Abundant Communities in Action: Street Parks, Gardens, Steps, and Rainbows  

October 6, 2014

When San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW) and San Francisco Parks Alliance (SFPA) representatives gathered over the weekend to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Street Parks Program, they were honoring something that is both quintessentially San Franciscan and something seen throughout the United States: our ability to find abundance where others see cast-offs.

Block--Abundant_Community_BookIt’s the sort of commitment documented by Peter Block and John McKnight through their Abundant Community book, website, and online discussions. It’s a movement beautifully grounded in Tactical Urbanism. And it’s a sustainable, community-based, volunteer-driven effort that celebrates the work of people we don’t often notice: the people behind the projects that make our communities far more rich than they otherwise would be. Not bad for country where we so often hear about how badly divided we are.

“The [Street Parks] project was started to enable and assist community members in adopting DPW parcels and then turning them from blighted lots into verdant gardens and community gathering spaces,” Julia Brashares, Director of Street Parks for the Parks Alliance, reminds us in a brief video prepared for the Alliance by students from San Francisco State University. “We, with community members, have seen the development of over 120 gardens in every district of the city.”

Those Street Parks projects are part of an ongoing program that brings City/County elected officials and employees, Parks Alliance staff, and hundreds of volunteers together to “activate” a string of City-owned parcels that, when combined, include approximately 500 acres of potential parkland. It’s an amazingly complex undertaking and, at the same time, it is amazingly simple. The complexity comes from the large number of stakeholders who have to be engaged to bring Street Park Projects to fruition; the simplicity comes from the idea that the projects begin when as few as two or three neighbors see the potential in an unused piece of public property and make the commitment to foster the numerous community collaborations required to produce positive results.

What’s even more fascinating is the obvious interest in transforming unused public land into additional green open space in a city that already has a magnificent, nationally-acclaimed park system, a reclaimed bayside gem in Crissy Field and an equally ambitious counterpart in the Blue Greenway project that is already in progress; the Green Connections project that is also underway as another effort to increase access to green open spaces throughout the City; an effort to create more vibrant plazas throughout the City; and many other local efforts where volunteers work with an amazing network of nonprofit organizations, City/County representatives, neighborhood organizations, local business representatives, and anyone else who sees abundant possibilities for community development and enrichment.

Street_Parks_LogoStreet Park Program projects are, in many ways, the epitome of individuals setting aside individual interests to collaboratively produce a public good—often something designed to last far longer than the lifetimes of those who initially gather to produce the street park. We see individuals bringing neighbors together to turn a short, blighted cul-de-sac along a freeway into a community garden that attracted a new coffee shop to the block. We see neighbors next to another stretch of land adjacent to a freeway create a dog park where members of the community meet and enjoy each other’s company. A third stretch of blighted land becomes Progress Park—the site where we gathered last weekend to celebrate 10 years of Street Parks progress. A median strip in the Outer Sunset District becomes La Playa Park. Another lot becomes Pennsylvania Garden. And a set of concrete steps originally built in 1926 becomes the Hidden Garden Steps—the second set to be transformed into volunteer-maintained gardens and a beautiful ceramic-tiled mosaic (designed and fabricated by project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher) in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District.

HGS--Steps_Visitors--2014-08-18

Visitors on the Steps

The real payoff for any local or extended community comes when we spend time at any of those sites, as I so often do on the Hidden Garden Steps. I see my neighbors come out every Friday afternoon to sweep the steps so the site looks clean and inviting to weekend visitors. I see volunteers gather onsite monthly to maintain and add to the gardens. I see the results generated by the volunteers who maintain the project website, blog, and Twitter and Facebook accounts. And I see and talk with visitors from all over the world as they enjoy and admire the site, marvel over how the extended community adds to all the site offers, and blurt out wonderful observations such as “It’s like being in a rainbow.”

Working on any Street Park Program project is, in fact like being in a rainbow. It’s inspiring. It’s overwhelmingly beautiful. And it hints at greater aspects of life than most of us would otherwise encounter.

The 10th-anniversary Street Parks Program celebration documents a bit of what that rainbow offers and brought volunteers together to dream of even bigger rainbows—those we can produce during the next 10 years. If we are successful, we will use what we have learned and done to inspire others to seek similar community-based collaborations to positively change our world.

N.B.: Numerous articles documenting the Hidden Garden Steps project remain available on this Building Creative Bridges blog. Steps updates can be found on the Friends of the Hidden Garden Steps blog. Stories provided by donors to the Hidden Garden Steps project are currently being added to the project website by Steps volunteer Liz McLoughlin, and a step-by-step virtual tour created by McLoughlin and by project volunteer Gilbert Johnson is also under development.


