Hidden Garden Steps: Clean-ups, Collaboration, and Volunteers

March 15, 2012

We had the most wonderful of problems last week as we prepared for our monthly Hidden Garden Steps project onsite clean-up: the possibility of having more volunteers than could be effectively put to work for the two-hour Saturday afternoon event.

And we quickly found a winning solution for everyone by invoking one of our main vision statements for the project: collaborating with as many partners as possible to complete a $300,000 volunteer-driven community art and garden project.

Our monthly efforts to remove graffiti, sweep the 148 steps on 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets, develop gardens with donated plants (please see our online wish list for more information about specific donations needed for those gardens), clean clogged gutters and drains, and prepare the site for installation of a ceramic-tiled mosaic similar to what exists on the Moraga Steps here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District has steadily gained attention, support, and recognition since our first clean-up event was held less than a year ago and trees were trimmed free of charge by a generous donation of time and services from Tree Shapers, LLC.

Promotions through our San Francisco DPW Street Parks Program and San Francisco Parks Alliance partners (particularly Nancy Wong from DPW, who routinely delivers the gloves, tools, and other supplies needed, and Maria D’Angelico and Julia Brashares at the Alliance) help draw new volunteers to us each month. And a photo and blurb in San Francisco City/County Supervisor Carmen Chu’s latest newsletter inspired Elvina Fan (pictured here) and her fellow Lincoln High School Change SF members to contact us less than two days before the March clean-up to see how they could help.

This created a bit of a dilemma since nearly 10 members of Better Homes & Gardens Mason-McDuffie Realty here in San Francisco (pictured above, left) had already promised to join us for work that required no more than 15 people. But it was a dilemma quickly resolved through early-morning email exchanges with Andrea Jadwin, co-president of the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors board. She had a perfect project in place—and was willing to make arrangements with the Change SF volunteers on short notice.

“ISPN won a Community Challenge Grant in 2010 to make improvements to the parking lot in the heart of the Inner Sunset commercial district,” Jadwin recalled during a recent exchange. “The parking lot is home every Sunday to the Inner Sunset Farmers’ Market and other community events throughout the year.  Volunteers planted native and climate-adapted plants and painted the surrounding walls with coordinating colors and a simple design. Community Challenge Grants award funding is based on volunteer hours, so we try to organize several maintenance projects throughout the year—cleaning trash, weeding, replanting, and covering graffiti”—exactly what the Change SF students were offering to do for Hidden Garden Steps.

“It was great to have the students from Lincoln High’s Change SF service club come out and provide some much needed plant care and graffiti abatement. The neighbors, merchants and farmers will be so pleased with the results,” Jadwin concluded.

We sometimes hear, from those who are misinformed, that people are too busy to volunteer and that organizations need to compete rather than collaborate in attracting great volunteers and other supporters. But we certainly aren’t seeing either of those issues here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District. Volunteers from the Hidden Garden Steps project, the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors, Nature in the City’s Green Hairstreak [Butterfly] Corridor project, and other groups are working together toward our common goal of nurturing a sense of community that makes our neighborhood a place where we all belong. And we have the volunteers and other partners to prove it.

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


Communities of Learning: SF DPW Street Parks and Hidden Garden Steps

February 25, 2012

We don’t normally think of a local department of public works (DPW) as a provider of learning opportunities. But that’s exactly what colleagues at the San Francisco DPW created late last month, and it’s completely consistent with what many of us as community-based volunteers here in San Francisco are producing.

Through a day-long Street Parks Program workshop, DPW and San Francisco Parks Alliance colleagues (Sandra Zuniga and Julia Brashares) created an opportunity for local volunteers to learn about funding opportunities and successful projects-in-progress. And, by educating us a bit about what is available in our own community, it inspired community-changing conversations that will continue much longer than the brief workshop lasted.

Designed as a collaborative learning opportunity for participants from the more than 140 Street Parks Program projects formally adopted up to this point by DPW, the workshop attracted a surprisingly small number of program representatives. The four of us from the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District made up around 15 percent of that group. And yet this wasn’t about numbers; it was a chance for that relatively small group of us to meet each other, prospective project funders, and others involved in neighborhood-based efforts to transform neglected, unsightly pockets of our city into beautiful community meeting places that further contribute to the city’s feeling of City-with-a-big-C.

