June 7, 2011

Wet cement carvings -- rite of passage or vandalism?

Writing in wet cement is a harmless rite of passage that lets kids feel more strongly bonded to their community and to one another, while also filling their need for risk-taking in a way that stops short of setting a dumpster on fire.

I still remember the day when they finally began to re-do parts of the sidewalk in front of my house when I was about 10 years old (around 1990). At last the opportunity had come! I think I just inscribed my first name and last initial, nothing more pretentious than that. Many foolish commentators, both those in favor of and against the practice, interpret scrawling your name in the cement as an act of ego-inflation, maybe even a grasp at immortality. But no one who's actually done it would think that.

For one thing, few leave their full names. During my daily walks over the past couple weeks, I've looked for any carvings I could easily spot, and only one had someone's full name -- although not the writer's name, but that of his crush or girlfriend ("I LOVE KELLY GREEN!"). Most people don't have very distinctive first names, even less so if they only leave their initials, which could hardly be more anonymous. So clearly this is not an attempt to make posterity aware of your specialness.

The practice instead resembles leaving your name in a guestbook at a social event, or signing someone's yearbook. We wrote our names just to show that we were part of the broader group of people who would read them. Our exact identities were not important because the average pedestrian would not know us personally. All that counted was the signal that there were a good number of people in their neighborhood who felt loyal and excited enough about living there to sign its guestbook.

The second-most common form -- "boy + girl" -- serves much the same function. It's a pre-adult version of a wedding announcement, for those not advanced enough to merit a spot in the newspaper. It reassures the community members that boys and girls are getting along well with each other, whoever they are, and that their relationship is not shallow -- you have to be pretty committed to carve "ZACK + KELLY" into cement.

However, as social bonds began weakening in the early 1990s, young people have found less and less meaning in leaving their mark on public spaces. If they do not venture around the neighborhood, it is not really theirs. If they are mostly locked inside with no social life, there is no larger group to pledge loyalty to in such a risky way. And if they don't start going out on dates and making out until college, there is no declaration of love to be made.

Not surprisingly, none of the dozens of carvings that I saw on my walks were from the 2000s, only one or two were from the later half of the 1990s, although there were a good number from the early '90s, and a handful from '93 and '94. Most of them, and particularly the more group-oriented ones (where several friends or couples joined in at the same time), are from the '80s or the late '70s.

How can you tell? Often a year is explicitly written, sometimes down to the day -- "Oct 11 '79 Gus." Even without a year, they can be roughly dated by the names shown -- "Tommy [heart] Linda" and "Tim loves Dawn" cannot be from the mid-'90s or later because when was the last time there were teenagers named Tommy, Linda, Tim, and Dawn? They're all ones that were popular among "late" Boomers (born from '58 to '64) or Generation X (born from '65 to '78). In contrast, there are none with Millennial names (born from '86 on). Aside from their weaker relationship bonds, they've also got the problem that it would sound too funny to take seriously -- "Tanner + Morganella" sounds more like the name of a queer bookstore / sex shop than of two wholesome young lovers.

As with crime in general, the ramping up of punishment lagged several years after the crime rate itself had plateaued or started to decline. I searched Lexis-Nexis for any articles mentioning "wet cement" from the 1980s and earlier, and found none that mentioned police action against youngsters. For the 1990s and later, I searched for "wet cement" and "police." I'll put the article excerpts in the comments for the curious -- all meant for the "funny if it weren't pathetic" file. Briefly, the earliest item is a police blotter notice from late November, 1995, followed by full articles about kids in late elementary school or middle school getting arrested and brought to court in '97, '99, 2001, '06, '06 again, and '11.

It's another example of greater authoritarianism from rulers, and greater acceptance of it among the ruled, which takes hold only during falling-crime times. In rising-crime times, the rulers have more pressing matters to deal with, and citizens choose greater independence from the government, having witnessed its inability to socially engineer a crime-free utopia.

