Opportunity, Imagination, and Joy: Learning with Allan Jacobs, the Good City, and Street Parks

May 13, 2014
Visitors to the Hidden Garden Steps

Visitors to the Hidden Garden Steps

Walking up and down the ceramic-tiled Hidden Garden Steps and adjacent garden in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District on a daily basis brings at least three words to mind: opportunity, imagination, and joy. There is that daily reminder of the opportunity provided by a volunteer-driven community-based coalition that was strongly supported by colleagues in the Street Parks Program, a wonderfully supportive collaboration between the San Francisco Department of Public Works and the San Francisco Parks Alliance. There is the tremendous manifestation of imagination displayed by project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher through the mosaic they created for the site. And there is the sheer joy of seeing a long-ignored space brought back to life not only through the work of Hidden Garden Steps organizing committee members, but also by the numerous volunteers and donors who supported—and continue to support—the project, and the presence of people who increasingly are arriving from places all over the world to visit and enjoy the serenity as well as the camaraderie that comes when people meet, talk, dream, and share a space they treasure.

Good_City--Allan JacobsIt isn’t all that much different than what I find in the best communities of learning to which I’m drawn. We are united by a common (learning) goal and benefit from each other’s company over long periods of time. So when I read the sentence “Cities should provide and people should have access to opportunity, imagination, and joy” in Allan Jacobs’ The Good City: Reflections and Imaginations recently, I felt as if the world of city planning, park (particularly street-park and parklet) development, and learning had all come together on the pages of an inspiring and engaging book.

Jacobs, former director of the San Francisco Planning Department and a University of California, Berkeley professor emeritus, covers a lot of ground in a book comprised of essays and short stories. Beginning with a description of two years he spent in India as an urban planner working under the auspices of the Ford Foundation, he leads us through a series of vignettes that ultimately are connected through the theme of how community and collaboration does or does not develop in a variety of settings including Cleveland, Curitiba, Pudong, Rome, Tokyo, Toronto, Vancouver, and, in the final sections of the book, San Francisco.

His work is firmly rooted in what many of us fascinated by cities and community development have found in books by Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities), Christopher Alexander (A Pattern Language: Towns – Buildings – Construction; The Timeless Way of Building; and just about everything he has written since then), William Whyte (City: Rediscovering the Center), Peter Harnik (Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities), and many others who have written thoughtfully and in depth on what makes our cities work.

When he turns his attention to San Francisco, he obviously delights in exploring the themes of opportunity, imagination, and joy. There are his recollections of how he and his City Planning colleagues engaged community at a grass-roots level: “we called well-advertised meetings, often by delivering notices to all individual mail-boxes, to get people together for an effort or to confront an issue” (p. 143) just as Hidden Garden Steps volunteers began the project with face-to-face, door-to-door conversations with neighbors close to the proposed project site, and followed those efforts up with numerous postings of flyers in neighborhood businesses and bulletin boards in addition to online contact using social media platforms. Jacobs acknowledges seeing “our role as the professional staff as partners of people more than as facilitators” (p. 145)—something that increasing numbers of training-teaching-learning colleagues are embracing in the work we do, and something that is at the heart of all the positive experiences Hidden Garden Steps volunteers had (and continue to have) with our San Francisco Parks Alliance, Department of Public Works, and other City/County colleagues. As I’ve noted many times, our successful partnerships never descended into us-and-them disputes; we were unified by a common goal and that’s what held and holds us together.

Tactical_Urbanism--CoverJacobs notes the dramatic results achieved through various partnerships: “The most positive, dramatic change to San Francisco over the last 30-plus years is the northern and northeastern waterfront, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the kids’ mini-baseball diamond-park at McCovey Cove, a distance of about seven miles. Crissy Field, a gem of a restoration area, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, has rightfully become a huge draw for walkers, cyclists, skaters, picnickers, fishermen, beachgoers, naturalists, people of all ages, and dogs….” (p. 160). He could have just as easily been talking about the smaller-scale Tactical Urbanism efforts that fuel San Francisco’s Street Parks projects when he discusses the changes that make our—and any—city great.

He weaves the various and varied themes together as he nears the end of The Good City when he describes what that city would include: “there would be opportunities to learn and to work, to earn one’s livelihood; and places to get to with ease, places for social interaction or just to see other people, or places to be alone; and opportunities to participate in local decisions; and places for fun” (p. 176)…“People should feel that some part of the urban environment belongs to them, individually and collectively, some part for which they care and are responsible, irrespective of whether they own it. The city environment should be one that encourages participation….The public environment, by definition, should be open to all members of the community. It is where people of different kinds meet. No one should be excluded unless they threaten the balance of that life” (p. 178)—all of which, to me, just as accurately describes what is foundational to great communities of learning.

Perhaps this is why so many of us are drawn to learning; to great cities; to parks and open spaces; and to libraries, museums, and so many other community resources: they share an all-important link—the magic that happens when opportunity, imagination, and joy bring us together to form, interact in, and sustain great communities that bring rewards far beyond any others we can imagine. They connect us to our past, through our present, and into a future we may not be around to see, but know will be much better for the contributions that we make to it.

N.B.: Previous articles about the Hidden Garden Steps remain available on this blog.


Patricia Post: Fa la la la la, la la la la

March 5, 2014

Although I did not, last Saturday, expect to find myself joining others in singing “Deck the Halls” at a memorial service, I also didn’t expect to be saying good-bye to Patricia Vanderlaan Post so soon—she died of heart failure on January 1, just a few weeks before her 62nd birthday.

