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Alternative Indicator: The G(raffiti)DP

The numbers are bad: Unemployment is at 9.2% after rising for three straight months. Goldman Sachs cut its GDP growth forecast from 2% down to 1.5% this quarter. You have to leave the beaten path of economic indicators to find any positive signs--or "green shoots" as economic commentators like to call them. But according to the New York Times, you really don't want those shoots to be Krylon Jungle Green.

Photo from Flickr user Franco Folini

The Times' headline is that "Cities Large and Small Report Surge in Graffiti," with fears that this may be a sign of something deeper than a coat of paint:

The upturn has prompted concern among city officials and renewed a debate about whether glorifying such displays -- be it in museum exhibits, tattoos or television advertisements -- contributes to urban blight and economic decay. But it is also stirring a debate about what is causing this recent surge and whether it might be an early indicator that anxiety and alienation are growing in some struggling urban areas in the face of stubborn unemployment and the lingering effects of the recession.

Scary stuff. I decided to take a closer look at one of their examples: Albuquerque, New Mexico, which happens to be my hometown.

In Bernalillo County, N.M., which includes Albuquerque, graffiti complaints in June jumped to 300, from 84 in April.

It turns out these statistics don't actually include the city of Albuquerque, but refer to the unincorporated county outside. But let's leave that aside. What does a huge jump from April to June signal? According to Catherine Lopez in the county's Public Information Office, "The trends we see are that the spikes in graffiti tagging coincide with when the kids are out of school."

There is also an annual increase, though. The Bernalillo County Graffiti Removal Program, which has a 24-hour hotline and clean-up crews who scour the city painting over graffiti, "buffed" about 38% more square feet in the last year than in the year before. But Lopez attributes that not to a rise in graffiti -- she says the clean-up crews would probably disagree with that -- but to a rise in the effectiveness of the graffiti removal program itself, which has been advertising itself and expanding its reach. Since the only statistics gathered on graffiti are necessarily about its removal, it's hard to disentangle the two.

One way might be to go further down the supply chain. L.A. Underground -- Albuquerque's "All-City Hip-Hop Shop" -- has seen spray paint sales "skyrocket" in the last three years. But long-time employee Ralph, who didn't want to use his last name, suggested that this, too, was a product of the rapid-response "buffing" of graffiti. "I think [the graffiti removal program] helps our business," he told me. "Because these kids go paint, and then it gets buffed, so they get more paint."

So there you have it. A rise in graffiti complaints may be a strong indicator... of a rise in graffiti removal.

About the author

Stan Alcorn is a multimedia journalist in New York City. He has reported for NPR and WNYC, where he has focused on business and the New York tech scene.

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