Columns
2:51 pm
Tue October 21, 2003

Wally Bock - Walking Shakespeare

Wally has noticed some things while walking his Basset Hound, Shakespeare.

Wilmington NC – [Click the LISTEN button to hear Wally's commentary.]

Shakespeare the Bassett leads me on walks around Wilmington at various times during the day.

When you're out dog walking you notice a lot of different things because your mind is free to roam. But there's one thing you almost always notice. Some folks clean up after their dogs and some don't.

I spotted one young man walking away from a pile his dog had left and offered him one of the bags I carry for clean-up purposes. He declined. After all, he lectured me, "It just makes sense not to clean up after my dog. It's messy and smelly. And there's plenty of places he can go next time." Philosophers and systems theorists might call this "The Tragedy of the Commons." I call it "The Rule of Doggie Deposits."

If we all act like my young friend, after a while there are little doggie piles everywhere and what used to be a nice place to walk isn't so nice anymore. The wonderful clean space we started with becomes messy, smelly and awful.

If you want to be responsible, you should what your mother told you. Clean up after yourself and your dog.

Cleaning up does more than just make it easy to walk without looking down, keeping the neighborhood clean can also prevent crime. We've known this for at least twenty years, but very few communities have done much about it. One that did was New York City, with rather astounding results.

When Rudy Giuliani took over as Mayor of New York City, the generally accepted wisdom was that the city was essentially ungovernable and its crime was uncontrollable. Rudy disagreed.

By the time he left office, New York was one of the safest major cities on the planet. Mostly that happened by paying attention to an essay first published back in the early 1980s called "Broken Windows: the Police and Neighborhood Safety."

The essay was written by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, who said that, "at the community level, disorder and crime are inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence." The symbol of disorder was the broken window.

In neighborhoods where people care about each other and the neighborhood broken windows don't stay broken long. They get fixed. But let one broken window go un-repaired and it's soon joined by others. Things get worse. Start fixing the windows and things start to get better.

Kelling and Wilson also pointed out that, for most people, a confrontation with a drunk or a crowd of rowdy teenagers produces as much anxiety and fear as the prospect of meeting a robber. And where disreputable behavior is allowed to flourish, crime follows.

They suggested that paying attention to maintenance and disorderly behavior would have an effect on crime. Those were the tactics that worked in New York City. It meant paying attention to graffiti and maintenance and it meant enforcing the laws about rowdy behavior. Ultimately, it meant holding people like you and me accountable for our actions.

We don't do accountability and responsibility well any more. Instead of taking responsibility for our own mess and yards and neighborhoods, we've gotten very good at expecting some kind of magic to solve our problems for us.

We expect the government to do things for us. And we expect that even if we're not willing to do the work of citizens and study the issues and vote.

We expect some kind of magic pill or program to solve our problems for us. We want to take a pill to get rid of heartburn rather than even consider changing our diet or lifestyle. We look for the program that will let us lose weight without dieting or exercise.

And if all else fails, we can follow the new American way and sue anyone we think might be responsible for doing us ill, especially if they have really deep pockets. We don't take it out behind the barn anymore. Now we take it to court.

We can't have the benefits of a good life or neighborhood or nation unless we're willing to do our part. We can't expect to get by on the efforts of others and then be surprised when things turn out badly.

There is no magic. It's up to us. We can start with something as simple as picking up after the dog.

[An archive of Wally's transcripts is available at whqr.org/programs/postcards/archive.htm]