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Local Color

Street art takes back the asphalt

Text by Peter Brewitt

Published in the May/June & July/August 2014 issue of Orion magazine



PEOPLE HAVE TRIED TO CONTROL traffic and speeding since the invention of the car—maybe since the domestication of the horse. And for good reason: research has shown that when America got a nationwide fifty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit in 1974, driving fatality rates plummeted, and when it was lifted in 1987, deaths increased. The good news is, in more and more places, art is coming to the rescue. Over the past decade, communities across the nation have taken to beautifying their roads and intersections with hand-painted murals, slowing drivers as they go. Murals like these come at minimal cost—just buy some street-grade paint, get whatever permits your city requires, and figure out how to reroute traffic for a few hours. As people motor through the neighborhood, murals catch the eye, situate the mind, and lighten the right foot.

Many of these creations did not begin as traffic-control devices—the goal was often to engage the neighborhood with itself, to display its spirits and hopes for the future, and to embrace the spaces that bind people together. But art touches drivers as well as neighbors: when a motorist sees a sunburst on the roadway, it draws her mind to the surroundings, focusing her on where she is, not just where she’s heading. More and more communities, seeing the kaleidoscopic benefits of street painting, are making these expressions part of their physical and cultural infrastructure. Of course, many of them are in big cities—New York, Baltimore, Portland—but every place has cars, and communities in smaller towns from New Jersey to Mississippi are also getting together and coloring the asphalt.

Some of the images you see here come courtesy of Paint the Pavement, a street-art program in Saint Paul, Minnesota. PtP, as it’s known, offers support and advice, but the groups of friends and neighbors creating the art are self-organized and volunteer-run—they are truly of and for their communities. Saint Paul had fourteen street-art sites at last count. Visit Paint the Pavement’s website for a map showing the spread of their art, each project in each neighborhood making streets and intersections that much safer, slower, and more alive.

 

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Peter Brewitt is a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he’s researching ways people restore and remake their environments. His online column, Concrete Progress, is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project.

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