A representative from the Mayor’s Office says there are plenty of options for Queens residents looking to improve their neighborhoods, but not everyone is convinced.
“Graffiti is one of the biggest quality-of-life issues, but people don’t always know what to do when they see it in their neighborhood and they feel helpless in these situations,” Claudia Filomena, the Queens director for the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit, said. “We’re trying to get the word out that these options are there and available for you to take advantage of.”
Filomena, who spoke before the 112th Precinct Community Council meeting last Thursday, showcased the Graffiti Free NYC program that was established in the mid-to late 1990s and provides free graffiti removal services for commercial and residential property owners.
“All you have to do is sign a waiver, whether or not you have graffiti on your property at the time, and submit it,” she said. “Whenever you see graffiti you call 311 and report it, and we will go out and clean it for free for as long as you own the property. So if you have graffiti on your fence one week, we come and clean it and then three weeks later you have graffiti on your fence again, we’ll clean it again.”
Filomena said the services are only offered between March and November, as the paint and the washing solution do not work properly if the temperature is below 55 degrees.
But while many attendees at the meeting seemed interested in the program, there were a few skeptics in the audience.
“It’s not free,” one audience member muttered under his breath. “Nothing is free, you pay for it when you pay taxes.”
City Council candidate Jon Torodash brought up his own concerns.
“Jamaica has a tremendous trash problem and it has since been growing along Queens Boulevard and there have been individuals who have been documenting it,” he said. “It’s happened on DOT properties, residential properties, and no one is coming out there and no fines have been issued.”
Filomena explained that in certain situations, such as a vacant lot, the Department of Sanitation can clean up the property.
“But in Queens you have a lot of buildings that have just been abandoned and we try to do as much as we can,” she said. “Because you have a lot of absentee landowners and property owners in the area, it makes it difficult. We can bill them, but at the end of the day, they can choose to ignore the fines. Unfortunately it’s kind of just a Band-Aid. We can also reach out to the banks that own those properties but many of them are out of state and don’t always come up with the best solutions either.”
“It is obvious that Manhattan and certain areas of Brooklyn and Queens are better maintained than others, and it’s simply not right,” Torodash wrote in an email after the meeting. “Although Jamaica is not technically ‘in my district,’ it is a hop, skip and a jump from the subways and buses. The slow incursion of graffiti and trash buildup into any area is a troubling indicator of neighborhood decline, correlating with increased crime and lowered property value. We don’t want the problem to creep in: It should be aggressively pursued.”
A resident of Jamaica, who did not attend the meeting, had similar thoughts.
“It’s downright nasty the way some of these streets look,” Gretta Harison said. “Some people probably say they’re used to it, but that’s not a good thing. We shouldn’t be used to trash all over the place and last time I checked, Queens was part of the city that Bloomberg represents. It seems like he forgets that sometimes.”
“There are areas in Manhattan that have trash and graffiti as well,” Felomina said at the meeting. “We want to help property owners and residents keep their neighborhoods clean and I know that in the Jamaica area there are a lot of issues with trash but there is only so much that we can legally do. We encourage anyone who sees trash or graffiti to call it in.”
Torodash was not satisfied.
“It amazes me how Queens Borough Hall can be strewn with trash, a broken handrail, peeling paint on its flagpole and unwashed graffiti for months (on the tarp over Civic Virtue’s former site) but still the city could muster $100,000 to pay for yanking the Civic Virtue statue away from City Hall and come up with $20 million for a glass atrium where healthy cherry trees once stood,” Torodash wrote. “It’s really not that complicated: Inspectors must seriously ramp up their issuing of citations and pass enforcement up the chain of command quickly to deal with the repeat and serious offenders who flout the law.”
The Mayor’s Office is not the only agency offering graffiti removal programs. Council members Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills), Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), Jimmy Van Brammer (D-Sunnyside) and others have funded programs for their districts.
“It’s nice that the city is working to clean up neighborhoods,” Sheila Greer of Kew Gardens said. “The fact that they’re trying shows a lot.”
“I think there is a problem with trash and graffiti but it’s nowhere near as bad as it was 20 or 30 years ago,” Sky Garret of Springfield Gardens said. “If you remember the 1980s when crack was everywhere, you remember it was worse than now. I’m not saying we’re all good here but I think it’s getting better. We can’t rely only on Bloomberg. He’s too busy closing schools to worry about this. All politicians need to get involved.”
In addition to the graffiti removal program, Felomina mentioned that community service, Boy and Girl Scouts or any other group that would like to host a graffiti cleanup can do so by getting in contact with the 112th Precinct or any other precinct. The city will provide brushes, rollers and up to 26 gallons of paint for free.
“You just need written permission from the property owner,” Felomina said. “Getting permission is particularly important. We don’t want people cleaning storefronts without talking to the property owners but it’s a great way to get involved.”