Chris Duderstadt: Building Community One Bench at a Time

October 2, 2017

While we often talk about taking positive actions step by step to improve our communities, Inner Sunset Park Neighbors Board Vice President Chris Duderstadt has persistently been making San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District and other areas better bench by bench. His Public Bench Project is now responsible for having created and added 100 colorful, attractive, welcoming places to sit, so a group of Inner Sunset neighbors gathered with Chris a week ago to celebrate the contributions he and other collaborating members of our community have made to enriching our public spaces.

Public-Bench_Project[2].pngHe built and installed his first public bench 40 years ago, and his own Inner Sunset home continues to feature one of the earliest benches. Interest in his work gained increasing amounts of attention over a very long period of time, he recalled during our conversation last week. The effort began growing rapidly approximately five years ago, when he formally created The Public Bench Project. Supporters have brought increasingly large amounts of loving attention to the project. Articles in local publications have helped to spread the word about the project and the presence of those lovely, hand-crafted benches. Those involved in offering space for additional benches are often involved in adorning them with the playfully colorful patterns that make them so attractive (the bench at the foot of the Hidden Garden Steps was painted by artist/art instructor Angie Crabtree and her students from the Woodside International School here in our neighborhood), and Chris himself has painted wonderful designs on a substantial number of those benches.

Many of us—residents and visitors alike—have enjoyed numerous conversations fostered by the availability of those lovely little meeting places where we interact with people we might not otherwise have met. And like the two neighborhood large-scale ceramic-tiled steps projects that serve as meeting places for people from all over the world, the benches are spectacular variations on Ray Oldenburg’s concept of the Third Place—those places where people know they can meet, talk, plan, and dream together.

Public_Bench_Project[1].pngIt certainly hasn’t been an easy process for Chris and others who continue to make this project thrive. There are always those who express concern that the introduction of a new bench (or a new ceramic-tiled staircase) will somehow attract “unwanted” people to the place a bench or other attraction is placed—and, of course, the homeless are generally the first to be mentioned as examples of those who are unwanted. But the success of the benches, the Moraga Steps, and the Hidden Garden Steps serve as a strong response—as so many of us remind those who are concerned—that being homeless is not a crime; it’s the uncivil behavior of some people (not all of whom are homeless, by the way) that is a concern, and that’s something we can and do address firmly when that particular problem arises. What some of us have found is that by sharing spaces with a variety of people—including the homeless members of our community—we have an opportunity to get to know them better so all of us can work together to make the neighborhood a better place.

With all the celebration that took place at that 100th-bench celebration came a bit of sadness for those of us who know and admire Chris and what he does. He explained an imminent hiatus in the project in a recent email:

“Let me thank you for your support of the Public Bench Project. We have made our neighborhoods more walkable and just plain friendlier. Over the past 40 years I have been able to place 100 benches in publicly accessible locations.

“It’s with great sadness that the Public Bench Project will be going on the disabled list for a while. I’m having major back surgery and, if successful, it will be at least 6 months before I can make benches again.

“From the outer Richmond and Sunset, to Dog Patch, to the Bay View, and even across the bay in San Pablo, you have allowed me to place benches. I believe we have all made the world just a little bit better.

“I trust you all have been able to experience the joy of doing this. While recovering, I hope to be able to figure out Facebook and create a venue to share our experiences.

“Thank you again. It’s been a good run.”

And it’s a good run that many of us look forward to continuing as soon as Chris is ready to get back on the bench and create more community meeting places for all of us.

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New Librarianship MOOC: Public and Civic Spaces

July 22, 2013

While R. David Lankes’s “New Librarianship Master Class”—a massive open online course (MOOC) under the auspices of the University of Syracuse School of Information Studies from July 8 – August 4, 2013—focuses on librarianship and the staff who make libraries what they are, we really can’t dive into that rich field of study without first looking at the public and civic nature of libraries (and other spaces)—a theme Lankes addresses in his book The Atlas of New Librarianship.

