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.


Synthesis, Shifting Perspectives, and Storytelling: Hidden Garden Steps and #etmooc

February 12, 2013

Sometimes the slightest shift in perspective reveals the presence of stunningly beautiful interweavings that moments earlier hadn’t been obvious between various elements of our lives. That moment came for me this morning while viewing a colleague’s newly-posted video on YouTube.

etmoocCommunity, collaboration, and creativity in a variety of venues seemed to be coalescing into an incredibly beautiful tapestry as I watched  the video prepared by Hidden Garden Steps organizing committee co-chair Liz McLoughlin. I was initially captivated simply by what Liz had produced: a chronicle of the community collaborations between Steps volunteers, elected officials and civil servants here in San Francisco, and partners including the San Francisco Parks Alliance and the San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program; cash and in-kind donation successes; and community workshops designed to allow hands-on involvement in the actual construction of the mosaic that is at the heart of the project.

I became even more enchanted and emotionally moved when I shifted my perspective slightly so that the connections between Liz’s work and other elements of my own current explorations in online  and blended learning as well as with building abundant communities became obvious. What made me see that video in the larger context of creative interactions, collaborations, and community-building was the fact that that Liz, as one of many who are pushing this volunteer-driven community based effort to create a second set of ceramic-tiled steps along with gardens and murals  in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District, had perfectly captured the playful spirit and energy of the Hidden Garden Steps effort. There was also the simultaneous realization that Liz, in the context of documenting successes for the Hidden Garden Steps project, had produced a wonderful example of digital storytelling. By combining enticing music, wonderful images, a set of PowerPoint slides, and an engaging story into a video, Liz had, all at once, produced an attractively positive story of how members of communities work together to bring dreams to fruition; an update to current and prospective project supporters; and a great example of what thousands of us are currently studying in #etmooc, the Education Technology and Media MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) organized by University of Regina professor of educational technology and media Alec Couros and several co-conspirators.”

As I’ve documented in two interrelated posts here on Building Creative Bridges, digital storytelling draws upon archetypal elements at the heart of vibrant, creative communities by enticingly documenting what is most important to us. And the experience of exploring digital storytelling within such a dynamically stimulating community as the one developed by those who have organized and are facilitating #etmooc has certainly been inspiring me to look more deeply about how the stories we tell are at the heart of nearly every successful effort that attracts my attention. I see this in my various roles as a volunteer, in the work I do as a trainer-teacher-learner, and in the writing that puts me in touch with creative colleagues worldwide through our promotion and use of social media tools—including those we routinely use to complete assignments within #etmooc and the Social Media Basics course I just finished facilitating again.

The more I think about the interwoven threads of these various stories that are unfolding in my life (the Hidden Garden Steps project, #etmooc and digital storytelling, the Social Media Basics course, my face-to-face and online interactions with colleagues at conferences and in social media platforms, and my ongoing efforts as a trainer-teacher-learner), the more fascinated I become at how the smallest part of any of them sends out tendrils along the lines of the rhizomatic learning concepts we’ve also been studying in #etmooc.

But then I also realize that I’m falling into the trap of making all of this too complex. What it really comes down to is that we’re incredibly social and interconnected people living in an incredibly interconnected onsite-online world. We live socially, we learn socially, we dine socially, we thrive socially, and we build socially. And, at least for me, one of the key pleasures comes from the leaning that occurs in each of these personal and shared short stories that become the extended stories—the novels—that we are creating by living them.

With that act of circling back to learning as a key element of our individual stories, we find one more thread that ties this all together. Given that learning is a process of responding to an immediate need by engaging in positive transformation, we can all continue learning—and creating the stories that give meaning to our lives—through our involvement with challenges along the lines of nurturing the Hidden Garden Steps project, finding community in #etmooc, and becoming active participants in a variety of other collaborative and community-based efforts. The more we look for and document interweavings between these seemingly disparate endeavors, the better learners—and storytellers—we become.

N.B.: This is the fifteenth in a series of posts responding to the assignments and explorations fostered through #etmooc and the fifteenth in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco.


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. 


Hidden Garden Steps: Community, Collaboration, Volunteerism, and Benches

August 23, 2012

I hope I won’t offend anyone if I offer the heartfelt hope that you’ll just sit on it. The bench, I mean. The one now at the foot of the Hidden Garden Steps, where Kirkham Street and 16th Avenue intersect in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District.

And while you’re sitting on it, I hope you’ll reflect on how that one little bench—one of more than a dozen now spread throughout the neighborhood—says so much about the spirit of community, collaboration, and volunteerism that is at the heart of any dream that starts with one or two people and quickly becomes a self-seeding endeavor that makes our world considerably better—and a lot more visually interesting and playful.