Patricia Vanderlaan Post (in pink shirt) at Hidden Garden Steps workshop July 2013

Patricia Vanderlaan Post (in pink shirt) at Hidden Garden Steps workshop July 2013

Patricia—Pat or Patti to those of us who knew her—was one of those wonderful people who are so deeply immersed in our communities that we hardly notice how much they are doing until they are no longer there doing it. Others at that memorial service last weekend recalled how Pat volunteered at her daughter’s school, or opened her home to a student from Kosovo for six years, or was an active member of The Gratitude Center community. We heard about how she “took delight in children of all ages, and worked to promote their welfare and education,” how she “was an ardent supporter of empowerment for women and social justice” and once told her stepdaughter that she would buy her any CDs she wanted—as long as those CDs featured women musicians to augment a CD collection mainly comprised of music by men.

She quickly won my gratitude and admiration when, after joining the Hidden Garden Steps organizing committee to complete that project that placed a second ceramic-tile mosaic staircase and gardens here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District, she offered to do anything that would help move the project toward fruition. She wasn’t looking for anything glamorous; she just wanted to help where help was needed most. When she asked how she could be most useful, I provided an embarrassingly honest answer: we needed someone to sit with me for an hour or two to complete the application for permits needed before installation of the mosaic could take place on City and County of San Francisco property. I knew that if I didn’t have someone to work alongside me, I would continue procrastinating about completing that simple task.

It wasn’t that the paperwork was daunting, and it wasn’t that deadlines were looming before us. The real issue was that other committee members were too immersed in the short-term challenges and deadlines to spend time on preparing permit paperwork for an installation that was still at least 12 to 18 months away; the fact that the application process could take anywhere from six months to a year from submission to approval just wasn’t a compelling issue for most of us to address.

But Pat saw it. She got it. And, most importantly, she immediately set a specific time and day to sit with me so we could complete that fairly simple application and compile all the supporting documentation needed to start the application process. While others saw it as a distraction and as something that had no urgency, Pat and I completed everything in one afternoon, and I submitted the package to our City/County liaison a few days later, in November 2012. And when final approval was finally granted by our County Supervisors in October 2013—nearly a year later, and less than 48 hours before the installation was scheduled to begin—I couldn’t find enough words of praise to offer Pat for the underappreciated role she played in assuring that the mosaic went onto those concrete steps rather than having to sit in storage all winter and spring until we could be assured of having weather good enough to complete the installation process in 2014.

Lower section of Hidden Garden Steps, 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets in San Francisco

Lower section of Hidden Garden Steps, 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets in San Francisco

Those of us involved in the project saw Pat at other times. She was there to help with public workshops that allowed Steps supporters to create small parts of the mosaic under the direction of project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher. She joined others in laying background tile onto some of the Steps risers during those workshops. And my wife and I ran into her and her husband—Marty—a few times while all of us were taking walks along one of the small lakes in Golden Gate Park at dusk; we would stop, chat about the Steps and other things we were all doing, and look forward to the day when we would be celebrating a collaborative community success on the completed Steps themselves.

We never had the chance to have that onsite Steps celebration together. By the time we had our opening ceremony, in December 2013, Pat wasn’t well enough to join us. I did, on the other hand, feel as if the decision to celebrate her life and her spirit by singing “Deck the Halls” at her memorial last weekend made perfect sense after her husband explained that it was her daughter’s choice—in honor of Pat’s habit of singing her children to sleep throughout the year with “Deck the Halls” rather than something more mundane. After all, “mundane” is not a word to be connected to someone who so gracefully, charitably, and diligently worked to make her community a far better place than it would have been without her. 


Hidden Garden Steps: Opening-Day Reflections

January 15, 2014

The following is a slightly-edited version of comments delivered during the opening celebration for the Hidden Garden Steps on Saturday, December 7, 2013; the Steps are located on 16th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets, in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District.

We struggle—all of us—so much these days with simple concepts like community, collaboration, cooperation, faith, and love. Hard to define. Even harder to develop. And yet there it is: the Hidden Garden Steps, an example of what community, collaboration, cooperation, faith, and love can produce.

HGS--Opening_Celebration[4]--2013-12-07One of the most beautiful aspects of that spectacular mosaic by Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher is what it documents. Adam Greenfield, president of the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors, said two nights ago that communities coalesce around the stories they create and share. And there it is. Adam’s idea incarnate. A complex, beautiful, and enticing mosaic capturing a from-the-heart piece of our community’s narrative.

The Steps have more than 600 individual names or inscriptions from donors in California and 14 other states (Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington), from Washington, D.C., and from four countries outside of the U.S. (Canada, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom). Aileen and Colette have seamlessly woven them into the overall design—a design that is the latest addition to the narrative of the Inner Sunset District, its residents, some of its former residents, and its visitors. It’s also part of the extended narrative of San Francisco and our connections to communities around the world, across decades and centuries. We—all of us, all of you—are living proof of what happens when people set egos aside and come together to create something of lasting value. Something we will enjoy and know that those here long after we are gone will enjoy as well.

You can’t go more than a few steps up that site without seeing the narrative come to life—for example, when you see Edith Johnson’s name. Edith, who is nearly 100 years old and has lived here longer than many of us have been alive.

You go a little farther and maybe you see the name of someone’s pet that is no longer with us. Or you see your own name, or the names of family members, friends, and neighbors.

And about two-thirds of the way up, where the Steps bend to the left around a larger landing, you see a massive passion flower—another reminder of the passion that drives this project and our community. That passion flower is what we call our “Gratitude Element.” It documents our gratitude for the many organizations and businesses that came together to bring the Steps to life.

