North Williams Avenue, Portland’s busiest biking street that’s full of new shops and housing, was once the heart of our city’s black community.
But due to the negative impacts of systemic racism, city policies that hurt people of color, and recent demographic shifts, Williams has changed dramatically. Some of that original culture still thrives, but it’s a shadow of its former self.
Now a public art project wants to help Portlanders remember what was lost and celebrate what exists today.
“Having engaged subjects as diverse as the civil rights movement, indigenous culture, and modernist object design, my work reproduces familiar visual signs, arranging them into new conceptually layered pieces.”
— Cleo Davis, project lead
The Black Williams Project came out of the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s efforts to make the road safer by reconfiguring travel lanes. That project sparked controversy when advisory committee members and local residents spoke up to oppose the city’s plans, demand acknowledgment of the area’s racist history and give more support to the voices of existing black residents.
The stakeholder advisory committee that ultimately came together in agreement around the project spun off a separate committee in July 2013 to find an appropriate way to honor the history of Williams Avenue. The committee had $100,000 that had been set-aside in project funds to create public art along the corridor.
According to committee member (and now retired PBOT project manager) Ellen Vanderslice, the process to select the artists was turned over to the Regional Arts and Culture Council in 2014. RACC put out a call to artists and a selection was made in November of that year.
The artists are the husband-and-wife team of Cleo and Kayin Talton Davis (read more about them via The Skanner). They own businesses and property along North Williams and grew up in neighborhood.
Their vision, as outlined at BlackWilliamsProject.com, is for a series of sidewalk murals, signage, and kiosks that will be installed between Broadway and Killingsworth.
Here’s more from the artists about the three artistic elements you can expect to see:
Tiles will be printed using a porcelain enamel process, then embedded into the concrete of the furnishing zone. The installation will require current concrete to be removed and replaced with tiles in the area of the artwork. A total of 10 locations are planned.
Every tile location will be highlighted by a sign. Signs will face primarily toward the sidewalk and be 12”x18” located at an average eye level.
Signs will be printed porcelain enamel on a steel substrate. Porcelain enamel is extremely graffiti resistant; it is difficult to scratch and paint or marker can be removed easily with a little Windex or acetone.
FUNCTIONAL ART / KIOSK
The kiosk incorporates a touchscreen to access a variety of multimedia presentations, and additional information not presented in the tiles or signs. It will be updated as additional interviews are made, and other relevant art is created. The kiosk is intended to be installed on the NE corner of N Cook and N Williams intersection.
A community celebration will be held once the art is installed. PBOT has not released the expected date of completion, but sources say it could be as early as next month.
Learn more about the project and the artists at BlackWilliamsProject.com.
— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – firstname.lastname@example.org