Saturday, August 21, 2010

Community Politics

It seems that wherever dogs and people come together there is controversy. The politics have gotten a bit tense in my neck of the woods.

I'm not sure when this whole situation started. I've been aware of it since last March. From my vantage point, the current recipe for disaster involves the following ingredients: there is a group of people with well mannered dogs who like to walk their dog without a leash in an open field along our neighborhood reservoir. There are people who are not from the neighborhood who do not have well mannered (or well trained!) dogs who like to walk their dogs without a leash. Still others have well mannered dogs who walk on leashes. There is a local community action committee president that appears not to like people who walk their dogs without leashes very much (regardless of leash status). 

Combine these three ingredients, stir, and you get a whole lot of trouble.

As I talk with neighbors I hear stories of other neighbors taking pictures of people and their dogs and sending it to the police. I hear that those pictures are presented along with a citation to dog owners on their front porch by the police. I've received letters (which all neighbors have received) warning of the leash law and stating that if there are repeated violations dogs may be confiscated. Yours truly, the irreverent psychologist, nearly went off the deep end today when he noticed he was getting his picture taken while playing with his dog on a leash.

What's most sad about this whole situation is that in general, the people arguing about the people walking dogs without a leash and the people who are walking dogs without a leash are the people who spend the most time caring for the reservoir. Both groups of people spend time at the reservoir walking, clearing away litter, and building a community garden. With this controversy neighbors start to distrust neighbors. Many have started walking their dogs elsewhere. 

The results of this? At first nothing. The change was imperceptible. Many still walk their dogs. A few dedicated gardeners still work the soil and coax magnificent plants to blossom. However right under the surface, the steady march of urban decay started back up. The trash, as you can see on the right, is really starting to pile up. The images is what Maggie and I gathered on two sequential mornings while walking. 
With groups of neighbors (often with dogs) no longer gathering at the top of the reservoir to watch the sunset I started noticing larger and larger groups of teens gathering. This isn't a problem in-and-of-itself. However, without the presence of adults, the teens started feeling that the reservoir was a good place to be unsupervised. They bring blankets, beer, and condoms. I find the remains of their adventures in the morning when I'm walking Maggie. Every week I find just a little bit more garbage. 

Of course teens partied at the reservoir when there were more neighbors enjoying the park. Teens (and adults) still left behind litter. It is just that it was more controlled when the younger folks though that they might be noticed. They knew this was a community that was cared for and were likely to care for it themselves. 

With the arrival of more young people and the litter they left behind, I started noticing a steady increase of dog poop underfoot. It took me awhile to understand this. Less dog walkers should mean less dog poop. I finally figured it out a few days ago. There are less responsible dog walkers (with leashes, or without) who are picking up after their dog. Some of those people were also picking up after other dogs, but there is something even more powerful at play. With less responsible dog owners, there is less role modeling. Those that remain walking their dogs (ironically, with leashes) are the ones most likely to leave dog poop behind. 

As urban decay has marched on the problems have increased. Every day there is more litter, more dog poop, more graffiti (I've been noticing more swastikas and such), more remainders of drug deals, and more reports of crime.

I shouldn't be all that surprised. Since 1982 social scientists have spoken about the notion of the broken windows theory. The main idea, taken from the original article, is this:
  • 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 sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.

The theory explains itself by three main points. The urban environment (well cared for, or in disrepair) applies influence with three major factors: social norms and conformity; the presence or lack of monitoring; and social signaling and signal crime. What does this mean? The norms of the community greatly influence the behaviors of those who enter it (picking up dog poop vs. not; leaving litter behind versus collecting it and disposing it; stopping to have conversations with neighbors versus ignoring them). Having neighbors who mention "do you need a bag to pick up that poop" applies powerful influence to other neighbors demonstrating that they are being monitored--when monitored people are more likely to conform to social normals. Signal crimes are those that make people generally feel that there is a possibility they are unsafe (graffiti, vandalism, etc.). 

The irony here is that this neighborhood was once the site of an experiment conducted by researchers at Harvard and Suffolk Universities. They looked at the concept of the broken window theory and recorded if there were differences in neighborhoods that received extra attention versus those that did not. The theory was supported by the research and calls to the police dropped nearly 20 percent. 

So what is my point here? My point is this: communities are living breathing creatures that need to be cared for and nurtured. It's so sad to watch neighbors close down, turn inward, and stop relating to each other. The community suffers and the neighborhood starts marching a little closer toward urban decay. 

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