In August 2002 I visited High Bridge Park in Washionton Heights and was surprised, delighted and appalled by the graffiti I found in the section of the park under the sweeping curves of the entrance and exit ramps to the Cross Bronx Expressway. I created this painting in an attempt to capture what I loved and hated about the graffiti covered red wall.
When I visited the parks again, only a month later, I started to grasp the true nature of the situation. Most of the graffiti I'd observed before had been painted over with bright red paint, but despite this, new tags had appeared on top of the fresh coats of paint. Over the next 5 years I'd see this process repeated many times.
I began to wonder how "the authorities" had been drawn in to such a childish and sysiphisian battle over public surfaces, and I began to wonder why graffiti removal had a higher priority than other aspects of park improvement. As the park department battled teenagers with paint over the dreary walls of the expressway overpass, the park lamps remained broken, the pavers continued to crumble from the steps in front of the red wall and the park continued to fail (at least in this area) to serve the public.
There is a popular philosophy in law enforcement and urban planning known as "broken windows." It states that cosmetic improvements and battling so-called "quality of life crimes" are the key to establishing public order. However, the "broken windows" has failed in the case of the great red wall. No amount of paint will make this place a destination for regular neighborhood folks, the kind of destination that is self-policing through the presence of people engaged in ordinary daily activities.
Creating public spaces that work requires thought about how those spaces will be used. Since the steps are broken and since there is no illumination after dusk, since there are no park amenities in this area, no water fountains, no picnic tables or grilling stations there is no good reason to walk under the noisy expressway except to tag the walls with graffiti or, if you work for the city, to paint over those tags. The primary activity for this space is painting the wall. (Or, in my case observing and enjoying the drama of the wall being painted, over and over!)
The only people who use this area sensibly (myself included) are the people who have dogs, who seem appreciate having and area where they can let the hounds off-lease for a bit. Hence, the correct solution to the graffiti problem is to stop worrying about painting the walls, fix the broken walkways, fix the lamps and install a dog run. This will make the area a destination, and alleviate other areas of the park from unsightly dog mess. The increased use will deter graffiti and, at some later date the more unsightly tags can be removed and they will stand a better chance of not returning. We should, however consider keeping some of the more artistic works, they're a part of the history of the area and an improvement to the oppressive blank walls of the expressway.
Cosmetic improvements are important, but it is the changes to the form of a public space that dictate how it will or won't be used. A park that isn't used by anyone but graffiti artists is rightly a graffiti park, and if we want to change that and expand the number of people who can enjoy that space we'll need to build in such a way that people have a reason to be there. Tagging and "untagging" alone won't have any lasting impact.
60 million dollars have been budgeted for park improvements. Let's hope that they are used wisely.