JERSEY CITY, NJ — In New Jersey’s oldest and second-largest city, an unlikely pair of heroes are trying to save the day.
First, there’s Pac-Man. Located at Thorne Street and Central Avenue, the iconic video game character is depicted in a colorful scene painted on a traffic box, chomping away.
Completed in 2020 by local artist Eric Som, the idea behind “Pac-Man Eats Jersey City” is simply to “bring people back to their youth” and “trigger happy thoughts” from childhood.
Then, there’s Pikachu over at Congress Street and Central Avenue. Inspired by the Nintendo sensation that has captured the interests of children and adults alike, Edwin Rentas Jr says his “POKEBOX” pays homage to the popular series and “is meant for everyone to enjoy.”
But, besides stirring up some nostalgia, Pac-Man and Pikachu may also be inspiring community members to become better caretakers of their surroundings.
Research has shown that people are less likely to litter in public if the area looks nice and that the act of littering is influenced by several factors, such as where we are, who we’re with and how we feel about our setting.
Unsurprisingly, people litter less frequently in places they care about and feel connected to. In contrast, it can be a way to rebel for those who feel disenfranchised or alienated from their community.
“Pac-Man Eats Jersey City” and “POKEBOX” are among the many installations you’ll find in Jersey City Heights’ Central Avenue shopping district. They’re also part of a larger public art initiative that has unfolded over the past decade thanks to the efforts of the Central Avenue Special Improvement District Corp. (CASID).
With their large size and plain appearance, traffic boxes—which support traffic lights—tend to attract graffiti, litter and handbills. But, since 2009, local artists have been hired by CASID to transform traffic boxes within the shopping district into works of art for residents, visitors and shoppers to enjoy.
CASID has also commissioned artists to create murals on exposed building walls along Central Avenue and the district is now home to many eye-catching works that are all very interactive and all extremely Instagrammable.
Known for its diverse population and unique culture, Jersey City has always celebrated the arts. As a way to showcase the area’s ever-growing artist base, CASID was the first to make public art part of the main street experience in Hudson County.
Besides bringing a new energy and vibrancy to the district, the community-created outdoor art gallery has given a boost to the local economy and helped beautify the streetscape, according to CASID.
The installations also play a role in giving “the appearance of a neater and cleaner area,” CASID’s executive director Alexa Lima said.
“The presence of artwork offers a colorful and inviting entrance to those walking along an urban area,” she explained. “It is also a tool to help prevent graffiti.”
For similar reasons,the Hudson County Improvement Authority (HCIA) is getting involved with a public art project in Jersey City.
Amanda Nesheiwat, the agency’s deputy director of sustainability & community outreach, said, “Part of HCIA’s mission is to stop litter. Whether it’s through education, mini grants, or support for clean-ups throughout Hudson County, we’re always looking for new ways to stop litter.”
“We noticed that there’s a location near our office building that, despite our best efforts to keep clean, always has litter!” said Nesheiwat, who noted that it’s “in a spot with low visibility in front of a retaining wall.”
“So, we thought that maybe if we add a mural and work with local artists in partnerships with local organizations, like the Jersey City Mural Arts Program (JCMAP), that it will signal to the community that we care about this neighborhood enough to beautify it with artwork,” she explained. “People are reluctant to litter in spaces that are well maintained and cared for.”
In Jersey City, Mayor Steven Fulop is a big advocate of public arts. Initiated in 2013 and funded by a Clean Communities Grant, the Jersey City Mural Arts Program is a Mayor’s Office Initiative that links established and emerging local, national and international mural artists with property owners citywide as part of an innovative beautification program that reduces graffiti, engages local residents and is transforming Jersey City into an outdoor art gallery.
Currently, there are over 150 murals that beautify buildings, electric boxes, catch basins and more across the city.
According to a survey by Americans for the Arts, 70% of the public believe public art improves “the image and identity” of their community.
- Economics: Engaging with public art generates excitement, which can boost foot traffic—a plus for local businesses.
- Cultural Identity: It can also reflect a community’s values, thereby establishing a cultural identity—particularly when creating the art is a community-wide effort. And, when the public sees itself reflected in social spaces, it can foster a sense of respect and pride, and enable community members to better identify with the area.
- Sense of Belonging: Accessible to everyone, public art brings people together and can inspire a sense of belonging in a community.
Studies have suggested that art can inspire the public to care about the way they use and interact with the environment, which ultimately improves the overall quality of life for the community.
One such example is the Chinatown Alleyway Project in San Francisco, Calif., which is a series of murals created to encourage tourism, promote local shops and capture the area’s cultural significance. Area residents have said the wall art “makes Chinatown look more clean” and that “people feel more responsibility for the neighborhood because of the art.”
Besides beautifying a neighborhood, quirky art in public spaces such as an electric box, a wall, trash can or phone pole can be a tool for raising awareness on key issues like the climate crisis, racial justice, gender equality and LGBTQ rights, advocates say.
Have a flair for the creative? Through July 29, CASID is accepting proposals for the next round of public art displays to be featured along Central Avenue.
When it comes to ideas, Lima said they’re looking for artwork “that will make you go ‘WOW!’” CASID only asks that the submissions be “family friendly” and contribute to “positive energy, boost morale and upbeat attitude among residents, visitors and shoppers.”
“In partnership with the Hudson County Office of Cultural & Heritage Affairs, the Central Avenue SID is able to commission talented artists to add their unique creativity to our main street. This year, CASID increased the art installation budget, allowing the opportunity to expand our search for artists,” she said.
The total number of murals selected will be determined during the review process, she said. Lima said there are “already a few buildings interested in new artwork and they can’t wait to see what is available.”
For more information on how to submit a proposal, click here.
This story was co-produced in collaboration with CivicStory and the NJ Sustainability Reporting project.