My TV offered that familiar Rio de Janeiro aerial shot of the Christ figure with outstretched arms over the spectacular, curving Guanabara Bay, and then cut abruptly to the shoreline where a wire fence held back floating plastic and household garbage. Rio, it seems, is one of the most polluted cities in the world, and the pollution is getting worse because of public and government indifference.
I realized that a city is as littered and graffiti-violated as we allow it—even this one.
I see litter, graffiti and strewn-ad flyers all over my block, Charles Street, and I wanted to know what I could do to address it. Trying to track down information about how the Post Office, Department of Sanitation and the Department of Transportation address graffiti led me on quite a chase.
I also wondered whether there might be a better way to handle the problem. Some years ago, during the Koch administration, a French company approached the MTA with an idea to sell ads on bus shelters as they were doing in Paris.
The fifty by twenty-six inch ads you see on the bus shelters are the result—and in a reasonably good location they can earn $900 to $1300 for just four weeks.
The ad salesman I spoke to offered that they are very easy to sell—in fact, advertisers often compete for locations and bid up the price.
If the Post Office were to sell ad space on the now graffiti-inscribed postal collection boxes, they could reasonably charge $500 to $750 every four weeks.
If we multiply this by the thousands of boxes the US Post Office owns, we might solve their deficit problem.
But here in the West Village we could derive another benefit: for years I have thought we should have signs that offer a map and historic trail through the Village, indicating where famous writers lived. The postal box signs would give us a place to do it.
The Whitney Museum poster we have created provides a map to the door for tourists. This is just one example of how we might solve the graffiti problem, offer a beneficial service and—hey—maybe make some money for the post office as well.
Press Office Runaround
A quick warning for all upcoming journalism students—please realize that you can no longer ask questions of a real live city press officer. Oh, no—you have to send an e-mail with your questions. Sometimes you don’t know the questions to ask, and having just a little more information would better allow you to ask the right question, but forget about it. You must stumble ahead with the wrong questions in the hope of finding the right ones.
And stumble I did, as I persisted in contacting multiple city officials while trying to track down what to do about the graffiti in my neighborhood.
To their credit, the Post Office did not give me the runaround. In a very nice call, they explained that they do clean up graffiti if you call and ask. (Though I wonder how long it takes.) The Post Office official was a very nice guy who I would love to have a beer with at the White Horse.
The Department of Sanitation was not so helpful. After several unproductive phone calls and emails to various department employees, Chief Keith Mellis provided the statement below about their Graffiti Free NY program.
And the Department of Transportation tried to hide their lack of a program behind non-answers.
I always feel a bit awkward calling a city department press office for my little newspaper when I know I am competing with calls from the Times and yet my questions are just as legitimate.
Think about it—the press office for a vast sprawling city bureaucratic department where even the head of it doesn’t really know what is going on. What happens when you ask somebody who is badly paid to answer a specific question? In this case my question was “Does the DOT have a department that goes out to clean or replace traffic signs when they get covered by graffiti or those little stick-on ads?”
OK, if the press officer is conscientious he or she will e-mail around and get nothing—or something so equivocating as to pass for nothing. But, what the hell, nobody is checking up on him or her—nobody is saying your response to WestView News is not up to the high standards of the DOT press office—so they send something so cryptic it could be interpreted to mean anything or nothing.
In this case, the only response I got was “On background, we encourage New Yorkers that see damaged traffic signs to report them to 311. DOT inspects, cleans, or replaces the signs when appropriate.”
The real answer is that DOT has no program to clean signs–none—and I found that out by going up the line and being persistent until I finally got a big shot who said twice “don’t use my name.”
George B. Flood, the USPS Northeast Area Spokesperson, provided the following statement:
Our familiar blue mail collection boxes and less prevalent green mail relay storage boxes are visible representations of the Postal Service on sidewalks in neighborhoods across America.
We appreciate customers who alert us to their dissatisfaction over graffiti, unauthorized postings, or damage to any one of the thousands of boxes we have on the streets of Manhattan. Manhattan residents can share their concerns with us by contacting the USPS New York District Consumer & Industry Contact office at 212-330-3667. Every effort will be made to make the necessary repairs or replacement.
Chief Keith Mellis from the Department of Sanitation’s Bureau of Public Affairs responded with the following statement:
Defacing property with spray paint, broad-tipped markers, or etching acid is a serious offence. It is the responsibility of property owners to remove graffiti from their property, or arrange to have the graffiti removed.
The City’s Graffiti Free NY Program allows property owners and others to report graffiti and request that it be removed.
If there is a graffiti violation, the City will notify the property owner. If the owner does not remove the graffiti or inform the City that the graffiti is intended to remain on the building, the City will remove the graffiti for free. Graffiti removal generally takes place between March and December, and the clean-up scheduling can vary depending on the volume of requests. If you are a property owner who has been given notice by DSNY to remove graffiti, failure to comply or respond to the notice can result in a fine.