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.

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