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.

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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.


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