Storytelling Through Public Arts Projects with the Chinatown Community

by Maria Fong

mentor: Ethan Murrow, SMFA; funding source: Nathan Gantcher Student Summer Scholars Fund


This summer, I worked collaboratively with Chinatown residents, Po Chun and Sylvia, to design a public art project addressing pedestrian safety in their neighborhood.

Over weekly zoom meetings, we first learned about Chinatown’s historical context – how the surrounding area has changed, slowly pushing out residents and eroding Chinatown’s borders. Po Chun and Sylvia both said that they felt most uncomfortable and unsafe trying to cross busy streets that connect Boston’s Downtown, the central artery tunnel, and other highways. Drivers do not watch out for pedestrians, especially on Kneeland Street.

To communicate directly with drivers, we put up posters in building windows overlooking the intersection. On the posters are the words “SLOW DOWN” paired with drawings I did of the residents and their children after listening to stories of favorite things to do in their neighborhood.

In addition to the posters, we wanted to dig deeper into the structural design of the urban space. Youth in Chinatown had previously presented to Transportation Department officials why and how they wanted specific pedestrian safety interventions, such as curb extensions, leading pedestrian intervals, and refuge islands. We drew on this work and asked other residents to draw on worksheets about their experience crossing the street and will soon send the results and demands to the Transportation Department. 

In this project I learned more about collaboration and collective decision making. Due to language barriers, I struggled at first to effectively share my ideas and questions with Po Chun and Sylvia. Eventually I came to rely on both Chinese interpretation and visual language, such as comics, diagrams, and screen-sharing.

Full artist statement:

This is our Chinatown family, enjoying their neighborhood and each other’s company through food, play, and art making. We urge drivers to slow down and pay attention to pedestrian’s safety and humanity because the intersections were not built for Chinatown residents. We need to protect each other when crossing the street because our families are our superpowers.

Pedestrians feeling unsafe stems from the design of traffic infrastructure around Chinatown. Highways were built through and around the area, resulting in many speeding cars. In addition to our sign appealing to individual drivers, we are advocating to the Boston Transportation Department to demand more pedestrian safety infrastructure. Participants in our project draw on worksheets, which we will compile and send to the Transportation Department. Their drawings show who needs to cross the street and where they are going in their community.

8 thoughts on “Storytelling Through Public Arts Projects with the Chinatown Community

  • October 23, 2020 at 3:13 pm

    Often you hear the question, “what’s the point of art, anyway?” This project is an example of how art can be used to effect real change and to prove nay-sayers of art wrong. The posters are beautiful too!

  • October 23, 2020 at 4:40 pm

    Such beautiful art to address such an important issue. The centering of community in research and advocacy is an important principle of your work and that is something more of us should focus on as students/researchers. Love the inclusion of Zoom community screenshot!

  • October 23, 2020 at 4:56 pm

    Wow, this is a really cool project! It must have been so rewarding to have a tangible outcome to this project, weaving in practical and theoretical conversations and theories.

  • October 23, 2020 at 6:47 pm

    Great project Maria! Now that the poster is up, I’m wondering if cars have been slower in the area and if residents feel the project has been helpful.

  • October 23, 2020 at 6:53 pm

    Amazing Maria! Have really enjoyed seeing your progress throughout the summer and your beautiful artwork! Building relationships with community members is so special

  • October 23, 2020 at 6:54 pm

    Maria! Great work. I think its really interesting that the importance and power of art is double emphasized as it was vital to the communication process that resulted in the final installation of the project.

  • October 23, 2020 at 7:14 pm

    This is such powerful work. The community focus and collaboration really makes it special – and far more effective than a standard “slow down” sign would be. I look forward to the final installation of the posters!

  • October 24, 2020 at 10:38 pm

    Maria!!! Amazing project, I am really lucky to have gotten to see it unfold. Resonant and community based art is so important. I really appreciate your emphasis on co-creation and collaboration.

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