Sidewalk Poetry combines a basic infrastructure repair program with the imbedded poetic creations of residents, building a collective creation and sustainable program generated by a collaboration of citizens with government. The program launched in 2015 with the first annual Sidewalk Poetry Contest and has continued yearly since.
Every March, residents of any age are invited to submit poetry for the chance to get their words stamped in concrete as part of the sidewalk repair program. The poetry submissions must be a maximum of 10 lines, 40 characters per line including spaces, and 250 characters overall including spaces and punctuation. Each year an average of 150 poems are submitted from people ages 3-95. Entries are then reviewed anonymously by a selection committee composed of past Cambridge Poets Populists, students from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, and representatives from Cambridge Public Works, Cambridge Public Library, and Cambridge Arts. Five winners are selected each year and stamped throughout City.
To date, 16 poems have been stamped in Cambridge sidewalks. Sidewalk Poetry provides opportunities for meaningful cultural exchange, adds a sense of playfulness to the City, and makes poetry more visible by bringing it into public spaces. Sidewalk Poetry is a collaborative project of the Department of Public Works, Cambridge Arts, and the Cambridge Public Library.
The program originated when a resident called our Department of Public Works (DPW) asking if we could do a sidewalk poetry program after she heard about one in St. Paul, MN. DPW contacted the City’s Director of Public Art, Lillian Hsu, who had seen the project in person and suggested an internal meeting to discuss feasibility.
Agreeing that a Sidewalk Poetry Program would be great for Cambridge, representatives from DPW, Cambridge Arts, and the Cambridge Public Library (CPL) met to plan the inaugural Sidewalk Poetry program. The team included the resident who brought the request to the City. In April 2015 we launched the first City-wide poetry contest. We identified a fabricator for the stamps needed to imprint the poem into wet concrete. We had one stamp fabricated as a prototype and did a test, allowing us to witness the stamping process executed by the sidewalk contractor and understand the installation variables.
We used internal design and printing capability for posters and flyers and set up a collaborative outreach plan and formed a selection committee which conducted a blind review of 300 poems submitted by residents between the ages of 4 and 95. The Committee convened and selected 5 winners and 5 runners-up. Cambridge Arts and DPW worked together to identify the first 5 sidewalk locations.
Why we love Sidewalk Poetry!
In many municipal governments cross-departmental projects that are truly collaborative are unusual. It is also unusual to have departments other than an arts or cultural department engaging actively in building, planning, and installing art projects. Additionally, there are not many projects that engage creative participation of citizens of all ages and backgrounds and locate those contributions in a streetscape for anyone to enjoy. To visitors, the sidewalk poems are voices of citizens of a specific locale - a diversity of privately composed artistic expressions in a most public urban space. The program also has the potential to grow into a significant anthology of community poetry enlivening sidewalks, throughout all neighborhoods, to be enjoyed any day of the year.
Creating good public spaces that engage citizens in meaningful and positive ways and that offer opportunities for social and cultural exchange is our ongoing mission and a complex task. Sidewalk Poetry contributes to the international movement to build more playful cities. More and more people are moving into cities; open space is shrinking. The arts are often a key contributor to the unique enhancements that prompt delight, inspiration, and well-being among citizens passing through dense public space.
While poetry has been an important part of civilization throughout history, it is relegated to a minor area of our cultural attention and struggles to reach a wide audience. In conversation with the individuals whose poems were chosen it became clear that writing poetry plays a role in many people’s lives but is not often visible in the public realm. Sidewalk Poetry changes that.
Application for the 2019 Sidewalk Poetry Contest will be available in early 2019! Click here for more information on how to apply.