The innovators, in this case, are Adam Greenfield and Chris Duderstadt, two wonderful neighborhood activists who are key players in the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors; love the idea of nurturing public spaces and “maximizing personal interactions”; and are slowly but surely adding to San Francisco’s vibrant street scene though their playful Public Bench Project.

Their idea is simple, as they note on their website: “We will give a bench to anybody who wants to put a bench outside their building in the public realm. Contact us and we’d be happy to give you a bench.” The results are exquisite and inspiring; from the initial bench, which features a wonderful design by artist Devin Keller, to the latest bench, added this week and featuring a beautiful display of sunflowers, you can’t walk by without involuntarily having a smile find its way onto your face. And, more importantly, even the most hurried of us feel the invitation to stop, sit, and enjoy our neighborhood a bit more rather than simply racing through it on our way to our next appointment.

Which is exactly what we’re hoping will happen with the bench now at the foot of the Hidden Garden Steps—and which will become even more colorful when a group of our supporters return to make the bench even more colorful by connecting it visually to the mural painted onsite by art instructor Angie Crabtree and students from the Woodside International School. Ever since we began making the onsite improvements that are creating the foundation for the 148-step ceramic-tile mosaic that will eventually cover the concrete steps, we’ve noticed more neighbors and visitors spending time lingering onsite rather than hurrying past what was formerly a somewhat secluded and less-than-inviting space. The volunteers who gather on the second Saturday of each month from 1 – 3 pm to sweep the steps, continue adding to the garden that is beginning to take shape on a few parts of the site, and enjoy the growing sense of camaraderie, talk openly about how our work together is creating a greater sense of community. And the bench now provides yet another gathering place for conversation, idea exchanges, and friendship.

With the addition of the bench, we’re hoping you and many others will join us there. To help create the vision. To strengthen the sense of community that already exists. And to simply enjoy one of the many lovely settings that make life worth living.

For more information about the Public Bench Project, please contact Greenfield and Duderstadt at publicbenchproject@gmail.com. For more information about the Hidden Garden Steps project, please visit our website at http://hiddengardensteps.org, follow us on Facebook and Twitter (@gardensteps), check out the videos on our YouTube channel, or look for us on the Steps.

N.B.: This is the twelfth 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: Clean-ups, Collaboration, and Volunteers

March 15, 2012

We had the most wonderful of problems last week as we prepared for our monthly Hidden Garden Steps project onsite clean-up: the possibility of having more volunteers than could be effectively put to work for the two-hour Saturday afternoon event.

And we quickly found a winning solution for everyone by invoking one of our main vision statements for the project: collaborating with as many partners as possible to complete a $300,000 volunteer-driven community art and garden project.

Our monthly efforts to remove graffiti, sweep the 148 steps on 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets, develop gardens with donated plants (please see our online wish list for more information about specific donations needed for those gardens), clean clogged gutters and drains, and prepare the site for installation of a ceramic-tiled mosaic similar to what exists on the Moraga Steps here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District has steadily gained attention, support, and recognition since our first clean-up event was held less than a year ago and trees were trimmed free of charge by a generous donation of time and services from Tree Shapers, LLC.

Promotions through our San Francisco DPW Street Parks Program and San Francisco Parks Alliance partners (particularly Nancy Wong from DPW, who routinely delivers the gloves, tools, and other supplies needed, and Maria D’Angelico and Julia Brashares at the Alliance) help draw new volunteers to us each month. And a photo and blurb in San Francisco City/County Supervisor Carmen Chu’s latest newsletter inspired Elvina Fan (pictured here) and her fellow Lincoln High School Change SF members to contact us less than two days before the March clean-up to see how they could help.

This created a bit of a dilemma since nearly 10 members of Better Homes & Gardens Mason-McDuffie Realty here in San Francisco (pictured above, left) had already promised to join us for work that required no more than 15 people. But it was a dilemma quickly resolved through early-morning email exchanges with Andrea Jadwin, co-president of the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors board. She had a perfect project in place—and was willing to make arrangements with the Change SF volunteers on short notice.

“ISPN won a Community Challenge Grant in 2010 to make improvements to the parking lot in the heart of the Inner Sunset commercial district,” Jadwin recalled during a recent exchange. “The parking lot is home every Sunday to the Inner Sunset Farmers’ Market and other community events throughout the year.  Volunteers planted native and climate-adapted plants and painted the surrounding walls with coordinating colors and a simple design. Community Challenge Grants award funding is based on volunteer hours, so we try to organize several maintenance projects throughout the year—cleaning trash, weeding, replanting, and covering graffiti”—exactly what the Change SF students were offering to do for Hidden Garden Steps.

