South Bend graffiti abatement program keeps the city clean

SOUTH BEND Now that the weather has finally turned warmer, the colors of spring are starting to appear. But that's not necessarily a good thing if those colors come from a can of spray paint.

And if you don't get a handle on graffiti right away, you could spend the rest of the spring and summer trying to get rid of it.

"We track everything, from every dollar amount we spend on site, to materials, to what district, because a lot of times councilmen want to know what their district looks like, what's happening in their district," explains South Bend Parks and Recreation Superintendent John Martinez

He's referring to a map showing the reports of graffiti in South Bend last year that the graffiti abatement program responded to,

He says there are a number of reasons why the city has declared war on graffiti.

"In the neighborhood, it reduces property value and perception of safety in the neighborhood," Martinez explains. "We operate off the broken window theory, where today's broken window is tomorrow's kicked in door."

That is why South Bend's graffiti clean-up crew generally kicks into action as quickly as the graffiti appears.

"We have a very quick response time at 24 to 48 hours," Martinez says. "That's the actual abatement program, to keep the graffiti from re-occurring. Currently, we only have an eight-percent re-tag rate, which is considered successful for cities of our size in the country."

That's no small task for a two-man crew that, in a year, responds to an average of almost two graffiti cases a day.

"We've had guys standing in the snow, we've had them in short sleeves and shorts in the summer," Martinez explains. "It doesn't matter."

"Right now, we're averaging about 675 per year," Martinez says. "It does fluctuate, but this year we're already on track with 86, and it looks like it's going to be another busy year."

Mark Troyer is a repeat customer. This crew came out over the winter and removed graffiti from his garage.

It was then re-tagged.

"I tried to spray some primer over it to hide the graffiti," Troyer explains. "It helped a little bit, but it really wasn't... you could still see it a little bit, so what they did made it look much better."

The crew deals with all sorts of graffiti, but none has a higher priority than gang graffiti.

"It's critical, because what happens is if gang XYZ tags a certain area of another gang's territory, then that gang feels the need to come and give a response, either crossing it out [or] putting their own tag in a different neighborhood in the other gang's territory," Martinez explains. "That actually escalates the situation of turf war basically, and I think that could potentially lead to violence."

If a business or homeowner is hit with graffiti, there is no cost to have it removed.

The budget for the program is just under $100,000 a year, and Martinez says they usually end up well below that.

A bargain, he thinks, for keeping the city looking better and more secure.

"For a city our size, you figure about a dollar per resident is the normal cost for a graffiti removal program," Martinez says. "I think, in terms of dollars, the impact it's had in reducing the downward spiral of property values, it pays for itself."

Martinez says business owners and residents really appreciate the program and have even gotten to know his crew members by name. He says it has built a sense of community and cooperation in dealing with this serious problem.

And South Bend residents are encouraged to call immediately if they see graffiti.

The number is 574-235-7645.

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