Sunday, August 21, 2011

Dressing the wounds with paint.

My suspicion is that the majority of the readers here have at least a vague knowledge of the Broken Windows Theory, and how it can apply across a variety of social contexts. For the unacquainted, it’s simple: an inanimate object showing signs of neglect or a general lack of maintenance invites the further degeneration of its own physical condition, because the perpetrators causing further damage safely assume that the lack of stewardship will preclude any consequence to acts of vandalism. In short, if a building lets a single broken window remain unrepaired for long, in due time all the windows will end up broken. Shattering glass, is quick, easy, and usually anonymous; for those seeking a deviant outlet, it’s hard to think of a better option. Even graffiti—probably the next most popular means of exemplifying the Broken Window Theory—still requires the procurement of a certain object, the spray paint can, which investigators could easily trace to the perpetrator. Breaking a window can involve anything one finds on the ground. So in a structure perceived to be abandoned or long ignored, the windows are usually the first to go, then the graffiti artists tag it, and before long, thieves have most likely plundered it of all its copper.

Only a few large American cities are lacking in a certain district with a high concentration of abandoned structures. In some, the abandonment is relegated to the most disinvested areas; others are replete with them across the entire city limits. All too often, the diminished tax base that arises from a collection of unused buildings robs the city leaders of the best tools for tackling blight and abandonment, whether in the form of demolishing the most neglected buildings, restoring them, or—as is often the case—“securing” them by boarding up those windows. Plywood boards are frequently the first line of defense: they’re cheap, they effectively deter window breakers, and they pose a barrier for burglars. But they’re ugly, by most people’s perceptions. And they flag a structure as abandoned far more boldly than those without the boards; a building is obviously abandoned even from a distance if the windows are boarded, far more so even than if they’re uncovered and most are shattered.

And boarded windows essentially serve as a promotional canvas for graffiti artists. Already flagged as abandoned, the boards encourage those already enticed by delinquency to leave a mark on a hardened shell that is by this point reasonably impenetrable. A talented graffiti artist may create a breathtaking display on the side of the building, but the market tells us that graffito-strewn areas generally suffer far lower property values than those that lack it. (A more sociological assessment would surely reveal that it’s a chicken/egg dilemma, and the concomitant social problems in low income areas encourage abandonment and thus attract graffiti.) Regardless of the origins, securing vacant buildings with plywood may result in a stalemate: the boards amplify as many of the visual consequences of deviant behavior as they deflect.

Some communities have attempted other outlets at staving off blight by providing at least a rudimentary level of stewardship to their abandoned buildings beyond plywood. Camden, New Jersey is a city that, after decades of deindustrialization, has suffered far more disinvestment and abandonment than most, along with a heavily impoverished tax base that often stymies the City from being able to fund blight management. The image below reveals what I suspect is a civic-led initiative to mitigate the eyesore effect of those boards.

The photo comes from the neighborhood center of Fairview, the southernmost part of Camden. Three story multi-family housing surrounds a central park-like square in which I’m standing, flanked by first-floor retail at the corners (seen on the left in this photo). Despite the obvious signs of disinvestment, Fairview is still a curiosity in Camden: it was originally conceived in the 1910s as Yorkship Village, a carefully planned community of curvilinear streets, abundant shared green space, an inward-turning and self-sustaining neighborhood character, and a reasonable price range for its architecturally uniform rowhouses (and the occasional detached home). In short, it was a prototype for the Garden City, modeled after Ebenezer Howard’s conception that came to fruition in the form of Letchworth and Welwyn workers' communities in the UK just a few years prior. The Garden City movement never grew beyond a curious experiment on either side of the pond, but the surviving examples remain interesting footnotes to urban planners and scholars, while certain features to Garden Cities like Yorkship Village/Fairview have retained their cogency as manifested in the design of some suburban apartment blocks or Traditional Neighborhood Development (New Urbanist) projects across the country.

As Camden began sinking into a seemingly ineluctable economic decline caused by rapid deindustrialization in the mid-1900s, Fairview managed to hold its own for decades as a stable working class and lower middle class enclave. Cut off from the rest of the city by both an interstate highway and a creek, the only way for vehicles to reach Fairview was through the economically healthier city of Gloucester City to the south. As our tour guide told us from her experience growing up in the 1950s and 60s, it was like Mayberry—an analogy so popular that no further explanation is needed. Fortunes changed for Fairview in the 1980s, when the City of Camden built a bridge across the north branch of the Newton Creek, connecting it to the rest of the city. The City of Camden also absorbed Fairview into its school district. Previously, Fairview’s children had attended Gloucester City public schools; at the stroke of a pen, the city leadership shepherded Fairview’s student population into one of the worst performing districts in the state. The desirability of Fairview immediately plummeted—attributable more, I suspect, to the shifting school district than the construction of the bridge—and the community’s residents began selling their homes en masse. Within just a few years, this previously overwhelmingly white community with little poverty came to mirror the demographics and socioeconomics of the rest of Camden. The result is the same widespread abandonment visible throughout the rest of the city, seen in a photo below where I pivoted slightly to the right from the prior one:

