Hidden Garden Steps: A Community Continuing to Evolve

January 15, 2014

The Hidden Garden Steps ceramic-tile mosaic created and completed by project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher is in place here in San Francisco, and an ever-expanding community has quickly claimed the site as its own—just as organizing committee members hoped it would.

The Steps as venue for exercise

The Steps as venue for exercise

New resources connecting that community are appearing online with increasing frequency. We have seen our existing website, Facebook page, and Twitter account (all created and maintained by project volunteers) augmented through individual initiatives by those who are falling in love with the Hidden Garden Steps (on 16th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District): There are already reviews on Yelp, check-ins on Foursquare (including our first official Hidden Garden Steps Foursquare mayor), favorable mentions in the San Francisco Examiner and on Weekend Sherpa, and wonderful articles on Cindy Casey’s “Art and Architecture – San Francisco” blog and Tony Holiday’s San Francisco park trails and public stairways blog.

A two-fold agenda was always at the heart of the four-year effort to transform the overgrown, ill-tended, graffiti-marred 148-step concrete staircase (originally constructed in 1926) into a neighborhood gem: creating a second ceramic-tiled staircase with community gardens to complement the original steps on Moraga Street, between 15th and 16th avenues, and creating an outdoor variation on the indoor Third Place concept promoted by  Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (1989)

The formal opening ceremony on Saturday, December 7, 2013 provided plenty of signs that both goals were being met. Sherry Boschert, a Hidden Garden Steps supporter who remains active in a variety of neighborhood initiatives, worked with Steps organizing committee members to organize and orchestrate a community-based volunteer-driven block party that attracted more than 150 participants. Among those speaking at the event were San Francisco County Supervisor Norman Yee (also serving as acting mayor that day); San Francisco Department of Public Works Community Liaison Jerad Weiner, who remains a conduit of onsite support through the San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program; DPW structural engineer Ray Lui; San Francisco Parks Alliance Executive Director Matt O’Grady, offering support as head of our fiscal agent; and the artists themselves.

Every one of those brief from-the-heart presentations acknowledged the number of partnerships, donors, and community volunteers needed to produce something of that magnitude, and Supervisor Yee’s own presentation captured the spirit of the endeavor—rather than placing himself at the center of the event, he very generously spent time  acknowledging that he was elected to represent the district as the project was nearing completion and that it was the work of his predecessor (former District 7 County Supervisor Sean Elsbernd) and predecessor’s staff that contributed tremendously to the success of the Steps initiative.

Ribbon-cutting at the Opening Ceremony

Ribbon-cutting at the Opening Ceremony

Organizing committee members had one intentionally brief, wonderfully playful moment in the limelight as we were surrounded by many of our project partners to cut a multi-colored crepe-paper-weave ribbon stretched across the foot of the Steps. We then literally and figuratively stepped aside as dozens of people streamed up the Steps to transform the site from a project facilitated by a core group of community volunteers to one claimed by the larger community that supports it.

By late afternoon, the crowds had dispersed. A sense of tranquility was once again palpable on site. And by mid-evening, the Steps were continuing to quickly evolve into a meeting place for friends as well as for neighbors and complete strangers who otherwise might not be seeing, talking, and dreaming with each other. As I was taking a final look down the Steps just before 10 o’clock that evening, I ended up talking with someone who hadn’t realized the Steps were already completed and open to the public. We chatted about how the project had developed, talked about how he wished he had been available to more actively support and be an active participant in the development and implementation of the project, and talked about other neighborhood projects in development—which made me realize that less than 10 hours after the Steps opened, they were already functioning as an outdoors Third Place that draws people together and creates the possibility of additional collaborations.

A recent spur-of-the-moment sweepathon

Those encounters have continued on a daily basis since that initial day. Several organizing committee members and other neighbors all found ourselves engaged in a wonderful impromptu conversation on the Steps on New Year’s Day. Visitors from San Francisco’s East and South Bay areas have repeatedly come to the Steps and brought friends. Those who supported the project through the purchase of individual tiles interwoven into the completed mosaic with personal inscriptions come, photograph, and bring friends to enjoy the beauty of the site and the spectacular views it provides. Project volunteers continue to participate in the monthly two-hour clean-up and gardening sessions held on the second Saturday of each month from 1 – 3 pm (open to any interested new or returning volunteer), and neighbors, without any formal guidance or call to action, simply show up when they see that the Steps need to be swept or in some other way spruced up a bit to keep the site pristine.