Checking Out Disagreements and Learning by Re-Viewing Our Landscape

March 26, 2014

One of the many inspiring and great learning moments to occur during recent community meetings sponsored by the Mendocino County Library with support from their Friends of the Library groups came during a discussion of recently-installed self-checkout machines at the Ukiah Library.

The issue was superficially clear cut. Some people in the community appreciate the convenience self-checkout machines provide. Others absolutely hate this introduction of technology in a setting they value for its person-to-person interactions.

Ukiah_LibraryThose appreciative of the service specifically mentioned that they like being to locate library materials online, visit the library to pick up those materials, and handle the checkout transactions quickly (without having to ask for staff assistance). Others mentioned that checking out materials without staff involvement might appeal to teens and others who don’t want others seeing what they are borrowing.

Opponents to the recently-installed machines expressed unhappiness with the appearance of the tall, upright machines for a variety of reasons—and it quickly became clear that more than anti-technology feelings were at the foundations of their objections. They said they didn’t like the fact that the machines, placed just inside the entrance (where those about to leave the library could complete their final checkout transactions just before they exit the building), were the first thing they saw; having the devices there made them feel as if staff were being replaced by machines (something that is not happening, particularly since a local ballot initiative to provide additional funding for library services passed in November 2013 and library administrators have been hiring more staff members to support increased hours system-wide). Further exploration of the feelings leading to their opposition revealed a sense that staff was becoming less accessible to them and that they were concerned they were losing what is extremely important to them: the person-to-person interactions that are a valuable part of their library experience.

Fort_Bragg_Library--2014-03-24

Mendocino County Library staff and users continuing conversation after meeting in Fort Bragg branch

The inspiring part of all of this was that although people attending the meeting and two others held in Fort Bragg and Willits—one element in the library’s current strategic planning process—offered a variety of (sometimes conflicting) opinions on several different issues, there was little overt animosity expressed between meeting attendees. By providing forums for discussion about the library’s future and how the library could even more actively be part of an effort to address community issues, library staff and users were able to document what is important to them, see issues from differing perspectives, and almost immediately begin looking for ways to address some of the less difficult challenges they face.

A few of us, in fact, continued the discussion after leaving the Ukiah meeting by using a technique employed by a colleague who helps library staff improve library users’ experiences: each of us walked into the Ukiah Library with the intention of looking at it as if we had never before seen it, and paying attention to what caught our attention.

Whereas I had, during my first visit one day earlier, quickly walked past the self-checkout machines and immediately looked for (and found) staff—easily spotted both at a desk almost directly in front of me (across the room) and at a service counter to my left after I passed the machines—I spent more time after the meeting looking at the self-checkout machines and how they did serve as a visual focal point to anyone entering the building and looking only at what was closest to the doors. (Wonderfully enough, a staff member approached me while I was looking at the machines and initiated a conversation.)

Conversations with library staff members produced at least a few options they plan to quickly explore for those who fear the loss of that person-to-person level of attention library staff strives to provide: rearranging the entrance in a way that makes the self-checkout machines less of a visual presence; incorporating a few visual changes that tone down the bright lights that are part of the machines themselves so they won’t, as one critical library user commented, look like “slot machines”); and determining whether volunteers (who were unhappy to have been moved out of public service areas and placed next to staff in crowded workspaces in the staff area) would be interested in sitting at a desk in the entrance area to greet library visitors and help first-time users familiarize themselves with the self-checkout machines—a nice solution to two different challenges (the introduction of the machines and unhappiness expressed by volunteers in search of more opportunities to support the library while interacting with other members of their communities).

It was impressive to see the library representatives react so quickly to the concerns expressed; even if whatever changes they propose and implement don’t please everyone, the changes will have come from a position of listening and learning by re-viewing familiar situations and settings. It was equally impressive to see how positively members of the community interacted even when there were clear disagreements that they recognized they, in collaboration with library staff, will have to work to resolve together. And it was wonderfully refreshing to contrast the visible and obvious levels of civility, respect, and collaboration with what we so often see elsewhere when people talk at rather than with each other until conversations sink into confrontation and an inability to address what is important within and to a community.


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: A Community Continuing to Evolve

January 15, 2014

The Hidden Garden Steps ceramic-tile mosaic created and completed by project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher is in place here in San Francisco, and an ever-expanding community has quickly claimed the site as its own—just as organizing committee members hoped it would.

