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Memphis Daily News
Let’s Start Fixing City’s Broken Windows
September 23, 2013
By Dr. Mary C. McDonald

In 1982, two sociologists published their research on the causes of crime and the significance of deteriorating neighborhoods on rising crime rates.

James Wilson and George Kelling’s work, called “The Broken Window Theory,” states, “If you go into a neighborhood and you see a lot of broken windows, it tells you that nobody cares, that nobody is looking out for the neighborhood, and if you break some more windows, nobody will do anything about it.”

That seems an obvious perception, until you think beyond the windows to the level of disorder in the lives of the people living behind the broken windows. Breaking windows is not the real crime, lessening the quality of life is. Seemingly insignificant actions are signals of more serious and long-term consequences.

With crime rates soaring in the 1990s, police departments across the country adopted the Broken Windows Theory almost as a last resort. The most famous example is New York City. New York, like many large urban centers, became a dangerous place. The level of social disorder had risen and the signs of crime were everywhere.

City officials decided to address what, to many, seemed almost insignificant in the face of such chaos. They focused on the signs of crime, on the details of the quality of life. They wanted to put good people back on the streets, in parks, in subways, and have bad people find it difficult to take advantage of them. They wanted to reclaim the quality of life in New York.

Officials began their efforts by repairing broken windows, cleaning up vacant lots, and fining those who littered. Public places were no longer avoided, and good people started to feel safe and protected. Bad people felt threatened, and those seduced by criminal activity had second thoughts.

It worked. New York became a kinder, gentler place.

The Broken Window Theory can be relevant in our own city as a preferred way of thinking. When life-changing crises occur, we instantly spring into action. But what happens when the change is more incremental, when we become desensitized to the subtle changes that lessen the quality of life in our city, like an increase in car break-ins? What happens when we live with averted eyes and silent lips to the seemingly minor infractions?

The quality of life should not be about where we live, but how we live. If things can change for the worse, then they can also change for the better. If New York can dramatically reduce serious crime by starting with fixing broken windows, think of what repairing the broken windows in our city will do for all of us. The idea of paying attention to small things that affect the quality of life might not be revolutionary. It is what happens when people come together to do what they can to improve the quality of life for all citizens. Memphis has already repaired a few broken windows. How can you participate in the process of repairing a few more?

Contact Dr. Mary C. McDonald, a national education consultant, at 574-2956 or visit

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