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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Hidden Garden Steps: Anniversaries, Community, and Gratitude

December 7, 2015

Gratitude is built into San Francisco’s Hidden Garden Steps—as it is with any community-based, volunteer-driven collaboration that transforms an eyesore into a place where neighbors and visitors from all over the world routinely meet, chat, relax, and dream. Together.

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Detail of the “Gratitude” passion flower on the Hidden Garden Steps

Anyone spending time on those ceramic-tiled steps today—the second anniversary of the formal ceremony celebrating completion of the mosaic designed and fabricated by project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District—is bound to see a wonderful intersection of gratitude, community, and cause for celebration.

The signs of gratitude begin at the foot of the Steps, where a bronze plaque reminds visitors that a group of neighborhood volunteers, along with more than 600 donors and numerous community partners, formally presented the mosaic and gardens as “a gift to the City of San Francisco.” Gratitude is overtly on display just above the largest landing on the project—at the top of the fourth set of Steps as we ascend from Kirkham toward Lawton Street—where a large ceramic passion flower expresses formal gratitude to the numerous project supporters who provided time and services to help bring the project to fruition. And gratitude is expressed nearly every day not only by those who see volunteers who continue to work together to clean the site and expand the gardens, but also by those of us in the neighborhood who have a wonderful outdoor version of what Ray Oldenburg described as a “Third Place” in The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community—that place where we can just show up and know that we’ll see members of our extended community willing to take the time to stop, talk enjoy the site, and meet numerous other people drawn by the site’s beauty and tranquility.

There are plenty of partners to acknowledge—not the least of whom are our predecessors who inspired us by creating the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps Project with the same two artists five years before we began working on the Hidden Garden Steps—as I noted during a brief presentation at the dedication ceremony on December 17, 2013.

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The Friday-morning sweepers on the Steps

And there’s plenty of cause for continuing to acknowledge, thank, and celebrate the contributions of those numerous partners in community-building. We still see a group of neighbors—including a few who served on the project organizing committee—on the Steps every Friday morning to sweep them from top to bottom so weekend visitors will see the site at its best. We also see the volunteers who work onsite from 1 – 3 pm on the second Saturday of almost every month (the exceptions are when rain prevents onsite work) to maintain and expand the gardens adjacent to the Steps—a group that has, over the past couple of years, included drop-in volunteers from other parts of the city as well as from France and Japan.

Our partners in the San Francisco Department of Public Works have returned to the site several times for continuing work including additional erosion-control retaining walls and work to resolve long-term drainage problems resulting from blocked pipes underground; they have, at times, been supported by colleagues from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

There are, furthermore, what I lovingly call the “guerilla volunteers,” those neighbors who, without prodding from anyone else, show up at various times to sweep, pick up the occasional piece of letter left on the Steps or in the gardens, or simply tidy up an area in need of attention. And there are the neighbors who, without complaint, show up to quickly remove the rare bit of graffiti left by those apparently unaware of how dedicated many of us are to keeping the site pristine and welcoming.

HGS--Photographers_on_the_Steps--2015-07-26

Visiting photographers on the Steps

But the often unacknowledged partners in this wonderful ongoing project are those of you who visit once, twice, or many times. Your presence on the Steps and in the neighborhood overall have contributed to a sense of positive street life and community that was barely visible before the Hidden Garden Steps project began—which, more than anything else, is a tremendous cause for celebration and gratitude in a city where we have plenty worth celebrating—including a third (Flights of Fancy) and fourth (Lincoln Park Steps) set of ceramic tiled steps.

N.B.: Numerous articles documenting the Hidden Garden Steps project remain available on this Building Creative Bridges blog. Steps updates can be found on the Friends of the Hidden Garden Steps blog. Stories provided by donors to the Hidden Garden Steps project continue to be added to the project website by Steps volunteer Liz McLoughlin, and a step-by-step virtual tour created by McLoughlin and by project volunteer Gilbert Johnson also continues to grow, with 110 of the 148 individual steps currently included on that online tour. 


Abundant Communities in Action: Street Parks, Gardens, Steps, and Rainbows  

October 6, 2014

When San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW) and San Francisco Parks Alliance (SFPA) representatives gathered over the weekend to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Street Parks Program, they were honoring something that is both quintessentially San Franciscan and something seen throughout the United States: our ability to find abundance where others see cast-offs.

