For every big city, graffiti too often presents a Sisyphean challenge. Volunteers and abatement crews diligently work to clean it up—particularly the gang-related tags that most demoralize and threaten residents—only to see the same markings return a couple of days later.
Yet our experience with graffiti also demonstrates the “broken windows” theory of crime: just as one broken window in an abandoned industrial building will yield to far more vandalism if the window isn’t repaired, where we leave graffiti unabated, taggers will become emboldened. Their work will infect other parts of a neighborhood’s streetscape, and other signs of disorder and crime—drug dealing, vagrancy, gang activity—will soon follow.
Happily, community engagement and innovation have combined to lighten our burden in recent months—with positive results to prove it. As revealed in a recent report to Council, the City’s efforts to implement its “SAN JOSE CLEAN” smartphone application has vastly boosted reporting of graffiti tags, and volunteers now report graffiti ten times more often by the mobile phone application—over 1,300 such reports in June alone—than by phone calls.
The software enables users to photograph the vandalism, report its precise GPS location, and send the photo to the graffiti contractor, all with a tap on the device’s screen. You can easily download this easy-to-use application to your device by searching for the keywords “San Jose Clean”on the on-line iPhone app store or Droid market. Of course, we continue to respond to more traditional means of reporting graffiti remain as well: anyone can request a clean-up by emailing [email protected], or calling 866.249.0543.
The controversial outsourcing of our graffiti abatement services has overcome its bumpy start to post strong results over the past year. Nobody relishes the idea of seeing effective and hard-working city employees lose their jobs to outside contractors, but the solid performance of the contractor, Graffiti Protective Coatings Inc. (GPC), softens the blow: In high-graffiti areas, 98 percent of the graffiti last year was abated within 24 hours of a report. Citywide, GPC completed over 33,000 such work orders within 48 hours of the complaint, 91 percent of the time. Meanwhile, the City saved over $300,000 in its anti-graffiti efforts, and will likely save even more this year, as GPC’s work has resulted in a steady decline in the volume of graffiti since the spike in 2010-11.
Volunteers have proven critical to this cause, with over 3,600 San Jose residents participating. Innovative ideas have sprung from these volunteers as well: Last year, Vendome neighborhood leader Tina Morrill launched an effort that is steadily transforming many streetscapes: the ArtBox Program. By leveraging donations and micro-grants, Morrill has enlisted professional and amateur artists to beautify dozens of utility boxes throughout San Jose. Taggers appear far more reluctant to spray graffiti over artists’ work; whether or not there is honor among thieves, it apparently exists among taggers. Volunteers apply a protective spray coating over the art to make subsequent removal of the graffiti easier.
Of course, we have much more work to do, and at last week’s Council meeting, I pushed forward two initiatives that Council approved. First, we’ll explore an expansion of our partnership with the Juvenile Court and Probation Department, to put arrested taggers to work cleaning the graffiti. Currently, those juvenile probationers account for only 0.6 percent of our cleanup response, and opportunities for expanded partnerships (e.g. with the Downtown Association’s PBID program) in supervising the youngsters could aid our efforts both to suppress graffiti and to put the youth on a better path.
Second, the graffiti along our freeways and railroads remains abominable. The City of San Jose lacks the jurisdictional authority (despite our best efforts) to clean graffiti in those locations, and I’ve called for more aggressive efforts against Union Pacific and CalTrans to force them to clean up, or to erect fences and other barriers to prevent access to taggers. Among the ideas I’m pushing: the installation of signs with CalTrans phone numbers for residents to call 510. 286.4444, or through their website to improve accountability.
We’ll continue pushing forward with better approaches to combat graffiti, but we’ll also continue to depend on your help. Please report graffiti wherever you see it, and if you have any free time, come join the hundreds of volunteers who help us keep San Jose beautiful!
Sam Liccardo is a San Jose councilmember for downtown’s District 3.