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.


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: 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.


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: 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. 


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