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: Hoops and Hopes and Aspirations

July 12, 2012

Hidden Garden Steps volunteer Sherry Boschert has once again outdone herself. Working with us to film a playful fundraising video that is now posted on Indiegogo, she is helping us make our current and prospective supporters aware of one of those routine yet essential elements of any successful fundraising campaign: attracting money for something as basic as a set of permits allowing us to carry to the project to completion.

After confirming that we would need nearly $8,000 in application fees from the City/County of San Francisco, Sherry and I met to discuss the latest hoops that project volunteers would have to jump through to create a ceramic-tiled mosaic similar to what exists on the Moraga Steps here in San Francisco’s  Inner Sunset District and surround it with attractive gardens and murals.

Appreciative for all the support we have received from colleagues in the San Francisco Department of Public Works as well as in the San Francisco DPW Street Parks Program, City Hall, and the San Francisco Arts Commission, we wanted to emphasize that this particular fundraising effort is grounded in a real need and in full partnership with our City/County colleagues.

“Our $8,000 goal will cover a $3,379 fee set by the San Francisco Planning Commission for permit applications as well as other Department of Public Works fees established by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors based upon the number of hours it takes to process applications for a project of this scale,” we explain on our Indiegogo site. “We don’t begrudge the City this money—we know that these departments provide valuable services, and we couldn’t do this without their help. A small portion of funds raised will go towards Indiegogo and banking fees.”

Efforts to seek fee waivers were unsuccessful—our colleagues in City/County government are, of course, facing the same financial challenges so many of us face—so we’re moving ahead to publicize this particular need in the hope that project supporters will step up to the plate and push us closer to our goal.

Campaigns like this one—drawing from any level of contribution our current and prospective supporters care to offer—obviously rise or fall on our ability to engage the level of community support and collaboration that has been at the heart of all our successful efforts to date. That clearly means we need help raising the funds within the next 60 days to meet our latest campaign deadline, to reach the widest possible audience, and to foster action by everyone who has been touched and inspired by our vision for taking simple steps to create another magnificent set of Steps here in San Francisco—an effort supported not only by neighborhood residents but by donors from seven states beyond California and, as of last week, our first donor from London.

If you can help us by forwarding information to those you know, please do. If you can donate any amount to help us raise funds for the application fees, even better. And if you’re inspired by the sense of community and collaboration the project is helping to create, we hope you’ll join us in our efforts to clean up the site (second Saturday of each month, from 1 – 3 pm on 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton here in San Francisco), prepare it for the structural repairs our DPW colleagues are about to begin, and continue helping us reach the current and prospective volunteers who are making this project soar.

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


Hidden Garden Steps: Fundraising and Communities of Support

April 26, 2011

While some of us would rather swim with sharks than engage in fundraising efforts, others successfully approach the challenge—fundraising, not sharks—with such panache that their actions make everyone want to dive in with them.

When our campaign to raise the $300,000 we will need to complete the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District began a few months ago, those of us on the project organizing committee faced the endeavor with a sense of enthusiasm and excitement. The payoff was almost immediate: two of the multi-tiled elements—the butterfly and the dragonfly—were immediately claimed by two supporters to move us $14,500 closer to our overall goal. Donations in support of individual tiles soon followed, and we’re seeing an increase in the sale of those $150, $350, and $1,000 tiles week by week—to the point where we are close to having $30,000 for the Hidden Garden Steps.

Although the primary goal of the project is to produce a set of ceramic-tile steps with a garden and large wall mural between Kirkham and Lawton streets at 16th Avenue to complement the original steps on Moraga between 15th and 16th avenues, there is an equally important vision: to continue strengthening the sustainable sense of community and the collaboration that exists among various groups in the Sunset District.

We’re well on our way to meeting that goal, too. Our successful outreach events at Crepevine and Vintage Senior Living have produced major results: additional people volunteering to join the organizing committee, increasing amounts of marketing assistance from volunteers, and the creatively engaging effort Sherry Boschert is currently facilitating to raise $5,500 for the Diablo Fairly Lantern element. (Sherry’s effort is more than halfway toward its goal, having raised more than $3,000 as of this morning.)

