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Getting Burned

[whitespace] Ron Richardson Contents Under Pressure: Ron Richardson, a self-appointed graffiti eradicator, stands in front of the former taggers' hangout he bought in an effort to clean up the neighborhood. In the middle of his renovation of the property, it caught fire.

Christopher Gardner

A College Park man declared war on taggers in his neighborhood, matching them can for can. Then they declared war on him.

By Traci Hukill

ON A WARM DAY IN EARLY APRIL, Ron Richardson eases his paint-spattered Oldsmobile Cutlass onto the curb outside an abandoned warehouse on Coleman Avenue. "This is what I call the archives of graffiti," he explains with disgust, and straps a knife onto his belt. The blade is 7 inches long.

"This is a Marine-issue KA-BAR," he says. "I had one like it in Vietnam, but this isn't mine. I picked it up at a garage sale. I carry it with me when I'm going into a situation that could be dangerous."

Richardson is in his 40s, a tall, genial Texan who owns a small real estate company and wears a jaunty white straw hat with a black band. He hates graffiti and he wants "Nortain-yos" and independent taggers alike out of his neighborhood. To that end, every day he patrols College Park, peering at dumpsters and walls for graffiti, and specifically for signs of the tagger he thinks is doing most of it. His private war--of which this particular foe is just one part--has made him loved by some of his neighbors and despised by others.

The knife might not be such a bad idea. In March someone flung half a dead cat onto his porch. A river rock was hurled through his rear windshield with so much force it landed on the front floorboard. And though it hasn't happened yet, by month's end the situation will have become truly explosive.

Inside the warehouse an array of old shoes, discarded clothes, bicycle parts and other detritus is strewn about the concrete floor. The air stinks of burned carbon. A long divider wall provides an easel for some fantastic graffiti: on one side is a Japanimation-style girl holding a vibrator and the tags "NERV" and "Bad Kru" in magenta. On the other side is a big tag, PARIS, and outlined in smaller words: Roach, Terps, Pepsi, Gifto, Kove, CMD and ASE.

Tracking a worthy quarry demands patience, skill and vigilance. You must learn his habits, know his haunts, recognize his footprint wherever it appears. Ron Richardson has learned a lot about his adversary since moving to College Park last January. He's followed him to work. He knows where the guy lives. He's seen him watching soccer games at Herbert Hoover Middle School. And he's studied his tags with the fascinated persistence of a research scientist.

This wall is Richardson's Rosetta Stone. It's why he believes Roach, Terps, Pepsi and the other monikers belong to the same tagger. The mystery of the hour is whether "Bad Kru" is also part of Paris' split personality.

"He's so versatile that it could be he's representing himself as a crew when he's just an individual," Richardson observes an hour later as he examines several tags in the Naglee underpass. "Paris" is written in gold pen, "Roach" below it in orange paint. "If you didn't know it all, you might think it was two different people."

As he meanders through the neighborhood finishing up his rounds, Richardson muses aloud upon the state of his rival's psyche, basing his observations on tidbits gleaned from sources he guards jealously. He paints a picture of a disenfranchised loner who's been through the prison system, who rides his bicycle to work at a local pizza parlor and spends his nights maintaining his precious notoriety among the city's population of taggers. He's a guy who watches kids play soccer but never participates himself.

"He's 31, but he really likes elementary schools, junior high schools," he says of the tagger. "I mean, this guy is really unbalanced."

Richardson tells how once, on a "Your Measure C Tax Dollars at Work" sign, someone--he thinks it was Paris-- spray painted an "MD" next to the "C" to make one of his primary tags, CMD.

"He's got a good sense of humor," Richardson admits. A hint of awe creeps into his voice.

"There just isn't anybody else like him. He's so prolific. But he's obsessed! This must be all he does."

Contents Flammable

PEOPLE TEND TO SQUINT, nod slowly and use the word "interesting" when College Park comes up. On The Alameda side of the neighborhood, where the moneyed scent of the Rose Garden lingers in the air, many of the larger Victorians and Craftsman homes have been coaxed from gentle decay into refreshed splendor. The gentrification process is far from complete. Airport noise, traffic from a nearby high school, Caltrain and the concrete plant have long made College Park a shaky real estate bet, and until recently a handful of squalid boarding houses set the tone for the neighborhood.

Last January Ron Richardson and his wife, Beryl, bought one of those boarding houses. They found needles and empty baggies everywhere. Neighbors helpfully informed them that their master bedroom had been the set for a porn film.

