Broken Windows: Rants of a broken-hearted citizen

broken windows
Trash piling up on a city green space. Photo Credit: Mike Chartrand

The combination of the sun’s warm touch and the soft caress of “la briza” makes most of us long for our hammocks.. just another one of the pleasures of the “costeño” life. Barranquilla is the kind of city you can easily fall in love with, which really means you learn to enjoy it despite the bad things. As much as I’m grateful and loving of the magical moments this city gives us, some daily situations still manage to break my heart.

Across my next few articles, I’m going to bring up some things nobody wants to hear because I think they’re important. My opinion is based on my experience of this culture and my knowledge of the situation within the city, and the sole purpose of bringing this up is to create awareness of those things that can be improved to ensure our culture grows positively and to give future generations a better life.

It’s likely that some of these topics don’t apply to all of you; but it’s nevertheless important to keep them in your thoughts.

Barranquilla: The City of Broken Windows

When I was a child, adults kept me out of the conversation by saying they were talking about things that “only grownups talk about,” and whatever they said went over my head, so it took me a long time to realize what it was that they talked about back then. It turns out it wasn’t sex because that is more of a teenage theme as I discovered myself, later, but instead, politics, and more often than not, they spoke about the terrible case of corruption, insecurity, fear and the lack of fraternity we were dealing with back then. As an adult, I realize now the issues haven’t changed much in 20 years. We’ve grown up some, and we better understand our realities now but it’s clear that the same challenges are re-occurring.

The situation the city faces can be compared to the theory of broken windows. James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling did an experiment in 1982, which consisted of placing two identical cars with no plates in two different neighborhoods. The goal was to see whether the class of a neighborhood had an impact on people’s behavior. What they found was quite interesting.

The first car was parked in a poor neighborhood with a high crime rate and as expected, after just a few minutes, the car was broken into and people robbed from it’s interior. As time went by, people kept stealing and damaging the vehicle, making its condition increasingly worse day by day.

The second car meanwhile was the same model and color as the first but was abandoned in a “better” neighborhood. A week passed without incident; no-one damaged or bothered the car in any way. So, the investigators decided to break a window to see what would happen. Incredibly, just that small amount of damage tilted the scale of morality and in no time at all, people began abusing the car, stealing from it, scratching it and so on. Even people who appeared ‘respectable’ and harmless were negatively engaged.

Their conclusions? People are more likely to behave poorly if they are in an area or situation which they perceive to be run-down or derelict:

“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a street. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.”

“Repair the broken windows within a short time, say, a day or a week, and the tendency is that vandals are much less likely to break more windows or do further damage. Clean up the sidewalk every day, and the tendency is for litter not to accumulate (or for the rate of littering to be much less). Problems are less likely to escalate and thus “respectable” residents do not flee the neighborhood.” – Wikipedia

It seems like most of us were born in a city with broken windows, where dirty corners aren’t cleaned but are instead filled with more dirt, dark alleys are abandoned rather than brightened and so on. We prefer to be able to pay corrupt cops than act according to the law because we know that is one of the many windows that are broken in “our advantage.” We are a culture of nepotists; we’d rather a friend got us into a company than have a fair competition and work for it.  We’d rather buy cheap and sell overpriced. We expect the bus to stop and let us off wherever we want regardless the traffic, but we curse if we are the ones driving behind it. We celebrate other’s loss if it means our personal gain. This is what we call the “rosca” that we both love and hate.

Does this sort of thing happen in other countries? Perhaps. But that doesn’t in any way free us from our responsibilities. You might say your windows are fine. Perhaps. But that doesn’t in any way remove the guilt. Our city is broken and it’s up to us all to fix it, together.

HOW? The solution is one of the people using the system. We’re all in command of the change and none of us have to wait for some higher power to resolve things for us. Earlier this year the city pushed forward a campaign to try to keep the city clean during Carnaval and indeed, afterwards, Triple A collected 11 tons of garbage less than last year.

Hopefully, we can continue the trend of reducing the waste without the need for all the environmental campaigns. From keeping the streets clean to the way we line-up to buy groceries at the supermarket, we should all assume responsibility for the culture of which we are so proud. It’s not about the ones who don’t care. We cannot focus on the bad; it’s about those who do care and do things the right way, setting an example. If we fix the majority of the windows then maybe one day in the not so distant future, nobody will dare to tear our city apart.