Graffiti besmirches a Crescent Park floodwall in the city's Bywater district. Credit: Michael Bolan

Three days before the new $45 million dollar streetcar line from Union Station to Canal Street was to open and a week before the 2013  Superbowl, 183 graffiti appeared along the entire Canal and Elk streets route. Not the work of teenagers, the graffiti ranged up to 10 feet high and were in full color.

In most cities, the cleanup would have been organized and even executed by the municipal government. In Miami, for example, the 40 Litter and Graffiti Busters, all city employees, would have done the job. In St. Louis, the Brightside organization, funded through the city by a Community Development Block Grant, would have dealt with this case of vandalism, as they have 120,000 others. Similar arrangements exist in Milwaukee and Cincinnati, where the city’s “Keep Cincinnati Beautiful” initiative removes graffiti and apprehends violators.

But in New Orleans there is no official who is responsible for the campaign against graffiti. Indeed, the city government provides scarcely a penny for graffiti remediation. Fortunately, in this case the Superbowl and other affected businesses understood what was at stake for the city and stepped up with the $23,000 it cost to remove the graffiti. They engaged Operation Clean Sweep, the nonprofit founded by Fred Radke in 1997.

Whatever the hip may claim, graffiti “art” of all types is, first to last, a form of vandalism and should be dealt with as such.

Radke is an energetic do-gooder and practical entrepreneur who works with more than 25 neighborhood and civic organizations to remove or paint over graffiti. Among those availing themselves of Radke’s Clean Sweep are the French Quarter Business Association (through its Vieux Carre Graffiti Abatement Program), Magazine Street Merchants’ Association, Treme (through its Weed and Seed Program), and the Downtown Development District.  Also on the list is the city government. Call 311 to report graffiti and they will give you the number for Radke’s graffiti hot line.

Luckily for New Orleans, Operation Clean Sweep does an excellent job at a fair price. Less admirable is the fact that New Orleans is the only city in the country that relies solely on an outside organization or business to address its graffiti problem. Graffiti remediation appears nowhere in the city’s budget or staffing list, nor, it seems, does it fall within Mayor Landrieu’s field of vision.

Call your local police precinct to report graffiti and chances are they won’t know to whom to refer the problem, unless they’ve heard of Radke. No one monitors the instances of graffiti, their shifting geography and demography, or the cost of removing them. Amazingly, no one in the city government is paid a salary to bring charges against those responsible, or to represent the city’s interests in court. Only when someone is caught red-handed does the city involve itself. Even then, judges rarely enforce the code to the fullest extent. In the case of property owners who fail to remove graffiti within 30 days, the maximum fine is a mere $500, far less than in many cities. But charges are rarely brought against dead-beat property owners.

It is striking that New Orleans’ code penalizes private landlords who ignore official letters demanding they remove or paint over graffiti but says nothing about the city’s obligation to erase graffiti from its own property. Since these properties include sidewalks, bridges, park facilities, walls of municipally owned buildings, fire hydrants, utility poles, and city-supplied garbage containers (not to mention U.S. mailboxes), the oversight is enormous. The entrances to the soon-to-open Crescent Park along the downtown riverfront are already festooned with graffiti. Thanks to official neglect, these and other key locales lack the surveillance cameras that are ubiquitous in most other cities today.

Perhaps Mitch Landrieu has concluded that New Orleans’ unique, fully outsourced campaign against graffiti is working so well that it can continue its non-business as usual. If so, he is wrong. Fred Radke reports that in the last three years alone three known persons have inflicted $500,000 worth of damage to public and private property.

Some very hip commentators have defended graffiti as a romantic urban art form. One such “artist,” who came here from California and signs himself with the tag “Gay for Pay,” has argued on the NOLA Defender site that graffiti are “part of a healthy society.” Nonsense. The presence of graffiti, no matter how “artful,” says loud and clear that the city does not enforce its own laws and that anything goes. It says that property owners themselves have given up. No wonder that New York City, when it launched its war on urban crime, began by rigorously enforcing the anti-graffiti laws, starting in the subway system and then extending the effort to all five boroughs.

What can New Orleans do to reverse this lamentable situation? Here are six obvious steps, for starters:

  1. Revise section 54-151 of the city’s code to increase the fines and sentences both for painting graffiti and for property owners who fail to remove them promptly.
  2. Designate a full-time municipal official to oversee the enforcement of the strengthened anti-graffiti codes. In addition to prosecuting violators, this official should open and publicize clear channels of communication between the public, police and city government; establish surveillance cameras on key city properties; and inform property owners of their legal responsibilities.
  3. Require that official to monitor and report the number of incidents of graffiti, the age and identity of perpetrators, and the number of successful and unsuccessful prosecutions. Above all, let him or her regularly report the cost of graffiti to New Orleans. This is not trivial; graffiti costs the U.S. as a whole $7 billion annually.
  4. Start a program, modeled on those in dozens of cities that require violators to do community service by removing graffiti.
  5. Require police to apprehend and report violators and turn them over to appropriate authorities.
  6. Above all, let the City of New Orleans set an example to the public by rigorously removing graffiti from all forms of city property.

None of this can be seen as inhibiting public art in New Orleans. Like Philadelphia, our city has in place excellent laws that enable street-side artists to create large-scale and stunning murals. The dozen or so categories of graffiti painters include gangs, satanic groups, guys who consider it a competitive sport, and desperate loners who want somehow to impose themselves on the public realm.

Whatever the hip may claim, graffiti “art” of all types is, first to last, a form of vandalism and should be dealt with as such.  It is high time for the New Orleans’ city government and Mayor Landrieu to stop enabling those who make graffiti and instead take them seriously.

Books by S. Frederick Starr, a professor and department chairman at Johns Hopkins University, include Southern Comfort: The Garden District of New Orleans, 1800-1900, and Une Belle Maison, about Lombard Plantation, his home in the city’s Bywater district.