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During the summer months of 2018, there was an interesting phenomenon that occurred around a two-story apartment building. The building sits vacant overlooking a busy gas station in Sun Valley, California.
On July 4th as I was pumping gas at this location. I noticed that graffiti was covering the entire front exterior of the apartment complex. I saw giant letters spray painted over the windows and doors. At the foot of the building a homeless man was sleeping on the floor next to what looked like his tagged-up minivan. What used to seem like a decent location, was now feeling sketchy.Was this building attracting chaos?
It felt like a cloud of doom had just overshadowed the area. I snapped a picture and drove off. That very next month crime rates spiked by nearly 275 percent. Cases were ranging from car theft, home burglary and one incident of assault with a deadly weapon according to crime reports. How did this happen and was the building responsible for influencing such a crime spike?
It felt like a cloud of doom had just overshadowed the area.
BKA a gang in the area had one of the most distinguished tag-lines on the walls. The letters where large, bold and black. To the average person, the graffiti is ignored and seen as a regular part of urban life. However, like an advertisement, graffiti can also produce the same effect on those who see it. The gang is expressing their identity and establishing their presence in an area. They are doing more than just vandalizing a property they are acting out their values.The risk they take for trespassing is a good indicator of this.
For them, it can be thrilling to break established boundaries and disrupt the orderly ways of life. A sense of accomplishment and reward can follow if they get away with it too. They promoted their values to a large population of the city while this building remained neglected and unoccupied. If they could get away with it why wouldn't others think the same? Some would laugh if I said that the abandoned apartment complex attracts chaos and crime.
The property has a billboard at the corner entrance of the parking lot. Would anyone question its effectiveness in the same location? Local businesses pay thousands of dollars to advertise their message in hopes of a return in profit. BKA and other gangs just got thousands of dollars' worth of free advertising space. The graffiti message is attracting the very people with no value for city law. So why wouldn't we expect crime rates to go up?
If they could get away with it why wouldn't others think the same?
The Broken Windows Theory is an established idea that crime can spread into the surrounding community as a result of triggers from a chaotic environment. For example, when a local sees a broken window that has been left unrepaired, they can subconsciously become indifferent to their inner moral code as a "good" citizen. Soon, other broken windows will appear, and a feeling of chaos will spread into the streets. One can observe a similar phenomenon happen in the workplace. If the top executives of an organization consistently come in late to work, you can expect to see a rise in late attendance from the employees. Similarly, if a teacher continually comes late to class, the students will soon learn to do the same. So, what kind of message does an abounded building send to the people?
The average person believes he is a good citizen, but he won't know until life puts him to the test. There's an internal moral code that keeps societies together. It helps them function properly and effectively. It's governed by an inner moral system that we learn as we live amongst each other. People in some way police each-other by the collective values they hold as a community. The more a citizen sees chaos in his environment the more he is likely to abandon that inner moral code. Most people have not developed the muscle to withstand their impulses. Being a good person is easy when everyone around is also being good. However, can a good person remain good in the face of chaos and destruction? Alternatively, will a good person stay a good person if they could get away with it? Graffiti on buildings tell the right kind of person that it's okay to commit a crime.
People in some way police each-other by the collective values they hold as a community.
What if it was normal for people to pick up trash and fix broken things. Order can also spread into the community. People can help fix a broken window and they can paint over a graffiti wall. This is a muscle that develops with effort. You can spread order when good people stand up against chaos. The exciting thing is that it only takes a few committed people to do this until we see a positive snowball effect. It's not just wealthy communities that can reap the advantages of a clean and safe neighborhood; any city can do this.
In September crimes rates dropped back to normal again. Just this week, I saw the apartment complex entirely painted and cleaned up. It turns out that the complex was sold earlier this year. The city approved for a 19-unit apartment development. The building only appeared to be abandoned because of the ownership transition. I'm glad this happened because it gave us a good insight into the effects of graffiti, chaos, and crime.