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.”
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.