It first started with a red, black, and green crosswalk being painted onMartin Luther King Jr. Way at East Alder Street in Seattle’s Central District in August of 2015. Four crosswalks were painted in the PanAfrican flag colors to advertise the upcoming Umoja Festival that takes place every year. In a neighborhood that is rapidly gentrifying, this urbanist statement did not only represent the African-American presence in the neighborhood, but was also a way the community could reclaim public space in an area where the demographics are quickly changing.
This unauthorized act of resistance, pride, and the reclaiming of space is a perfect example of how shrinking populations, minority and ethnic groups are using the urban landscape as a reminder of their importance and lives in the city. This small act led to the city of Seattle encouraging other neighborhoods and communities to paint their crosswalks in colors or designs that represent them. Although no permission is needed for this to be done, it is significant for a city to understand–even in a small way–the impact this kind of action can have on the health and visibility of communities in a city.
During Black History Month we allow and hope for actions and art that represents the black community and black achievement. Black History Month is every month just like Women’s History Month and Latino/Chicano/Hispanic History Month. Our history does not only exist in one month and it doesn’t not end on February 28 or 29. By giving minorities and other oppressed groups, ethnic or otherwise, one month or one day or one week to celebrate themselves is a way to marginalize and make small our presence and impact on the world. We exist every month, we live every month, and we create our future every month. Although painting a crosswalk may seem trivial, it is a daily reminder to people in the neighborhood and those who pass through the neighborhood that we have been here, we are here, and we will be here. We cannot be ignored, not in the landscape of the city or otherwise.
When we hear about minorities reclaiming space it is usually in the form of protests or sit-ins, or using art. All of which are important. However, we rarely hear about these salient small acts that happen in public space like this one in Seattle. I only heard about it a few days ago while at a talk in Vienna, of all places, on tactical urbanism. These urban actions are just as powerful and have a permanence to them that echoes throughout the city. We can use these types of projects, painting crosswalks red/green/black, to understand how we–who are excluded from the city in many ways–can reclaim our space and affirm our presence.