- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

A D.C. Council member says the city must get tougher on graffiti because it is fostering gang violence and ruining neighborhoods, especially in Northwest.

“We need a zero-tolerance policy,” said Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat. “Until recently, there was no pressure or no plans. If you accept it as part of your culture or as part of your community, you will never get rid of it.”

The scrawlings made up of words or symbols signify a gang presence and can cause hundreds of dollars in damage, city officials and community leaders said. Plans by Mr. Fenty and the mayor’s Clean City Initiative office include organized cleanups and erasing graffiti within 48 hours after it is reported.

Police and neighborhood activists have a keen interest in the graffiti, also known as “tags,” because they suspect the proliferation is connected to the increase in gang-related shootings, including those this summer in the Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights neighborhoods. Mr. Fenty also said he suspects that most of the city’s graffiti is tied to gang activity.

“There does seem to be a proliferation of graffiti, and it seems to be competitive,” said Jeffrey Bensing, a board member of Mount Pleasant Main Street, a nonprofit group trying to preserve the area. “It will appear overnight, then be crossed out a night later. It’s kind of all up and down our commercial corridor.”

City officials also said the amount of graffiti has increased recently, and that vandals have been targeting pay phones and mailboxes.

The U.S. Postal Service has repaired or replaced some of the boxes and plans to fix the others as soon as possible. Neighborhood groups want the companies that own the graffiti-riddled pay phones to clean or replace them.

Mr. Fenty has proposed a seven-point initiative for reducing graffiti, including mandatory cleanup duty for people convicted of vandalism, a 24-hour hot line for reporting incidents and the 48-hour response time.

“There’s no policy on whether [the graffiti] will be removed in 24 hours or 24 days,” Mr. Fenty said. “That’s a problem.”

Several businesses along U and Mount Pleasant streets, as well as in other parts of the District, have been affected by graffiti, which usually shows up on buildings overnight. Merchants said the graffiti spurs violence.

“As it builds up, it threatens the whole community,” said Alex, owner of the Dos Gringos restaurant on Mount Pleasant Street.

“It affects the entire area,” said Alex, who didn’t want to provide her last name. “It gets the wheels rolling downward.”

Graffiti reading “BFI” and measuring about 2 feet by 2 feet was spray-painted on the back of the restaurant about a year ago.

Mary Williams, who coordinates the Clean City Initiative, agreed with Mr. Fenty’s recommendations. She also said Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ office is considering similar plans, as well as higher fines and video cameras in areas prone to such vandalism.

Most vandalism cases are tried only as misdemeanors and culprits are often hard to catch, but Miss Williams says those who create the problems should fix them.

“We have to clean that up,” she said. “And who bears the cost? On private property, it’s the owner. Is that fair?”

Merchants said the graffiti on their windows and storefronts can drive away customers.

“It says something about the neighborhood, and it looks awful,” said Deborah Martens, co-owner of Urban Essentials on U Street. “Someone coming in from the suburbs may have pause, and it’s important to get it fixed right away.”

In August, someone used etching cream to tag the windows at Urban Essentials and three other stores on the street. The damage to Urban Essentials totaled $525.

D.C. leaders are looking at innovative programs used in New York City and Los Angeles.

New York supplies organizations with up to 26 gallons of paint and equipment to cover graffiti. Los Angeles has a hot line for residents to report vandalism.

Residents say the city needs to consider graffiti as a serious problem and act accordingly.

“You ignore the symptoms, and the next thing you know you’ve got full-blown cancer,” said Dominic Sale with the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Mount Pleasant.

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