Paint the Town Puts Traffic-Calming Murals Around Oakland

Administrators of the pilot program, organized through the city’s Department of Transportation, are happy with the results of the program but hope more funding will make it proactive in economically distressed areas.


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The idea behind Paint the Town murals is involving the entire community in the projects, from planning to completion. They are thought to have a “traffic-calming” effect, slowing motorists down.

Photo by Peter Olson

A bright mural of a hummingbird adorns 25th Street between Telegraph and Northgate avenues. Northgate Neighbors, a community group that serves the Northgate neighborhood and surrounding areas, installed the mural through the Oakland Department of Transportation’s Paint the Town program, a pilot project aiming to foster community involvement through creating traffic-calming street murals in busy or dangerous intersections throughout Oakland.

“The hummingbird is the perfect symbol of our community. It is the strongest bird, pound for pound, and they don’t mind taking on huge adversaries,” said Nathan Moon, outreach coordinator for Northgate Neighbors.

Moon said among the participants at Northgate’s mural painting were 30 homeless people, police officers, and members of the area’s elderly Cantonese-speaking community. It was indeed a prime example of diverse groups coming together to beautify the neighborhood.

Administered by Oakland’s DOT, Paint the Town is a “place-making” activity that brings neighborhoods together to work for a common goal, from planning a suitable mural with neighborhood input and community buy-in to applying for the funds to pay for the mural, and, finally, the coming together of residents — some of them strangers until this unifying event — to paint the mural.

To attract muralists, DOT sent out email blasts and a call to community leaders for neighborhood participation. At the funding stage last fall, city personnel stepped in to help applicants complete grant proposals at six information sessions at clinics and libraries. Successful applicants then earned $300 gift cards from the Oakland Fund for Public Innovation, a nonprofit foundation that engages private funders to support city programs, to buy paint and equipment. Other city departments provided indirect support for the mural-making by waiving the permit fees for installing the murals, providing street closure materials, and handling traffic control as needed.

Lily Brown, a transportation planner at the city, took over the Paint the Town program as the grant application process was ending. In all, 30 murals were green-lighted, she said, though some muralists have since dropped out due to logistical problems. The Paint the Town program will be evaluated once the murals are finished.

So far, muralists seem to have found their Paint the Town projects positive and rewarding experiences. The program administrators, however, have been disappointed the murals are in more affluent parts of town rather than the economically stressed areas envisioned.

Jessica Kunz, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science at ASCEND school, said Paint the Town “created a different opportunity for students and families to have a claim to their community” at her East Oakland school.

Photo by Peter Olson

“When people think of East Oakland, they think of problems with garbage and unkempt buildings. My students wanted to make it a more beautiful place,” Kunz said. “It was a ton of extra work. I could see why other schools might have found it too much to accomplish.”

Additionally, Jaymie Lollie, a community school manager at Frick Impact Academy, said Paint the Town had been a healing exercise for her school’s students. The academy’s mural, which says “Be Safe” and “Be Responsible” in English and Spanish — the two primary languages spoken at Frick — was inspired by a student who was hit by a car and killed there last year.

“There’s amazing neighbors and amazing families, but it’s also an area that can be unsafe,” Lollie said.

Earth Team, an environmental nonprofit that provides paid internships to high school students at low-income schools, organized a mural effort in East Oakland on Arthur Street between Dashwood and 78th avenues. Students from Oakland R&D Leadership Public School painted the mural, which depicts black, brown, and white hands picking up litter.

“There’s the blue and the green and water and the litter alluding to the pollution of the streams,” Manuel Alonso, Earth Team’s executive director, said about the mural. “We’re all part of the environment: all communities, colors, and cultures.”

Brown said she had hoped to expand Paint the Town to reach out to impoverished areas. In all, 27 murals approved are in high- and medium-disadvantaged areas and three are in low-disadvantaged areas, Brown said. Factors that influence the level of disadvantage in the areas include concentration of poverty, proximity to services and amenities, and exposure to contaminants and pollutants.

“That was doing a lot of outreach to those communities and having those application workshops targeted at those communities,” Brown said.

Brown said an unanticipated shortcoming may have involved initial outreach efforts. City funding, she said, could have enabled proactive engagement in prioritized neighborhoods, culled from the Metropolitan Transit Commission’s communities of concern index, which considers factors like the racial and income demographics of communities. 

Earth Team’s mural with R&D Leadership is one of the murals in a high-disadvantaged area. A map of Paint the Town murals indicated six are nearing completion in East Oakland, while 15 are being painted in West and North Oakland. The Longfellow Neighborhood Association, which represents North Oakland’s Longfellow neighborhood and is a very active community organization, has four murals planned.

Northgate Neighbors’ Moon suggested that socio-economic differences may have contributed to the inequitable mural distribution. “I also wonder if the neighborhood groups out there are more deluged with things like garbage and crime. Maybe that’s overwhelming,” Moon said.

“It’s the first step in re-imagining what our streets are and can be. It’s not just a place for cars to speed through, not just a place where it all looks the same,” Brown said. “It’s something that if we had [more] funding, we would keep that equity goal and pursue it even more.”

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