Like most other days, cars traveled along West North Avenue at a brisk clip around noon Saturday.
But when they entered the intersection of West North Avenue and North Palmer Street in Harambee and saw youths painting white lotus flowers and other colorful images onto the crosswalk, they slowed down. And that was exactly the point.
“We are all here together, and we all want to be safe,” said 13-year-old Jazale Hill, who, along with others, helped to re-create the images with paint brushes and rollers on the crosswalk. “When we slow down, we’re showing that we care about each other.”
Jazale, the daughter of well-known Milwaukee artist Vedale Hill, was part of a team of youths and adults who participated in the “Cross/Words/North” project, an effort to increase a sense of community and raise awareness about reckless driving along North Avenue.
They painted four crosswalks Saturday, two on North Palmer Street and the others on North Hubbard Street, each featuring images that represent the themes of empowerment, diversity, love and unity.
“Those are words that the youth associate with community,” said Stephanie Krellwitz, who led the community-based project for Artists Working in Education, also known as AWE. Krellwitz said the project makes art more accessible to the community while prompting drivers in a high-traffic area to be more mindful.
“It will make people ask questions,” she said. “Why this design?”
The “why” is that being part of a community means feeling safe there, said Joshua Fuentes, 13, who also created images used in the crosswalks. Joshua, who like Hill, is a student at St. Marcus Lutheran School, said he’s seen the aftermath of car crashes and known people who have been affected by reckless driving. When people slow down, everybody benefits, he said.
“If I know I’m safe to walk around in my community, then I know that my community is safe,” he said.
The original idea to create projects to address reckless driving in Harambee came from a resident who often rides his bike along North Avenue, according to Mark Lisowski, a community organizer for Safe and Sound. Safe and Sound works with residents and other local organizations, including the Milwaukee Police Department, to increase safety and resident engagement in the city. Lisowski said that one of the main concerns of residents is out-of-control drivers.
With the support of residents and other organizations, Safe and Sound applied for and received a $5,000 grant from the City of Milwaukee’s Reckless Driving Mini-Grant program. The grants are being used to fund the crosswalk and another project. A total of $108,000 was awarded to 18 community organizations to launch efforts to persuade drivers to slow down.
The themes behind the crosswalk art on North Avenue were identified during two Zoom visioning sessions led by Artists Working in Education, representatives of Safe and Sound, St. Marcus Lutheran School and residents and students from the area. The project was also supported by Ald. Milele Coggs. Krellwitz, a Milwaukee-based painter, is also lead artist of another crosswalk mural project that will be completed this week on North 31st Street near Galena Street United Methodist Church to raise awareness on the issue.
These smaller efforts are part of a larger push to curb reckless driving in Milwaukee. One major development in support of that work is a plan by Mayor Tom Barrett to invest $6 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds to address the issue.
“Residents are asking city government to take action,” said Barrett, who described North Avenue as an epicenter of reckless driving. “As we curb reckless driving, we are improving safety, increasing neighborhood quality of life and restoring a sense of civility on our roadways.”
If the plan is approved, most of the funds would be used on physical improvements, including curb extensions, pedestrian refuge islands, raised crosswalks, pedestrian signals and pavement markings, Barrett said. More than $1 million of those funds would go to the Milwaukee Police Department to support reckless driving enforcement activities.
According to data from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, there were 12,943 crashes that resulted in 34 fatalities and 4,102 injuries in Milwaukee County from January through June. Speed was cited as a factor in 1,748 of those crashes. There was one less crash fatality during that same time period last year, but the number of crashes and injuries has increased.
Although several crashes have occurred near the St. Marcus campus, 2215 N. Palmer St., speeding has also resulted in many close calls, said Maureen Gunn, community engagement specialist for the school. She said a car flying down the street almost hit her as she exited her car at the school. With summer in full bloom and St. Marcus set to open its third campus in the neighborhood at the old Harambee Community School on North First and West Burleigh streets, even more children will be walking on the streets.
“Children want to go out and play safely and enjoy their neighborhood and it’s difficult to do that when cars are driving recklessly,” she said.