Stroll past Edwin Stanton and Chester A. Arthur Elementary Schools in Graduate Hospital on weekdays from September through June, and you’re likely to spot some of the most iconic images of American education: crossing guards.
All around the city, there they are, clad in fluorescent vests, shepherding our kids through often dangerous intersections.
We owe them a debt of gratitude.
But what about the many hours when kids traipse through their neighborhoods—on foot and by scooter, on skateboard and bike—beyond the beginning and end of the school day? What about the time they spend getting to and from neighborhood parks and playgrounds? How can we keep them safer in a city where hit-and-run accidents are at their highest rate in a decade, and drivers here are known for “the Philly stop” (or “Philly roll”), that pervasive refusal to come to a complete halt?
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Those questions and more were at the heart of a neighborhood walkability plan developed more than a decade ago by SOSNA, South of South Neighborhood Association, which runs from South Street to Washington Avenue, Broad Street to the Schuylkill. It’s a comprehensive plan, created by the community, that drove efforts like working with the Streets Department in 2018 and 2019 to have them install “No Parking” or “No Stopping” signs at every corner near the schools that did not already have signage (it’s illegal to park within 20 feet of a crosswalk, and the signs allow enforcement). During that time, the group also worked with the Streets Department to install a crosswalk and a stop sign on 17th Street at Montrose.
And they’re at the heart of SOSNA’s latest initiative, in partnership with Mural Arts Philadelphia: permanent street—quite literally, on the street—murals, at the intersections near the two schools, designed to “calm” traffic.
“I’m really excited that it’s going to help kids, but I’m also excited to see this artwork come to life before my eyes knowing that it’s going to help people and that my community made it happen,” says 11-year-old Aria. “That’s really cool.”
“It can be difficult and dangerous to cross the streets in our neighborhoods, as cars often park too close, or right into the intersections,” says Kristen Albee, a SOSNA volunteer who formerly chaired the group’s safety committee. “The goal of this project is to create safe pathways to our neighborhood schools and neighborhood play spaces.”
The idea to introduce street murals was conceived of in the spirit of “daylighting,” an urban planning concept that refers to removing visual barriers within 20 feet of a crosswalk, to improve visibility for everyone on the street—pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. These particular murals will also include “vertical delineators,” white, waist-high posts, like those commonly used to protect bike lanes. The plan is to paint the intersections over four days in late August and September, with the goal of completing them by September 30.
In the spirit of collaboration, SOSNA solicited mural design ideas from the neighborhood’s kids; involved the Streets Department and city councilmembers; got a $4,000 grant from Bloktoberfest. And as they came to appreciate the sheer scope of the project, which will require additional funding beyond the $4,000—the intersections at hand span more than 8,000 square feet—naturally they called on the pros: Mural Arts Philadelphia, which tapped artist Calo Rosa to bring the project to life.
“A moral imperative”
Using art for good has always been at the heart of Mural Arts Philadelphia’s work, under the leadership of Executive Director Jane Golden. On a sweltering Friday afternoon, Golden cheerily declared, from a podium set up in Julian Abele Park at 22nd and Montrose streets, that “Art is useful! Art ignites change! Art can have an impact on our city in many ways!”
It’s why Mural Arts has education programs and restorative justice programs, she went on. “Quite frankly, we think that every issue on the desk of City Council and the mayor is an issue we should be thinking about and doing whatever we can to bring beauty to the city of Philadelphia. It’s not exactly a job for us at Mural Arts; it’s more like a moral imperative.”
Research has shown that during the school year, the most dangerous time for students is Monday through Friday, before and after school; kids face several risks during these times, including traffic-related accidents. And in South Philly, as elsewhere, where delivery trucks and cars often block the view for pedestrians and drivers alike, the community wanted to do something about it, something that would invite the community to get involved.
In 2019, according to PennDOT, there were 486 deaths and serious injuries on Philly streets, including 28 people who were killed while walking. And aggressive driving—including speeding—is the main contributor in 36 percent of traffic-related deaths.
While Albee says that SOSNA does not track data on traffic accidents at those intersections, pedestrian injuries citywide remain high, despite the City’s Vision Zero plan, an effort to eliminate all traffic-related deaths by 2030. In 2019, according to PennDOT, there were 486 deaths and serious injuries on Philly streets, including 28 people who were killed while walking. And aggressive driving—including speeding—is the main contributor in 36 percent of traffic-related deaths.
Art as a traffic-calming measure has been implemented throughout the country and world over the last decade, including in St. Paul, MN; Baltimore, MD; Portland, OR; and Rochester, NY. There is as yet scant evidence for a long-term reduction in traffic accidents as a result of street murals, but there are other benefits as well, as noted in a report by the nonprofit Environmental and Energy Study Institute: Residents learn to see their streets as more than sidewalks or roadways for cars to park and litter to gather, and in some cases businesses say they have helped to increase sales.
The project also was intentionally collaborative, instilling in community members a sense of ownership and responsibility for what happens on their streets. Albee says that SOSNA will be exploring ways to study the impact of the murals and daylighting once the project is complete, potentially through a community survey, observations, and general feedback. They’re also planning to maintain the murals as they invariably begin to fade.
“I’m a huge believer that traditional interventions fail us from time to time,” Golden says. “So our ability to embrace creativity and innovation says a lot about who we are as citizens of Philadelphia. You can be very aspirational and creative and very pragmatic at the same time. You can walk both those paths.”
“When communities come together”
Community submissions inspired Calo Rosa, the artist tasked with designing the final mural. “I live in South Philadelphia too. I bike, I drive, and I walk with my son around here,” he says. His playful designs feature bright colors as well as letters. “We wanted to have something related to education, but we used those elements in an abstract way.” These are not your cliched, primary color-emblazoned designs; there’s nary a Dora or Cookie Monster in sight. The final design is sophisticated, clean, fun, beautiful.
Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, who chairs Council’s Streets Committee, is in talks with the Streets Department about using art as a traffic calming measure in other parts of the city, too, particularly the 12 percent of roads—including Roosevelt Boulevard—where 80 percent of accidents occur. He says he’s inspired by how this project came together.
“This is an example of what happens when communities come together,” he says. “And the beautiful side of all of this is giving young people a voice. Showing them you can make a difference, you can be the change you want to see. And they see that, and it’s tangible and it’s right there in front of them.”
Chester A. Arthur school principal Dr. Mary Libby welcomed the opportunity to give her students real-world experience. “The project gave our students the opportunities to learn about mural arts as an art form, and traffic safety as a communal responsibility,” she said. “And, as such, they will develop a deeper understanding of the importance of civic engagement, and the impact of collective action.”
On that same sunny afternoon, after Golden and the other grown-ups had wrapped up their remarks, 11-year-old Aria, who’d submitted a short story about the experience of crossing the street as a young child as part of the call for community inspiration, summed it up best on her way to the local neighborhood pool, her mom and one of her siblings in tow:
“I’m really excited that it’s going to help kids, but I’m also excited to see this artwork come to life before my eyes knowing that it’s going to help people and that my community made it happen. That’s really cool.”Header photo courtesy Mural Arts Philadelphia