Cultural Corridor/Urban Flow (San Leandro BART Station), 2021. Photo: Ray Holbert

Poetry in Motion: A Conversation with Mildred Howard and Johanna Poethig

Cultural Corridor/Urban Flow is a nine-and-a-half-mile-long public artwork on the first Bus Rapid Transit Line in Oakland, California. Designed by Johanna Poethig and Mildred Howard, with Peter Richards and Joyce Hsu, the line’s 34 stations are visually connected with a “ribbon” of words and images rendered in laser-cut aluminum on handrail panels and decorative windscreens. Extensive input from the community contributed to Poethig and Howard’s designs.

The new BRT Line, part of AC (Alameda County) Transit, replaces a bus route along what was once East 14th Street—now called International Boulevard in tribute to Oakland’s diversity. The design of each station reflects the unique cultural and social environment of its surrounding neighborhood. Poethig and Howard began work on the project in 2014; installation was completed in early 2021.

Cultural Corridor/Urban Flow (82nd Avenue Station), 2021. Photo: Ray Holbert

Maria Porges: When I think of transit-based public art, I picture airport commissions—spectacular objects or images—or other works, which might be related to their location in some way but not necessarily to the people who live there. Cultural Corridor/Urban Flow is unusual in that it not only incorporates your individual aesthetics, but also reflects the many neighborhoods it passes through. What was the community input into the design of the stations?
Johanna Poethig: There was a national search for this project, but the four of us are all from this area. After Mildred and I were selected as finalists, we were told that we could choose one or two additional team members from another group of people who had applied as artisans. We chose Peter Richards and Joyce Hsu because we liked the idea of bringing such different outlooks, points of view, and skills into the collaboration. From the very beginning, we proposed that we would go into the community as part of our focus and outreach. We wanted to do something at each station that would address what’s really there, who lives there. Mildred already had a deep knowledge of the whole route.
Mildred Howard: Starting when I was seven, and I could ride the bus on my own, I’d take the #15 from Berkeley and transfer to the #83 all the way to 73rd. So, I had an understanding that what people were accustomed to when they rode the bus was different from the stops that were going to be built along the transit corridor.
JP: And then Pete had a larger kind of view of urban flow—of all of the different kinds of systems that go through the city, not just the people. We looked at the creeks and how they have affected planning; we looked at city government. 
MH: We knew we wanted to use words. We knew we wanted to reflect the communities where the transit was going, and we both had experience in working in diverse communities.
JP: Mildred and I had done a project at Youth Uprising years before. We had a relationship with the organization, so we decided to go back to them. Early on, we had sustained interactions with a group of Oakland youth and a group of San Leandro youth. We gave them questionnaires and notebooks to record their ideas—and we paid them for their time. That was important.
MH: As a result, they got into it. We wanted them to feel as though they were a part of the whole process. These young people had great ideas—about particular stops, areas—that were different from anyone else’s. They use public transportation, and they really know the city. We listened to what they told us about music and about nature.
JP: One of our favorite images—the “Urban Classic Duck” at the Madison Street Station—came directly from one of the kids, who was researching Lake Merritt, and said, ”Oh, the mallard is an urban classic duck.” Joyce loved the idea so much that she put bow ties on them.

Cultural Corridor/Urban Flow (Madison Street Station), 2021. Photo: Lewis Watts

MP: The ducks look like they’re by a stream, but the flowing motif is in the design of every station, like a ribbon. How did you come up with that idea?
JP: It goes back to the title of the project—Cultural Corridor/Urban Flow. We really have to give credit to Pete for that, because the idea ties it all together, connecting one community to another. AC Transit also set up meetings in several neighborhoods. We created ways to engage with those people, including maps for them to mark with their experiences and how they felt about public transit. One woman asked us to consider all of the churches along the route. That’s where “hearts full of grace,” at the 103rd Street Station, came from.

