Sunday, January 16, 2022

Angry Pigeon Perch

Back in 2014-2016, I did a little project around tracking down Portland's assortment of painted intersections, like the semi-famous sunflower one just off Belmont. If you aren't familiar with this local phenomenon, these usually come about as neighborhood volunteer efforts, typically aided by the City Repair Project, a local nonprofit. The idea is that you and your neighbors choose a nice, quiet, residential intersection, come up with an original design, and convince the city to give you a permit. Then you pick out a weekend, put up some traffic cones, and have a big summer block party. You and your neighbors pitch in to paint your design on the street, which obviously involves meeting your neighbors if you haven't already done so.

One crucial detail is that you just use regular latex paint for this, not the fancy high-durability traffic paint the city uses for crosswalks and lane dividers and so forth. That stuff's expensive, with a very limited color palette, and more importantly, you kind of want the design to look nice thru the end of summer and the nice part of fall, and then get increasingly shabby over the winter due to traffic and the elements. Then, once the weather finally improves again, it's just about time for another neighborhood block party, and before you know it you have a traditional neighborhood event that people look forward to every year.

Or at least that's the idea. I haven't gone back to check on the places I visited earlier, and it just stands to reason that a few of them were one-and-done affairs, for all the usual reasons that volunteer efforts peter out. Key people moving out of the area; heated arguments over creative vision; someone forgetting to renew the right permits or arrange for the paint; a salmonella outbreak due to last year's potluck; or people meeting their neighbors and simply not wanting to repeat the experience. That sort of thing.

I do know that some projects have continued, despite the chaos of the last few years. In particular, the big sunflower design was wiped out in 2019 by a city sewer project, and then it wasn't repainted in 2020 because pandemic, and almost wasn't in 2021 for reasons I'm not clear on. It finally reappeared last October, with a new, more angular design that I gather not everyone likes.

Beyond that, there are even a few new street paintings that didn't exist the last time I was paying attention, like the one we're visiting now (in case you were wondering when I'd finally bumble around to the actual subject of this post). I stumbled across this one in January 2020, at the very tail end of the Before Times. Right off the bat you can tell it's different from the others we've visited so far: It's painted largely on the sidewalk, spilling over into the adjacent bike lane. But not into the traffic lanes, much less the intersection nearby. And it's surrounded by low and mid-rise urban buildings instead of twee 1920s bungalows. This is in downtown Portland, at intersection of SW 12th & Main St., right outside the front door of Northwest Academy, a small private school for the arts. In fact the painting was created in September 2019 as a back-to-school event, giving kids a misleadingly fun start to the ill-fated 2019-2020 school year.

A City Repair item about the painting says it's called Angry Pigeon Perch, although if there's a pigeon in the design I'm just not seeing it. I had a long tangent all ready to go here about the school maybe teaching kids about surrealism, which pivoted to contemporary AI-generated art, and how we still understand almost nothing about why AI models work as well as they do. From there, a claim that a lot of 20th century surrealist art kinda looks like the present-day AI-created stuff if you squint just right, followed by some half and quarter-baked speculation about why that might be. I don't think I was actually on to anything interesting (much less true) there, so I won't bore you with that whole argument. In any case, while I was kicking that around for a few days, I ran across the school's Instagram account. Which points out, right in the account bio, that the school's official nickname is "The Angry Pigeons", so there's our super-mundane answer regarding the title. I am honestly kind of disappointed about this.

Until quite recently this was the only painted intersection downtown, and the city only granted the permit because the school agreed not to paint anything that cars drive on. I suppose because downtown streets are real streets, for the use of serious people engaged in important business. As a serious major city, we can't risk having serious people bump into whimsical stuff that has no obvious business model, or they might freak out and take their important business elsewhere, like Texas maybe. (I'm just guessing here.) The City Repair folks have a Google map of past and present projects, and it shows about five items in the intersection category across the entire westside. There's one on the PSU campus on a closed section of SW Montgomery, which I apparently don't have any photos of yet. I'm about 75% sure that the other three listed downtown are either miscategorized, or don't exist anymore, or never existed in the first place. There now are a couple of others downtown (as of summer 2021) that aren't on this map because they weren't City Repair projects, but we'll get to those in their own separate posts.

The remaining one on the map -- the one and only example on the entire westside outside of downtown, if the map is to be believed -- is wayyy out in Hillsboro, behind a church in an industrial park near the Cornelius Pass exit off Sunset, and I have no idea what sort of project it actually is, or was. This seems odd to me; Portland's westside does have a few neighborhoods that you'd think might be open to the idea, places like Northwest/Nob Hill, Multnomah Village, Hillsdale, Burlingame, Lair Hill, Corbett/Johns Landing, Homestead (the weird little neighborhood up in the West Hills behind OHSU), probably a few others I'm forgetting. Now, some of these neighborhoods are hilly and maybe don't have a lot of suitable intersections that are flat enough to be paintable, but zero? More likely the idea just sort of never caught on. Or at least it hasn't caught on yet, but might after somebody goes out on a limb and does the first one.

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