Here in New York, in the devastated areas of the South Bronx, the city authorities have been conducting an odd experiment. In the windows of buildings that have been abandoned they are using some $300,000 of public money to paste vinyl sheets or decals showing window shades, flowerpots, lace curtains, and Venetian blinds. They want the buildings to appear lived in, hoping by the illusion to defer vandalism and to cheer up those living nearby.
Now the South Bronx is undoubtedly one of the most wretched neighborhoods in any city of the country. Here at least two United States presidents have come to be conspicuously photographed, televised, gaped at. They have made promises which, it is almost needless to say, have not been fulfilled. Why this particular part of the Bronx, not unfavorably situated for residential use, adjacent to no miasma or other natural menace, should have fallen into a state of abandonment and utter decay would be a long story to recount. It is enough that it has proved resistant to efforts at renovation - and that now decals have been placed upon the bricked-up windows.
''Perception is reality,'' remarks New York's commissioner of housing, Anthony B. Gliedman. He might have been speaking not only about this particular situation but about American life in general. He might have been speaking, not as a city bureaucrat, but as a philosopher of our times.
Perception is reality: Does not the child sense this as he sits rapt before a television set? All that goes on in the busy world seems dim compared with the vivid colors on the screen before him. He is like the prisoner in Plato's allegorical cave, seeing the shadows on the wall and mistaking them for the live action that goes on behind his back. But it is not only the small screen that deceives him, or that later confounds the grown man or woman. It is the whole panoply of an imagemaking society, the glistening advertisement, the billboards, the popular magazines, the press itself with its stories that are as often the cultivation of myths as they are the reporting of solid facts.
Perception is the reality: Does not the mature individual sense this as he is told by a friend or partner that he suffers from such-and-such a defect while knowing that he is innocent of at least that one offense. In vain he protests. He is told that if he is perceived to possess the fault it is the same as if he does actually possess it.
The citizen perhaps most of all labors under the affliction of having perception given a weight equal or superior to reality. Constantly he sees public men indulging in acts that are designed to impress him. Meanwhile he knows, or at least half knows, that he is being fooled. He is a player in a game of which he does not write the rules. He is asked to accept illusion for truth, sleight of hand for actual performance. In the end, when he is expected to cast a climactic vote for one candidate or another, he realizes that both are shadows , their personalities glossed over by the maneuvers of advertising men and public relations experts.
In the South Bronx steps could certainly be taken to ameliorate an intolerable situation. It would take years, Mr. Gliedman says, and hundreds of millions of dollars which are not available. He is perhaps right - though one can almost always find ways to do things imaginatively, more quickly and less expensively than the bureaucrats declare. In any case it seems better to Mr. Gliedman and his associates to cover up the windows with fake images, to console if not to fool the public, rather than get seriously to work on a long-term problem. The public, he says, may be persuaded that ''we still care.''
One day, let us hope, the public will rouse itself from its torpor. Then it will declare emphatically that perception is not reality, that reality is infinitely more difficult to achieve and infinitely more valuable than illusion. The thrones of the imagemakers will be cast down and the silver screen will stare forth silent and blank.