“It was great to have the students from Lincoln High’s Change SF service club come out and provide some much needed plant care and graffiti abatement. The neighbors, merchants and farmers will be so pleased with the results,” Jadwin concluded.

We sometimes hear, from those who are misinformed, that people are too busy to volunteer and that organizations need to compete rather than collaborate in attracting great volunteers and other supporters. But we certainly aren’t seeing either of those issues here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District. Volunteers from the Hidden Garden Steps project, the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors, Nature in the City’s Green Hairstreak [Butterfly] Corridor project, and other groups are working together toward our common goal of nurturing a sense of community that makes our neighborhood a place where we all belong. And we have the volunteers and other partners to prove it.

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


Communities of Learning: SF DPW Street Parks and Hidden Garden Steps

February 25, 2012

We don’t normally think of a local department of public works (DPW) as a provider of learning opportunities. But that’s exactly what colleagues at the San Francisco DPW created late last month, and it’s completely consistent with what many of us as community-based volunteers here in San Francisco are producing.

Through a day-long Street Parks Program workshop, DPW and San Francisco Parks Alliance colleagues (Sandra Zuniga and Julia Brashares) created an opportunity for local volunteers to learn about funding opportunities and successful projects-in-progress. And, by educating us a bit about what is available in our own community, it inspired community-changing conversations that will continue much longer than the brief workshop lasted.

Designed as a collaborative learning opportunity for participants from the more than 140 Street Parks Program projects formally adopted up to this point by DPW, the workshop attracted a surprisingly small number of program representatives. The four of us from the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District made up around 15 percent of that group. And yet this wasn’t about numbers; it was a chance for that relatively small group of us to meet each other, prospective project funders, and others involved in neighborhood-based efforts to transform neglected, unsightly pockets of our city into beautiful community meeting places that further contribute to the city’s feeling of City-with-a-big-C.

And by the end of the day, we were already developing ways to nurture the connections the Street Parks program has created between us. We took steps to create our own onsite-online community of learning by setting up a LinkedIn discussion group and a Facebook group as ways to continue sharing resources, suggesting solutions to the challenges many of us face, and fostering an even greater sense of community than already exists here in San Francisco among those involved in Street Parks Program projects.

What really pushed the development of this new community of learning forward was the event organizers’ decision to feature a couple of projects as part of the workshop presentations. Turning to two of us from projects called “Street Park superstars” for our “creative fund-raising ideas” that are building and sustaining community support for greening projects, they asked us to describe the steps we took to reach the levels of success we have already achieved.

Pam Axelson, from the Athens/Avalon Garden project, recalled that the project started because of a murder in the neighborhood:  “The crime problem was significant,” she recalled. “The site was a night-time hang-out—a total dump site” where mattresses and other objects were discarded. Neighbors began asking, “Why don’t we make that a better-looking site?” A core group of neighbors came together, found out who owned the property, contacted DPW for approval, and also gained support from a group of planning students at the University of San Francisco.

Identifying a similarly depressing yet potentially beautiful area in our own neighborhood, those of us who initiated the Hidden Garden Steps project saw it as an opportunity to transform an overgrown, poorly maintained set of 148 concrete steps into a neighborhood gem and community meeting place similar to the ceramic tiled steps completed on Moraga, between 15th and 16th avenues. And in describing the success we had in raising $10,000 during a very simple two-hour fundraising effort in December 2011—selling some of the tiles that will become part of the ceramic-tiled Hidden Garden Steps—we told our colleagues that it was a two-hour event backed up with two years of effort similar to what was developed in the Athens/Avalon Garden project: building a strong and collaborative organizing committee; attracting an increasingly large, enthusiastic, and reliable group of volunteers; creating a visible presence for the project both onsite and online (a website, a Twitter account, a Facebook page, blog postings like this one, and, most recently, a YouTube channel); and an ever-growing set of partners from existing groups with goals that are complementary to our own (the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors, Nature in the City’s Green Hairstreak [Butterfly] Corridor, the San Francisco Parks Alliance and DPW Street Parks Program, Woodside International School, and others where our work together makes every group much stronger).

The short-term result, we noted, was an event that brought us $10,000 closer to our $300,000 fundraising goal; the more significant result, we added, is that we’re continuing to create a sense of community designed to rival the projected longevity of the Hidden Garden Steps themselves once they are completed. And the latest cause for celebration is this newfound opportunity to learn while working together with our Street Parks Program colleagues.

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


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