The Life and Times of Clinton Street’s Guerrilla Diverters

Tactical urbanism, also known as guerrilla urbanism, is a practice that’s garnered increasing interest in recent years. Most of us are so used to authorities shaping the physical space in which we live. The idea of individuals altering streets and buildings to their own desire seems almost taboo. Some frustrated with this stagnation of bureaucracy have taken direct action. They’re redesigning urban landscapes, and thereby asserting their right to the city in the process.

An empowering example of this happened last year when the New York group Right of Way illegally installed slower 20mph speed limit signs, effectively making streets safer. Authorities predictably removed them, returning these streets to their prior more dangerous state.

Portland, Oregon is suffering its own livable street stagnation. The number of people cycling as their main mode of transport has plateaued at a mere 6% for years. Politicians here are reluctant to even say the word ‘bike’, much less extoll the numerous virtues of promoting more city folk riding. Nowhere has this stunting become more evident than on Southeast Clinton street.

For months, ongoing condo construction on nearby Division street has pushed high volumes of motorized traffic onto quiet Clinton. This street is part of the city’s Neighborhood Greenway network, also known as ‘Bike Boulevards‘ for those unafraid to say the word. Clinton is a great street to ride, or at least it used to be. With the onset of so many more cars, an activist group calling itself Bike Loud PDX came together to push the city to solve this problem.

While Bike Loud has legitimately pressed the Clinton issue, their methods fall well within the confines of acceptable discourse typical of Portland politics. Some people, apparently, felt more needed to be done.

I was riding in to work last Wednesday just prior to sunrise when I came upon something of an art installation arranged diagonally across the intersection of SE 34th ave and Clinton st. There sat six decoratively painted steel barrels, legs welded on the bottom, their top sides cut off and filled with dirt sprouting small green plants.

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The barrels were spaced out just perfectly to divert motorists onto Division street while allowing bicycle traffic to pass through unhindered. Since this intersection is a four-way stop already, it seemed unlikely that anyone on any mode would somehow miss these brightly colored diverters. For added safety, the barrels and several nearby signs appeared augmented with highly reflective tape.

I hung out for about twenty minutes to observe how people interacted with this new installation. As cars approached, drivers would survey the scene, likely trying to figure out what it all meant. Finally, each one would make the obligatory turn. Nobody tried to get out and move the barrels.

IMG_4106IMG_4109IMG_4113What was truly exciting to see were cyclists riding by, almost all stopping to take pics. Most of them immediately understood what they were seeing and the function of this direct action.

I texted Bike Portland’s publisher, who I suspected had already been notified several times over. As I was typing, a woman who’d been idling in her car for several minutes rolled her window down to announce she’d called the police. It was hard to tell if she meant this as a warning to us personally, or if she thought alerting authorities was some kind of civic duty.

Unfortunately, Bike Portland’s photos of the installation were limited to what was left after the police ordered the Portland Bureau of Transportation to dismantle and impound the barrels. Apparently months and years of community demands for making Clinton safer can go unheeded, but direct community action gets addressed immediately.

Just before I was about to hop back on my bike and finish my ride to work, Bike Loud founder Alex Reed came riding up with a giant grin on his face. He seemed as surprised as I had been just minutes earlier. We exchanged a few words, both kind of asking ‘Did you do this?’ We both denied involvement. I had time to send out a single tweet before departing to begin my work day. IMG_4121IMG_4122 It was rather ironic to learn upon reading Bike Portland’s coverage later in the day, whomever had installed the diverters had claimed to be part of Bike Loud. Alex and other members of the group stated they’d had nothing to do with it, though one commenter aggressively insisted it was in fact them. Honestly, who did this matters very little in contrast to the fact that it was done at all.

Overwhelmingly, the over 140+ comments on the article lauded the action as well planned, aesthetically pleasing, and successfully functional given their placement in this location. One commenter noted, “The irony is that these guerrilla dividers actually worked whereas the city-installed dividers tend to be driven over when people see fit.

Another commenter, Anne Hawley, praised at length, “Those barrel planters are charming! Much in the same vein as intersection art, and well thought out. They fit in with the style and spirit of the neighborhood. This was a brilliant demonstration of how cheaply, effectively, and quickly needed street improvements can be made, if only regulations could be relaxed in some instances. Personally, my heart grew three sizes just seeing the cute planters. Pity PBOT couldn’t have left them in place for a few days and measured their impact before roaring in with the trucks.

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While it’s truly sad the city refused to allow this guerrilla installation to serve its purpose for longer, by several estimations the barrels were in place for over four hours. Dozens, if not hundreds of people personally interacted with them Wednesday morning, and thousands more experienced them via the news and social media. Here’s hoping this act inspires others to take up tactical urbanism. As the press release the barrel-makers published articulates, there’s too much at stake for people not to.

As for these six colorful diverters themselves? Word is PBOT doesn’t want to pay to dispose of them, and has advised their rightful ‘owners’ they may pick them up at their convenience. This may not be the last we’ve seen of them.

Keep your eyes peeled.

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6 comments

  1. PBOT had to remove them. To leave them would call their bluff on so many fronts, but most particularly that diverters are too expensive.

  2. Concept is great, but it could’ve been thought out a little better for maximum effectiveness. Putting impediments in the road can probably fly at a stop-controlled intersection, but not at a signalized one. These guerrilla warriors would do well to obtain a copy of the MUTCD and make sure they follow it. Then it would be much harder for the City to justify any removal if it already meets legal standards.

    1. Sounds like you’re maybe a bit unfamiliar with the purpose and goals of direct action.

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