Graffiti highway

I-95 con­struc­tion zone un­der spray paint siege with no solu­tions in sight.

  • Wasteland: Trash and graffiti mar the construction zone under I-95 near Lehigh Avenue along Richmond Street. CHRISTOPHER SEAMANS / STAR PHOTO

  • CHRISTOPHER SEAMANS / STAR PHOTO

A van­dal  spray paints on one wall, and it starts a cas­cade ef­fect, with tags spring­ing up all over.  Au­thor­it­ies clean those up, only to have the pro­cess start all over a few blocks away.  

In the River Wards, graf­fiti is a con­stant prob­lem.

Few places get hit as hard as the con­struc­tion zone un­der I-95.  

In the fu­ture, the Pennsylvania De­part­ment of Trans­port­a­tion plans to in­stall green spaces, park­ing lots, and oth­er amen­it­ies.  

For now, the con­struc­tion zone is more like a waste­land, with scattered trash and piles of debris.  There are stretches, like the one along Rich­mond Street near Le­high Av­en­ue, where nearly every sup­port pil­lar is tagged.

Neigh­bors are get­ting tired of see­ing it.

“It’s dis­ap­point­ing that they’re in­vest­ing all of this money and they’re do­ing this big pro­ject to re­vive 95 and when it’s done, it’s go­ing to be des­troyed by graf­fiti,” said John Mac­Calus, a mem­ber of the Olde Rich­mond Civic As­so­ci­ation who lives in the shad­ow of I-95. “It’s very dis­ap­point­ing.”

“The graf­fiti un­der 95 comes up at every civic as­so­ci­ation meet­ing at least once for dis­cus­sion as what can we do and it comes up in the town watch meet­ings be­cause of the petty crime that it brings along with it and it en­cour­ages,” said fel­low ORCA mem­ber Chris Sher­man.  “It’s per­sist­ent and something that every­one’s sens­it­ive to.”

Ac­cord­ing to Sher­man, the city has be­come a much bet­ter part­ner when it comes to clean­ing up graf­fiti.  Over the sum­mer, he star­ted an ef­fort to un­tag the neigh­bor­hood (UN­TAG ORCA), walk­ing the streets sys­tem­at­ic­ally and re­port­ing more than 320 in­stances of graf­fiti to the city’s 311 tip line.  The city’s Com­munity Life Im­prove­ment Pro­gram (CLIP) re­moved them all, usu­ally with­in two to three busi­ness days.

“Un­der 95 is the one place where our hands are tied,” Sher­man said. “When I walked the whole grid and re­por­ted the graf­fiti, I didn’t even both­er go­ing un­der there be­cause I knew that noth­ing we did with our ef­forts would be able to make a dif­fer­ence.  You can see it’s just a ri­dicu­lous amount un­der there.”

The prob­lem? 

CLIP isn’t al­lowed to re­move graf­fiti in the con­struc­tion zone.

Thomas Con­way, deputy man­aging dir­ect­or of CLIP said, “Due to this loc­a­tion be­ing an act­ive con­struc­tion site and the safety risks, CLIP does not clean [the graf­fiti] as it is the re­spons­ib­il­ity of the con­tract­or to clean the sites dur­ing the con­struc­tion phase up un­til com­ple­tion.”

Brad Rudolph, deputy com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or at PennDOT, con­firmed that CLIP is not re­spons­ible for ad­dress­ing the graf­fiti.

“The con­tract­or is re­spons­ible, but they aren’t re­spons­ible for cov­er­ing it un­til the con­tract ends,” he ex­plained.  “Now if it were of­fens­ive, very of­fens­ive graf­fiti mark­ings, then we would make ar­range­ments to cov­er it and the con­tract­or would do so.”

The prob­lems, ac­cord­ing to Rudolph, in­clude the scope of the con­struc­tion pro­ject, the cold weath­er, which makes paint­ing over the graf­fiti more dif­fi­cult, and also the per­sist­ent nature of the prob­lem.  

Fo­cus­ing on the con­struc­tion zone sev­er­al blocks above and be­low Le­high Av­en­ue, he said, “It could cost $10,000 to cov­er [the graf­fiti] along that stretch.  If we go out there and the con­tract­or paints it now, they’re go­ing to have to go back in who knows how long.  And there are so many work zones, so many areas where these struc­tures, beams, and girders are tagged.”

Mary­anne Trombetta, a mem­ber of Port Rich­mond on Patrol and Civic (PRO­PAC) doesn’t think that things will get bet­ter un­til con­struc­tion ends and the space un­der the high­way is no longer va­cant.

“At night­time, nobody’s there.  You may have cars go­ing by and stuff like that, but nobody’s there,” she said.  “Let’s just say that they did clean it up, I think it would just go right back on.  I see it on the Con­rail cor­ridor, un­der­neath the trestles between Somer­set and Le­high every one of those trestles, graf­fit­ied.  We clean them up every week and they’re graf­fit­ied right back again.”

Trombetta ex­plained that she used to pho­to­graph and doc­u­ment the tags in the neigh­bor­hood to send to the po­lice, al­low­ing them to identi­fy the per­pet­rat­ors.  The prob­lem was, they couldn’t go after them un­less they caught them in the act.

“You nev­er catch them,” she said.  “I’ve been do­ing this since the late 1990s, and I’ve nev­er caught one in the act.”

Ac­cord­ing to both Sher­man and Mac­Calus, the con­struc­tion zone suf­fers not just be­cause it is empty when work­ers aren’t there, but also be­cause of the prox­im­ity of “Graf­fiti Pier,” an aban­doned pier on the Delaware River that has be­come a mag­net for graf­fiti artists from across the city.

“Graf­fiti Pier is less than a quarter mile from here,” Mac­Calus said. “There are young kids who walk through the neigh­bor­hood to go there. It used to be just stay­ing over there, but now those un­desir­ables who are trav­el­ing over to go to graf­fiti pier are now stop­ping un­der­neath the bridge.”

Mac­Calus be­lieves that the mess that has ac­cu­mu­lated be­neath the high­way is a ma­jor part of the prob­lem.

“The ap­pear­ance un­der­neath 95, the lack of light, and the lack of clean­li­ness is con­trib­ut­ing to that prob­lem,” he said. “It’s in­vit­ing that prob­lem.  There are no clean sight lines, there’s piles and piles of debris.”

Mac­Calus ac­know­ledges that re­mov­ing the graf­fiti would be ex­pens­ive, but he be­lieves that PennDOT could save money by hir­ing se­cur­ity guards.

Sher­man isn’t sure what could pre­vent more graf­fiti in the fu­ture.

“Pre­vent­at­ive is so tricky with graf­fiti.  I don’t think there’s a ma­gic bul­let for that.  In my ex­per­i­ence, the less graf­fiti there is, the less graf­fiti there will be.  Once a wall is tagged, it sets off a chain re­ac­tion of graf­fiti.

If you see graf­fiti in the neigh­bor­hood that’s not in the I-95 Re­vivie con­struc­tion zone, you can no­ti­fy CLIP through Philly311.

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