Writer’s Block: A Poetry Walk on Woodwell Street

handmade letters attached to residential house reading "certain"
One thing is certain: Woodwell Street continues to impress with block-long public art projects

When last we left Woodwell Street—a single long residential block at the north end Squirrel Hill—it was full of bright color. Thin streamers from every point in the rainbow decorated lamp posts and trees like electric shafts of light. House after house, the community art project was a wonderful, safe, deep pandemic way to get out and experience little bursts of joy.

Woodwell Street is at it again, read the email from dedicated streetwalker Lisa Valentino, and she wasn’t kidding. (The block mounted a yarn bombing project between then and now, we’re told, but we missed that one.) Woodwell Street is currently host to an excerpt of Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb,” displayed (mostly) one word at a time, house-by-house, in block letters attached to front porches and dug into flower beds.

The poem, written for and first delivered at the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris, is a call to action. To merge mercy with might and might with right are fabulous words with terrific intention. Walking down Woodwell Street on a blessedly beautiful day like the one we happened to catch is a wonderful experience of community effort, but putting those heady words into action isn’t so easy. Let’s all see what we can do.

handmade letters attached to residential houses reading "but one thing"
But one thing
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "is"
is
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "certain"
certain:
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "if we"
if we
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "merge"
merge
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "mercy"
mercy
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "with might"
with might,
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "and"
and
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "might"
might
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "with"
with
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "right"
right,
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "then love"
then love
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "becomes"
becomes
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "our"
our
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "legacy"
legacy,
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "and"
and
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "change"
change,
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "our"
our
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "children's"
children’s
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "birthright"
birthright.

Budget Christo: The Woodwell Street Streamers

house decorated with colored streamers

An electric aqua-blue shaft of light shoots from the heavens, down through thick tree tops, and ricochets from short rods pounded into the earth. The visible energy is focused and transformed back to a tree trunk, a brick pillar, a front porch fixture. Down the block, a full spectrum of color blasts overhead, making direct contact with a low hedge at the front of another house. The phenomenon continues up and down the street and around the corner–reconfigured, alternately arranged, and impressively coordinated so that no two homes appear at all similar.

In each case, the colored lines have the magical quality of both rays of light, frozen into fixed, timeless position, but also fluttering ever so slightly in the soft breeze as to trick the eye into seeing a bewildering array of subtle hues from even a single one of these mass-extruded plastic streamers.

house front yard decorated with colored streamers

Woodwell Street is a single, long residential block in North Squirrel Hill. Its tidy array of pre-war four squares and arts & crafts double houses are reliably well-maintained with groomed, flowers-a-poppin’ front yards and neighbors intensely tending to their hedge rows and raised vegetable gardens. The number of Bernie for PresidentAll Are Welcome Here, and Black Lives Matter yard signs says much about the demographics of its residents. [Whether any black lives actually, you know, own property here is a separate question.]

house decorated with colored streamers

The phrase keeping up with the Joneses has such a derogatory slant, but feels applicable here. One imagines the arrival of a new Prius or enameled 24″ Weber as front-page news on a street as uniformly kempt and free-of-strife as Woodwell. Neighbors appear loathe to allow the green grass any more than three inches in height before a regularly-scheduled haircut; there is neither peeling paint nor discarded litter anywhere to be seen. Good luck finding a statue of Mary.

So the introduction of bright plastic colors, freeform conceptual art, and public expression–if only within a tight set of coordinated parameters–seems like it must represent some kind of seismic shift in the community landscape of Woodwell Street. Each household must ask the inevitable existential question: are we traditionalists or are we with the color revolution?

house front yard decorated with colored streamers

“Surreal environmental installation artist” Christo passed away on May 31 at the age of 84. The Woodwell Street streamers were well under way by this point, so at best, we can consider these works a prescient or coincidental tribute to the artist who, along with his wife and creative partner Jeanne-Claude, achieved fame by creating elaborate, grand-scale works redecorating nature. The two covered an island in pink polypropylene, ran fabric fencing into the ocean, and constructed 7,500 safron-colored gates throughout New York’s Central Park in the dead of winter, among many other projects.

house decorated with colored streamers

While it’s tempting to title an article with the cheeky name Anti-Christo, that would do both the lawn decorators of Squirrel Hill and the namesake a disservice. These pieces are imaginative, fun, and achieve exactly what Christo and Jeanne-Claude were after: they get the visitor to look at both the built environment and the flora that surrounds it in new and different ways. They also manage to achieve that with the cheapest and most accessible of materials. For this, we’re going with Budget Christo.

tree decorated with colored streamers

While any time is the right time for fun walkabout/drive-by public art, it seems especially appropriate right now. We all want to get out and there’s nowhere to go; we all want to help out and that means staying home. By creating a no-contact, anyone-can-join-in open air art environment, the Woodwell Street neighbors have taken the challenge and created something beautiful from it. [Editor’s note: see last week’s story on Remly Way, the “Alleyway of Magical Delights,” for a similar but different project.]

Needless to say, Woodwell Street is looking good right now and the streamer houses are really something special and well worth a visit. By its very nature, this a temporary installation at best, so take the opportunity and walk on by.

house decorated with colored streamers

house front garden decorated with colored streamers

Getting there: Woodwell Street runs between Dallas and Barnsdale in north Squirrel Hill. You’ll find most of the streamer-decorated properties there, but also make sure to check out the neighboring, parallel streets Ridgeville and Kinsman, where there are more.

Thanks to Orbit reader and inveterate neighborhood walker Lisa Valentino for the tip on this fine project.

tree decorated with colored streamers