By DIANA LIND NEW YORK TIMES
EVEN in Philadelphia, with its 40,000 vacant properties and a quarter of its population living below the poverty line, the Kensington neighborhood still shocks. On a frigid afternoon, a prostitute lingers in the shadow of the elevated train tracks, waiting restlessly for customers. Husks of long-closed factories stand amid thigh-high winter wheat. Streams of garbage flow down the streets, as if both the people and the city government had agreed to forsake the effort of propriety.
In recent months, this neighborhood has also been terrorized by a killer who choked and raped his victims in the area’s ubiquitous abandoned houses and vacant lots. If only these deserted places could be charged as accomplices to the so-called Kensington Strangler’s three murders and two sexual assaults, and for aiding and abetting the drug use and prostitution that have caused so many of the neighborhood’s problems. But the empty lots with their discarded furniture and ghetto kudzu and the weather-beaten houses with boarded-up windows won’t be going anywhere soon.
It’s been nearly 30 years since James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling published their broken windows theory, positing that the torn social fabric that allows for vandalism also encourages other kinds of crime and disinvestment in a neighborhood. The theory validated the inclination to improve the built environment first, in the hopes that once a sense of confidence has been restored other aspects of an engaged community will follow. And in places on the cusp of gentrification or economic recovery, like certain New York areas in the ’90s, quality-of-life campaigns have been proven to clean up the streets and reduce crime.
Indeed, as gentrification has slowly crept northward in Philadelphia, Kensington residents have gained some hope from a newly branded arts corridor, a few rejuvenated parks and street improvements, all thanks to the efforts of an invaluable local community development corporation. But this scattershot approach has failed to create the kind of holistic change needed in this neighborhood — or its counterparts in St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit and Baltimore.
Many cities have also sought to transform undeveloped lots into green space and urban agriculture. It’s a natural fit and, again, in Kensington a full city block has been converted from an industrial brownfield to an admirably active farm. But land-based strategies that try to reinvent this vacant lot or that blighted ground do little to stem the larger social trends that created the spatial problem in the first place.