New_Librarianship_Master_Class_LogoAs is the case with much of what Lankes provides in the book and in the course, new librarianship reaches far beyond those working in or for libraries. Often focusing on the training-teaching-learning roles that librarians and libraries have long assumed, the course and book are a rich source of exploration for anyone involved in facilitating the learning process for learners of any age. And in a particularly fascinating passage, Lankes also steps back long enough to explore what he perceives to be the difference between “public” and “civic” spaces—a theme of interest to anyone who cares about and becomes involved in community development, collaboration, and partnerships (within or outside of libraries and librarianship).

“A public space is not truly owned. It is an open space,” Lankes writes (p. 65). “A civic space [e.g., a library], on the other hand, is a regulated space on behalf of the public. That means it is beholden to a whole raft of policy and law. A group can gather in a public space. They have to have permission to do so in a civic space, and that permission must be given in an equitable and nondiscriminatory way.”

While the distinction that Lankes offers provides plenty of room for exploration, it also addresses an almost vanished concept in a world where nearly every space is civic in the sense that it is under observation by citizens via cell phones and video cameras as well as by outright government surveillance and regulation, as is obvious to anyone thinking about how regulated public gatherings are at events ranging from national political party conventions to barbecues in public parks. Even our city, regional, state, and national parks are more “civic” than “public” under this definition when we think about how tightly regulated they are: they are treated almost as if they are living museums, where artifacts are meant to be preserved and where we are discouraged (for good reason) from removing plant specimens or even picking and eating wild berries, and permits are needed for overnight camping so that they have moved beyond that “public” unregulated state of existence.

Altas_New_Librarianship--CoverAnd yet there is far-reaching value in considering what Lankes says of libraries as civic rather than public spaces, for it carries over into so many other aspects of daily life that includes, but goes far beyond, what libraries, librarianship, and librarians (as well as other members of library staff) provide and inspire within communities: the aforementioned development of community, the fostering of collaboration, and the creation and nurturing of partnerships that produce far more as “civic” efforts than could ever be accomplished without the organized efforts that accompany the best of civic endeavors.

Lankes and those of us taking the New Librarianship Master Class are engaged in discussions about that precise library/librarianship topic at one significant and obvious level, but engagement at that level need not restrain us from taking the larger view of civic engagement that accompanies our collaborative explorations. When we become involved in projects along the lines of the volunteer-driven community-based Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District—an effort to transform a public space into a civic space through the creation and installation of a 148-step ceramic-tile mosaic, public gardens, and murals—we agree to work with all the various partners who are stakeholders in that space: neighbors; existing nonprofit organizations; local government employees and elected officials; and numerous others whose interests have already moved that public space into the civic realm.

Community organizers struggle together—just as librarians and other members of library staff struggle—to define community/civic needs and goals; to work together to bring these evolving dreams to fruition; to create moments of acknowledgement and celebration to mark whatever successes we have; and to recognize that civic development is never a one-time start-to-finish endeavor. There is always something new to consider, something new upon which we can seek areas of agreement and coordinated action; and something we can nurture in response to changing circumstances.

That’s the beauty of what all of us do as we attempt to define what is public and what is civic; what libraries are and should be becoming; and what librarianship must include to be successful in meeting the needs of the ever-expanding onsite-online communities it serves. If we think about, respond to, and act upon these ideas of public and civic spaces, and seek the most inclusive group of partners we can identify and attract, our public spaces—libraries included—will continue to serve as civic spaces that reflect our highest aspirations.

N.B.: This is the first in a series of posts inspired by the New Librarianship MOOC.


Hidden Garden Steps: Community, Collaboration, Volunteerism, and Benches

August 23, 2012

I hope I won’t offend anyone if I offer the heartfelt hope that you’ll just sit on it. The bench, I mean. The one now at the foot of the Hidden Garden Steps, where Kirkham Street and 16th Avenue intersect in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District.

And while you’re sitting on it, I hope you’ll reflect on how that one little bench—one of more than a dozen now spread throughout the neighborhood—says so much about the spirit of community, collaboration, and volunteerism that is at the heart of any dream that starts with one or two people and quickly becomes a self-seeding endeavor that makes our world considerably better—and a lot more visually interesting and playful.

