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Mayor Rob Ford Launches New Graffiti Initiatives, But Not Everyone is Pleased

Art non-profits and property owners face uncertainty as the City continues to implement the mayor's graffiti eradication plan.

Rob Ford addresses the media in a laneway on Wednesday afternoon. That's Cesar Palacio (Ward 17, Davenport) to his left.

Today in a laneway near St. Clair and Lansdowne Avenues, Mayor Ford stood behind a podium in front of a semicircle of reporters and talked about the latest development in his campaign against graffiti vandalism, which he has pursued with near-obsessive fervor (seriously) since shortly after he took office: a smartphone app called SeeClickFix that lets residents report tags directly to 311 Toronto.

“Starting today, residents will be able to use their smartphone to take a picture of graffiti vandalism and send it directly to the City department, on a down,” Ford said, and then paused weirdly for a second. “Loadable,” he continued. And then, at last: “App.” He went on: “This is remarkable, folks. This is as efficient as it gets.” In the background, as Ford was talking, two guys with rollers who had obviously been planted as part of the photo-op were using white paint to cover up some tags on a garage door. It was an appropriate symbol, but not for the intended reasons.

Whitewashing of that nature is really all the app is designed to do. Reporting graffiti doesn’t deter vandals; all it does is stick property owners with cleanup bills. That’s how Toronto’s graffiti bylaw works. If someone’s property is vandalized and the City notices, that person either pays to fix it, or they pay the City to fix it for them. Catching the person who actually held the spray can is a matter for the police.

There is a fairly effective means of deterring graffiti vandalism: murals. Taggers show reluctance to write over the work of skilled street artists. The City knows this, and that’s partly why, in 1996, it created something called the Graffiti Transformation Project—a grant program to help outside agencies hire youth, who might otherwise turn to vandalism, to paint murals in their neighbourhoods. Last year, the GTP paid out a little more than $350,000 to about 20 different local arts organization. This year, as part of the City’s ongoing Ford-inspired overhaul of its graffiti abatement strategy, the program was canceled.

Yes, canceled. And replaced with a new program called StreetARToronto. The move has some mural advocates scratching their heads.

Grants under the GTP paid the full cost of hiring youth to paint murals. StreetARToronto, meanwhile, requires organizations to put up 50 per cent of the money using other public or private grants, or in-kind contributions. “Now it’s a public-private partnership program,” explained Lilie Zendel, who is managing the program for the City. “Our goal, eventually, is to do fundraising on our end as well.”

This is worrisome to Liz Forsberg, managing director of Art Starts, a not-for-profit that received about $20,000 per year under the old program. She isn’t sure her organization can raise the $10,000 required to keep their funding stable, and, what’s more, she says the City didn’t inform her of the change.

Art Starts used its Graffiti Transformation money to execute one project per year (out of the 30 to 40 projects they undertake annually using other funding), but Forsberg believes that the money made a difference. “It was small, but totally significant,” she said. “It’s our major project that we do, and we’ve done it for at least the past 14 years.”

StreetARToronto also differs from its predecessor in that it will be administered through the City’s Public Realm section, which means it will emphasize prominent placement and technical skill to a degree that the GTP didn’t. “We’re certainly trying to raise the profile of the program and raise the level of the work that’s being done,” said Zendel, the City manager.

Joshua Barndt, co-director of Whippersnapper Gallery, thinks this new focus could cause needy communities to miss out on grant dollars. Last year, in partnership with Art Starts, he used GTP money to execute projects in Alexandra Park, a co-op community south of Kensington Market. He’s not sure funding for projects like that will be available this year.

“This new program is focusing on high-profile walls,” he said. “But it might not make sense for that artwork to happen on a huge artery. It might make more sense for it to happen somewhere within the internal space of a community.” Barndt and Forsberg are orchestrating a meeting tomorrow between Zendel and the leaders of some community organizations to discuss these and other issues.

Back in the laneway near St. Clair and Lansdowne, Mayor Ford wrapped up his press conference by picking up a brush and whitewashing a little graffiti for the cameras, which was charming in a Tom Sawyer kind of way. But if he’s serious about doing something substantial (and cost effective) about vandalism in Toronto, he’ll forget the apps and concentrate on making sure that StreetARToronto doesn’t disappoint the organizations it’s supposed to engage. There’s no cure for unwanted graffiti, but engaging youth in making murals is probably the best preventative we’ve got.

Photos by Steve Kupferman/Torontoist.

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