Broken Windows

Graffiti leaves scars of arrogence and disrespect that have nothing to do with art

Since the new U-Bahn entrance opened in my 2nd District neighborhood, the two and a half blocks between my door and Herminengasse have become a trail of ugliness. Buildings that were just painted a few months ago are already defaced with scrawled tags; it’s a kind of visual violence, leaving scars of arrogance and disrespect that has nothing to do with art.

This is painful to watch. It’s partly the aesthetic assault. But it’s also the creeping malaise that comes with it, the sense that the fabric of life is unraveling, that things are simply coming apart.

Thinking about this the other morning, I remembered the “Broken Windows Theory,” a idea the grew out of a Safe neighborhoods program in Newark New Jersey in the 1970s, when the city put foot police back on the streets in an attempt to address rising crime. And while the rate of reported crime did not go down right away, people sense of civic order began to improve almost right away.  The presence of the foot police reduced public rudeness and petty insults that can make urban life intolerable . They discovered that restoring public order in the small, visible ways — like preventing broken windows, graffiti and noise – enhanced a neighborhood’s sense of well being and discouraged the vandalism that was often the precursor to crime.

Vienna is neither as clean nor as safe as it was when I first moved here nearly 14 years ago. Back then I would leave my bicycle unlocked in the courtyard of my building, or even while I was in a shop without the slightest fear. Nothing ever happened. Once, coming out of the bank a child in each hand, I managed to drop a thousand Schilling note on the sidewalk; a man came running up behind me and gave it back to me.

There was also almost no graffiti in those first years. It was one of the things I admired about Vienna, that the Viennese loved their city and took care of it. Even were it was a little down at the heel, it was well tended.

Then sometime in the late 90s, things began to change. Ugly scrawlings began to appear on the  old walls, name “tags” appeared in spray paint on houses, doorways and shutters, on a park bench and an historic marker. It was angry and juvenile. And very unsettling.  I had three bikes stolen one after the other, locks broken or chains cut through, killing any enthusiasm for owning a bike the better part of two years.

Today, everyone is more careful. Nice things still happen in Vienna, like the fellow who jumped off the U-Bahn last summer to hand me my forgotten back pack. But it’s not the same. While the city reports that crime is down 8%, it turns out they’re catching the bank robbers and car thieves. Break ins, for example, are up.

And there is definitely more graffiti.

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