Vallone Describes Graffiti Fight To Board 1 Cabinet
The relentless tide of graffiti in Astoria appears to have been beaten back, at least for now, and a new, clean power plant is rising to eventually take the place of the old, pollution-emitting one, but the Steinway Street Bridge will remain closed until well into 2006, members of the Community Board 1 district cabinet learned last week.
City Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr., who at the behest of Board 1 District Manager George Delis, was first speaker on the agenda at the September meeting of the cabinet last Thursday, told the cabinet members at Kaufman Astoria Studios that he had received threats after a “graffiti party” was held in Manhattan August 24.
Marc Ecko, a fashion designer who began his career doing graffiti in New York, had promoted the party, which was intended to demonstrate an Atari graffiti game, “Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure”. According to Vallone, the game encourages players to do graffiti and provides tips on avoiding being caught. Vallone had written numerous letters to the Mayor’s Office of Community Assistance and the Street Activity Permit Office requesting that the permit for the block party be revoked. as it had originally been issued purportedly for artistic purposes, rather than as was the actual fact, for commercial use—to promote the game—instead.
The city revoked Ecko's permit for the party after city lawyers maintained that Ecko’s demonstration might encourage people to vandalize actual subway cars. However, federal Judge Jed Rakoff of Manhattan held that withholding a permit for a block party is a violation of the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech, and the party took place August 24 on a block in Chelsea as part of a street fair.
Vallone said he had begun to receive threats after the party went forward despite his protests. “You know you’re doing a good job when you start getting threats,” Rose Marie Poveromo, president of the United Community Civic Association and also a representative of Assemblymember Michael Gianaris, told him at the meeting. Threats or no threats, Vallone told the cabinet, “We intend to keep fighting.”
Surprisingly, measures to combat graffiti have met with resistance from landlords and property owners, Vallone added. “There’s one building at the foot of Astoria Boulevard that’s covered with graffiti,” he said. “We’ve gone to the owners several times and offered to clean it up—for free. They won’t let us. They say they like it the way it is.” He was asked why the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Amtrak and other agencies seem unwilling or unable to keep up their property, including eradicating graffiti. “The problem is, these are state agencies and authorities, and they’re answerable to no one,” Vallone said. “We’ve been asking Albany to make these agencies subject to New York City codes for graffiti removal.”
Vallone has gone out with the 114th Police Precinct, and local civic organizations such as the 114th Precinct Community Council and the 114th Civilian Observation Patrol (114th Civ-OP) on graffiti cleanup missions, one of the latest being a building at 29th Street off Ditmars Boulevard. He has doubled the penalties for graffiti and introduced a number of anti-graffiti measures to help fight this quality of life crime. He recently drafted legislation banning the possession of spray paint and other graffiti tools by anyone under 21 years of age. “I wanted to ban graffiti-making instruments entirely,” he told the cabinet. “In Chicago, they did just that. They used to have a huge graffiti problem and now you almost never find graffiti in that city. All our stores claimed they have to sell spray paint and markers to stay in business. Banning the sale of broad-tip markers and spray paint to anyone 21 and under was the best I could do in New York City. It’s already made a difference, though.”
As the lawyer for C.H.O.K.E. (Coalition Helping Organize a Kleaner Environment), Vallone sued the New York Power Authority (NYPA) over the Charles Poletti power plant north of 20th Avenue on the East River. The plant at the Poletti site, which had generated 835 megawatts (MW) of electricity, had been a "dirty” fossil fuel-burning plant. “We wanted NYPA to close the old plant,” Vallone said. “Instead, they told us they’d install two new, natural gas-fired, ‘clean’ plants, but keep the old one running while they built the new plants and brought them on line.” NYPA was slated to begin testing key generating equipment that same day on one of the project’s two gas turbines, which was to produce small amounts of power as the unit was fired up. Tests on the second turbine were expected to take place late next week, to be followed by those on other major equipment in subsequent weeks.
Vallone also touched briefly on the issue of the Steinway Street Bridge, which was closed after a section of the roadway which had been scored so that it could be removed and replaced as part of scheduled repairs, fell onto the Grand Central Parkway below and seriously injured a driver who could not avoid colliding with the slab. The contractor who was subsequently hired by the city Department of Transportation defaulted and yet another contractor was finally found and hired. Work under the third contractor is expected to start before the end of the month. “We hope the work will be completed before the merchants over there will have to miss out on another Christmas shopping season,” Vallone said. Many businesses were severely impacted when the bridge was closed to car traffic during the 2004 holiday shopping season.
Painting on the elevated section of the N and W train line, which runs over 31st Street, is completed everywhere except in front of Vallone’s office at the Ditmars Avenue terminus of the line, Vallone said. “The MTA didn’t change the schedule, but the weather did,” Vallone said. “Right now, the MTA is debating whether or not to wait another year to complete that particular section of the line.”
