Good Things Afoot
How the United Way's Safer Walking Routes to School program protects kids
In Shel Silverstein's whimsical book Where the Sidewalk Ends, the title poem encourages children to venture beyond fixed boundaries to places where "the grass grows soft and white/the sun burns crimson bright/the moon-bird rests from his flight."
I love Silverstein's rhymes and imagery.
But at the start and end of Erie's sidewalks and at all points in between, youngsters don't necessarily find idyllic havens, especially in winter. That reality was brought home when I joined news reporters and community leaders to learn about the United Way's Safer Walking Routes to School program.
Lots of good things are afoot in Erie when it comes to keeping school children safe. In sync with Safer Walking Routes to Schools, efforts are aligning to foster a spirit of care and concern among neighbors and to beautify Erie with a stunning series of murals.
Thanks to a new $200,000 grant to the City of Erie and a $10,000 grant to the Bayfront East Side Taskforce (B.E.S.T.), there will be more exciting initiatives to keep walkers and bikers safe and to improve our connections with each other. Still, much more needs to be done to raise awareness about the dangers that arise when youngsters are forced to walk in streets filled with speeding and distracted drivers because too many people ignore the city's snow-removal ordinance.
On Jan. 31, representatives from United Way of Erie County, the Blue Coats, the Erie School District, and the City of Erie joined members of the media to walk 1.2 miles from United Way headquarters at 650 East Ave. to Edison Elementary School at 1921 E. Lake Rd.
To replicate schoolkids' experience, some of us slung heavy backpacks over our shoulders. But with only a trace of snow on the ground, we didn't face the harsh conditions that many children, including young immigrants, face during a typical Erie winter, including scaling mounds of hard-packed snow or slipping on ice at underpasses.
A parked car jutting into East Lake Road forces pedestrians, including children, to walk in the street. Liz Allen was part of a group including Erie police officers, media representatives, and community leaders who trekked a 1.2 mile common school walking route to experience the barriers children face in getting to school safely. Photo credit: Liz Allen
Unlike Erie children, we also didn't have to encounter a snarling, unleashed dog or pass a site where recent gun violence took a life. With the Walking School Bus program now in place at Edison and McKinley elementary, the Blue Coats — Erie's volunteer peacekeepers — accompany children on their walks home to protect them from such traumas. But requests for the Walking School Bus service outpace the availability of volunteers.
And when walkers can't navigate snow-covered sidewalks, "In many blocks we end up walking in the street," said Blue Coats founder Daryl "Brother D" Craig. "We want to see a high sense of urgency spread throughout our city in terms of our children's safety."
He described the large dog that frightened youngsters near McKinley School. "The owner of the dog said, 'Don't move,'" he recalled. "You could hear the dog start growling, its hair standing up." All it takes is a split second for a scared child to dart into the street and get hit, he said. Craig continued to set the scene: "How many times did we have a school shooting right at dismissal time?" But when violence erupts after school or the kids must walk by a recent homicide scene, the Blue Coats and United Way's Community Schools program have caseworkers and caring adults ready to respond.
Still, Craig urged Erie to commit to a "DEFCON 10 urgency to keep our children safe." He pleaded for more signs to slow drivers down, especially on side streets. "This is a visual generation," he said. He also recommended enlisting volunteers to knock on doors to talk about things like the importance of clearing away snow. "Look what we did when COVID hit," he said. "We have to keep this in the public's face. You have to tell it until you show it."
The Safer Walking Route to Schools program, which also includes Pfeiffer-Burleigh Elementary and Strong Vincent and East middle schools, is key to the Community Schools efforts to eliminate barriers that might keep kids out of school, according to United Way President Laurie Root and Erie School District Superintendent Brian Polito. "We can't educate them if they aren't in school," said Polito.
And in a district where only 2,800 students qualify for bus transportation, that means up to 7,000 kids have to walk. Elementary students who live more than 1.5 miles from their school can take the bus; secondary students have to live two miles or more away.
Polito said the district doesn't have sufficient funding or enough drivers to bus more students. The school district is also recruiting crossing guards, who are paid $31.94 an hour. Shifts are 45 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon, but the district will work with applicants who need flexible schedules.
Here's another concrete way (excuse the pun) to keep walkers safe: Shovel or snow-blow your sidewalk. "Municipalities, businesses, and private citizens all have certain responsibilities when it comes to student walking safety," said Mike Jaruszewicz, United Way's senior vice president for community impact. "And while enforcement of codes and laws may not always take place or be consistent, that is not a reason for our community to just let these hazards continue, because the consequences are significant," he said.
"Children can and do slip on icy sidewalks. And children have been killed by speeding traffic." If you are able-bodied but your neighbors aren't, "Be a good neighbor and shovel a path," said Jaruszewicz. "Even if you never get a thank-you, you are making a difference. Work with your local neighborhood association to coordinate volunteers to help when there is a big snowstorm. Slow down when you are driving, not just in the posted school zones. And encourage others to do the same."
Erie Arts & Culture is connecting the dots between neighborhood pride and civic responsibility with its Purposeful Placemaking mural program, by adding eye-catching art in Erie neighborhoods with Safer Walking Routes to Schools.
