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.

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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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Hidden Garden Steps: Opening-Day Reflections

January 15, 2014

The following is a slightly-edited version of comments delivered during the opening celebration for the Hidden Garden Steps on Saturday, December 7, 2013; the Steps are located on 16th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets, in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District.

We struggle—all of us—so much these days with simple concepts like community, collaboration, cooperation, faith, and love. Hard to define. Even harder to develop. And yet there it is: the Hidden Garden Steps, an example of what community, collaboration, cooperation, faith, and love can produce.

HGS--Opening_Celebration[4]--2013-12-07One of the most beautiful aspects of that spectacular mosaic by Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher is what it documents. Adam Greenfield, president of the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors, said two nights ago that communities coalesce around the stories they create and share. And there it is. Adam’s idea incarnate. A complex, beautiful, and enticing mosaic capturing a from-the-heart piece of our community’s narrative.

The Steps have more than 600 individual names or inscriptions from donors in California and 14 other states (Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington), from Washington, D.C., and from four countries outside of the U.S. (Canada, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom). Aileen and Colette have seamlessly woven them into the overall design—a design that is the latest addition to the narrative of the Inner Sunset District, its residents, some of its former residents, and its visitors. It’s also part of the extended narrative of San Francisco and our connections to communities around the world, across decades and centuries. We—all of us, all of you—are living proof of what happens when people set egos aside and come together to create something of lasting value. Something we will enjoy and know that those here long after we are gone will enjoy as well.

You can’t go more than a few steps up that site without seeing the narrative come to life—for example, when you see Edith Johnson’s name. Edith, who is nearly 100 years old and has lived here longer than many of us have been alive.

You go a little farther and maybe you see the name of someone’s pet that is no longer with us. Or you see your own name, or the names of family members, friends, and neighbors.

And about two-thirds of the way up, where the Steps bend to the left around a larger landing, you see a massive passion flower—another reminder of the passion that drives this project and our community. That passion flower is what we call our “Gratitude Element.” It documents our gratitude for the many organizations and businesses that came together to bring the Steps to life.

For those who grumble about government and government workers, there’s the reminder that our partners in the San Francisco Department of Public Works fell in love with this site as they worked on it with us and made it far better than any of us dreamed it could be. It’s not “DPW” as some bureaucratic entity; it’s DPW made of people like Ray Lui, Kevin Sporer, Bill Pressas, Nick Elsner, and all the staff they sent our way.

For those who forget that there were already many community-based organizations active in our neighborhood, there’s the documentation that they came together under the Hidden Garden Steps banner. The San Francisco Parks Alliance supports us as our fiscal agent. The San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program provides us with tools and other materials to cultivate the gardens. Those gardens initially began to grow from donations from neighbors as well as from volunteers from Nature in the City’s Green Hairstreak butterfly project—which now is a more extended habitat than before because the Hidden Garden Steps site extends it a bit farther north, toward Golden Gate Park. There are our neighborhood associations—SHARP (Sunset Heights Association of Responsible People), the Golden Gate Heights Neighborhood Association, and the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors (ISPN). If you want to see how much ISPN members contribute to the neighborhood, join them—more members of our community—tomorrow on Irving Street between 9th and 10th avenues from 10 am to 6 pm for their final street fair/community gathering of the year, and the community potluck they are hosting next Tuesday evening at St. John of God community center at 5th and Irving.

For those who have little opportunity to interact with our elected officials, think of the people you see here today as well as former District 7 County Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, and those magnificent legislative aides (Alex Volberding and Olivia Scanlon) who so frequently helped connect us to supportive colleagues within City/County government. And Katie Tang, who as a legislative aide to Carmen Chu did all she could to draw positive attention to the Steps—and continues to do so now in her position as a County Supervisor with her fabulously helpful legislative aide Ashley Summers. And going back to Sean Elsbernd: think about how he agreed to use a neighborhood beautification fund to cover more than $7,000 in City/County permits before the project could be brought to completion.

You walk those Steps and you see the names of the members of the project’s core organizing committee—no more and no less visible than the names of others who supported the project. Not set apart, but integrated into the community that we so obviously cherish.

There are local merchants like Majed Fakhouri, who by hosting three events for project organizers and supporters at his Crepevine restaurant on Irving Street, provided a place for us to meet and eat and organize.

There’s Sam and his brothers at the 828 Irving Market, who kept our promotional brochures prominently displayed in the market window for nearly three years as we continued to reach out to the community for financial as well as volunteer support. And there are Chris and Nick at the 22nd and Irving Market who did the same in their part of the neighborhood so no interested neighbor would remain unaware of what we all were proposing to do together.

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Maya (center), with her mother and a friend

But that’s far from the complete story. The narrative we’re helping extend includes people like Maya, who was born on January 24, 2010—five days before the Hidden Garden Steps project was born as a result of an unplanned meeting in a branch library on the other side of town. Maya is growing up as the Steps are growing up. The mosaic on the Steps is an integral part of her life, and she has a tile that will remind her that she and her parents were here when it all was being built. If we’re lucky enough to keep her here in the neighborhood, she may extend the narrative herself if life leads her to raising her own family in a home not far from the Steps.

One more from the many that could be told: there’s Darren Gee, who as president of the George Washington High School Key Club three years ago brought his Key Club friends back month after month to help pull weeds, paint out graffiti, begin replanting the hill, and revitalize the hill. Because he remembered, in the following words, how menacing the site once felt:

“When I was little, my grandma used to take me up those stairs and I would be dead scared.  The stairs were dirty, dated, and covered with leaves.  I would always be afraid to slip so I’d slowly crawl up them or hold onto my Grandma for dear life.”

So many stories. So many additions to the narrative of our community and connections everywhere. Let’s give credit where credit is due. Please applaud yourselves. All of you. For all you did to make this happen. And remember that in many ways this is neither an ending or a beginning. It’s part of an amazing level of continuity that all of us will help sustain as we continue meeting here on the second Saturday of every month from 1- 3 pm. To sweep. To weed. To plant. To paint out any graffiti placed by those who don’t understand what adds to community as opposed to what detracts from it. But most of all to relish the community we have joined and continue to develop.

Our work together doesn’t have to take place just one time a month. We’re part of a community if we remove litter anytime we find any on the Steps. We’re part of a community if we remove graffiti whenever it appears. We’re part of a community if we come out on our own time and sweep a bit when it is needed. We’re part of a community if we kindly and openly and graciously approach people who may forget that people sleep at night in the buildings next to the Steps and are disturbed by loud conversations or impromptu parties. We’re part of a community if we ask those engaged in any other type of disruptive behavior to join us in making this a warm, welcoming, inclusive area for all who want to be part of our community. It’s up to us to add to that narrative.

We’re all in this together.

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


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