Fairview remains one of highest-income census tracts in Camden, despite the fact that its socioeconomics place it significantly below the New Jersey average. A fair number of homes in Fairview may be boarded up, but few have been demolished. Virtually none are in danger of collapse. The same cannot be said of elsewhere in the city, which I featured in a blog post long ago. The rest of Camden ranks consistently as both the most crime-ridden and impoverished city in New Jersey as well as one of the worst in the country. Abandonment is everywhere; tall grass waves across the copious fields where much of the housing stock is already long abandoned.

These pictures are by now fairly old, taken about eight years ago. But Camden’s rank as a socioeconomic cellar dweller prevails. And though I haven’t visited Fairview in as many years, I suspect its status as Camden’s “healthiest” neighborhood endures as well. As superficial as it may seem, those painted boards on the first floor windows of the building at Fairview’s town center provide ample evidence: it’s the only place in a city replete with plywood where some agent has made the effort to spruce them up. It very well have been the Fairview Historic Society, the agency that provided us with a tour of the town and the anecdotes; it could have been a church group; it may be the product of an initiative from an independent activist. I don’t know what these buildings look like now, but at the time of these photos, the disinvestment in Fairview appeared far more recoverable than elsewhere in Camden: fewer broken windows, less graffiti, minimal structural compromise of the sort that would necessitate demolition. Though still distressed by most measurements, Fairview is indisputable less blighted than most of the rest of Camden. One could perhaps argue that Fairview declined much later than the rest of Camden; it’s still slightly better off and not yet visibly beyond hope of improvement, so of course the appearance is better. But abandonment can age structures remarkably quickly, and the twenty years or so that Fairview has ceased attracting middle class families is more than enough time for vandals to have broken the windows and plundered the interior piping. The painted boards here aren’t much. Many of them simply and crudely mimic what the windows would portray if the rooms inside still had inhabitants: flowers in vases, air conditioner window units, perched cats, people staring back out. But Fairview has a few more pairs of eyes and hands that are voluntarily keeping it afloat. Its unique configuration as a Garden City prototype may not have been enough to salvage it from its host municipality’s decline, but it would be hard to argue that it remains the neighborhood in Camden most likely to enjoy a renaissance.

One other city featured in this article that has attempted to minimize the impact of its abandonment through a brush and acrylics has fought back from a completely different hostile force—not deindustrialization, but the natural fury of a hurricane. Long Beach, Mississippi sits on the Gulf Coast, just east of the much larger and better-known cities of Gulfport and Biloxi. It has hosted a satellite campus of the University of Southern Mississippi, with a number of structures just feet from the beach.

The Category 3 & 4 winds and the storm surge induced by Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the Mississippi Coast, the other regional victim of a catastrophe in which New Orleans’ fate dominated international press coverage. The Gulf Coast didn’t marinate in floodwaters for weeks on end, the way New Orleans did; the overwhelming majority of the damage occurred overnight, so that recovery could begin within days. But the irrecoverable losses on the coast may actually be more severe: while many homes in New Orleans could be refurbished after they had been gutted and treated for mold, only foundations remained for a considerable number of Mississippi structures.

This Administration Building fared better than many other directly fronting the shore in Long Beach. Regardless of whether it is structurally intact, it is still standing. Though new buildings have risen since the storm, the majority of the Long Beach campus remains unrestored. Since this photo series was taken in June of this year, almost six years after Katrina—by veteran photographer Nici English—it is clear that the admin building has not been a demolition priority for the university. Plans to renovate it may be pending: though weathered looking, it does not show any indications that it is of eminent danger of collapse. And each one of the boards on the windows has a unique painting—though none are a surefire successor to Matisse, some show at least a moderately high level of skill and time commitment.

Similar to the apartment building in Camden where only the first-floor windowboards received artistic attention, only the front side of the USM Admin Building received a paint job; on one of the other sides, the windows are unsealed.

Like the building in Camden, few, if any, of the windows are broken—graffiti is nowhere to be seen. Long Beach is not an epicenter of deindustrialization the way Camden is, which means that the social ills that often elicit vandalism and other deviant behavior are not looming large in Long Beach the way they are in New Jersey’s poorest city. But graffiti can appear in a moderately unattended building in a cozy, affluent suburb just as easily as a community plagued by poverty or natural disaster; an intruder can break a window in an occupied house. But both criminal acts are more likely to occur on property that is unmonitored, even if only temporarily. The painting of boards on windows, though hardly a panacea to blight, provides a much-needed stamp of stewardship that may repel vandals from a building’s unbroken windows the way cedar repels moths from wool.