How do you solve a problem like graffiti?
Schenectady isn’t the only city with a graffiti problem. The nasty stuff can be found anywhere, but most often in places with gangs and lots of run-down buildings — places like Schenectady. The city has taken far too long to seriously address this issue, but finally appears to be doing so with a program organized by Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo. Good for Schenectady. Good for her.
The city’s past efforts have been pretty much limited to an occasional painting-over by Department of Neighborhood Revitalization workers and an ordinance prohibiting stores from selling spraypaint cans to minors. That, of course, is how the graffiti-ists — whether gang members or ordinary vandals — do their thing. But the law was largely unenforced and easily gotten around, since minors could simply steal the spray paint or have someone older buy it for them.
In previous editorials, we’ve called for a more sustained and systematic approach to fighting graffiti. That was the goal of the 30 or so private citizens who met at Proctors in May 2010 for a “graffiti summit.” Unfortunately, nothing much came of it.
One speaker at the “summit” tried to make the case for graffiti as art. Although some graffiti can actually be good enough to qualify as art, that is by far the exception. Most of it is just “tags” from gang members staking out their territory, or leaving messages to their own gang or other gangs. It’s a blight on neighborhoods, detracting from their quality of life, encouraging more graffiti, vandalism and other crimes. A city that is serious about neighborhood improvement, as Schenectady has always claimed to be (and now is showing signs of actually being, with the recent crackdowns on code violators and problem convenience stores), simply can’t ignore graffiti.
Last year, Perazzo got sick of looking at it all and decided to do something. She called the agencies that work with teenagers sentenced to community service, asking them if they would assign kids to a graffiti-cleaning effort and provide the supervision. They agreed, and Perazzo had her work crews.
Now she needed some paint. She got it from Home Depot, which donated it. She also got $10,000 from the city Industrial Development Agency to purchase supplies and start up the program.
And every Saturday last October, two crews of young people went out and painted over the graffiti on 25 structures, most of them buildings the city had taken by foreclosure. The idea was not only to get rid of the graffiti, but to get the kids to see it for the nuisance it is, and understand that by removing it they were doing something positive and improving their community. Then they might even discourage other young people they know from engaging in graffiti.
Unfortunately, in many cases those same buildings have been re-tagged. When this happens, it is important for the community to demonstrate its resolve by removing the graffiti again. That’s exactly what Perazzo plans to do, not just for a few days but every Saturday from May to October, provided she can get enough volunteers to help with the logistics. And, citing strong support from the various neighborhood groups, she thinks that won’t be a problem.
One business owner on Van Vranken Avenue whose building was quickly re-tagged after last year’s effort chose to leave the graffiti up, saying it was pointless to clean it if the building would only be hit again. She blamed the police for not doing more to stop graffiti and also said she wants surveillance cameras installed on the street. But the police have more pressing things to do, and catching someone in the act is difficult, given how quickly the wall can be spraypainted and that it’s usually done in the dark. Security cameras are expensive, can’t be everywhere and, again, because of the darkness issue, probably wouldn’t be very effective at identifying the vandals.
For now, Perazzo’s program is the best bet. But there’s no reason it couldn’t be supplemented by a police hotline for graffiti, or a section on the police department’s website to report graffiti and post photos of it. Active neighborhood watches could also discourage graffiti and provide the police with information that could lead them to the perpetrators.
This can’t be a one-month, or even one-year effort. Graffiti-ists must know that the city and community care enough to keep it going. To borrow a phrase from “Field of Dreams,” if you tag it, they will come . . . and paint over it, again and again if necessary.