Havana, a city of broken windows

The challenges of disorderly behaviour.

The subject, no matter how recurrent, is still an open wound: in the Cuban capital, garbage is a presence that hurts, irritates, attacks and challenges, not only regarding discipline and customs, but also health, beauty, ethics and morale. The unstoppable growth of the garbage dumps brings to mind the broken windows theory, which is worthwhile to remind some and show to others.

Philip Zimpardo, professor of the U.S. University of Stanford, in 1969 carried out a social psychological experiment: he placed two identical cars in two very different spaces, one in the Bronx, New York, and the other in Palo Alto, California. The first was cannibalised in a short time, while the second remained intact a week later.

Then the experiment went on to the second chapter: in the barrio of the wealthy Californians the researcher broke one of the abandoned car’s windows and as a consequence, a few hours later, a process of vandalism was unleashed similar to the one that occurred in the poor barrio of New York.

The broken window of the abandoned car sent a message that rapidly spread and caught on among the people, who associated disinterest, deterioration, unconcern, apathy, abandonment, absence of order, ideas that unchain reactions of social indiscipline, the violation of moral codes, of norms of citizen behaviour, a process that grows with each new act of vandalism.

Based on this experiment, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling developed the broken windows theory focused on the criminology aspect with the conclusion that in contexts of disorder, dirtiness and neglect, the crime rate increases, is systematically dimensioned.

Citing Daniel Eskiber, whose text we have used as a source, “If a glass window of a building is broken and no one repairs it, all the others will soon be broken. If a community shows signs of deterioration and no one seems to care about this, then crime will be generated there. If ‘small misdemeanours’ are committed (parking in forbidden places, speeding or going through a red light) and they are not sanctioned, then bigger misdemeanours will begin and later increasingly more serious crimes.”1

Based on these teachings, the New York authorities implemented social cleaning programmes since the 1980s, which had continuity in other more radical programmes the following decade. The strategy consisted in creating clean and orderly communities, in not allowing transgressions of the law and the norms of urban coexistence. New York became cleaner, more orderly, but also less violent, safer.

The result was a notable decrease in all the crime rates of the city. The decrease in the crime rate in New York in relation to the broken windows theory had its dissenting opinions, while – according to the critics – many factors not related to it that had an incidence – or could have had an incidence – on statistics were not taken into account.

But what matters for our analysis is not the criminal aspect but rather the metaphor of the broken windows in Havana communities. How many times have we seen how a marginal settlement multiplies in a flash? The same has happened with many other social phenomena that have taken place in the Cuban capital and on the island, so many that listing them would have no end.

The enormous growth of the garbage dumps in Havana fully confirms the broken windows theory. When the collection cycle is violated by the communal services enterprise, the collecting containers overflow with garbage, it spreads in all directions and the place becomes a garbage dump, a space that sends messages of disorderly behaviour and neglect to the community.

But the blame for the increase of garbage dumps in the communities is not only pinned on the inconsistency of the communal services, but rather is related to the apathy of other State agencies. In the face of the institutional neglect, social indiscipline makes its entrance, the norms of coexistence are broken, “the broken windows” increase.

The impunity with which the “garbage dippers” act, the same one with which the debris, tree branches and improper objects are dumped, is one of the essential causes for the disproportionate development of the garbage dumps; if that tolerance of disorderly behaviour  did not exist, the story would be different.

Whoever takes time off to tour the Havana municipalities will find garbage dumps everywhere, though in some barrios their atrocious presence stands out more because the institutional negligence is greater: while in some areas the garbage is collected every day, in others it takes a very long time; while in some places the containers are new, in others they are old, broken and not enough. What is the message being sent to those neglected communities?

It’s not necessary to demonstrate that each garbage dump is a transgression of order, discipline and good manners, an underlying threat to health and a challenge to beauty, ethics and morale. And each passing day the consequences are greater.

In some communities, the actions of cultural projects have been successful in confronting the garbage dumps. That is a strength that should be boosted. Their concerted action could be very effective. Someone has to head a crusade, create awareness through concrete actions, and it would be good to start with the most neglected, the most vulnerable communities.

In her essay “Beauty is a basic need,” the Dutch art historian Els Van Der Plas points out that beauty can bring happiness, hope, consolation, dignity and respect, it brings together men and women throughout the world, and when the men and women contemplate the beauty, they feel alive and feel that life actually has a meaning.2

In the same essay, the historian cites Hindu theatre critic Rustom Bharucha, who wrote that the concept of beauty…has to be recovered not just for our ethics, but also for our health. And the author added that by neglecting beauty we are also neglecting ourselves and the discovery of the meaning of life.

Neglecting the increase in garbage dumps is tantamount to allowing the aggression against beauty to advance with all its implications. Each day there are more broken windows. (2014)

¹Daniel Eskiber: “La teoría de las ventanas rotas” (The Broken Windows Theory), in http://www.forodeseguridad.com/artic/reflex/8090.htm

² Els Van Der Plas: “La belleza es una necesidad básica” (Beauty is a basic need), in the CD Mil y un textos en una noche, Criterios publishers, Havana, 2006.

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