Block--Abundant_Community_BookIt’s the sort of commitment documented by Peter Block and John McKnight through their Abundant Community book, website, and online discussions. It’s a movement beautifully grounded in Tactical Urbanism. And it’s a sustainable, community-based, volunteer-driven effort that celebrates the work of people we don’t often notice: the people behind the projects that make our communities far more rich than they otherwise would be. Not bad for country where we so often hear about how badly divided we are.

“The [Street Parks] project was started to enable and assist community members in adopting DPW parcels and then turning them from blighted lots into verdant gardens and community gathering spaces,” Julia Brashares, Director of Street Parks for the Parks Alliance, reminds us in a brief video prepared for the Alliance by students from San Francisco State University. “We, with community members, have seen the development of over 120 gardens in every district of the city.”

Those Street Parks projects are part of an ongoing program that brings City/County elected officials and employees, Parks Alliance staff, and hundreds of volunteers together to “activate” a string of City-owned parcels that, when combined, include approximately 500 acres of potential parkland. It’s an amazingly complex undertaking and, at the same time, it is amazingly simple. The complexity comes from the large number of stakeholders who have to be engaged to bring Street Park Projects to fruition; the simplicity comes from the idea that the projects begin when as few as two or three neighbors see the potential in an unused piece of public property and make the commitment to foster the numerous community collaborations required to produce positive results.

What’s even more fascinating is the obvious interest in transforming unused public land into additional green open space in a city that already has a magnificent, nationally-acclaimed park system, a reclaimed bayside gem in Crissy Field and an equally ambitious counterpart in the Blue Greenway project that is already in progress; the Green Connections project that is also underway as another effort to increase access to green open spaces throughout the City; an effort to create more vibrant plazas throughout the City; and many other local efforts where volunteers work with an amazing network of nonprofit organizations, City/County representatives, neighborhood organizations, local business representatives, and anyone else who sees abundant possibilities for community development and enrichment.

Street_Parks_LogoStreet Park Program projects are, in many ways, the epitome of individuals setting aside individual interests to collaboratively produce a public good—often something designed to last far longer than the lifetimes of those who initially gather to produce the street park. We see individuals bringing neighbors together to turn a short, blighted cul-de-sac along a freeway into a community garden that attracted a new coffee shop to the block. We see neighbors next to another stretch of land adjacent to a freeway create a dog park where members of the community meet and enjoy each other’s company. A third stretch of blighted land becomes Progress Park—the site where we gathered last weekend to celebrate 10 years of Street Parks progress. A median strip in the Outer Sunset District becomes La Playa Park. Another lot becomes Pennsylvania Garden. And a set of concrete steps originally built in 1926 becomes the Hidden Garden Steps—the second set to be transformed into volunteer-maintained gardens and a beautiful ceramic-tiled mosaic (designed and fabricated by project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher) in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District.

HGS--Steps_Visitors--2014-08-18

Visitors on the Steps

The real payoff for any local or extended community comes when we spend time at any of those sites, as I so often do on the Hidden Garden Steps. I see my neighbors come out every Friday afternoon to sweep the steps so the site looks clean and inviting to weekend visitors. I see volunteers gather onsite monthly to maintain and add to the gardens. I see the results generated by the volunteers who maintain the project website, blog, and Twitter and Facebook accounts. And I see and talk with visitors from all over the world as they enjoy and admire the site, marvel over how the extended community adds to all the site offers, and blurt out wonderful observations such as “It’s like being in a rainbow.”

Working on any Street Park Program project is, in fact like being in a rainbow. It’s inspiring. It’s overwhelmingly beautiful. And it hints at greater aspects of life than most of us would otherwise encounter.

The 10th-anniversary Street Parks Program celebration documents a bit of what that rainbow offers and brought volunteers together to dream of even bigger rainbows—those we can produce during the next 10 years. If we are successful, we will use what we have learned and done to inspire others to seek similar community-based collaborations to positively change our world.

N.B.: Numerous articles documenting the Hidden Garden Steps project remain available on this Building Creative Bridges blog. Steps updates can be found on the Friends of the Hidden Garden Steps blog. Stories provided by donors to the Hidden Garden Steps project are currently being added to the project website by Steps volunteer Liz McLoughlin, and a step-by-step virtual tour created by McLoughlin and by project volunteer Gilbert Johnson is also under development.


