City streets

Friday, June 10, 2011

From Wikipedia: The broken windows theory is a criminological theory of the norm setting and signaling effects of urban disorder and vandalism on additional crime and anti-social behavior. The theory states that monitoring and maintaining urban environments in a well-ordered condition may prevent further vandalism as well as an escalation into more serious crime.

This is the philosophy adopted by Rudy Giuliani of New York City after he became mayor in the early 1990s. In a few short years, the image -- and the reality -- of that city's urban landscape changed for the better.

My daily four-mile walks include a stretch of Broadway and a longer part of Sprigg Street. Now that the days are longer, I am able to see many more details of the landscape in downtown Cape Girardeau. In the dark you can feel the uneven surfaces of the neglected city sidewalks. But with early daylight, you can see all the rest too.

I've tried to make a mental list of all the plants that have sprouted in recent days along Cape's streets. It is getting too long for my short memory. Scientists should figure out what makes sidewalk vegetation thrive. It could solve the world's hunger problem.

Daylight shows much more than the sidewalk weeds in downtown Cape. The sidewalks are heavily littered. One day last week a stretch of Broadway looked like the aftermath of a poorly supervised homecoming parade.

Litter of everything imaginable -- as well as some things you would just as soon not see -- is strewn everywhere. And it doesn't get cleaned up. Not by the property owner. Not by the tenants. And certainly not by the ghosts who occupy so many of downtown Cape's vacant buildings.

Then there is the debris from buildings that are literally falling down. How many sidewalks are going to be fenced off because of flying bricks? Goodness knows it makes sense to try to protect pedestrians in such situations, but some of those fences have been there for weeks or months. Is there no time limit for how long a decrepit building can be the cause for blocking off sidewalks?

There's one temporary barrier around what I imagine is an unsafe portion of sidewalk on Sprigg that has been there for years. A warped piece of plywood would easily give way if anyone stepped on it.

Cape Girardeau could benefit from a good dose of the broken window theory. A city that allows its downtown -- soon to be the main access for a million casino visitors a year -- to go to rot storefront by storefront is doomed to be the Cairo of tomorrow.

In all fairness, let me say a word of thanks to the downtown businesses that make an effort to keep their sidewalks clean of trash and litter. I know it's a daily battle.

Is this what we want for downtown Cape? More and more blight and eyesores?

I hope not.

Joe Sullivan is the retired editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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