Broken windows

After finishing Robert Caro and Jane Jacobs’s masterpieces on city life recently, I went back to some notes I had scribbled down a few years ago that I vaguely remembered. It’s a little anecdote: I was at St. Thomas Aquinas in South Philadelphia, in a meeting with the pastor of the parish there. It was 2012 and we were talking about a vision for this great Catholic parish to become a beacon for renewal in that part of the city.

I had mentioned James Wilson’s broken window theory in the course of the conversation and that prompted the pastor to recall a story from earlier in his life. This is what I had written down from his memories:

It was the early 1980s, and I was at a parish that was closing. The Sisters were due to move out of the convent at the end of the week. A group of boys came up to me, and asked me: “What day are the Sisters moving out?” “Friday,” I told them. “And what time are they moving out on Friday?” “Why do you want to know?” I asked.

After some hemming and hawing, one of the boys explained: “We want to be the first ones to break the windows of the building. If we don’t do it, the other guys in the neighborhood will, and so we’d at least like to be able to break them first. But we can’t do it while the Sisters are still around.”

The sisters left. The windows were broken.

I wonder what that neighborhood is like today. This is a real world example of the validity of the broken windows idea. In this case, there was a place literally consecrated by religious and symbolizing authority in the neighborhood. When that light went out, so did the sanctity of the place.

A light that remains lit can be a powerful symbol. This is true even if it’s lighting an empty husk of what once was and in the hope of attracting what might be, rather than what it presently is.