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Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Block Walk Talk

Last time we considered my block of 200 West in American Fork, we noted some improvements at each end, on the corners. Today we'll take a quick stroll and consider what lies between the ends. Then I'll suggest some conclusions.

Eight days and a few posts ago, under the title "One Home at a Time, Over Time," I started talking about my old neighborhood in downtown American Fork. I promised we'd continue by walking the block together, then drawing some conclusions.

We'll be talking about the appearance of homes and yards, and to a lesser extent about the behavior of the people who inhabit them, but the point is not aesthetics. In the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling advanced a theory that has become well known and widely accepted. It's usually called the "broken windows theory." Leave a broken window unrepaired, and vandals are likely to break another window. The unrepaired broken windows -- or abandoned homes or cars, or dead or overgrown yards, or unremoved graffiti, or severely deteriorated paint or roofing -- become a signal that no one cares about, or no one is monitoring and maintaining, the property and, by extension, the neighborhood. This invites further vandalism and more serious criminal activity. As problems escalate and the neighborhood deteriorates, respectable residents will flee, and people who -- how shall I put this? -- want to engage in misconduct or simply indulge in further neglect will replace them.

Fixing those broken windows promptly -- and keeping the buildings and yards generally looking cared for and in good repair -- will signal just the opposite: that this is a place where the norms of civilized, non-criminal behavior are followed, where the residents care enough that it will be difficult to get away with petty or more serious crime. So, if you want to improve a neighborhood, attract respectable neighbors, and encourage local criminals to take their criminal business elsewhere, start fixing it up the neighborhood and cleaning it up -- and keep at it.

A Walk

Now that you know why we're looking, it's time to take that stroll. We'll start with a small home with a charming yard, near one end of the block. It looks about the same as it did a dozen years ago, when I moved in up the street. It hasn't changed owners in a lot more years than that. So things are both good and stable here.

Further on is a home that was well kept in 1998, but then the widow who lived there died. The next family to live there almost destroyed it. After they left, it was uninhabited for years, while the new owners labored mightily to gut, rebuild, and expand it. They finally moved in last year; now they're replacing the sidewalk, and I think the yard must be next. This place is not back to its excellent condition of 12 years ago, but the recent trend is sharply upward, after a few intervening years as a full-blown eyesore. The neighbors are somewhat relieved and mollified.

The next few places have changed over the past dozen years, mostly for the better. There's a rental home, which was rather run down until the landlord put a neighbor couple to work restoring it. They did a nice job, so there's improvement. Another old home is rented as a duplex. It's not the nicest place on the block, but rentals don't have to drag the neighborhood down, and this one doesn't seem to. At least, it's not an eyesore, and it doesn't seem to be getting worse.

Another home used to be a rental and was in rather bad shape a decade ago. An industrious couple rented it several years ago and persuaded the landlord to let them fix up both the house and the yard. Eventually, they coaxed him into selling it to them. It's charming now, a good win for the neighborhood.

There's the old home of a relatively young widower, who keeps up the place and recently built a new porch. He moved in about a decade ago, and the place is improved. And there's an old home on which a young family worked very hard for a few years. Then they moved on, selling it to another solid, young family, which has stayed for several years and continues to improve it. Another win.

In the middle of the block is an island of stability. There is a pretty white brick home with a deep, beautiful yard. It has been in the family for generations, and the people who have lived there for the last few decades take excellent care of the structure and the grounds. There is a place which was bought more than a quarter-century ago by a young married couple. They're older now, and they've since raised their family there. They've been maintaining and improving the place by the sweat of their brows the whole time, and they recently added a nice, new room in back, preferring to expand their current home rather than to move into a larger one.

Here is another well-kept old home and yard. The man who lives there raised his family there; his wife passed away a few years ago. The home and yard are still well kept. Across the way is a small home with a splendid yard. It changed owners once in the past decade, because the old owner died, and it's possible that the yard is slightly less splendid now, but I'm not certain.

Next we come to an old home which is rented as a duplex. It was in poor shape when we moved in next door, and the young tenants were loud, coarse, and inclined to an assortment of illegal activities. With some help from the police and the landlord, things improved markedly. For the last several years, one side of the duplex has been the home of a hard-working, kind, unassuming man, and the other has seen two or three small, excellent families come and go -- including, lately, an uncommonly friendly and polite toddler who singlehandedly made the neighborhood a happier place. The years have brought great improvement here.

