Coverup worse than crime? S.F. outspends other cities fighting graffiti

The scenery at Warm Water Cove isn't what it used to be. The aging industrial buildings that front San Francisco Bay along this bleak patch of shoreline north of Hunters Point once teemed with bulging, bright graffiti letters. Now their only distinction is large rectangles of cream-colored paint — evidence of where the city has obliterated the work of artist-vandals.

This is one front in a war city officials have been waging for years — and one that is costing San Francisco taxpayers far more than they might realize. According to deputy city controller Monique Zmuda, the Department of Public Works currently spends $3.7 million per year on its antigraffiti program. That sum dwarfs the $1.9 million spent annually in San Jose, which, with its population of 1 million, is 25 percent larger than San Francisco. It's also more than twice as much per capita as Los Angeles, a city of 3.8 million people that spends $7 million per year fighting graffiti.

This is big money, particularly at a time when the city is facing an intractable budget crisis. Last month, the Board of Supervisors was desperately trying to scrounge up $8 million to prevent layoffs among public health workers. The Public Works graffiti-abatement program burns through that much in less than three years. Is it worth it?

Officer Christopher Putz of the San Francisco Police Department's graffiti unit sure thinks so. He acknowledges that the amount of graffiti here has drastically declined over the last decade, as SFPD and Public Works have stepped up efforts to remove graffiti and crack down on vandals. But he thinks this new state of cleanliness is fragile: "I think if the city relaxed on this issue and cut back their spending, it would be horrible. We're a tourist destination, so we should look nice."

Others think the War on Graffiti has spun out of control. "I think it's nuts," said Steve Rotman, a prominent graffiti photographer who has authored books on San Francisco's street-art scene. "Here we are during a time of recession. Libraries are being cut back. And meanwhile the city is spending this enormous amount of money to get rid of what little graffiti is left."

That sentiment might be more widespread than zero-tolerance graffiti opponents would like. Putz says he routinely gets calls from neighborhood groups concerned about graffiti. But according to Paul Henderson, chief of administration in the district attorney's office, this zeal isn't mirrored in an average sampling of city residents. Earlier this year, Henderson said, a prosecutor actually went through three pools of potential jurors before selecting a suitable group that thought graffiti was even a crime: "They said, 'This is a waste of my time, because I think trying someone for graffiti is stupid, and I'm not going to do it under any circumstances.'"

It's sometimes said that the city's budget meltdown is a priorities crisis. To judge from courtroom apathy about graffiti convictions, San Franciscans might not mind seeing the $3.7 million campaign to remove this supposed urban scourge deprioritized.

 
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