How dirty walls lead to vandalism

Published: Mar 12, 2019, 07:36 IST | C Y Gopinath

Theres an undeniable connection between wall posters and street crime New York figured it out why cant we

How dirty walls lead to vandalism
The ticket windows are a civic wreck, covered with peeling posters as well as exposed cement and destroyed paint where someone had tried to scrape away older posters. A disastrous peacock, someone’s idea of an ethnic mural, crawls under the windows

I've always been a student of decay. I find it compelling that everything goes from bad to worse unless we do something specific to make it go towards better and best.

Your body, for example, starts deteriorating from the instant you step out of a shower. Pretty soon, you have to bathe again just to get it back to where it was. Nails grow, hair gets shaggy, familiarity breeds contempt and uneaten bananas go black and squishy.

In physics, it's called entropy, the gradual decline into disorder. I'm illuminated enough to argue with myself that flowers can grow out of dunghills and that the sun always emerges from behind dark clouds. Living in a city whose very fabric is woven through with planned neglect and disorder, I have inevitably become obsessed with, well, how things crumble and go downhill, and make our daily lives suck - and you suspect the BMC is right behind it

Exhibit A today is Andheri Railway Station, rickety and untidy before 'modernisation' and 'renovation' began in 2013 - and wonder of wonders, even more devastated after being modernised. I have watched the new, supposedly sleek and thoroughly modern Andheri Station rise from the debris of the old one.

For years, all I saw was debris, inconvenience and interminable construction. Platforms were broken up, pits dug to house jungles of cables and there was dust everywhere. It definitely was entropy in full swing. I told myself that flowers can grow out of dunghills, and waited.

And one day, the dunghill produced a flower. The new Andheri Station's vast hangar-like space, with natural light streaming in from high above and ticketing windows at the far end made it feel almost like an airport. I excitedly messaged my friends that Andheri was now as good as any railway station in the world.

But just a week later, I noticed the decay - paan stains, non-functioning escalators and the litter. From then it just got worse. A 2015 photo shows the far wall with ticket windows, clean and unblemished. The same photo taken this year shows a civic wreck, covered with peeling posters as well as exposed cement and destroyed paint where someone had tried to scrape away older posters. A disastrous peacock, someone's idea of an ethnic mural, crawls under windows and behind tacky bulletin boards, among ads for maths tutors, insurance schemes and job vacancies. Pointless wires hang out of hammered holes in the wall, and everything is unkempt, including the unshaven, scruffy and impatient counter clerks.

Let's skip the obvious questions, such as why heavy fines are not imposed on each person who defiles a civic space. Let's look instead at New York instead and the Broken Windows theory.

Imagine a neglected, abandoned building with a few broken windows that have not been repaired for a good while. The tendency would be for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they might even break into the building and become squatters.

Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there. Some begin breaking into parked cars.

The Broken Windows theory, introduced in 1982 by James Q Wilson and George L Kelling in The Atlantic Monthly, says that a neglected environment with visible signs of
anti-social behaviour, civil disorder and crime encourages further disorder crime and disorder, including serious crimes.

The theory proposes that if the police or the community began targeting minor crimes such as vandalism, public drinking and defiling public spaces with posters, it would create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness that would prevent both minor and more serious crimes.

David Gunn, President of the New York City Transit Authority, used the Broken Windows theory to eliminate graffiti from New York's subways. Any graffiti that appeared in the dead of night was scrubbed off by sunrise. The vandals just gave up.

In 1990, William Bratton, head of New York City Transit Police and also a Broken Windows fan, began cracking down on fare evasion, slashing processing times but also starting background checks on offenders. The assumption was that some who commit small crimes might be guilty of larger ones.

A 2001 study showed that both petty and serious crimes dropped significantly after the Broken Windows policies were implemented.

What does this mean for Andheri? And Mumbai? Something rather miraculous, actually. If the police began taking serious action against people who put up posters or litter public spaces, imposing stiff penalties, they could reap a much richer harvest than they might imagine.

Not only would they create a vigilant atmosphere with zero tolerance for small breaches, but also discourage larger offenses.

Look at it this way: there's a reason why Indians stop littering when they travel abroad.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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