This eye-catching mural on 11th and Reed was created by Shaun Thurston with assistance from local artists Ileecia Moffatt and Ceasar Westbrook. It is one of 50 planned murals to serve as wayfinding markers along safer school walking routes in a program spearheaded by the United Way of Erie County and Erie Arts and Culture. Photo credit: Liz Allen
The organization is working with Chris Mango, Ph.D., an associate professor at Gannon University, and Mango's Geographic Information Systems students "to use story mapping to tell a more comprehensive story about the walking routes and the challenges faced by students," said Patrick Fisher, executive director of Erie Arts & Culture.
With funding for 50 murals, 13 were completed in 2022; the rest will be done in 2023. One such mural, by artist Shaun Thurston, is at the southwest corner of East 11th and Reed streets, at the rear of the warehouse for the Mawad Closeout, a building supply business owned by Mohammed Abdulhussein. "It really changed all of that corner," said Abdulhussein, about the art with a bright orange lizard, swirling shades of blue and lavender, and lush green trees. He can't wait until spring, when the painted trees will give the impression that they are growing into real trees budding in the background.
Sean Johnson, owner of Johnson Real Estate with his wife Kenya, is also awed by the mural gracing the south wall of their building at 801 East Ave. "East Ave Vortex," by artist Alex Ann Allen, functions as an optical illusion but those neon-colored garbage cans in the front? They're cool and real. "It brings so much vibrancy to the area," said Johnson. "I always see people pulling over to take photos or slowing down."
Learn more about Safer Walking Routes to School, how to become a Blue Coat and how to apply to be a crossing guard at eriesd.org/walkingsafety.
Learn more about how murals and safe streets go together at erieartsandculture.org
Then slow down. Take a stroll. Map your own route to put yourself in the boots of Erie school children.
Liz Allen received Shel Silverstein's "Where the Sidewalk Ends" as a baby gift when her first son was born in 1974, the same year the book was published. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
It's the Law
A 1934 ordinance requires occupants of buildings – including homes, businesses, churches and factories – to remove snow and ice from sidewalks within three hours after accumulation. When snow or ice is so hard that it "cannot be removed without injury to the sidewalk," the law requires that "sand or sawdust" be used to make the sidewalk safe.
If the city's Engineering Bureau learns that the ordinance is being violated, usually by complaints lodged through the city's Citizen Response Center, a field supervisor checks it out, according to City Engineer Jason Sayers. "We typically focus our efforts on businesses, school routes, and sidewalks with high pedestrian usage," said Sayers. Occupants usually will voluntarily comply with requests to clear ice and snow, he said.
In December, the Engineering Bureau sent about 300 letters to businesses along the five Safer Walking to School Routes for Edison, McKinley, and Pfeiffer-Burleigh elementary schools and for East and Strong Vincent middle schools. The letter reminded them that if sidewalks aren't cleared of snow, they could get a Quality of Life ticket. Fines start at $25 but increase if violations aren't corrected.
To file a complaint about snow removal, visit cityof.erie.pa.us/residents/services/citizen-response-center or call 814-870-1111.
Two new grants will add resources to improve walker and cyclist safety in Erie. The Bayfront East Side Taskforce has received a $10,000 grant from Safe Routes to Parks Pennsylvania Activating Communities, to improve active travel to parks and greenspaces.
Jeremy Bloeser, B.E.S.T.'s executive director, is excited that the Erie organization is one of only four in Pennsylvania to be awarded such a grant. The others are in Bellefonte, Scranton, and Schuylkill County.
Jeremy Bloeser, executive director of the Bayfront East Side Taskforce, is thrilled that B.E.S.T. has
received a $10,000 grant to improve safety for walkers and cyclists on the east side of Erie. Photo credit: Liz Allen
He credits B.E.S.T.'s grant writer Marcia Farrell, Ph.D. with spotting the grant and landing it, as B.E.S.T. sought ways to improve snow removal for the 85 lots it owns and its 25 active rental units. B.E.S.T. was not satisfied with response time from landscapers it had contracted to clear snow, a service provided in renters' leases. So B.E.S.T. bought its own tractor and snowblower – expensive resources. With the new grant, B.E.S.T. can come up with plans not just to help residents get to pocket parks but to "all the neighborhood assets," he said, including B.E.S.T.'s community garden on East Fifth Street, the greenway being designed near East Seventh Street, the Land Lighthouse and improvements coming to East Front Street as PennDOT builds a pedestrian bridge over the Bayfront Highway.
"All the stars are aligning," said Bloeser.
That's not pie in the sky. The City of Erie has also been awarded a $200,000 grant under the Safe Streets and Roads for All program funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The city will use the grant to develop an action plan to improve safety and reduce traffic-related injuries and fatalities, according to Vanessa Cascio, program and policy manager for the Safe Routes Partnership in Washington, D.C. "This particular federal grant is an important fusion of funding for communities looking to improve biking and walking conditions and how it really can support safe routes to school," Cascio said.
Making a Splash
How will Erie Arts & Culture create 37 new murals as part of its Purposeful Placemaking initiative that is tied into the Safer Routes to Schools program? Mark your calendars for Erie's inaugural Street Art Festival, June 1-13. "We aim to create all 37 murals in that time frame," said Patrick Fisher, executive director of Erie Arts & Culture. "We already have several national and international artists confirmed to visit Erie and participate."