A few weeks ago, along an active stretch of Durham's West Main Street in front of Viceroy restaurant, Candy Carver set up some orange cones to cordon off her workspace. She readied cans of paint, a box of brushes, rags, a tarp, and a dustpan brush, and then set to her task. These were fairly challenging conditions for Carver, who had painted on canvas, wood, and even a wall in her house—but never on a concrete curb. There were passersby and large moving vehicles to consider, like the Bull City Connector, which rumbles by regularly, bringing with it a heavy leaf- and pollen-laden breeze that's not ideal for wet paint—hence the dustpan brush.
Carver was there at the behest of the City of Durham, which had hired her to create visual imagery for the street and curb surrounding a West Main Street storm drain to coincide with Creek Week, a series of nature-themed events put on by a partnership of city and county organizations that's designed to raise awareness about the role of local streams in our ecosystem.
Although the weather didn't cooperate, Carver completed the work shortly thereafter. It's mostly vibrantly colored, undulating, interlocking shapes, outlined in black, but five words are emphasized: "Rain only down the drain."
Laura Smith, who handles outreach for Durham's Stormwater & GIS Services, started Creek Week seven years ago. This year she noticed an uptick of litter making its way into the stormwater system and decided to use the event to draw attention to the storm drains that run alongside our streets—what they are for, and what they are not for.
Mostly what they are not for. The storm drain system carries rainwater that empties into creeks and lakes, yet people dump cigarette butts, animal waste, motor oil, and all manner of litter into the system, perhaps in the belief that the subterranean waters flow through to a treatment center. But Durham and its environs have two separate systems, one for waste and one for stormwater. So that bag of dog waste you toss into one of these drains doesn't just disappear.
"Most of the litter comes through the storm drainage system and gets into the creeks, and then it sometimes gets clogged up along the way," says Smith. "Or sometimes it makes it all the way to Falls Lake or Jordan Lake. And plastic pollution in the ocean actually comes from urban areas through the storm drainage system."
Smith figures perhaps half of the local populace is unaware of how the system works. This owes to various factors. She notes that in the Northeast and on the West Coast, where many Triangle transplants arrive from, the norm is a combined sewer system, where the stormwater does get treated. There's also what might be called the legibility issue.
"They have signage on most of the new storm drains, especially downtown, about how what we put down the drains goes into the creeks and whatnot," says Carver, "but it's the same color as the storm drains. It doesn't really pop. You don't really notice it."
Carver was a good choice for the project, perhaps better than Smith realized. She was born in Durham to parents with firm connections to the city but who relocated to Indiana during her infancy, to a small town that never felt like home.
"I always felt different," she says, "I never really felt like I fit in. But somehow even as a child I was really comfortable with who I was, and I sort of brushed it off. That was just what life was gonna be."
Still, Carver returned to North Carolina during summers to see family, and by her early teens she knew she would move back after college. She made good on that in 2007. "All the things that were different, or weren't appreciated, or didn't necessarily gain me any friends or fans were totally embraced when I moved here," she says. "That's really important to me. Everybody is comfortable with everybody, for the most part."
She wanted to infuse her work with that feeling via bright, sharp colors, along with a certain energy she tapped into just by working on a busy Durham street.
"That was part of the reward," says Carver. "I talked to hundreds of people, lots of kids, so it wasn't just something that was left there. It had an impact during the creation of the artwork itself."
Smith says she has increasingly made connections in the local arts community. In the past two years she's seen more artists wanting to get involved with Creek Week and showing up at meetings. Pleiades Gallery organized its March opening around the theme of water to coincide with Creek Week. Smith prizes these connections, knowing that raising awareness is a gradual process and much work remains.
"Ultimately the stormwater that flows through our streets is becoming our drinking water, because it makes its way to the regional drinking-water lakes," Smith says. "The more we're aware of the entire cycle, the better for ourselves and our future, and all the aquatic life as well."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Mind in the Gutter."