Can government-built structures like bridges provide a canvas for social equity? Local Seattle designers took on this question by activating the Mount Baker pedestrian overpass with an installation for the 2015 Seattle Design Festival: Design for Equity, September 21st through October 3rd. The installation, “Mind the Gap,” explored a literal bridge connecting historic Mount Baker to dense urban development taking place around the Mount Baker light rail station. The effort addressed equity gaps in accessibility, infrastructure, and culture that frequently follow transit-oriented development in historic neighborhoods, by creating a sense of place through little-known and culturally diverse local history. The resulting installation was intended to inspire cohesive community ownership on a deeper level.
The 40-year old Mount Baker pedestrian overpass, spanning the crossroads of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and Rainier Avenue South in the Mount Baker neighborhood, is a bridge connecting cultures and resources. The Seattle Design Festival provided an opportunity for local design firms JeppsonEGD and Penniless Projects to temporarily transform the bridge into a venue that engaged the community with inclusive stories uncovered during the recent “Mount Baker: Great Heights” neighborhood identity project.
Many Mount Baker residents are unaware that today’s urban village area has been the stage for some of Seattle’s greatest moments and most profound heroes. Historically, this area is underpinned by the Olmstead plan for interconnected parks and boulevards intended to connect Mount Baker residents on the hills above Lake Washington to the culturally-diverse individuals and businesses in the Rainier valley and beyond. This area was home to two legendary baseball stadiums (Dugdale Park and Sicks Stadium), beautiful Franklin High School, and extraordinary individuals that made an impact on the world regardless of cultural background or personal challenges. These powerful, inspiring stories were the core of the installation.
For two weeks, colorful wayfinding signage and bright paint welcomed pedestrians and cyclists onto the bridge, reinforcing the Olmsted legacy connections. As students, commuters, and recreational users ascended the spiraling ramps, vibrant banners formed an outdoor gallery of inspirational neighborhood stories. An example of these stories is that of Brice Taylor, an African American and Native American football star at Franklin High School who would go on to become the University of Southern California’s first All-American football player in 1925, and first African-American head coach at any Los Angeles high school. He achieved all of this despite being an orphan born without a left hand! Pedestrians crossing the bridge were encouraged to read these stories and consider how they — as community members — can also help shape the future design of this dynamic area. Organizers received great feedback about the project, and it is hoped that future long-term improvements to the crossing — in collaboration with the City of Seattle — will incorporate similar welcoming and inspiring neighborhood-focused messaging.
A related Seattle Design Festival panel discussion on local opportunities and challenges for equitable design occurred on September 21st at Artspace Mt Baker Lofts. The panel included representatives from Southeast Effective Development (SEED), Friends of Mount Baker Town Center, Mount Baker Center for the Arts, Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks, Seattle Department of Transportation, and Penniless Projects.
This design installation was partially funded by grants from SDOT Safe Routes to School and the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture. Many of the banners created for this event will be displayed in upcoming months at other neighborhood venues.