‘Broken windows’ and social pseudoscience

By Dallas Hansen

Saturday, May 27, 2006

During the months preceding the‭ ‬1999‭ ‬Pan-Am Games,‭ ‬much mention was being made of the‭ “‬Broken Windows‭”‬-style policing that had supposedly been responsible for plummeting crime rates in New York City.‭ ‬In a nutshell,‭ ‬the idea is that signs of social disorder—loitering,‭ ‬public drinking,‭ ‬graffiti,‭ ‬prostitution,‭ ‬panhandling,‭ ‬squeegee men,‭ ‬etc.‭—‬and physical disorder—noise,‭ ‬abandoned vehicles or buildings,‭ ‬dogs,‭ ‬sidewalk litter,‭ ‬trash in vacant lots,‭ ‬etc.‭—‬create an ambiance of lawlessness that invite more serious crime such as robbery,‭ ‬assault,‭ ‬burglary,‭ ‬rape,‭ ‬or murder.

Between the the Pan-Am Games leaving town almost seven years ago and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s visit here earlier this month,‭ ‬Broken Windows theory wasn’t mentioned much in Winnipeg,‭ ‬but now it’s the talk of the town’s policymakers.‭ ‬Even the‭ ‬Winnipeg Real Estate News has recently devoted front-page space to this timely topic.‭ ‬Everyone seems to be looking forward to getting down to the business of establishing law-and-order upon Winnipeg’s crime-saturated streets.

Indeed,‭ ‬not only do statistics—whatever their inaccuracies—confirm that Winnipeg is among this country’s most dangerous cities,‭ ‬there is plenty of supporting anecdotal evidence.‭ ‬Friends of mine,‭ ‬sponsored street skateboarders whose ability to make a living rests on procuring fresh footage of tricks and stunts upon urban architecture,‭ ‬have no qualms about travelling the downtown sidewalks at night with thousands of dollars worth of laptop computers and video recording equipment in Vancouver,‭ ‬Montreal,‭ ‬Toronto,‭ ‬San Francisco,‭ ‬or even Barcelona.‭ ‬But to do the same in Winnipeg is considered inadvisable.

Can Broken Windows-style policing make our city safe enough to remedy our reputation‭? ‬Can we cut crime the way New York City did‭? ‬Likely not.‭

New York City’s streets are filled with buildings that offer the benefit of what criminologists call‭ “‬natural surveillance‭” ‬and urbanists call‭ “‬people watching‭”‬:‭ ‬sidewalk storefronts,‭ ‬with people living up above.‭ ‬New Yorkers tend to be keenly interested in what goes on in the sidewalks below and often a yell from a window is all it takes to stop a crime in progress.‭ ‬Besides,‭ ‬sociologists are divided on whether Broken Windows deserves the credit for New York City’s drop in crime.‭ ‬Bernard E.‭ ‬Harcourt,‭ ‬writing in the November,‭ ‬1998‭ ‬issue of the‭ ‬Michigan Law Review,‭ ‬is one of many academics who suggest that the New York City’s mid-1990s crime plunge is nothing more than coincidence.

‭“‬Criminologists have suggested a number of possible factors that may have contributed to the declining crime rates in New York City.‭ ‬These include‭ ‬significant increase in the New York City police force,‭ ‬a general shift in drug use from crack cocaine to heroin,‭ ‬favorable economic conditions in the‭ ‬1990s,‭ ‬new computerised tracking systems that speed up police responses to crime‭ [‬COMSTAT‭]‬,‭ ‬a dip in the number of eighteen-‭ ‬to twenty-four-year-old males,‭ ‬an increase in the number of hardcore offenders currently incarcerated in city jails and state prisons,‭ ‬the arrest of several big drug gangs in New York,‭ ‬as well as possible changes in adolescent behavior.‭” ‬To that I would add a renewed interest in middle-class urban living and the subsequent neighbourhood gentrification that followed the‭ “‬white flight‭” ‬to the suburbs that marked the decades previous.

Broken Windows theory is the brainchild of professors James Q.‭ ‬Wilson and George L.‭ ‬Kelling,‭ ‬who first introduced the idea in an eponymous‭ ‬1982‭ ‬essay in the‭ ‬Atlantic Monthly.‭ ‬Among his many other achievements,‭ ‬Wilson is known for his defense of racial profiling and his suggestion of genetic predispositions to criminality.‭ ‬As an occasional contributor to the conservative‭ ‬National Review,‭ ‬he published a pro death-penalty piece titled‭ “‬Executing the Retarded.‭” ‬Wilson doesn’t believe in bringing back truant officers‭; ‬he thinks‭ “[‬P]olice…‭ ‬can be effective truant officers by stopping and questioning young people of apparent school age standing on street corners at a time when school is in session.‭ ‬If they cannot show that they have a reasonable excuse for not being in school,‭ ‬then the police should escort them to either their home or the school.‭” ‬As for why London has enjoyed a much lower rate of murder than New York City every year for the last‭ ‬200‭ ‬years,‭ ‬Wilson explains,‭ “‬It took England several centuries of tough rule,‭ ‬brutal punishment and the inculcation of class-based values to achieve a low homicide rate.‭”

Under Broken Windows,‭ ‬the line between‭ “‬honest,‭ ‬hardworking citizen‭” ‬and‭ “‬criminal‭” ‬gets blurred.‭ ‬Dare to crack open a beer in a park,‭ ‬or even to jaywalk,‭ ‬and you could receive a not a warning,‭ ‬nor even a ticket,‭ ‬but a good day or two in a holding cell.‭ ‬You might get worse—complaints about police brutality skyrocketed after Giuliani took office.‭ ‬Here in Canada,‭ ‬one public drinker paid the ultimate price when Ian Bush,‭ ‬22,‭ ‬a millworker from Houston,‭ ‬BC,‭ ‬took a bullet to the head after being handcuffed and detained by the RCMP for having an open beer outside a hockey game.