Outside the house they found other things not to their liking. The Richardsons didn't care for the Bell Market, where students and neighborhood kids hung out playing video games. They didn't like the "150 fabulous drunken customers" either, as Ron Richardson puts it. And they especially disliked the graffiti throughout the neighborhood.

Richardson called the authorities and got six of the nine arcade games at the Bell Market removed, courtesy of a 1998 ordinance restricting arcade games according to a square-footage ratio. He called the police on kids and homeless people in the area. He had a digital speed indicator erected on his lawn so drivers would slow down.

Then Richardson got tins of beige and gray paint from the SJPD's anti-graffiti program and started painting over tags in the neighborhood. He started casually at first, then launched a full-time painting campaign this past January in an effort to establish a "standard for impeccability."

"Some days I would spend all day driving around, just painting and painting and painting," Richardson recalls. One might say fiber optics have allowed Richardson the freedom to pursue his hobby; his cell phone is with him at all times so he doesn't miss any real estate opportunities. As his license plate suggests, "Phun Boy" is not a desk-job type anyway. Too dull.

There are other taggers besides Paris, although it's Paris who's given him the most heroic opportunities. As he drives down The Alameda he points out a billboard and tells how Paris had tagged it along the bottom. Richardson came along and with his son's help climbed up onto the roof of a nearby building and painted it out, finishing at 9 o'clock one night. The next morning Richardson drove by it only to see the billboard retagged in exactly the same words that had been there before. What was he to do? What else but pull over, get out his beige paint and paint it out once again. It's clean to this day.

Paris, for all his maddening volume and elusiveness, has not turned out to be Richardson's biggest problem. Last spring Richardson traced a different group of taggers, whom he'd also seen around the neighborhood, to a house on Asbury Street that stands across from the concrete plant.

Certain that they were Norteños--they wore a lot of red and tagged "XIV" for N, the 14th letter of the alphabet--he called the anti-graffiti program repeatedly with information and updates on the boys' activity, only to be told that unless he caught them in the act of tagging, his information was useless.

Figuring he was on his own, Richardson solved the house problem the old-fashioned way: he bought it. The inhabitants--three boys and their mother, grandmother and mentally disabled aunt--were served with an eviction notice in December, and Richardson began renovating the house. He had paid its 85-year-old owner $135,000 for it.

At that point, he says, tension between him and the local taggers escalated. When he painted out a utility box behind the Salvation Army on Villa Avenue, several blocks from his own house, taggers responded with several variations on "Fuck Phun Boy."

One night shortly after he'd painted out the utility box again, he got a panicked call from Beryl. Someone had thrown half a dead cat on their porch. That night, he says, "I realized how alone, how vulnerable I was."

Sure it was the work of a group of boys who hung out at an apartment at 798 Villa Ave., he called SJPD's gang abatement unit.

The next night the gang unit arrested a group of young men at the Villa Street residence and called Richardson at home, telling him to "rest easy." Late that night as he and Beryl lay in bed, they heard a terrible crashing sound--the rock through their windshield, clearly thrown by someone who was not in custody of the police.

Several days later Richardson contacted CalWestern Property Management and told them that the house at 798 Villa Ave. was a hub of gang activity. On March 25, Elsa Hopkins, along with her son Jack, was served with a polite eviction notice. Nothing personal, she was told; the owner wanted the property for family use.

And then, at 2:34am on Saturday, April 17, the Richardsons were awakened by an urgent phone call from a fellow member of the neighborhood association, an Asbury Street resident. The Richardsons' property on Asbury Street had caught fire and was burning out of control. Incredulous, the two rushed over and watched exploding balls of fire shoot from the flaming house. In minutes it had burned beyond salvage.

Local Hero?

JEFF WEBER OF THE arson investigation unit cautions against jumping to conclusions. Two weeks ago he took a dog trained to sniff hydrocarbon fuels--a family that includes such varied materials as gasoline, linseed oil and alcohol--to the site. The dog's nose said yes to hydrocarbon fuel, but Weber says that's not proof of foul play.

"Just because the dog hits hydrocarbon products doesn't mean it's an arson fire," he says. "A lot of roofing materials are made with tar or kerosene. Those are hydrocarbon fuels."

The county lab will test the samples Weber pulled for their "signatures," which will identify the materials. But for now it's wait and see.

Richardson, meanwhile, doesn't have many doubts. "I'm 99 percent certain it's gang related," he says. The Tuesday after the fire, the couple sit together in their living room. The insurance didn't cover the new materials, and they estimate they're out $40,000. Ron Richardson's face looks ashen beneath his tan.

