Graffitists Welcome Here?

Lucy Gellman Photo Cedar Hill’s graffiti vandals may get an unexpected summer gift —  four sprawling, concrete slabs they can decorate under a highway.

There’s only one catch. They’ll have to spell out, in paint, what it means to be a good neighbor.

Neighborhood activist and Block Watch member Camille Ansley brought that plan to the East Rock Community Management Team, whose members discussed what to do with a still-unused $10,000 from New Haven’s anti-blight Livable City Initiative (LCI).

For the third year in a row, LCI is distributing funds to community management teams across the city for neighborhood beautification and safety projects. Management teams have until June 30 to secure their funding. 

That’s where Ansley’s graffiti wall, part of a 29-point “wish list” composed by Cedar Hill’s community block watch, comes in. Accompanied by a neighborhood graffiti cleanup of over 60 tags, the plan comprises two parts: a “neighbors helping neighbors” theme intended to engage area graffitists as they spray, and a section of the underpass decorated with art made by neighborhood kids.

Ansley said that she and block watch members Kennya Adams-Martin and her mom Betty Thompson were inspired by the Under 91 Project uniting upper State Street and the Jocelyn Square neighborhoods at the Humphrey Street underpass.

The Cedar Hill project is still in its fetal stages, Ansley said — and she’s racing the clock with the management team’s June deadline.

She had already been planning the project with an offer from Under 91 artist Damian Paglia, but found that getting funding would open up the project’s possibilities when LCI staffer Linda Davis mentioned that the $10,000 was still floating around without a project attached to it. While it’s unclear how much supplies, design and execution of the overall wall project will cost (Under 91 organizers raised around $15,000 fortheir project), Ansley said that she will continue regardless of funding. Members of the East Rock Community Management team will convene to read over and vote on the proposalon May 22.

On a neighborhood walk-through last week, Ansley pointed to what she is specifically hoping to change —  a rash of blue, black and red graffiti on street signs, telephone poles, brick walls, and boarded up windows in two of the neighborhood’s abandoned homes. In some cases, the graffitists are just marking their turf, painting over existing graffiti.

In other cases, graffiti obscures street signs urging drivers to slow down or watch for turns.

Ansley said she sees convincing those taggers to move south, to the underpass, as part of a larger neighborhood beautification effort that will engage younger community members. In Cedar Hill’s tight-knit, multinational community, a mention of a “block watch” or “revitalization project” still carries connotations of “just telling on a neighbor,” she said. But something closer to the Under 91 Project’s Hi-Crew Mural may draw those young people in, instead of driving them away, she said.

“Graffiti is a part of who I am,” said Ansley, who moved to Cedar Hill from the Bronx 14 years ago, and is raising her son on Rock Street. “I grew up around it. I believe in it. Just not when it’s in the neighborhood like this.” 

Walking down Rock Street with her 8-year-old her granddaughter Ketia McGraw, Adams-Martin said of graffitists that she too wants to “give them a canvas.” At one point, she approached a street sign, one hand on her hip as the other reached toward a spray of thick letters.

BORMA, it read in electric blue paint. Around the sign, sharp traces of aerosol still hung in the air. Across the street, McGraw worked out a percussive melody with two sticks on a graffitied telephone pole. 

Adams-Martin took a deep breath in and opened her eyes wide. Dusk was falling in Cedar Hill, and she had just spotted a fresh rash of graffiti, with a new tag and paint color.

By Ansley’s estimation, the graffiti plaguing Rock, Grace, View, and Ridge Streets started appearing in late 2015, with a fat black scrawl on the historic brick entrance to East Rock Park. In a neighborhood that has a history of isolation — interstate 91 severed it from New Haven starting in the 1950s — this felt like the latest in a long history of offenses.

When the graffiti started appearing, block watch team members already had their hands full. In a small traffic circle at Rock and Grace streets, residents struggled with all-hours drug dealing and prostitution.

“It was blatant,” she said. She was worried to let her son play outside, and feared for neighborhood kids who waited at a nearby bus stop in the morning, where bags of trash were piling up and new graffiti appeared each week. To deter some of the illegal activity, District 7 top cop Shafiq Abdussabur placed a police patrol temporarily. It helped, Ansley said. But then it disappeared; the city doesn’t have the resources for a permanent beat cop in the area. 

Ansley and Adams-Martin watched as the graffiti spread, to over 60 tags in a year and a half. Some graffitists painted over existing tags to mark or re-mark their turf, while others chose new surfaces. The wall project, she said, won’t completely solve the vandalism problem. But she’s hoping it will help.

Other points on the block watch wish list include bus passes or transportations for volunteers, gloves, bags, racks and items for neighborhood cleanup, new plant barrels for the neighborhood, new streetlights at Rock and View Streets, sidewalk repair, and community-focused posters or sandwich boards. One already stands in a grassy traffic circle at Rock and Grace Streets, where cars enter New Haven from Hamden. 

Please respect the neighborhood, it reads in Ansley’s neat handwriting. Help keep our parks and neighborhoods clean, and beautiful. 

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Comments

posted by: bix on May 16, 2017  5:55pm

i think it’s “burma” not “borma”!

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on May 16, 2017  8:59pm

Thr Management Team meeting will be at 7 at mActivity, 285 Nicoll Street. It should be interesting.

posted by: Bill Saunders on May 16, 2017  9:34pm

These vandals aren’t interested in having a place to express themselves, but I am sure there are other aerosol artists in New Haven who will embrace the opportunity.

posted by: BenBerkowitz on May 17, 2017  6:59am

Some data: the incidents of graffiti on public and private property have gone up quite a bit since the Under 91 project and the art project in the skatepark. I can get exact numbers if it’s helpful. 

Not to say that there shouldn’t be public art walls. There should be many more of these spaces as they activate dead spaces and fortify community in their installation. We just need to curb enthusiasm for leveraging these walls as a way to combat graffiti…except in the case of the walls themselves which seem to remain untouched post installation. See under 91, the Edgewood skatepark murals on Coogan and the various murals on private property around town by Hi Cru as well as the mural on the Canal trail for examples of walls that have been untouched post install.

Apathy by the taggers as they get older and persistent removal by the community and the City are the only things I’ve seen effect the pervasiveness of graffiti in New Haven.

posted by: Bill Saunders on May 17, 2017  1:34pm

To be fair, Ben, all you can really say is that the ‘reported’ instances of graffiti have increased, that is why you can count them.

This may just be because more people are using your app.

posted by: nero on May 17, 2017  6:53pm

Although it’s a worthy cause, doesn’t the unused $10,000 fall under Mayor Harp’s spending freeze? http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/mayor_monday6/

posted by: BenBerkowitz on May 17, 2017  9:20pm

@Bill fair point but SCF data now has the incidents that are called in by phone and reported in the field as well so it’s not just data from the app. Also, would be useful to look at growth of graffiti relative to the rest of city reports so as to rule out the increase of reporting alone. Anecdotally, walking 1/3 of the Chapel every day, it has increased a lot over the last 12 months in the Dwight Edgewood neighborhood and Downtown.

posted by: BenBerkowitz on May 18, 2017  5:25pm

@Bill Graffiti reports up 21% YoY 2016 while total reports down 11%.