Sanctioned or not, Baltimore citizens use guerrilla art to slow traffic

The cars speeding down Bonnie View Drive in Mount Washington made Marla Streb and her two daughters nervous.

"We go across the street practically every day to visit the stream," she says. "I stay with them when crossing the street, but sometimes the cars are still flying by much above the speed limit."

So in September, Streb fixed the problem herself, dragging a small potted tree into the center of the road, with two orange safety flags sticking out of it. She and her daughters, who are 4 and 7 years old, then conducted an impromptu traffic survey, rating the cars slow, normal, or fast. "You can probably guess that most cars drove very slowly, first staring at the tree, then at us laughing on the side," she says.

Some of the drivers laughed along and waved. Streb would set the tree in the road when she and the kids crossed, then pull it back to the side for the rest of the time. Most of the neighbors "got it," and the ploy worked perfectly, Streb, a former professional mountain-bike racer, reports-until someone stole the tree.

Slowing cars in Baltimore is big business. Last week Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake threw in the towel on a long-failing speed camera program, agreeing to pay $600,000 to end a contract with Brekford Corporation, the company that installed and monitored hundreds of cameras that The Baltimore Sun found were ticketing people unjustly. The cameras have been off all year. "We had an experience that didn't work for Baltimore, but the program works," she told The Sun's Luke Broadwater. "My goal is to get a system that works, not to scrap it."

It is true that speed cameras slow motorists. It is also true that Baltimore City collected more than $50 million from its speed cameras alone before The Sun exposed the faulty machinery.

But speed cameras are not the only, or even the easiest (let alone cheapest), way to make drivers slow down. Citizens can do the job themselves.

"The speed of traffic on residential streets is governed, to a large extent, by the degree to which residents have psychologically retreated from their street," reports David Engwicht, an Australian urban-design consultant. "Simply reversing that retreat not only brings traffic speed down-it also builds the social life of your neighbourhood."

Engwicht wrote a book, Street Reclaiming, showing how residents could take back their streets from car traffic simply by using them. He suggests pulling a chair to the sidewalk and reading a book there. Or putting the chair in the street itself-a Baltimore tradition anyway after snowstorms.

Painting the street, playing ball in the street, decorating the yard, murals, sculptures-basically anything that creates visual interest and surprise-also slows down vehicular traffic, Engwicht writes.

Engwicht advises his readers to make obstacles temporary and not to ask permission.

Several Baltimoreans have followed Engwicht's prescriptions, though none had heard of the author.

"You go through the dumb bureaucratic ladder with the city, it's gonna take 10 years and they're gonna put something stupid," says Matt Fouse, a Charles Village artist. "It's easier to ask forgiveness than permission. That's the motto of my life."

In November, a steel sculpture appeared in a despised traffic circle at 32nd Street and Guilford Avenue. "Charlie," as the neighbors called him, was welded by Fouse, who, like many of the neighbors, thinks the circle the city put there at a cost of about $100,000, is itself a traffic hazard.

"They put it on a very small street," Fouse says. "With cars on both sides, there isn't room for two-way traffic anyway. And if you are a pedestrian, they don't wait for you. I've almost been killed there several times."

One problem, in Fouse's view, is that the circle was built too low to be seen. "People would come flying down-there was no sign warning it was there-and they would hit it, their bumpers would come flying off it," he says. The stop signs that had graced the intersection before were more effective, he says.

Fouse says he put his sculpture in the circle after another neighbor put-and the city removed-a planter. The Department of Transportation then came after Charlie, saying it was a road hazard. So Fouse hid it.

"I took it out and went around to local businesses and hid him in their storefronts," he says. Then he put it back in the circle. "I heard they paid someone all weekend to watch for it, because I had embarrassed them so much. So Sunday a.m. [Dec. 8], bam, it's gone."

Fouse says he billed the city $5,000 for the sculpture. He says the DOT has not responded.

"They're ignoring us," Fouse says. "I make the point of how dangerous the circle is on the 311 app, and they say [the complaint is] closed."

