Maybe they thought these streets were fair game. Maybe these suburban guys believed that Buffalo exists to be dumped on.
But you can't gauge the character of a neighborhood from behind the nozzle of a spray can. You can't measure the fight of its people until you hurt them. So I think that Vincent Cesario, Jordan Kubiak -- both 22 -- and their 16-year-old accomplice are, among other things, surprised.
The three are looking at possible felony charges after their arrests last month for defacing buildings in and around Black Rock. The graffiti tags "RAT" and "COOL" became a dismal part of the urban landscape. But whatever punishment they face, if convicted, their crime came with an education.
The suspected vandals -- two from Grand Island, one from Kenmore -- did not know what they were getting into. This stretch of Grant and Amherst streets is dotted with a dozen new galleries, shops and restaurants. The tags weren't just marks on buildings. They were assaults against people who invested sweat and vision; who added funk and style to blue-collar streets.
"People are putting their hearts and souls into resurrecting this neighborhood," Susan Cholewa said. "These [young men] come from out of town to destroy it. We will not let them."
Urban warriors come in different colors, shapes and sizes. Cholewa's long black hair frames a black trench coat. Four years ago, the French teacher from North Tonawanda High School bought the old Howie's Appliance store, two blocks from Wegmans. It now houses Gallery 464.
"The tin ceilings, the brick -- it reminded me of something I'd see in Europe," she said.
She heard that the elderly owner of the nearby hardware store was selling. She bought the handsome three-story brick building. Soon afterward, she ran into Mark Goldman, whose Calumet Arts Cafe a generation ago sparked the Chippewa Street revival. He now carries the flag for "Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper" waterfront development. She mentioned her new place. Goldman saw not an abandoned store, but what soon will be his uber-funky Black Rock Kitchen and Bar.
These are the people the taggers messed with. Graffiti doesn't just mark buildings. It damages lives. It assaults the shared hopes of those who see something in the making, and want to make something of it.
New mixes with old. Voelker's Bowling Center has been in the family since 1892. It got tagged. Mark Kubiniec owns the Sunoco station across from Voelker's. His family has been here for 76 years. These are not people who turn and run.
The brick and mortar of any neighborhood's rebirth are people who believe. Four years ago, Mike Maywalt relocated his real estate business from Williamsville. He gave the near-death building on Amherst Street an art deco resuscitation. He since bought and restored about 20 other buildings -- renting mainly to hardworking Burmese and Iraqi immigrants.
"We don't have the momentum of a Hertel or Elmwood Village," Maywalt said. "If the [vandalism] keeps up, it could threaten what we have."
The tagging trio stepped into a hornet's nest. A platoon of neighborhood folks turns out for every court date. Police and prosecutors, to their credit, are not brushing this off. The presence of graffiti brings the stench of decline to a neighborhood and serves notice that people there don't care.
Not in Black Rock.
Cholewa, Maywalt, Kubiniec and folks like them see light on the horizon. Much of what they imagined already has come true. The rest is within reach. Three punks armed with spray paint might mar the view, but they can't erase the vision.