The “Broken Windows” Theory

In his book, ‘Sidewalk’, Mitchell Duneier describes the lives of people who “work the street”, the book vendors, the magazine vendors and the ‘men without accounts’ who guard the door to the ATMs on Sixth Avenue in New York. It is an intensive ethnographical study of the social structure of street life in the city.

As I read the book, I’m reminded of my interactions until now with the street vendors outside Russell market in Bangalore. They also “work the street” some becoming entrepreneurs out of necessity and others by choice, in many ways living the same lives as the people Duneier describes. Duneier begins the book by introducing the idea of the ‘broken windows’ theory which he says is the physical disorder that is visible in a neighbourhood and if not corrected can lead to increased crime. It is about seeing a broken window and knowing that here, in this street, ‘nobody cares’, which he says can become a sign of encouragement for the ‘anti-social elements’ who want to create disorder. However, as Duneier ends the book, after his five-year interactions with the community that “works the street” he finds that the ‘broken windows’ theory is not about physical disorder but about social disorder, one which can be invisible and has been to most planners and policy makers. He realises that the ‘anti-social element’ is not looking at the broken window but is himself the broken window, who is struggling to eke out a living on the street and rectify all that he sees wrong with his own life and the city most often does not SEE that.

In June 2013, when I undertook a pilot study of 20 street vendors outside the Russell market in Shivajinagar, it was not exactly the first day I was on this street probing into how people used space on an everyday basis. I had spent time here at different times over a period of two years before this day. Today, as I stepped onto the street, I had a printout of the questionnaire I had spent some days working on. I had the questions with me but intended having informal chats with the vendors using these questions. I carried with me a voice recorder. After walking down the street and trying to sense where to begin, I decided to start by talking to some of the push-cart vendors who stood within the taxi-stand at its south-end and opposite the gate of the St.Mary’s Basilica. This decision was based on the fact that there seemed to be a clustering of vendors here unlike in the rest of the street where the vendors were more dispersed.

I approached one of the older vendors. I explained that I was working on a research project about the street and the city. The elderly gentleman who I spoke to listened intently and then said, “But, why should I tell you anything? What would you understand? For instance, would you understand what it means when I don’t come here for one day, because I am unwell? Would you understand how it feels when my son is sent back from school because I have not been able to pay his school fees? What part of my world would you understand? What do you know about it?” As he was talking, a few other older vendors from the nearby pushcarts came around to listen to him. So, there was now a group of 4-5 vendors gathered around. I knew this was a difficult question he had posed. I was about to lose support from the street vendors before I had even begun.

After a short silence, I said, “You are right. I do not know anything about your world. But, I think you will agree that you also do not know much about the world where I come from. For instance, you would not know that in the world I come from, there are people who make decisions about the city, and that these decisions are made without talking to people on the street. I only want to talk to people here so that I can go back and tell them what I found out.” There was silence again. Nobody said anything. The vendor who I had been talking to stood at his push-cart re-arranging his goods. The others just looked on. A few minutes later, he said, “So, you wanted to ask me some questions. What did you want to know?” I started to interview him and the others slowly moved away. I knew then that I had not lost the others, they would be alright with an interview too. Although the interviews went on well that day and the days following it, this first interaction led me to think about the existence of the different worlds in the city and how little one world knows about the other.  

After this first-day encounter, I had discovered that same week something else. I was talking to another vendor who sold ‘Ladies Purses’. At one point, he said, “You know, this “footpath business” and the street is important for me because it is my source of income, but it is also important for me for another reason. I always shop on the street and there are many families who do. I have never in these past 40 years ever entered a formal shop”. I did not know this before. I did not know that there were people in the city who had never entered a formal shop. This meant that the street and its businesses were the only source of clothes, household goods and food for thousands of people in the city? If this were true, how long could we debate about whether street vending is legal or illegal? What kind of answers will we come up with and on what social reality will they be based? I have yet to go back many times to the Street and read what I can from observing, listening and asking. There is the physical disorder and congestion in the city that we need to resolve, but there is also the social disorder that needs to be read, to be understood, the “broken window” of an invisible nature which needs our attention and which we must SEE.

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