Northwest Neighbors Against Graffiti, a nonprofit organization focused on removing graffiti in and around West Oak Lane with the help of community members, is two months removed from a major clean-up day, but hopes to keep the momentum going.
The group, based out of state Rep. Dwight Evans’ Ogontz Avenue office and known as NAG, was formed in 1994 after anti-graffiti tactics were the focus of a large community meeting. Carlton Williams has been an active member from the start.
“One of the main issues that we deal with … is community cleanup, so that falls under the graffiti aspect of it,” said Williams, a legislative assistant of 17 years. He noted that Evans “gave us the assignment to come up with this organization to be proactive as well as reactive as far as removing graffiti.”
Working with residents
After the first large NAG meeting, seven subcommittees were formed. They were cleanup, surveillance, business inspection, business visitation, legislation, court appearance and youth. Members cite a hands-on approach, and consistency, as keys to success.
“When we see graffiti, we remove it. Graffiti comes back, we remove it,” said Vernon Smith, NAG member and Evans legislative assistant. “Eventually, that problem goes away.”
By building relationships with community members, there have been several instances of residents contacting NAG in order to have graffiti removed from their neighborhood.
Bruce Burton, owner of The Original Pretty Boyz Barber Shop, did just that.
He planned on hosting a hair show at his local barbershop located near 68th and Ogontz avenues, but there was graffiti on the building across the street.
“I didn’t know anything about this organization called NAG, but I called state representative’s office and spoke with Vernon to remove the graffiti because it was unsightly,” Burton said recently. “So, the next day, all I know is graffiti was off the wall and I was able to go ahead and have my hair show and it went along successfully.”
Art versus vandalism
Though many who produce graffiti explain that it is artistic, residents and business owners disagree. That includes members of NAG which defines its stance as a zero-tolerance policy.
“They are basically tearing down the community by putting the graffiti on the walls,” Burton said.
NAG members said if the community doesn’t fight against graffiti, the city’s appearance will diminish, causing people to think that it’s acceptable to commit other serious crimes because the city is neglected. It’s a variation of the “broken windows” community policing theory.
“I have a higher echelon of clientele that comes into this area, and I think that it would turn them away if they saw the graffiti on the walls, wondering if it’s because there are gangs in the area or what the graffiti is representing,” Burton explained. “So, I think that NAG is doing an excellent job by removing the graffiti and I definitely appreciate them being in the area and doing what they do for the community.”
Recent clean-up effort
On April 1, NAG sponsored a major cleanup, resulting in its largest paint-out to date. More than 150 neighbors and volunteers participated, and Mercy Health Plan presented the organization with a $5,000 check to help with resources and equipment.
The group was also one of the 24 community-based organizations in Philadelphia to receive a $2,500 grant from the city’s Managing Director’s office.
NAG defines its success as being twofold: areas that stay clean for longer periods of time, or if the tags are small in areas where graffiti reguarly appears.
“When we’re just as committed to removing the graffiti as these graffiti writers, it goes away,” said Vernon Smith. “With the neighbors being involved and with the kids being involved, it goes away.”
Jessie Fox and Kaila Gantt are students at Temple University. Philadelphia Neighborhoods, a NewsWorks content partner, is an initiative of the Temple Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab.