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A Digital Archive Tracing the Spatial Cultures of Broken Windows Policing
What do you see when you look at a public housing development? What do you feel when your car window is approached by a person asking for money? What do you know about the relationship between safety and “disorder”? Any possible answers to these questions are determined by your individual experiences. And those experiences, in turn, are affected by the spaces—and cultures—in which they occurred. A resident of public housing inevitably feels differently about it than someone who has never been inside. The owner of a car may be comfortable in a way that contrasts with the comfort of someone in search of basic necessities. What counts as “disorder” in a neighborhood long ignored by those with power differs from what’s permissible, or even encouraged, in communities where that power is held.
The theory of Broken Windows policing was popularized in New York City in the early 1990s. It relies on the contentious assertion that increased surveillance and aggressive responses to small “disorderly infractions—often in divested, majority-minority urban areas—will prevent future criminal behavior. But before windows are broken, they must first be designed as unbroken. And before neighbors are targeted, their neighborhoods must first be envisioned as a collection of property—rather than of lives—in need of protection. Though the prominence of Broken Windows policies has in many ways subsided, the theory’s force remains woven into society all around us.
The evocative collection of annotated sources in the “Unbroken Windows” digital archive attempts to trace the contours of a particularly potent moment of cultural production in New York City. The project aims to help more easily identify, and ultimately change, the ongoing effects of policing in the spaces around us. Understood from its inception as incomplete, the material on this website has been gathered in support of ongoing conversations that are reimagining what justice means—and how it is built—in the United States today.
“Unbroken Windows” was produced in dialogue with the YoU’s themes of Care, Repair, and Justice during the summer of 2021 by the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University as a part of its ongoing project, “Green Reconstruction.” With this collection and any conversation it generates, the Buell Center is interested in addressing the violent, yet often obscured, relationships between race, “resilience,” and architecture. Ultimately, “Unbroken Windows” is a reminder of the many ways in which design participates in the racialized cultures of safety and security that permeate the built environment. Whether active or passive, this participation has effects that cannot be ignored, for which responsibility must be taken.
If you would like to participate and/or have suggestions for primary sources related to this ever-present, built history, please fill out this form and members from the “Unbroken Windows” team at the Queens Museum will be in touch.