Next we see more stability in the home of a hard-working, well-educated family. They arrived shortly before we did. Their children were young then; they have made excellent playmates and friends for our children. They're growing up and going off to college now. The home is conscientiously maintained, and the back yard is large, well cared-for, and a lot of fun.

Further on, we see less stability. There is the one part of an inner-block apartment complex which sits on 200 West. It's a typical rented duplex, with a variety of tenants over the years and the usual challenges with some of them. But most of the people there have been friendly and have stayed for years, and the landlord takes care of the yard.

A home and yard across the street were immaculately kept, when we arrived. That family moved out several years ago, and the place has declined a little, but in general the yard, home, and renters have been inoffensive. The effect on the neighborhood has been neutral or nearly so.

Next we come to an old home which was abused by renters and owners for some years, but then a young family moved in and rehabilitated both the home and the yard. Then it fell into less attentive hands again, for a while, but now it appears to be improving again. Overall, there has been some decline in a dozen years, but I think the trend is upward now, at least for the moment. There across the street is a home which has housed the same small family for many years; it's not the biggest or prettiest place on the block, but it's not unsightly or unstable, either. Next to it is a home which was rented as a duplex for a while to a series of decent people, who behaved themselves. Now the whole place is in the hands of a middle-aged couple who will help anchor the block quite well, if they stay for a while.

We've come to the end of the block and to the only corner property I didn't mention last time. The friendly grandparents who have lived here for years prefer to have their own pleasant little forest instead of a lawn; they get no complaints from me. More stability here -- which means that all four corners are solid now, where only two were, a dozen years ago.

Therefore, What?

You can't win them all, they say. But on my old block of 200 West, the wins outnumber the losses over the past dozen years, and some of the wins have been big ones.

Why am I telling you this? Why would I think you care?

It's not just nostalgia. It's not just because I've been thinking lately about the old block, where I met some of the finest people I know. Nor do I intend this to be a tribute, though that might also be appropriate.

Instead, I'm trying to make a point about a neighborhood -- or several points about neighborhoods in general, perhaps.

Homeowners, renters, landlords, and policy makers might do well to realize that every property in a neighborhood matters. When one property owner improves a property, the neighborhood improves. When one owner lets a single property decline, the neighborhood declines. A new roof here and a new hedge there improve the whole neighborhood. Even little things matter more than you might think. A few flowers planted, weeded, and watered in one or two yards can affect the whole neighborhood.

When neighbors help each other, things improve even more. One neighbor offers to pay for the materials if another neighbor will supply the labor to build a fence. A neighbor knows that another homeowner wants to put in a hedge but can't really afford it this year; the neighbor orders the plants and makes a gift of them. One neighbor advises another on the selection and planting of shrubs or the installation of a sprinkler system. Another neighbor makes tools and spare materials available to the people across the street, who are making some improvements. Someone -- I don't know who -- did a thorough and careful job of edging my front lawn a few weeks ago, and the neighborhood looked a little nicer as a result.

Rentals -- and renters -- don't necessarily pull a neighborhood down. Some of them, including a couple of my examples, improve it. But rentals do increase a neighborhood's risk of decline. Landlords who are sensible enough in business terms to care about both the quality of their renters and the condition of their grounds and buildings are good for a neighborhood. So are neighbors who refuse to put up with illegal activity of any sort, from drug dealing to late-night noise and other nuisance violations.

Business isn't necessarily the enemy, either. A stable and successful small business can anchor a block -- and, if you're lucky, provide good Thai food, like the Thai Village does on my old block.

I suppose that every neighborhood can improve or decline over time, but older neighborhoods, near downtown, with a higher percentage of rentals, are more at risk than most others. My little block of 200 West has proven, over the past 12 years, that change is inevitable, but decline is not. Overall -- not that we are due the credit -- we leave a nicer neighborhood than we found, thanks to the concern, generosity, and hard work of many of the people who live there.

One final note. We just sold our home on 200 West yesterday. (I told you last time that this would happen soon.) The new buyer's mortgage funded today. So I suppose it's not our block any more. But I wish it as much improvement in the next dozen years as we saw while we were there.

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