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Writing's on the wall

Atlanta goes on offensive against graffiti, panhandling


Atlanta will be a lot less colorful if Lamar Willis gets his way.

Eager to have the city clean up its act, the ambitious first-term councilman has already passed an ordinance to get rid of outlaw street art and unsolicited murals.

d Now, in Willis' quest to sanitize Atlanta's image, he's taken aim at another perennial fixture of the urban landscape, panhandling. His proposal to outlaw begging downtown, at MARTA stations, sports arenas, Hartsfield Airport -- virtually anywhere tourists or conventioneers are likely to go -- coincides with a new push by Mayor Shirley Franklin to crack down on loitering in city parks.

Willis says he was inspired by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's no-nonsense approach to cleaning up the Big Apple.

"The longer you leave graffiti up, the more encouraged artists will be to add more," says Willis, who believes both graffiti and begging are threatening to visitors and lend an air of squalor and hopelessness to the cityscape.

But some social service advocates counter that city leaders have adopted an approach to tackling Atlanta's "quality-of-life" problems that risks earning them the same reputation for reactionary hard-heartedness that plagued the pre-9-11 Giuliani.

"This is just a criminalization of the homeless," says Gerry Weber, legal director of the Atlanta chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which plans to fight Willis' bill.

While spray-painting buildings without permission has long been illegal in Atlanta, Willis decided to attack graffiti itself, rather than adopting stricter penalties for artists and taggers.

"The chances of catching these people are slim to none," Willis concedes.

Instead, his new ordinance, passed with little fanfare by the council earlier this month, saddles property owners with the responsibility of removing graffiti within 30 days of being notified by the city or face up to $1,000 in fines.

If a building owner wants to keep his graffiti intact, he must apply for a sign permit in order to save it. City ordinances already require a permit for outside murals.

Kelly Teasley, co-owner of Youngblood Gallery, anticipates a visit from city code-enforcement officers any day now. The free-standing building, on a prominent corner in the Grant Park historic district, is covered with graffiti-like murals.

"I know one neighbor who doesn't like our murals, so I'm expecting a complaint," she says.

Plenty of other folks, however, are fascinated by the artwork, which is replaced with new designs every year. People are constantly stopping to take photos of the building, Teasly says.

If they receive a notification from the city, she says, she and her partner will undertake the hassle of getting a sign permit. After all, she admits a little sheepishly, they didn't realize they needed a permit when they first commissioned the mural three years ago.

But doesn't this rule create an extra hurdle for a shopkeeper who might take a shine to a particularly fly piece of wildstyle that appears on her building?

"That's the idea," says Willis, who confirms that he wanted to make it more difficult for property owners to leave graffiti untouched, either because of laziness or admiration. He says he's received plenty of criticism from angry property owners who believe the new ordinance is unfair.

'Don't ask for the dime if you can't do the time'
Willis is already
gearing up for the battle over his next proposal, which is likely to hit the council like a bomb.

While Atlanta already prohibits "aggressive panhandling" -- in which beggars refuse to take "no" for an answer or resort to threats -- Willis' measure would make it illegal to ask strangers for money, period.

The proposal defines a "no-panhandling zone" that effectively encompasses the entire downtown business district, including Underground Atlanta, Woodruff Park and the epicenter for alms-seekers, the Five Points MARTA station. Train and bus stations also would be off-limits, as would the sidewalks outside banks and around ATMs.

Panhandlers are let off with a warning for the first violation, but would be required to perform community service for a second offense, although Willis' bill doesn't explain how to compel a homeless guy to pick up trash. Three-time losers can expect to receive up to six months in jail.

The approach may seem harsh, but Willis says panhandling has become such a huge problem that it's all but ruined downtown as a tourist destination and business center.

"It has to be addressed," he says. "Until it is, we'll continue to lose businesses like King & Spalding," he adds, referring to the city's largest law firm, whose recent decision to move to Midtown is widely believed to have been motivated by safety concerns.

Mayor Franklin already has shown her willingness to get tough with street people by supporting a move to boost police patrols around private homeless shelters and more strictly enforce laws against public urination.

But the mayor's most overt act has been to direct police to turn away charity groups delivering food to the homeless in downtown's Woodruff Park.

"Public food distribution causes public safety problems related to health, litter and traffic, and also violates the Fulton County Health Code," Franklin announced in a recent press release.

The mayor's stance amounts to a "very strong anti-homeless message," says Allison Ross, a member of Food Not Bombs, which has been serving food in Atlanta's public parks for more than eight years. "The homeless aren't going away just because we aren't serving them."

What the mayor may not recall is that the city previously tried to shut down the activities of Food Not Bombs, says the ACLU's Weber, who represented the group in a 1997 lawsuit. Not only did the city lose that case, but it was forced to pay individual plaintiffs $1,000 as part of a negotiated settlement.

Weber says the county health code applies only to commercial food vendors and restaurants, not to food that's being given away by charity groups.

"Nobody's getting sick because some church group is handing out PB&J sandwiches," he says.

Weber also plans to challenge Willis' anti-panhandling ordinance if it ends up being passed by the council.

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