Broken Windows And Gutter Masks

As we inch closer to reopening America and trying to get back to the way things were before the Great Shutdown, here’s a thought for hopeful business owners, bar proprietors, and restauranteurs: remember the “broken windows” theory.

As long-time readers of this blog know, “broken windows” theory holds that the physical surroundings communicate important messages to people about social order. If you see a broken window in your neighborhood, and after a few weeks it becomes apparent that no one is going to fix that window, you get the message that your neighborhood isn’t as orderly as it once was, and it causes concern about personal safety and appropriate behavior. The same message is conveyed by the appearance of graffiti on buildings, and increased litter on the streets. All suggest a breakdown in the established social compact that will make people jittery.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented broken windows theory on a national scale. Everything changed abruptly about a year ago. Many businesses closed during the initial shutdown, and some of them never reopened. There were fewer people on the streets, and many of those who were out were obviously fearful. Neighborhoods started to look more trashy because people who might otherwise pick things up and throw them away were afraid that loose trash and debris might be vectors for transmission of the disease. And all of those bleak visual cues have a compounding, reinforcing effect.

I was in downtown Columbus yesterday, and I thought about “broken windows” theory as I passed yet another gross, discarded facial mask in a gutter in front of a business. I think those gutter masks send a pretty unmistakable message that things still aren’t back to normal or even close to normal — because if they were, the business owner or a cleaning crew obviously would pick up that mask, and any other litter on the sidewalk. If I were a business owner trying to get the wheels of commerce to really turn again, I would go on mask patrol and make sure that the area around my establishment was free of dirty masks and other negative visual cues that might cause people to refrain from entering.

There are still a lot of nervous people out there. Many of them want the world to get back to normal, but they’ve been cautioned and conditioned to avoid risk. Filthy facemasks in the gutter subconsciously communicate that the risk is still out there.

Hostile Spaces And Homelessness

In many large cities, public spaces have been modified.  Metal bars and blocks and bolts and even spikes have been added to benches and ledges and other seating areas, to make it uncomfortable, or even impossible, to stretch out and lie down.  In other places, the public spaces have no seating areas of any kind.  The underlying purpose of the additions and modifications seems painfully clear — to keep homeless people from sleeping or otherwise camping out in the spaces.

ae22fd62-197a-42f7-9714-d9d2702dc70c-2060x1236A recent New York Times article addressed this phenomenon of “hostile architecture” in public places.  The article reported that such actions have “increasingly drawn a backlash from critics who say that such measures are unnecessary and disproportionately target vulnerable populations. They have assailed what they call “anti-homeless spikes” for targeting those who have nowhere else to go at a time when many cities are grappling with a homelessness crisis.”  The article quotes an NYU professor who says:  “We’re building barriers and walls around apartment buildings and public spaces to keep out the diversity of people and uses that comprise urban life.”  Supporters of the modifications argue, on the other hand, that this new approach to public spaces is necessary to help maintain public order and safety and security.

So, what’s a city to do?

Most cities are struggling to deal with homelessness.  In Columbus, which doesn’t seem to have homelessness issues to the same degree as, say, San Francisco or Los Angeles, it’s not unusual to see a homeless person stretched out on a bench or sidewalk from time to time.  No one wants that — including, presumably, the homeless person.  Is it wrong to try to discourage that behavior by adding internal armrests to benches that prevent someone from lying down on the bench, but that aren’t going to bother office workers who are sitting outside eating their lunch, rather than trying to sleep? Are we really to the point where taking steps to prevent sleeping and camping out in public spaces are criticized as contrary to “the diversity of people and uses that comprise urban life,” as if dealing with homelessness, aggressive panhandlers, and public sleeping were part of some rich tapestry of city living?  Or, put another way, by not taking those steps, are city planners enabling conduct that also interferes with the real, intended public use of public spaces — because most people aren’t going to want to hang out in a square filled with sleeping homeless people and their stuff?

Proponents of “broken windows” theory would argue that allowing public sleeping and camping out creates an atmosphere of disorder and lawlessness that encourages criminal activity and other improper conduct.  I strongly support trying to help the homeless, but I also think trying to maintain order and promote the personal security of the non-homeless is an important goal, too.

Prettying Up Parsons

IMG_5970In Columbus, Parsons Avenue is a kind of dividing line.  To the south of downtown are German Village and Merion Village, where you will find carefully restored old houses, young professionals, and empty nesters, and the gentrification wave has spread east through Schumacher Place — which is bordered on one side by Parsons Avenue.

As our friend The Activist said, Parsons Avenue is sort of like the demilitarized zone.  After walking through shaded streets filled with well-kept brick homes and pretty landscaping, you come to a busy street with a decidedly grittier urban vibe.  Some of the storefronts are vacant, and those that are occupied are home to revival churches, nail salons, fast food outlets, second-hand shops, and convenience stores.  It’s not uncommon to see shirtless guys standing around or police cars stopped, with their lights flashing.

IMG_5969The Parsons area seems to be in transition, however.  Nationwide Children’s Hospital is a big impetus for change.  Located at the corner of Parsons and East Livingston Avenue, the hospital complex has been growing rapidly in all directions along both of those streets, adding new care facilities, medical buildings, and ancillary service businesses.  The ongoing expansion has brought construction cranes to the skyline, created a range of new jobs, and attracted doctors and the other people staffing the new buildings to the area — and many of them seem to have decided to live in Schumacher Place, Merion Village, and German Village.

The advance guard of gentrification, in the form of banners hung from lampposts and decorative planters, have found Parsons Avenue, at least in the blocks between the hospital and East Whittier Street.  The planters include painted information about the area — such as when George Parsons lived — and the banners grandly proclaim that Parsons Avenue is “The Gateway to the South.”  If you agree with the teaching of Broken Windows Theory, these kind of beautification touches will aid the gentrification effort because they will help to make people feel more comfortable on Parsons Avenue — but fewer stopped police cars and fewer shirtless guys loitering near gas stations would help, too.

The Unforgivable Male Flip-Flopper

Tonight I was in a hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and a guy was there wearing flip-flops.  As we walked down the hall he flapped loudly along, drawing our attention down to floor level, and we all got to admire his feet.

IMG_3305Call me a crank, but I think a guy wearing flip flops in a hospital at night is unforgivably impolite.  I don’t mind people of both sexes wearing flip flops at a pool, or on the beach, or at an informal backyard barbecue on a hot summer night.  I give kids a pass, too.  But there is a time and a place for everything, and a grown man wearing flip flops in a public building when the temperature is about 56 degrees outside is just not right.  When you add in the fact that it’s a hospital it seems even more inappropriate.

I know we’ve gotten increasingly informal in our society and become accepting of things that once would have been unthinkable.  I’m old enough to remember when people actually got dressed up for airplane flights; now when you board a plane you often feel like you’ve intruded upon an over-sized sweatpants modeling convention.  We’ve become a society of appalling slobs.

I recognize that, in the grand scheme of things, a guy wearing flip-flops in a hospital at night isn’t the worst offense a person can commit — but I also believe in the “broken windows” theory that holds that little things, if left uncorrected, can lead to social disorder.  A guy wearing flip-flops is a harbinger of chaos.  This is where we need to draw the line.