MP: Public art projects often take a long time to reach completion, and there were many moving parts in this case. Was seven years unusual in your experience?
MH: We knew that it would take longer because of the size. And the project almost doubled in the time it took to complete.
JP: It took stamina. I learned a lot about the transit agency itself, and what something like this requires of them. They would go out to a proposed station location, and someone would say, “Oh no, you can’t put it there,” because of this, or that, and so they would have to change all their plans just to shift the location by half a block. And then, we would have already designed for it, so we had to change, too. This happened all the way down the line.

This was a percent-for-art commission, and it wouldn’t have happened without that requirement. The AC Transit people had never worked on something like this before. Joyce came up with a master system—we called it the matrix—consisting of a spreadsheet, an index that included every detail. There are 34 stations, with 48 platforms to consider. The spreadsheet included all the stations, all the colors, the text, images of every panel and windscreen. When we brought it to the AC Transit meeting, you could feel a huge sigh of relief going through the room.
MH: They had this misconception of artists. To do public art, you have to be able to manage a lot of detail. Johanna was the lead artist on this project, and it was a whole separate job. None of us wanted to take this on.

Cultural Corridor/Urban Flow (24th Avenue Station), 2021. Photo: Lewis Watts

MP: Another thing I’ve noticed is the relationship between your designs and the cut-paper crafts traditional in Mexican and Chinese cultures. Doing a little research, I discovered that there are also Jewish, German, Polish, and Indonesian versions of this kind of work.
MH: We were thinking mostly of the Mexican art form, called papel picado. You can see that especially in the Fruitvale Station design.
JP: There were also practical reasons for working with intricate patterns of cutouts. Because of ADA regulations, we couldn’t have any openings greater than four inches. And we wanted people to be able to see the environment through the panels.
MH: Exactly. You can read the images and the text from either side, whether you are driving past or standing at the bus stop. The text goes in both directions, and upside down.

MP: How did you decide on the direction of the text?
JP: Some stations are curbside, others are out in the median. We tried to think of it in terms of the way the largest number of people would be facing.
MH: We intentionally put some of the words upside down or backwards, so the shadows would read right side up. The shadows were just as important as the design itself. Having worked at the Exploratorium as a teaching artist, talking to public school teachers and young people about light and shadow, this was really important to me.
JP: The shadows are great, because they change throughout the day. We are used to seeing text as informational—signs, advertising—so, seeing it this way challenges people to consider different ways of viewing things. If you take time to read the text, you’ll think about what it might mean. In a public art project, you usually have only one site. We had 34. For our research, we made many trips from one end of the line to the other.
MH: It was monumental. That street is part of history—it was how people got from one end of the city to the other before the freeway was built.

MP: One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed is the interaction between your designs and their settings—the neighborhood, the buildings, the murals, and the graffiti.
JP: We worked very hard for that. Downtown was about the Art Deco architecture. We based the 2nd Avenue Station on a Vietnamese restaurant. There are many examples like that.

Cultural Corridor/Urban Flow (Uptown Station), 2021. Photo: Lewis Watts

MP: How did you determine the colors?
MH: We decided based on what we thought was reflective of the community, as well as what we felt would work together aesthetically. Sometimes it was something that was already there. For instance, we used the colors of the East Bay Dragons—the oldest Black motorcycle club in the Bay Area—at the 86th Avenue Station. One of the best parts of this whole project for me was when things were finally installed and we saw how each station really did fit into its neighborhood.

MP: Are people using this new line?
JP: Yes, people jumped on it right away. Except—and this is pretty funny—it was so nice looking that some people apparently thought it wasn’t for them to use. One day shortly after the line had opened, I was visiting another project near one of the stations, and people were looking at the station and taking pictures, asking, “Why is this nice thing here?” Meaning, in their neighborhood.
MH: I remember we were out at the High Street Station, and this young guy asked us, “Did you design this?” And we said, “Yeah, and would you help take care of it for us?”

MP: Has graffiti been a problem?
JP: No, not yet. But the location of many stations—right in the middle of the street—means that there are other issues. Some panels have already been hit by cars. This is a pretty unique project for rapid transit. There are 300 different panels, which unfortunately means that each one has to be repaired if there are issues. There is no easy way to replace anything.

