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Stamped in stone, sidewalk poetry gives expression to Billings' South Side streets
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Stamped in stone, sidewalk poetry gives expression to Billings' South Side streets

Sidewalk poetry

Billings Ward 1 City Council member Mike Yakawich looks at a poem he wrote stamped into a sidewalk on South 32nd Street on Monday. The first seven sidewalk poems have been installed on new sections of sidewalk across the South Side.

The art of self expression has found a low-tech but enduring home on the sidewalks of Billings' South Side.

Healthy By Design, a grant-funded neighborhood advocacy group operated through Riverstone Health, has been working for the past four years with leaders and community organizers on the South Side to improve quality of life there. 

The group's latest initiative is an effort to get residents outside and moving around their neighborhood. 

The South Side "has the potential to be one of the most walkable neighborhoods in Billings," said Melissa Henderson, the community health improvement manager for the Healthy By Design Coalition.

To encourage urban walkabouts the group is replacing busted sidewalks with new concrete and stamping them with poems written by South Side residents. The project combines public art and expression with infrastructure that encourages healthy lifestyles.

In all the group selected 15 poems that range from plaintive to joyous, each one reflecting the South Side's motto of being the bright side of tracks. Henderson knew from the beginning she wanted residents to express their sense of place for the art project. 

The challenge became finding the best way for South Side residents to express that sense of place, and poetry seemed like the perfect vehicle. The residents didn't disappoint, Henderson said. 

"The breadth about how people wrote about place was really inspiring," she said. 

Organizers divided the project into two phases; the first seven sections of new sidewalk were installed and stamped with their poems last week. The second group will go in later this year. 

The range of submissions impressed organizers. Those selected for Phase 1 included Cassidy Pintozzi, Gordon Dean, Jana Richter, Chase Johnson, Donna Green McKamy, Kelly Severson, and Billings City Council member Mike Yakawich, who represents the South Side.

Yakawich praised the creativity of the project, saying it adds to the character of the South Side. 

"It's a nice touch to our community," he said. "And it's a good reason to walk around."

Yakawich's poem ended up on the sidewalk in front of his nextdoor neighbor's house; Yakawich laughed and said he's grateful his neighbor allowed it. 

Phase 2 winners include Tatiana Morales, Douglas S. Oltrogge Jr., Nichole Almeda Morten, Mary Ellen Westwood, Kevin Kooistra, Fitzgerald Clark, April Ennis Keippel, and former Montana Poet Laureate, Henry Real Bird.

The idea for the project came out of the Twin Cities. Henederson was there for a conference on bikeable and walkable neighborhoods when she learned that St. Paul, Minnesota, which has a strong legacy of public art, had drawn attention to the importance of healthy neighborhoods and local art by stamping poetry in sidewalks. 

"It just seemed like a really cool project," she said. 

Healthy By Design is supported by a 4-year grant from the Kresge Foundation. Using some of that money, Henderson's team performed an audit of sidewalks on the South Side, identifying those sections most in need of repair. 

Henderson sent the audit to be vetted by Billings Public Works, and once the sidewalk sections were finalized for replacement, Healthy By Design contacted the homeowners; Billings requires that homeowners pay for sidewalk replacement. 

Through the Kresge grant, Healthy By Design offered that it would pay for the sidewalk replacement if the homeowner agreed to have a poem stamped in the concrete.

No one responded, Henderson said. "We all thought, 'No news is good news?'"

So they moved forward with the first seven and once the poems were imprinted in the concrete, she started getting calls. 

"People loved it," she said. 

Knife River did the concrete work and Healthy By Design employed Billings business Signature Signs to create the stamps, a complicated process because the words had to be designed backwards. It took several weeks with Signature Signs making tweaks and adjustments as they tested out the each new stamp.

"They were great to work with," Henderson said.

As the initiative finishes up this summer, Healthy By Design is hopeful the project will be a lasting example of "creative place making," she said. 

"We want to be seen as the model, as the positive," Henderson said. 

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