For those who grumble about government and government workers, there’s the reminder that our partners in the San Francisco Department of Public Works fell in love with this site as they worked on it with us and made it far better than any of us dreamed it could be. It’s not “DPW” as some bureaucratic entity; it’s DPW made of people like Ray Lui, Kevin Sporer, Bill Pressas, Nick Elsner, and all the staff they sent our way.

For those who forget that there were already many community-based organizations active in our neighborhood, there’s the documentation that they came together under the Hidden Garden Steps banner. The San Francisco Parks Alliance supports us as our fiscal agent. The San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program provides us with tools and other materials to cultivate the gardens. Those gardens initially began to grow from donations from neighbors as well as from volunteers from Nature in the City’s Green Hairstreak butterfly project—which now is a more extended habitat than before because the Hidden Garden Steps site extends it a bit farther north, toward Golden Gate Park. There are our neighborhood associations—SHARP (Sunset Heights Association of Responsible People), the Golden Gate Heights Neighborhood Association, and the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors (ISPN). If you want to see how much ISPN members contribute to the neighborhood, join them—more members of our community—tomorrow on Irving Street between 9th and 10th avenues from 10 am to 6 pm for their final street fair/community gathering of the year, and the community potluck they are hosting next Tuesday evening at St. John of God community center at 5th and Irving.

For those who have little opportunity to interact with our elected officials, think of the people you see here today as well as former District 7 County Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, and those magnificent legislative aides (Alex Volberding and Olivia Scanlon) who so frequently helped connect us to supportive colleagues within City/County government. And Katie Tang, who as a legislative aide to Carmen Chu did all she could to draw positive attention to the Steps—and continues to do so now in her position as a County Supervisor with her fabulously helpful legislative aide Ashley Summers. And going back to Sean Elsbernd: think about how he agreed to use a neighborhood beautification fund to cover more than $7,000 in City/County permits before the project could be brought to completion.

You walk those Steps and you see the names of the members of the project’s core organizing committee—no more and no less visible than the names of others who supported the project. Not set apart, but integrated into the community that we so obviously cherish.

There are local merchants like Majed Fakhouri, who by hosting three events for project organizers and supporters at his Crepevine restaurant on Irving Street, provided a place for us to meet and eat and organize.

There’s Sam and his brothers at the 828 Irving Market, who kept our promotional brochures prominently displayed in the market window for nearly three years as we continued to reach out to the community for financial as well as volunteer support. And there are Chris and Nick at the 22nd and Irving Market who did the same in their part of the neighborhood so no interested neighbor would remain unaware of what we all were proposing to do together.

HGS--Opening_Celebration[2]--2013-12-07

Maya (center), with her mother and a friend

But that’s far from the complete story. The narrative we’re helping extend includes people like Maya, who was born on January 24, 2010—five days before the Hidden Garden Steps project was born as a result of an unplanned meeting in a branch library on the other side of town. Maya is growing up as the Steps are growing up. The mosaic on the Steps is an integral part of her life, and she has a tile that will remind her that she and her parents were here when it all was being built. If we’re lucky enough to keep her here in the neighborhood, she may extend the narrative herself if life leads her to raising her own family in a home not far from the Steps.

One more from the many that could be told: there’s Darren Gee, who as president of the George Washington High School Key Club three years ago brought his Key Club friends back month after month to help pull weeds, paint out graffiti, begin replanting the hill, and revitalize the hill. Because he remembered, in the following words, how menacing the site once felt:

“When I was little, my grandma used to take me up those stairs and I would be dead scared.  The stairs were dirty, dated, and covered with leaves.  I would always be afraid to slip so I’d slowly crawl up them or hold onto my Grandma for dear life.”

So many stories. So many additions to the narrative of our community and connections everywhere. Let’s give credit where credit is due. Please applaud yourselves. All of you. For all you did to make this happen. And remember that in many ways this is neither an ending or a beginning. It’s part of an amazing level of continuity that all of us will help sustain as we continue meeting here on the second Saturday of every month from 1- 3 pm. To sweep. To weed. To plant. To paint out any graffiti placed by those who don’t understand what adds to community as opposed to what detracts from it. But most of all to relish the community we have joined and continue to develop.

Our work together doesn’t have to take place just one time a month. We’re part of a community if we remove litter anytime we find any on the Steps. We’re part of a community if we remove graffiti whenever it appears. We’re part of a community if we come out on our own time and sweep a bit when it is needed. We’re part of a community if we kindly and openly and graciously approach people who may forget that people sleep at night in the buildings next to the Steps and are disturbed by loud conversations or impromptu parties. We’re part of a community if we ask those engaged in any other type of disruptive behavior to join us in making this a warm, welcoming, inclusive area for all who want to be part of our community. It’s up to us to add to that narrative.

We’re all in this together.

N.B.: This is the twenty-second in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco.


Hidden Garden Steps: Seeing the People Behind the Projects

October 25, 2013

While driving from San Francisco to Seattle several years ago, I learned an important lesson: we diminish ourselves, our communities, and the power of the collaborative process by ignoring the people who produce all that surrounds us.

The lesson came during a visit with Licia’s (my wife’s) aunt (Dorothy) and uncle (Woody).  It was as Woody was describing some of the roadwork he had overseen while working for Caltrans (the California Department of Transportation) that I realized how little thought we give to those who, like Woody, literally make our world look and work the way it does. He mentioned one 18-mile stretch as a particularly challenging project; told us how he had worked with colleagues to design a solution that was not only utilitarian but actually, in many ways, aesthetically pleasing; and told us that we would be driving over that extended length of road on our way back to San Francisco. When we reached the beginning of what we now think of as “Uncle Woody’s Road” (with no disrespect intended toward all of Woody’s wonderful collaborators who were important partners in completing the project), we slowed down. Paid attention to what he had described. And afterwards thought about how many other people’s work we failed to acknowledge.

