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. 


Hidden Garden Steps: Libraries, Community, and Collaboration

March 30, 2011

Most people use public libraries to check out books or access other onsite and online resources. A few of us sometimes walk into libraries with much less focused goals in mind, and walk away with unexpected opportunities beyond our wildest dreams.

When Licia Wells and I joined a friend at the reopening celebration for the Bernal Heights Branch Library here in San Francisco on January 30, 2010, we had no idea that we were about to become involved in a community-based, volunteer-managed, neighborhood beautification project in an entirely different part of San Francisco.

As a former San Francisco Public Library employee and ongoing fan of what libraries offer all of us, I was excited about visiting the newly renovated branch and having a chance to see the branch manager and other colleagues that afternoon. And when Branch Manager Lisa Dunseth—who now is working in the Main Library San Francisco History Center—asked if we wanted to meet Colette Crutcher, an artist who lives in the Bernal Heights neighborhood, none of us could have imagined where our introductions and conversations were about to lead us.

Within a few minutes of meeting Colette, we all realized we had something in common: the Inner Sunset District’s Tiled Steps project connecting 15th and 16th avenues on Moraga Street. Colette and Aileen Barr had designed and overseen installation of that project; Licia and I were among the many admirers of that much-loved neighborhood landmark which attracts visitors from all over the world, so we had one question for Colette: If we could pull together another group of interested neighbors as Alice Xavier and Jessie Audette had done for the Moraga Steps, would she and Aileen be interested in working on a second tiled-steps project near the original site?

Colette, as we learned later, had had conversations like that one many times. Nothing had ever come of them. But this was to be a different set of circumstances, starting with a few of us who loved the non-tiled steps near our homes and wondered what we could do to stop the vandalism and deterioration that was making them a less-than-inviting walkway.

The thought turned into action a few days later when I saw Liz McLoughlin, who lives at the top of the 16th Avenue steps that connect Kirkham and Lawton streets. Liz and her husband Tom had spent countless hours sweeping debris from the steps and painting over graffiti which continually reappeared on a large wall near the top of the walkway. She immediately expressed interest in and enthusiasm for the idea of trying to form an organizing committee that could bring the project to fruition while creating a stronger sense of community within the Inner Sunset District.

With little more than a vague awareness of how Alice and Jessie had ceaselessly worked to lead the Moraga Steps project to fruition—and with a lot of information generously and graciously provided by Alice in the early stages of our discussions—Liz and I agreed to serve as co-chairs for a new organizing committee, Licia agreed to help oversee the effort to raise the $300,000 we eventually determined we would need to bring the effort to completion, and Colette and Aileen started working on designs for what became the Hidden Garden Steps.

The year-long process of creating the infrastructure to make the project work is a story for another day. What remains to be done here is to draw a line from that initial conversation at the Bernal Heights Branch Library right back to the San Francisco Public Library system’s continuing  role as a community resource that helps foster the creation and growth of communities and community efforts.

When we officially began our fundraising and marketing efforts early in 2011, I visited with a colleague at the Sunset Branch Library—a few blocks away from the proposed site for the Hidden Garden Steps installation—to see whether a public presentation by the artists would be of interest to the library’s community of users. A few hours later, a second colleague—Robert Crabill, who was unaware of that initial conversation but had just come across an online description of the project—contacted me about the possibility of having the artists do exactly what I had proposed. And the event, held earlier this week, drew 30 people into the library’s small community meeting room to hear about both tiled-steps projects from the artists; see sample tiles; and learn how they could become engaged in our efforts if they wanted to be part of what we are well on the way to accomplishing.

We have received other requests for similar presentations, are planning more events, and are delighted that new volunteers are joining the effort to continue what Alice, Jessie, Aileen, and Colette started. And those of us who are continuing to work on the Hidden Garden Steps and add to the existing sense of community that exists here in the Inner Sunset District couldn’t be happier than to have such wonderful informal and formal partners.

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


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

March 20, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hidden Garden Steps: Building on a Dream

August 31, 2010

A dream achieved has taken on new life.

Several years ago, Alice Xavier and Jessie Audette in the Golden Gate Heights neighborhood of San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District, dreamed of turning a drab gray set of 163 steps connecting Moraga Street between 15th and 16th avenues into a beautiful ceramic tiled community meeting place. They teamed up with local artists Colette Crutcher and Aileen Barr—“local” being a relative term since Aileen arrived in San Francisco from Donegal, Ireland shortly before the project began and is there on vacation as I write these words—and literally had to build from scratch—a process colorfully documented in the artists’ book, 163: The Story of San Francisco’s 16th Avenue Tiled Steps. They also created an incredible group of neighborhood supporters to bring this innovative community-building project to completion.

Inspired by the Santa Teresa steps in Rio de Janeiro as well as Antoni Gaudí’s mosaics in Barcelona and La Scala (the stairway) in Caltagirone, they literally fought an uphill battle in their efforts to create a work of beauty that now entices walkers to climb the stairs for a stunning view of the Sunset District as it extends west to the Pacific Ocean—on those days when the view isn’t obscured by fog. They had to gain political support for the project, convince neighbors that their project was well worth undertaking, attract donors and volunteers—something at which Xavier clearly excels—and organize and orchestrate fundraising events, planning meetings, and in-kind donations to support the project in those years just before Web 2.0 social networking tools like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn grew to make it far easier to reach and/or develop communities of interest.

When the innovative project was complete, many of us who had watched the stairs become a community meeting place were stunned, inspired, and motivated to see this as a beginning, not an end. Furthermore, because the Inner Sunset District has numerous concrete stairways linking streets along the hills and waiting for similar treatment, it’s natural for many of us who live and thrive in the neighborhood to think about how wonderful it would be to build upon what Audette, Barr, Crutcher, Xavier, and all their supporters and volunteers have created.

So it’s no surprise that during a party at the foot of the Moraga Steps less than two weeks ago to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the completion of that project, a group of us were on hand to announce the official beginning of a new project: the Hidden Garden Steps, to tile the dank, overgrown, and graffiti-laden steps linking 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets, create a community garden on either side of the steps, and provide a complementary wall mural at the top of the steps.

N.B.: This is the first in an ongoing series to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco. Next: Building a Community of Support.


%d bloggers like this: