Hidden Garden Steps: Seeing the People Behind the Projects

October 25, 2013

While driving from San Francisco to Seattle several years ago, I learned an important lesson: we diminish ourselves, our communities, and the power of the collaborative process by ignoring the people who produce all that surrounds us.

The lesson came during a visit with Licia’s (my wife’s) aunt (Dorothy) and uncle (Woody).  It was as Woody was describing some of the roadwork he had overseen while working for Caltrans (the California Department of Transportation) that I realized how little thought we give to those who, like Woody, literally make our world look and work the way it does. He mentioned one 18-mile stretch as a particularly challenging project; told us how he had worked with colleagues to design a solution that was not only utilitarian but actually, in many ways, aesthetically pleasing; and told us that we would be driving over that extended length of road on our way back to San Francisco. When we reached the beginning of what we now think of as “Uncle Woody’s Road” (with no disrespect intended toward all of Woody’s wonderful collaborators who were important partners in completing the project), we slowed down. Paid attention to what he had described. And afterwards thought about how many other people’s work we failed to acknowledge.

KZ Tile employee working on Steps

KZ Tile employee working on Steps

As a colleague once noted, “everything was designed by someone,” but we take this aspect of the world around us for granted. Which is not the case for those of us involved as organizing committee members on the Hidden Garden Steps project here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District. We’re aware of the more than 500 people—primarily from the San Francisco Bay Area, but also including people from nine states as well as from the United Kingdom and France—who donated more than $200,000 in cash and substantial amounts of volunteer time to support the creation and installation of the 148-step ceramic-tile mosaic created by  project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher and currently being installed by KZ Tile employees on the Hidden Garden Steps site (16th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets). We’re becoming familiar with Kai, Michael, and the others from KZ Tile who are working to complete the installation before the rainy season begins. We know the numerous San Francisco Department of Public Works employees who removed a broken concrete retaining wall and out-of-alignment flight of steps so the mosaic could be correctly and safely installed.

HGS--Erosion_Control--Cementing_Posts[3]--2013-10-10

SF DPW workers pouring concrete for erosion control barriers

We know Hector, Sean, David, Neil, Francisco, and so many others who have dug holes, built terraces, poured and hand-troweled concrete, and shoveled dirt from one side of the hill to the other—and then back again—as massive erosion-control efforts were completed onsite. We know Ray and Bill and Kevin and Nick and so many others who worked from their offices and make onsite visits to move the project along and make it far better than any of us ever envisioned it being. We know Olivia and Alex and Ashley and Katy (now herself a county supervisor), who as legislative aides to members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors did the underappreciated and rarely acknowledged work of connecting us to those within the City and County of San Francisco who needed to be part of transforming the site into something attractive and of value to those in the immediate neighborhood as well as to those from all over the world who come to San Francisco to see those wonders that just seem to spring up on their own.

Steps mosaic workshop

Steps mosaic workshop

Because the project had two major and very ambitious goals—create a second set of ceramic-tile steps and public gardens here in the Inner Sunset District and further strengthen the sense of community that already exists here (we have at least three neighborhood associations, a merchants association, a weekly farmers’ market, several schools, a University of California campus, numerous churches, and a very active café and restaurant scene that provides plenty of third places for us to gather, relax, exchange ideas, and occasionally find ways to make the community even more appealing and cohesive)—we have also come to know many of the neighbors and organizations we didn’t previously know. Nurturing the Hidden Garden Steps as an inclusive project, we drew community members together to participate in the creation of parts of the mosaic, continue to attract volunteers on the second Saturday of each month from 1 – 3 pm to clean up the site, nurture the gardens-in-progress, and do whatever is needed to make this into another fairly unusual third place for community interactions and engagement.

We have been active on the ground—sometimes going door to door to keep neighbors up to date on what we’re doing—as well as online (through our website, newsletter, @GardenSteps Twitter account, Hidden Garden Steps Facebook page (which received its 200th “like” earlier this week), and numerous other social media platforms.

The original steps on Moraga Street

The original steps on Moraga Street

And yet even with all that connectivity and collaboration, we know there will come a time when we will no longer be here. Others will walk up and down those stairs. Work on those gardens. Have conversations which will not include us. Stop long enough to think about the fact that people just like them made the Hidden Garden Steps possible. And then be inspired, as we were by the original set of tiled steps here in the neighborhood, to engage in that level of community-building, collaboration, and transformation themselves.

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

Advertisements

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.


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: Volunteerism, Partnership, Community—and Success!

December 6, 2011

It’s magnificent to watch a community develop. It’s even more rewarding to be part of the group of volunteers contributing to that growth. So those of us involved in nurturing the Hidden Garden Steps project, designed to create a second ceramic-tile staircase surrounded by gardens (with  murals thrown in for good measure) in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District, are feeling absolutely giddy at the sense of community that is springing up around us.

Working with an ever-growing group of individual and organizational partners including the San Francisco Parks Alliance and the City and County of San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program, we managed to obtain another $10,000 toward our $300,000 project goal during a two-hour onsite fundraising event that drew generous and enthusiastic supporters to the Steps last Saturday. We attracted our 100th donor (organizing committee member Barbara Meli, pictured here) contributing to the individual tiles that will be installed up and down the entire stairway. We have also received donations to support installation of five of the 22 multi-tile elements that are a key part of project artists Colette Crutcher and Aileen Barr’s stairs design, with another two sets of donors committing to underwriting additional multi-tile elements.

And, the day before, we met with our colleagues in Nature in the City’s Green Hairstreak [Butterfly] Corridor project to explore ways we can work even more closely together to restore and extend a little of the area’s natural beauty and wildlife habitats throughout those Inner Sunset District hills.

Our monthly organizing committee meeting Saturday morning, furthermore, gave us a chance to catch up with each other briefly as we continued outlining our plans for more events, more onsite improvements, and additional steady growth toward completing the project. And we even took a few minutes to relish the increased sense of collaboration each new volunteer brings to this endeavor at long-term community-building.

Encouraging signs are springing up nearly everywhere we look. The trimming of the trees by Tree Shapers, LLC last spring and our efforts to remove considerable amounts of graffiti, debris and overgrown brush allowed us to begin installing the first a series of gardens combining California native plants, succulents, and other treasures. Our work is attracting an increasing number of birds and animals—including a squirrel that was sunning itself from the top of a telephone pole on a particularly sunny morning a few days ago hours after we added nearly two dozen Monkey Flower bushes–to that garden-in-progress at the top of the steps.

We’re continuing to work toward having structural repairs to the stairs completed as soon as possible so we can further prepare the habitat for the Green Hairstreak butterflies next spring and begin creating the tiles and tile elements that will adorn the steps. In the meantime, we continue to welcome interested members of our extended community to join us at the monthly plantings and clean-ups (second Saturday of each month from 1-3 pm if rain doesn’t prevent us from working), jump into the myriad volunteer opportunities available, or simply walk the Steps and join us in celebrating our accomplishments to date.

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 eighth in an ongoing series to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco.


%d bloggers like this: