If there was one achievement that symbolized the accomplishments Rudy Giuliani achieved in New York during his years as mayor, it was the drastic reduction in the graffiti that had previously defaced so much of the city. The effort to get rid of this form of vandalism was part of the “Broken Windows” strategy in which the police endeavored to stop the spread of behavior that engendered the feeling of neglect and decay that caused so many New Yorkers to believe there was no alternative to tolerating high crime rates.
But while graffiti has been held in check, if not eliminated in New York, such vandalism appears to be undergoing a revival of sorts in numerous cities around the country. In reporting on this trend, the New York Times asks whether this is being caused by the economic downturn or the increasing acceptance of graffiti as “art” in an era of debased standards. But the answer to the newspaper’s question may be something altogether different.
The Times claims the spread of graffiti in smaller cities such as Santa Monica, California, Portland, Oregon and Nashville, Tennessee (even as the practice is still kept in check in larger urban areas), may be a function of the growing rate of unemployment. This argument seems to be a rehash of the old adage about idle hands being the devil’s workshop. Others point to the glamorization of graffiti by an art world that has embraced a form of vandalism as a part of pop culture.
But the answer may have less to do with unemployment or the twisted taste of hip hop culture than it does with police policies. In those cities where anti-graffiti task forces have been cut, the defacement of public and private property goes up. While statistics indicate that violent crime has not increased, those areas where disrepair and despair are made manifest by the spread of graffiti may inevitably see a reversal of those figures.
While art fashions may come and go, the spread of vandalism can have only one meaning–decline. While the economic downturn is causing hardship in many areas, those cities that wish to avoid a return to the crime waves of the 1980s need to heed the lessons of “Broken Windows.” Those who fail to do so will pay a steep price–not just in the cost of clean ups.