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Arts Features

Keyboard crosswalk by Eastman Theater will be playable during Rochester's jazz festival

Musicians walk on a crosswalk painted like a piano outside the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. Increasingly, urban designers and transportation planners say this kind of art — colorful crosswalks and engaging sidewalks — leads to safer intersections, stronger neighborhoods and better public health.
Brett Dahlberg
/
WXXI News
Musicians walk on a crosswalk painted like a piano outside the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. Increasingly, urban designers and transportation planners say this kind of art — colorful crosswalks and engaging sidewalks — leads to safer intersections, stronger neighborhoods and better public health.

With its keyboard crosswalks and city of Rochester logo, Main and Gibbs streets is one of the most unique intersections in the city.

For a brief but musical time next month, the intersection could become the most unique in the nation.

“I wanted to bring the community together again, but add a little different flair to this,” said local artist Shawn Dunwoody.

He was instrumental in the original creation in June 2019, and the all-volunteer effort that turned out to paint it just days before the Rochester International Jazz Festival. The festival has been on hiatus with the pandemic but returns June 17-25. And that, Dunwoody thought, warranted something special.

“So now this year,” he said, “a section of the keys during particular times will be playable.”

The idea conjures up memories of the movie Big – and the famous keyboard dance scene. But this is bigger. And outside. And must withstand the foot traffic of thousands of festival go-ers.

“But I didn't have any clue how that was going to happen,” he said.

Enter W. Michelle Harris, an associate professor in RIT’s School of Interactive Games and Media and a digital-media artist.

She has done shows and installations using cameras and computers before. But nothing on this scale.

The plan, she said, is to mount cameras above the intersection, possibly on light poles, that could detect movement in the crosswalk. Harris explained: “The technology then could pinpoint if the motion is on one key or another, and trigger a tone to go with it.”

“It will be like you are playing a piano,” Dunwoody said.

Only one crossing will be playable, and during select times likely on the weekends but possibly a week night. It still requires in-person operating or monitoring.

Such asphalt art, at least of the painted variety, doesn’t just enliven the roadway. Research shows the pavement paintings make the intersections safer. A study commissioned by Bloomberg Philanthropies, published in April, found a 50% drop in crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists. The study looked at 17 painted intersections nationally that have been in place at least two years. Rochester was not included in that list.

Data for Gibbs and Main is inconclusive, officials said. There was one crash involving a pedestrian between July 1, 2016 and Dec. 31, 2021, the most current data available from the Genesee Transportation Council. That occurred a month after the intersection was first painted. No further detail was immediately available.

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