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Ridgewood combats graffiti hits

When John Dilorenzo bought a three-story building in Ridgewood in January, he knew it would be a fixer-upper. The brick walls of the former factory building were bathed in layers of graffiti, which had accumulated unchecked over the many years the corner building had sat vacant.

But even after investing in cleaning supplies and putting in countless hours, Dilorenzo still isn’t left with a clean wall.

The vandals have come back.

“Now they see it’s a new clean building and they keep on running over there and writing on it,” Dilorenzo said.

What he assumed would be a one-time clean-up effort has evolved into a battle to prevent neighborhood graffiti vandals from defiling his property with their “tags,” signatures by which each vandal identifies himself. His property has been struck six times since he bought it.

“If you see the building, now it looks really clean. Everybody is so proud in the whole neighborhood,” Dilorenzo said. “Then over the weekend you have to be afraid something’s going to happen.”

Although Dilorenzo probably logs the most phone calls to the 104th Precinct on the graffiti problem, he is by no means running a solitary campaign. Residents of Community Board 5, which includes Ridgewood, Maspeth, Middle Village and Glendale, have been waging a long-standing war against graffiti, a problem many complain has escalated in recent years.

“We’re getting swamped with all of this graffiti,” said Mary Tshinkel, CB 5 assistant to the district manager. “Nobody wants it on their home or in their building.”

“When they spray paint a wall, it’s almost like an animal, a dog or a cat p---ing on a fire hydrant — they leave their mark,” said resident Frank Kotnik.

Kotnik is the president of the Glendale Civilian Observation Patrol, a volunteer squad he described as “the extended eyes and ears of the Police Department.”

Driving around in ordinary cars and armed with nothing beyond a cell phone on which to call 911, GCOP volunteers have been responsible for 40 graffiti arrests since October, Kotnik said.

Besides making a neighborhood look unsightly, graffiti left in place can start a downward spiral in quality of life in an area, community leaders said.

“There are a lot of things graffiti can signify,” said Peggy O’Kane, community liaison with the Greater Ridgewood Restoration Corporation, which sponsors an extensive graffiti clean-up program in the area. “At its worst it could signify gang or drug activity. At its least, it signifies an empty mind that needs to have his fame spread.”

From April to November, Ridgewood Restoration sends out crews for six hours a day, five days a week to remove graffiti from buildings using high-pressure water and other methods.

As with Dilorenzo’s property, O’Kane found graffiti vandals like to strike the same place twice. Of 301 sites cleaned last year, 269 had been previously cleaned, O’Kane said.

“They’re not strangers coming from some other planet or less desirable area,” O’Kane said. “They’re very often the sons and now, I understand, daughters of the local residents.”

Detective Keith Casey of Patrol Borough Queens North has been combating graffiti for years, and O’Kane credited him with awakening the district to the problem when he started as a patrolman

Where the police once simply issued a summons to graffiti perpetrators, the vandals are now arrested and sent through the criminal justice system. Most are ultimately sentenced to a community service program which sends them back to the streets to clean up the damage.

“There’s definitely word on the street that the Police Department is taking it more seriously,” Casey said.

Although graffiti crimes are only misdemeanors, Kotnik hopes an aggressive response will prevent the offenses from escalating into more severe problems for the perpetrators.

“Graffiti is like a low-level crime, and then you graduate to something else,” said Kotnik. “This is a proven fact.”

A recently released poster campaign directed at city youth warns of the hard line police are taking against graffiti.

“Graffiti is a crime and you can do time,” the text shouts to students, most of whom will be bombarded with the slogan when posters are distributed throughout Queens schools.

Call them criminals, call them vandals, but never call them artists, Kotnik insists.

“The person who coined the name graffiti artist was a spineless individual who was afraid to say that this is sub-human behavior, which it is,” Kotnik said.

Anyone interested in joining GCOP to help patrol the neighborhood can call 497-1500.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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