KZ Tile employee working on Steps

KZ Tile employee working on Steps

As a colleague once noted, “everything was designed by someone,” but we take this aspect of the world around us for granted. Which is not the case for those of us involved as organizing committee members on the Hidden Garden Steps project here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District. We’re aware of the more than 500 people—primarily from the San Francisco Bay Area, but also including people from nine states as well as from the United Kingdom and France—who donated more than $200,000 in cash and substantial amounts of volunteer time to support the creation and installation of the 148-step ceramic-tile mosaic created by  project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher and currently being installed by KZ Tile employees on the Hidden Garden Steps site (16th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets). We’re becoming familiar with Kai, Michael, and the others from KZ Tile who are working to complete the installation before the rainy season begins. We know the numerous San Francisco Department of Public Works employees who removed a broken concrete retaining wall and out-of-alignment flight of steps so the mosaic could be correctly and safely installed.

HGS--Erosion_Control--Cementing_Posts[3]--2013-10-10

SF DPW workers pouring concrete for erosion control barriers

We know Hector, Sean, David, Neil, Francisco, and so many others who have dug holes, built terraces, poured and hand-troweled concrete, and shoveled dirt from one side of the hill to the other—and then back again—as massive erosion-control efforts were completed onsite. We know Ray and Bill and Kevin and Nick and so many others who worked from their offices and make onsite visits to move the project along and make it far better than any of us ever envisioned it being. We know Olivia and Alex and Ashley and Katy (now herself a county supervisor), who as legislative aides to members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors did the underappreciated and rarely acknowledged work of connecting us to those within the City and County of San Francisco who needed to be part of transforming the site into something attractive and of value to those in the immediate neighborhood as well as to those from all over the world who come to San Francisco to see those wonders that just seem to spring up on their own.

Steps mosaic workshop

Steps mosaic workshop

Because the project had two major and very ambitious goals—create a second set of ceramic-tile steps and public gardens here in the Inner Sunset District and further strengthen the sense of community that already exists here (we have at least three neighborhood associations, a merchants association, a weekly farmers’ market, several schools, a University of California campus, numerous churches, and a very active café and restaurant scene that provides plenty of third places for us to gather, relax, exchange ideas, and occasionally find ways to make the community even more appealing and cohesive)—we have also come to know many of the neighbors and organizations we didn’t previously know. Nurturing the Hidden Garden Steps as an inclusive project, we drew community members together to participate in the creation of parts of the mosaic, continue to attract volunteers on the second Saturday of each month from 1 – 3 pm to clean up the site, nurture the gardens-in-progress, and do whatever is needed to make this into another fairly unusual third place for community interactions and engagement.

We have been active on the ground—sometimes going door to door to keep neighbors up to date on what we’re doing—as well as online (through our website, newsletter, @GardenSteps Twitter account, Hidden Garden Steps Facebook page (which received its 200th “like” earlier this week), and numerous other social media platforms.

The original steps on Moraga Street

The original steps on Moraga Street

And yet even with all that connectivity and collaboration, we know there will come a time when we will no longer be here. Others will walk up and down those stairs. Work on those gardens. Have conversations which will not include us. Stop long enough to think about the fact that people just like them made the Hidden Garden Steps possible. And then be inspired, as we were by the original set of tiled steps here in the neighborhood, to engage in that level of community-building, collaboration, and transformation themselves.

N.B.: This is the twenty-first in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco.


Hidden Garden Steps: Growing Into a Name

September 20, 2013

Shakespeare’s famous question “What’s in a name?” in Romeo and Juliet came to mind again last night while I was looking at a photograph documenting the latest upgrades on the Hidden Garden Steps site here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District. And the answer, I realized as I unconsciously connected the existing name “Hidden Garden Steps” to the photograph showing a section of the gardens-in-progress near the top of the site, was “more than we can ever imagine at the moment when we choose (or receive) a name.”

Newly-installed gravel near top of Hidden Garden Steps

Newly-installed gravel near top of Hidden Garden Steps

Parents certainly have an inkling of what they are doing when they select something along the lines of Royal Forest Oakes (a college classmate I hadn’t thought about in years until I began writing this piece) or Sandy Beach (a cherished friend who is probably only half joking when she claims to be one of the few people who would be ecstatic about acquiring a four-syllable Japanese surname through the act of marriage rather than keeping her considerably shorter maiden name). Fundraisers intuitively understand the importance of what we call “naming opportunities” when placing donors’ names on buildings, concert halls, museum galleries, special-interest centers in libraries, or something as unusual as the 148-step ceramic-tile mosaic that project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher are a breath away from completing for installation on the Hidden Garden Steps site on 16th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets.

Naming the Steps was a process that extended over a several-month period. Members of the project organizing committee approached the challenge knowing that the neighbors who inspired our project with their original set of ceramic-tiled steps (also designed and fabricated by Barr and Crutcher, on Moraga Street between 15th and 16th avenues) had already been using the name “The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps” for five years before we asked the artists to work with us on a second set for the neighborhood, and none of us appeared to be particularly enamored of being stuck with the name “The Other 16th Avenue Tiled Steps.”

Starting with the generic “Kirkham-16th Avenue Mosaic Steps” designation as a placeholder, we tossed ideas around for months as we designed and planned for implementation of the fundraising and marketing efforts capable of igniting the enthusiasm and support needed to bring a $300,000 volunteer-driven community-based project to fruition. As the time to create a project website as well as design and print marketing materials approached, we finally engaged in the hour-long exercise that produced the name that stuck.

