The hot sun wasn’t the only thing lighting up Oakland’s sidewalks this summer. Stencils and spray paint brought lines of poetry in bright pinks, purples and blues to the neighborhood’s normally gray walkways.
These poems are part of the Oakland Business Improvements District’s new sidewalk poetry program. OBID first completed this project in May when staff painted the poems of 22 contest winners on Oakland sidewalks using stencils. Sidewalks are a critical place for reflection, according to Cate Irvin, former director of placement and activation of 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 critical spaces for contemplation, fresh air and socializing.”
Leah Friedman, OBID’s marketing and communications manager, said the group started the project to celebrate April as National Poetry Month, inspired by the work of St. Louis artist Marcus Young. Paul, Minnesota.
Young created a sidewalk poetry project in 2008 when he worked as a City Artist St. Paul Public Arta private non-profit organization that works together with the City of St. Paul to transform public spaces in attractive ways.
OBID launched the program in the fall of 2021 with a contest seeking submissions of short poems about “Oakland’s Past, Present and Future.” A seven-member panel of judges selected 25 winning poems from 82 submissions. Lisa Kay Schweyer, a program manager for the transportation research institute Traffic21 at Carnegie Mellon University, served as one of the jurors and as a contributing poet. Schweyer said jurors reviewed a table listing the poems without including any names or identifying information about the poets.
After three rounds of review, the committee selected 25 poems, which have been condensed into one online brochure. of 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 of the poets.
Local writer and contributing poet Jessica Manack said she was inspired by her experience as a mother raising two young children during the pandemic.
“We’ve just been doing so many walks around our neighborhood, especially thinking about the early stages of the pandemic and the lockdown and my kids are learning to read and they’re just looking for words in the world around them,” Manack said. “So with this poem, I really wanted to create something that a young child could find and read.”
Manack’s Poem is located next to Rita’s Italian Ice on Forbes Avenue. She said she can easily imagine a happy child dancing along with their ice cream, pausing to read the words in their familiar rhyming pattern.
“Trains bend, / bicycles zoom. / Trucks ditch, / cars vroom,” Manack’s poem reads.
Manack’s poem was not the only one to focus on Oakland’s bustling urban movement. Contributing poet Sarah McMullendirector of senior leadership projects at Pitt, compares Oakland’s movement to a heartbeat in her poem, “Oakland Pulse.”
“Thump thump / Feet on concrete / The pulse of eternal progress,” McMullen writes in her poem “Oakland Pulse.”
McMullen cites Oakland’s “constant movement” akin to a “pulse” as her inspiration for the poem.
“I’ve always been struck by Oakland’s ability to be old and new at the same time. We’ve got dinosaurs on one side of the road and cutting-edge science on the other,” McMullen said. “There’s also constant movement on the sidewalks and streets, feet in all directions, with a main road going one-way in each direction.”
The depiction 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 Pitt alumna Kira Brice.
“In the beating heart of the city / lighted highways intertwine,” Brice wrote.
Brice originally wrote the poem she submitted for the contest during her time as a Pitt student. When he saw the ad for the contest, he felt it was calling him directly.
“I’m not originally from Pittsburgh, and when I came to Pitt for college, I felt out of place at first. Reflecting on this has made me think broadly about the country in general. What does it mean to be abroad?” said Brice. “I was proud of these poems already 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. Alumna and contributing poet Erica Hom said her poem was drawn from her experience as a literature student at Pitt.
“It was important to me to pay homage to the literary disciplines that influenced me, as well as the strangers and classmates who eventually became my chosen friends and family,” Hom said.
Lily Keener, who is completing her master’s degree in library science at Pitt, said her poem, set near the corner of Fifth Avenue and Thackeray Avenue, came to her on her way to class. Like many of the other poets, she fondly refers to “Cathy” in her poetry.
“Morning mist descends on Oakland / Hides Cathy in her arms,” Keener wrote.
Keener said when she wrote the poem it was a “typical gray Pittsburgh morning.”
“It sparked something in me, and I wrote what became my poem in the back of my class notebook,” Keener said.
Friedman said OBID plans to continue the project and will open applications for a new competition in the fall. She also said to look out for “a big exciting public art installation” at Schenley Plaza in the fall.