Detroit — Daniel Washington stood near Linwood Street on Thursday watching as work crews sprayed away graffiti and boarded up abandoned buildings on three neighborhood corners.
The 24-year-old said a blighted former housing complex and auto repair shop have plagued his Northwest Goldberg neighborhood near the Motown Museum for at least a decade.
“It’s imperative that we address these types of buildings, make sure we get them boarded up and torn down so we can bring new life into this neighborhood,” said Washington, who is a co-owner of Detroit Dough, a cookie dough cafe expected to open in the area next spring. “We’re really trying to bring back the historical importance of it.”
As of Thursday, the city has removed 50,000 illegal graffiti tags under a citywide beautification effort that the Duggan administration launched in 2014.
The effort, overseen by the city’s General Services Department staff, is the product of a Graffiti Task Force made up of the city’s police, law, administrative hearings and building departments.
Since it began, the task force has arrested dozens of illegal taggers and issued more than $300,000 in tickets to owners of vacant and neglected buildings, forcing them to remove the graffiti at their own expense.
When the program first launched, the city estimated there were about 75,000 to 100,000 illegal tags.
General Services Director Brad Dick said there are some areas where graffiti tagging remains prominent, despite the department’s efforts.
But crews resurvey the major corridors monthly including Interstate 75 and I-94 and Michigan Avenue. He said high tagging areas have gone from a 50-60 percent rate of retagging to down to about 30 percent.
“By going back and recleaning it, it takes their vigor away,” he said.
Dick said property owners with tagging are issued a warning ticket that gives them seven days to clean the building up. If they fail to do so, one of six teams assigned to remove graffiti is deployed. Owners are then assessed a fine, he said. Those fines have ranged from $200 to $16,000.
The city’s Law Department also began enforcement against individuals defacing properties.
Offenses for tagging can be a misdemeanor, punishable by fines or up to 93 days in jail, or a felony with up to 10 years in prison. The felony threshold is $1,000 in damage or more, officials said.
The city on Thursday said 17,124 tags have been removed so far this year. There were 15,310 removed in 2016 and 17,566 in 2015. Officials have issued 3,433 tickets and collected $309,727 in fines from property owners.
“This program actually gives the community a sense of hope and lets them know we do care,” said Jessica Parker, who manages the department’s blight remediation program. “Detroit used to be known throughout the country as the graffiti capital. We’re letting people know that culture is no longer accepted.”
Mayor Mike Duggan has long taken a hard line against graffiti violators, during his mayoral tenure and when he served as Wayne County prosecutor.
In 2003, as prosecutor, he charged two out-of-towners with malicious destruction of property; and after being elected mayor, he launched a crackdown on graffiti artists.
The project got off to a rocky start after a barrage of tickets were issued, prompting the city to revisit training for its enforcers to better distinguish between works of public art and unwanted tagging.
A Wayne County Circuit Court judge last summer dismissed charges levied against internationally known graffiti artist Shephard Fairey for defacing numerous detroit buildings and a railroad bridge.
Fairey had been facing trial on allegations he tagged several private and publicly owned properties. If found guilty, he could have been sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Separately, in March, Craig Kowalski of Ira, Mich., was charged with breaking and entering and malicious destruction of property for his role in tagging several buildings in Detroit.
Shortly after Duggan’s enforcement campaign kicked in, three Grosse Pointe Woods teenagers were arrested for defacing buildings downtown.
The three teenage girls were apprehended after Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert appealed to the public for help in finding those responsible for defacing the buildings. The teens ultimately entered a plea agreement that called for community service and $2,000 in restitution.
As part of their convictions, some taggers have been required to pay restitution, as well as assist the city in removing the tag they created from homes and commercial buildings.
Dick said two of the Grosse Pointe Woods teens helped with graffiti removal as a condition of their punishment.
Restitution is placed in the graffiti removal budget to assist in cost associated with the continuance of the program, the city said.
Also Thursday, workers with the city’s new Board Up Brigades cleared brush in front of the vacant commercial buildings and secured them with plywood.
The board up crews have tackled about 2,100 board ups over the last two months in eight sections of the city.