Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Trashing the Neighborhood

At last night's UML discussion series, Elaine Pantano (Riverside Community Council) and Anne-Marie Page (Centralville Neighborhood Action Group) spoke about the problem of public dumping in Lowell. Mrs. Pantano focused mainly on the Felton St. area in her neighborhood, while Mrs. Page focused on the 1st Street area near her home in Centralville.

Many suggestions were thrown out as to how to solve the problem. Among them were signs reminding or imploring people not to dump bulky waste in these areas (in the absence of an available junkyard, these outdoor spots have taken on the de facto role), announced video surveillance (real or not), and transforming the spots themselves to make them less dumper-friendly.

One point held in agreement among all was a sort of "broken windows" variant, whereby if people see that an area is being used as a public dumping ground, they might be encouraged to partake in the dumping themselves; however, people are way less likely to dump in a pristine area. Therefore, neighborhood clean-ups, temporary band-aid they might be, are somewhat helpful in stemming the problem.

I definitely drank the Kool-Aid on that one -- personal observation tells me that as the overall messiness level of my car interior rises, the chance that I'll find stray soda cans and candy wrappers left behind by passengers increases proportionally.

Prof. Berkowitz spoke about transforming the areas themselves, stating that the presence of a well-maintained public garden could make dumping an 'incompatible response.' Even though that may sound hokey to some (after all, why is a law-breaker going to care about petunias and tulips?) he offered anecdotal evidence to support the idea -- at Gillette Stadium, a ring of flowers is used as an effective "moat" of sorts to keep folks who don't belong on the field off of it. A Psychology Professor, Prof. Berkowitz gave compelling support to the idea by talking about a natural human reluctance to destroy something like a flowerbed.

My one contribution to the debate came from something a resident said to Chief Lavallee at the last LDNA meeting -- research supports the idea that a sign with a depiction of a human eye and the words 'You are Being Watched' (regardless of those words' veracity) is the single best dollar-for-dollar crime deterrent. Especially for the 'reconciliables' -- those who dump bulky goods illegally for convenience but still have a conscience (and a fear of John Law!) I think this idea might make a ton of sense.

The next UML discussion series will be next Tuesday in Room 205 at Coburn Hall, 7:00-8:30. The leader of the Lower Highlands Neighborhood Group, Taya Dixon Mullane, will talk about social capital and trust. Also, rumor has it that Kathleen Marcin, President of LDNA, may be speaking about the Good Neighbor Initiative, which bears relation to FDR's Latin American policy in name only.

If for no other reason, I recommend checking one of these out because these discussion are very practical and solution-focused. Even as the conversation drifts in and out of a few separate threads, Prof. Berkowitz moderates them to come back to the key question: "Okay, what's our proposal to solve this? What concrete solutions are we proposing?"

As any reader of this blog knows, I like to contrast policymaking (very hard) to spitball throwing (very easy). But as Sam Rayburn, legendary former Democratic U.S. House Speaker from Texas put it in much more colorful terms, "Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one."

I don't know where I'm *eventually* headed, but I'm quite sure I'd rather be a carpenter than a jackass.


C R Krieger said...


I have seen reports that the "broken window" theory is full of holes, but the fact is, my experience tells me that an outfit with slipping spaces is a sloppy outfit.  In Army terms, "check out the motorpool."  I am with you on this one.  On the other hand, I have class on Tuesday.  Please keep posting on this.

Regards  —  Cliff

The New Englander said...


Yeah, I know Levitt and Dubner kind of dismissed broken windows pretty glibly in 'Freakonomics.' And I'm sure there are other challenges out there, but based on my own experience and observation, broken windows (or variants thereof) makes tons of sense. People are just a lot less skittish about trashing something that's already in bad shape.

I'll have to remember the "check on the motorpool" line and the other old Army standbys...and I'll stand by for pay docking everytime I confuse 'bed' with 'rack' and 'latrine' with 'head.'