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Letting people paint colorful designs on low-traffic Madison streets reminds me of the poems the city had stamped into some of the sidewalks in the Marquette neighborhood a couple of years back.

Public art is a good thing, and there’s no reason the means by which we get from one place to another must be purely utilitarian. They can host a bit of beauty, too.

But if the proposed ordinance to allow street painting is, as its backers claim, aimed largely at building community by engaging neighbors and other groups in collective artistic creation, its prohibition against art of a political stripe is puzzling.

After all, in Madison, politics very often is community.

The ordinance, sponsored by Ald. Marsha Rummel and based on a similar one in Portland, Ore., says: “The proposed painting shall include decorative designs and patterns only, and shall contain no text, numerals, symbols, overt messages or any images designed to convey a message of any kind ... .”

“The idea is not to convert the street into a forum for speech,” said Lara Mainella, the Madison assistant city attorney who drafted the ordinance.

That means pretty much any image with a pre-existing meaning — from UW-Madison’s “motion W” to the ubiquitous “Hope” placard with President Barack Obama gazing meaningfully into the distance — is a no-no.

Even something as seemingly innocuous as the peace symbol could be problematic, Mainella said.

It’s a vetting system not much in tune with where I’ve lived for the past six years, the Schenk-Atwood neighborhood on Madison’s East Side.

This is an area where, in the days following Gov. Scott Walker’s introduction of a measure to end most public-sector collective bargaining, the community gathering places — churches, schools, bars — were abuzz with anti-Walker, pro-union sentiment.

Where it’s hard to walk a block without seeing a “recall Walker” sign, a bumper sticker for former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold or a blue, AFL-CIO Wisconsin-shaped fist.

Where businesses wear their politics in their windows because it’s good customer relations.

In my ’hood, liberal politics are a building block of community, a distaste for Walker one of the glues that hold residents together.

There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this. There are worse things to base community on — money or status or race, to name a few. But it does mean a lot of the otherwise worthy and artistic things East Siders might want to paint on the streets wouldn’t pass muster under the street-painting ordinance.

Mainella said one of the big reasons for the restrictions is that the city knows approving certain pavement-painted political messages would make it pretty hard to justify rejecting others.

Residents could get their Wisconsin-shaped fists and “Hope” images, for example, but would have to accept the risk — albeit a small one — of getting portraits of the governor and Ronald Reagan, too.

No doubt the latter would play havoc with traffic in my neighborhood, where drivers would surely wonder just where they made a wrong turn and how they got so horribly lost.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.


Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.