By David Anderson, Tillicum
He was best known for “the broken windows theory” – fix what’s visually and physically broken in a community – graffiti, litter, dilapidated and neglected properties – to prevent further vandalism which otherwise left unmaintained leads in turn to escalation of more serious crime.
The voice of James Q. Wilson, the eminent social scientist, has been shuttered and silenced having succumbed March 2nd to complications from leukemia. He was 80.
New York Times columnist David Brooks observes that Wilson’s greater contribution however, the centerpiece of his legacy, was not so much the repairing of shattered glass as the rediscovery of character.
An essay by that very title, as a matter of fact, is “the best way to understand the core Wilson,” writes Brooks. Even the broken windows theory is less the story-line than the essay in which it is found entitled “Character and Community” co-authored with George Kelling.
In any discussion of community revitalization the emphasis should be less on paint rollers and window putty as character qualities like integrity. Reduction in crime is directly proportional to the ascendancy of character. Unfixed broken windows are evidence of lives in disrepair.
But where will you find such conversations today, especially in the marbled halls of Olympia’s legislature, far removed from the misery perpetuated in the name of addressing the woes of our economy? Take for example House Bill 2786 due for a public hearing soon. This is the Republican-recommended legislation that would expand gambling while purportedly raising obscene amounts of money and is being tossed to the public as ostensibly for benefiting “education, health and human services, and public safety.”
Pretty much covers it. Except for what’s missing: character.
“It is as if it were a mark of sophistication for us to shun the language of morality in discussing the problems of mankind,” Wilson once said.
An example: Tillicum, identified as one of the two poorest neighborhoods in the City of Lakewood, has sent well over a hundred kids to week-long camp over the years. One summer, in order to raise money, eight youth stood arms-length apart at the bottom of a ditch that parallels the railroad tracks on one side, the main business drag of Union Ave. on the other. They had promised the Tillicum Merchants Association that they would pick up litter along the business strip in return for camp registration fees. At the equivalent of minimum wage per volunteer hour, raising the total was no easy task.
From where they stood, between them and their objective – to take the hill that loomed above them – there towered a snarl of twisted blackberry vines, a slippery slope, a thorn-and-garbage infested jungle. Union Ave., then and now, is a backlog of bumper-to-bumper cars inching along, drivers itching to get on with their lives and often tossing the remains of lunch or alcohol purchased in Tillicum but long since consumed – no thanks to the interminably long lines of traffic – into the ditch by the side of the road.
Which explains why we were there.
The groaning and complaining scratched and bleeding, kids slowly made their way – mostly over, oftentimes through – the forest of inner-twined vines, really where no man had gone before, the whole way cursing the thoughtless littering passers-by. One youth opened a bag he found and gagged. It was a rotten turkey. But even that was lugged up the hill and found its way to the dumpster, joined by countless bottles, diapers, and trash of all manner of description. Yet when those eight kids stood at the top not a gum wrapper had been left behind.
So what does this have to do with HB 2786 – the precursors-to-slot-machine expansion of gambling bill that ostensibly would raise money to support everything from education to public safety?
What those kids in the ditch learned that day gambling doesn’t teach.