of Context Principle and the Broken Windows Theory and see what other things could be changed in our village, by making it clear what is OK, and what is not.

What do you think? Does it all sound too draconian?

If you haven’t read The Tipping Point, do so; it makes for a good read and stimulates some new thoughts on old matters.



Heather Bennett is a writer

who lives in Watson Lake.