Jorge Santana apologizes for his mounting frustration. With each graffiti-laden corner in the Southwest section of Hunting Park that he passes, his sighs get louder and his head shakes more emphatically. “Sorry, I get worked up every time I come down here.”
He is the chief of staff for State Rep. Tony Payton, and Hunting Park falls within the district. They identify graffiti as one of the most prominent issues in the neighborhood.
Santana says: “Hunting Park is a little different than other North Philadelphia neighborhoods because of how many children we have living here. They make up a good portion of the demographic. When you have a younger population, you’re going to see more issues like graffiti. When it gets dark, it’s like a schoolyard outside; all the kids come out.”
At nighttime, the neighborhood becomes a blank canvas for graffiti artists. The evidence is literally written on the wall. There are few corners that are not littered with familiar tags, usually in sweeping neon colors. “We see a lot of the same designs around town, so we know that the same people are drawing frequently. It only takes 20 to make an impact. The area down at Sixth and Butler streets looks like it has been bombed,” says Santana.
“Some people do make an effort to paint over the graffiti, but usually a place will get bombarded in one night. It’s hard for store and home owners to keep up,” says Santana.
One of these store owners is Catalina Hunter, owner of Alba’s Grocery on Lawrence and Cayuga streets. Each customer who walks through her door gives her a kiss and calls her “Mom.” She says, “The people that know me are not painting on my store. If they did, I would have talked to them a long time ago.” Santana agrees. “She is the mama of this neighborhood and that’s why it’s so frustrating. The kids don’t realize that they are damaging property that belongs to good people.”
Hunter keeps her own cans of mixed paint in the back room of her store. “People have offered to paint, but I have my own and it’s the right color. I have had to paint enough times to know exactly how to do it,” says Hunter. She has owned the store for over 15 years and says that graffiti has always been a problem, but it goes in cycles, “Sometimes it’s very bad and then other times it’s not so bad.
“The city has just started to see it as a problem in the past month. They are going to investigate by seeing where similar marks appear all over the neighborhood–they are even involving the police,” says Hunter. She walks outside and points out from the store’s doorstep three different walls that have been painted in the past month. “If you don’t want to see graffiti, you have to paint,” says Hunter.
She laughs as she talks about the artistic component of graffiti. “They think they are doing art, but to me, it’s just a rebellion. There are places to draw, and I have seen some kids draw some very nice things – on paper,” says Hunter. “I think we need to help them focus their talent. If I see kids doing graffiti, I wouldn’t yell at them. I would just want to talk to them.”
Something as simple as drawing on a wall has many consequences. It also has many different motivations. Matt Lin, Pastor of One Hope Community Church on Fourth and Cayuga streets, talks about why kids do graffiti. “Honestly, I think some of the kids are just bored. I think there is a cool factor too. They want to mark a corner and then post pictures on-line of their work. Those are the more simple reasons. Then there are others that are more serious. Some corners are marked with specific symbols to indicate a place to buy and sell drugs,” says Lin.
But the community is looking for solutions. Lin says: “Art and music programs are the first to get cut in schools. If these kids have no where to draw, they are going to continue to do it on the walls.” He continues, “I would love to see something productive come out of the graffiti. The kids doing it obviously have some interest in art, we just need to give them programs to use their talents.”
One Hope Community has started a garden in a vacant lot down the street from the church. They have cleared the brush and planted flowers. The building next to the lot is also vacant. Lin and Santana have big plans for that building, if they can find the funds to purchase it. “We would love to see that become an Art Center. If we have it right next to the community garden, we could provide so many learning opportunities for kids in a central location,” says Santana.
In addition to providing other avenues for kids interested in art, Santana and Tony Payton’s team are focusing on more immediate solutions to change the graffiti culture in the neighborhood. They have partnered up with City Year for a huge undertaking of painting over some of Hunting Park’s most heavily graffitied areas. Equipped with maps, cameras, and paint brushes, a team of City Year volunteers will tackle Pike and Butler streets from Sixth to Ninth Street. The painting will take place over the course of the next two weeks.
Hunter is excited to see such a large area beautified. “People always talk about the bad things going on around here, but you can find the good things. I am very grateful to Tony Payton and Jorge Santana for trying to improve the neighborhood. It’s wonderful to see people listen to our concerns and this project will be very good for the community,” says Hunter.
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