We gotta be green, who cares if we’re clean?: City of Vancouver

John Clerides arrived at his Marquis Wine Cellars outlet one morning earlier this month to find that a chef-style blowtorch had shattered the front window into shards and that his delivery e-bike was taken.

The video revealed it took all of 20 seconds. Oddly, whoever did it wasn’t after the valuable wine. The criminal has gotten away, and the bike hasn’t been located.

A typical morning’s Twitter feed these days carries evidence of the city’s overnight spread of heedless vandalism: the busted windows, the hacked locks, the ubiquitous graffiti. The pandemic has been good for the businesses that repair, terrible for the places that experience damage.

A typical day’s Twitter feed carries evidence of the community street damage beyond the inflicted defacement: syringes, feces, bottles, condoms, debris from stolen goods. Vancouver has long been an open-drug-use city, but the pandemic has hollowed out the downtown and given rise to new drug quadrants.

A couple of months ago a friend, someone readers would know, arranged for an acquaintance to show up at the downtown restaurant when we finished dinner – the sun still high in the sky – so that acquaintance could walk my friend home. The city was no longer deemed safe, I was told.

Clerides is far from alone with broken windows. The list is long among just those he knows: the Saatchi and Saatchi jeweller on Robson, Abaasa Optical across from Clerides on Davie, and the Vancouver Pen Shop on Hastings, to name a few.

Police respond more than a dozen times nightly on average to these acts – so, there are thousands of these episodes a year – but can rarely catch anyone before the damage is inflicted.

There is a political shrug that accompanies this now in the city, as in: it is what it is, there are many hurting people who need more urgent help with their problems, the damage isn’t injuring anyone, this is the cost of a growing urban centre, there is so much inequity that we should expect this, and oh yes, the coronavirus and the opioid crisis take priority.

But we are having a larger discussion on defunding the police than on funding the orderliness of our community. We apply more civic effort to down-the-road climate change than down-the-street landscape change. We aspire to be the Greenest City, but not the Cleanest City.

Anyone with eyes would agree that grime has taken hold year by year, block by block, whether it’s casual garbage or deliberate destruction. Around our office, near my home, there is ruinous encroachment that wasn’t there a year or two or three ago.

It is worth wondering, then acting upon: Is this a trend we can stop?

In his debut 2000 book that quickly made him famous, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference, Canadian Malcolm Gladwell introduced most people to the “broken window theory.” It advances the idea that crime is egged on by the presence of these visible signs and anti-social behaviour. In New York’s case, it involved among other things a simple and sustained cleanup of incessant graffiti on the sides of subway cars.

The authors of the theory, social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1982 that an unrepaired broken window often gives rise to other windows being broken – that “it is a sign that no one cares, and so breaking windows costs nothing.”

Kelling and Catherine Coles wrote in their 1996 book, Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities, that if repairs are done quickly, vandals are less likely to strike again. Left unfixed, further crime ensues.

At the heart of the theory is the notion that our landscape communicates to us. The message of a broken window is that a neighbourhood isn’t imposing social control on itself and is thus susceptible, even accepting of, criminal invasion and occupation.

Policing plays a role, naturally, but so does investment by a community – the businesses and residents, for sure, but primarily the government – in keeping streets clean and safe and signalling that it is futile to destroy. The sprawl of unsightly graffiti on walls, windows, poles, sidewalks and bridges left alone by authorities suggests this isn’t a priority.

Trouble is, people like Clerides feel they are disproportionately bearing the task that his taxes pay others to address, that in the pandemic and the opioid crisis the city has chosen to minister more to addicts and those with mental illness challenges on the streets than to merchants and residents in the dwellings they deface, and that Vancouver is a “destination” for Canadians who find the climate to their liking – not only the weather, but the access to drugs and the light hand of the law.

He wonders: “Where is the city?”

He discussed this last week with the mayor’s office – his Twitter feed doesn’t hold back on his feelings about the administration – and gets the impression something is in the works. He is taking a wait-and-see attitude. Meantime there will be more bike patrols, a common way police address the situation to plant the idea they may ride up to someone in the act.

But more than anything, leadership has to apprehend this issue as a central mission and not an occasional distraction. A few elections ago, this wouldn’t have felt like a central issue. Next year, I have to think candidates with a plan, with our own broken windows strategy, will get an attentive audience. If our mayor wants to keep his job, he has to get on this job.

After all, is there a more valuable role for a civic government than to make a city safer, cleaner and healthier? •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.