Opportunity, Imagination, and Joy: Learning with Allan Jacobs, the Good City, and Street Parks

May 13, 2014
Visitors to the Hidden Garden Steps

Visitors to the Hidden Garden Steps

Walking up and down the ceramic-tiled Hidden Garden Steps and adjacent garden in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District on a daily basis brings at least three words to mind: opportunity, imagination, and joy. There is that daily reminder of the opportunity provided by a volunteer-driven community-based coalition that was strongly supported by colleagues in the Street Parks Program, a wonderfully supportive collaboration between the San Francisco Department of Public Works and the San Francisco Parks Alliance. There is the tremendous manifestation of imagination displayed by project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher through the mosaic they created for the site. And there is the sheer joy of seeing a long-ignored space brought back to life not only through the work of Hidden Garden Steps organizing committee members, but also by the numerous volunteers and donors who supported—and continue to support—the project, and the presence of people who increasingly are arriving from places all over the world to visit and enjoy the serenity as well as the camaraderie that comes when people meet, talk, dream, and share a space they treasure.

Good_City--Allan JacobsIt isn’t all that much different than what I find in the best communities of learning to which I’m drawn. We are united by a common (learning) goal and benefit from each other’s company over long periods of time. So when I read the sentence “Cities should provide and people should have access to opportunity, imagination, and joy” in Allan Jacobs’ The Good City: Reflections and Imaginations recently, I felt as if the world of city planning, park (particularly street-park and parklet) development, and learning had all come together on the pages of an inspiring and engaging book.

Jacobs, former director of the San Francisco Planning Department and a University of California, Berkeley professor emeritus, covers a lot of ground in a book comprised of essays and short stories. Beginning with a description of two years he spent in India as an urban planner working under the auspices of the Ford Foundation, he leads us through a series of vignettes that ultimately are connected through the theme of how community and collaboration does or does not develop in a variety of settings including Cleveland, Curitiba, Pudong, Rome, Tokyo, Toronto, Vancouver, and, in the final sections of the book, San Francisco.

His work is firmly rooted in what many of us fascinated by cities and community development have found in books by Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities), Christopher Alexander (A Pattern Language: Towns – Buildings – Construction; The Timeless Way of Building; and just about everything he has written since then), William Whyte (City: Rediscovering the Center), Peter Harnik (Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities), and many others who have written thoughtfully and in depth on what makes our cities work.

When he turns his attention to San Francisco, he obviously delights in exploring the themes of opportunity, imagination, and joy. There are his recollections of how he and his City Planning colleagues engaged community at a grass-roots level: “we called well-advertised meetings, often by delivering notices to all individual mail-boxes, to get people together for an effort or to confront an issue” (p. 143) just as Hidden Garden Steps volunteers began the project with face-to-face, door-to-door conversations with neighbors close to the proposed project site, and followed those efforts up with numerous postings of flyers in neighborhood businesses and bulletin boards in addition to online contact using social media platforms. Jacobs acknowledges seeing “our role as the professional staff as partners of people more than as facilitators” (p. 145)—something that increasing numbers of training-teaching-learning colleagues are embracing in the work we do, and something that is at the heart of all the positive experiences Hidden Garden Steps volunteers had (and continue to have) with our San Francisco Parks Alliance, Department of Public Works, and other City/County colleagues. As I’ve noted many times, our successful partnerships never descended into us-and-them disputes; we were unified by a common goal and that’s what held and holds us together.

Tactical_Urbanism--CoverJacobs notes the dramatic results achieved through various partnerships: “The most positive, dramatic change to San Francisco over the last 30-plus years is the northern and northeastern waterfront, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the kids’ mini-baseball diamond-park at McCovey Cove, a distance of about seven miles. Crissy Field, a gem of a restoration area, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, has rightfully become a huge draw for walkers, cyclists, skaters, picnickers, fishermen, beachgoers, naturalists, people of all ages, and dogs….” (p. 160). He could have just as easily been talking about the smaller-scale Tactical Urbanism efforts that fuel San Francisco’s Street Parks projects when he discusses the changes that make our—and any—city great.

He weaves the various and varied themes together as he nears the end of The Good City when he describes what that city would include: “there would be opportunities to learn and to work, to earn one’s livelihood; and places to get to with ease, places for social interaction or just to see other people, or places to be alone; and opportunities to participate in local decisions; and places for fun” (p. 176)…“People should feel that some part of the urban environment belongs to them, individually and collectively, some part for which they care and are responsible, irrespective of whether they own it. The city environment should be one that encourages participation….The public environment, by definition, should be open to all members of the community. It is where people of different kinds meet. No one should be excluded unless they threaten the balance of that life” (p. 178)—all of which, to me, just as accurately describes what is foundational to great communities of learning.

