An urban art project with some unlikely collaborators
Author Sam Polcer Illustration Luci Gutiérrez
NEWARK, NEW JERSEY – Cindy Whitaker waits for her bus at the corner of Broad and Market in downtown Newark, stamping her feet against the cold. Suddenly, a tough-looking guy in a heavy winter coat approaches with something tucked under his arm. He makes eye contact and reaches into his pocket.
“Excuse me, sister. Do you see that sign over there?”
“This one right here?”
“Yeah. What do you think about it?”
“Has a nice ring to it.”
The man—pen and clipboard now in hand—scribbles her answer.
The blue and red sign in question is bolted to a nearby lamppost and bears the words “Our City, Our Family.” It is one of more than 200 “Happy Street Signs”—inspirational messages like “Honk Less, Love More”—that have been posted around Newark by British artist Killy Kilford. The idea, Kilford says, is to change perceptions of the city using the power of suggestion. “You see it, you start to feel it,” he says.
After getting the nod from Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka, Kilford recently set about recruiting former gang members—including the man with the clipboard—to help him install the signs. “What can’t happen is me, an English guy, walking into a city and going, ‘Let’s be happy!’” Kilford says. “It has to involve the community.”
Now that the signs are up, Kilford’s assistants are helping him gauge local reactions. Whitaker, for one, is a fan. “I think they’re great,” she says. The former gang member writes this down, too, then asks Whitaker if she’d like to come up with a happy slogan of her own. Quick as a whip, she replies, “If you can’t find a friend, be one.”