HGS--Third_Place_Clean-up--Al--2014-01-05

Steps volunteer Al Magary engaged in clean-up

Most importantly of all, the spirit of community and collaboration that drove the Hidden Garden Steps to completion is already inspiring a neighbor—Al Magary—to see if he can informally organize a group to sweep and take other actions to clean up the long-ignored even larger set of steps one block away (on 15th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets). Anyone interested in joining that budding community of interest can contact Al for more information at 15thAveStepsPark@gmail.com. Who knows? Perhaps a third set of ceramic-tiled steps is on its way.

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

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The Well-Connected Community: Attending Conferences with Genetically-Enabled Foursquare

January 30, 2013

Foursquare—that lovely social media tool that helps make us aware, through geotagging capabilities, of how physically close we are to those we might not otherwise encounter—seems as if it would be a uniquely valuable tool for those of us attending conferences and trying to catch up to colleagues from across the country or around the world.

ALA_Midwinter_2013The idea that our mobile devices could take the initiative in providing us with information we hadn’t yet thought to actively solicit—e.g., finding out, through notifications, who among our friends and colleagues is nearby—is something that David Weinberger and Nova Spivack referred to as being a part of Web 3.0 in January 2009 during a presentation at an American Library Association presentation in Denver. In positing a Web 3.0 world in which our devices would alert us before we asked for the information, the two presenters clearly evoked a wide range of reactions during that session. Some people were clearly fascinated and excited by the prospect, while some of us appeared ready to crawl under the nearest rock and whimper about the loss of privacy and anonymity. Most fascinating to me, at the time, was the discovery a few days later that the sort of service Weinberger and Spivack were predicting as an innovation on its way was already in use; a quick online search today confirmed that Foursquare itself was created within months of Weinberger and Spivack’s presentation. Furthermore, one of its predecessors (Dodgeball) preceded the prediction by nearly nine years—once again proving how hard it is to be a futurist in a world where the future seems to have unfolded before we even have a chance to predict it.

nmc.logo.cmykFoursquare came back to mind during my recent participation in the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Project Summit on “The Future of Education” in Austin, Texas and the American Library Association (ALA) 2013 Midwinter meeting in Seattle over a seven-day period. Although there was no need for anything like Foursquare at the NMC conference—all 100 participants were staying in the same wonderful resort outside of Austin and spending our days in one beautifully accommodating meeting room—one could argue that the ALA conference, with thousands of participants bouncing back and forth between meeting rooms in the convention center in Seattle and also staying in a wide range of hotels throughout downtown Seattle, was prime Foursquare turf.

And yet I never once thought about signing up for or using Foursquare to expedite connections. From the moment I stepped onsite into Seattle’s enormous Washington State Convention Center, I began running into exactly the colleagues I hoped to see. Within my first hour there on a Friday afternoon, I had settled into a conversation in a lounge area with a colleague from Nashville. We were joined, intermittently, by colleagues from California, Chicago, and many other places. Walking the large exhibits area early that evening, I had opportunities to talk with colleagues from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Dublin (Ohio), Chicago, Orlando, and many other places. In fact, a colleague I initially met earlier in the week at the NMC summit in Austin was there in Seattle, and it turned out she was sharing a room with a colleague with whom I serve on an ALA committee. (I’m left wondering whether Foursquare could have alerted me to that particular connection.) I capped off the evening with my one planned encounter: dinner with a colleague who recently left Georgia to accept a wonderful new position in Cleveland.

I suspect it’s not necessary to drag this out with an hour-by-hour description of all the similar encounters I had throughout the day on Saturday, but it’s worth noting that when I found myself unexpectedly with a completely unscheduled 90-minute block of time Sunday morning, I ran into a cherished colleague—Peggy Barber—who never manages to leave me less than completely energized by her descriptions of the projects she currently is completing. We decided to take advantage of that opportunity to go to a nearby independent coffee shop—the Caffe Ladro outlet at 801 Pine Street—that had been recommended by Seattle residents so we would have some uninterrupted time for conversation. And you surely know what came next: we ended up sitting next to a couple of other conference attendees who were close associates of a colleague from Florida.

That’s when I had another moment of revelation: neither Peggy nor I are drawn to Foursquare because we somehow have a genetically-enabled version of the product deeply embedded in our DNA.

I’m not saying I’ll never try Foursquare. But for now, it seems redundant in a world where the simple act of showing up puts me in contact with those I most cherish and who, in turn, make me glad that our incredibly connected onsite-online world somehow manages to place us in exactly the right location at exactly the right time to sustain our various communities of learning and communities of practice.


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