Marking the Crossroads: Can Painting Intersections Build Community and Calm Traffic?

A cluster of small children were crouched in the middle of the intersection of Woodbine Avenue and Polk Street daubing paint onto the asphalt. The paint was (mostly) staying within the chalked outlines of the composition—a purple cone-flower ringed by bands of orange and red. A few kids wandered off, tracking red footprints across the circular design. It was the final hours of the Polk Street Fair, and the intersection painting had gotten a little cavalier. The fair, put on by the Parkridge Community Organization, had made Polk Street a temporary pedestrians-only thoroughfare for one afternoon, and we were using the opportunity paint the street. The red circle was eye-catching, crisp from a distance. Up close, the hand prints of the makers were clearly upon it.

Last month, Travetta Johnson, co-chair of the Parkridge Community Organization's Good Neighbors Committee, posted an article on the community Facebook page, "15 Ways to Make Your Neighborhood Better." The first community project on the list, "Paint Your Intersection," sparked some favorable comments on the online forum.

These comments were encouraging, as we were already in the process of getting the painting project approved for the intersection of Woodbine and Polk.

Painting intersections as a community-building project has been on my radar since last year's Paint the Pavement project at Inskip Elementary, when I volunteered on the day community members painted the mural on the street in front of the school. The colorful mural incorporated a new logo for Inskip, designed by a local art teacher. The goals of Inskip's mural were to improve safety by making the elementary school more visible to drivers, to give Inskip an identity or "brand," and to bring the community together on the day of the project.

The mural at Woodbine and Polk was more humble. A few friends and I came up with the design in an evening. Martin Percy, the new chief traffic engineer, and Bill Cole, the traffic engineer who served as a consultant on Inskip's mural, approved the design. To be approved, the design must not resemble traffic markings, must not totally cover the street, must not contain words, or be too big. The design cannot be painted on a street with a high volume of traffic. It must be made with street-marking paint, and must contain a non-slip additive. Often, paint stores can be persuaded to donate the paint needed. Organizers must arrange for closing the street for the time it takes to paint. Since Polk Street was already scheduled to be closed for the fair, getting permission to paint turned out to be easier than we thought.

The experience of getting approval for the Woodbine mural may pave the way for other, more ambitious street-paintings.

Nicole and Kevin Saylor are interested in organizing a similar intersection painting at Fifth Avenue and Chestnut Street. Nicole says for many years their block has suffered from blighted empty buildings and a sense of lawlessness. She believes painting the intersection would demonstrate renewed pride and investment in the neighborhood.

Fifth Avenue Baptist Church sits on one corner of Fifth and Chestnut, where Overcoming Believers Church also meets. The Saylors hope to involve the church, especially youth groups, in designing and painting the mural.

"We have lots of kids on our block and it would be great to have them all work together on something, along with adult neighbors," Nicole says.

Nicole also hopes a painting at Fifth and Chestnut will slow traffic. In fact, calming traffic was one of our hopes for the Woodbine intersection painting. In the first week, I watched drivers nearly halt their cars as they gingerly navigated over the strange new image at Woodbine and Polk. Others blew through the intersection unfazed. Based on results of traffic studies Cole did at Inskip Elementary School, he says the Inskip mural had "no significant difference" on the speed of traffic.

Still, as Nicole Saylor says, a unique street painting shows "that the people who live here care about our neighborhood...this is where my family lives, works, and plays, not just some anonymous block."