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Valley Perspective

Recognizing That Our Neighborhoods Belong to Us

Ownership makes us responsible for fixing problems

December 08, 1996

At first blush, the stories of three women planting flowers in Reseda and of police officers fighting crime in North Hills might not seem related. But they are. Both demonstrate that the problems facing communities from San Fernando to Westlake Village can be much less daunting when neighbors and public officials work together to solve them, when residents take back responsibility for their neighborhoods. The women with their spades and the cops with their badges are starting to fix the broken windows of crime and apathy.

For more than a year, three women have made regular weekend trips to the center median of Sherman Way in a part of Reseda politely described as "in decline," but perhaps more accurately characterized by one of the women as "crappy." They are trying to change that. Their flowers may not make much of a difference, but they are a start. By spending weekends hunched over a dirty median, inches from traffic, the women claim their neighborhood as their own. They plant hope with every bloom.

A few miles away in North Hills, uniformed Los Angeles police officers are restoring hope to a single square mile where drug dealers and thieves ran practically unchecked. After a month of special round-the-clock patrols, police reported a 40% drop in crime. How much of that criminal activity was simply swept to another neighborhood is not certain, but the message is: Crooks don't like being watched. When police return to normal patrols, the watching will fall to the residents--who, like the women from Reseda, must take responsibility for their neighborhoods.

Granted, there is a difference between planting flowers and shooing away thugs. But not much of one. If North Hills residents want a neighborhood where they can walk down the street without fear, they need to do it themselves. UCLA professor James Q. Wilson described this notion of community-based policing in a 1982 article with the simple title "Broken Windows." Wilson's theory, adopted by police departments from New York to Los Angeles, argues that the problems of a neighborhood evolve slowly over time and are largely the products of inattention and apathy.

He likened the situation to broken windows that go unrepaired. It sends the message that no one cares, that it's acceptable to break more. Wilson wrote: "The citizen who fears the ill-smelling drunk, the rowdy teenager or the importuning beggar is not merely expressing his distaste for unseemly behavior; he is also giving voice to a bit of folk wisdom that happens to be a correct generalization--namely, that serious street crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked. The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window."

Often, the first broken window is the hardest to fix. Residents in many neighborhoods across the San Fernando Valley have become accustomed to living under a tyranny of fear. Standing up to a punk in a neighborhood where criminals rule the night can be a fatal mistake. That's when cooperation with police is critical to turn the tide. But the countless other neighborhoods that teeter on the edge are where residents can make the most difference--whether by painting over graffiti or by reporting suspicious visitors or simply by knowing the neighbor kid's parents.

The obligation of citizenship--in the broadest sense of the word--is responsibility. Our neighborhoods belong to us. If our neighborhoods have problems, they are our problems. Until we take responsibility for fixing them, they will only get worse.

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