Oakland’s First Sidewalk Poetry Contest Celebrates Its History and Future

You can view the 25 winning poems throughout the neighborhood.
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The sidewalks of Oakland have undergone a revamping, with lines of poetry scattered across the neighborhood reflecting on the beloved history and heart of Oakland.

Oakland Business Improvement District held its first sidewalk poetry contest to celebrate April as National Poetry Month. This project was inspired by artist Marcus Young with Public Art Saint Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The group called for submissions to the contest in the fall of 2021 and released the contest winners in celebration of National Poetry month on April 25. The poems were spread across Oakland, in spots with high foot traffic, including in front of Dippy the dinosaur next to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and popular eateries. The poems first began appearing in May and will remain on the sidewalks until there are signs of wear, in which case the improvement district will decide whether to remove them.

The group received more than 80 poems, all connecting to the theme “Celebrating Oakland’s past, present or future.” 25 poems were selected to be painted on the sidewalks all across Oakland featuring a diverse range of poets, including students, professors and long-time locals.

Leah Friedman, the group’s marketing and communications manager, said the organization hopes to bring beauty to overlooked Oakland spots.

“The poems bring attention to often overlooked, but important, areas,” Friedman said. “These surprising, colorful pieces bring art and joy into everyday spaces and uplift the experience of those who use them.”

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Kira Brice, a 2020 Pitt alum spent four undergrad rustle years in Oakland and is one of the winning contestants. She had two pieces that were accepted. Her favorite of the two poems features the movement of Pittsburgh.  Brice said her poem is a reflection of the history and her formative years as a student in Oakland.

“I spent, like, a very formative period of my life there right now, like as an undergraduate you’re embarking into the political real world for the first time,” Brice said. “So it was kind of mind blowing with newfound independence and again, like finding my place and with people coming and going to Oakland, it felt like a very transient neighborhood in the city.”

Brice said publishing the poems on sidewalks helps bring together the Oakland community.

“By creating or sharing or just viewing public art, I think that really emboldened people and empowers people to bring their own ideas into the world and share them with others, whether that’s members of the public or, or any group of people,” Brice said. “Bringing poetry specifically into the public sphere was really integral to seeing how, like these words are no longer just living on a page, now they’re living in the real world.”

Lisa Kay Schweyer, a contest winner and a program manager for the transportation research institute Traffic21 at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote her poem about some of the overlooked but important Oakland features. Schweyer said she hopes the group will continue this project as a testament to the “transient nature of Oakland”

“Eventually the paint will disintegrate, so it’s a transient way to highlight how people feel about the community and it gives people who are walking something to look at while they’re looking down other than their phones,” Schweyer said.

For Sarah McMullen, another contest winner who is director of senior leadership projects at the University of Pittsburgh, the sidewalk initiative is a great way for both visitors and long-time Oakland residents to view Oakland from different perspectives.

“We have so many people that pass through Oakland, for example, Fifth Avenue, you have the foot traffic from the students, working residents and visiting patients and so being able to have them interact with people who are here all the time it sort of becomes like a scavenger hunt of Oakland’s community,” McMullen said.

McMullen’s poem entitled “Oakland Pulse ” likens the rhythm of Oakland to a heartbeat.

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“Oakland always reminded me of sort of like a pulse with all your veins and arteries running through your, through your body. So, the poem itself is focused on that rhythm and the movement of feet up, down, up, down, up, down similar to a heartbeat which I think is really reflective of how Oakland functions and how it looks to people who are visiting or live here.”

Whether you’re a long-time resident, new to the city or have no understanding of poetry, McMullen said the sidewalk poetry initiative has something for everyone.

“I would say that what gets included in those poems is going to be the absolute core of what makes Oakland special,” McMullen said. “For the people who have been here a long time, I think you can tell because when someone who’s been in Oakland for a while and sees one of the poems it makes them smile because a lot of time they’ll have some sort of memory attached to it and for the new residents I think it makes the city seem less daunting when there are all these poems about how the people here love Oakland.”

All of the winning poems and their locations can be found on the group’s interactive map.

Categories: The 412