Singh developed his love for clean streets - and his hatred for graffiti - on a routine bike ride through north Maspeth, where he lives, in the spring of 2009. He said he realized then, for the first time, his neighborhood was covered in graffiti.
It would have been a passing observation for most teenagers, but Singh biked to his home on 51st Road for a camera and then headed out again to document the proliferation of tags covering neighboring storefronts and public spaces.
That afternoon he found 15 graffiti sites within a two-mile radius of his home. “This is my neighborhood, I live here, and I couldn't believe there's so much graffiti,” he said.
But Singh didn't end there. Noticing that areas with high levels of graffiti were also plagued by litter, he set out to prove the two have a direct correlation. And guess what? They do.
Over a six-month span last year, the college-bound senior conducted a detailed field study and survey of neighborhood activity at two sites near his home. He observed by his count thousands of pedestrians, and surveyed nearly 200 more.
At one of them, a graffiti-covered underpass on Calamus Avenue between 74th and 79th streets, Singh found that 13 percent of passersby threw garbage on the ground. At the other site, on 51st Road and 72nd Place, which had no graffiti, only 5 percent littered.
And from the 100 sample surveys he used to write a school report, which, by the way, Singh entered for competition in the New York City Science and Engineering Fair, where it cleared the first round, he learned something else; a quarter of the people who responded said they would be more likely to litter near graffiti. None said they would be less likely to do so.
Now, Singh knows his findings may not be purely scientific, but he argues his study raises an important, if obvious, point: quality of life issues in urban areas are deeply interconnected. To solve one, in many cases you must solve them all.
“Cleaning up graffiti could also potentially lead to a decrease in litter, which would beautify any neighborhood,” said Singh, who has applied to several Ivy League schools, as well as New York University and Hunter College. Wherever he ends up, Singh is leaning towards studying environmental science (or maybe medicine, or maybe environmental engineering).
Singh has never removed graffiti himself, but said his goal is to help organize a community graffiti cleanup sometime soon, perhaps before he leaves for college. “I would love to live in a nicer, cleaner, more inviting neighborhood,” he said. “I mean, who wouldn't?”