Chris Duderstadt: Building Community One Bench at a Time

October 2, 2017

While we often talk about taking positive actions step by step to improve our communities, Inner Sunset Park Neighbors Board Vice President Chris Duderstadt has persistently been making San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District and other areas better bench by bench. His Public Bench Project is now responsible for having created and added 100 colorful, attractive, welcoming places to sit, so a group of Inner Sunset neighbors gathered with Chris a week ago to celebrate the contributions he and other collaborating members of our community have made to enriching our public spaces.

Public-Bench_Project[2].pngHe built and installed his first public bench 40 years ago, and his own Inner Sunset home continues to feature one of the earliest benches. Interest in his work gained increasing amounts of attention over a very long period of time, he recalled during our conversation last week. The effort began growing rapidly approximately five years ago, when he formally created The Public Bench Project. Supporters have brought increasingly large amounts of loving attention to the project. Articles in local publications have helped to spread the word about the project and the presence of those lovely, hand-crafted benches. Those involved in offering space for additional benches are often involved in adorning them with the playfully colorful patterns that make them so attractive (the bench at the foot of the Hidden Garden Steps was painted by artist/art instructor Angie Crabtree and her students from the Woodside International School here in our neighborhood), and Chris himself has painted wonderful designs on a substantial number of those benches.

Many of us—residents and visitors alike—have enjoyed numerous conversations fostered by the availability of those lovely little meeting places where we interact with people we might not otherwise have met. And like the two neighborhood large-scale ceramic-tiled steps projects that serve as meeting places for people from all over the world, the benches are spectacular variations on Ray Oldenburg’s concept of the Third Place—those places where people know they can meet, talk, plan, and dream together.

Public_Bench_Project[1].pngIt certainly hasn’t been an easy process for Chris and others who continue to make this project thrive. There are always those who express concern that the introduction of a new bench (or a new ceramic-tiled staircase) will somehow attract “unwanted” people to the place a bench or other attraction is placed—and, of course, the homeless are generally the first to be mentioned as examples of those who are unwanted. But the success of the benches, the Moraga Steps, and the Hidden Garden Steps serve as a strong response—as so many of us remind those who are concerned—that being homeless is not a crime; it’s the uncivil behavior of some people (not all of whom are homeless, by the way) that is a concern, and that’s something we can and do address firmly when that particular problem arises. What some of us have found is that by sharing spaces with a variety of people—including the homeless members of our community—we have an opportunity to get to know them better so all of us can work together to make the neighborhood a better place.

With all the celebration that took place at that 100th-bench celebration came a bit of sadness for those of us who know and admire Chris and what he does. He explained an imminent hiatus in the project in a recent email:

“Let me thank you for your support of the Public Bench Project. We have made our neighborhoods more walkable and just plain friendlier. Over the past 40 years I have been able to place 100 benches in publicly accessible locations.

“It’s with great sadness that the Public Bench Project will be going on the disabled list for a while. I’m having major back surgery and, if successful, it will be at least 6 months before I can make benches again.

“From the outer Richmond and Sunset, to Dog Patch, to the Bay View, and even across the bay in San Pablo, you have allowed me to place benches. I believe we have all made the world just a little bit better.

“I trust you all have been able to experience the joy of doing this. While recovering, I hope to be able to figure out Facebook and create a venue to share our experiences.

“Thank you again. It’s been a good run.”

And it’s a good run that many of us look forward to continuing as soon as Chris is ready to get back on the bench and create more community meeting places for all of us.

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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: Growth

November 14, 2011

Who would have thought that Mark Twain’s timeless story of Tom Sawyer convincing others to paint a fence for him would find a parallel in San
Francisco’s Inner Sunset District? And yet, that’s what has been happening among the ever-growing group of dedicated, creative community volunteers collaborating on the Hidden Garden Steps project at 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets.

Those of us who have been involved in monthly clean-ups (second Saturday of each month, from 1 – 3 pm) since April 2011—painting walls and fences marred by graffiti, pulling weeds, sweeping steps, and planting the first small sections of what will eventually be a splendid set of community gardens around a ceramic-tiled stairway—are finding our ranks growing each time we spend a couple of hours on the stairs.

Last Saturday was no exception; a couple of new volunteers who learned about us through our participation in the Inner Sunset Street Fair in October and our latest reception at Crepevine joined us to weed around the succulents, California natives, and other drought-tolerant plants we’ve been putting into the ground as part of our effort to support Nature in the City’s Green Hairstreak (Butterfly) Ecosystem Corridor project. And while all of us were having fun cleaning up and putting a few new plants into the ground—including a small freemontodendron that will eventually be one of the signature elements of the garden near the top of the stairs—more people stopped to chat, offer encouragement, and ask how they could become involved in painting those walls and fences, pulling those weeds, and adding more plants to the garden.

