Brussels is a bit like the Philadelphia of Europe, as it lives in the shadows of more famous cities, particularly London and Paris.
The Belgian capital has a gritty edge like Philly, too. Graffiti covers its walls, buildings and parks (see photo above). At some point, the local government appears to have just given up, adopting the name “cartoon city” rather than trying to keep up with the vandals.
While the euphemism is clever—and appropriate, since many famous cartoonists, including the creator of Tintin, are from the area—the strategy is a failure, since the graffiti masks far too much of the city’s natural beauty.
While I was in Brussels last week, I experienced another side effect of the spray paint. While waiting for a tram at an underground station, I could hear an older man calling out in broken English for help.
Not quite comfortable in my surroundings, I kept my head down, thinking it was a grifter or beggar. As it turned out, however, the cries were from a blind man, looking for help to the elevator. My mistake, clearly. And I felt lousy about it. But the encounter also reinforced to me how important our environments are to our everyday feelings—and actions.
“Broken windows” (a famous, but hotly debated, theory that suggests keeping streets clean also makes cities safer), may not only apply to crime, but also to compassion. We’re less likely to get involved when we close ourselves off to the world around us.