When talking with people, we tend to place a premium on their eyes. Maintaining eye contact is a social norm. We express a full range of emotions with our eyes. We look to the eyes to give us a lot of information about whats happening inside a person emotionally and even medically. “Eyes are the windows to the soul” or so the quote goes.
It’s pretty a pretty common association in popular culture to equate a house’s windows to its eyes. Makes for an easy cartoon face on a house, so long as there are only two windows on upper floors and you’re OK with the idea of being eaten by the house every time you walk in the front door.
Well, there are other arguments for the house’s windows being the “windows to its soul” even beyond convenient cartoon facial placement. The windows on a house are just as expressive about emotions happening inside as a person’s eyes are. They help us see the world in a specific way. Its easy to tell how a home feels inside by looking at the windows. Are they bright? Are they broken? Are they decorated?
Here’s an experiment for you. Take an afternoon and pick two neighborhoods to drive through – one that you don’t like going to and another that you don’t like leaving. Start in the neighborhood you don’t like, and pay special attention to the windows on the houses. Here’s my prediction. They’re closed, physically and psychologically. Many will be covered with things like miniblinds and curtains. Maybe they’re closed with plywood or bars. Whatever you find, I’ll bet the windows add a lot to your feeling that the people here are hiding. Maybe in the neighborhood you picked, it feels like people are hiding from crime or maybe the police. Maybe in the neighborhood you picked, the people are just hiding from their nosy neighbors. But they’re hiding just the same. This makes the whole neighborhood feel unwelcoming. Now, was your neighborhood a poor, crime-laden neighborhood? Or was it one of the beige plywood subdivisions? Actually, that doesn’t matter. Closed windows are just as uninviting no matter where you are.
Now roll through the neighborhood you do like. Do it any time of day, but dusk is best. I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts you can see open windows on most of the houses. Maybe you can’t see all the way inside, or maybe you can. Maybe you can just see the potted plant sitting in front of the window or maybe you can see people inside moving around or watching TV or maybe sitting down to dinner. Don’t be creepy and watch them all night, but it’s OK to notice them as you drive or stroll by. In fact, most of the time, these kinds of people know they’ll be seen but don’t really have anything to hide. There’s a feeling of security in these neighborhoods. There’s a level of trust these people are showing their neighbors and even to you as a stranger. That level of trust makes a place feel safe. Actually, it can do more then just make a place feel safe. A 2006 study done in Boston, Raleigh, Bismark, and Santa Fe showed that neighborhoods who committed to an “open window policy” where they left at least 50% of their street-facing windows open during waking hours actually saw a reduction in crime and thefts for the period of time they participated. I know, that seems counter intuitive, right? “But if someone can see my big new TV, won’t they be more likely to steal it?” Well, apparently not.
Recently, I stopped and talked to a woman named Caroline who lives in the neighborhood to the north of Memorial Park on roughly 54th and Nicholas. This is a neighborhood filled with stately brick Tudor homes and affluent families. It’s like a setting for TV show, it’s so picturesque. I had stopped Caroline as she was walking her dog, and I fawned to her about how much I loved the area. We eventually got to the topic of open windows. That conversation is the reason I’m writing this blog now. Caroline’s husband is an executive. They moved here from Chicago about fifteen years ago. They initially bought a McMansion out near Elkhorn, but they moved to their current area because they felt more at home in the neighborhood. I asked if it was because of all the old homes or the mature trees. “No, I think it was actually all the open windows. The last neighborhood we lived in was all closed off. Nobody ever really knew each other because we never saw each other.” This is a common complaint with many newer neighborhoods that have been built around the idea that we should drive our cars directly into our houses and close the door behind us before retreating to our backyards with privacy fences. Caroline and her husband don’t know all of their neighbors personally, but she says they wave to everyone, often through windows.
I love old houses and old neighborhoods, but I realized that Caroline was right. Homes with open windows seem to change the expression of the neighborhood. There’s got to be some solid psychology that backs this idea, but I couldn’t find it in time to write this blog post. In Minne Lusa, one of my favorite things to see is when a house changes hands and the new family opens windows that I’ve never seen open before. There’s a pair of families that moved onto the Boulevard in the last few years who have started having open windows on houses that used to be so closed. Even without extensive renovation, these homes feel alive in a different way than before. They seem more awake. Maybe its because their eyes are open for the first time in years. If you’re a closed-window type, consider taking on this challenge. I challenge all of you to participate in our own version of the “Open Window Policy”. I challenge you to open at least 50% of your street-facing windows during waking hours for the next three months. It will show your neighbors that this is a place that is open to friends and strangers alike. I’ll be taking part in the challenge. I almost always have my windows open anyway, but you’ll be able to drive by my place and see what shows I’m watching or when I’m sitting down to dinner. If I see you outside, I’ll even wave to you!
Here’s a couple of articles about treating your home’s eyes the right way:
Heritage Windows: the Eyes of a House
Here’s a Russian take with beautiful pictures
Advocating for the Old Soul: Keeping old windows in your house
Also, for a fun family night, check out Monster House, an animated movie about an anthropomorphic house that was actually a lot of fun to watch. (Probably more intense than most littles can take though, so maybe wait till anyone under 7 has gone to bed.)