Alex Webb

Editors' Note

Elizabeth Glazer and Greg Berman

October 25, 2022

What is “disorder”? And what should we do about it?

What is “disorder”? And what should we do about it?

“I know it when I see it,” wrote a Supreme Court justice famously when the court was wrestling with the challenge of defining obscenity. For many New Yorkers, the same might be said about the challenge of defining “disorder” or “quality of life.” This is not just an academic question. History suggests that how we define these terms, and thus what we do about the issues they present, will go a long way toward determining our city’s livability and maybe even its safety.

So what is “disorder”? And what should we do about it?

The category of “disorder” often jumbles together two very different kinds of behavior: the quotidian nuisances of city living, from littering to smoking on the subway, as well as public displays of deep distress, including homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness. This wide array of behavior elicits a sense of dread and insecurity in many, if not all, New Yorkers.

And in turn, this sense of dread provokes another set of questions. Is what we are seeing the symptom of fraying social bonds? The precursor to violence? Should the mango seller in the subway be arrested — is unlicensed mango-selling a short step from serious criminal behavior?

The category of “disorder” often jumbles together two very different kinds of behavior: the quotidian nuisances of city living, from littering to smoking on the subway, as well as public displays of deep distress, including homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness.

Or perhaps “disorder” is just a mask for obdurate racism? Our city has a hard history. All too often, disorder has been used as an excuse to police aggressively the behavior of Black New Yorkers. A beer on the stoop in Brownsville is far more likely to attract police attention than Chablis on the lawns in Central Park. In the early months of the pandemic, the lines of race and place were on full display as videos captured brutal differences between Black and white neighborhoods in the enforcement of the mask mandate. Still, it is also true that very few people, of any ethnicity or racial background, want to live in neighborhoods overwhelmed by trash-strewn lots or shoplifting or disorderly conduct.

Disorder is in the eye of the beholder. Perception matters deeply. Because even if it is just your “lyin’ eyes” and not hard reality, perception drives action. New York City experienced this truth to its detriment once before, in the 1970s. Then, the unhappy consequence was massive flight out of the city. And while that time is a far cry from today, it is a lesson that is hardwired into many city dwellers. The atmosphere of the city, whether reflected, as today, in toothpaste guarded under lock and key in drugstores like the treasures of Fort Knox, or, as then, in subway cars where windows were obscured by graffiti, can shape a city’s life course for better and for worse.

Litter is a different problem than mental illness, and the solutions that we employ to address them should be different in kind and in degree.

Unlike crime, which we can measure — however imperfectly — disorder defies an easy count. We measure littering — sort of — but not public urination or smoking on the subway or motorcycle noise in residential neighborhoods. Our counts of the homeless and those suffering from other social ills are imperfect at best. And the inability to measure disorder, combined with the large role that perception plays in understanding whether disorder is rampant or under control, means that we have a hard time knowing, really knowing, whether disorder is increasing or decreasing — or if it plays any role in causing crime.

And so we are left with this: litter is a different problem from mental illness, and the solutions that we employ to address each of them should be different in kind and in degree.

Unfortunately, our history suggests that we often conflate these problems. Whether we are talking about trash on the street or people sleeping in doorways, the specter of broken-windows policing haunts our responses to the quality of urban living.

"Broken windows" is perhaps the idea that most successfully crossed over from academic theory to public policy. Its gravitational pull is evident in our reflex today to go first to the police for the whole panoply of social distress we have bundled into “disorder.”

Promulgated by the academics George Kelling and James Q. Wilson in 1982 in an article in The Atlantic magazine, the broken windows theory posited that the physical dilapidation in city streets encourages crime — and that, over time, this criminal behavior will move from the minor to the more serious. Thus, to stop serious crime, you must pay attention to the little things.

This commonsense insight could have been a goad to implement a vigorous civic campaign that included greening lots, removing garbage, lighting dark places and filling public spaces with people and activity. All of these solutions, as Aaron Chalfin details in this issue of Vital City, are supported by the best science there is.

But this wasn’t the path taken.

Instead, the broken windows article helped to inaugurate several decades of intensive deployment of enforcement against people accused of low-level offenses, an enforcement style copied in police departments across the country. Misdemeanor arrests soared, as did the issuance of summonses and the use of “stop, question and frisk” tactics that a federal judge would ultimately rule unconstitutional for its disproportionate impact on young Black men. The remit of the police seemed endlessly elastic, expanding to include not just addressing homelessness and removing graffiti, but running community centers, beekeeping and more.

During this period, to be sure, New York City also experienced unprecedented levels of public safety. While many of the country’s big cities saw a large decline in crime, New York City’s was steeper and more durable than anywhere else. And even during the pandemic, as cities, including New York, experienced rises in shootings, New York City maintained its position as the safest city in the nation.

But was it because of broken windows? As Brandon del Pozo shows, the jury’s still out. But there is no doubt that significant harms have accompanied this brand of policing. Tracey Meares describes the price we have paid in democracy for the wholesale use of broken-windows policing, which has further corroded public confidence, particularly among Black people, in the fairness and legitimacy of policing, and unintentionally taught a malign lesson in civics. Michael Javen Fortner takes a deep dive into Black communities’ response to crime and disorder, looking at survey data that indicates consistent support for policing but also fairly broad interest in other responses, including other kinds of civic services.

Peter Moskos examines the history of Penn Station, Port Authority and Bryant Park to show how planners and city officials, with the help of police, were able to reinvigorate spaces that had come to be symbols of New York’s decline. Nicole Gelinas takes us on a walk through history and the city to show why some public places thrived during the darkest days of the pandemic and some did not. The lessons she takes away — the power of design, commercial and public activity and modest enforcement — resonate throughout this issue.

This includes, as Errol Louis lays out, a role for police. Police should do what they do best and what they uniquely can do: solve crimes and address violence. Meanwhile, we surveyed a range of experts who detailed a range of responses to disorder that do not rely on arrest, prosecution and incarceration. And David Burney, Tamara Greenfield and Layman Lee show in living color how neighborhood residents across New York City have worked to improve physical conditions which in turn, and not surprisingly, tightened bonds among neighbors and so increased safety.

We must widen our sights to seek out solutions that fit the issue, instead of the Sisyphean commitment only to fix by force.

This issue does not exhaust the question of how we live together. There is much more to be understood, and we will continue this topic in the next issue with more solutions, including how the arrangement of our streets and the look of our buildings can encourage or discourage the best of how we live together, and how the smart use of capital dollars can produce a stronger social fabric and more vibrant city life.

We have much to do to understand “disorder” in all its complexity, to look with a clear head at the reality of perception and at the measurement of reality. And we must widen our sights to seek out solutions that fit the issue, instead of the Sisyphean commitment only to fix by force. In the end, the “little things” matter because they are not so little, and because they are a Geiger counter of urban well-being.