TUESDAY, SEPT. 28, 2010

Editorial: Invisible graffiti law leads to visible blight

A New York City subway car would seem pristine next to the graffiti that befouls the alley from Lincoln to Monroe, just south of the railroad through downtown Spokane. The eyesore extends along the base of adjoining buildings.

About a week and a half ago, to make matters worse, a string of 10 or more large painted characters appeared several stories up, conspicuously visible to much of the Spokane core.

It was this kind of blight that the Spokane City Council intended to eliminate nearly two years ago with an ordinance giving the owners of defaced properties 10 days from notification to get it cleaned up or face fines.

It hasn’t worked. While this alley may be unsurpassed for its tawdriness, vandalism can be seen in many places, and much of it survives well beyond 10 days.

As several council members noted on Dec. 15, 2008, when they enacted the penalty, it’s unfair to put the onus for corrective steps on victims. Still, as sociologists have said in explaining the “broken windows syndrome,” ignoring the neglect and abuse of public spaces invites escalation.

The Downtown Spokane Business Improvement District has a program to help property owners deal promptly with graffiti when it appears, but the business-backed organization’s territory stops at the railroad viaducts, just short of the one-time Crescent warehouse that’s been so heavily targeted.

In the meantime, a skate park beneath Interstate 90 is recognized by city officials as a notorious problem. The property belongs to the state Department of Transportation, but the skate facility is operated by the city’s own Parks Department – an agency that was described when the ordinance was adopted as supportive of the concept.

Spokane’s Community Assembly, which helped develop the ordinance, is frustrated enough with its ineffectiveness to have put the matter on its agenda for a retreat over the weekend. But if graffiti has not noticeably diminished, it may be a factor of resources.

Eric Walker, head of the graffiti-abatement program, is the person tasked with sending out notices. He’s funded by a grant that expires in the spring, and his information comes from volunteers, seldom from police officers.

In nearly two years the law has been on the books, Walker has issued only two citations, one of them to the owner of the old Crescent warehouse. He was planning another letter after the latest defacement.

Police did arrest a suspect in a series of tagging incidents, and felony charges have been filed over the thousands of dollars of property damage involved. (The targeted buildings included two properties owned by the Cowles Co., owner of The Spokesman-Review.)

In bleak economic times, graffiti is not going to become a priority concern by police. Nor should it.

But merely enacting a law does not solve a problem. The City Council has had ample time to recognize that the ordinance they adopted in December 2008 has not worked as planned. It’s time to revisit the issue.

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The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

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