Shifts in national public policy are simply too slow, too impotent, and too clueless of the facts on the ground to have a drastic impact on criminal behavior. (I might provide time-series graphs of incarceration rates and homicide rates later to illustrate this.) This is another case, where only after the practice was already dying out did the police bother to drag 11 year-olds in front of a judge for writing their names in wet cement.

We find a parallel in carving your name into tree trunks, which was just another form of public-space carvings. You haven't seen those in forever, and unlike with wet cement carvings, there have not even been any police crackdowns. That's because trees carvings are less visible, whereas sidewalk carvings are not hard to see and could more easily frighten some spazz who cares more about squeezing every cent out of his property value than he does about a spirit of neighborhood togetherness and making sure the young feel included. As with sidewalk carvings, here punishment was not necessary because the desire to do it in the first place had begun to fade out. Such punishment as there was served only as a delayed symbolic message that the times had changed.


  1. Orange County Register (California), November 23, 1995:

    NOV. 17
    Cresent/Watson, juveniles cited for writing in wet cement.

    CBS News Transcripts, March 05, 1997:

    Jeremy Anderson of Las Vegas, Nevada, is in a heap of trouble for someone who's only nine years old. Police came to school and arrested him. He was read his rights. He was strip searched and he was charged with malicious destruction of property. What did he do, you ask? Well, apparently what he did was to succumb to a temptation that many people older than he have found irresistible over the years. Jeremy allegedly wrote his name in some wet cement on a freshly poured sidewalk. The contractor has told his mom it's going to cost her $ 11,000.

    The Associated Press, September 29, 1999:

    Writing in wet cement may seem like child's play, but it landed three young scribes in court.

    An 11-year-old girl and two boys, ages 12 and 13, were charged Tuesday with unlawful destruction of city property. The punishment so far has been just a stern lecture.

    Roanoke Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge Joseph P. Bounds said he'll take all three cases under advisement for a year and then decide if punishment is necessary.

    The three had carved their first names into nine newly-laid cement sidewalk panels last June.

    Daily Mail (London), October 27, 2001"

    A BOY of 14 was held in police custody for three hours, fingerprinted, photographed and DNA tested for writing his name in wet cement.

    Rory McCann was seen by an offduty officer who put him in an armlock and bundled him into a car at Whitburn, near Sunderland.

  2. St. Petersburg Times (Florida), June 21, 2006:

    Three suspects were interrogated separately after being advised of their rights to remain silent, and all confessed to the alleged crime.

    But in this case, the suspects were 13- and 15-year-old students at Fox Chapel Middle School. The offense was drawing their initials and profanities in wet cement at a subdivision construction site.

    University Wire, June 28, 2006:

    [...]a Utah County woman rolled her eyes as she sat in a courtroom awaiting a verdict. Her 13-year-old nephew had been charged with criminal mischief because he and three friends had written their names in wet cement at a construction site, an act the woman said was a social norm not long ago. Each boy was charged $400 and the woman said all four boys were scared straight.

    The New York Post, January 6, 2011:

    It was supposed to be just a harmless rite of passage - but an 11-year-old girl has learned the hard way that in New Jersey, messing with cement is serious business.

    The Garden State pre-teen has landed herself in court on vandalism charges after she was caught gray-handed writing her name in wet cement outside her school.

    "I feel like scared . . . because I have to go in front of a judge," Kelly Zierdt, 11, told My9 News.

    The cheerleader and honors student was with a few other pals outside Middlesex Township Middle School when cops caught them etching their names in the pavement.

    "The police [officer] drove up and he was like, 'All right, put these kids in the back of the car; we're bringing them to headquarters,' " Kelly told the TV station. "And then me and my friends started crying our eyes out."

  3. Agnostic,

    As you remember, Hanna Rosin wrote about increasing crime in mid-size cities and the suburbs. I saw that you had commented on it at Steve's when he blogged about it and wondered if you would expound. One of your themes is that people become complacent when crime rates are low. My experience is that that is true and I became a victim so early on in the new complacency, that it's been hard to believe we've lived in an era of falling crime.

    In 1995, my mom became seriously anti-racist and taught me the same. Her mother had been held up in the early 70s, but Mom had changed her opinion about what caused crime. Coincidentally, her mindset was exactly the same as our elites.