We started with a timed two-minute period in which everyone tossed out every word or term that came to mind to describe the site—which, at the time, was a pedestrian corridor containing plenty of graffiti, overgrown trees, plants, and weeds that hadn’t been touched in years, and unimaginable amounts of trash that had been left and covered by other trash, leaves, and branches. (Among the most interesting discoveries when we began cleaning the area were a vacuum cleaner, a typewriter, and a golf ball; I’m sure there’s a story there.) Once we had those myriad words in front of us, we eliminated the negative ones from the list; we knew enough to avoid calling the project “Golf-ball and Typewriter Alley” or “The ‘Run for Your Life, There Are Monsters in the Trees’ Steps.”

What did begin to take shape was a set of options that focused on the potential beauty to be carved out of the long-neglected site; the idea that there was something capable of drawing members of our extended community together through creation and maintenance of a new neighborhood focal point; and the obvious project elements of art, ceramic tiles, gardens, and steps. By eliminating the less-descriptive words, the name “Hidden Garden Steps” more or less presented itself as the now-inevitable choice.

Detail of Hidden Garden Steps mosaic

Detail of Hidden Garden Steps mosaic

It didn’t, during those initial moments of discovery, inspire the sense of enthusiasm we were seeking—but then we did a reverse two-minute timed exercise which required only that everyone toss out every image that the name suggested to them. When responses along the lines of “a children’s fairy-tale garden,” “something mysterious that reveals more of itself the more it’s explored,” and “art and gardens and community,” we could feel our mood shifting. The name started to become something that actually helped transform the idea of the Hidden Garden Steps into concrete elements that we wanted to create through a combination of the ceramic-tile mosaic; the gardens that would feature succulents, California natives, and other drought-tolerant plants; and any murals we added to the existing graffiti-tagged walls along the site.

The name, in essence, had already begun to transform the project by making us more aware of what we were potentially in a position to develop.

Our intention has been consistent: to create a cohesive project where the mosaic, the gardens, and the murals were so carefully interwoven and dependent upon each other that it would be impossible to imagine the site without all three of those elements present. And yet the mosaic has been the obvious focus of attention all along—until I saw that photograph last night.

It’s a simple, unremarkable image: a close-up of newly-installed gravel in a narrow space between a drainage gutter and the terraced garden along the top third of the Steps. But as I looked at that gravel, how it complemented the Steps, and how it added to the beauty and called a bit more attention to those still partially-hidden gardens, I realized I was beginning to think of the name in a much more expansive and cohesive way than ever before: it was as if the “hidden garden Steps,” with an emphasis on the steps, had grown into the richer more nuanced possibilities suggested by the capitalized, equally-weighted words “Hidden,” with its implication of something wonderful waiting to be discovered; “Garden,” which contains the living thriving plants reflected within the design of the mosaic itself; and “Steps,” the platform upon which we will walk and from which we will admire that stunningly beautiful mosaic as it reflects a dynamic artistic vision of the life and community that will continue to develop around it in the years and decades before us.

N.B.: This is the twentieth in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco.


Hidden Garden Steps: Community, Collaboration, Geocaching, and Muggles

August 29, 2013

I’m officially a muggle. At least that’s what “Team512”—known more colloquially as Margo Peterson among her colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, where she works—playfully confirmed earlier today when I found her on the Hidden Garden Steps here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District.

Muggles, as readers of the J.K. Rowling Harry Potter series (or the Wikipedia “Muggle” article) know, are those lacking magical powers and magical blood. They are also, under the rules of the Geocaching game that brought Peterson to the Steps this morning, those not yet initiated into the pleasures of geocaching—whimsical searches that incorporate GPS technology into excursions introducing residents and visitors to places they might otherwise not be inclined to explore throughout the world. Geocachers who are successful at onsite and online searches find a variety of objects—the one on the Steps is a small ceramic turtle containing a metal cylinder with a piece of paper that geocachers use to document that they were there before also documenting their success online at Geocaching.com.

HGS--Geocaching--Margo[1]--2013-08-29

Margo Peterson

Peterson says she has more than 6,000 finds to her credit, including objects found in a cave outside of Livermore (here in the San Francisco Bay Area) and at the end of a “Vampire Empire” search that led her through part of the Chicago subway system. And although geocaching is, in her words, “a little nerdy,” it also offers the same sort of enticements that involvement in the Hidden Garden Steps project itself offers: an opportunity to be part of a playfully engaging—and engaged—community. Peterson says she knows of barbecues, coffee-house gatherings, and many other social events that have drawn geocachers together when they were not actively engaged in their onsite and online searches.

Encountering Peterson and learning about this generally muggle-free endeavor that has led to the creation of more than 2 million caches available to the more than 6 million geocachers who have registered since 2000 is, for me, just the latest unexpected benefit to having been involved in the Hidden Garden Steps project since early 2010. The Steps effort has two explicit goals: to create a second set of ceramic-tile steps, murals, and gardens here in the Inner Sunset District, and to create a community-meeting space that fosters a greater sense of community and collaboration than already exists in one of San Francisco’s great neighborhoods.

