Croydon and the Broken Windows Theory

(*) The article is based on the story of a contemporary art gallery recently opened at 7-9 St George’s Walk, Croydon . Rise Gallery_ http://rise-gallery.co.uk .

 In 1969 Philip Zimbardo, professor at Stanford University (US), carried out an experiment in social psychology. He took two identical cars – same colour, same brand, same accessories – and left them unattended in two areas, the first known for crime and poverty [ Bronx, NYC] and the second for order and wealth [Palo Alto, California]. What happened highlights the kind of reaction an abandoned object  may trigger unconsciously in human minds. The car left in the Bronx was in few hours stripped of its most expensive parts: engine, wheels, radio, and everything at the time was easy to take away. Then a beating game started: the windows were broken, the body thrashed, and in the meantime some dogs lifted their leg to wet with a few drops that metal skeleton consumed by hatred and destruction. This might easily lead to the conclusion that crime, poverty and vandalism walk side by side amicably and travel together the dark road to perdition.

However, what happened in Palo Alto belies this certainty, which is often taken as such for lack of attention, or perhaps just for an irresistible desire to find a logical answer based on a univocal correspondence between cause and effect. In Palo Alto, the car remained untouched for a week; no one approached it until the team that was monitoring the experiment decided to break one of the car windows and observe the Palo Alto inhabitants’ possible reaction. Surprisingly the response of the Bronx’s residents occurred with exactly the same features in a quarter known for its calm and quiet wealth. The car was first robbed of its expensive parts and then destroyed.

How this repetition of behavioural evidence in two very different contexts may be explained? It might be thought that the place we live in, the place that surrounds us and follows the rhythms of our lives – or perhaps it is us who follow the rhythms of the place/city – is substantially not a void with no effect on us, but rather a full that transforms and shapes human beings. It is true that if the window in Palo Alto were not intentionally broken, the car probably would still lie there intact, but the answer to a lack of care – a simple broken glass – has provoked on a unconscious level a behaviour that only imitate and support negligence.

We might now imagine to repeat the experiment in Croydon [London], a place that shows scars of inattention in every corner of its face. The two cars might be placed in two quite dissimilar urban landscapes : the first in front of one of the many shopping centres that born, grow and after twenty years are replaced by new ones, the other in a semi-covered walkway called St George’s Walk, built in the 70s and today crossed only by few skaters and some temerarious passers-by who populate the semi-empty low cost shops of this urban stripe. The story of Palo Alto and the Bronx would have a good chance to be narrated again. However, it may happen that the car left at the St George’s Walk would be noticed by Someone before its destruction process would take place. A patient hand aware of the potential of the setting where the car lies, might see it as a stimulus for good intentions and not a mere unwanted object. This hand may decide to paint the car, to turn it into a work of art, to imagine it as something that at the moment is not. Someone might give the car a new identity and see a value in what others consider an atrocity. Man has stopped imagining a world different from the one he sees; if we ourselves would be able to recognise the quality of things beyond what society tries to impose with acknowledged standards, then we might think that our place in this world is something we choose; we decide what to be surrounded by and what we want to see or not. The care of a simple gesture may encourage other hands to imitate respect rather than indifference. The car may not only transform its role from innocent victim to protagonist of the scene, but it might even save the fate of its surroundings, the life of the St George’s Walk.

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