When I was in college (back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth) my professors enjoyed crushing what was left of our youthful optimism with miserable statistics about how bad everything was and how rapidly it was getting worse. (Even their cynicism was too small to envision our current issues.) I remember a semester-long course that had to do with reversing urban blight. After being taught about this dire and growing problem we were introduced to the standard remedies. Our professor scornfully dismissed every effort to reverse urban blight. The worst thing that could be done? Coming in from outside the community to impose a do-gooder solution. The only right thing to do was a vast overhaul of our economic structures. (Those structures are even shakier today.) I wrote sufficiently miserable papers to get an A but was left with quiet despair in my ever-hopeful heart.
Soon after that class I read (in a newspaper, the way dinosaurs stay informed) about one woman’s experience of urban blight. She’d lived in the same house for decades, watching her neighborhood decline. There were few jobs and the ones available paid poorly, with no benefits or job security. She sadly listed the local businesses that had left, leaving her area with no grocery, beauty shop, or movie theater. The only places that remained were bars and corner stores selling little in the way of real food. People lost their homes and landlords took over, rarely keeping up the property. The city lost revenue, doing little to keep up with residents’ complaints. It seemed to her that young people were lost too. They swore in front of tiny children and their elders, hung out all hours on street corners, got into public fights, abused drugs. She was quoted as saying that people complained they got no respect from young people, when really the young people had no respect for themselves.
The reason she was being interviewed? She was credited with beginning a tiny urban renaissance that was evident on her street and slowly spreading through the neighborhood.
Here’s how it happened. She’d been in poor health and adjusting to widowhood. Her home had been well maintained over the years but like many wood-sided homes, it began to look shabby when too much time went by without new paint. After her husband died she didn’t do well keeping up with the yard work and because the street had changed she rarely sat on the porch as she used to do in years past, chatting with neighbors and greeting young people by name as they went by. It wasn’t just friendliness. When everyone knows everyone, word of misdeeds travels home quicker than an unruly child can get in the door. And when a child really knows the elders on his or her street, they have many more potential role models to benefit them as they grow up. That’s the proverbial “village” it takes to raise a child.
This woman wanted to do something. All she could afford was a few packets of flower seeds. She got out on a spring day to plant the seeds in her long-unused window boxes. She started sitting on her porch every afternoon after watering them, greeting those who went by even though she didn’t know them. Renters in houses where her friends once lived began talking to her. By the time the flowers were in bloom she noticed a difference on the street. She said that people were sweeping their porches and planting flowers of their own. Because they were trying, she got out there to do her part, attempting to take better care of her lawn, telling people who passed by that it was a good way to get exercise she needed. Every time she couldn’t get her mower to start she’d ask a teenager walking down the street to help her. Then before starting to mow, she’d ask for his or her name, shake hands, and thank that youth for doing a good deed by helping her. She made sure to greet those young people by name every time she saw them afterwards.
That summer one family painted their front door. Someone else cleaned up an empty lot that had been a dumping place for trash. People started sitting on their porches, waving to each other, stopping for conversation. It began to feel like a neighborhood again. Building on what’s positive is powerful indeed.
There are plenty of ways people are revitalizing their communities these days. They’re reclaiming empty lots as gardens or play places for their kids, running micro-businesses out of their homes, starting up tool-shares and neighborhood work groups. They’re using social media to connect and collaborate with each other. They’re mentoring kids in the neighborhood and finding ways to get kids more involved in the larger community. Studies show that urban gardens and other revitalizing efforts make a difference, reducing the crime rate and fostering all sorts of positive relationships. An old theory, kind of the flip side of what I’m calling the Window Box Effect, was called Broken Windows Theory. It posited that minor examples of breakdown (like a few broken windows) leads to greater disorder, dragging down not only the appearance of an area but also leading to crime and property damage. This has largely been disproven because crime is actually deterred when people know they have the power to affect their communities and benefit from strong networks within those communities.
Sure, we have a lot to work to do rebuilding our sorry infrastructure and easing the ever-widening income gap. But it doesn’t hurt to remember that noticing a little beauty can amplify the greater beauty that’s everywhere, waiting to bloom.
There are plenty of ways to apply the Window Box Effect.
- ~How can you re-wire yourself to focus more on what’s valuable, lovely, and positive?
- ~How can you see the light that emerges from your own difficulties?
- ~How can you pay closer attention to delight in your work, your relationship with relatives, your parenting, your body, your home life, the moment you’re in right now?
Tell me how the Window Box Effect works in your life.