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.


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