Connie Moran, Department of Transportation Queens Borough Commissioner expanded on Vallone’s comments on the Steinway Street Bridge, saying that the temporary bridge had opened in January, but when the contractor had defaulted, the bonding company that provided the financial surety for the contractor had the responsibility of finding a replacement. Mericap Industries, the new contractor, will start work on the bridge before the end of the month, she said. “By the fall of 2006 we hope to be back to full traffic capacity on the bridge,” she added. “As construction goes on, we’ll get back to you with updates.”
Moran was asked why a two-week gap between the time a street is milled and then paved exists. “Milling is a longer operation,” she replied. She added that rain is the main reason for any holdup in a milling-paving procedure, but the DOT tries to make up for lost time as soon as possible. “No Parking” signs are posted the day after a street is milled or paved, but anyone who has to park on a posted street for emergency reasons would not be subject to a fine, even if the car ticketed is towed. “We’d relocate the car and tell the local precinct where it is,” Moran added. “We take the community into consideration” when streets are scheduled to be resurfaced.
Cracked and broken sidewalks in front of private property are repaired by the city and the owner billed if the owner fails o make the repairs. The city Department of Parks and Recreation, whose forestry division prunes trees and removes stumps, will hire a contactor to repair a sidewalk if a tree root has lifted a sidewalk flag, or section. The Parks Department will send a worker to slice the intrusive root and sidewalks uprooted by trees are not considered a problem unless a homeowner has tampered with the tree and the sidewalk.
“Trees are a hot issue,” David Bentham, of the Parks Department agreed, and Queens has the most in New York City. He told the cabinet that tree pruning is done on a 10-year schedule, with a given number of trees in certain neighborhoods pruned during each year of the schedule. ‘We’re in Year Eight,” he said. Trees along Ditmars Boulevard from Hazen to 31st Street are now being pruned. “Please don’t try to prune a tree yourself—you can harm the tree,” he added. Tree New York, an affiliate of Partnerships for Parks, offers tree pruning programs and persons who complete them are certified to prune trees. Delis has completed one such course and is qualified to prune trees. “Let me know if you have a problem with a tree-I’ll take care of it,” he said.
If a street tree falls on a car, the city is liable, the cabinet was advised. Anyone with a car damaged by a street tree should put in a claim to the City Comptroller’s office, which can be reached at 311, the city information hotline.
114th Police Precinct Commanding Officer Inspector David Barrere told the cabinet that crime in the precinct has declined this year by seven percent, the only exception being grand larceny. “There’s a lot of identity theft,” Barrere said. “It’s a hard crime to fight.” Nevertheless, the precinct made a significant grand larceny arrest, Barrere said. The perpetrator is known to have committed 61 larcenies and is a suspect in possibly 80 more. There has been a spike in the number of commercial burglaries committed in the precinct and murders in the precinct have also risen slightly, although one crime may not have occurred within the confines of the 114th. “That body was dumped here, but it’s counted as occurring here,” Barrere said.
Last year, 82 driving while intoxicated (DWI) arrests occurred in the precinct from January to September. This year, 212 DWI arrests took place during the same period. Quality of life complaints are on the rise as well, Barrere said, most stem from the clubs and bars in the area. Another sore spot is the homeless population. Cabinet member Edwin Cadiz noted that homeless (he called them “bums”) were scamming motorists who park in the municipal lot at Broadway and 31st Street. Barrere said this is another situation that is difficult to deal with. “The homeless just relocate—they’re back the next day,” he said. “We have to meet more stringent requirements to arrest them and they know how to stay under the radar. All we can usually arrest them for is disorderly conduct—and they’re good at avoiding even that ”
114th Precinct Community Relations Officer Bill Nilsson told the cabinet that Astoria Energy, which occupies the former Castle Oil facility, would be testing their alarms on the half hour several times in an eight-hour period. “They won’t be testing in the evenings,” he promised.
Gladys Henriquez of the city Department of Small Business Services stressed the importance of certifying small businesses in order to do business with the city. Minority and women-owned businesses that seek to do business with the city must be certified under new executive orders signed by the mayor, Henriquez said. “Once everyone knows how important it is, certification will be difficult to get, so get started now,” she said. Applications are available at the Board 1 office, 36-01 36th Ave.
Cara Fraver of Ravenswood Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), an arrangement between a small farmer and a group of area residents to bring fresher, healthier organic produce into the community told the cabinet that the program lasts up to and including Thanksgiving and shares are still available. “We have members from all over,” she said. For information, call 718-609-1028.
The group is looking for a new distribution point, as their space at the Ravenswood Housing Development will be used by the development for other purposes next year. Several suggestions were made, including the Peter J. DellaMonica Senior Center at Broadway and Crescent Street.