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Writing on the Wall

Neighbors take action as grafitti explodes in the community

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"It's been a very tumultuous couple of years," observes Michelle Phillips, head of Tucson's Graffiti Abatement Program. The war in Iraq led to an increase in graffiti, she says, then last December the community started seeing even more. Phillips believes this was caused by gangs getting pushed out of Los Angeles by increased police enforcement and some of their members coming here.

Just after that upturn in graffiti occurred, the residents of the Keeling neighborhood decided to do something about the recurring problem in their area, which is northwest of the intersection of Grant Road and First Avenue. The neighborhood association organized a three-member abatement crew that goes out around dawn twice a week and uses a super-effective chemical to take off whatever graffiti they see.

"When we first started five months ago," reports neighborhood resident Steven Cowen, "we'd remove 50 to 80 graffiti tags in 90 minutes." Some of those had been around a long time, he recalls, but now the crew of volunteers only finds about 15 markings during their rounds. "In general," Cowen concludes of their activities, "we've seen a decrease in graffiti throughout the whole neighborhood."

Another crew member, Joy Holdread, has gone further in spreading the self-help approach to fighting graffiti. She has talked to adjacent neighborhood associations, encouraging them to get involved.

"Some days I just get fed up and aggravated (with the graffiti)," Holdread says of her volunteer work, "but on other days, it is just so satisfying to get rid of it. I hope we'll inspire other people, because sometimes taking action fixes things so quickly."

Even as the Keeling crew constantly cleans up the area, the neighborhood association has attacked another problem. Graffiti had defaced a large mural that highlights the history of the area, including its ethnic diversity and the role it played in the development of the Gem and Mineral Show.

Using financial assistance from the city of Tucson and the Tucson-Pima Arts Council, the brightly colored mural was restored. Despite that, a small portion of the painting still bears the ugly scars of the graffiti it once contained.

"Its takes a combination of efforts to fight graffiti," acknowledges Bevin Dunn, neighborhood association president, and Cowen's wife. "The Tucson Parks Department does a really good job, and the Graffiti Abatement Program does well with blasting. But for day-to-day problems, they're swamped."

Phillips agrees with that assessment. Whether it's put on by gang members or neighborhood wannabes, she stresses graffiti is an eyesore that needs to be quickly addressed. To accomplish that, her non-profit organization, which has a $280,000 contract with the city, tries to recruit volunteer ambassadors to help out.

"They can look around and see what needs to be done," Phillips says of these neighborhood residents, adding that her program can then supply them with removal materials as well as color-matching paint to cover graffiti.

For Phillips and the others with the abatement program, trying to implement Tucson's "zero tolerance" ordinance for graffiti is a daunting task. Supplemented by a 10-person crew of female prisoners from the Arizona Department of Corrections along with another from the Pima County Juvenile Court system, Phillips daily has three paid crews out removing graffiti from street signs, utility boxes and other locations around town. But, she indicates, it isn't nearly enough.

"The list for blasting is just enormous," she declares of those jobs that require special equipment to remove the graffiti from concrete or masonry. "We're a walled city, which provides a huge canvas." Because of that, Phillips says another blasting crew will be hired shortly.

Phillips, who has been involved with the local graffiti removal effort for more than a decade, also points out that the city of Phoenix funds its abatement program much more generously than does Tucson. With $1.3 million allocated annually, the metropolis to the north spends almost five times the amount that her organization receives.

Because of the shortage of funds, the local program must prioritize its work. It removes hate, racial and political graffiti first, then that found along main thoroughfares, and finally graffiti in neighborhoods.

Stretched thin by funding limitations, Phillips also perceives a lack of enforcement concerning graffiti from the Tucson Police Department.

"Its not a high-priority crime with them," she says regretfully, "and there is not a lot of detective work done about it. But when you don't have strong police enforcement, graffiti is done blatantly out in the open."

Phillips understands that Tucson's police chief, Richard Miranda, wanted to put more emphasis on graffiti enforcement this fiscal year. But, she says, it appears that effort has not materialized.

Police Captain Brett Klein acknowledges there is no new emphasis on graffiti enforcement, but disputes Phillips' assertion that TPD doesn't make it a priority.

"It's one of the quality of life issues that we pay attention to," he says of fighting graffiti. "That's central to our community policing policy."

But because of what she considers a lack of TPD priority for graffiti violations, Phillips hopes people put pressure on the police to enforce the laws more strenuously. But she also says, "If people need assistance with graffiti removal, they should contact us. If they need paint or other materials, they should call us. If they can remove the graffiti themselves, it needs to be done fast."

From her viewpoint, Dunn from the Keeling neighborhood has words of advice for those inflicting graffiti on Tucson.

"They need to grow up," she says. "They'll understand someday when someone defaces their property, and they get mad."

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