Empire editorial: A year later, roundabout remains a blank canvas

Posted: Sunday, July 23, 2006

A shadowy band of guerrilla artists is onto something in Juneau, and its nighttime antics should be a wake-up call to road officials.

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It has been a year since the Douglas Bridge traffic roundabout opened, and still the circle at its core is a barren patch of grass. A city that prides itself on beauty and artistic endeavors - not to mention its tradition of statesmen and women - deserves more. The roundabout is a lump of clay waiting for someone to shape it, and someone really should.

But the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, which owns the land, says it has neither a plan nor the budget to pretty up the roundabout, whether through art or landscaping and flowers. State officials say they'd be happy to entertain a city plan, but the city doesn't have one either.

In the meantime, an anonymous group of community-minded folks in the spirit of the seasons has taken to illegally erecting displays at night. One was a big plastic heart for Valentine's Day. Another was a pumpkin layout at Halloween. Perhaps the most memorable was a plywood fiddler's silhouette, decked out in pants, shirt and suspenders for last spring's Alaska Folk Festival. All were treated as litter and removed by officials, but, darn it, someone had to do something.

Roundabouts are a common part of the landscape in Europe and Australia, and have become increasingly so throughout America in the last decade. Their chief functions are traffic calming and smoothing - not, necessarily, beautification - but when a sizable roundabout springs up, it instantly begs for a centerpiece. It's like a pedestal with no sculpture.

Across America, cities - including small cities - are commissioning artwork and landscaping for these new focal points of the car culture. Some, such as Bend, Ore., have taken roundabout art to new levels, winning national awards for public art. That city has a concerted effort, backed by nonprofit support, to enhance public spaces with diverse arts. In other locations, such as Payson, Ariz., concerned residents got sick of looking at a bare patch and raised money for art.

Such an effort, with support from the city, would be welcome in Juneau. Or, maybe there's nothing wrong with continuing more or less as is - without the legal obstacles. In a town full of creative mischief (remember the stickers of Gov. Frank Murkowski's face that were stuck in dozens of mounds of dog poop all over Juneau's trails?) maybe it's best to let the art be spontaneous and ephemeral. But it's also important to make sure the roundabout is safe, that displays won't blow into the road or be of such size to create dangerous distractions in traffic. Some simple safety specifications and perhaps a bond for cleanup might legitimize Juneau's guerrilla artists while still providing the community some fun.

In any event, it's time for the city and state to think about what the roundabout should look like, and then encourage people to get involved.

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