by ROBERT HEROLD & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & ouncilwoman and mayoral candidate Mary Verner was recently made the target of ridicule for convening a committee to look into ways of dealing with Spokane's graffiti problem. It was the proposal to ban the sale of spray paint to anyone under the age of 18 that brought on the derision. Once again, grumbled her critics, we are picking on teenagers. After all, said others, graffiti can take the form of outdoor art. And our problem is gangs, not a few expressive teenagers -- the logical extension of which is to do nothing until we get rid of gangs. Some continue to dismiss graffiti as just boys being boys.
It might come as a surprise to her critics to learn that Ms. Verner's concerns, even her suggested solutions, are now urban mainstream -- that is, of course, outside of Spokane, where studied insularity is an accepted virtue. Cities throughout America have come to realize that graffiti, unless regulated, have a cancerous effect on business, downtowns and neighborhoods. All public space suffers. Graffiti advertise deterioration and abandonment, which we know serves to encourage crime. And time is of the essence. When it appears, graffiti must be covered over or removed immediately, or else we can expect to see more of the same, and worse.
Some argue that in its most benign form graffiti should be viewed as the teenagers' cheap and accessible form of individual self expression, perhaps even considered to be a form of visual text messaging. And yes, "John Loves Sally," scrolled inside a heart, arrow through the middle, is bedrock Americana, an expression made all the more endearing when the love-struck author risked life and limb to express himself. (Is there in recorded history an example of a girl climbing high up on a bridge abutment to express her love interest?)
And there are places where graffiti are accepted as being wholly appropriate, even invited. I have in mind the old abutment on the north bank of the Spokane River, adjacent to the Maple Street Bridge. Or, consider the low wall on the Gonzaga University campus just across from the Crosby Center. Students have long painted on messages, announcements, even made the occasional political statement. But, these aren't the graffiti targeted by Ms. Verner. Her concern is directed at vandalism, plain and simple.
Teenage boys, whether gang members or acting on their own, spray paint graffiti most often for the purpose of marking territory -- either that or sending the message that they were there, like Kilroy. Regarding the macho marking thing, frankly, man's best friend, whose particular brand of graffiti requires only the lift of the leg next to the fire hydrant, isn't nearly as objectionable. After all, unlike the spray painter, what our pooches leave behind will soon dry and, with some air, leave a faint odor that only another dog can detect. If, on a hot summer day, the whiff of urine becomes objectionable, it can be easily removed with some water. Not so paint.
Concerned about what the presence of graffiti was doing to his city, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, since first being elected six terms ago, has been death to graffiti. He has set the example. City workers are expected to spy fresh graffiti before the mayor, and he looks every morning on his way to the office. If Hizzonor spots new graffiti, a city employee, no doubt dependent on his patronage gig, gets an unwelcome phone call.
We deal here more broadly with visual blight. The famous Baltimore strong mayor, William Donald Schaefer, was another mayor who had no patience for visual blight. He served for 16 years, was elected by huge majorities -- more than 85 percent -- and is associated with both the development of Camden Yards (the first 'new' old baseball park) and the inner-harbor reclamation project in downtown Baltimore. The city's many row houses, famous for their white porches, require constant upkeep. If Schaefer saw a porch that begged for upkeep the word would get out to the owner that the mayor was not pleased. You didn't want to get this message.
Graffiti remain the most troublesome and ubiquitous form of visual blight, and our more effective mayors have long understood that it can't be tolerated without the risk of a diminished downtown and civic life. Thus it is not surprising to learn that it isn't just Chicago that agrees with Ms. Verner's sense of urgency. Both New York City and Philadelphia are engaged in serious anti-graffiti initiatives. Smaller cities also are working to protect their civic space. Columbia, Mo., for example, is attacking the vandals by going after the weapon of choice, spray paint. Daly City, Calif., has a permanent anti-graffiti committee -- they are taking it just that seriously. Or consider always-progressive Minneapolis. Recognizing the importance of getting rid of graffiti and doing so expeditiously, the city requires a property owner to cover over or remove graffiti in seven days, or the city will do the job and send the owner the bill.
Oh, and about Ms. Verner's idea? In Minneapolis minors have not been allowed to buy spray paint for a number of years now.