- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Graffiti vandals have defaced mailboxes and storefronts in the District with paint and an unremovable etching chemical on windows — forcing business owners to spend hundreds of dollars to repair the damage.

The latest rash of graffiti appears on U Street NW, between 13th and 15th streets, just a block away from the Frank D. Reeves Center of Municipal Affairs at 16th Street NW.

On a recent Monday morning, David Schaefer found some sort of sign engraved by an etching compound on a display window at Urban Essentials, the furniture store he opened at 1330 U St. three years ago. He said he previously had no problems with graffiti.

“We are going to have the window replaced,” Mr. Schaefer said. “It will cost $500.”

The cost was considerably more than that to replace several windows at Rite Aid Pharmacy on the corner of U and 13th streets.

The Washington Times first reported April 11 about graffiti etchings on windows just a few blocks north in the 4th Police District.

“I don’t know what [the graffiti signs] say. I can’t read it,” said H.W. Lanier, a security guard at Rite Aid, adding that the graffiti began appearing “a couple months ago.”

“It has to happen at night,” after most businesses have closed, Mr. Lanier said.

Graffiti is still etched on the windows of D.C. Footwear, Cingular Wireless and Cafe Nema in the 1300 block of U Street.

Indecipherable window etchings appeared three weeks ago at Cafe Nema, said owner Dualeh Harbi, who doesn’t understand why vandals hit the 6-year-old restaurant.

“We will wait until they find out who did it,” before fixing the window, Mr. Harbi said. “We don’t want to spend money to fix it and then get more [graffiti].”

Etched window graffiti first showed up in Seattle before the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization. Officials there determined that the permanent graffiti was done with a chemical used for engraving vases and glasses.

The U Street window graffiti etchings resemble the graffiti painted on nearby brick and concrete walls. Paint can be washed off or removed with chemical cleaning solutions, but windows have to be replaced because the etching cannot be removed.

Terry J. Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, said, “There is no excuse for allowing a proliferation of graffiti.”

Graffiti is a destruction of property crime with the amount of damage determining whether it is a felony or misdemeanor. Damages estimated at more than $250 constitute a felony, and less destruction falls into a misdemeanor category.

A felony conviction might result in several years in prison, while a misdemeanor might result in up to a year in jail time. A judge decides on the penalty and may also require the criminal to make payments to a Victims’ Compensation Fund, said Junis Fletcher, a public information officer for the Metropolitan Police.

On Monday, Mr. Lynch wrote a letter asking the U.S. Postal Service and newspaper companies to remove graffiti from delivery boxes in Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights.

“As you may be aware, several neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., have suffered violent gang-related activities, culminating in recent shootings and murders,” Mr. Lynch wrote in his letter to Postmaster General John E. Potter.

Graffiti includes “tagging,” the signs used by gangs to mark territories. Increased tagging indicates an increase in gang activities, Mr. Lynch said.

Police officials agree. Earlier this month, D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey revealed plans to curb a recent spike of gang-related violence in the city. He assigned seven officers to investigate gang activity and work with the Department of Mental Health, D.C. Public Schools Gang Task Force and a graffiti-removal unit.

A week ago, Assistant Chief Ronald C. Monroe reported that four deaths since mid-July were caused by gangs. Much of the violence has been attributed to four Latino gangs in Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights, officials said.

The latest rash of graffiti occurs next to an area targeted last month for the city’s first organized “Graffiti Removal Day.” On July 19, a coalition of city agencies, police, private and volunteer organizations, and businesses washed away or painted over graffiti.

“It seems to help,” said police Cmdr. Hilton Burton of the 4th Police District. “It shows that the community and police aren’t going to accommodate gangs.”

“We have seen a big increase in what we believe is gang-related graffiti in recent months,” Cmdr. Burton said, and the removal day concentrated on those territories.

Subsequent graffiti cleanups will be scheduled for other neighborhoods in the city’s eight wards, said Mary C. Williams, coordinator of Clean City. Mayor Anthony A. Williams approved plans in June for the citywide graffiti cleanup.

In 1999, Mr. Williams first pledged a city cleanup, including graffiti, and authorized the purchase of two $75,000 power-washing trucks. The work cost was estimated at $100 an hour, or about $250,000 annually.

“We have crews assigned to that every day,” said Mary Myers, spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Public Works. “It can be time consuming.” She said the city can clean up graffiti on private property upon request.

The Postal Service was already at work, cleaning up the big blue boxes on street corners, when they received Mr. Lynch’s letter, said spokeswoman Deborah Yackley.

By the end of Tuesday, the seven boxes cited by Mr. Lynch had been cleaned or replaced. Calls can be made to U.S. Postal Services Field Maintenance at 202/529-5064 to arrange for cleanup or replacement of mailboxes. Callers should give the address and an index number from the box.

“We clean them up as soon as we hear about it,” Ms. Yackley said. “What we do is pull up the box and put another one in that is all clean and freshly painted.”

No graffiti could be seen in the 1600 block of U Street NW. Posted in front of some apartment houses was a sign: “Neighborhood Watch reports all suspicious activity to Metropolitan Police.”

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