Graffiti Made Fishtown Draw Line The Prevalence Of The Problem Led To A Neighborhood Association And Cleanup Plans.

Posted: August 10, 2000

Plagued with an increase in graffiti earlier this year, small groups of Fishtown residents took it upon themselves to go out each weekend and paint over the scrawls on businesses and homes.

No matter how vigilant they were, the graffiti kept coming back.

In June, they finally conceded that they just could not keep up with the mess. That included not only the graffiti but drug problems, car break-ins and petty theft that had crept into the community.

The Fishtown Neighbors Association was born. In little more than a month, it has started to have an effect.

"It's so nice to see people excited about doing something in the neighborhood," said Margi Megill, a member of the association's steering committee.

Already, she says, one trouble spot has been abandoned by drug dealers, and neighborhood business owners have begun to help paint over graffiti.

The association is welcome in this working-class community along the banks of the Delaware. The group vows to tackle the problems, not abandon the neighborhood for the suburbs, as many city residents have done.

"We want to live in Philadelphia," said Zoa Schisler, a lawyer who works on community issues. "We want to stay in our neighborhood."

That sentiment was voiced at the organizational meeting of the Neighbors Association in June.

A.J. Thompson, who left the area to attend Duke University but returned to attend Temple Law School, noted that there there had been grumbling that the neighborhood might fall victim to the drugs and crime of surrounding communities, such as New Kensington.

He urged his neighbors to hang tough.

"Fishtown will not suffer the fate of other neighborhoods and be obliterated," he said.

At its first meeting, the association chose town-watch block captains and committee chairs. In July, the group began cleaning up a neighborhood park and Palmer Cemetery, a small family cemetery dating to the late 1700s, at Montgomery and Berks Avenues.

This month, members will talk with zoning officials about reducing the number of used-car lots in the area. In September, they will meet with police officials in the district in a continuing attempt to better connect Fishtown with city services.

Cleanups are planned every month.

"We're really starting to see a mixture of what our community is made of," said Megill of the group's racial and age diversity.

A catalyst for all this activity was the relentless appearance of graffiti, which, for some residents, eroded the small-town feel of Fishtown.

Donna Cooper, who supervises the city's welfare-to-work program during the week, spent weekends in old clothes, covering up the spray-painted walls.

After weeks at the chore with her neighbors, she conceded her frustration: "The more we paint [over the graffiti], the more difficult it is to stop."

The area hardest-hit was the Frankford Avenue corridor, which has several abandoned businesses and homes. On small side streets off Frankford Avenue, such as Trenton Avenue, almost every building on the block was covered with scrawls.

Cooper said that many of the blocks had been hit repeatedly by the same vandals.

"They are intent on doing this until they have incredible name recognition," she said. "The problem is so bad that neighbors own paint that matches the buildings around them so that they can paint over the graffiti as soon as it happens."

Thomas Conway, deputy managing director of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, said that in the last four years, the city as a whole had seen a decrease in graffiti. In Fishtown, the problem may have arisen because the city focused on removing it from building rooftops visible from Interstate 95, he said.

"In cleaning the rooftops and second stories of the buildings, I think we have pushed a lot of the vandals into the neighborhoods."

Fishtown residents appreciate the help of the Anti-Graffiti Network, which provides free paint and power-washing crews to neighborhood groups. But many believe the best prevention is the prosecution of offenders.

In June, police reported 47 arrests of graffiti vandals in the Fishtown area over the last year, almost one-third of the city's 166 arrests for such violations.

Some say the arrests are not enough.

"This area has not had an effective police presence," resident Theresa Youngblut said. "Nuisance crime and quality-of-life issues like these are what sends people packing."

Neighbors can only wait and see if their efforts will deter vandals and criminals. Megill says the group is optimistic.

"It's already better than what it was," she said.

Saba Bireda's e-mail address is sbireda@phillynews.com

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