Orlando Arts Scene: It's an Urban Bus Trip


Artists are bus riders. With day jobs to keep food on the table, they often forego luxuries, using feet and bicycles, as well as buses, instead of cars. They travel alongside many people for whom the bus is an absolute necessity. Too often, the bus is a class marker in America, and a racial marker in the South. Many do not want to cross the threshold of the bus. With artists increasingly passing through this doorway, the Transit Interpretation Project began, first in Orlando, Florida and now in Roanoke, Virginia. It is painting a new picture of the bus, revealing the reality behind the myths, and the humanity behind the faceless term “mass transit” that is so often used as a shorthand for problems and class divisions in our country.

Taking the bus in the South still has a stigma. Since Rosa Parks’ era, the bus has remained an unfortunate symbol, reinforced by the waves of immigrants that have swelled the region's population in recent decades. Many who move to the South seek the prosperous life of the American Dream, and the bus is not part of that pursuit.

For many here in Orlando, Florida, the bus doesn't register any significance in their lives. Its association with poverty and the working-class South remains visible, if a bit faded.

I’ve ridden buses in Orlando and cities all over the country, and in a few other countries, too. Here in the South, the stigma still exists. I decided to ride a bus in Orlando during the summer, and learn firsthand what is happening on these lumbering behemoths of metal that steams along our crowded streets.

My participation began on the #50, a bus route from downtown Orlando to Disney World. I sat alongside Judy, a night worker who left her house at 6:30PM to get to her night shift job starting at 10PM. Petite but hard-edged, Judy and her fellow night workers’ three-and-a-half hour commute each way is not for the leisure class. Coming back late at night, I joined a bus full of uniformed employees, droopy and exhausted from their service to the world travelers who come to play in Orlando.

My own little blog to report my experiences became part of this project, along with art by photographers, writers, painters and sculptors. For example, Nathan Selikoff, a digital artist, made several animated computer graphics out of his bus ride experiences, including one based on my blog.

The Transit Interpretation Project, TrIP for short, is an ongoing effort. The project’s work was exhibited at the Gallery at Avalon Island in downtown Orlando in August 2014. The result is an artist’s eye on the shared social space of the city.

TrIP was the brainchild of Pat Greene, the current Director of the Gallery at Avalon Island. He recently spoke to me about the project. “Initially, when commuter rail was being proposed in Orlando, people parroted a lot of misinformation,” he said, “both for and against it. Train planners were using very analytical arguments, and contrarians were mostly being emotional about their protest. Both sides were very confident, but in many cases, both sides were also very wrong”.

Orlando’s commuter rail opened this summer to the public with much fanfare, and has generated controversy. Greene, like many others, listened with skepticism to advocates’ claims that it will reduce traffic, because it rides on a nineteenth-century spine through a multipolar, twenty-first century, dispersed urban area. He also listened to opponents who decried it as costly and useless. He decided neither side had all the facts, and wanted to see for himself what buses and trains were really like in Orlando.

Greene received two bus passes from friend. He invited artists to use them, and then write, paint, photograph, or make anything inspired by the experience, and post it to his website. The site remains open; anyone can participate by emailing their entry to Pat Greene athearsay@gmail.com. Contributors need not have any credentials, they need only to ride the bus and react.

Greene carried his experiment to a colleague in Roanoke, Virginia. There, Jeremy Holmes, the director of a Ride Solutions Program that helps commuters find bus and carpool routes through the city, began a similar project. The results were displayed at Roanoke’s Marginal Arts Festival this year, illuminating another Southern town’s bus rider population.

Analysts and talking heads don’t much ride the bus and therefore have little firsthand knowledge of the experience. On one bus ride in Orlando, an African-American man asked artist Jessica Earley to teach him how to pray; you can see her blogpost, labeled Unaffiliated Grace. On another, artist Greg Leibowitz had to convince security guards that taking photographs was not a crime; in spite of this, he captured marvelous portraits of riders. Artist Bethany Mikell sewed a dress from the images she gathered on the #8. Colombian Ivan Riascos mused, “What does this city have to offer me?” as he looked out the window of the #41. Each post, whether in writing or in images, adds a dimension to the individuals of the city.

While the quality of the Orlando contributions is uneven, the point is not to critique the exhibition as art. It is, rather, to provide an opportunity to join a large-scale investigation into the meaning of twenty-first century public space in an American city of medium size. The space isn’t consistently crowded and hectic, nor is it consistently vacant. TrIP doesn't consistently represent artists or riders who are black, white, brown, or any specific race or class. Instead, the blog posts build up a narrative of a rainbow rhythm marked by a gentle diversity, much common agreement about the miserable time-cost of the working person’s commute, and a view of a unique collection of humans that make up Central Florida’s specific and localized condition.

This narrative gains its power from mining an overlooked, shared public space of the city: the inside of buses and trains. Greene eschewed officialdom in activating this project. “If I had approached Lynx [Orlando’s bus system] about doing it, I would have been in endless meetings with lawyers,” he commented. Instead, he just got on the bus and started chronicling what he saw, and encouraged other artists to do so as well.

In a world where class privilege increasingly isolates people, transit is about the only vestige of the old urban experience where a broad cross-section of society can mix. It is a space that is owned by all of us, just a little bit. Sidewalks, if anyone has noticed, are usually empty in most cities today, making one less place where we can spontaneously encounter strangers. We’ve moved our social time online, building safer and safer little cocoons to prevent rubbing elbows with other classes. Artists seeking human portraits would have wasted their time on street corners in Orlando.

On the bus, time with strangers revealed a great deal of warmth and emotion. The resulting portraits reveal the dignity of those who ride the bus. It makes me, as a resident of this town, feel a little closer to its soul.

Richard Reep is an architect with VOA Associates, Inc. who has designed award-winning urban mixed-use and hospitality projects. His work has been featured domestically and internationally for the last thirty years. An Adjunct Professor for the Environmental and Growth Studies Department at Rollins College, he teaches urban design and sustainable development; he is also president of the Orlando Foundation for Architecture. Reep resides in Winter Park, Florida with his family.

Photo by the author: "Judy".

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Nice article and good to

Nice article and good to know that most of the people now very much relying on public transport than car or any other personal vehicles. This definitely help to reduce the environmental pollution up to some extent which is good. Bus transportation also more economical and any sort of project based on this will be very nice to work on. Ventura Shuttle to Lax