Perhaps this is why so many of us are drawn to learning; to great cities; to parks and open spaces; and to libraries, museums, and so many other community resources: they share an all-important link—the magic that happens when opportunity, imagination, and joy bring us together to form, interact in, and sustain great communities that bring rewards far beyond any others we can imagine. They connect us to our past, through our present, and into a future we may not be around to see, but know will be much better for the contributions that we make to it.

N.B.: Previous articles about the Hidden Garden Steps remain available on this blog.


Peter Harnik, Innovation, Community, and Parks: Going for the Green

March 26, 2014

Working on the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco and joining the San Francisco Parks Alliance (SFPA) Parks Policy Council recently has, naturally, made me even more of an advocate for accessible and welcoming public spaces than ever before.

Harnik--Urban_GreenMy love for public parks and public spaces is nothing new. Having grown up in a California Central Valley town where one of the most accommodating and appealing resources was a well-maintained park along one of the town’s natural waterways, I’ve appreciated and benefitted from the availability of those areas as places to sit with friends, take a walk, or read and write and think. Visiting and working in a variety of large and small cities throughout the United States and other parts of the world, I consistently find myself drawn to parks and libraries as places that reflect the best of a community’s values and aspirations. They are the places I first turn to in an effort to develop a sense of cohesion or isolation within the communities they serve.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that I was completely fascinated by and immersed in Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities (2010), an engagingly concise exploration of innovative approaches to developing urban public spaces. Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence at The Trust for Public Land, does a magnificent job, in 160 pages of text and additional resources listed at the end of the book, in exploring two significant themes: issues to consider in discussing the creation, nurturing, and maintenance of urban parks, and how successful parks advocates across the United States are finding ways to create more open space and to better use the current spaces we have.

The table of contents itself serves as a resource for inspiration and a checklist for those of us interested in seeing how well our cities stack up against other’s as we review the list of ideas for “finding park space in the city”: buying it; utilizing urban redevelopment; community gardens; old landfills; wetlands and stormwater storage ponds; rail trails; rooftops; sharing schoolyards; covering reservoirs; river and stream corridors; cemeteries (now there’s  topic worthy of open discussion for all it invokes in terms of our attitudes toward life and death and how normally-separated uses of a space might work in complementary ways); boulevards and parkways; decking highways; closing streets and roads; removing parking; and adding hours rather than acres.

Harnik comes across as both realistic and visionary: “To be fair, none of us can fully comprehend the complexity of the urban labyrinth. It may be possible to construct something visually pleasing with evenly spaced green polygons on a color-coded map or to arrange artful golf courses in a ‘simulated city’ computer game, but real-life cities have too many physical impediments, political interferences, and cultural and economic exceptionalities for simple standards to rule (pp. 1-17),” he writes, then returns later with the idea that “Cities change all the time and every change holds opportunity. If there is room for a single new building, or even a new parking lot, there is room for a new park, as has been seen recently in Kansas City (Ilus Davis Park), Cleveland (Whiskey Island), San Francisco (Visitacion Valley), Washington, D.C. (Canal Park), and Newark, New Jersey (Nat Turner Park)” (p. 71).

He’s a realist, reminding us that dreams have to have concrete foundations including budgets and specific timelines for completion: “The budget elevates the plan from platitude to reality.…A plan without a timeline and a budget should more accurately be called a ‘hope.’” (pp. 57-58). He also is an inspiration as he helps us examine the use of public spaces through a three-way classification system developed in Portland, Oregon: “people-to-people” places, “people-to-nature” places, and “nature-to-nature” places (p. 23).

Trust_for_Public_Land--LogoBut one of Harnik’s most encouraging achievements is his ability to make us look at what he documents and then see our own communities through the framework he provides. Which, for me, produced encouraging results: looking around San Francisco, I see that the incredible collaborations supported by our colleagues in City/County government, local nonprofits including the San Francisco Parks Alliance, neighborhood associations, and thousands of individual volunteers who become engaged in specific projects they adore. I see the innovative approaches fostered by the San Francisco Pavement to Parks program and the San Francisco Department of Public Works/SFPA Street Parks Program collaboration and marvel at how relatively small and underutilized or long-ignored spaces are transformed, piece by piece, into a cohesive pattern of public spaces that bring local and extended communities together in ways that would not otherwise be possible.

