Did anyone else notice the cross-column contradiction in the 7/4 Washington City Paper? On one hand, Stephanie Mencimer (“When Meters Expire”) promotes the “broken windows” theory of public security in her article on parking meter vandalism. Mencimer explains how the desecration of public property encourages crime and civic disintegration by sending the message that “no one cares.” Yet a few pages away, Michael Schaffer (“Bench Clearing Brawl”) turns this theory on its head, criticizing city residents who have shown that they do care. To Schaffer, neighbors who attempt to improve neighborhood security by making parks less hospitable to drunks, litterers, and public urinators are not reclaiming public space, they are being selfish.
In spite of this disconnect, a common theme runs through both columns: a caricature of middle-class white folks as buffoons and/or meanies. The “yuppie driver” who privately applauds meter vandalism is shooting himself in the foot unwittingly by undermining urban society. The self-righteous bourgeois who discourages anti-social behavior in a park is “intolerant” of homeless people. Deriding these straw villains draws attention away from the real issues: The city government is corrupt, ineffective, and deserving of our resentment. The ones to blame for the removal of benches are the people who abuse parks.
Another note to Schaffer: Not all homeless people are drunks or public nuisances, and not all drunks and public nuisances are homeless. No onerich or poorshould tolerate activities that make a public park unusable for the majority, even if the perpetrators are poor, addicted, or mentally disabled. A “live and let live” attitude strikes me as a paternalistic cop-out. It’s an attitude that says, “Hey, these folks have a right to live in squalor on public property if they choose to. Who am I, an economically privileged person, to put my own petty notions of tidiness ahead of that right?” Ask Stephanie Mencimer.