The hot sun wasn’t the only thing illuminating Oakland’s sidewalks this summer. Stencils and spray paint brought poetry verses in vibrant pinks, purples and blues to the neighborhood’s normally gray alleys.
These poems are part of the Oakland Business Improvements District’s new sidewalk poetry program. OBID first completed this project in May when staff spray-painted the poems of 22 contest winners on Oakland sidewalks using stencils. Sidewalks are an essential place of reflection, according to Cate Irvin, former director of placemaking and activation for OBID’s Sidewalk Poetry Project.
“Sidewalk poetry brings the power of art into our everyday spaces,” Irvin said. “Especially during the pandemic, our sidewalks have become essential spaces for contemplation, fresh air and socializing.”
OBID marketing and communications manager Leah Friedman said the group launched the project to celebrate April as National Poetry Month, inspired by the work of artist Marcus Young in St. Paul, Minnesota. .
Young created a sidewalk poetry project in 2008 when he worked as a city artist with Saint-Paul Public Arta private, nonprofit organization that works alongside the City of St. Paul to transform public spaces in engaging ways.
OBID launched the program in fall 2021 with a contest asking for submissions of short poems about “Oakland’s past, present, and future.” A panel of seven jurors selected 25 winning poems from 82 submissions. Lisa Kay Schweyer, Program Manager for the Transportation Research Institute Traffic21 at Carnegie Mellon University, served as a juror and a contributing poet. Schweyer said jurors reviewed a spreadsheet that lists the poems without including the poets’ names or credentials.
After three rounds of review, the committee chose 25 poems, which are compiled into a online booklet. The The OBID website also has a map showing the location of each poem in Oakland.
The pandemic played an important role not only in inspiring the project, but also in inspiring some poets.
Local writer and contributing poet Jessica Manak said she was inspired by her experience as a mother raising two young children during the pandemic.
“We’ve just taken so many walks around our neighborhood, especially thinking about the very early stages of the pandemic and the lockdown and my kids are both learning to read, and they’re just looking for words in the world around them,” said Manack. “So with this poem, I really wanted to create something that a small child could find and read.”
Manack’s poem is located near Rita’s Italian Ice on Forbes Avenue. She said she could easily imagine a happy child jumping around with her ice cream, pausing to read the words in their familiar rhyme scheme.
“The trains huff, / the bicycles zoom. /Trucks lug, /cars vroom,” Manack’s poem reads.
Manack’s poem was not alone in focusing on Oakland’s bustling urban movement. Contributing poet Sarah McMullendirector of senior management projects at Pitt, compares the movement of Oakland to the beating of a heart in her poem “Oakland Pulse”.
“Thump thump / Feet on concrete / Pulse of timeless advance,” McMullen wrote in his poem “Oakland Pulse.”
McMullen cites Oakland’s “steady motion” akin to a “pulse” as the inspiration for the poem.
“I’ve always been struck by Oakland’s ability to be both old and new. We have dinosaurs on one side of the street and cutting-edge science on the other side,” McMullen said. “There is also constant movement to sidewalks and streets, feet in all directions, with a one-way main road in each direction.”
The description of Oakland as a heart appears again in another sidewalk poem, this one at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Bigelow Boulevard and written by former Pitt student Kira Brice.
“In the beating heart of the city / The illuminated highways intertwine” writes Brian.
Brice first wrote the poem she submitted for the competition while a student at Pitt. When she saw the contest announcement, she felt she was calling him directly.
“I’m not from Pittsburgh, and when I came to Pitt for college, I felt out of place at first. Thinking about that made me think broadly about the place in general. What is does it mean to be irrelevant?” Brice said. “I was already proud of those poems and knew they best represented my experiences in Oakland and how I felt living here.
Many of the poems came from former Pitt students like Brice. Former student and collaborating poet Erica Hom said her poem was inspired by her experience as a literature student at Pitt.
“It was important to me to pay homage to the literary disciplines that influenced me, and to the strangers and classmates who eventually became my friends and my chosen family,” Hom said.
Lily Keener, who is completing her master’s degree in library science at Pitt, said her poem, located near the corner of Fifth Avenue and Thackeray Avenue, came to her on the way to class. Like many other poets, she lovingly references “Cathy” in her poem.
“Morning fog descends on Oakland / Hides Cathy in her arms,” Keener wrote.
Keener said that when she wrote the poem, it was a “typical gray Pittsburgh morning”.
“It sparked something in me and I scribbled what became my poem in the back of my class notebook,” Keener said.
Friedman said OBID plans to continue the project and will open submissions for a new competition in the fall. She also said to look for “a large, exciting public art installation” at Schenley Plaza in the fall.