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Common urban utilitarian buildings experience a range of deleterious changes, including graffiti, building modifications, and demolition. When such buildings possess historical or architectural significance, these changes potentially damage the urban fabric and diminish a shared cultural heritage. Paradoxically, while graffiti—the most superficial change—is combated as vandalism, far more invasive changes are implemented with official approval. On both fronts, respect for property underpins the regulatory policies and actions of local government. In neighborhoods experiencing rising housing prices and gentrification, these common buildings become especially vulnerable to demolition resulting from real estate development.
This paper explores the possibility that if graffiti is illegal vandalism, then these other forms of change qualify as a legal vandalism. The thesis implicitly challenges the hegemony of property interests over those of other groups who inhabit the commons—including graffiti writers. The impact of graffiti, modifications, and demolition will be analyzed and compared, drawing examples from San Francisco’s stellar collection of early public garages. These buildings, which are closely related by time of construction, use, structure, and aesthetics, provide a consistent profile against which all of the aforesaid changes can be assessed.