This morning on one of my almost-every-day walks, I followed one of my more usual paths down Willow Street to Shoreline. Passing Alameda Hospital from across the street, I noticed a small pile of papers scattered on the ground. As I strode by I began to wonder about the papers and what I had found so unusual about them when it occurred to me that their very presence on the side of the road was what made them stand out.
“That’s not like Alameda,” I thought. “This city does not litter.”
For the rest of the walk I checked the sidewalk and roadway and the grassy verges and, as I thought, it was remarkably clean. Of course there are always bits of paper or plastic or other debris of modern life around, but surprisingly little. Now, my standards were set in New York City in the forties and fifties, before anti-litter laws and before Curb Your Dog became important to the denizens there, so I may be judging from a biased basis. But I think not.
When crossing the bridges into Alameda, the cleanliness of the city forms a background that’s decidedly different from the towns and cities that surround us and it set me to thinking. One of the tenets of good policing advocated by Bill Bratton (the ex-police chief of New York and Los Angeles among others and coming soon to a city very near you) is to have no tolerance for even little misdemeanors. Notably, if you fix broken windows and pick up trash and crime will go down the tenets say. There may even be a kernel of truth to that but I think it starts at the wrong end.
Now, if everyone had a nice home (or at least some home) and a way to earn money to pay for it, then I believe broken windows would be quickly repaired and litter would never appear. Where people have the means of building a life they take pride in their surroundings. Where they do not, their surroundings become a way of expressing their displeasure with their circumstances. To show respect, one must be respected. To keep a clean city, people have to feel invested in its cleanliness even if only as a way to maintain and increase their own property values.
We are indeed fortunate to live in a place where people care about their surroundings. Where people obviously don’t, judging by litter and broken windows only, the problems are deeper than “inherent messiness.” They go all the way to social circumstances. In order to clean up the streets, hold meaningful job fairs and mortgage marathons. Until people are invested in their lives with something to show for it, anti-litter campaigns are meaningless.