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Cambridge Eyesores: Grappling with Graffiti

Cambridge Eyesores: Grappling with Graffiti

By Karen Klinger

Graffiti. Just the name conjures up images of a common and hard to eradicate problem that can happen anywhere vandals wield cans of spray paint.

While Cambridge is far from having the worst graffiti problem around, neither is it immune. Often it’s the work of “taggers” who want to leave their marks in a latter day version of “Kilroy Was Here.”

In April, police reported an increase in the incidence of graffiti in North Cambridge, but Police Commissioner Robert Haas told the city council the problem is not concentrated in any one section of the city. “Clearly vacant properties” are a target, he said, but “it really doesn’t follow a regular trend or pattern.”

In the recent upsurge, he said his officers quickly arrested four adolescents, which seems to have reduced new cases, at least in the short run. “We’ve spoken to the parents” and the youngsters are going through the judicial process, Haas said.

Those alleged culprits were in their early teens, but at a community meeting with North Cambridge residents May 28, the commissioner said the police had just stopped four suspected taggers who were even younger—two were 12 years old and the other two 11 years old.

In some urban areas graffiti is used by gangs as territorial markers, but Haas said in Cambridge “the vast majority is just vandalism.”

That may be little consolation to property owners faced with the task of cleaning up after kids, and some adults, with paint cans. Asked by City Councilor Tim Toomey what legal recourse the city has in requiring owners of private property to remove graffiti, City Manager Robert Healy said, “I don’t think we have any, other than moral suasion.”

On a graffiti tour of the area around Porter Square and other parts of North Cambridge, it is not hard to find the work of taggers on buildings and walls, some of it of fairly recent vintage and some that’s probably been there for years.

A former fast food restaurant in Porter Square at Mass Ave and Walden Street was festooned with graffiti sometime after it closed in late 2006. Nearby, the Thistle and Shamrock store at Walden and Richdale Avenue has been a frequent target, with new graffiti appearing on a brick wall in the past few months. Conversely, a long-closed gas station on Mass Ave near the Arlington line has graffiti that seems to be at least a decade old.

Then there’s the MBTA’s commuter rail station at Porter Square, where a portion of the outdoor platform is not only dark and odiferous, the walls on the far side of the railroad tracks are a riot of graffiti that’s been there who knows how long. Recently, the popular blog “Universal Hub” published a contributor’s photos and comments about the station with the headline: “The dump that is the Porter Square commuter-rail stop.”

For city officials, one of the most frustrating graffiti problems has involved the Yerxa Road railroad underpass in North Cambridge where taggers repeatedly have defaced the artwork on the tile walls. “It’s a shame, because it’s really a unique piece of public art,” Deputy City Manager Richard Rossi told the city council.

The police have stepped up patrols near the underpass and have established a “graffiti hotline” (617-349-6955) so that the public can help combat the problem by reporting graffiti they see and identifying taggers. They say any information callers provide about tagger identities will be kept confidential.

More information about what the public can do about graffiti, such as how to remove it and advice for organizing community clean-up days, as well as phone numbers for city departments and agencies including the Harvard and MIT police and the MBTA complaint line can be found on the website of the Cambridge Department of Public Works (