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Chicago stepping up its game in war on graffiti

Graffiti removal

A Streets and Sanitation graffiti-removal crew works on a building in the 2900 block of West 59th Street. | File photo

Chicago is stepping up its game in the never-ending battle against graffiti.

The city is adding three graffiti removal crews and eight new chemical removal trucks to its existing fleet of 14 to keep response times to three to five days with no backlog.

Chemical trucks require just one employee and cost $69,700 each, compared to $150,000 and a two-employee crew for “soda blasters,” according to Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams.

Removing graffiti with “citric acid under high-water pressure” also removes graffiti faster, particularly on “brick, stone and other porous mineral surfaces,” Williams said.

When the fleet upgrade is completed and old vehicles are retired, the city will have 22 graffiti removal trucks, up from 17. Fourteen will be chemical trucks. The eight remaining trucks will be a combination of paint crews and soda blasters.

Three new laborers also will be added, freed up by efficiencies tied to grid garbage collections.

For decades, Chicago gangs have used graffiti to mark their territories. Graffiti is also used to threaten rivals or take credit for shootings, which can lead to retaliation.

But a lot of the graffiti marring city subways and viaducts is done by urban artists — taggers — who don’t have anything to do with gangs.

More recently, gangs have started to “cyber-tag,” portraying their graffiti and symbols in online videos to boast about their deeds.

Already this year, the city has completed 31,881 removal requests, down from 36,813 removals during the same period a year ago.

Armed with those numbers, Williams claimed that Chicago is turning the corner in the war on graffiti.

“We get it down between three and five days. There’s a lot of cities where, you almost get the impression that they’re not even trying anymore. We take it seriously. We try very hard to get it off as quickly as we can. We have no backlog right now,” Williams said.

“The faster you take it down, the slower it goes up. By us removing it, other individuals don’t see it up. So hopefully, they’re not as tempted to do it. The numbers have actually been coming down because we take it off so fast,” he said. “Graffiti is something that, you see it and kids copy it. The sooner you can remove it, the less chance you have of that happening.”

Five years ago, Emanuel defended his decision to cut his predecessor’s popular graffiti blasters program — and dramatically alter the city’s plan of attack — despite a slowdown that had so frustrated one alderman, he was using his expense allowance to remove it.

“When we did graffiti [removal] the old way, we’d go into a neighborhood, do one wall, walk away and the rest of the neighborhood would still have graffiti,” the mayor said then.

“Now, it’s the entire community and any community that’s had it since we did the blitz changes it. . . . So while you’re calling it lag time, I see an entire neighborhood clean — not just one wall in a neighborhood,” Emanuel said. “It’s a different strategy.”

But even after appeasing aldermen by restoring $1 million in graffiti removal cuts, Emanuel’s first budget reduced annual spending on graffiti removal from $5.7 million and 60 employees in 2011 to $4.1 million and 43 employees the following year.

Still, the mayor insisted then that “crew efficiency” was up and calls to 311 were down in the six months since the Department of Streets and Sanitation started blitzing four wards each day instead of handling graffiti removal requests on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“Doing it the old way doesn’t make it better — doesn’t mean you’re better serving. I like the fact that my commissioners are every day saying, ‘How do we better serve the people . . . and live with a tight budget and do more with less?’ ” he said.

In subsequent years, aldermen demanded that Emanuel put more money into graffiti removal, a quality of life issue that can breed higher crime.

In 2014, Emanuel moved to crack the whip on graffiti vandals, but not enough to satisfy Southwest Side Ald. Mike Zalewski (23rd) who had proposed an even tougher crackdown in response to a spike in gang graffiti and a slowdown in city removal of it.