    Long story short, my husband and I were unprepared for how the world really was when we were very young and poor and looking for our first home together and newly independent (19 and 21). Not one adult aggressively tried to give us wise counsel. The few realists we encountered just dropped hints.

    We rented a "fabulous" brick place with wooden floors in the ghetto, literally. Four months earlier, a white guy had been beaten to death on a sidewalk just for being white, but I didn't even learn this until two years ago, 10 years after the fact!

    Reality smacked us in the head very quickly and so it was that in 1999, the era of low crime ended for us personally.
    And when we tried to spread the word to family, we were accused of being racists and became personae non gratae.

  4. I don't have childhood acts to relate, but my college days opened my eyes to the changes in society. I was not a rebel, in the true sense, but I was fairly fearless and craved the wildness and freedom "adulthood" was supposed to give me, coupled with the camaraderie and showmanship of success with others. Passed down from movies ("Animal House"), my elders, and oral tradition from upper-classmen and other sources were tales of fraternity antics, company "spirit missions" (I was in a military academy on a public campus), and other feats of mischief that were somewhat tolerated. I was up to the challenge and arranged for a like-minded individual to get re-assigned as my roommate. I could wax on about our antics, but needless to say, we got a rude awakening when we were throated with jail time, got our company in deep crap, etc. I fought it for a while, but eventually had to comply due to peer pressure. I simply couldn't put everyone else through the suffering to prove my point that I wasn't actually hurting anyone/anything, we had a hell of a good time, and it did bring the group together.

    To give one example, just for illustration: There was a big to-do set up the night before on a campus field and I snuck out in the middle of the night to arrange the chairs in the shape of an "E" for "Echo Company". Brilliant, I thought: doesn't hurt anybody, small amount of work to fix, and shows our E off more than any other company. Campus security tried to push vandalism charges and ultimately I had to fess up to avoid dragging everyone with me. My penance was a crap-ton of chores, no leave for a month, and letters of apology to half a dozen parties...all for rearranging chairs.

    It broke my spirit, in regards to the whole letdown of college (my personal spirit could not be broken - I would have gone on fighting "The Man" if there was sufficient backing, but with nobody behind me, it was pointless). Also, I was the only one doing anything like this. On a huge campus with 30,000 students, I became the only suspect, not to mention anything involving "E" was obvious. With great sadness, I have since looked at faded frat and company symbols on rock faces along the highways, crumbling concrete slabs with long-forgotten symbols and dates, and the once-in-a-while story of a kid who tries to break out and gets beat down.

    I've probably delved into a completely different topic, but related: Where once rivalry was encouraged and one-upping each other publicly was tolerated, millennials are now taught to shake hands and be equal. Stealing the other team's mascot will land you in court. Etc, etc. Think back to "Police Academy" and what rival police academies did to each other. "Caddy Shack" pit caddies and teams against each other. Flip through the rolodex of 80's movies and you'll find tons of these examples. This is how I was expecting things to work out and instead I got the watered-down wussy version.

  5. I came back to this post because it made me think of something I experienced and I've heard echoed by other adults: The majority of kids today have no respect for other people's rights and their property (I'm blaming parenting here). How does this relate to cement writing? Well, I'm drawing some dotted lines here, so bear with me.

    First, drawing upon my own experiences, I grew up tinkering with pyrotechnics with a good friend. Our parents weren't thrilled, but with proven responsibility came greater leniency. There was one prime directive; though - other than the obvious safety rules - we were never allowed to harm someone else's property. Blow up all of our own junk we want, make "traps" and spook people, blow up pumpkins (this became a great Halloween tradition), but never cause harm. Fast-forward to high school and college and kids start using bottle-bombs (chemicals in a drink bottle expanding) to destroy mailboxes, hurt each other with pipe bombs, scare elderly with rockets, etc. You can easily guess at the resulting public sentiment, new laws, etc. My friend and I were actually investigated because we were well known "pyros".