"The truth is, we're terrified," he says. "But it's a question of how are you going to live? Am I gonna run away and 'learn my lesson,' and go somewhere else and when it happens again, not say anything, like everyone else?"

On a hot, sunny afternoon, 23-year-old Lori Gonzales is picking up leaves in her yard. She lives across the street from the Richardsons and next door to the Bell Market.

"Kids are gonna be kids," she says. "You can't do too much about it. Or if you do, it's better to go at it in a friendly way rather than come out yelling and hollering about it."

"When he comes out of his door, everybody's in a gang, everybody's doing drugs," she complains.

Down the street, Stan Ochs dismisses Richardson and his adventurous crusade with a glib wave of his hand. "Oh, him? We call him Indiana Jones. I have nothing against the guy. We all have our little idiosyncrasies, and his is calling 9-1-1-government."

Mike An, owner of the Bell Market, can't afford blasé humor. He can hardly afford his life right now, and he blames Ron Richardson for that. The loss of six arcade games hurt him badly.

"For the last 10 years I've had nine video games," he says carefully as he wipes down the countertop at the register. "Now the kids are coming a lot less. I lose 30 percent of my business. Now me and my wife argue about income. He's trying to put me out of business. I know that's what he's trying to do.

"He came in one day and said, 'If you don't get rid of these gangsters ...' We have some cholos," An sighs. "I've been here so long, I know their uncles. I know their families. These are the kids who don't have anything. So they have their hair, they have their clothes. Yes, they tag me. I tell them to clean it up."

No one is surprised about the house. "If I acted that bad, my store would have burned down 10 years ago!" says An. "Obviously he has enemies."

One of Richardson's plans for cleaning up his neighborhood is availing himself of the Neighborhood Action Program. Through it, neighbors can mobilize against problem properties. First the landlord or owner gets an official letter from the program coordinator requesting that the noise, mess or whatever be abated. If that doesn't result in cleanup, silence or eviction (and it usually results in eviction), the neighbors can file a civil suit claiming mental and emotional distress. They can sue for up to $5,000 per person, including children.

But in the case of the house on Villa Avenue, Richardson didn't even have to go through the Neighborhood Action Program. A call to the rental property was enough, and the terms of the month-to-month lease signed by CalWestern and Elsa Hopkins do not necessitate providing reasons for eviction.

Hopkins, an attractive, well-dressed woman, barely has time to talk, caught as she is on her way to a funeral. She says her life has been "turned upside down" as she's rushed to find a new place.

"That man has followed my son with a video camera," she says angrily. "My son has tagged--I won't deny that--but he's a good kid. He's not in a gang."

Naturally, Richardson has avid supporters, notably new and ambitious arrivals in College Park. Thanks to him, the Neighborhood Association has galvanized and begun to meet on a regular basis again.

"I gotta tell you, Ron has had a significant part of San Jose cleaned of graffiti," says association president Ron Miller, who moved in a year and a half ago. "To me, graffiti indicates a low level of neighborhood. We're taking back our neighborhood, that's what we're trying to do. This is a classic example of a grass-roots thing, trying to come together."

John Allen, a candlemaker who's lived in the neighborhood for 12 years, backs Richardson too.

"I have taken the 'dumb kids do dumb stuff' attitude all long until Ron started educating me," he says. "On one hand, you can say these are just kids doing pranks. On the other hand, you can say these are young criminals cutting their teeth on petty crime. They start with property crimes, and it moves on up and eventually ends up being armed robbery."

Allen acknowledges that gentrification is pushing out some people who have been there a long time, but he sticks to his position. "I feel for the people, but I have no tolerance for bad behavior," he says. "The people who aren't willing to play by the rules, well, I'm not part of that revolution."

Struggles like these are happening all over the valley. A year after embarking on it, Richardson is accomplishing what he set out to do. In this war of écriture and erasure, success is measured in visibility, and Richardson's negative tag is everywhere: from Coleman to The Alameda to 880, his signature blotches of fresh beige paint trump the taggers' arcane black scrawls on every block.

In an odd twist, Richardson's obsession has turned him into a tagger--a legitimized one who tags in blank neutrals. He's as coincidentally patriotic as the utility guys who spray-paint "USA" in white letters on pavement and power poles to indicate "underground service alert" to people doing excavation work.

Lucky him. Richardson's revolution was fought and won a long time ago.

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From the May 6-12, 1999 issue of Metro.

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