In the 1990s the crime rate in New York City fell suddenly. Violent crime decreased in cities across the country as the crack trade declined, the economy recovered and the population aged. But these facts don’t explain why it fell so dramatically in NYC where the population was actually getting younger and the poorest neighborhoods were affected by welfare cuts.
Why did the crime rate fall so dramatically?
I could claim that it’s because everyone started using beautiful tea towels, but, wisely, you wouldn’t believe me. Please stay with me because I do have a point.
In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell argues that NYC’s crime epidemic tipped because a few people started doing things differently. When the New York Transit Authority hired the criminologist George Kelling as a consultant, he urged them to put the Theory of Broken Windows into practice. According to this theory, if a building has broken windows and those windows are not repaired, chances are that more windows will be broken and the vandalism will spread and become more serious.
I’ve seen something like this happen in my rural community. A pick-up truck was abandoned down the road from me. After a few days, I noticed an increasing amount of garbage in the bed of the truck. This abandoned truck silently gave people permission to throw in their unwanted goods. It was cheaper than driving a few more miles down the same road to the refuse disposal area and paying to leave garbage. The pile grew until the truck was finally hauled away.
The New York Transit Authority decided to give the Theory of Broken Windows a try. They hired a new director, David Gunn, to oversee the rebuilding of the subway system. He started by cleaning up the graffiti on the trains. Six years later the trains were clean and William Bratton, the new head of the Transit Authority police, decided to focus on fare-beating.
By focusing on small quality-of-life crimes, Gunn and Bratton were sending a message that more serious crimes would not be tolerated. Crime on the subways did indeed decrease.
What does this have to do with handwoven tea towels?
Graffiti may seem like an odd place to begin fixing a failing subway system. My understanding is that it worked because people felt and behaved differently in clean subway cars. That this small change had such an impact on crime speaks to the power the environment has to affect people both positively and negatively.
A kitchen towel is a detail that’s easy to overlook in the busyness of life. After all, it’s “just“ a piece of cloth for drying hands or dishes. However, it is a piece of cloth you use repeatedly over the course of a day.
A thin, frayed towel that moves water around rather than absorbing it makes drying dishes feel like an unpleasant chore. While it will hardly incite someone to commit a crime, it doesn’t promote a sense of well-being.
When you use a handwoven towel throughout your day, I believe you feel and behave differently. Whether you are consciously aware of it or not, you’re nourished by the fact that someone invested time into weaving the cloth for the very purpose of drying your hands and dishes. The colors lift your spirits and improve your outlook for the day. The softness brings you into the present moment and encourage you to slow down.
Treating yourself to a beautiful towel, and actually allowing yourself to use it, is a way of sending yourself a message about beauty, worth and worthiness. It can inspire other small changes that build upon each other and have a big impact.
Just as the clean subway cars affected the people on the trains enough that the crime rate decreased, your handwoven towel becomes a detail that enriches your everyday life. Small changes in the environment can have a profound effect. A broken window can be a tipping point for vandalism and crime; a handwoven towel can be a tipping point for improving the quality of your life.
My invitation to you: Have you made small changes in your environment and noticed a difference in how you feel? I’d love to hear your experience.
photo credit: Lynne Graves
P.S. I invite you to download and read my ebook, “The Power of Beauty in Everyday Life: Five Stories” if you haven’t already done so. I interviewed five women to help me explore such questions as: What is the difference that beauty makes in our everyday lives? How does beauty affect daily life? In addition sharing these interviews, I offer ideas and suggestions for small ways you can incorporate more beauty into you everyday life.