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Symbols and the City

Graffiti depicting
Graffiti depicting "quality of life," by an unknown artist in Brooklyn. Photo by Victor Hebert.

Odd things happen in the “new” New York City, especially when the politics of the Big Apple’s image is at hand. On August 26th, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean held a rally in Bryant Park. As the youthful crowd waited, a renowned graffiti artist who goes by the name KEO (a.k.a. Blake Lethem) created a colorful painting in the wild style that has its roots in the NYC of the ’70s and ’80s. He was commissioned to do this piece on a temporary backdrop. But even the reference to graffiti art was too much for some to bear. James Oddo, leader of the three-member Republican minority in the City Council, wrote a letter to Dean stating that “Maybe in your world, graffiti vandals are artists… In New York City—and in the real world—they are criminals who destroy our quality of life.” Mayor Bloomberg also chimed in, a spokesman stating that “it’s unfortunate that Mr. Dean would promote and romanticize a form of vandalism.”

Dean’s urban-style backdrop was seen as an affront to quality of life policing and the sacrosanct “Broken Windows” theory, which states that smaller infractions such as graffiti create an environment that leads to larger violent crimes and disorder. Then Mr. Lethem was arrested in October because a transit vandalism investigator, after seeing his photo in the Daily News, allegedly recognized him from a videotape he had of people spray-painting subway cars four years earlier. This prompted another round of “I told you so” criticism with Oddo stating that “you reap what you sow" and Bloomberg deriding the idea of graffiti as art. It was another episode in the reengineering of the city’s image, a task that has more to do with Republican politics and perception than it does the idea of “outdated” public art. As the city slowly gears up for the GOP convention next September, it’s clear that Republicans want to stake a claim as owners of the city’s new image.

The “Reinvention”

There are explicit cultural battles arising within the mythological “transformation” from the “old” New York to what is called “new.” The old is, of course, characterized by the press and Republican perception managers as crowded with squeegee window washers (there were only 75 in 1993 according to an NYPD report), homeless (though Koch began one of the biggest public housing initiatives ever), random muggings (even though crime went down under Dinkins), and that sin of vandalism, graffiti. The “new” New York, on the other hand, is—or at least was—thriving, clean, shiny, safe, and replete with a special NYPD force that seeks out those criminals who spray paint on public property (such as high-profile locations like inside tunnels and beneath overpasses).

Of course, the obsession to change the image of the Big Apple goes back decades, as Miriam Greenberg pointed out in her Rail review of Joe Austin’s Taking the Train: How Graffiti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City (August–September 2002). In addition to the fact that graffiti wars have persisted since Mayor Lindsay (graffiti-resistant subway cars were introduced in the mid-1980s and the subways were largely cleaned up by 1990), Greenberg notes how a “conjuncture of fears” amidst NYC’s urban crisis of the ’70s caused graffiti to be scapegoated by city officials looking to cover over real economic problems. The belief that social order is about appearances and aesthetics rather than material inequalities steered many of the policy directions in the Giuliani years (it’s much easier, and convenient, to fix graffiti than sociopolitical inequities). It also became the defining glory for the Giuliani administration and helped empower the Republican minority of the city.

A Broken Windows Obsession

Image, then, is everything. And Broken Windows is the justification for the criminalization of misdemeanors; an open beer, public urination, graffiti, and a plethora of other offenses became grounds for time behind bars rather than receiving a summons. This idea—which was defined first by George Kelling and James Q. Wilson and then heavily promoted by the Manhattan Institute—has now become so sacrosanct that mere mention of one of the smaller “crimes” evokes wild-eyed fears that we’re returning to the “nightmare of the ’70s.” But first things first: according to prominent social scientists such as Jeffrey A. Fagan, a respected professor at Columbia Law School, there is no evidence that disorder (such as a broken window or garbage on the streets) and crime are linked. According to Fagan, “there is no standing in social science whatsoever that disorder invites crime.” Granted, it is nicer to live in a place that is clean and ordered to some degree. But it seems the actual connection between smaller violations and true crime is suspect. Perception, of course, is a different story.