Cultural Corridor/Urban Flow (39th Avenue Station), 2021. Photo: Lewis Watts

MP: Could we talk more about the use of text? There are a lot of words. Sometimes the language is poetic, sometimes it’s descriptive, sometimes it’s both. How did the text come about?
JP: First, Mildred and I started writing it—she always uses poetry in her work, and I use text in my work. We got things from the kids. We also had the transit route maps that people had written on, describing what they do and how they use transit. We pulled things from those texts, too. Then we decided that we needed to bring in a poet.
MH: We needed someone who really knows language, who could look at everything and give us ways of pulling it together, so we brought in Elmaz Abinader, who did a wonderful job of going through the whole thing and adding connective texts. 
JP: I’ve always talked about the text, as well as the making of public art in general, in terms of improvisation. When you’re doing murals and community work—interactive things between artists and community—you’re improvising, which many people don’t realize. The community is giving you something, you’re giving them something—there isn’t a hierarchy. You need the information from them. It’s a kind of call and response.
MH: Improvisation is very much a part of making art. It’s also important to come up with ways of talking about big ideas. This is a huge project, with many different communities. How do you express those ideas so that others can understand? Many people from the affected communities were pissed off about the new line. It took so long to complete the system, interrupting their daily routines and moving from one section of the city to another. Building the system also took out most of the street parking along International Boulevard.

There is particular history of transit in this area. First, there was the Key System, with street cars and trains on every major thoroughfare, even across the bridge. Then General Motors and other major automakers bought the systems and pulled up the tracks in order to sell cars. AC Transit started a bus system, which used to be pretty good. And then there was BART, which destroyed Black businesses along the old Grove Street corridor in Oakland, just like rapid transit and freeways have destroyed Black communities all over the country. Buses were slow because of too much traffic, and there’s the issue of pollution. As a result, a new system is a good thing.

MP: So, bus rapid transit is a good idea, but not a perfect solution. 
MH: Disrupting most of the parking could hurt the small businesses along International Boulevard. The new Chinatown and the new Asian district, the Filipino and Vietnamese district, all have small businesses. Eighty-year-old people aren’t going to shop and then walk several blocks carrying their groceries to the bus. That’s what I don’t like about the new system.
JP: But, because of Covid, people are saying that buses are the best way to move people around. We thought a lot about how buses go through the neighborhoods—you’re looking out and seeing the landscape, you’re on the street. This is why we are pretty sympathetic to urban planners—you’re trying to address climate change, you need public transportation, you need bike lanes. At the same time, there are old people or families with four kids and a week’s groceries. Southern California is extreme; everything is so far apart. We need public transit—we just don’t have enough of it yet.

Cultural Corridor/Urban Flow (14th Street Station), 2021. Photo: Peter Richards

MP: In the nearly 40 years I’ve lived in East Oakland, I’ve seen tremendous change—whole neighborhoods transformed as different groups move in and out. I’ve found myself wondering if the specific imagery and references in your stations will outlast the nature of the neighborhoods in which they’re located.
MH: Even if they don’t, at least we’ll have created a historical marker of what was there. And the images and texts show not only the individual communities, but also the cross-pollination of those communities.
JP: We installed during Covid, which was difficult. We never imagined that after seven years, it would be like that. And then, because of the protests last year, AC Transit was worried about vandalism, so they wrapped every component as soon as it was installed, until the line finally opened. But when it did, it was clear that our words and images really fit with everything around them—the protest murals, all of it. We didn’t expect that. All public art is a kind of record of the time, a marker. And some things aren’t going anywhere—the lake, the Deco buildings downtown. The text that calls out to the presence of Native Americans or of the creeks—that will always be about something that’s there, that always has been there. There are so many layers to this design. Really, it seems kind of amazing that it got approved. Most public art doesn’t get approved when it has this level of complexity.
MH: We wanted people to be able to have things that they could remember, beyond the name of the station—like the ducks or the dragons—things that they will notice and enjoy.
JP: That was one of the things we wanted to create for people—a different kind of navigation in their social space, of poetry, art, words in their own languages. I really like public art that’s intimate as well as grand. This is a nine-mile poem that’s both.