Other groups—both from the neighborhood and from a much wider geographic area—are following Sherry’s example by organizing campaigns to underwrite the cost of specific parts of project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher’s design. Volunteers are also making substantial contributions by arranging for everything from cost-free sites for promotional events—and we can use more of those—to arranging for pro bono professional tree-trimming services that have already noticeably transformed the site by making it a little less hidden.

As individual and organizational partners including the City & County of San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program continue to join this San Francisco Parks Trust project, enthusiasm is increasing. Support is growing, And, step by step, we are all building something of lasting value.

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


Hidden Garden Steps: When Social Networking Supports an Onsite-Online Community

March 20, 2011

Creating a community-based, volunteer-managed, neighborhood beautification project while strengthening the sense of community in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District took an interesting turn a few days ago: one of our volunteer supporters for the Hidden Garden Steps project went online with a charming—and obviously effective—fundraising effort to help move the $300,000 project forward.

The initiative by the volunteer—Sherry Boschert, who lives with her partner near the Steps—is not only engagingly straightforward. It is also very much in the spirit of the Hidden Garden Steps effort, which relies on a loosely structured organizing committee coordinating a San Francisco Parks Trust project to bring existing neighborhood individuals, groups, and business owners together in a collaborative effort to complete the project on 16th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets.

Boschert did her research by talking with the project artists (Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher) at a recent fundraising and marketing event hosted by Crepevine owner Majed Fakouri. She also, at the same event, met with organizing committee member Licia Wells for a quick brainstorming session about various aspects of her idea to bring members of the Inner Sunset GLBT community together to raise $5,000 to support the creation and installation of the Diablo Fairly Lantern tile element of the Steps project. Then Boschert, a writer and activist who has lived in the neighborhood for two decades, used the Kickstarter online fundraising platform to post the video she created.

Within 24 hours, the posting had already attracted three donors who contributed more than 10 percent of the $5,000 goal for that one piece of the overall Hidden Garden Steps effort. And she has already offered to show others how to engage in similar efforts on behalf of the Steps.

There is plenty to admire and to learn from here, and it reminds us of the importance of combining face-to-face and online efforts seamlessly. Boschert became interested in the Hidden Garden Steps project as a result of organizing committee members’ efforts to collected collect signatures on petitions in early 2010. She remained interested as organizing committee members held monthly meetings to create an effective project infrastructure throughout 2010; created local interest through flyers posted throughout the neighborhood and through rudimentary Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter accounts; began formal fundraising efforts in early 2011; and began scheduling public events in volunteers’ homes, at Crepevine, and other settings.

The result of the organizing committee’s efforts, so far, has been a flow of more than $20,000 in donations not only from San Franciscans but also from San Franciscans’ friends, relatives, and colleagues in other parts of the United States.

Boschert, on her Kickstarter page and in the video, creates the sense of warmth, engagement, and fun that is at the heart of the entire project: “This Kickstarter project is raising funds specifically to sponsor one element in the design—the Diablo Fairy Lantern flower—and to recognize the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) residents of the Sunset District who live near both sets of steps.

“Why GLBTs? The Sunset has a reputation for being one of the city’s most conservative, straight districts, but GLBT people have always lived here too. We want to give back to the community by supporting this gorgeous project, and we will place one tile near the Diablo Fairy Lantern with the name of our social group, Out in the Fog.

“Why the Fairy Lantern? (I don’t really have to explain that, do I?) Because it’s beautiful. Here’s what the Fairy Lantern looks like in the design, and here’s what it looks like in real life. Like I said — gorgeous.”

And as we move forward with our efforts to bring the entire project to fruition, it’s worth the time it takes to acknowledge something else equally gorgeous: the spirit of community that inspires people like Boschert to carve time out of their very busy schedules to engage in positive actions. And make us smile.

N.B.: This is the second in an ongoing series to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco. Next: Local Libraries’ Involvement in the Hidden Garden Steps Project.


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