Hidden Garden Steps: Building on a Dream

A dream achieved has taken on new life.

Several years ago, Alice Xavier and Jessie Audette in the Golden Gate Heights neighborhood of San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District, dreamed of turning a drab gray set of 163 steps connecting Moraga Street between 15th and 16th avenues into a beautiful ceramic tiled community meeting place. They teamed up with local artists Colette Crutcher and Aileen Barr—“local” being a relative term since Aileen arrived in San Francisco from Donegal, Ireland shortly before the project began and is there on vacation as I write these words—and literally had to build from scratch—a process colorfully documented in the artists’ book, 163: The Story of San Francisco’s 16th Avenue Tiled Steps. They also created an incredible group of neighborhood supporters to bring this innovative community-building project to completion.

Inspired by the Santa Teresa steps in Rio de Janeiro as well as Antoni Gaudí’s mosaics in Barcelona and La Scala (the stairway) in Caltagirone, they literally fought an uphill battle in their efforts to create a work of beauty that now entices walkers to climb the stairs for a stunning view of the Sunset District as it extends west to the Pacific Ocean—on those days when the view isn’t obscured by fog. They had to gain political support for the project, convince neighbors that their project was well worth undertaking, attract donors and volunteers—something at which Xavier clearly excels—and organize and orchestrate fundraising events, planning meetings, and in-kind donations to support the project in those years just before Web 2.0 social networking tools like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn grew to make it far easier to reach and/or develop communities of interest.

When the innovative project was complete, many of us who had watched the stairs become a community meeting place were stunned, inspired, and motivated to see this as a beginning, not an end. Furthermore, because the Inner Sunset District has numerous concrete stairways linking streets along the hills and waiting for similar treatment, it’s natural for many of us who live and thrive in the neighborhood to think about how wonderful it would be to build upon what Audette, Barr, Crutcher, Xavier, and all their supporters and volunteers have created.

So it’s no surprise that during a party at the foot of the Moraga Steps less than two weeks ago to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the completion of that project, a group of us were on hand to announce the official beginning of a new project: the Hidden Garden Steps, to tile the dank, overgrown, and graffiti-laden steps linking 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets, create a community garden on either side of the steps, and provide a complementary wall mural at the top of the steps.

N.B.: This is the first in an ongoing series to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco. Next: Building a Community of Support.

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