Sunday, March 4, 2012

Beyond Broken Windows: Drab Gray Paint versus Graffiti

Editor's Note: James Q. Wilson, the Political Scientist who developed the Broken Windows Theory, passed away last Friday at the age of 80. Click here to read his obituary from the Associated Press.

Posted by Angie Luvara, ATLANTA, GA -- There is a theory of crime called Broken Windows, suggesting that when broken windows, graffiti, and litter start appearing in a neighborhood, so will crime. This theory never did sit well with me, but I couldn’t really put it into words until I moved to Cabbagetown, a small, artsy neighborhood in Atlanta just east of downtown.

Broken Windows Theory claims that these indicators are signs of “neighborhood decay”. If the broken windows aren't fixed, and if the graffiti isn't removed then it's assumed that neighborhood residents lack cohesiveness and ownership of their space. In other words, if the people who live there cared about their neighborhood, they would "clean it up". Well, what happens when neighborhood residents don’t see these indicators as negative? What if they don’t look at graffiti as a sign of neighborhood decay but instead see it as art? What if they view the Mardi Gras necklaces strewn on the fire hydrant on their street as beautiful, not as litter? This is precisely where Broken Windows falls short.

I found the perfect example of this the other day when I was walking home. Someone, likely an employee from the City of Atlanta, had covered the colorful graffiti on an abandoned building at the edge of Cabbagetown with drab gray paint. In response, someone else had written “this eyesore is the problem, not graffiti” on one of the painted sides of the building. This amateur graffiti sums up so simply the failure of Broken Windows to account for collective values among neighborhood residents. Perhaps the prevalence of graffiti doesn't signify neighborhood decline. Perhaps, just maybe, the residents actually prefer graffiti to the drab gray paint so often used to cover up its beauty. Cabbagetown has had graffiti for quite some time and hasn't developed a crime problem.

Angie Luvara is a photographer and Managing Editor of Social Shutter. She is also a Doctoral student in Sociology at Georgia State University. To view more of her photography, go to her blog at

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