Graffiti Cleanup Program: Buffalo, New York
City Parks Forum Case Study
The Oxford English Dictionary defines graffiti as "a drawing or writing scratched on a wall or other surface; a scribbling on an ancient wall, as those at Pompeii and Rome." Graffiti has existed at least since the ancient Greek and Roman Empires. Over the years, graffiti has had both constructive and destructive connotations. Constructively, graffiti has been a medium used to spread social and political messages, and to advertise opinions and products. Some view graffiti as a legitimate form of artistic expression. However, graffiti can also be interpreted as destruction of someone's property — a form of vandalism and against the law in many places. "Modern" graffiti is essentially couched in the destructive interpretation: the public defacing of a surface using materials such as spray paint or permanent markers.
Buffalo, like many other cities around the world, has a spectacular array of public spaces that would attract many graffiti artists wishing to stake their claim. Declared "The Olmsted City" in 2003 by Mayor Anthony Masiello, Buffalo boasts five parks and connecting parkways designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the late 1860s (about a decade after Olmsted designed New York City's Central Park). Supported over the decades of transition by a steadfast group that in 1978 became the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Land Conservancy, Buffalo's parks have been a sparkling jewel for the entire region, even as shifts in the economy and a lower manufacturing base have caused the metropolitan population to decline by nearly 15 percent since 1970.
In the early part of the 2000s graffiti became rampant in Buffalo, and city officials knew the time had come to make a stronger stand against its advance. The City of Buffalo joined forces with the American Planning Association to make changes. With support from a City Parks Forum-funded Catalyst Grant, in 2002 Buffalo hired John F. Barnes to serve as the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Land Conservancy's new graffiti prevention coordinator. He, in turn, has since enjoined an "army" of volunteers to act as graffiti watchdogs to work with Buffalo police and crack down on vandals painting bridges, sides of buildings, dumpsters, and benches.
Indications over the past few years indicate tremendous success. Cleanup efforts have been heightened within Olmsted's green network, and some of the most prominent graffiti artists have been arrested. These efforts have not been easy, however, particularly when a single can of spray paint can cause between $1,000 and $1,500 worth of damage. For a nearly bankrupt city, such a job is daunting. It is a testimony to Buffalo's community spirit and civic pride that the city would invest in a 25-year parks management plan with eyesore remediation as a key thrust.
The city is going to the schools to educate youngsters about what is acceptable art and what is not. Barnes's corps is also helping students understand that money spent cleaning up graffiti is money not spent on high school athletic equipment or youth programs. With the help of the American Planning Association and its own determination to preserve the Olmsted legacy, Buffalo is making a difference for the future of its people.
Commissioner, Public Works, Parks and Streets
Parks Department, Division of Parks
65 Niagara Square
Room 502, City Hall
Buffalo, NY 14202
Images: Top — Buffalo Parkway System. Source: American Planning Association. Middle — Bridge with graffiti. Source: American Planning Association. Bottom — Education program. Source: City of Buffalo.