The end of Tire Beach?

August 3, 2007 on 3:46 pm | In local news | Comments Off on The end of Tire Beach?

I don’t normally like to inject my personal opinion into the discussions around Graffiti Archaeology, because I like to think of the project as having a neutral attitude towards graffiti: not pro- or anti-, but merely documenting what occurs. I also don’t like to say too much about specific places, because I value the discretion that allows them to stay interesting (to me) as graffiti spots.

But it looks like in the case of Tire Beach, the cat is not only out of the bag, but is actively clawing up your sofa. So I’m going to break both of these rules in one post, in the hopes of doing some good.

In case you haven’t already heard the news: a well-meaning group of folks are getting ready to “reclaim” Warm Water Cove, aka Toxic Tire Beach, this Saturday, August 4th, at 9am. Their aims are twofold: clean up the park itself (pull weeds, remove trash, etc.) and paint over all of the graffiti. In their call for participation, they equate weeds, trash, and “graffiti vandalism”, as if these things were somehow one and the same. (The unstated assumption being that graffiti equals danger.) I beg to differ. The weeds and trash can go, but the constantly changing graffiti art on the walls is pretty much the only thing this park has to recommend it. In fact, I’ll go one step further and say that the graffiti is one of the few things that keeps the park safe.

I’ve visited this park on a weekly basis for close to three years. The other people I’ve encountered there have been: joggers, cyclists and dog-walkers; homeless folks living in trucks or tents; DIY bands using the park as an impromptu performance space; all-night ravers packing up their turntables after what looked like some excellent parties; graffiti writers and fans thereof; and a couple of shady-looking individuals who, in retrospect, may well have been undercover police. With the exception of this last category, every one of these people has been friendly, polite and basically harmless.

The park itself stinks. The water that surrounds it is filled with rotting tires (thus the nickname), and at low tide there’s a nasty sludge that smells alternately of sulfur and raw sewage. I made the mistake of stepping in it once, and it left an oily black residue on what was once a nice pair of boots. But I’ve never witnessed any kind of violence there, or even the remotest hint of threatening behavior. So while it’s not exactly a place to have a romantic picnic, I don’t consider it dangerous. Messy and smelly, yes, but not dangerous.

In fact, what I’ve heard from certain long-time residents of that neighborhood is that the frequent presence of artists quietly painting and bands loudly playing may well be the reason why this park is not a dangerous place. There used to be real crimes there, rape and murder and such. (And I suppose that by “real”, I mean crimes against people, not property, which is perhaps one of my opinions coming out. So be it.) But the presence of graffiti writers and punk bands has made it harder for real crime, which requires a modicum of privacy, to occur.

So it irks me to hear people conflate graffiti with real violent crime–two things that are not merely different, but actually in direct opposition to each other. It’s bad enough to fail to recognize the difference between a marker tag on a park bench and a 16-color masterpiece on a wall. It’s bad enough to willfully ignore the fact that whitewashing a free wall will not improve its appearance, but make it worse (since it will only discourage the most talented and experienced graffiti writers, not the incompetent toys). But when you tell people that painting over graffiti makes a park safer, that is actually a very dangerous idea.

It’s dangerous because these people will pat themselves on the back, and get lots of free press, for an action that not only fails to solve the intended problem, but actually makes it worse. It’s as if they prefer the illusion of safety over actual safety. (For a great explanation of what actually makes parks safe in the real world, I recommend Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.)

There has been some news coverage already, several blog posts worth reading, and a remarkable string of very thoughtful comments on one of the posts. Chicken John has made another one of his famous “modest proposals” to spare some of the art in exchange for community service.

In the mainstream media, the Chronicle seems to have done a pretty balanced job, presenting points of view from all sides in an honest and reasonable way. The Examiner‘s coverage was more disappointing, repeating the authorities’ misleading language verbatim without once questioning it. For example, the people who favor graffiti in the park are referred to as “the underground community”, whereas the people who oppose it are simply “the community”. (I wonder what credentials I need to earn membership in a community without qualifying adjectives?)

I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow morning, when the well-meaning folks arrive with their paint and their buckets and barbecue. I won’t be there, because I’m thousands of miles away, which quite frankly breaks my heart, because I love this place. I do hope that some other folks who love the place as I do will show up, if only to sit there and look sad. While you’re there, you could speak to the media, who will almost certainly be there (since this has already become quite a story.) Better still, bring your own camera or voice recorder, and document what’s happening yourself, post your photos and videos, and write about it on your blog. (And please send me links when you do.)

Whatever you do tomorrow, please be polite and friendly, and don’t break any laws. Not even the stupid ones. There’ll be plenty of time to change those laws later, once Chicken John becomes our mayor.

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