Hidden Garden Steps: A Work of Community, Art, and Community Art in Progress

July 8, 2011

When artist/art and mural instructor Angie Crabtree and a few of her Woodside International School students and alums began their Hidden Garden Steps mural here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District  late last week, there was more than art in action. Their work provided the latest physical confirmation that the volunteer-driven effort to create a set of ceramic tiled steps with complementary gardens and at least one wall mural, strengthen the existing sense of community, and create long-term sustainable collaborations in a city known for its sense of vibrantly diverse and collaborative neighborhoods was bearing fruit.

And spending time this afternoon with Crabtree and Itzel, one of the student-muralists, reminded me once again why the entire effort to transform that set of steps on 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets was honored with a “Best Community Art—2011” Award in SF Weekly’s 2011 edition of its annual Best of San Francisco issue. Hidden Garden Steps really is, as writer Joe Eskenazi wrote, a project that is “poignant in its sweetness,” and that sweetness was on display while Crabtree, Itzel, and a Woodside alum worked side by side today to continue bringing their colorfully playful mural to life.

Crabtree was first drawn to the project by the sight of its stunningly beautiful predecessor on Moraga between 15th and 16th avenues, just two blocks away from the Hidden Garden Steps: “I was in awe…I wanted to be part of this project,” she recalled.

Itzel—a Woodside high school student who lives in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, is about to begin her junior year at Woodside, and dreams of somebody becoming an obstetrician—initially heard about the project while completing her second year as a Woodside student in Crabtree’s mural class before beginning her summer break.

“I love painting. We did a mural at school last year,” she said during our conversation this afternoon. The chance to work on the Hidden Garden Steps mural was tremendously appealing to her, she added: “When you do creative things, you can express yourself through art…you can draw whatever you want. It reduces your stress. It takes all your problems away.”

And while Crabtree herself is already a working artist whose involvement extends to working through the nonprofit Root Division group dedicated to improving appreciation and access to the visual arts by connecting personal inspiration and community participation, she is also finding unexpectedly exciting opportunities in the Hidden Garden Steps mural.

“This is unusual for me in the Sunset District,” she noted. “The [Woodside] students do murals [including a set of five currently in progress on the Woodside buildings themselves to highlight scenes from various San Francisco neighborhoods], but they have never done a community mural.”

Support for her work has been strong at Woodside, she added. School headmaster John Edwards not only has supported the school’s involvement in the mural project since its inception, but also arranged for funding for the class, the materials needed to complete the mural, and the permit fees required to gain approval for the project through the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Transformation of the site along with marketing and fundraising efforts to complete the project, are continuing in collaboration with project partners from the San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program, who have been providing tools and support for monthly onsite clean-up sessions, and the San Francisco Parks Trust, along with an ever-growing of group of financial supporters and volunteers. The Woodside effort will continue on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 1 – 3 pm through the end of July 2011.

For information about supporting or becoming involved in the Hidden Garden Steps project, please visit our website at http://hiddengardensteps.org or write to us at hiddengardensteps@gmail.com,

N.B.: This is the sixth in an ongoing series to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco. Photographs of mural design provided by Gilbert Johnson.


Hidden Garden Steps: An Award-winning Clean-up That Unhides a Gem

May 21, 2011

While behind-the-scenes work to obtain funds and permits for the $300,000 Hidden Garden Steps project continues, some very visible transformations are drawing increasing numbers of people to the site.

Anyone walking up or down those concrete steps since mid-April has seen that the structure, which serves as a pedestrian connection of 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District, are much less hidden now. Nearly 20 volunteers participated in the first monthly clean-up and removed weeds, graffiti, small tree limbs, golf balls, old bottles, and an abandoned vacuum cleaner as the literal first step in preparing the site for planting later this year. Tree-trimming services donated by Tree Shapers, LLC one week later created an even more spectacular change: views which had been hidden for decades suddenly reappeared. In fact, the more time we all spend
looking up and down the stairs from various vantage points, the more we realize that a long-unpolished gem is once again beginning to sparkle. And the more we could envision the completion of this effort to create a second set of ceramic tiles steps, along with gardens and murals, in the area.

The second monthly clean-up, completed by volunteers earlier this month, continued the transformation of the site by removing much of the debris left behind when the trees were pruned, and the cleaning of soil and overgrown plants in the entire gutter along the eastern slope of the steps means that water was flowing freely down that conduit during the recent mid-May showers. Our partners from the San Francisco Department
of Public Works Street Parks Program
, who have been providing tools and free removal of all that we dig up, completed the removal of the branches earlier this week, so our volunteers will return to the site on the second Saturday of June to continue with weeding, clearing of the drain that parallels the western edge of the steps, and other prep work that will allow for us to proceed with planting after our City/County of San Francisco colleagues finish helping us complete the process of gaining approval for that part of the project—a process which, as most of us understand, requires more time than some might wish since DPW has so many projects underway.

All of this—the work of partners including DPW and the San Francisco Parks Trust, along with an ever-growing of group of financial supporters and volunteers committed to collaboration and community-building—is not going unnoticed. SF Weekly, in its newly published edition of the annual Best of San Francisco issue, lauded Hidden Garden Steps as “Best Community Art—2011,” and writer Joe Eskenazi told his readers that the
project “is poignant in its sweetness.”

For information about how you can make it even sweeter, please visit our website at http://hiddengardensteps.org or write to us at hiddengardensteps@gmail.com.

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


Hidden Garden Steps: Fundraising and Communities of Support

April 26, 2011

While some of us would rather swim with sharks than engage in fundraising efforts, others successfully approach the challenge—fundraising, not sharks—with such panache that their actions make everyone want to dive in with them.

When our campaign to raise the $300,000 we will need to complete the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District began a few months ago, those of us on the project organizing committee faced the endeavor with a sense of enthusiasm and excitement. The payoff was almost immediate: two of the multi-tiled elements—the butterfly and the dragonfly—were immediately claimed by two supporters to move us $14,500 closer to our overall goal. Donations in support of individual tiles soon followed, and we’re seeing an increase in the sale of those $150, $350, and $1,000 tiles week by week—to the point where we are close to having $30,000 for the Hidden Garden Steps.

Although the primary goal of the project is to produce a set of ceramic-tile steps with a garden and large wall mural between Kirkham and Lawton streets at 16th Avenue to complement the original steps on Moraga between 15th and 16th avenues, there is an equally important vision: to continue strengthening the sustainable sense of community and the collaboration that exists among various groups in the Sunset District.

We’re well on our way to meeting that goal, too. Our successful outreach events at Crepevine and Vintage Senior Living have produced major results: additional people volunteering to join the organizing committee, increasing amounts of marketing assistance from volunteers, and the creatively engaging effort Sherry Boschert is currently facilitating to raise $5,500 for the Diablo Fairly Lantern element. (Sherry’s effort is more than halfway toward its goal, having raised more than $3,000 as of this morning.)

Other groups—both from the neighborhood and from a much wider geographic area—are following Sherry’s example by organizing campaigns to underwrite the cost of specific parts of project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher’s design. Volunteers are also making substantial contributions by arranging for everything from cost-free sites for promotional events—and we can use more of those—to arranging for pro bono professional tree-trimming services that have already noticeably transformed the site by making it a little less hidden.

As individual and organizational partners including the City & County of San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program continue to join this San Francisco Parks Trust project, enthusiasm is increasing. Support is growing, And, step by step, we are all building something of lasting value.

N.B.: This is the fourth 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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