The Breakfast Table

Strangers in Town

Dear Ester:

I understand your appreciation for urban life. I, too, love cities–as a resident, tourist, professional visitor, etc. It generally is one of the conditions of my visiting a city to lecture or consult that I stay at a “downtown” hotel rather than one on a highway someplace. The inspiration for much of my work has been Jane Jacob’s wonderful book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

I take your point about making the city a place for “tourists” at the expense of residents and neighborhoods. Certainly in the subway, although I was concerned about tourists using the subway, my primary concern was the fact that travel on the subway had become intolerable for people who had to use it: students, service workers, and so on. The rich were using limos and cabs. Students, workers, and urban residents in the broadest sense, deserved better than they were getting.

On the city level, while I am primarily concerned about the residents of neighborhoods and communities, I am also concerned about “strangers”: that is, persons who come into neighborhoods to shop, provide services, “people watch,” and all the other things that lovers and users of public spaces do. As Jacobs has pointed out, for neighborhoods to thrive, strangers must both feel comfortable entering neighborhoods and behave in ways that don’t threaten the neighborhood. “Isolated” neighborhoods such as the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, become dangerous places–not only for visitors but for residents as well.

But, of course, this takes us into murky areas. Clearly both residents and “strangers” can take offense too easily. Moreover, despite the popular view that neighborhoods are cozy and warm, they also have enormous capacity for pettiness and hostility. And, it also can be true that one person’s “disorder” is another person’s uniqueness. Nonetheless, I have found this resolvable if one is attentive to the law, the constitution, and issues of freedom and responsibility.

The issues you raise about possibilities of abuse, however, are appropriate. In my own work, I have seen the misinterpretation of “broken windows” for their own purposes by both the far left and the far right. Part of the trouble is that now everybody “understands” the ideas in broken windows. And for many, it is “zero tolerance” of any forms of disorderly behavior–a phrase that I hate and have never used except to distance myself from it. It is both unrealistic and smacking of zealotry. The far left likes to substitute it for broken windows because it proves that I am a fascist conducting a war on “homeless” and the poor; the far right loves the term “zero tolerance” as a replacement for broken windows because it justifies police “ass kicking.”

Well, I have gone on a bit. Since my wife is now traveling, I will have another cup of coffee and get set for the day.

Be well,
George Kelling