In the 1980s, New York City’s crime rate was soaring. Total crime had more than doubled over the previous two decades; violent crimes tripled. It peaked in 1990 and then began a sudden, nationwide decline as the dismal economy began to show new life.
But New York’s economy did not follow the national trend. It remained flat. Yet crime plummeted to a third of its peak rate, surpassing the drop in the national average. New Yorkers say they feel the safest they have in years, and the city’s notorious subway system is no longer the fearsome dungeon it once was.
Exactly what they did differently is the subject of some debate. The authorities tried all sorts of things, but there is one measure that is widely credited for being the catalyst that made the other approaches effective:
They cleaned stuff and fixed broken things.
They scrubbed graffiti from the subway cars, collected litter from the sidewalks, and replaced damaged fixtures in public places.
And they kept them that way. Vandalized walls were repainted immediately. When they got tagged again, they were repainted again. The policy dictated that anything that was repaired or cleaned was to be kept in that condition no matter how many times they had to restore it. The epidemic of petty crime began to wane, and so did serious crime.
The approach was based on a theory by criminologists James Wilson and George Kelling. They argued that the disorder symbolized by graffiti, litter and minor crimes would inevitably lead to major crime and broken communities.
The rationale behind it is that disorder is infectious. A broken window, a littered sidewalk, or a graffitied wall is positively begging for more disrespect. Presumably, the sorry state of a building or street invites somewhat shady characters to be at their shadiest, whereas a spotless street with intact buildings would inhibit the worst of their behavior. A neglected space broadcasts the message “Nobody cares, nobody is watching,” and would-be criminals do not feel unwelcome.
It is called the Broken Window theory, after the assertion that a broken and unrepaired window in a house will soon invite vandalism, which will in turn invite drug dealers, arsonists, squatters and bogeymen to the neighborhood, and eventually the area becomes a slum.
This phenomenon is easy to identify, and it applies to more than just crime. Anytime something goes from an immaculate state to a flawed one, it becomes exponentially more vulnerable to further degradation. This principle extends beyond physical things, to good habits, stable relationships, pleasant moods and positive attitudes.
It’s that first broken window that is so crucial to fix immediately, because the second and third happen much more easily.
When the kitchen counter is spotless, even a preoccupied teenager is less likely to leave a dirty plate on it than he would be if it were already cluttered. It’s easy to toss clothes thoughtlessly onto the floor when the it’s already covered in clothes, but the same person would hesitate if the floor was clear.
As much as I hate to admit it, I know that when I make my bed in the morning (and I’m sub-50/50 in that department) I am far more likely to have a productive day.
I didn’t this morning. I had an astoundingly slow start, checking off maybe one or two easy items from my monster to-do list by noon. Of course, I didn’t make the connection between the careless start to the day and the bizarre, unproductive funk I found myself in, but upon reflection it seems pretty obvious. I woke up a bit late, like it didn’t matter. I left the bed unmade, like it didn’t matter, and I burned the first half of the day, like it didn’t matter.
Once I made myself attack a few items on my list, things started getting done. Turns out productivity is infectious too.
Though clutter, disorder, and crime appear to be contagious, they’re really not. It’s the mindset behind those behaviors that spreads. Good neighborhoods make you feel proud, fortunate, and respectful. Bad neighborhoods make you feel worried, suspicious, and disdainful. Success inspires success. Malice inspires malice. Apathy inspires apathy. We’ve all seen it.
Richard has gone running 17 mornings in a row. On the 18th, he oversleeps and has to rush out the door to work, missing his run. He has a miserable, disorganized day at work. The next day he wakes up dreading the office and doesn’t feel like running. He skips it, promising himself to get back to it the next day.
Broken window. He’s not sure how he ever felt the motivation to run. Two weeks later he still hasn’t gone running again.
Lisa’s mom decides she’s had enough of her daughter’s messy room and cleans it up. She scoops up the clothes off the floor and into the laundry, makes the bed, vacuums, straightens her desk and bookshelves. Lisa loves the clean room and keeps it immaculate for a few weeks. On the last day of school, she unloads a bag of miscellaneous papers from her locker onto her desk to be sorted out later.
Broken window. She never finds a good time to sort through it. In two days the room is a pigsty.
Ramon has been saving $20 a week since he started his job at the grocery store so he can buy his first electric guitar. One weekend he’s broke and decides to withdraw $20 from his savings account, to be paid back next paycheck.
Broken window. He never seems to have a spare $40 to pay it back, and stops depositing the $20 a week. A month later, he spends the idle $180 on a pair of sunglasses and a used iPod.
Jake hasn’t had a drink in fifteen years, and an old friend comes to town…
…you get the idea.
These are simplistic examples, but we can’t deny that the first blemish on something clean is the pivotal one. If it is left to fester, the problem grows. It becomes bigger and more complicated. That’s why the immaculate state of anything is so crucial. Sometimes that first broken window is the last point where problems are still manageable.
So it stands to reason that if you want a clean house (or anything else) you have to a) put in the effort to get it there – completely there — and then b) police it for little broken windows. Things sitting out. Tasks that have been ignored once. Duties that have been ducked once. Promises that have been broken once. Twice is too late; you have to start again.
Tomorrow, mark my word, I will make my bed. I’ll dive into my to-do list after a short and healthy breakfast.
I’ll keep that first half-hour of the day spotless, and then I’ll have a morning start worthy of respect. With a little vigilance, I should be able to keep my mindset a good neighborhood, all day.
Photo by MajoraCarterGroup
If you liked this article, get email updates for free.