Gothamitis 2018: Beyond Broken Windows

Boosting Quality of Life Through the Care of Our Shared Spaces

“This idea of ‘social infrastructure’ is enormously powerful,” said Eric Klinenberg, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, to a room full of nearly 60 people at the Park Avenue Armory on the Upper East Side. Referencing his investigation into a catastrophic heat wave in 1995 that killed more than 700 people in Chicago, he said, “I realized there's something going on that we don't observe because we don't have a concept for it.” That concept is “social infrastructure,” he said.

On Thursday, October 4, New York Restoration Project and Amanda Parsons, an NYRP Chairman’s Council member and Vice President of Community & Population Health at the Montefiore Health Center in the Bronx, hosted Klinenberg, to celebrate the release of his bestselling book “Palaces for the People.” The event, “Gothamitis 2018: Beyond Broken Windows,” was a public conversation held by NYRP to explore the built environment and society. This year’s dialogue examined the ways Klinenberg’s idea of greater investment in social infrastructure, like libraries and community gardens, mirrors NYRP’s mission to make nature and access to open space a fundamental right of every New Yorker.

According to Klinenberg, social infrastructure is the shared spaces that allow people to form connections with one another, create networks, bond, and interact. They are the physical places that enable social capital (people’s relationships and interpersonal networks), like the YMCA or a public park. Klinenberg argues that when social infrastructure is strong, neighborhoods flourish and communities become more resilient. Conversely, he also said that when social infrastructure is weak people turn inward and feel isolated, which can result in catastrophes like the heat wave in Chicago.

“First, a lot of the people who died in Chicago, hundreds of people who died, died alone,” he said. They were discovered long after they passed away in their homes and the nature of their death signaled to people that this was a social breakdown, he explained. Taking a closer look, Klinenberg discovered that similar neighborhoods right next to each other had far different rates of resiliency in the face of the heat wave. In one neighborhood, there was a near total depletion of core social infrastructure – homes were abandoned, tall grass had taken over empty lots, and sidewalks were crumbling. Those neighborhoods experienced a higher death rate, he said. Meanwhile, neighborhoods with community organizations, like churches and block associations, outside shopping centers, and community gardens fared far better. Neighbors connected and were able to help one another either with cold water or air conditioning. They also noticed if somebody was missing.

Klinenberg also discussed “broken windows theory,” which posits that signs of disorder, like broken windows, in a neighborhood signal to people that nobody is controlling the space and opens it to potential criminal activity and undesirable attention. He lamented the fact that police departments around the country reacted to this theory by introducing zero tolerance policing policies, “stop and frisk” practices, and sending lots of people to jail in those areas.

“Why is it that we didn't respond to broken windows by fixing the windows?” he asked. “If we had gone in a different direction and said instead of doing the policing, what if we go to those places and fix them up, we would live in a different world right now. That's kind of the idea of the book,” he said. Society would not only fix criminal problems if it did so, but would also solve basic quality-of-life issues, he explained. He referenced a recent study in Philadelphia that showed that cleaning and greening vacant lots, similarly to the way NYRP works throughout New York City, can lessen crime in under-resourced neighborhoods. NYRP believes, like Klinenberg, that when social infrastructure is strong, neighborhoods flourish, becoming safer, healthier, and happier places. The nonprofit also did a recent study showing that neighborhoods with strong NYRP investment had 213 fewer felonies every year.

“I want you to be able to leave this room tonight and look around, walk around New York City, or wherever it is that you live,” said Klinenberg. “And start to see these things and realize that it belongs to a bigger class of things that we could invest in or not.”