HGS--Preview--Mosaic[1]--2013-07-20

Mosaic in progress, at preview (7/20/13)

Discovering that the Steps—“Stairway to Heaven #3”—has become one of the “premium” (available only to paying members of Geocaching.com) searches even before the mosaic that is nearing completion in the studios of project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher is formally installed onsite on 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets is a great sign that the Steps effort continues to attract a community extending far beyond the Inner Sunset District itself. Our fundraising campaign to raise approximately $300,000 in cash and in-kind services successfully concluded in July 2013 with nearly $10,000 in additional individual gifts in 10-day period and a $32,500 grant from the City and County of San Francisco Community Challenge Grant program. Extensive onsite preparation work by City and County of San Francisco Department of Public Works employees is keeping us on track for installation of the mosaic sometime between October 2013 and spring 2014. Visitors drawn to the original tiled steps, on Moraga Street between 15th and 16th avenues, are increasingly finding their way to the new site, where long-hidden views continue to be revealed through the work of volunteers and other supporters. And recent conversations with visitors from other parts of the United States as well as from China, France, and many other countries show that there is a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement about how the project has developed with partnerships and collaborations that include neighborhood associations, the San Francisco Parks Alliance and the San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW) Street Parks Program, local government representatives, businesses, and more than 500 individuals who purchased tiles that have been incorporated into the mosaic and whose names are still being added to the project website as a sort of snapshot of the levels of support that volunteer-based community-driven efforts can still attract. All of which might have combined to transform me into a muggle-in-transition since I am, through my encounter with Peterson on the Steps, beginning to suspect that the geocache there may not be the last one I encounter.

N.B.: This is the eighteenth in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco.


Hidden Garden Steps: Dreams Taking Shape

July 22, 2013

When dreams take shape, the communities that helped create them notice—as was obvious last Saturday (July 20, 2013) while 110 of the 148 ceramic-tile step pieces that will eventually be installed on the concrete staircase on 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District were on display for the first time.

HGS--Preview--Mosaic[1]--2013-07-20This, quite literally, was a preview of a dream in the making over a three-and-a-half-year period. Organizing committee members for the community-based volunteer-drive Hidden Garden Steps project have been working to complete this $300,000 volunteer-driven community based effort to create a second set of ceramic-tiled steps along with gardens and murals since January 2010. Project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher have been building the mosaic, piece by piece, since September 2012, and have included numerous volunteers in the process through two public workshops (December 2012 and March 2013). More than 400 individuals—including a few from the United Kingdom and from Paris—and local businesses have made the contributions that have already provided  nearly two-thirds of the cash needed to complete the project; in-kind (non-cash) donations of materials and services are providing the balance. Our partners at the San Francisco Parks Alliance and the San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW) Street Parks Program have provided tremendous administrative and onsite support, and our colleagues at the City and County of San Francisco Community Challenge Grant program recently awarded the project an additional $32,500 to bring us very close to our final fundraising goal.

But none of us had seen the entire mosaic-in-progress laid out in its current form before last Saturday—not even the artists, who have been working on this massive permanent community art installation section by section for the past several months. The closest we had come to seeing the project take shape was the continual inspiration provided by the initial Inner Sunset District ceramic-tile mosaic and gardens that continue to serve as a neighborhood gem on Moraga Street, between 15th and 16th avenues and glimpses of smaller, individual segments for the Hidden Garden Steps mosaic.

HGS--Preview--Making_Tile[1]--2013-07-20The results were spectacular. Dozens of community members lingered around the mosaic over a four-hour period, repeatedly commenting on how it was even more beautiful than they had imagined it would be. Many people, realizing that opportunities to add their names or inscriptions to the permanent mosaic would end in less than two weeks (July 31, 2013), made contributions so they would not be left behind on this one. (Onsite tile purchases that day brought in nearly $5,000, and additional online purchases have, as of this morning, raised that total to nearly $7,500 over a 48-hour period. Those who purchased tiles on the spot had the added pleasure of working with the artists to actually inscribe their names into a large tile element in progress. And, most importantly of all, we luxuriated in the visceral evidence that one of our main goals—strengthening the sense of community that already existed in the Inner Sunset District—was reaching fruition as local residents joined out-of-town and out-of-state visitors in a celebration of what volunteers can accomplish when collaborating with a large number of other individuals, nonprofit organizations, and representatives of government agencies.

There is still plenty of work to do. We’re in conversation with companies to obtain the tile that must be placed on top of each step to make this a safe area to walk (the ceramic-tile mosaic itself will be on the outward facing segment of each step so that those walking uphill see it as they ascend the staircase; nothing will be visible to those only looking down); our San Francisco Department of Public Works colleagues are continuing to construct erosion-control barriers and terracing to deal with a decades-old challenge before the mosaic is installed; and, as of this morning, DPW employees were onsite to begin completing repairs on  the numerous chips and cracks on the staircase that must be done before the completed mosaic is installed (sometime between October 2013 and spring 2014).

HGS--Terracing[1]--2013-07-17Anyone interested in seeing community at work doesn’t have to wait that long, however. Walking on the top third of the concrete steps already provides glimpses of the gardens-in-progress that are being installed as quickly as SF DPW employees finish sections of the retaining walls and terracing. Views of San Francisco that were previously obscured by untrimmed trees have been tantalizingly revealed. More and more people are using the stairs as a corridor from one part of the neighborhood to another, as a place to walk or run, or simply as a place to gather and enjoy a tranquil oasis in what at times can feel as if it’s an overwhelmingly busy city.

Conversations now flow on the Steps as neighbors stop to talk. New ideas for community improvement are evolving—for our neighborhood and beyond. And, as I discovered again on a recent morning, the site continues to be transformed into an equally wonderful place for contemplative moments as the number of hummingbirds, scrub jays, and other birds increases as we plant California natives and other drought-tolerant plants near the top of the Steps; breezes gently move newly-installed native grasses in mesmerizing ways; and the succulent gardens continue to thrive and expand at the foot of the Steps as a hint of what is yet to come.

N.B.: This is the seventeenth in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco.


