We don’t ordinarily advise our readers to venture into downtown Olympia alleys at night, but tonight is an exception. Somewhat late during the Friday evening Arts Walk activities, city staff will lead tours of freshly painted and newly lit alleys designed to contribute to the larger effort to spiff up the city.
The tour will start at 9 p.m. on the east side of Capitol Way between Fourth and Fifth Avenues with a viewing of the jewel in the crown of alley murals: a series of medallion-like depictions of the various stages of the life of the T. J. Potter.
That was an early vessel in the mosquito fleet that comprised the early transportation system all around Puget Sound. The medallions are set against a backdrop of the Sound and its shoreline, with whales, a cormorant, and other wildlife. The first medallion depicts the building of the T. J. Potter, the second its deployment to ferry firefighters to the great Seattle fire of 1889. The third is its skeletal wreck, which still lies off the coast of Oregon.
The mural is the work of Ira Coyne, a talented local artist and sign painter who obviously has a deep interest in local history. His research impressed the city Heritage Commission, which chose his proposal in a competition. The commission also appreciated his approach to solving the problem of creating an alley mural that could tell a story to viewers who wouldn’t be able to stand back far enough to take in a single, large image.
The Ira Coyne mural is also consistent with another Heritage Commission idea – from the late local historian and preservationist Roger Easton – to name all the downtown alleys after mosquito fleet vessels. Those signs are going up now.
This focus on alley improvements may seem like small potatoes compared to the larger scale of downtown’s problems, and indeed it is. But lighting and upgrading alleys improves the safety of both the housed and the homeless, and reduces graffiti and bad behavior.
And there is a lot to praise in how this work is getting done. The city has partnered with local building and business owners to tap into their electrical service for the lighting. The city is paying for the installation of super-efficient, long lasting-LED lights; the building and business owners will pay for the power to keep them on. (These agreements, as Brian Wilson, the city’s downtown liaison noted, “took a ton of paperwork.”)
Three city employees – Wilson, Anna Schlect and Hans Shepherd – have also volunteered, on the last several Saturdays, to brighten up alley walls with a fresh coat of paint. Many local volunteers, some from the Olympia Downtown Association, took up paintbrushes during the recent United Way Day of Caring, and one, Alan Erickson, was so taken with the project he came back and kept painting the next day.
Wilson hopes this level of enthusiasm for downtown improvement will be contagious.
The alley improvement initiative is certainly just one of many efforts needed to foster the renaissance of our region’s historic downtown. Urban planning purists may cite the greater importance of the grand “Downtown Strategy” to be developed over the coming year.
But surely even they can see that this rising tide of civic pride, creativity, and incremental improvement will be critical to the success of that larger effort.