The innovators, in this case, are Adam Greenfield and Chris Duderstadt, two wonderful neighborhood activists who are key players in the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors; love the idea of nurturing public spaces and “maximizing personal interactions”; and are slowly but surely adding to San Francisco’s vibrant street scene though their playful Public Bench Project.

Their idea is simple, as they note on their website: “We will give a bench to anybody who wants to put a bench outside their building in the public realm. Contact us and we’d be happy to give you a bench.” The results are exquisite and inspiring; from the initial bench, which features a wonderful design by artist Devin Keller, to the latest bench, added this week and featuring a beautiful display of sunflowers, you can’t walk by without involuntarily having a smile find its way onto your face. And, more importantly, even the most hurried of us feel the invitation to stop, sit, and enjoy our neighborhood a bit more rather than simply racing through it on our way to our next appointment.

Which is exactly what we’re hoping will happen with the bench now at the foot of the Hidden Garden Steps—and which will become even more colorful when a group of our supporters return to make the bench even more colorful by connecting it visually to the mural painted onsite by art instructor Angie Crabtree and students from the Woodside International School. Ever since we began making the onsite improvements that are creating the foundation for the 148-step ceramic-tile mosaic that will eventually cover the concrete steps, we’ve noticed more neighbors and visitors spending time lingering onsite rather than hurrying past what was formerly a somewhat secluded and less-than-inviting space. The volunteers who gather on the second Saturday of each month from 1 – 3 pm to sweep the steps, continue adding to the garden that is beginning to take shape on a few parts of the site, and enjoy the growing sense of camaraderie, talk openly about how our work together is creating a greater sense of community. And the bench now provides yet another gathering place for conversation, idea exchanges, and friendship.

With the addition of the bench, we’re hoping you and many others will join us there. To help create the vision. To strengthen the sense of community that already exists. And to simply enjoy one of the many lovely settings that make life worth living.

For more information about the Public Bench Project, please contact Greenfield and Duderstadt at publicbenchproject@gmail.com. For more information about the Hidden Garden Steps project, please visit our website at http://hiddengardensteps.org, follow us on Facebook and Twitter (@gardensteps), check out the videos on our YouTube channel, or look for us on the Steps.

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


William Whyte, City, and the Spirit of Collaboration

February 5, 2011

For those of us involved in training-teaching-learning, almost anything we read offers something we can bring back to those we serve. And every once in a while, we need to step back from newly released books and return to those which have been around for a decade or two—if not much longer.

If we’re interested in themes such as collaboration and community, we find works including Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) and Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language: Towns – Buildings – Construction (1977), The Timeless Way of Building (1979), and just about everything he has written since then to be essential reminders that certain ideas remain consistent and worthy of our attention.

William Whyte’s City: Rediscovering the Center (1988) is another of those gems, and not just for students and lovers of architecture and city streets—and the way we use them. Whyte’s dynamic work, drawn from 16 years of filming life on the streets of New York, is, ostensibly, a study of what makes cities work; it actually is far more than that. In exploring simple themes including how pedestrians in crowded urban spaces manage to navigate sidewalks and streets without continually bumping into each other, he highlights the larger, more intriguing issue of how we learn to collaborate almost wordlessly and effortlessly with one another. When he explores the importance of well maintained trash receptacles (pp. 90-92) and well placed drinking fountains (p. 87) in making communities attractive to residents and visitors, he reminds all of us to not overlook the elements that make our homes, communities, workplaces, social gathering sites, and learning spaces—onsite and online—compellingly attractive. When he suggests that stakeholders in business districts might benefit from actively seeking new proprietors to provide what is currently missing from those centers (p. 323), he is also subliminally reminding us to actively seek to fill the gaps in what each of us does and provides in our own personal, social, and professional lives.

“It is the asking of [questions] that is the critical step,” he suggests at one point (p. 270), and it is with that simple yet profound reminder that Whyte makes us not only look at the communities of learning we inhabit, but makes us want to question why they are the way they are—and what we can do to make them even better, regardless of whether they are classroom-based or virtual.


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