When Mary Fryback gives a tour of her West Central neighborhood, the sights are likely to be grungy alleys and walls covered with graffiti, not dramatic views of the Spokane River or turn-of-the-century homes.
On a recent visit, she pointed to a burned-out house – the work of a neighborhood arsonist who has not been apprehended.
Around the corner was an all-too-common sight. “There’s a pile of junk that hasn’t been cleaned up forever,” she said. “Nobody picks it up; it just lays there.”
But the defacement that riles Fryback lately is the profusion of graffiti that covers fences, walls, curbs and rocks.
Fryback, a volunteer at COPS West, is among a number of neighborhood advocates urging City Hall to get tougher on graffiti. She is supporting a proposal unveiled by Councilwoman Mary Verner last week to ban spray paint in the hands of juveniles.
“This isn’t just kids playing games,” she told Verner at a meeting last week at the West Central Community Center, not far from some of the most heavily defaced blocks in Spokane. “This affects our property values.”
Verner promised to work with police and neighborhood leaders to come up with answers, such as increasing funding for code-enforcement officers and seeking a stronger law requiring owners to clean up graffiti.
The epicenter for graffiti in the West Central neighborhood may be Broadway Avenue and Nettleton Street, where Broadway Foods has been hit so many times the building “looks like a calico quilt,” Fryback said.
While many West Central residents have been fixing up their homes and taking pride in the historic neighborhood, there also is an underclass that doesn’t care, she said.
“There are two societies here – those who clean up and take care of business and those who come out at night. They don’t work. Their kids run the streets,” Fryback said.
The combination of graffiti and garbage creates a sense of disorder that compounds the drug abuse and crime plaguing the area, Fryback said.
But don’t mistake this problem as merely the condition of Spokane’s poor. Graffiti is being scrawled throughout the city at an alarming rate.
Police had received 600 graffiti reports this year through mid-May from areas outside the West Central neighborhood.
Officials say the problem is even larger because a high number of incidents never are reported.
Curiously, the city’s anti-graffiti ordinance defines graffiti to be only those scrawlings left by drug gang members.
But police say gang graffiti accounts for only about 5 percent of the total. The rest is being painted mainly by young people who want to leave their “tags” around town.
City law requires property owners to clean up gang graffiti; if they don’t, the city can step in, do it for them and charge for the service.
One idea is to expand the cleanup law to all types of graffiti.
Another idea being tried in other cities is to levy fines for failing to clean up. In Spokane, proponents of a tougher law say that commercial property owners and maybe rental owners should be subject to fines for not cleaning up graffiti.
Council President Joe Shogan has argued against fines, saying they could be unfair to elderly or disabled persons who cannot clean up graffiti.
Christine Strand, who moved to a downtown condominium from Southern California about a year ago, said sanctions against commercial property owners are justified.
“They are perfectly capable of taking care of the problem,” she said.
A spree of graffiti painting occurred in downtown Spokane last month after police arrested demonstrators in Riverfront Park on July 4.
Don Hall, operations coordinator for the Downtown Spokane Partnership, said his organization needs a soda blaster to clean up graffiti more quickly and easily. But the machine costs $5,000.
The agency is considering hiring Clean Team workers rather than using local inmates for cleanup. Clean Team members are used for graffiti cleaning.
Christy Hamilton, director of the city’s Community Oriented Policing Services, said the neighborhood COPS shops need more volunteers.
COPS volunteers take reports on graffiti and provide police with photos so they can decide whether graffiti is gang-related. The volunteers also attempt to get the graffiti cleaned up.
Verner, who is running for mayor, said the city’s code-enforcement office may need more money to hire additional officers. She also said the City Council should consider establishing a reward for turning in graffiti violators.
Artistic murals could be encouraged where graffiti is constantly a problem, she said.
The Off-Broadway Family Outreach Facility at Boone and Nettleton put artwork on its walls and has not been troubled by graffiti since then.
The effort to curb graffiti is getting help from some hardware merchants, who have been refusing to sell spray paint to kids.
Markis Lennartz, manager of the Ash & Rowan Ace Hardware store, said he won’t sell spray paint to anyone under age 16.
Mat McCoury, manager at Miller’s Hardware, 2908 E. 29th Ave., said that even though he won’t sell spray paint to anyone under age 18, he isn’t sure that banning the sale and possession of spray paint by kids will have much effect on the problem.
“Spray paint is easy to get hold of,” he said.