Sidewalk poetry at the doors of the church
The fourth of October brings a bright autumn day to the city, a perfect day
for a walk. Already golden leaves decorate the sidewalks. Brush a few away,
and what’s this? — a poem written in the sidewalk!
It only takes a second
To change this spot forever.
Now look up and see a church across the street where people have joined in
the parking lot to celebrate this art which is “sidewalk poetry.” Here is an
open house at Frogtown’s St. Stephanus Lutheran Church (LCMS) where
residents gather to learn more about a new means of spreading art.
Among the estimated 130 people is Marcus Young, St. Paul’s artist-in-
residence and implementor of the project. With Young’s office located in the
city’s Department of Public Works building, he knows the people who repair
sidewalks. He has noted cement contractors’ names and dates stamped in
various sidewalks. Young found out how to enlarge the stamps and turn new
cement into a public space for writing.
With St. Paul Public Works and St. Paul Public Arts collaboration, a poetry
contest was initiated in which anyone could enter by paying just one dollar.
Subsequently, 20 out of over 2,000 poems were selected to be printed
throughout the city. In other words, “wet cement” met “opportunity.”
“A mere elaboration of a childish desire to draw a finger through tempting
wet cement,” Young acknowledges that this concept has actually evolved into
art. He sees metaphor in sidewalks and poems. “We should use poems more
often, “ he suggests, “repair them when they are not smooth, and delight in
them when they serve us well.”
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman also celebrated sidewalk poetry in the parking
lot. To the group of church members, public arts and public works personnel,
poets, and Frogtown residents, Coleman stressed, “It is important that we are
here in Frogtown to do this. Art is something we need to cherish.” With this
the mayor urged gatherers to stroll the neighborhood and enjoy the poems
written in the cement.
Emmy Treichel heeded this advice. Treichel, who happens to be both a
member of St. Stephanus and emeritus board member of the city’s public arts
board, emphasizes poetry’s value to the community. “It can have a positive
effect on anyone who sees it,” she remarks. “A child walking along the
sidewalk might stop and read a poem, and this could just spark an interest in
literature.” Referring to the poem which suggests wet cement means
opportunity, Treichel concurred. “Well, that is the essence of what we did. We
took something innate and gave it the intrinsic value of poetry. And I think
that is very good. I don’t think any other place in the country got together
today to celebrate writing in cement, but we did!”
Treichel goes on to parallel the missions of church and art. She notes that
while much of St. Stephanus’ mission is to serve the community, public art is
also about incorporating positive values. Young also agreed that church and
art can share common ground, indicating that “there is a power of creativity
both in art and in a church.” He used sidewalk poetry as an example calling
one of the goals “to inspire more thoughtfulness in life.”
Much inspiration was stamped into the sidewalks of Frogtown. That is one
reason Young approached St. Stephanus’ outreach committee to host an open
house as an introduction for sidewalk poetry. Such an event meant
opportunity to celebrate bringing poetry into communities and raising
Church outreach leader Jackie Preuss agreed to help. Members opened up
their parking lot to whomever wanted to learn more about sidewalk poetry.
There were refreshments, live accordian music, and a book for sale which
included all of the sidewalk poems as well as honorable mentions.
Recognizing the importance of this activity, Preuss asserted, “It’s good to be
part of the community. It’s good to be out and about with our neighbors. And
I’m glad people turned out to see the work that’s been done. These are
poems for our town!”
However, the open house and the poems in the Frogtown area are just a
small part of the project. “There’s a big transformation all over the city,” says
Young excitedly. At press time, poems have been stamped in 80 locations
throughout St. Paul.
Meanwhile the crowd in Frogtown began to disperse. The tables for
refreshments were cleared away, and it seemed time to search sidewalks for
poetry. And walking down Lafond Avenue it might be easy to notice broken
glass in the street or the empty gin bottle thrown carelessly in the grass. Yet
there is respite from this aspect of city life. For if one ventures further, and
bends down to brush fallen leaves away from the light gray cement, there lies
a gift of art:
What hurt you today
was taken out of your heart
by the meadowlark
who slipped the silver needle
of her song
in and out of the grey day
and mended what was torn.
For more about the sidewalk poetry and its locations, visit the Saint Paul
Public Arts Web site: www.publicartstpaul.org
Karen Trudeau is a St. Paul-based freelance writer, and a member at St.
Stephanus Lutheran Church.