Thursday, January 26, 2023

Hydrants, Salt Boxes, and Community Building


Hope springs eternal. Some neighbors down the road have decorated their front yard with a wintry display of little snowmen and a banner that reads, “Let It Snow!”

The Howard County Fire Department must also be thinking snow. Honestly, a really big snow doesn’t seem likely this year but, of course,  it’s good to be prepared. 

We need YOUR help to make Howard County safer when it snows! Fire hydrants that are difficult to access due to snow or ice can slow emergency fire response.

Adopt-a-hydrant today:

Several years ago I got very excited about the Adopt a Hydrant Program until I realized you weren’t allowed to add your own personal touches. Alas.

I don’t know how many folks in Howard County have adopted hydrants. I suppose the greater goal is to increase awareness of clearing nearby hydrants during snow events. If the public understands how crucial that can be, it’s more likely that someone will take it upon themselves to keep their closest hydrant clear. You don’t need adoption papers for that. 

Still…would it hurt to have a little fun with it?

Painted fire hydrants found through a Google Images search

In Baltimore, local artist Juliet Ames started a winter weather trend by decorating salt boxes. The yellow boxes show up every year on Baltimore streets towards the end of fall.

Image from Wikipedia 

The boxes are filled with a mixture of road salt and sand for citizens to spread as needed to assist with traction and to prevent or melt icy patches on city streets.

The box is painted safety yellow for high visibility, and marked "salt box" on the front panel in characteristic stenciled black capital letters. They are typically are removed in the springtime, for refurbishment and redistribution the next season.

In 2020, though, something different happened.

…awareness of the salt boxes was greatly increased when a local artist noticed that salt boxes remained unseasonably present, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They decided to spruce up a local box by adding decorative elements, thus creating street art.

A sampling:

None of these photos are mine. 

(They’re easily found through a search of 

Google Images for Baltimore salt box art.)

But a Wikipedia entry isn’t the only place to learn about salt box art. There’s The Baltimore Saltbox Project website,  and information from the artist herself at her website I Break Plates. Included are instructions on how to decorate your own Baltimore Saltbox if you want to get involved. Many have been decorated with images of well-known Baltimore personalities and themes.

Media coverage has been positive. The Salt Box Project has been highlighted in the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Magazine, the Baltimore Banner, local television news, and even an article in the New Yorker. The interest in these artistic examples of citizen art is ongoing. Creator Juliet Ames will be featured in a segment on the salt boxes today on ABC’s Goodmorning America 3 at one pm. 

Salt Boxes hit the Big Time!

Image credit: Juliet Ames

I think what piques public interest the most is that it’s people-initiated. It’s not a program created by an officially sanctioned “Baltimore Office of Civic Engagement.” It is citizen engagement. The project sprang from Ms. Ames imagination and spread through word of mouth and local streetcorner sightings. In a sense, Saltbox Art was born of the pandemic. What sets it apart from most pandemic activities is that it wasn’t something done at home that stayed at home. 

It was meant to to be shared. That's why it’s more than art. It’s community building.

I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the quirky variety of the Baltimore salt boxes. In case you’re looking for a few new takes, though - - how about telephone booths?

Image credit: Juliet Ames

In the meantime, folks, don’t paint your adopted hydrant. Maybe Instagram it instead.

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