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Costly Blemishes On The City

COMMENTARY by Tom Condon
April 17, 2005

I was walking through Bushnell Park a week ago, heading downtown to get a haircut, when I saw it. There was graffiti on the beautiful Corning Fountain. There were small scribbles or "tags" in several places. Plus, someone had written in thick black letters; "Hey Whitey Thanks For The Blankets."

This is a bad year for graffiti in Hartford, and it's got to stop.

The 1899 Corning Fountain, which recalls the indigenous Saukiog Indians, wasn't restored for more than $300,000 a couple of years ago so some demento could deface it. More broadly, we're about to start welcoming large numbers of visitors to the new convention center, and we want them to come back. People return to places that are clean and safe. Graffiti sends exactly the opposite message.

The answer, proved in New York and elsewhere, is to keep cleaning it as soon as it appears, and arrest the cretins who are doing it.

In 1996, the city outsourced graffiti removal to Hartford Proud and Beautiful, a subsidiary of the Greater Hartford Arts Council.

The group has three men who pick up litter downtown and on Albany Avenue, put out the flowers and clean or paint over the minor graffiti. For the major graffiti attacks, the agency engages a private contractor as needed.

The budget for the contractor, $50,000 for the fiscal year, is almost tapped out.

"We could be spending $100,000," said Mike Zaleski, who heads the program as the arts council's community services director. Providence, for example, spends more than $200,000 a year on graffiti removal, and it shows.

Zaleski is a thoughtful and hard-working guy who understands the need to respond quickly. It is thanks to his efforts that downtown has much less graffiti than it did 20 years ago. "The worst thing is to leave it there. When we stop seeing it we're in trouble. We must be able to remove it within 24 hours of being reported, or 48 hours at most," he said.

What keeps him from doing it, when he can't, are the resources. The crew has plenty of work to do with litter (which seems awful across the city this year) and flowers. The contractor has other clients, so cannot always get to the city's calls right away. When a delicate surface such as Bushnell Park's sandstone and marble fountain is attacked, additional work is often needed to avoid damaging the surface.

Since graffiti goes on a lot faster than it comes off, one knucklehead going crazy with a can of spray paint can wreak havoc, and this is a problem now. The cretin whose tag is "eso" is leaving his droppings all over the place. Some sharp community police officer could earn his bones by arresting this criminal.

Though it's hard to catch graffiti vandals, police did nab one a few years ago. The courts made him pay more than $1,500 to Hartford Proud and Beautiful. That made Zaleski's day.

Another part of the problem is the pitiable condition of the bus shelters. After The Courant yelled about this in January, the city asked Hartford Proud and Beautiful to clean the graffiti off the shelters. Zaleski said they removed what they could, but that some of the graffiti was etched into the Plexiglas with an acid-based material, which is virtually impossible to remove. Thus the opaque look of some of the shelters, those that still have Plexiglas.

The city is about to issue a request for proposals for a vendor to take over all the city's outdoor advertising, including the bus huts.

Procurement officer Lydia Rosario said the bus shelters will be the contractor's first priority, and that she expects the contractor to replace the existing shelters with something better.

In addition to the bus shelters, graffiti has popped up in playscapes and parks around the city.

I should note that very little of it shows any artistic promise, even in tunnels and other places where the perps have time to work. Guys, go back to school and take an art class.

The city needs more maintenance in the peak periods, but it also needs more imagination. There ought to be a school and citywide environmental awareness movement aimed at litter, graffiti, street furniture and public spaces. Sandy Parisky, former head of the Bushnell Park Foundation, wonders if there can't be a program to train city youngsters to remove graffiti.

Some years ago, Hartford Public High School Principal Amado Cruz grabbed the kids caught spraying graffiti and sent them to an after-school graffiti club, which gave them an outlet for their artistic expression without defacing the neighborhood.

The important thing is to keep after it. Last week, all but a faint shadow of the "Blankets" graffiti was removed from the fountain. A couple of days later, someone scribbled on it again.

Tom Condon is the editor of Place. He can be reached at condon@courant.com.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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