Graffiti Shifts From Public to Private Property, City Reports

Categories: Crime, Government
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He's hopping off of public property
Following a lengthy and expensive crackdown, graffiti seems to be migrating from public to private property, the controller's office reports.

According to a memo from the city controller presented as part of the the communications packet for this week's Board of Supervisors meeting, graffiti found on surveyed public property has declined from last year, but "graffiti found on private property is the highest it has been in the past four fiscal years."

But Steve Rotman, author of the 2009 books Bay Area Graffiti and San Francisco Street Art, says the numbers don't correspond with his observations. The city's war on graffiti has all but killed the art here, he said.

"The city is as spotless as I've ever seen it, and that's from someone who's been observing the city a long time, wrote two books about it, and notices it today," said Rotman.

We've left messages with Department of Public Works spokeswoman Christine Falvey; we're playing phone tag and will update this story when we connect successfully.

In 2003, San Francisco voters approved Proposition C, requiring the city to establish specific standards for street cleanliness, and mandating workers to count graffiti, litter and refuse spilled from garbage cans. The Department of Public Works established a zero tolerance graffiti policy, and the mayor announced a policy of removing graffiti 48 hours after it's put up.

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Fred Noland
That may have sounded good to voters spending 10 seconds reading the heading on their '03 ballot. But ever since, the city has funded a complicated, expensive graffiti and litter management infrastructure that has wielded a bureaucratic shotgun to tackle a flea of a problem. To keep the streets graffiti-free, DPW workers conduct what they call "Eco-Blitzes" and "Night Walks" to scare property owners into scrubbing off or painting over tags. Since August 2009, the city has issued 700 so-called Blight Notices to owners of property with graffiti on it.

In December, SF Weekly's Peter Jamison reported how the tagging-eradication policy meant the city spent  $3.7 million on graffiti-busting during the previous year, more than twice as much spent per capita in San Jose or Los Angeles -- both far larger and more populous cities. It's also kept bureaucrats busy reporting graffiti, evaluating it based on a specially created grading system, turning those grades into columns of data, graphs, and charts, and then comparing those reports statistically to ones collected the years before.

Perhaps predictably, the inspections, grading reports, data extraction, and tabulations have produced results that don't seem to correspond to views on the street.

Per the controller's report, graffiti on private property has quadrupled during the past four years. Graffiti on public property, meanwhile, reportedly more than doubled from 2006-07 to 2008-09, before declining this past year to a little less than double 2006-07 levels.

Despite all the charts, graphs and reports, the idea that graffiti has increased since the city began its costly crackdown still seems preposterous to Rotman.

"I do still go out and shoot very regularly," he said. "I walked through Chinatown in 2004, 2005, was covered, covered in graffiti. They have made a concerted effort over the four or five years to clean up the city, and they seem to have cleaned it up. Now, you have to search very hard to find graffiti. Compared to four or five years ago, there's virtually no graffiti in San Francisco at all."

11/10, 3 p.m. Update:
DPW spokeswoman Christine Falvey tells us the numbers were derived from inspections conducted by Controllers' Office staff, as well as graffiti surveys done for the DPW by the nonprofit Mission Neighborhood Centers.

"The public wants to hold us accountable," she said. "So we're grading ourselves by providing data on our performance."

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