Ronnie Polaneczky | Amtrak derails move to clean wall scrawl

MY HUSBAND and I once rented a truck to do some moving, and it came graffiti-tagged. We felt bad when we parked it out front and subjected the neighbors to such an eyesore.

I feel like renting that ugly truck again. I'd park it in front of the homes of the functionaries at Amtrak who've been forcing thousands of us to look at a graffiti-tagged wall that the agency won't let the city clean.

Maybe if they experienced blight right outside their windows every day, they'd have some empathy for the rest of us.


The wall runs parallel to the Schuylkill Expressway's eastbound lanes, approaching the Spring Garden exit. Separated from the road by Amtrak rails, it's a graffiti vandal's dream: a long, high canvas, crowned with splendid arches.

Because of its major visibility (it can be seen from the expressway and Boathouse Row, as well as by Amtrak commuters), the wall is irresistible to spray painters who trespass over city- and rail-owned land to get to it.

For years, though, the tagging was kept more or less under control, thanks to the city's Graffiti Abatement Team (GAT). Amtrak let the team cross its tracks every few months to clean the wall.

"We'd just call Amtrak and say, 'The wall's looking pretty bad,' and they'd say, 'Let's figure out a date to get you down there,' " says GAT supervisor Jerry Eley, whose team removes about 90,000 tags a year and supplies citizens with materials to do their own blight removal.

Amtrak personnel would escort GAT to the site during a lull in train traffic late at night, cut power to the tracks and let GAT clean the wall, which would take about three hours.

You know that saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"?

Amtrak fixed the arrangement, and it broke.


It started in summer 2005, when Amtrak suddenly required the city to submit a permit to cross the tracks. Every Philadelphian knows getting the city to scrutinize a legal document is no quick achievement. For a year, the permit languished, and tagging of the wall increased.

"The key to graffiti prevention is immediate removal," says city Deputy Managing Director Tom Conway, whose department oversees the GAT. "Otherwise it attracts more writers to the site."

By the time the permit was finally issued last summer, the wall was a technicolor horror. But graffiti removal didn't seem to be an Amtrak priority anymore. It took a month of pleading calls from activist Russell Meddin, who volunteers with GAT, for the wall to be cleaned.

It was quickly tagged again. Amtrak cops caught two vandals, but the tagging continued.

"We'd lost our momentum," says Meddin. "I told Amtrak, 'You'll need to let us stay on this. It's the only way to fight it.' "

Sadly, Amtrak stopped returning his calls.

And the wall has looked like hell ever since.


It's infuriating: Here you have a competent city department that wants to do its job - despite the slowness of other departments - but Amtrak is keeping it from doing it.

And we all suffer. Because nothing says Philly doesn't give a crap about itself more than a blighted wall leading straight to the city's downtown.

But there may be hope.

After I called Amtrak last week, a spokeswoman admitted that "there's been a problem" and Amtrak will schedule a meeting with the city to create a cleaning schedule so that "there's some accountability" for maintenance.

Eley just hopes the get-together doesn't yield another months-long wait for action.

"We can go out there tonight," he says. "Just give us the word."*

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