(Photo courtesy of Anne Swanson)
Longtime Back Bay resident Peter Antell was in a restaurant when the call came from his neighbor. Like a superhero responding to a cry for help, Antell fled the restaurant and sped to the scene of the crime: his roof.
The culprit: a graffiti artist.
“I was able to run out of the restaurant, into my building, up to the roof and caught the guy spraying graffiti,” Antell, an attorney, recalled. “He fled across the rooftops, and I had to chase him.”
Antell’s response is one example of the lengths that Back Bay residents are going to preserve and police their historic neighborhood. Antell is on the board of the Newbury Street League, a business group, and has been involved in a local group called Graffiti NABBers for four years, serving as a liaison to the business community.
Graffiti NABBers was formed in 2006 to engage community members to discuss the problem of graffiti. Today, it has evolved into a thriving association of residents who police and remove graffiti in the Back Bay and also assist police, the courts and Boston’s Graffiti Busters in fighting vandalism across the city.
Graffiti NABBers removes graffiti and stickers on all 45 blocks of the Back Bay. This summer, the group developed an Adopt-A-Block program, naming 25 neighborhood volunteers as caretakers of individual blocks, with responsibility for cleaning and maintenance.
“The Back Bay is hugely important to the city of Boston as a revenue generator and as a premiere retail and residential district,’’ said Anne Swanson, chairwoman of Graffiti NABBers, who has lived in the Back Bay since 1979. “We’ve been changing the whole perception of this neighborhood, from a place that is popular and prodigious to ‘tag’, to ‘You’d better not do that there, because we’ll catch you,’ ”
Police say that the support and cooperation of Graffiti NABBers makes it easier to successfully prosecute vandals. The group documents and reports instances of graffiti, giving police definitive timelines to track vandals.
Graffiti NABBers also delivers victim-impact statements and cost estimates of damages, which can reach tens of thousands of dollars. Swanson said the owner of one Newbury Street restaurant has spent more than $75,000 over the past 15 years continuously cleaning and re-pointing a brick wall, 30 feet long by 10 feet high.
“Without the input of the community, it remains a kind of victimless and faceless crime. The community involvement provides a more personal perspective, and the crime becomes more relevant and tangible,” said Lieutenant Nancy O’Loughlin of the MBTA Police, who works closely with Graffiti NABBers.
Swanson and the Graffiti NABBers had a role in the 2009 Boston arrest of street artist Shepard Fairey, best-known for his “Hope” image of President Obama, on graffiti charges. The case highlighted the controversy over what constitutes street art and what is vandalism, Swanson said.
“People think we are opposed to art, but one of my degrees is in painting and sculpture,” she said. “Police say the difference between graffiti and art is permission, and if you don’t have permission, then it’s vandalism. I actually think a program of high-quality art in approved sites would be a great benefit to the community.”
The NABBers also had an impact in the 2008 arrest of Danielle Bremner (tag UTAH) for spray-painting graffiti in the Back Bay and at the MBTA’s Orient Heights rail yard in East Boston.
“I think it’s wonderful that Boston and the Back Bay have this group,” said Brittany Bang, a 15-year resident who works on Newbury Street. “I think it’s awesome that people volunteer their time to make my neighborhood look nice and to clean other people’s bad decisions.”
Swanson and another NABB member are in the process of obtaining approval from the Back Bay Architectural Commission to install fire-escape alarms and more security cameras that will be accessible to police. The plan also calls for signs to be put on fire escapes that will warn vandals of video surveillance.
“Every little piece of this fight has just taken hundreds and hundreds of hours,” Swanson said.
The NABBers also work with Graffiti Busters, the citywide group that has removed graffiti from over 1,000 locations throughout Boston. On some buildings, the NABBers help to obtain permission from property owners before the Graffiti Busters can come in and do the removal.
O’Loughlin called Graffiti NABBers a vital asset.
“They’re our eyes and ears on the street because we can’t be everywhere at once,” she said. “They serve as an extension of us.”
This article was reported and written by Northeastern University journalism student Jill Bongiorni, under the supervision of Journalism Professor Lisa Chedekel (firstname.lastname@example.org), as part of a collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.