    Second is paintball. Another buddy and I actually invested in all of the equipment to run a club when we were 17. It started off great, but as years went by, we started taking heat because of the bad name paintball was getting because of kids doing drive-bys on cars and houses, actually using them on people in crowds, and other various stupidity. We were seen as encouraging hoodlums when the reverse was true. We banned people for their off-field actions.

    So the long way to my point is that society has built up a fear of destructive actions by youths and maybe that fear is not unjustified. While there are certainly kids who would only put small initials in cement, there are a great many more who would put vulgarities, throw in objects, put their butts in - Jackass style, etc. There is a lack of respect that I have seen grow in people behind me in age and I can't help but think that some of the overreaction of the law is in reaction to that. Also, trying to relate this more to your topic, if putting your initials in cement is not to the level of coolness your peers will recognize, there's no point. I've seen my almost 9-year old show off something to his peers, that would have been cool to me and mine in my day, just to have them barely take notice. If there were fresh cement nearby, I might actually encourage him to make his mark, but a) that would totally devalue the act, other than as a Father/Son thing, and b) just wouldn't feel right, in relation to things he has to figure out for himself. It makes me sad to say that if I were to hint that he should sneak and put his name in some cement, he'd probably just look at me like I'm lame and ask, "Why?"

  6. "Hanna Rosin wrote about increasing crime in mid-size cities and the suburbs. I saw that you had commented on it at Steve's when he blogged about it and wondered if you would expound. "

    That name doesn't ring a bell. Was she the one talking about Section 8 people bringing crime along with them to the suburbs after the gentrifiers priced them out of the city?

  7. Yeah, college pranks tap into community spirit. You never see them at apathetic colleges.

    I don't recall any big pranks on campus, but my friends and I used to "sneak into" a nearby building that at the time had state-of-the-art stuff in the classrooms, which would let us watch DVDs projected onto a big screen.

    Technically it was breaking & entering, since we had to open a window, then have one slip through and unlock the main door for everyone else.

    We got caught probably 5 times by campus security until we got turned in. Basically the guy just gave us a lecture that it's on our records, but that it'll be wiped clean after a year if we stay out of trouble. And that was that. We'd had our fun anyway.

  8. Yes, I think both the people on the ground doing these things and the authorities have gone a little haywire.

    It's like an auto-immune disease. When your immune system has nothing to practice on growing up, it doesn't know what is an appropriate or inappropriate target, or what level of intensity is right.

    So instead of a wholesome rivalry within a social network -- like toilet-papering someone's house -- you see a lot more lame graffiti than before, like that Peanut Butter Jelly Time banana, Pokemon characters, etc., that are spraypainted from stencils onto random people's property across the area.

    And the overkill and authoritarianism of the men with guns -- or without them, like mall cops -- is the other side of this. They'll only behave that way when they know most people are wimps and won't push back, and when they've had little experience dealing with real bad guys instead of some emo dork riding his skateboard around the mall parking lot.

  9. I feel like I'm coming in way after the fact on this, but if anyone is still monitoring or reading this post then this is for you.

    I recently (like last week) created an internet gallery of what I hope will be a large number of visitor submitted photos of sidewalk etchings, concrete carvings, messages beneath your feet, whatever name you choose.

    You can find what is currently my small collection of photos at www.onceuponasidewalk.com. If you have any photos of wet cement carvings, or know of one near you please send it to me via the submit a photo form on my site.

    I think this is a very cool idea, as some of these messages may have great meaning behind them to the person that took the time (and apparently the risk) to carve their thoughts into the sidewalk.

  10. I just got my driveway concerted later on came home to "bloods" and some other shit on it. I sanded it out then i waited as i new the kids would come back. Then i bet the fuck out of them. Its vandalism you are fucken retarded if you think otherwise it costs people money.

    1. I totally agree with you. There's many other places you can use to "be creative" or "express yourself" than on other people's property, that is disrespectful and definitely not cool. Especially when they are engraving profanities. People pay money to lay down cement sidewalks and it isn't cheap. It isn't right and there is no way to justify it. You wanna write on cement. Go lay it down at your own house and let everyone who feels like it come on down and scribble on it


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