Since 2008, St. Paul residents can find verse stamped into the sidewalks beneath their feet.
The result of a long-standing collaboration between nonprofit Public Art St. Paul and the city’s Department of Public Works, the sidewalk poetry program is one of the ways that Minnesota’s capital city injects art into public life in new and unexpected ways while elevating local talent.
The program began as the 2008 brainchild of Marcus Young, then a member of the city’s artist-in-residence program, also a collaboration between the two institutions. The residency program brings artists who work as employees of Public Arts St. Paul into city hall. They’re tasked with working across the department while using art and artistic creativity to make the city more livable and inspire a sense of attachment to the city, explains Colleen Sheehy, the president and executive director or Public Art St. Paul.
During his residency, Young was stationed in the Office of Public Works, which is charged with replacing around 10 miles of damaged or broken sidewalks each summer, when he had the idea of putting local poetry into the sidewalks themselves.
The project — which has since been replicated in other cities like Cambridge, Massachusetts — works like this: St. Paul residents submit poems, which are judged blindly. The winning poems are stamped into sidewalk panels throughout the city. This year was the first year since 2015 that the program accepted new poems (the city was dealing with a backlog from previous years), and in a twist this year the contest accepted poems in languages other than English.
“We invited people to submit in four non-English languages,” Sheehy says. In addition to Spanish, Hmong, and Somali (the three groups that compose the highest number of non-English speakers in the city), submissions in Dakota were also welcomed. “We wanted Dakota to be one of the languages because we’re on Dakota land in St. Paul, so it was important to have Dakota words on the land.” Of the nine poems that were selected from the 633 submissions this year, one is written in Spanish, one in Hmong, and one includes a Dakota word.
“I was thinking about where I am and what that means to me and why I live here,” says Ellen Fee, who earned her spot on the roster of this year’s winning poets with a 14-word submission about her mom, who was from Minnesota and who died when Fee was 18. “It’s really about her as I navigate my adult life here.”
Fee had submitted two excerpts of longer poems she had already written, but when she was faced with the ominous third box on the form (poets could submit up to three entries), she ended up firing off one about her mom and her time in St. Paul which became her winning submission.
The addition of Fee’s poem and the other eight bring St. Paul’s poem total to 63. However, each one is stamped in multiple places across the city, so there are more than a few dozen to be discovered.
A worker putting a poem into a repaired sidewalk (Courtesy Public Art St. Paul)
While the poems are only stamped into sidewalks that need repair (never in new development, ensuring that the poems are able to be found across the entire city), those who live and work along those stretches of sidewalk can request to either have a poem or not have a poem. A request doesn’t guarantee a poem, since the Office of Public Works aims to ensure poems are scattered across the city, not just in certain neighborhoods.
Once it’s time to turn the poems into concrete reality, the sidewalk division of the Public Works Department is responsible for turning the poem into a stamp and deciding where it will be placed. “I think people enjoy it and find it a pleasant surprise along their walk,” says Lisa Hiebert, the public information officer for St. Paul’s Public Works Department. “I think it’s a testament to why the program continues.”
“It’s a great collaboration,” says Sheehy. “It really does put all these voices of people who live here out on the city’s sidewalks. People walk by and read them every day and it provides a little pause in your day to have this message from someone who is a neighbor somewhere in the city.”
Sheehy is particularly proud of this year’s crop. “We also had [submissions of] poems in English by people who are immigrants and refugees and their poems were about that experience. Those experiences are good to get out in people’s minds. These are the people who live in our city.”
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.