Sunnyside wages battle against graffiti

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At a corner bodega on Skillman Avenue in Sunnyside, a mess of scribbles mars the pale beige brick above the awning like an open wound, blood-red in color and jarringly bright.

The darker brick of a church across the street shows the aftermath of a similar blemish, which is gone save for the milky white film left from a vigorous cleaning effort.

By the end of the day Saturday, members of the Roosevelt Court Tenants Association in Sunnyside Gardens hope to have followed the church’s lead by reducing as many graffiti markings as possible to barely visible smudges.

Sunnyside residents will band together Saturday at 11 a.m. at the corner of 48th Street and Skillman Avenue for their first Neighborhood Clean-Up Day, where they plan to scrub tags off sidewalks and paint over blemished walls to restore the neighborhood’s marred appearance.

“I believe that everybody was getting frustrated with it,” said Tony Rohling, a 45-year-old social worker who moved to Sunnyside Gardens two years ago. “The police are good, but they can’t be everywhere at once.”

Led by its president, Lewis Story, and his wife Julie, the tenants group has enlisted the help of the mayor’s anti-graffiti task force along with a number of agencies which oversee public property that is frequently hit by vandals, like mail boxes and street lamps.

Through the U.S. Postal Service’s “Adopt a Mailbox” program, pails of paint will be distributed to volunteers who will recoat the boxes whenever they are covered with tags, the vandals’ signatures.

“Graffiti has to be removed or covered over as soon as it occurs, each and every time,” said Rohling, who helped organize the event with the Storys after noticing the graffiti problem worsen over the past year. “If you don’t, it will just reappear.”

About 50 landlords have signed up to have their buildings cleaned by the city with power washers.

The graffiti is an especially unsightly addition in Sunnyside Gardens, a neighborhood with a unique sense of community solidarity that dates back to its birth in the 1920s along Skillman Avenue between 43rd Street and 48th Street.

Now an officially registered historic district, Sunnyside Gardens was built between 1924 and 1928 as a planned community in the style of English garden cities. The 600 or so attached houses sit around a series of courtyards providing open space for residents to share, although some have been divided into individual yards since the communal easements expired in the 1960s.

“They care so deeply about the neighborhood,” said City Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Woodside), who plans to wield a paint brush himself and help out with the effort. “This is the type of thing that needs to be replicated throughout this city.”

Sunnyside Gardens is hardly the only area in Queens to wage war with graffiti. The Greater Ridgewood Restoration Corp. has devoted years to removing tags, and the Glendale Civilian Observation Patrol takes credit for about 100 arrests of graffiti vandals in western Queens.

The New York Police Department is holding a graffiti symposium April 29 at Queens Theater in the Park to train community members in battling graffiti.

Although the residents of Sunnyside Gardens understand the fight will be a long one, they have every reason to hope for victory against a persistent group of vandals.

“The idea is that they will eventually stop doing it,” Rohling said. “They want their work to be seen. If they spray-paint their tag on a Monday and by Tuesday it’s gone, they won’t waste their time doing it again.”

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

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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