Christopher Alexander and the Architecture of Collaboration (Part 2 of 2)

June 20, 2013

While there are numerous wonderful and obvious resources available to anyone interested in building successful collaborations, there are also gems—case studies—that are easily overlooked simply because they are marketed in a way that doesn’t immediately bring them to our attention.

Alexander--Battle_for_Life_and_BeautyAs noted in the first of these two articles, architect Christopher Alexander’s latest book (The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle Between Two World-System) is about far more than architecture; its description of two different building systems—one that is very traditional and cookie-cutter rigid, and one that incorporates flexibility and a firm commitment to collaboration to bring a project to completion—makes it a book with a compelling story as well as an essential guide for anyone involved in project management—including volunteer-driven community-based projects.

The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth is, first and foremost, the story of how Alexander and his colleagues worked with a client in Japan to build a stunningly beautiful campus that continues to serve high school and college students in a unified setting designed to inspire and nurture learning. With plenty of photographs to lead us from start to finish on the project, Alexander describes the process of how a commitment to collaboration at times produced spectacular results and at other times really did create battle-like cultural confrontations between those who wanted to collaborate their way to implementation of a dream (the campus) and those who simply couldn’t move themselves past the formulaic (and lucrative) process that was at the core of their approach to project management.

And that’s where The Battle becomes useful to many of us who are not at all involved in the creation of architectural building, but are deeply immersed in building of another sort: building training-teaching-learning offerings that make a difference to learners and those they serve; artistic endeavors that reach and move appreciative audiences; and the sort of community-based project that the Hidden Garden Steps endeavor in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District, represents—an effort to create a beautiful neighborhood gathering place which, when completed, will feature a 148-step ceramic-tile mosaic surrounded by gardens and murals to complement the earlier nearby project that inspired it.

HGS--Tile_Images--2013-03-11[1]Where Alexander begins with his standard practice of spending many valuable and highly-productive hours on any site upon which he and his colleagues are going to build, those of us involved in working with artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher on the Hidden Garden Steps project have spent hours walking up and down those 148 concrete steps that were originally installed in 1926. We know, by heart, the number of steps on each flight; we know how light bathes various points on that site throughout the day and how the site feels in sunlight, fog, wind, and rain. By working with colleagues in the San Francisco Department of Public Works—the government agency in charge of the site—as well as with tree trimmers and plenty of volunteers engaged in monthly onsite clean-ups, we have become familiar with the soil, the native vegetation, the erosion-control and onsite structural issues that must be addressed before the ceramic-tile mosaic-in-progress (pictured at left) can be installed later this year (if everything continues on schedule), and even the wildlife that is increasingly drawn to the site as we have worked to erase decades of neglect and create a habitat that supports everything from birds to a species of butterfly (the green hairstreak) that used to be prevalent in the area but had become rare until colleagues in Nature in the City began working to restore habitats throughout the nearby hills. And by working side-by-side with the artists in free public workshops, we’ve even played a hands-on role in creating the 148-step mosaic that is at the heart of the project.

Just as Alexander describes how he worked with numerous collaborators as well as those who were skeptical of his ability to produce the campus he was designing and working to build, we have created an organizing committee that serves as a project management team while reaching out to other existing groups ranging from neighborhood associations to our local elected officials. We’ve been present at neighborhood meetings, street fairs, and other events that have drawn in new partners. And just as Alexander attempted, in every imaginable way, to foster collaboration rather than hierarchical organizational structures, our organizing committee has been and remains the sort of partnership where the only real titles (co-chairs) exist so that those interested in joining us have a point of contact and so that we have what in essence serves as an executive committee tasked with keeping the project on schedule rather than offering top-down decrees as to how the project will be completed.

Alexander’s description of how the high school/college campus was completed comes across as an honest meditation on the joys and challenges of bringing a collaborative project to fruition, and those of us involved in the Hidden Garden Steps project have certainly had our moments of joy as well as moments of disappointment along the way. But what we all share in common is a start-to-finish commitment to working together as inclusively as possible to create something tangible (the campus, the Steps, or a training-teaching-learning opportunity) as well as something intangible and equally compelling: the sense of community that comes from building something together.

N.B.: This is the second of two articles applying “The Battle” to non-architectural settings, and the sixteenth in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco. A final free public workshop for volunteers interested in helping construct small parts of the overall mosaic will be held indoors in the St. John of God community hall in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District (5th Avenue and Irving Street) on Saturday, July 20, 2013 from 1-5 pm.


Building Abundant Communities (Part 4 of 4): Hidden Garden Steps

November 21, 2012

New community possibilities emerge “when we and other neighbors know of each other’s gifts,” John McKnight and Peter Block suggest in their book The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods. And that’s exactly what we continue to see in the Hidden Garden Steps project here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District.

As has been abundantly chronicled in this continuing series of articles about the Steps and the overlapping shorter series about fostering abundant communities, an awareness of gifts, resources, and an enthusiastic commitment to collaboration has steadily moved us toward a very exciting phase of our efforts to create a second set of ceramic-tiled steps along with murals and gardens featuring California native and other drought-tolerant plants. Project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher have, since September 2012, been working in their studios to build the 148-step mosaic that will eventually be installed on the 16th Avenue concrete steps connecting Kirkham and Lawton streets. Community involvement in fundraising, marketing, and hundreds of hours of onsite work cleaning up a terribly ignored pedestrian corridor has drawn together an ever-growing group of volunteers and other supporters inspired by the beauty of the first step of steps (on Moraga Street, between 15th and 16th avenues) completed by the same two artists working with a different group of neighbors and other supporters.

Our next big step forward, at this point, is less than two weeks away: our two artists (on Saturday, December 1, 2012, from 1-5 pm), will lead the first of three community workshops for anyone interested in making hands-on contributions to the construction of the mosaic.

