Unbroken Windows

A digital archive tracing the spatial cultures of Broken Windows policing


The Broken Windows theory of policing — promulgated in New York City in the early 1990s — relies on the contentious assertion that increased surveillance in often disinvested, majority-minority urban areas, and draconian responses to small “disorderly” infractions therein, will serve as a bulwark against 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 property — rather than lives — needing protection. Though the prominence of Broken Windows policies has in many ways abated, the theory’s material and imaginative force remains woven into society all around us.

What does one see when they look at a public housing development? What does one feel when their car window is approached by a person asking for money? What does one know about the relationship between safety and “disorder”? Any possible answers to these questions are contingent on one’s individual experiences. And those experiences, in turn, are contingent on the spaces — and cultures — in which they occurred. A resident of public housing inevitably feels differently about said housing than someone who has never been inside. The owner of a car is differently comfortable than someone in search of basic necessities. What counts as “disorder” in a neighborhood long ignored by those with power is different from what’s permissible, or even encouraged, at the seat of that power.

The incomplete but evocative annotated sources collected on the project website attempt to trace the contours of a particularly potent moment of cultural production in New York City in order to more easily identify, denaturalize, and ultimately change its ongoing effects in the spaces around us. The six initial category tags: “Research 1961–1993,” “News,” “NYPD,” “Arts & Culture,” “Elections,” and “Legislation” indicate just some of the social realms in which Broken Windows circulates. With short, framing summaries and certain passages highlighted in the sources themselves, our aim is not simply to better explain the original and still impactful cultural context of Broken Windows, but to gesture toward a new one. Rather than recapitulating debates about the theory of policing — which have largely been decided even if they continue in new forms — this archive aims to read between the lines of that debate’s formative stages. Logical fallacies, emotional assertions, and prejudicial assumptions feel just as familiar as the built spaces that they informed. At the same time, the perhaps less-than-familiar fact that those spaces remain, and are often reproduced today, is newly deserving of critical attention.

Connected to 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. Understood from its inception as incomplete, the material on the project website has been gathered (largely online) in support of ongoing conversations that are reimagining what justice means — and how it is built — in the United States today. Produced during the summer of 2021 in dialogue with the “care,” “repair,” and “justice” themes of the Queens Museum’s “Year of Uncertainty” (YoU), any subsequent responses and additions to this archive will be collected and displayed by the Museum as a part of the YoU in a time, place, and manner of their choosing.

Ultimately, "Unbroken Windows" is intended as a reminder of the manifold 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.

Held tight by a black frame, austere capital letters of a similar thickness to the frame itself spell out “Unbroken Windows” on a white background. The “o” in “Windows” is square, and filled with a glowing yellow light.

Design by Morcos Key



Reference Collections

Initiative Collection