Broken Windows

In 2012, a shy, quiet teacher and political philosopher named James Wilson died. An expert in Chicago’s black neighborhoods, he was best known as the man who came up with the “Broken Windows” Theory. It says that if one window of a building is broken and left unrepaired, soon all the other windows will be broken, too, and bad things will happen to the community around it. Negative elements will take over the building. Crime will multiply. Take care of the little things, and the big things will take care of themselves.

Colin McGregor           Files: Justice, Society

The theory works for individuals and for neighborhoods. Let one small thing go, and soon things will collapse. And you can tell which streets will end up bad just by looking at the windows over the course of a month, Wilson observed. Appearances count.

It holds true in jail. One inmate in my cellblock let go of himself. Every time he went before the parole board, a small protest would erupt in front of the jail. He was rejected for parole several times. After his last try, he sat in his cell, emerging only to buy chips and soda pop, or for food. He grew a beard, and stopped bathing. He sat at my table in the cafeteria. A nice, polite, quiet young man. We tried to get him to at least walk around the prison yard, but he would just bow his head. One day, he died of a heart attack in his cell. His body was quietly taken away.

I was being harassed in my part of the cellblock, and was told I would have to take over his cell if I wanted to avoid being bullied. The next morning, I was led to his cell. Potato chip wrappers, old newspapers and pop cans filled the space up to waist level. The stench was unbearable. The window looking out on the prison yard was cracked. I was given rags and a bottle of peroxide and told to start cleaning. I would have to make the cell liveable by nightfall.

The walls were brown. Around lunch, I found a family of mice living under a trash pile in one corner. By nightfall, seven bottles of peroxide later, I moved in. The smell of peroxide quickly put me to sleep.

The heart attack man’s passing was unlamented. Two weeks later, his name was called over the loudspeaker for a dental appointment. No one had even bothered to strike his name.

Self-esteem in bad times has to be worked for. Things are a bit better these days. Since the death of my fellow inmate, programs have been put in place to combat the scourge of suicide, including a corps of inmates trained to stop prisoners from taking that “final exit.” Still, in jail, no one will stop you if you sit around, unwashed and unwanted. A neighborhood is the same. Making a bare fence beautiful, making a bare wall speak, is a high calling. Graffiti breathes life into a neighborhood. It shows that neighbors care about little things like broken windows.  It is good for morale, and for public safety. Places that are cared for are safer and happier. People too. Beauty is more than skin deep.

Before he died, James Wilson, Harvard professor and quiet man, wrote that it’s not the “strong beacon lights” that change the world, but rather, each “small candle flame, casting vague and multiple shadows.”  We can all be candles.

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