The NYC of past decades had tremendous problems and graffiti was overabundant at times (now, scratchiti rears a nasty head). But there were also incredibly beautiful pieces made by driven individuals with a desire to beautify areas that had first been redlined, then abandoned and finally left to ruin by the city. Much like the tradition of mural painting in decades past, graffiti has produced many dedicated artists and has been one of NYC’s international cultural influences. Like it or not, the graffiti styles that were born from the streets of New York are, to many, considered valid artistic expression; they have been shown in galleries internationally, and have had influence on numerous popular commercial styles (from which many Republican-oriented corporations have made much money). A minor Republican jumping on Dean’s aesthetic choice of backdrop not only seems like political wrangling, but also an instance of Giuliani’s cultural police returning to post-Rudy New York.

O Media, Where Art Thou?

Ever since Giuliani’s fiasco with the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, any Republican politician commenting on art makes good copy. The media thus had a field day of sorts with the Dean story, especially after Lethem was arrested for the alleged earlier incident. On October 11th, the predictable New York Post weighed in with a “Memo to Howard Dean” that began “Kudos to the NYPD for a clever bit of police work that not only nabbed a subway vandal, but also sent a necessary message to one of the clueless Democrats running for president.” The Post continued, “Recall that key to cleaning up the graffiti plague was Giuliani’s ‘quality of life’ campaign, in which crimes long dismissed by officials as trivial or inconsequential were vigorously investigated.” The tabloid concluded that such tactics are what brought an end to Fear City. For his part, Bloomberg stated after KEO was arrested that “Graffiti is not art. Graffiti is taking somebody else’s property and destroying it.” The Mayor further claimed the brouhaha “has nothing to do with anybody’s political views.” The incident also made it to national TV, with CNN’s Tucker Carlson joking that “Dean commissioned a graffiti artist to spray-paint a backdrop reminiscent of a vandalized wall. Urban voters, Howard Dean believes, love graffiti and vandalism. That’s the view from Vermont.”

It’s indeed difficult to find any defense of graffiti in mainstream media. In a May 2002 New York Times review of Joe Austin’s aforementioned book Taking the Train, Tom Vanderbilt wholly buys into Broken Windows as a PR mechanism. Vanderbilt points out the “pliable metropolis of the mind” that represents the Fear City of the 1970s—one represented by films like The Warriors and graffiti-covered subways—can also be reinvented by the symbolism of a graffiti-less subway car, as in the “new” New York of the 1990s. “If the urban comeback of the last decade has proved anything,” Vanderbilt then states, “it is that symbols matter, that cities that look and feel safer probably are safer, that a city that can control a minor scourge like graffiti might eventually be able to address bigger problems. Those who pine for the days of a graffiti-covered city overlook the fact that in the days of Fear City the public sphere most emphatically did not belong to the public.” Besides the fact that battling graffiti does not seem to have helped address bigger problems (massive budget deficits, record homelessness, and fewer services are all characteristics of the “new” New York), it can be argued that with the city’s streets each day becoming more like a shopping mall, the public sphere now belongs less to the public than it did in Fear City.

The Quest for Advertisement

So what do we make of all this? Sure, a lot of graffiti is vandalism, pure and simple, but just because one graffiti-proofs the trains, or locks away graffiti artists, clearly doesn’t mean that scratchiti stops. And most of that form is not the graffiti in question. Go take a look at the some of the surviving pieces in the Bronx or walk down and look at the new pieces on Bedford Avenue and take a moment to compare them to the ubiquitous small ads, huge billboards and immense 10-story high canvases that cover sides of buildings. How do they make you feel? Do those advertisements look nice? Are they part of any organic sense of community? Or, take the more recent example of the Street Furniture Act recently passed by the City Council. It will make newsstands, public toilets, bus stops and the like become little more than vessels for advertisements. Why aren’t those who bemoan graffiti art on public and private walls complaining about the presence of advertising all over the city?

Perhaps there are two perceptions at battle here: one that city Republicans and, ultimately national Republicans, push as the “reinvention” of New York. The GOP convention next September will be their crowing achievement. After their success in grafting a patina of “inclusiveness” on their party, the Republicans will now lay claim to governing an “ungovernable city” before, during, and after 9/11. The contrary perception is the one that Dean the Democrat dared to entertain: NYC as home to organic creativity, artistic impulses, urban expression, and youth culture. KEO, who grew up in a culture of writing, was made into a sacrificial lamb for daring to paint a backdrop that is the wrong symbol at the wrong time. But is it? Symbols do mean a lot, and so what are we to make of a city densely populated by signs for CK, Coca-Cola, Washington Mutual, and Dr. Zizmor?


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2003

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