Unbroken Windows:
Architecture, Law, and Order

It is June 2020. Certain streets in New York City and around the country are full of protesters demanding justice in the wake of continued killings of Black people by police for whom impunity has seemed the only response. Many of these same streets are lined by windows covered temporarily with plywood and other protective measures, out of property owners’ fears of the potential damage that could be inflicted by passing protesters. News coverage of “rioting” and “looting” often eclipses the motivation for the protests in the first place.

Plywood covers windows wrapping the street-level corner of Saks Fifth Avenue
Anthony Quintano, “Saks Fifth Avenue Boarded Up During Black Lives Matter Protests New York City,”CC 2.0
Plywood boards cover up street-level windows under awnings that read
edenpictures, “Real New Yorkers Can Handle This Too,”CC 2.0

It is October 2012. “Superstorm” Sandy pummels the east coast of the United States with nearly 100-mile-per-hour winds and a nine-foot storm surge. Many of the people able to prepare in New York and New Jersey board up their homes’ and businesses’ windows with whatever materials they can find, but devastation is rampant. In the days, weeks, and months of recovery that follow, despite the overwhelmingly disparate impact felt by already marginalized communities, aid is distributed unevenly and many poor communities of color are left largely to fend for themselves. Rebuilding often in the exact manner and place as before, due at times to hubris at other times to the lack of resources to do otherwise, elicits sanctimonious praise for the city’s “resilience” in the face of disaster. Even under the most “natural” of circumstances, some windows are broken, and stay broken, more easily than others.

Two white men attach plywood boards in front of glass on a wood-shingled building, with visible beams above
U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region, “Preparations for Hurricane Sandy (RI),” CC PDM 1.0
A boarded up, blue house sits in a debris-strewn yard, in front of a grey sky
Wavian, “Boarded up, Union Beach, NJ,CC BY 2.0

It is February 1999. Twenty-three-year-old Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo is stopped by four White, plainclothes New York City Police Department (NYPD) officers in the open doorway of his Bronx apartment building. The unarmed aspiring computer programmer reaches for his wallet. Allegedly mistaking Diallo for someone else and fearing harm, the police kill him. Nineteen of their forty-one bullets strike his body. The officers — part of a “street crimes” unit that is soon disbanded — are later acquitted.

At night, behind yellow tape, cups cover bullet casings on a sidewalk as police investigate the scene in Soundview, Bronx, where Amadou Diallo was killed by police gunfire.
Cups cover bullet casings on a sidewalk as police investigate the scene in Soundview, Bronx, where Amadou Diallo was killed by police gunfire. (David Burns, NY Daily News)
A wreath sits in front of the red stairs and doorway where Amadou Diallo was killed in the Bronx, NY. Multiple people mill about in the background while one person observes solemnly.
A wreath sits at the doorway where Amadou Diallo was killed at 1157 Wheeler Avenue in the Bronx, NY. (Jennifer, S. Altman, NY Daily News)

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 a collection of property — rather than of lives — in need of 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 it than someone who has never been inside. The owner of a car may be comfortable in a way that contrasts with the comfort of someone in search of basic necessities. What counts as “disorder” in a neighborhood long ignored by those with power differs from what’s permissible, or even encouraged, in communities where that power is held.

This evocative collection of annotated sources attempts 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. Research for this project was conducted largely online, in collaboration with librarians and archivists at a wide variety of institutions. These included Ian Beilin at Columbia University’s Butler Library; Robert Martin Witt and Nam Jin Yoon at Columbia University’s Arthur W. Diamond Law Library; Lena Newman at Columbia University’s Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library; Kristina Vela Bisbee at Columbia University’s Journalism Library, Brian Welch at the Harvard Kennedy School; Martha Diaz at the Hip Hop Education Center and Universal Hip Hop Museum; and Ellen H. Belcher at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY. Understood from its inception as incomplete, the material on this website has been gathered 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, this project 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.

—Jacob R. Moore, Associate Director, The Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, Columbia University, September 2021

If you would like to participate and/or have suggestions for primary sources related to this ever-present, built history, please fill out this form and members from the team at the Queens Museum will be in touch.

Further Reading

Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative, “Black Lives Matter,” organized by Meredith TenHoor and Jonathan Massey, with special emphasis on “Diagnosis: Policing and Incarceration,” we-aggregate.org, 2015.

Jefferson Cowie, “Is Freedom White?” Boston Review, September 23, 2020.

Bernard E. Harcourt, Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

Cheryl Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106, No. 8 (1993), 1707–1791.

Joy Knoblauch, The Architecture of Good Behavior: Psychology and Modern Institutional Design in Postwar America (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020).

Issa Kohler-Hausmann, Misdemeanorland: Criminal Courts and Social Control in Age of Broken Windows Policing (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).

Reinhold Martin, “Broken Windows,” The Urban Apparatus: Mediapolitics and the City (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).

Cedric Robinson, The Terms of Order: Political Science and the Myth of Leadership, (Charlotte, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

Alice Speri, “Stop-and-Frisk Never Really Ended. Now It’s Gone Digital,” The Intercept, October 13, 2020.