Between the Lines

Between the Lines by David Lias I had never heard of "The Broken Window Syndrome" until Judy Clark of Vermillion Beautiful, Inc. mentioned it while describing to the Vermillion City Council the importance of being vigilant in efforts to keep both public and private properties neat and appealing.

In a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article titled "Broken Windows," James Q. Wilson and George Kelling argued that disorder in a community, if left uncorrected, undercuts residents' own efforts to maintain their homes and neighborhoods and control unruly behavior.

"If a window in a building is broken and left unrepaired," they wrote, "all the rest of the windows will soon be broken ? One unrepaired window is a signal that no one cares, so breaking more windows costs nothing ? Untended property becomes fair game for people out for fun or plunder.

If disorder goes unchecked, a vicious cycle begins, according to Wilson and Kelling.

"First, it kindles a fear of crime among residents, who respond by staying behind locked doors. Their involvement in the neighborhood declines; people begin to ignore rowdy and threatening behavior in public. They cease to exercise social regulation over little things like litter on the street, loitering strangers, or truant schoolchildren. When law-abiding eyes stop watching the streets, the social order breaks down and criminals move in.

"Stable neighborhoods can change in a few months to jungles," stated Wilson and Kelling. Disorder also can have dire economic consequences. Shoppers will shun an area they perceive as being out of control. One study analyzing crime in 30 different areas found that the level of disorder of a neighborhood � more than such factors as income level, resident turnover, or racial makeup � was the best indicator of an area's lack of safety."

It was perhaps hard to admit, but careful self-reflection by anyone hearing Clark's words led to the same conclusion � Vermillion perhaps was suffering from more than its fair share of "broken windows."

It's a condition that USD President James Abbott, who today is striving to be elected South Dakota governor, couldn't help but notice.

Many students, Abbott told a banquet crowd here in January 2001, wish to pursue their education in an urban area. Vermillion citizens can't transform their community into an large urban center, "but we can do more to make the university and Vermillion more attractive, and as a city, in my opinion, we need to take a much more proactive approach," he said.

Abbott urged everyone attending the banquet to take a closer look at Vermillion while driving or walking through the city.

"Some of the housing around the university and in this community appears to be substandard," Abbott said. "I notice numerous abandoned vehicles in yards not to mention unoccupied houses with broken windows. Certainly there are, or should be, ordinances that prevent blight of this nature."

Vermillion has come a long ways since Abbott and Clark made their remarks.

* The third annual Operation Pride was held this spring and helped Vermillion residents in a section of town remove tons of debris from their properties.

* Vermillion Beautiful, Inc. once again successfully organized a successful flower and tree planting project in the city to add some natural beauty to the community. An extra positive twist this year is the cooperative efforts of city crews and private contractors, working with funds provided by the Vermillion City Council, to install sprinkling systems near the flower beds to guarantee they will always thrive, even during hot, dry summers like the one we're currently experiencing.

* Jeff Nelson's home in lower Vermillion was destined for the wrecking ball earlier this spring. City code enforcement had inspected the building and found it to be unsafe. Bushes and trees growing out of control practically hid the house from view. People who inspected it found it to be such poor shape that it posed a health hazard.

That's all changing, however, thanks to the impressive efforts of local volunteers. Twenty-three members of Phi Delta Theta were the first to tackle the property, helping to clear away brush and debris on a chilly, wet day last spring.

Earlier, local craftsmen were recruited to the look over the Nelson home. They determined that with a lot of work, it could be saved. They started the Vermillion Area Citizen House Repair Fund to collect monetary donations.

Local businesses have also responded by donating a great deal of the materials needed to repair the house. Last Saturday and Sunday, despite the heat and humidity, local volunteers and a trusty unit of state prisoners based in Yankton put those materials to good use.

The Nelson house is starting to lose its ramshackle look. Its roof has been repaired. Windows and doors have been fixed, and the weathered wooden siding on its exterior has been patched and soaked up a coat of primer.

There's still much to be done. The bathroom facilities in the house need to be replaced. That can't happen without the donation of more funds or of the new tub, shower and toilet that's needed.

The house also needs a new hot water heater.

And, naturally, the work will go faster with more people involved in accomplishing this community improvement project.

Interested in becoming involved? Contact Jere Chapman, Dick Sunde or Louie Fostvedt.

Before you know it, you'll discover personally just how good it feels to repair a broken window.

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