Hidden Garden Steps: Growing Into a Name

September 20, 2013

Shakespeare’s famous question “What’s in a name?” in Romeo and Juliet came to mind again last night while I was looking at a photograph documenting the latest upgrades on the Hidden Garden Steps site here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District. And the answer, I realized as I unconsciously connected the existing name “Hidden Garden Steps” to the photograph showing a section of the gardens-in-progress near the top of the site, was “more than we can ever imagine at the moment when we choose (or receive) a name.”

Newly-installed gravel near top of Hidden Garden Steps

Newly-installed gravel near top of Hidden Garden Steps

Parents certainly have an inkling of what they are doing when they select something along the lines of Royal Forest Oakes (a college classmate I hadn’t thought about in years until I began writing this piece) or Sandy Beach (a cherished friend who is probably only half joking when she claims to be one of the few people who would be ecstatic about acquiring a four-syllable Japanese surname through the act of marriage rather than keeping her considerably shorter maiden name). Fundraisers intuitively understand the importance of what we call “naming opportunities” when placing donors’ names on buildings, concert halls, museum galleries, special-interest centers in libraries, or something as unusual as the 148-step ceramic-tile mosaic that project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher are a breath away from completing for installation on the Hidden Garden Steps site on 16th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets.

Naming the Steps was a process that extended over a several-month period. Members of the project organizing committee approached the challenge knowing that the neighbors who inspired our project with their original set of ceramic-tiled steps (also designed and fabricated by Barr and Crutcher, on Moraga Street between 15th and 16th avenues) had already been using the name “The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps” for five years before we asked the artists to work with us on a second set for the neighborhood, and none of us appeared to be particularly enamored of being stuck with the name “The Other 16th Avenue Tiled Steps.”

Starting with the generic “Kirkham-16th Avenue Mosaic Steps” designation as a placeholder, we tossed ideas around for months as we designed and planned for implementation of the fundraising and marketing efforts capable of igniting the enthusiasm and support needed to bring a $300,000 volunteer-driven community-based project to fruition. As the time to create a project website as well as design and print marketing materials approached, we finally engaged in the hour-long exercise that produced the name that stuck.

We started with a timed two-minute period in which everyone tossed out every word or term that came to mind to describe the site—which, at the time, was a pedestrian corridor containing plenty of graffiti, overgrown trees, plants, and weeds that hadn’t been touched in years, and unimaginable amounts of trash that had been left and covered by other trash, leaves, and branches. (Among the most interesting discoveries when we began cleaning the area were a vacuum cleaner, a typewriter, and a golf ball; I’m sure there’s a story there.) Once we had those myriad words in front of us, we eliminated the negative ones from the list; we knew enough to avoid calling the project “Golf-ball and Typewriter Alley” or “The ‘Run for Your Life, There Are Monsters in the Trees’ Steps.”

What did begin to take shape was a set of options that focused on the potential beauty to be carved out of the long-neglected site; the idea that there was something capable of drawing members of our extended community together through creation and maintenance of a new neighborhood focal point; and the obvious project elements of art, ceramic tiles, gardens, and steps. By eliminating the less-descriptive words, the name “Hidden Garden Steps” more or less presented itself as the now-inevitable choice.

Detail of Hidden Garden Steps mosaic

Detail of Hidden Garden Steps mosaic

It didn’t, during those initial moments of discovery, inspire the sense of enthusiasm we were seeking—but then we did a reverse two-minute timed exercise which required only that everyone toss out every image that the name suggested to them. When responses along the lines of “a children’s fairy-tale garden,” “something mysterious that reveals more of itself the more it’s explored,” and “art and gardens and community,” we could feel our mood shifting. The name started to become something that actually helped transform the idea of the Hidden Garden Steps into concrete elements that we wanted to create through a combination of the ceramic-tile mosaic; the gardens that would feature succulents, California natives, and other drought-tolerant plants; and any murals we added to the existing graffiti-tagged walls along the site.

The name, in essence, had already begun to transform the project by making us more aware of what we were potentially in a position to develop.

Our intention has been consistent: to create a cohesive project where the mosaic, the gardens, and the murals were so carefully interwoven and dependent upon each other that it would be impossible to imagine the site without all three of those elements present. And yet the mosaic has been the obvious focus of attention all along—until I saw that photograph last night.

It’s a simple, unremarkable image: a close-up of newly-installed gravel in a narrow space between a drainage gutter and the terraced garden along the top third of the Steps. But as I looked at that gravel, how it complemented the Steps, and how it added to the beauty and called a bit more attention to those still partially-hidden gardens, I realized I was beginning to think of the name in a much more expansive and cohesive way than ever before: it was as if the “hidden garden Steps,” with an emphasis on the steps, had grown into the richer more nuanced possibilities suggested by the capitalized, equally-weighted words “Hidden,” with its implication of something wonderful waiting to be discovered; “Garden,” which contains the living thriving plants reflected within the design of the mosaic itself; and “Steps,” the platform upon which we will walk and from which we will admire that stunningly beautiful mosaic as it reflects a dynamic artistic vision of the life and community that will continue to develop around it in the years and decades before us.

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

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