When a grinning face was painted on the Front Street bridge, residents gritted their teeth and bore it.
A swastika and a racial slur were next. Residents averted their eyes and hoped the city would come by soon to paint it over.
But when someone labeled the bridge “Cocaine Center,” it was too much. That’s when residents pooled their money, dragged ladders to the bridge and painted over the graffiti themselves.
On Sunday, 10 residents from the Stockade and East Front Street neighborhoods worked for four hours in 75 percent humidity to remove every trace of the offensive graffiti. They didn’t stop with Front Street — they also painted over the graffiti at the Green Street bridge and a nearby warehouse that had been covered with gang tags and symbols.
It’s the sort of thing they’d been dreaming of doing for years, organizers said. And they weren’t the only ones. Despite the heat, the idea was so compelling that two passersby joined up as soon as they saw what was going on.
Residents usually turn to the city for help with graffiti, but Commissioner of General Services Carl Olsen said he doesn’t have the money or the staff to keep up with the problem. Even though the city is barely halfway through the year, he can no longer afford to buy paint, he said.
Workers have repainted the Front Street and Green Street bridges twice this year already, as well as covering over graffiti in dozens of other locations. But it’s become an exercise in futility, Olsen said.
“We painted the graffiti off Jerry Burrell Park’s bathroom and the paint wasn’t even dry yet when they painted it back on,” he said. “So we painted it again. It’s senseless … I don’t know how it could get much worse.”
Since he can’t keep up with it, the bridge painting organizers say the city should call for volunteers from each neighborhood to take care of their graffiti hotspots.
“I’m sure in every neighborhood there are people who hate it and want to see it gone and would volunteer if someone organized it,” said John Rotundo, who led the bridge painters. “I can help do our little bridge, but how can I persuade the whole city?”
He said the city should provide the paint if the neighborhood organizations handle the labor.
“We were promised quality-of-life issues from Mayor [Brian U.] Stratton when he got his second term,” Rotundo said. “This is a quality-of-life issue. The things on that bridge … we’ve never had those [obscenities] before. That tells us the problem has reached the point where it needs intervention from City Hall.”
On the other hand, there is a benefit in taking on a project without official support from City Hall. Rotundo’s crew painted over the bridges without asking permission from the railroads — and covered over graffiti on a vacant warehouse wall without talking to that building’s owner, either. Olsen warned that if the effort were officially recognized, he wouldn’t be able to turn a blind eye to trespassing.
“The bridge is not mine,” he said.
And the railroads that own each overpass might not grant permission if they were asked.
“There’s liability — the railroad would probably be concerned about what would happen if someone got injured,” Olsen said.
But Olsen isn’t about to turn them in.
“Good for them,” he said when he heard what they had done. “They probably got sick of looking at the graffiti on it. It’s degrading, it’s ugly.”
It will also probably return soon. But East Front Street Neighborhood Association President Carmella Ruscitto is hoping to use technology to thwart the vandals who spraypaint her bridge so often.
She wants to persuade the Stockade Association to help buy anti-graffiti paint, a silicone polyester mixture that is so smooth, paint barely adheres to it. Graffiti can be wiped off with a sponge or power-washed with a hose, according to vendors.
But it’s expensive — primer and paint for just 500 square feet costs $219, according to US Coating Solutions, a company in Florida.
Olsen estimated that each bridge is roughly 1,500 square feet, including both the concrete tunnel walls and the bridge itself. That means it would cost nearly $700 to coat just one of the bridges.
Ruscitto said her neighborhood association can’t afford it — the last of its money was spent on the primer used Sunday.
“But the Stockade Association has deeper pockets,” she said. “The Front Street bridge is theirs as well. We’re going to approach them.”
She was encouraged by the fact that half the workers Sunday live in the Stockade.
“It’s the first time in years that I can remember that East Front Street and Stockaders worked together,” she said.
And although the new paint would cost much more than the $100 primer that they used last weekend — and would require another two days of work as the special primer and paint are applied — she said it would be worth it if it put an end to the problem.
Meanwhile, the city police are trying to stop the graffiti at its source. In May, they arrested three teenagers who were charged with making graffiti, a misdemeanor that could land them in jail for a year.
In June, a fourth teenager was charged with the same crime. Olsen is hopeful that the arrests will lead to big punishments.
“That probably will be the biggest deterrent of all,” he said.