The Death and Life of Yellowbrick Street Team

After reflecting on our work since our founding in the summer of 2016, and with consideration for what 2018 has in store for us in our personal, professional, and civic lives, the core leadership group of Yellowbrick Street Team has decided to take an indefinite hiatus from all projects. 

Yellowbrick Street Team launched upon the recognition among our founding members that Wichita's urban design was holding it back - exacerbating, even causing, the Four Challenges our city faces. 

We began as a handful of mostly young Wichitans passionate about our city, with a shared desire to see it grow better, faster. Over time we developed into a network of over 200 volunteers - old and young and in-between, from artists to activists and bankers to baristas - working to make Wichita more livable and lovable. 

Our methods were simple: use our talents and vision to push back against the Four Challenges by staging small-scale urban design interventions in Wichita's public realm. We sought through our projects to simultaneously Educate, Activate, and Advocate for the principles of urban design and their application to our city. 

We took aim not only at the lifelessness of our public spaces, but at the policies, ordinances, and mindsets that combine to make them so inanimate. Each of our projects was focused toward shedding light on issues of importance and creating lasting change.

Our first project, Cover Wichita, focused on taking underutilized components of our urban fabric and turning them into canvases for spreading Wichita pride. Manhole covers, storm sewer grates, and sidewalks - ugly, ubiquitous, and forgotten - became sources of inspiration and pleasure. These small tokens of our passion could only be experienced by putting feet on sidewalk - engaging directly in and with the city in a way that can only be done by walking. Underlying it all was a simple mantra: you don't need permission to make your city a better place.


A couple months later, we organized Wichita's first PARK(ing) Day, in collaboration with Bike Walk Wichita and made possible through a grant from the Knight Foundation Fund of the Wichita Community Foundation. The annual global event transforms on-street parking spaces for a single day from places reserved for private cars - and often sitting empty - into places where the public can connect and engage. The imbalance in public space usage is especialy striking in Wichita, where more than half of our land downtown is devoted to moving and storing private vehicles. Over a dozen local businesses and organizations participated, engaging over one-thousand Wichitans with a different vision for our streets and public spaces. 

In the winter, we were named finalists for the prestigious Knight Cities Challenge, a national grant competition sponsored by the Knight Foundation. We had incredible excitement and momentum that fed into our projects in the first half of 2017. Our best work was ahead of us.

After executing a pair of urbanist street art projects - What We Lost and Vortex - we launched our most successful, and controversial, project. 

For over a year since the installation of a bike lane on 1st Street from the river to the Canal Route, bicyclists and advocates had pleaded with the city to make improvements to the dangerous intersection at Washington, where car drivers frequently cut through the bike lane illegally to make right turns. Armed with a dozen toilet plungers wrapped in reflective tape and a tube of masonry glue, we installed tongue-in-cheek delineators to physically define and separate space for cars from space for bikes. The project went viral on social media and was picked up by national and international media outlets, reaching over 25 million people. It made change - prompting the city to install permanent posts only three weeks later - and spurred activists across the country to adopt the tactic. 

A couple weeks later, we gathered nearly 250 Wichitans to share their dinner under the Keeper of the Plains for ICT Flash Dine. The event highlighted the importance and unparalleled magic of public spaces, but - just as importantly - also shined a light on the inanity of the rules and requirements governing community events in Wichita. 

Had we played by the city's rules, we would have spent over $1,000 on permit fees, unnecessary portable restrooms, and off-duty officers to twiddle their thumbs for four hours - not to mention, we would've had to reveal the location weeks ahead of the event, which would ruin the "flash" dine aspect central to the event's character. Had we played by the city's rules, the project never would have happened.

So we decided to ignore the rules. No one got hurt. No one got drunk. No one peed on the Keeper for lack of a porta-potty. The feedback from attendees and observers was overwhelmingly positive. See for yourself:


Though by any measure incredible successes, the Flash Dine and Plungers taught us that in Wichita, egos trump outcomes. City bureaucrats threatened to fine and arrest us. They told us we would never get a permit again, regardless of whether we follow the rules. They pressured our employers to silence us, to limit our ability to act. 

Threats to saddle us with criminal records and threats to withhold their permission slips never scared us. We knew they wouldn't arrest us, and we didn't need their permission. We laughed those off. But threats to our livelihoods were serious. 

Wichita is not a city in which cultural creators are able to live - much less thrive - on the fruits of their efforts. Too often, we as Wichitans merely celebrate the products these people create, stopping short of providing tangible support, while the burden of such projects are concentrated on the shoulders of relatively few. Wichita has not yet developed a culture of support that sustains these efforts, so members' involvement in Yellowbrick Street Team (and other grassroots efforts like it) is dependent upon a confluence of optimal conditions - a flexible and supportive day job(s), the willingness of others to assist, the availability of time to devote to the effort, and so many more. When just one of those conditions becomes sub-optimal, the pressures on individual creators to continue their output become too great to bear for long. 

After the attention focused on us in the wake of the Flash Dine and Plungers, we increasingly had to limit what we said and did, to the point that our ability to produce meaningful content and catalyze lasting change was limited. 

This was brought into stark relief by our final project, Under the Bridge, which transformed the Douglas Avenue railroad viaduct from a dark, dingy pigeon roost into a vibrant, engaging space filled with art and light. We partnered with the North End Urban Arts Festival to bring talented street artists to exhibit and produce their work under the bridge, while teaming with the Wichita League of Creative Interventionists to help engage the public in the creation of art. Over three Final Friday nights in the summer, more than 5,000 Wichitans came to - and stayed in - a space that they otherwise instinctively avoid. The barrier between Downtown and Old Town turned into a gateway. 


But we realized that no matter the success of the one-off events, we were so limited in our ability to act and advocate that we were unable to do more than the event itself. Creating lasting change was essential to our mission, and without a reasonable path to make it we began to look for ways to retool the initiative or change the conditions limiting our involvement. Those efforts were ultimately unfruitful. We have thus decided to put this initiative, this movement, on hiatus. 

Through all of the projects we've completed, and even the ones we weren't able to launch, we've made friends that made us better people. We've met Wichitans who gave us hope for the city's future. And we've seen that change is possible, with enough effort and courage. 

For many of those most involved in and dedicated to Yellowbrick Street Team, life has simply gotten in the way. We feel a sense of emptiness in that our work is unfinished. We feel regret for choices hastily made, consequences poorly understood. And we feel sad that Wichita will not get to share another Flash Dine, or experience any of the other projects frozen in the amber of ideation.

But mostly, we feel proud for taking a risk and making change. We feel honored to have inspired others to act. And we feel grateful to have shared so much with Wichita.

- the Yellowbrick Street Team