Is Broken Windows theory useless‭? ‬No—there’s no question graffiti-proofing New York’s subway trains helped to restore a sense of safety underground.‭ ‬But there are limits to its efficacy,‭ ‬and treating every minor violation like a felony is not just a waste of resources but a way down a slippery slope,‭ ‬at the bottom of which lies a police state.

© 2007 dallashansen.com / truwinnipeg.org


Why our young abandon Winnipeg

Retaining urban singles key to raising population

Saturday, April 1, 2006

Dallas Hansen

Why are “a disproportionate number of young, skilled workers” quitting Manitoba for greener pastures in BC and Alberta? Neither the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce or the University of Manitoba economics department has any clue, but both are calling for “an in-depth provincial study….”

No need to waste another several years scratching your heads, fellows–I’ve already studied this more deeply than any think-tank every could. As a whole, young, single, educated men and women are leaving Winnipeg because–compared to Vancouver, Toronto, or, sadly, even Calgary–Winnipeg is thought to be, to put it diplomatically, bumpkinly. Provincial.

How Cowtown, once best known for its rodeo festival, ever did eclipse our superior reputation for sophistication might be profitably examined, but it’s not just about jobs and oil. According to Statscan, Manitoba’s unemployment rate for February, 2006 is 4.4 per cent, second lowest in the country, and a half-percentage point below British Columbia’s. Alberta, at 3.1 per cent, might be able to guarantee you a job, but then why do so many young Winnipeggers opt for Vancouver?

As a former Vancouverite who would never consider moving to Calgary, I’ll tell you why. It isn’t the climate–three weeks at a time without a ray of sunlight is worse than three weeks of minus thirty. It’s that Vancouver appeals to young, single, educated adults through its quality urban neighbourhoods. Whether you live in Kitsilano or English Bay, Yaletown or Commercial Drive, you have a giant selection of little grocery stores, cafés, neighbourhood pubs and sundry shops within easy walking–providing plenty of community-building, face-to-face meetings with your young, single, educated peers. Under such conditions a car seems superfluous; without one, the increased cost of living is no longer. Add a potential for better earnings and you’re financially better off.

Some, such as U of M economist John McCallum, have suggested Manitoba has a marketing problem. But no amount of slick advertising can rouse demand for what is essentially an unpalatable product–at least compared to what our competitors can offer. Then what’s our problem? Winter? Edmonton’s is no better. Lack of jobs? Winnipeg’s got plenty, even for artists, writers, actors, etc. In my case, I found opportunity through a publishing institution old as the city itself–the Free Press.

Cities, at minimum, are a collection of buildings and people. A block of densely packed, upright historic frame houses is worth much, much more–both monetarily and in use-value–when it is proximal to a lively, storefront-lined pedestrian shopping street. While today the closest thing Winnipeg has to such a thing might be Corydon Avenue (though it is also dotted with set-back strip malls, a gas station, an auto body shop, a giant phone utility building, etc.) during Winnipeg’s growth days many of our streets–Main, Portage, Selkirk, James, Euclid, Notre Dame–were built up in blocks of solid storefront with apartments on the upper floors. This mixed-use model has proved essential to creating zones of urbanity, the sort of attractive public spaces where the young, single, and educated want to be.

Even if oil prices crash tomorrow, out-migration will continue to haunt Manitoba’s economy until we admit to Winnipeg’s modernist mistakes and begin an aggressive reconstruction program. By all and any means, we must reëstablish storefront continuity along our main city streets, building several storeys of apartment dwellings above; de-regulate on-street parking, moving cars off commercial lands that ought to be built upon; and, most importantly–thought this is a point typically lost upon Chamber-of-Commerce types–we must build a grade-separated, rail based rapid transit system that will every day bring downtown tens of thousands of people, but not their cars, while returning the lifestyle advantage back toward the convenient centre and away from the sterile suburbs.

Speaking of suburbia, that’s one environment from which the young, single, and educated creative classes are almost invariably repelled. Given the dullness of such subdivisions as Linden Woods and Island Lakes, disconnected as they are from the wholesome spontaneity of city life, it’s no wonder that so many middle-class, suburban youth have turned to stimulant drugs (cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy) to feel stimulated.

Calgary is an ugly mess of urban sprawl, tacky houses, and ugly modernist buildings. But planners there know this, which is why they’re pushing to build inner-city density while adding to their successful light-rail transit system. They’re proud of having an inner-city population of 117,000, and their civic government is chasing enough infill development to add another 34,000 by 2024. Meanwhile, Winnipeg’s inner city population, from 1986 to 2007, fell by 13,000, but remains still (somewhat) ahead of Calgary’s.

Compared to Calgary, Winnipeg would have a much easier time feeling like a metropolis. We need only try.