Medford’s Switchbox Beautification Project brings streets to life
Switchbox artwork bolsters town unity
Published: Thursday, March 7, 2013
Updated: Thursday, March 7, 2013 03:03
A local policewoman is driving along one of the main roads in Medford and, as she pulls up to the intersection, comes across a group of youngsters slathering paint onto the electrical switchbox at the corner. The policewoman pulls her car over to the curb, gets out and begins walking towards the group. As a few of the kids notice the nearing authority figure, they quickly blurt out, “We’re allowed to do this, we swear!” The officer, realizing the group’s anxiety, just as quickly replies, “No, I know! I just want to know how you guys signed up.”
This is just one of the anecdotes that have come out of the Medford Switchbox Beautification project, and project coordinator Diane McLeod has many more where that came from. McLeod, who is the human diversity director for the city of Medford as well as a member of community group Medford Health Matters (MHM), took on the project in October of 2011. The inspiration for the undertaking came from similar initiatives in nearby Somerville and Malden, and once Mayor Michael McGlynn approved the concept, McLeod and others got rolling to find local artists and groups interested in “beautifying” the traffic light switchboxes.
“We got a subcommittee that was interested in working on the project. We talked about the legalities ... we had to identify all these boxes. Throughout the city there are a lot of them,” McLeod said. “We connected with our electric commissioner, and he gave us a list of 21, and by the time we finished we found 28 that were ours.”
McLeod drafted a letter that was sent out to various local art groups and schools in the city. The memo describes the project as turning the switchboxes into “proud pieces of public art” and explains that participants would receive community service hours in return for working on the switchboxes.
“We sent it all over the place, saying we would have a meeting in City Hall to talk about this project. People were out the door at the meeting,” McLeod said.
The subcommittee then brainstormed themes for design: The boxes could represent Medford history, a particular piece of Medford or something more related to the Medford Health Matters mission, which involves healthy living and a healthy environment. As for funding, the MHM group received a grant from Mount Auburn Hospital to use towards the beautification initiative.
“It went really well. We also solicited local paint shops and Home Depot to ask if they would be interested in helping or donating to this process. We got some sponsors that really helped us out [like] Hillside Hardware [and] Home Depot,” McLeod said.
Groups or individuals interested in painting a box were given the chance to name preferred locations for their designs and McLeod’s team coordinated the logistics. Once the artists got their paperwork in, they received starter bins with pictures showing dimensions of the box and materials such as drop cloths, masks, wire brushes and orange traffic cones.
“We gave guidelines and then they would go off with their paint and we would just wait for them to come back,” McLeod said.
One of the project’s painters comes from the Hill. Sara Allred, the scholars program coordinator at the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, designed and painted two boxes near campus with her husband.
“I spend a lot of time facilitating these partnerships where Tisch Scholars are connected with community partners and use their skills to create some sort of positive change or effect within the community. So when I heard about this, I kind of jumped at it, because I do a lot of that work facilitating for students but I usually don’t have the time to do that work myself,” Allred said.
Allred, who previously worked as an art teacher in Baltimore City public schools, thought the project was a great way to use her artistic abilities and give back to the Medford community.
One of Allred’s boxes sits on the corner of Boston Ave. and Winthrop St. and features white elephants making their way across a crosswalk on a light blue background. The other, at Boston Ave. and Warner St., shows various colorful fruits and vegetables.
“I was getting to do my job but do it on a personal level. And it is also just cool to walk to work and walk by my garden one [the Warner St. box] every day,” Allred said.
It is not uncommon for Medford denizens or groups to take on more than one switchbox. Debbie Corleto, an art teacher at McGlynn Middle School in Medford, assembled a group of students to paint a box at Park St. and Salem St.
“I had already had students who did murals for the Mystic River Festival, so [this time] what we did was submit a design with scenes from around Medford. They assigned us the switchbox by the fire station ... and we did a picture of the Royall House, an owl from Brooks Estate and the Condon Shell on Route 16,” Corleto said.
However, when Corleto heard that there were switchboxes still to be painted, she took the opportunity to do one herself. While the students’ design displayed some of Medford’s historical landmarks, Corleto’s box showcases the city’s designation as a “Tree City USA” by the National Arbor Day Foundation.
“For mine, I had photographs from a photo contest that were of trees from [Tobert] Macdonald Park, because Medford is [a] ‘tree city,’” Corleto said.
Suzanne Fee, another art teacher at McGlynn, was eager to get involved with her student group, the McGlynn MUTS (Mural Up the School) Club. Along with fellow club adviser and social studies teacher Brian Villard, the group decided to extend the club’s mission into the community.