This will be a celebration of community and collaboration in action within a local church meeting hall (Christ Church Lutheran, 1090 Quintara, San Francisco). It’s a chance to learn how projects of this magnitude are literally pieced together. An opportunity to work side-by-side with neighbors on a process that not only will produce a new community gem but also contribute to the already strong sense of community that exists within the Inner Sunset District. And a pre-holiday chance to reflect on what our work together over a three-year period has created and continues to create.

It also is a visceral incarnation of the spirit of “making gifts visible,” as outlined by McKnight and Block in The Abundant Community (pp. 120-122): having members of a community teach and learn from each other; bringing together residents and local business representatives (a couple of our sponsors are donating refreshments for workshop participants); and attracting community members of all ages and backgrounds.

There is plenty to acknowledge and celebrate in projects like the Hidden Garden Steps. These community efforts help build connections between those of us who previously knew little more about our neighbors than what we garnered from hurried waves and cursory greetings as we raced from one personal obligation to another. They attract people from other nearby neighborhoods so that we develop an extended sense of community, support, and simple, pleasurable human interactions that often seem to reach no further than a few feet away from our own homes or apartments. They further connect us to those wonderful third places within our communities—the coffee shops, the libraries, the neighborhood farmers markets, and streets transformed into meeting places by community-operated street fairs. And they remind us—through the collaborations we establish with existing groups like San Francisco’s Inner Sunset Park Neighbors (ISPN), the San Francisco Parks Alliance (our fiscal agent), and the San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program (supporting our onsite work on City/County property)—that transforming a dream into reality doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to start from scratch in our efforts to organize for success.

“The expression of our gifs and their manifestation through association with our neighbors” is at the heart of abundant communities, McKnight and Block remind us in The Abundant Community (p. 109). “The challenge is to make these gifts visible among all in the neighborhood. These are the means for creating our social fabric. The task is to make more widely available these gifts in service of our core concerns for the child, the land, enterprise, food, health, the vulnerable, and our safety With the consciousness and ability to connect our gifts and make them practical and usable, we experience what we are calling community abundance (p. 120).”

And as Hidden Garden Steps current and prospective supporters move toward the day of our first mosaic-building workshop and continue with our fundraising efforts to bring this $300,000 volunteer-driven community-based effort to a successful conclusion, we all have plenty to celebrate—and to offer others in need of the inspiration we continually find from the families, friends, and other neighbors who are contributing to our own abundant successes.

N.B.: This is the fourteenth in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco and the fourth in a four-part series of articles exploring abundant communities. 


Hidden Garden Steps: Celebrating Our Moments of Transformation

September 16, 2012

There have been plenty of transformative moments since the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District began in early 2010. But none have been so encouraging and rewarding than what we saw earlier this month at a community celebration centered around the signing of contracts with Steps artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher—pictured here working on the life-size design they have begun creating in their homes and studios.

It’s more than just the acknowledgement that we’ve raised enough money ($100,000 in cash and approximately $20,000 in services completed or soon to be completed) to begin building the 148-step ceramic-tile mosaic that is at the heart of the project. It’s the gathering of a community that through working on this project is even stronger than it was before, and will be even stronger by the time we finish this project that creates a second set of ceramic-tiled steps along with gardens and murals in the neighborhood. And the celebration itself was completely sponsored and hosted by one of our business supporters: the Crepevine at 624 Irving Street here in San Francisco.

The Inner Sunset District, like so many of San Francisco’s individual neighborhoods, is a surprisingly vibrant combination of businesses; cultural (e.g., the de Young Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, the Conservatory of Flowers, and the San Francisco Botanical Garden, just to mention a few) and educational (the University of California, San Francisco) organizations; physical beauty (the numerous paths through Golden Gate Park and the hills that are in the heart of the district; and residents and visitors who cherish the area and sustain a variety of organizations including the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors to continually foster collaboration.

As members of the Hidden Garden Steps organizing committee have repeatedly acknowledged, we’re drawn not only by the sense of immediate community that exists here, but by the extended community that is interwoven into all we do. The Steps project alone has partners including the San Francisco Parks Alliance; the San Francisco DPW Street Parks program; Nature in the City’s Green Hairstreak [Butterfly] Corridor; administrators, an art instructor, and art students from the nearby Woodside International School; members of the Inner Sunset Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community; and the Golden Gate Heights Neighborhood Association, with more partners expressing interest in joining us so we can bring this $300,000 community project to a successful conclusion. We’ve also had tremendous support from City/County Supervisor Sean Elsbernd and his legislative aide, Alex Volberding; the San Francisco Arts Commission; and members of the San Francisco Department of Public Works who have announced that onsite repairs will be underway in the very near future.

With all that support in place, it was tremendously gratifying not only to have coverage of the Crepevine event by KCBS radio reporter Anna Duckworth the following morning, but to also find the Steps featured on the cover of our neighborhood newspaper—the Sunset Beacon this month—and in a prominently-displayed letter to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle Insight section recently.

As we move into the production phase on the ceramic-tile mural, we’ll continue to rely on the efforts of volunteers who help us do onsite clean-up on the second Saturday of each month, from 1 – 3 pm on 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton here in San Francisco; donations from individuals, community groups, businesses, and other supporters that now extend not only across the United State but also include a couple of people from the U.K.; and those who can help us build relations with other prospective donors drawn to the mission of creating a new, sustainable community meeting place in a city known for its commitment to communities. For additional information in how you can become part of our community, please visit our website at http://hiddengardensteps.org.

N.B.: This is the thirteenth in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco. 


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