Wednesday, August 29, 2001

Tarbell draws line on graffiti

        He walks the mean streets of Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton in his bedroom slippers. Criminals fear him. Neighbors cheer him.

        “Glad you nailed those vandals, Mr. Jim.”

        Everyone knows his name.

        He's Jim Tarbell. Councilman and crimestopper.

        He is a rare bird among elected officials. His peers bemoan street crime. They throw money at it and hope it goes away.

        But he goes out and does something about it.

        “I'm not doing anything special,” the crimestopping councilman told me Monday. “I'm just protecting where I live.”

        We stood by the steps linking quiet Spring Street with bustling Liberty Street. Traffic on the busy thoroughfare rushed by graffiti-scarred buildings.

        One day after helping police nab two graffiti-spraying goons, Jim Tarbell revisited the scene of the crime. And subsequent arrest.

        To him, leaving your bed at 5 o'clock on a Sunday morning is nothing special. “People would do that in Westwood or Hyde Park if they heard rustling sounds under their bedroom window.”

        The councilman's wife, Brenda, joined him on their predawn search. She went one way. He went the other. She took along their 75-pound boxer. He brought “the element of surprise.”

        They found nothing.

        They met up at the Spring Street steps. As the Tarbells planned their next move, two guys walked by.

        “They looked fresh. As if they were off to work. They carried backpacks.”

        Brenda said hello.

        They said nothing.

        As the backpackers walked on in silence, the councilman recalled the recent wave of graffiti that has flooded Over-the-Rhine. Thick gaudy swathes of paint spoil sides of buildings. Thin squiggly lines mar doors and windows. Even satellite TV dishes aren't graffiti-proof.

        The backpacks and their unfriendly owners aroused suspicion.

        “These guys,” the councilman told himself, “are up to no good.”

        Jim and Brenda Tarbell have had experience with such types. Last year, the councilman got bonked on the head when he confronted a front-yard intruder. In March, Brenda encountered two would-be robbers outside the Tarbells' 141-year-old house.

        Deciding action was called for Sunday morning, Brenda went home to alert the police. The councilman got into his car and circled several blocks.

        On Liberty, he got a whiff of spray-can emissions. He hates the smell of spray paint in the morning.

        Parking his car, he saw fresh graffiti. The stuff — since removed by the city's graffiti patrol — defaced an old stone wall bordering Liberty Green, a community cared-for mini-park.

        He spotted the two backpackers and called police. A block away, officers arrested two men — ages 20 and 25, and not from the neighborhood. Cans of spray paint filled their backpacks.

        Graffiti vandals steal a neighborhood's dignity. They think they can just take over a wall and make a statement with whatever hateful words or gang insignias spew from their cans of paint.

        Not this time.

        “Enough's enough,” Jim Tarbell said. “A line has been drawn in the sand.”

        But not with a can of spray paint.

        This line forms with people who care.

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