The Broken Windows Theory may need to be amended. Call this the Crumbling Wall Corollary, exemplified on a side street in South Oakland.
You're already familiar with the Broken Windows Theory even if you don't realize it. It's common sense itself: If you let a little problem go, it can easily grow into something worse.
A couple of social scientists, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, dressed that notion up and took it for a walk in Atlantic magazine 30 years ago. Since then, mayors and criminologists have adopted their theory that addressing small acts of petty crime -- smashed windows, graffiti, littering -- can stem the kind of anti-social behavior that leads to more violent acts. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his police commissioner, Bill Bratton, famously adopted this thinking in the 1990s, and that city's crime rate came tumbling down.
This column isn't about broken windows, graffiti or littering, though God knows Pittsburgh has its share of that unholy trifecta. Nor is it about vandalism, unless a tree can be a vandal. But it is about a small problem that has grown larger on Childs Street, an out-of-the-way stretch in a city that hasn't had the resources -- or maybe the dexterity -- to fix it yet.
Ken Klaczak, 61, grew up on Childs Street. In 1999, he and a friend paid $5,000 for a tiny, 19th century, major fixer-upper across from his home. His friend lives there now, but they're not putting any more money into the house. You don't do that when neighbors may describe your house as the one with the stone wall that's falling into the sidewalk in front of it.
The 75-foot-long wall, which lines the edge of the street and stands about five feet above the sidewalk, has been there since the 1930s (likely a shovel-ready project of the New Deal). At the wall's far end is a short set of city steps that nobody uses anymore because a thick and heavy bit of that stone wall has been blocking about nine feet of the sidewalk for years.
A tree, one of those volunteers that planted itself via a blown seed, is growing beside the wall and pushing the stones out.
"If I did that," Mr. Klaczak said, "I couldn't get away with it."
The tree and the city can. The rubble directly affects only one homeowner, as there are vacant lots on either side of the home. Mr. Klaczak started calling about the collapsing wall in 2007, and a city inspector confirmed five years ago that this wall, which supports the road, is the city's responsibility. Since then, it's entered that special bureaucratic vortex of finger-pointing and hand-wringing.
In June, a public works official said the city would wait for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority to complete its findings on the storm sewer beneath the wall. Then, this month, came an odd notation in the city report that "this is not a PWSA catch basin."
That's hard to believe. If true, it has been doing a dead-on impression of a street sewer that even Agent 13 couldn't pull off.
City Councilman Bruce Kraus, a South Sider whose quirky district takes in this slice of Oakland, has been trying to help Mr. Klaczak, but council members are legislators, not administrators. They can advise but not direct city departments.
Even so, Mr. Klaczak credits Mr. Kraus' constituent services manager, Barbie Arroyo, with keeping on top of this. (Maybe that's because Ms. Arroyo, 25, who recently completed a master's degree in criminal justice at Point Park University, knows firsthand about the Broken Windows Theory: Her father was an NYPD detective during the Giuliani administration.)
"Can they at least clean it up so it doesn't look like a dump?" Mr. Klaczak pleads.
In fairness, almost any neighborhood leader could make a case for higher priorities than this stone wall. For perspective, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's 2013 capital budget includes $3 million for demolition of dilapidated buildings -- and just $200,000 to repair all the city's walls, steps and fences.
The mayor's office reported late Wednesday afternoon that the wall is scheduled for repair at a cost of $5,000, but Mr. Klaczak responded, "That's like saying 'The check's in the mail.' If it's scheduled, then when is it scheduled?"
I'll report that when the work's done. But until the city has less call to knock down abandoned buildings, questions about crumbled walls may require the patience of Humpty Dumpty.
Brian O'Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947.