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In N.J. Town, Cleanliness and Lawfulness Go Together : Ordinance: Prospect Park embraces consensus that well-kept homes and lawns can deter crime.

November 05, 1995|MALCOLM GLADWELL | WASHINGTON POST

PROSPECT PARK, N.J. — It is Friday morning and Dave Heerema is making his rounds in a pickup truck, slowing to wave at friends and providing a running commentary on the houses, lawns and sidewalks of this small suburban borough.

Look at that yellow clapboard house where the paint is peeling, for example.

"They'll be fixing that soon," he says. "It's a woman in her 90s. I gave her some time and she got the money together."

Up the hill, he pauses before another success story, a brick house on the corner with a neatly mowed lawn.

"This was a divorce case," he says. "The woman there was living alone and she had dandelions a foot high. I cited them and nothing happened. Finally, I sent a letter saying, 'I'm going to send someone over to assess your taxes.' "

In the anxious 1990s, when suburban homeowners see their safety and well-being under constant threat, quality of life has become an obsession of municipal governments. In this corner of northern New Jersey in the last year, Raritan has passed an ordinance banning swearing, Woodcliff Lake barred unsportsmanlike conduct at sporting events, North Arlington banned skateboarding on public property, Ridgewood made it illegal to have "noxious" weeds taller than 10 inches and Prospect Park, as of May, moved Dave Heerema from half time to full time.

He patrols this small middle-class town of 5,000, taking Polaroids of all he finds unacceptable. He issues tickets for trash in the back yard. He warns people who don't mow their lawn or paint their porch.

His tools are longstanding town ordinances governing upkeep of houses and lawns, passed years ago when Prospect Park was primarily a conservative enclave of Dutch immigrants. Recently, as the town experienced substantial turnover and more absentee landlords and lower-income renters, enforcement became an issue.

Lawn and paint ordinances might sound trivial. But there is growing consensus among law enforcement experts and city planners that crime is deterred as much by cleanliness and public order as by police patrols and bars on windows.

William Bratton began his tenure as New York City police commissioner two years ago by cracking down on public urination, aggressive panhandling and graffiti. Last year, in what Bratton claimed was no coincidence, the murder rate dropped 37%. Since Bratton took over, overall crime is down 27%.

In Prospect Park, where this idea has been embraced with almost religious fervor, Heerema drives three blocks over into neighboring Paterson, one of New Jersey's poorest and most crime-plagued cities. On a street otherwise identical to Prospect Park, there are houses with overgrown weeds, peeling paint and trash-strewn lawns.

"It's obvious there is no enforcement here. People move to Prospect Park to get out of Paterson," he says.

"If we didn't enforce things like the lawn ordinance," said Prospect Park Mayor Al Marchitto, "what would happen is that the people who do care would have to get out. They would say, 'We can't live here.' And the people who did come in would be the people who didn't care. We have a clean, quiet, respectable community here, and we want to keep it that way."

The connection between things like well-kept lawns and crime is what sociologists call the "broken window" hypothesis, which says one broken window invites others because it creates an environment where no one cares. Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford University psychologist, tested this theory 25 years ago, by placing two identical cars in Palo Alto and the Bronx. The car in the Bronx had no license plates and was parked with its hood up. Within a day, it was stripped. The car in Palo Alto sat untouched for a week. Then Zimbardo smashed a window. Within hours, it was destroyed.

There is obviously much more to crime prevention than streets free of graffiti and unsightly weeds. But there was a time police departments and communities considered crime a deep-rooted and implacable social phenomenon. If picking up trash and mowing lawns can make even a small difference, it suggests criminals respond to their immediate environments. They take advantage of situations that seem to invite deviance. And communities that enforce a standard of public order can discourage criminal activity.

It must be said that Prospect Park has always been safer than Paterson, traditionally much poorer, blue-collar and urban. But the issue for this community is retaining a quality of life as Paterson has steadily gone downhill.

Heerema stops the truck, pointing to an immaculate white house, with a kempt lawn and freshly painted fence.

"A Puerto Rican guy lives there," he says, before delivering what to him--and Prospect Park--is the ultimate compliment. "He's real fussy."

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