VOLUME 3, ISSUE 317 | April 22-28, 2004
In the picture that accompanies this letter, the word “FAG” is scrawled across the front of a Gay City News street box.
In the two years since Community Media, our parent company owned by John Sutter, began placing hundreds of bright yellow street boxes with bold black lettering across the city, the primary source of our newspaper’s distribution has repeatedly faced this kind of treatment or worse.
Homophobic slurs have marred many a box, including the clear plastic windows that advertise a new issue; numerous boxes have been damaged, often beyond repair; and two consecutive batches of half a dozen boxes or more have vanished, each batch on a single night, in the East Village of all places.
In truth, all kinds of street boxes, and a lot of other things on the streets of New York, face graffiti vandalism. But I am convinced that even in 21st century New York, the appearance of big letters proclaiming that this a Gay City has spawned an unusual level of hostile response.
But, under an proposed amendment to the city law governing the placement of street boxes, Gay City News would be fined up to $200 each time a city inspector identifies such graffiti on our street boxes and we fail to clean it up with 24 hours.
The amendment aims to clean up a host of implementation issues that have come up in the year since the city adopted comprehensive legislation to address what some neighborhood groups view as the scourge of street boxes on city streets. The original legislation, championed by Eva Moskowitz, an Upper East Side councilmember, aimed to address safety issues raised by the proliferation of street boxes––primarily the blocking of corners, bus stops, handicapped ramps, fire hydrants, and driveways.
The legislation involved hefty fines, and of course no publisher was happy to respond to new regulations on their business, but the legislation––and many provisions of the amendment being considered––have worked and brought about cooperation between the city and its free newspapers.
The graffiti issue, however, remains a sore point, and Moskowitz is hanging tough on keeping stiff penalties in the law for graffiti violations.
Most of the fines imposed under the law relate to graffiti offenses, rather than the more important safety issues that legislation should rightly concern itself with. Community Media, which also publishes The Villager and Downtown Express in addition to Gay City News, has sustained roughly $30,000 in fines, the vast preponderance of them due to graffiti infractions caused by vandals.
The industry is instead proposing that the amendment be revised to allow publishers a reasonable period––not a mere 24 hours––to cure infractions. In the end, publishers are willing to accept the job of cleaning up after those damaging their street boxes, but they want a fair window in order to meet their obligation.
This is not, for us, a matter of fattening profits––it’s a far more urgent matter of survival. Thirty thousand dollars is an enormous incremental burden on a company our size doing business in a very difficult economic climate. These kinds of penalties may force us to rethink how we distribute our newspapers, and that can only hurt the visibility and viability of a newspaper like Gay City News that seeks a citywide presence with only 35,000 to 40,000 copies.
The focus we can bring to our newspaper with our street boxes cannot be matched by any other means of distribution.
This is an issue our community should care about. Our ability to carry out our mission and exercise critical First Amendment rights can all too easily be compromised by arbitrary and unreasonable government interference.
When Mayor Rudy Giuliani sought to curb the right of assembly on the steps of City Hall, in the name of security, city councilmembers were those who cried foul the loudest.
Please tell your city councilmember that you support more reasonable regulations on graffiti clean-up and hope that he or she will pass that word along to Speaker Gifford Miller.
For a complete list of councilmembers’ phone numbers and email addresses and to find out how to contact Speaker Miller, visit http://www.council.nyc.ny.us/committees/index.cfm?page=members.
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