It really is exactly what we all hoped it would be: a community project that thrives on the generosity of other members of our extended community. The initial plantings have been a combination of donations from our colleagues in the Green Hairstreak Butterfly project, neighbors donating cuttings from their own gardens, and nature’s own donations in the form of natives coming up  by themselves—ferns, a poppy that was one of the most colorful volunteers to pop up earlier this year, and a newly spotted lupine that broke ground within the past couple of weeks and will eventually add even more color and draw more wildlife to the site.

We’ve had a spectacular year of successes, including $60,000 in cash support and more than $20,000 in donated and promised services to push us toward our $300,000 goal. A colorful mural has already been painted at the foot of the steps by artist/art and mural instructor Angie Crabtree and a few of her Woodside International School students and alums as an example of how the project will beautify the neighborhood. Substantial tree-trimming was completed free of charge by Tree Shapers, LLC to enhance the views toward and from the stairway. The clean-ups and plantings are already transforming the site in ways that are attracting birds, butterflies, other wildlife—we even had a black-and-orange-winged butterfly rest on the hat of one of our volunteers while we were working last Saturday.

Next steps in preparing to tile the stairway will be to fix an off-center section and adjoining small wall at the top of the steps; colleagues at the City/County of San Francisco Department of Public Works are drawing up plans to complete that work at no charge to the project. Then, under the direction of project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher, the mosaic tile designs will be constructed by volunteers. Under the direction of the artists, professional tile setters will then apply the mosaic risers and grey tread tiles to the steps.

For information about purchasing a tile or becoming involved in the Hidden Garden Steps project, please visit our website at http://hiddengardensteps.org or write to us at hiddengardensteps@gmail.com. You’ll also find us on Facebook and Twitter (@gardensteps).

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


Hidden Garden Steps: A Work of Community, Art, and Community Art in Progress

July 8, 2011

When artist/art and mural instructor Angie Crabtree and a few of her Woodside International School students and alums began their Hidden Garden Steps mural here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District  late last week, there was more than art in action. Their work provided the latest physical confirmation that the volunteer-driven effort to create a set of ceramic tiled steps with complementary gardens and at least one wall mural, strengthen the existing sense of community, and create long-term sustainable collaborations in a city known for its sense of vibrantly diverse and collaborative neighborhoods was bearing fruit.

And spending time this afternoon with Crabtree and Itzel, one of the student-muralists, reminded me once again why the entire effort to transform that set of steps on 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets was honored with a “Best Community Art—2011” Award in SF Weekly’s 2011 edition of its annual Best of San Francisco issue. Hidden Garden Steps really is, as writer Joe Eskenazi wrote, a project that is “poignant in its sweetness,” and that sweetness was on display while Crabtree, Itzel, and a Woodside alum worked side by side today to continue bringing their colorfully playful mural to life.

Crabtree was first drawn to the project by the sight of its stunningly beautiful predecessor on Moraga between 15th and 16th avenues, just two blocks away from the Hidden Garden Steps: “I was in awe…I wanted to be part of this project,” she recalled.

Itzel—a Woodside high school student who lives in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, is about to begin her junior year at Woodside, and dreams of somebody becoming an obstetrician—initially heard about the project while completing her second year as a Woodside student in Crabtree’s mural class before beginning her summer break.

“I love painting. We did a mural at school last year,” she said during our conversation this afternoon. The chance to work on the Hidden Garden Steps mural was tremendously appealing to her, she added: “When you do creative things, you can express yourself through art…you can draw whatever you want. It reduces your stress. It takes all your problems away.”

And while Crabtree herself is already a working artist whose involvement extends to working through the nonprofit Root Division group dedicated to improving appreciation and access to the visual arts by connecting personal inspiration and community participation, she is also finding unexpectedly exciting opportunities in the Hidden Garden Steps mural.

“This is unusual for me in the Sunset District,” she noted. “The [Woodside] students do murals [including a set of five currently in progress on the Woodside buildings themselves to highlight scenes from various San Francisco neighborhoods], but they have never done a community mural.”

Support for her work has been strong at Woodside, she added. School headmaster John Edwards not only has supported the school’s involvement in the mural project since its inception, but also arranged for funding for the class, the materials needed to complete the mural, and the permit fees required to gain approval for the project through the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Transformation of the site along with marketing and fundraising efforts to complete the project, are continuing in collaboration with project partners from the San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program, who have been providing tools and support for monthly onsite clean-up sessions, and the San Francisco Parks Trust, along with an ever-growing of group of financial supporters and volunteers. The Woodside effort will continue on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 1 – 3 pm through the end of July 2011.

For information about supporting or becoming involved in the Hidden Garden Steps project, please visit our website at http://hiddengardensteps.org or write to us at hiddengardensteps@gmail.com,

N.B.: This is the sixth in an ongoing series to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco. Photographs of mural design provided by Gilbert Johnson.


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