When Art and Infrastructure Finance Collide

I asked a poet to write a poem about city government. The result took my breath away.
October 17, 2016
The 16th Street Pedestrian Mall in Denver, Colo. Albert Pego/Shutterstock
By Steven Bosacker  |  Living Cities
Principal, Public Sector & Partnerships, Living Cities

During a recent convening of City Accelerator teams in Denver, Steven Bosacker, director of public sector innovation at Living Cities, found inspiration in a somewhat unlikely environment. Among the street vendors dotting the city's 16th Street Mall was a young poet sitting with a sign claiming that for a small fee she would quickly produce a poem on practically any subject. Thinking that he would present her with an unworkable, "un-rhymable" challenge, Steven gave her the technical term that was the subject of our Denver meeting: "infrastructure finance".

I love cities.  And when I land in a new one or visit one after a 15-year absence, I can’t wait to hit the streets and discover what’s new or changed. The latter was the case with Denver last Spring.

I got to my downtown hotel about 4:30 p.m. on a weekday afternoon. Even though I was dressed in a suit and tie, I threw my luggage in my room and plunged into a warm and sunny spring afternoon, emerging from the hotel doors onto Denver’s iconic 16th street “pedestrian” mall.

Being a city guy, the first thing I notice walking through any American or other world city is the quality and quirkiness of its streetlife. Within my first two-block stroll down Denver’s main street, I’d already encountered a hip, young harpist and a western-style acoustic guitarist, but it was the street poet on block three that caught my attention. The sign hanging from her TV tray-sized table said simply, “Pick a subject, get a poem.” While my first thought was “Cool,” I was at least 10 steps past her before I stopped and turned around.

She looked up as I approached, and I asked, “Are you up for a challenge?” Her answer was a confident “Yes,” and I felt both a bit cocky and guilty about being so sure I would stump her with my two-word subject.

“Infrastructure finance,” I said just as confidently.

We’d already negotiated the cost and she appeared unfazed by my challenge, so she pulled out a small deckle-edged piece of paper, spun it into her L.C. Smith & Co. manual typewriter, and said it’d be about 10 minutes if I didn’t mind waiting. “Happy to,” I said, and got permission to capture the moment with a few pics on my iPhone.

Abigail Mott, her name written in small letters at the bottom of her sign, had been a street poet for about five years, and had recently come to Denver “for a while.” She appeared in no hurry and in fact started by opening the tin box next to her typewriter and pulling out a pack of American Spirit cigarettes. She lit one, took a couple long slow drags and looked off into the distance; followed by equally long staring down at that blank slip of paper which was patiently awaiting some words to land on it. At long last the pecking sound of one key after the other being forcibly struck filled the street. Then a few more, and eventually, as could be expected, the equally unique sound of the platen being slapped and swung back to starting position from right to left. Whoosh clunk.

I quietly wandered a circle around her, watching office workers hustle past yet inevitably casting a glance at the sound of the peck, peck, peck of Abigail’s typing. She held the burning cigarette all the while, and paused often for more long deep drags and that inevitable look of lost concentration.

The pace and pauses intensified my interest in what she was composing, wondering all along whether she even had a clue what “infrastructure finance” was, or maybe worrying that I would be embarrassed or ultimately let down by some cheesy rhyming verse of an amateur or worse, a grifter-poet.

Ten minutes later, the pecking stopped. She pulled the paper out with a quick tug, took out her own iPhone, snapped a photograph of her finished work, and asked, “Might I read it to you?” Of course I said, “Of course.”

With the same certainty of all her actions thus far, she turned in her chair toward me, held the poem high with one hand and did sweeping flourishes with the other, as she found the perfect cadence to match the powerful words of her composition. I listened with amazement about what that peck, peck, pecking had produced.

It took my breath away.

 
The humanity of what Abigail Mott had written in the smoked length of one American Spirit cigarette amid scores of passersby and the free 16th street buses whizzing but 4 feet behind her every 90 seconds like clockwork, was staggering. In just 10 minutes and 75 words, Abigail had captured the skepticism of a generation and the cynicism of a society, and aside from misspelling the word “infanstructure,” she’d profoundly humanized the most basic and unglamorous task of a city government – building and figuring out how to pay for its physical infrastructure.
 
 

The third multicity cohort of the City Accelerator – a Living Cities program to find and foster promising or innovative practices in city government – was launched in Denver, Colo. on Thursday, April 14, 2016.  Teams from four cities – Washington D.C., Saint Paul, Pittsburgh and San Francisco – came together to explore and build capacity on the pressing task of creatively financing municipal infrastructure.

 
Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.