In a poetry workshop on Saturday, South Side residents said that the lulling trains, the cracked sidewalks and the roaming flocks of chickens are part of what makes their neighborhood unique.
These details add character and a sense of identity to Billings’ South Side, and the Healthy By Design Coalition hopes to permanently incorporate them in writing into the area’s groundwork for generations to come.
For the past four years, the coalition has implemented a healthy neighborhood initiative to create the “bright side of the tracks,” by using sidewalk poetry and community clean-up events.
The South Sidewalks project will take poems from South Side residents and apply them directly to the sidewalk cement. The art will instill pride and encourage residents to walk around their neighborhoods and establish connections, said Melissa Henderson, community health improvement manager for the Healthy By Design Coalition.
Residents and Billings Public Works will help the coalition find spots where sidewalks need to be replaced. About 10 new inscribed slabs of concrete will be installed this year.
“There are misperceptions about this neighborhood,” Henderson said. “It’s one of Billings’ oldest, it has the most diversity, and it has some of the most history. We have to find a way to celebrate that and get people excited about the bright side of the tracks.”
The idea came from the Public Art Saint Paul sidewalk poetry program in Minnesota and others around the country.
The initiatives and events are funded through the Kresge Foundation, a Michigan-based philanthropic private foundation that focuses on community development. Over the last four years, the foundation has donated about $375,000 to the coalition.
MSU Billings professor Tami Haaland helped the handful of residents at the workshop put pen to paper on Saturday at Kirks' Grocery. Having served as Montana’s poet laureate from 2013 to 2015, Haaland said that poetry can give a voice to a person’s experience on the South Side.
“It enriches moving about in this place,” Haaland said. “Because suddenly you’re able to read what somebody had to say and inevitably, it reflects upon your own experience.”
Billings state representative Jade Bahr attended the workshop on Saturday where she wrote about what she sees when she sits on the stoop of her apartment building on the South Side. She wrote about the cracked sidewalks, the overgrown weeds and the familiar faces that pass by.
Bahr has lived on the South Side for 10 years and grew up there as a teenager. When she started looking for a place to live when she returned from college, she knew she wanted to live there.
Part of District 50 that she represents is on the South Side, where she frequently walks and gets to know residents.
“Every time I drove through the South Side, it just made me feel like I was at home,” Bahr said. “I just really like the character and the diversity.”
Kevin Kooistra, executive director of the Western Heritage Center, attended the workshop and shared some knowledge on the history of the South Side.
In early Billings, the town adopted a symmetric design, which basically split the town in half with the Northern Pacific Railroad.
It became the “tale of two cities” as Billings’ civic resources, like the courthouse and the city hall, were built on the north side of the tracks, while the town’s industrial factories were built on the south side.
Minority populations came to Billings to work at the sugar beet factory or on the railroad, and tended to live south of the railroad tracks and east of South 27th Street. They were mostly Hispanic, African-American, Chinese and Germans from Russia.
Because of the area’s rich history, Kooistra said he was excited to work with the coalition and plans to release two podcast episodes that offer Billings residents the opportunity to listen to the South Side’s history through a self-guided tour. Last year, the coalition and the Western Heritage Center collected oral histories on certain areas of the South Side.
Other project plans involve opening a grocery store in the area. Henderson said that the Native American Development Corporation, a member of the coalition, is taking the lead.
“In year four, we’re really trying to take that ‘bright side of the tracks’ slogan and create a call to action around it and really do some tangible changes in the neighborhood,” Henderson said.
An application process to submit poems will be announced in March. The coalition plans to host other workshops, and submissions are due April 4. Poems are limited to 300 characters, but longer poems may be submitted for excerpt selection.
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