May 10, 2012


…we met with George Kelling, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who, with James Q. Wilson, had written an article called “Broken Windows” in the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. I had worked closely with Wilson in 1981, when he was cochair of the Task Force on Violent Crime and I was the associate attorney general. In New York, during the 1980s and 1990s, local government seemed to have conceded defeat. The city would actually put up stickers of plants and venetian blinds in the windows of abandoned buildings to disguise the decay. But Wilson had a revelation about crime: focus on the small crimes, such as littering, and keep neighborhoods clean and free of signs of disorder, such as broken windows in a building. The big idea was this: if the neighborhood looks as if someone is watching and maintaining order, it is far more likely that order will prevail. A neighborhood that is clean and well-ordered sends a signal to criminals and citizens alike. Instead of putting up stickers to hide the decay, Wilson’s theory says that you should remove the decay—and that this will save the neighborhood.

Wilson’s idea was a revelation and a reversal of the conventional wisdom up to that point. The dominant liberal theories told us that if we provided more social services to the poor, perhaps crime would get better. But Wilson suggested that instead we turn our attention to providing a better and cleaner place to live, raising the expectations of the community by improving the quality of life—and that then crime would decline.

Read the whole thing, which helps to explain why New York in the Giuliani era wasn’t a repeat of the Taxi Driver/Death Wish/Taking of Pelham One Two Three-era 1970s — surprisingly, much to the chagrin of some of its moreenlightened residents.