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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Removing Urban Graffitti

Recently, a friend of mine asked for help in calling the city and getting some graffiti removed from his Fishtown property. The property in question is on Girard
Avenue. Graffiti vandals spray painted a billboard-sized tag on the side of his house. My friend, who has spent months, not to mention a lot of money renovating the house, said he called the city’s anti-graffiti hotline and reported the tags but he hoped that another report might speed things along.
“Every man knows better than he hopes,” as E. W. Howe once said.
I called the hotline for my friend and heard the recorded message promising that
graffiti is generally removed 3 to 5 days after it is reported. After the initial 5 days were up, and the graffiti was still not removed, I called the hotline again only this time I placed a call to the city’s new 311 system, which also processes graffiti removal requests. At this stage of the game intuition and common sense told me that something else, like Mayor Nutter’s city budget cuts, might be contributing to the delay.
I decided to do some detective work and placed a call to Deputy Managing Director Tom Conway, who oversees the city’s graffiti removal programs.
I asked Mr. Conway why the billboard-sized graffiti was still on the Girard Street property.
Mr. Conway told me the rise of graffiti during the warmer weather, when graffiti tagging vandals, like seasonal insects, come out in force. “The vandals are out more at this time of year,” Mr. Conway said, “but the city still has a very aggressive removal program. During the winter months we can’t power wash unless it is above 40 or 45 degrees, so sometimes graffiti will sit there for a while.”
I imagined thousands of tagged houses like the Girard Avenue house waiting to be power washed. An inner voice urged me to “be patient.”
During my affable chat with Mr. Conway, I repeated the vandalized Girard Avenue address several times, hoping that Mr. Conway would see to it that there’d be no further delays in getting the graffiti removed.
Two more weeks came and went, but the graffiti still hadn’t been removed. I telephoned 311 again and asked an operator why the tags were still there after four reports, the passage of 30 days, and a twenty minute conversation with the Deputy Managing Director.
The operator told me that the tags should have been removed several weeks ago but for some reason the request had been dropped or fallen through the cracks.
“Fallen through the cracks” in my mind translated into fallen victim to the city’s budget cuts. Mr. Conway, in fact, had told me that the budget for the city’s graffiti removal program, like every other city department, had been cut, forcing the city’s anti-graffiti unit to “look for different alternatives,” such as asking the School District to help with graffiti [school] removal. To adhere to the new city budget, Mr. Conway also said that the anti graffiti unit has had to change its hours of operation so that it won’t “have to pay overtime.”
In the good ole days when Mayor John F. Street was in office, graffiti was almost always removed within the 3 to 5 daytime limit. Minor exceptions to this rule happened but I can honestly say that whenever I reported graffiti then I was always amazed at how quickly the tags were removed.
“A quick removal is our biggest deterrent. The quicker graffiti gets reported, the quicker we clean it up and this deters the vandals,” Mr. Conway told me.
But there’s been nothing quick about the removal of the billboard sized graffiti tags on this East Girard property. Even after five different reports over a 30 day period, the graffiti is still there.
During the public uproar about Mayor Nutter’s city budget cuts, there was little or no publicity about cuts to the city’s anti-graffiti programs. Unfortunately, the “building up” nature of graffiti is such that as it mounts on city buildings, walls and houses rather than being power washed, the damage will begin to be noticed.
Hopefully, by the time the city’s new budget permits a “quick deterrent” removal, we won’t be living in a jungle of spray painted tags.

Thom Nickels can be reached at

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