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Freedom to Deface

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Freedom to Deface

Mayor de Blasio cancels a graffiti-eradication program, accommodating vandals who make the city uglier. July 23, 2020
New York
Politics and law
Public safety

Mayor Bill de Blasio has cancelled a graffiti-eradication program targeted at cleaning private buildings. He is thus deliberately sending New York City back to its worst days of crime and squalor.

The symbolic significance of this cancellation is as large as its practical effect. Nothing sent a stronger signal in the late 1980s that New York was determined to fight back from anarchy than the transit system’s campaign against subway graffiti. That campaign was based on Broken Windows theory, the most transformative idea in urban policy over the last 40 years. Broken Windows recognizes that physical disorder and low-level lawlessness—graffiti, turnstile-jumping, and litter—telegraph that social control in a disordered environment has broken down. That low-level lawlessness invites more contempt for public norms of behavior, including felony crime.

The subway authority declared victory over the graffiti vandals in 1989, even as privately funded business-improvement districts were increasing graffiti cleanup in retail corridors across the five boroughs. Inspired by Broken Windows thinking, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, serving under then-mayor David Dinkins, removed the squeegee men who menaced drivers queuing for the city’s bridges and tunnels. And with the mayoralty of Rudolph Giuliani in 1994, public-order maintenance entered the city’s governing philosophy.

The steepest crime drop of any big city in the country—nearly 80 percent over three decades—followed. Newly restored storefronts and avenues cleared of aggressive panhandlers invited a flood of tourists and new residents who bolstered the city’s lawful street life and revived its economy.

Mayor de Blasio paid lip service to Broken Windows during his first term in City Hall, undoubtedly pressed to do so by Police Commissioner William Bratton, who had also served as Giuliani’s first police chief. But an appreciation of public order does not come naturally to a self-described progressive. Even before Bratton stepped down as commissioner, the city was backsliding. Vagrancy was up in the subways, litter was metastasizing. And now, with the cancellation of the graffiti-removal program, de Blasio has reverted to type.

Attitudes toward graffiti are one of the biggest divides between the conservative and progressive (or anarchist) mindset. To a conservative, graffiti is self-evidently abhorrent, a spirit-crushing blight on the public realm, and a theft of property by feckless individuals who avenge their mediocrity by destroying what others have built. It is a round-the-clock reminder that vandals (most often fatherless young men) recently broke the law with impunity and may still be in the neighborhood, ready to commit crime again.

To a progressive, by contrast, graffiti is a “political statement,” as the New York Times recently put it, a courageous strike against stultifying bourgeois values. It represents urban grit and resistance to corporate hegemony. The property owner whose building has been unwillingly appropriated is a nonentity; the “tagger” is the city’s vibrant, anti-capitalist soul.

The official reason for the termination of the graffiti-removal program—whereby building owners and residents could report graffiti to the city’s 311 line and get assistance in removing it—was New York’s straitened coronavirus finances. That justification is unpersuasive. The administration found the resources this June to pay city workers to paint massive “Black Lives Matter” logos on the street in front of Trump Tower and on avenues in Harlem and Brooklyn; de Blasio himself, on the taxpayer’s dime, joined the BLM paint-ins to make sure that President Trump got the message. These street-painting initiatives were not just fiscally questionable, they were also constitutionally suspect, since they put government imprimatur on a highly partisan viewpoint.

And when two women poured black paint on those BLM logos to protest anti-cop hatred, de Blasio found the resources to arrest and charge them with criminal mischief—for graffiti vandalism!—as well as to repaint the slogans. That same month, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance declined to prosecute a man who helped deface St. Patrick’s Cathedral with expletives and anti-cop taunts, citing insufficient evidence. “The prosecution of protestors charged with these low-level offenses undermines critical bonds between law enforcement and the communities we serve,” Vance has said regarding Broken Windows enforcement, including the prosecution of turnstile jumping. 

To his credit, New York governor Andrew Cuomo has called out de Blasio and the city for tolerating graffiti. “I think the city makes a big mistake in not addressing these situations,” Cuomo said yesterday at a press briefing about the escalating gun violence in New York. “I mean, clean it up! It’s spray paint.” Graffiti, the governor said, was “just another manifestation of decline,” one that many New Yorkers see as “a return to the bad old days.”

Ironically, the city is a lot safer for graffiti vandals today than it was in the 1980s, in part thanks to policies that got rid of the disorder that graffiti represents. Back in the eighties, a tagger in the wrong neighborhood could be killed, a veteran vandal told the New York Times. Today’s taggers can deface property without getting shot—but they, accommodated by the mayor, are working to undermine the climate of order that undergirds their security.

The graffiti-eradication program cost $3 million annually, a rounding error in Gotham’s $88 billion budget. The city spends multiples of that sum on “intrinsic bias” training in the Department of Education and on nonprofits dedicated to political advocacy. Cutting graffiti eradication was not a fiscal necessity; it was a policy choice. Its elimination is an integral part of the city’s accelerating slide back to being ungovernable, a slide most terrifyingly exemplified by the ongoing violence against police officers. Ending graffiti cleanup demonstrates that the understanding of what made the city governable again was never universally shared.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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