Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Homeless people are "eyes on the street"

Belivers in "broken windows" policing sometimes claim to believe in Jane Jacobs' concept of "eyes on the street" -- the idea that, the more people in a place go about their business in public, the more they look out their windows with a sense of responsibility, the better those people know each other, the more likely it is that witnesses and helpers will respond to any kind of trouble or crime.

However, the two concepts can become abusively contradictory through misuses of authority against poor people. "Broken windows" policing can remove members of a community who would be "eyes on the street" if the cops would let them.

A case in point:

Today's SF Chronicle reports the city has sued a couple of roofing contractors for alleged illegal dumping of roofing and construction debris around the southeastern warehouse districts of Bayview-Hunter's Point. The city attorney told the paper there was a "large spike" in illegal dumping in the area this past fall and winter.

I'm not a bit surprised, and the city government shouldn't be either. They're the ones who kicked out dozens of potential witnesses.

All through the mid-'oughts, San Francisco city police and public works staff worked fiercely and abusively to cleanse that same warehouse area of people who lived in cars and RVs, basically on the grounds that they did drugs, stole scrap metal, and would scare off buyers of the new condominiums being built out there. Some of those charges were sometimes true. On the other hand, the RV residents were a community who knew each other, who looked out for each other in some ways (admittedly not others), and who really, really didn't like illegal dumping by contractors because it led to complaints and police and unfair pinning of blame on whoever happened to be camping near the contractor's pile of debris.

So now, having towed and trashed the RV dwellers' homes, impounded and sometimes killed their dogs, and forcibly resettled the members of that community in tiny Tenderloin hotel rooms or "supportive housing" units, city officials discover that the empty streets they left behind have so little sense of neighborhood that nobody bothers to complain to or about illegal dumpers. (Do condo yuppies have the courage or citizenship to confront a couple of big guys throwing asphalt out of a truck onto a vacant lot? I don't think so.)

Your basic punitive "broken windows" attitude, classically expressed in a 1982 Atlantic article by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, approaches streets as stage sets that need to look spotless, and it approaches untidy human beings as defects that need to be removed before they provide safety in numbers for their fellow defects.

Jane Jacobs' great strength was that she always approached people as people. She understood that untidy and irregular people have eyes, consciences, neighborhoods and friendships. Most of all, she understood that you don't rip apart a community without bad consequences.

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