The city is not always so non-responsive. In February of 2012, a DOT crew painted an official crosswalk over a guerrilla-style one put in by Lou Catelli and Deborah Patterson at Elm Avenue and West 36th Street. The residents were fed-up by delays, so they took matters (and paint) into their own hands.

And Baltimore officialdom has sometimes encouraged such creativity-though strictly on its own terms. On Dec. 2 the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts unveiled hopscotch and zipper-themed crosswalks, which received national media attention while slowing motorists and delighting pedestrians around yet another of Baltimore's arts hubs.

"My background is in DIY, guerrilla projects in public spaces," says Graham Coreil-Allen, a MICA graduate who won a commission from BOPA to redo the Bromo Seltzer crosswalks at Lombard and Eutaw streets as hopscotch boards. (Artist Paul Bertholet painted a crosswalk at Fayette and Eutaw streets which looks like a giant zipper opening). "I did it in Baltimore and I continue to do it in Baltimore."

Coreil-Allen says his first such project was in a small park in Sarasota, Fla. The park has a beautiful life-size bronze sculpture of children playing, he says, "but I never saw any kids there."

He bought some aluminum tape and made a hopscotch board on the sidewalk. "And it actually worked," he says. "I watched kids jumping on it immediately."

He later painted a crosswalk in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood before coming to Baltimore in 2008 as a MICA student. The crossing guard in the middle of Mount Royal guiding students? That was him.

Coreil-Allen did another direct-action crosswalk for the 2012 Transmodern Festival, crossing West Mulberry Street at Tyson alley. "I was trying to stop traffic on Mulberry, but people drive like maniacs on Mulberry," he says. "That street cuts right through Mount Vernon! It's this cultural treasure and people need to slow down."

When the BOPA put out its request for crosswalk ideas last year, says Coreil-Allen "I'm like, hell yeah! I got an idea for this.

"I consider myself a radical," the former Charm City Cakes manager says. "But I also want to make something that will get the commission."

He put hopscotch boards with boots, bare feet, and bird tracks ("they are actually a merging of Orioles and Ravens tracks," he deadpans).

Coreil-Allen says he had not heard of Streb's exploits, though he did know about (and approve of) Fouse's and Catelli's. "This is a movement," he says. "And it is, in a sense, spontaneous." But it is also bigger than Baltimore. He points to the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennial (La Biennale di Venezia), in which the American pavilion was a collection of more than 100 small grassroots projects. "Different people will do different things to improve their immediate surroundings," he says, "There were everything from greening projects to pop-up libraries incorporating traffic circles, just like the group in Charles Village is doing."

City Paper asked Baltimore's Department of Transportation how one would go about getting permission for a street-painting or sculpture project. DOT spokesperson Kathy Chopper, on Dec. 13, says she has never heard of the zipper crosswalk. She asks a reporter to email questions and promises to respond by early next week.

The deadline comes and goes, the reporter emails and calls again, and Chopper is joined by spokesperson Adrienne Barnes. "Some things have to go through permit, some things have to go through DOT," Barnes says.

"So how do people know where to start?"

"Can you send us an email with your questions," Barnes says. "We'll get back to you today."

And she does, pointing to the department's recently adopted "Complete Street Policy which includes traffic calming guidelines."

In fact there is no formal process for citizens to get permission to paint on the street or do other creative things. Guerrilla works like Charlie, she says, are always illegal and will always be removed when they're reported. "These are liability issues and the City is responsible in any case someone gets injured or seriously hurt," Barnes writes.

True, no doubt. Though it is no less true about an unmarked curb in the middle of a traffic circle on a dark street. Fouse wishes Baltimore would take a page from Tucson, where traffic circles are decorated by neighborhoods under a city program. "They have awesome, awesome, beautiful" traffic circles, he says. "It shows you can do it without much money."

Until then, of course, there is private ingenuity.

"None of this was really planned," says Streb. "When we did the potted plant, it was really spontaneous." After it was taken, she followed up with a temporary-painted, playful crosswalk, and then a "snowmom" and two snow children wearing orange vests, looking ready to cross at the end of the family's driveway.

They've all melted, but Streb says she has some other ideas.