We may not be able to “fully comprehend the complexity of the urban labyrinth,” as Harnik has suggested, but through our individual involvement in developing, supporting, and sustaining community collaborations, we make the urban labyrinth less difficult to navigate. And we find yet another opportunity to reduce conflict and divisiveness by working together upon the common ground we find and cherish.

N.B.: For more information about urban parks across the United States, please visit the Trust for Public Land ParkScore® index online.


Patricia Post: Fa la la la la, la la la la

March 5, 2014

Although I did not, last Saturday, expect to find myself joining others in singing “Deck the Halls” at a memorial service, I also didn’t expect to be saying good-bye to Patricia Vanderlaan Post so soon—she died of heart failure on January 1, just a few weeks before her 62nd birthday.

Patricia Vanderlaan Post (in pink shirt) at Hidden Garden Steps workshop July 2013

Patricia Vanderlaan Post (in pink shirt) at Hidden Garden Steps workshop July 2013

Patricia—Pat or Patti to those of us who knew her—was one of those wonderful people who are so deeply immersed in our communities that we hardly notice how much they are doing until they are no longer there doing it. Others at that memorial service last weekend recalled how Pat volunteered at her daughter’s school, or opened her home to a student from Kosovo for six years, or was an active member of The Gratitude Center community. We heard about how she “took delight in children of all ages, and worked to promote their welfare and education,” how she “was an ardent supporter of empowerment for women and social justice” and once told her stepdaughter that she would buy her any CDs she wanted—as long as those CDs featured women musicians to augment a CD collection mainly comprised of music by men.

She quickly won my gratitude and admiration when, after joining the Hidden Garden Steps organizing committee to complete that project that placed a second ceramic-tile mosaic staircase and gardens here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District, she offered to do anything that would help move the project toward fruition. She wasn’t looking for anything glamorous; she just wanted to help where help was needed most. When she asked how she could be most useful, I provided an embarrassingly honest answer: we needed someone to sit with me for an hour or two to complete the application for permits needed before installation of the mosaic could take place on City and County of San Francisco property. I knew that if I didn’t have someone to work alongside me, I would continue procrastinating about completing that simple task.

It wasn’t that the paperwork was daunting, and it wasn’t that deadlines were looming before us. The real issue was that other committee members were too immersed in the short-term challenges and deadlines to spend time on preparing permit paperwork for an installation that was still at least 12 to 18 months away; the fact that the application process could take anywhere from six months to a year from submission to approval just wasn’t a compelling issue for most of us to address.

But Pat saw it. She got it. And, most importantly, she immediately set a specific time and day to sit with me so we could complete that fairly simple application and compile all the supporting documentation needed to start the application process. While others saw it as a distraction and as something that had no urgency, Pat and I completed everything in one afternoon, and I submitted the package to our City/County liaison a few days later, in November 2012. And when final approval was finally granted by our County Supervisors in October 2013—nearly a year later, and less than 48 hours before the installation was scheduled to begin—I couldn’t find enough words of praise to offer Pat for the underappreciated role she played in assuring that the mosaic went onto those concrete steps rather than having to sit in storage all winter and spring until we could be assured of having weather good enough to complete the installation process in 2014.

Lower section of Hidden Garden Steps, 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets in San Francisco

Lower section of Hidden Garden Steps, 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets in San Francisco

Those of us involved in the project saw Pat at other times. She was there to help with public workshops that allowed Steps supporters to create small parts of the mosaic under the direction of project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher. She joined others in laying background tile onto some of the Steps risers during those workshops. And my wife and I ran into her and her husband—Marty—a few times while all of us were taking walks along one of the small lakes in Golden Gate Park at dusk; we would stop, chat about the Steps and other things we were all doing, and look forward to the day when we would be celebrating a collaborative community success on the completed Steps themselves.

We never had the chance to have that onsite Steps celebration together. By the time we had our opening ceremony, in December 2013, Pat wasn’t well enough to join us. I did, on the other hand, feel as if the decision to celebrate her life and her spirit by singing “Deck the Halls” at her memorial last weekend made perfect sense after her husband explained that it was her daughter’s choice—in honor of Pat’s habit of singing her children to sleep throughout the year with “Deck the Halls” rather than something more mundane. After all, “mundane” is not a word to be connected to someone who so gracefully, charitably, and diligently worked to make her community a far better place than it would have been without her. 


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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