What happened at Chalk-tober Fest

Sunday, October 21st was our first ever chance to test the idea of bringing public art to the streets in the form of sidewalk chalk. It was an idea that was born out of understanding city code 43-22, which says “You may not deface city sidewalks by placing any marks or signs by stencils or any other means.” The code however risk aversive to negativity and vandalism, also prevents creative forms of artistic expression and prevents a kid from drawing a hopscotch on the ground at a park. What?!? Yeah, that’s what we said…

The morning of, we met at Main St. Gardens and set up a chalkboard at the entrance to the park around 10:30am. We were met by some of our friends with Architecture for Humanity and the Dallas Morning News showed up to cover the story.

Prior to the event we were notified by Downtown Dallas Inc, a non-profit organization that maintains most of the parks downtown, that chalking would stain the imported Indian stone that made up the foyer entrance and to please deter people from chalking at the park. Setting up a temporary chalkboard on a stone at the park was our solution. We set it up, asked people not to chalk at Main Street Garden, and wrote locations where we could meet them to chalk around town without being hassled by security. A few people came by and picked up some baggies of chalk and then we dropped off the remaining chalk at four locations around the city, including JQ Engineering parking lot, BuzzBrews in Deep Ellum, Bryan Tower, and “the patio” in the Arts District across from the Meyerson Symphony Center.

After chalking at JQ Engineering and Bryan Tower we met up at the Meyerson. The Meyerson, was the busiest of the Downtown locations, it had the most passersby, was the most visible, had food carts that prompted activity, and the church crowd across the street was letting out after Sunday mass. As we chalked, most people walked by with a slightly confused and slightly interested look. The passersby with kids expressed the most interest. The kids ran up on the patio, grabbed pieces of chalk an immediately knew what to do.

Around 11:15, the Dallas Morning News reporter rolled up to the patio, charged out of her car, and told us that our chalkboards at Main Street Garden had been taken down. Taken Down? Really? REALLY? While we were out beautifying the city, the Downtown Dallas Inc Clean Team came, dismantled them, and took them away – no one knows where they were taken? The DMN reporter had gotten pictures of the Taker-Downers, had gotten their side of the story, and was now asking us what we thought.

This innocuous, joyful-activity of chalking had turned into a lesson about why public spaces and street activity in Dallas is suffering – let’s be clear, in the Central Business District (CBD), which is the area created by the loop of highways, is SUFFERING! Because as soon as a little bit of messiness, life, dynamism, fun, HECK FUN, is introduced into the landscape it is quickly cleaned away, dismantled and hidden away to be forgotten. We’ve been asking ourselves why this is, and have started to uncover a few reasons, primarily: 1-the CBD’s ordinances are literally designing-out the ability for the city to have life, 2-people aren’t accustom to creative, spontaneous endeavors, unless there’s some big event that says it’s okay.

After the Meyerson, we stopped at the final location BuzzBrews in the Deep Ellum neighborhood. The sidewalks, the street, the curbs, the bike racks, the signs, you name it were decorated with sidewalk chalk. Deep Ellum, known for it’s artistic and music flavor, totally embraced Chalk-tober Fest. And the same cleaning and security crews that exist in the CBD to erase the messiness have no jurisdiction in Deep Ellum, as a matter of fact, a security presence in Deep Ellum would definitely get run out of town.

Though the distance between Main Street Garden and Buzzbrews is a measly 0.8mi, there is a monumental distance of understanding when it comes to allowing the creative culture to happen – heck, promoting it, cultivating it, embracing it, celebrating it! The proof is in the chalk, and was apparent in the range of chalk art that emerged everything from the Buddha on a lotus flower, to a hopscotch with symbols instead of numbers, a waffle, a drawing of Leonard Nimoy with the saying “live long and prosper,” a sweet game of Tetris, peace symbols, greetings of joy, the BuzzBrews logo – it was a cornucopia of inspired chalk riches.

We decided to leave the chalk out in our locations around town, and came back to check on them later that night. JQ Eng and Bryan Tower chalk was gone, as in somebody took it, and there were a few more scribble at the Meyerson “so-and-so loves so-and-so” and so on.

The first Chalk-tober Fest was a success! We’ve learned which locations work best and why, and have started scheming of ways to re-design the ones that didn’t work as well. We’ve found allies in business and organizations around the city who were open to chalking on their property. We’ve connected with people that we’ve never met before and created sidewalk chalk awesomeness. It is part of an ongoing conversation about the role of public art in Dallas, how to use public spaces and our city, and is fighting to promote a culture of creativity and life in the CBD. As we move forward, we envision a day where everybody will be able to walk up to a pile of sidewalk chalk without question and know what to do with it the way kids do.

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