The Steps as venue for exercise

The Steps as venue for exercise

New resources connecting that community are appearing online with increasing frequency. We have seen our existing website, Facebook page, and Twitter account (all created and maintained by project volunteers) augmented through individual initiatives by those who are falling in love with the Hidden Garden Steps (on 16th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District): There are already reviews on Yelp, check-ins on Foursquare (including our first official Hidden Garden Steps Foursquare mayor), favorable mentions in the San Francisco Examiner and on Weekend Sherpa, and wonderful articles on Cindy Casey’s “Art and Architecture – San Francisco” blog and Tony Holiday’s San Francisco park trails and public stairways blog.

A two-fold agenda was always at the heart of the four-year effort to transform the overgrown, ill-tended, graffiti-marred 148-step concrete staircase (originally constructed in 1926) into a neighborhood gem: creating a second ceramic-tiled staircase with community gardens to complement the original steps on Moraga Street, between 15th and 16th avenues, and creating an outdoor variation on the indoor Third Place concept promoted by  Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (1989)

The formal opening ceremony on Saturday, December 7, 2013 provided plenty of signs that both goals were being met. Sherry Boschert, a Hidden Garden Steps supporter who remains active in a variety of neighborhood initiatives, worked with Steps organizing committee members to organize and orchestrate a community-based volunteer-driven block party that attracted more than 150 participants. Among those speaking at the event were San Francisco County Supervisor Norman Yee (also serving as acting mayor that day); San Francisco Department of Public Works Community Liaison Jerad Weiner, who remains a conduit of onsite support through the San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program; DPW structural engineer Ray Lui; San Francisco Parks Alliance Executive Director Matt O’Grady, offering support as head of our fiscal agent; and the artists themselves.

Every one of those brief from-the-heart presentations acknowledged the number of partnerships, donors, and community volunteers needed to produce something of that magnitude, and Supervisor Yee’s own presentation captured the spirit of the endeavor—rather than placing himself at the center of the event, he very generously spent time  acknowledging that he was elected to represent the district as the project was nearing completion and that it was the work of his predecessor (former District 7 County Supervisor Sean Elsbernd) and predecessor’s staff that contributed tremendously to the success of the Steps initiative.

Ribbon-cutting at the Opening Ceremony

Ribbon-cutting at the Opening Ceremony

Organizing committee members had one intentionally brief, wonderfully playful moment in the limelight as we were surrounded by many of our project partners to cut a multi-colored crepe-paper-weave ribbon stretched across the foot of the Steps. We then literally and figuratively stepped aside as dozens of people streamed up the Steps to transform the site from a project facilitated by a core group of community volunteers to one claimed by the larger community that supports it.

By late afternoon, the crowds had dispersed. A sense of tranquility was once again palpable on site. And by mid-evening, the Steps were continuing to quickly evolve into a meeting place for friends as well as for neighbors and complete strangers who otherwise might not be seeing, talking, and dreaming with each other. As I was taking a final look down the Steps just before 10 o’clock that evening, I ended up talking with someone who hadn’t realized the Steps were already completed and open to the public. We chatted about how the project had developed, talked about how he wished he had been available to more actively support and be an active participant in the development and implementation of the project, and talked about other neighborhood projects in development—which made me realize that less than 10 hours after the Steps opened, they were already functioning as an outdoors Third Place that draws people together and creates the possibility of additional collaborations.

A recent spur-of-the-moment sweepathon

Those encounters have continued on a daily basis since that initial day. Several organizing committee members and other neighbors all found ourselves engaged in a wonderful impromptu conversation on the Steps on New Year’s Day. Visitors from San Francisco’s East and South Bay areas have repeatedly come to the Steps and brought friends. Those who supported the project through the purchase of individual tiles interwoven into the completed mosaic with personal inscriptions come, photograph, and bring friends to enjoy the beauty of the site and the spectacular views it provides. Project volunteers continue to participate in the monthly two-hour clean-up and gardening sessions held on the second Saturday of each month from 1 – 3 pm (open to any interested new or returning volunteer), and neighbors, without any formal guidance or call to action, simply show up when they see that the Steps need to be swept or in some other way spruced up a bit to keep the site pristine.

HGS--Third_Place_Clean-up--Al--2014-01-05

Steps volunteer Al Magary engaged in clean-up

Most importantly of all, the spirit of community and collaboration that drove the Hidden Garden Steps to completion is already inspiring a neighbor—Al Magary—to see if he can informally organize a group to sweep and take other actions to clean up the long-ignored even larger set of steps one block away (on 15th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets). Anyone interested in joining that budding community of interest can contact Al for more information at 15thAveStepsPark@gmail.com. Who knows? Perhaps a third set of ceramic-tiled steps is on its way.

N.B.: This is the twenty-third 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: 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.


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