by Jay A. McCalla
Back in 1982, a couple of social scientists developed what came to be known as the “broken window theory.” The broken window is a metaphor for blight and neglect, the existence of which promotes lower community morale and standards and invites crime.
Truth be told, one can reach some pretty fair and negative conclusions about a house with a broken window – say, a prominent front bay. They’re lazy. They’re poor. They’re selfish. The longer the window stays broken, the more fixated neighbors become on the implications for community standards.
The theory promotes the idea that negative deviations from the norm must be remediated quickly, before a lower standard has a chance to take hold and diminish everyone.
This theory comes to mind because Philly seems to have outdone itself on the pothole front, lately. I’ve never seen so many. Some are created by the asphalt separating from trolley tracks, others result from ancient potholes that were ineptly repaired, thousands resulted from our heavy snow and very cold temperatures followed by the inevitable thaw, still more are the plentiful and venerated potholes that have long gone unrepaired and have wildly metastasized in recent weeks.
Another routine failure of our local government is that a motorist cannot assume all streets and intersections are named and marked with signage. One can travel in many sections, for many blocks, and have only a vague sense as to location.
As street signs get damaged or destroyed, nobody in the city government takes the responsibility of replacing them – despite the fact that there is a Signage Department within the Streets Department.
As a veteran Philly motorist, I can anecdotally tell you the same intersections that flooded in heavy rains years ago are still flooding today: Lincoln Drive, Cobbs Creek Parkway and the river drives, for instance.
Potholes, lack of signage and chronic flooding are all forms of “broken windows” that shape our perception of the city we share. But, it’s also a strong comment on the core competence and attention span of local government.
Many institutions and communities have long ago given up on city government to deliver even the most basic services. In the late 1980’s, Center City property owners and businesses recognized the gaping deficiency and formed the Center City Special Services District. The district is responsible for cleaning streets, sidewalks, some public displays and to supplement public safety – in other words, basic government services.
Despite the fact that creating these districts significantly added to the financial burden of those within, it was seen as the only option in light of a city that cannot deliver.
Similar districts have spread to Old City, Frankford, South Street, Drexel University, University of Pennsylvania and beyond. It is a sure measure of how chronically low expectations are of city government.
The proliferation of Town Watch groups is yet another indicator of changed and lowered expectations. Many simply don’t believe our police can protect them in their neighborhoods and homes.
The broken window theory requires that negative deviations –graffiti, abandoned cars, literally broken windows, potholes, overflowing public trash cans, etc. – be remediated right away if we are to avoid a subtle but steady downward slide in our quality of life. We don’t quickly remediate, so the downward slide occurs. If you don’t believe me, ask the average Philadelphian what he or she thinks of Philadelphia.
For all the sophisticated talk of our town becoming a tech hub or medical research capital, we’ve yet to learn to provide the basic services that make a city hospitable to residents and visitors alike.
Mussolini aside, there is something good about making the trains run on time. It’s all well and good to have fancy deals and high rhetoric floating through the political air, but somebody has to mind the store.
We are a world-class and beautiful city with unmatched assets that charm all friends who visit. Fairmount Park, museums and our restaurant scene are usually enough to impress. If that doesn’t work, we can always take our guests to tour our peerless history. No matter what, we will dazzle.
But, I can’t help feeling a bit like Tevye, from “Fiddler on the Rood.” To paraphrase: “would it spoil some vast eternal plan, if we filled some potholes?”