My husband hardly ever calls me when he’s driving, but on a recent Monday morning – July 23, to be exact – he did. “There’s a rainbow!” he exclaimed. He knows how much I love rainbows.
I ran to the window. “Where?” I asked. “The sky is completely clear.”
“No,” he continued. “It’s the bridge.”
The Coal Mine Bridge welcomes those traveling on Northwest Avenue as you enter the Birchwood Neighborhood. He and I had driven the bridge a few days earlier and noticed people scraping, wiping, washing and later painting black on the metal that protected the overpass. We thought it was just being refurbished.
I zipped up the road. It’s beautiful! I could not believe the transition in four days.
I went home and scoured the internet for information on what this was all about and hit pay dirt when I found the group’s Facebook page. After a few messages, I had the opportunity to talk to some of the organizers and participants of the Coal Mine Bridge Unity Project.
Tiona Shuffelen, who hosts the group’s Facebook page, helps with promotion, volunteer organization and raising funds. She pointed me to Kelly Morgan, the current President of the Birchwood Neighborhood Association. (BNA)
Kelly, a teacher at Birchwood Elementary, speaks passionately about her love and appreciation for her diverse neighborhood. She told me the project would not have happened at all if it weren’t for Bellingham City Council member April Barker. April is also a resident of the Birchwood neighborhood and was President of the BNA prior to Kelly. Under April’s leadership, the BNA board became more proactive with regard to raising the aesthetic of the neighborhood, as well as improving the connections within the neighborhood community as a response to cultural and economic differences, with the goal to connect diverse neighbors and enhance the beauty of the immediate area.
The BNA board met with planning students from WWU for several visioning meetings to determine goals they wanted for the neighborhood and how to achieve them. Neighbors and business owners fully participated. The Board brought in the Bellingham Arts Commission and talked about creating an arts corridor from the roundabout at McLeod to the Coal Mine Bridge.
They first completed a project at the corner of Birchwood and Northwest which had been in disrepair and was attracting unwelcome activity. Kelly wrote a grant to fund upgrades to the corner of Birchwood and Northwest Avenue. A metal sculpture archway built by BTC welcomes people to the neighborhood, as does commissioned work by local artist Ben Mann. Neighbors landscaped the grounds and currently maintain it in work teams, pursuant to their agreement with the City of Bellingham.
April and Mayor Kelli Linville had a conversation about the Birchwood neighborhood and agreed they wanted to add something painted like a rainbow because, they agreed, rainbows make people happy. April, a customer of the Barber Shack, was talking with owner Jared Jones-Valentine one day about her conversation with the mayor. They looked out the window from his shop.
“What about the bridge?” she said.
He thought about it for a split second. “Sure!”
Without hesitation, she replied, “Great, head it up.”
Jared committed to getting the bridge project done by the end of July. (He was between projects and is currently working on refurbishing the Salvation Army Children’s camp on Lummi Island.) As a single dad who raised four kids, two of whom live in Whatcom County, he believes in giving back. He’s also a natural philanthropist and community leader.
Jared coordinated 14 teams, involving more than 300 volunteers that included neighbors, bikers, passersby and homeless members of the community who participated in the prep and painting. Volunteers ranged in age from a four-year-old painter to a woman in her 80s who was handling the sandblaster. He solicited donations of food, water, painting and cleaning supplies from Haggen’s, Sherwin Williams, Bellingham Salvation Army, To & Go, Hops N Headz and others.
Jared was surprised and pleased by how quickly a diverse group of people jumped on board this project. Jared’s cousin coordinated friends from the American Legion Riders Peace Arch Post 86 to do the prep work. The project provided a powerful opportunity for members of the community to work, laugh and create together.
Painting teams wore Birchwood Neighborhood t-shirts and tie-dye, and some were wearing fairy wings. The hope was to make it fun for those who drove by and saw people working on the project. Even if people weren’t working on the bridge, they could still be engaged in the fun.
Fundraising stickers to help pay for the project, as well as ongoing bridge maintenance, are available for sale at the Barber Shack. They were also available for sale at the Pride Parade, which understandably led to the confusion that the bridge design is just a “gay rainbow.” The ultimate message that organizers hope to convey with the project is that it’s a Unity Bridge. The rainbow does not represent solely the LGBTQ community. “There are six colors on the gay flag; we used the seven traditional colors of the rainbow discussed in the Bible,” Jared explained. “To make it all-inclusive.”
Organizers are grateful that everyone worked together well and for the community’s amazing response. Rainbows make everyone happy. At one end of the bridge, you’ll notice handprints of some (not all) of the 300 volunteers who worked on the project.
The next project for the BNA is a temporary installation on the old Albertson’s property. The new buyer does not plan to develop it immediately, so three young local artists will be painting on the wood covering the windows at the store. This will take place at the next Birchwood International Market on August 31. There will also be an area for the community to paint on part of the space which will remain until the space is developed.
Kelly believes the work of the BNA has affected how people who live there feel about their neighborhood. It has also improved the perception of the area by the extended community, making living there more desirable.
The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive. April Barker says the most consistent feedback she has received is, “It just makes me smile.” If you haven’t driven or walked the bridge yet, I encourage you to do so. You might just find yourself smiling, too.