And by the end of the day, we were already developing ways to nurture the connections the Street Parks program has created between us. We took steps to create our own onsite-online community of learning by setting up a LinkedIn discussion group and a Facebook group as ways to continue sharing resources, suggesting solutions to the challenges many of us face, and fostering an even greater sense of community than already exists here in San Francisco among those involved in Street Parks Program projects.

What really pushed the development of this new community of learning forward was the event organizers’ decision to feature a couple of projects as part of the workshop presentations. Turning to two of us from projects called “Street Park superstars” for our “creative fund-raising ideas” that are building and sustaining community support for greening projects, they asked us to describe the steps we took to reach the levels of success we have already achieved.

Pam Axelson, from the Athens/Avalon Garden project, recalled that the project started because of a murder in the neighborhood:  “The crime problem was significant,” she recalled. “The site was a night-time hang-out—a total dump site” where mattresses and other objects were discarded. Neighbors began asking, “Why don’t we make that a better-looking site?” A core group of neighbors came together, found out who owned the property, contacted DPW for approval, and also gained support from a group of planning students at the University of San Francisco.

Identifying a similarly depressing yet potentially beautiful area in our own neighborhood, those of us who initiated the Hidden Garden Steps project saw it as an opportunity to transform an overgrown, poorly maintained set of 148 concrete steps into a neighborhood gem and community meeting place similar to the ceramic tiled steps completed on Moraga, between 15th and 16th avenues. And in describing the success we had in raising $10,000 during a very simple two-hour fundraising effort in December 2011—selling some of the tiles that will become part of the ceramic-tiled Hidden Garden Steps—we told our colleagues that it was a two-hour event backed up with two years of effort similar to what was developed in the Athens/Avalon Garden project: building a strong and collaborative organizing committee; attracting an increasingly large, enthusiastic, and reliable group of volunteers; creating a visible presence for the project both onsite and online (a website, a Twitter account, a Facebook page, blog postings like this one, and, most recently, a YouTube channel); and an ever-growing set of partners from existing groups with goals that are complementary to our own (the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors, Nature in the City’s Green Hairstreak [Butterfly] Corridor, the San Francisco Parks Alliance and DPW Street Parks Program, Woodside International School, and others where our work together makes every group much stronger).

The short-term result, we noted, was an event that brought us $10,000 closer to our $300,000 fundraising goal; the more significant result, we added, is that we’re continuing to create a sense of community designed to rival the projected longevity of the Hidden Garden Steps themselves once they are completed. And the latest cause for celebration is this newfound opportunity to learn while working together with our Street Parks Program colleagues.

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


Hidden Garden Steps: Growth

November 14, 2011

Who would have thought that Mark Twain’s timeless story of Tom Sawyer convincing others to paint a fence for him would find a parallel in San
Francisco’s Inner Sunset District? And yet, that’s what has been happening among the ever-growing group of dedicated, creative community volunteers collaborating on the Hidden Garden Steps project at 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets.

Those of us who have been involved in monthly clean-ups (second Saturday of each month, from 1 – 3 pm) since April 2011—painting walls and fences marred by graffiti, pulling weeds, sweeping steps, and planting the first small sections of what will eventually be a splendid set of community gardens around a ceramic-tiled stairway—are finding our ranks growing each time we spend a couple of hours on the stairs.

Last Saturday was no exception; a couple of new volunteers who learned about us through our participation in the Inner Sunset Street Fair in October and our latest reception at Crepevine joined us to weed around the succulents, California natives, and other drought-tolerant plants we’ve been putting into the ground as part of our effort to support Nature in the City’s Green Hairstreak (Butterfly) Ecosystem Corridor project. And while all of us were having fun cleaning up and putting a few new plants into the ground—including a small freemontodendron that will eventually be one of the signature elements of the garden near the top of the stairs—more people stopped to chat, offer encouragement, and ask how they could become involved in painting those walls and fences, pulling those weeds, and adding more plants to the garden.

It really is exactly what we all hoped it would be: a community project that thrives on the generosity of other members of our extended community. The initial plantings have been a combination of donations from our colleagues in the Green Hairstreak Butterfly project, neighbors donating cuttings from their own gardens, and nature’s own donations in the form of natives coming up  by themselves—ferns, a poppy that was one of the most colorful volunteers to pop up earlier this year, and a newly spotted lupine that broke ground within the past couple of weeks and will eventually add even more color and draw more wildlife to the site.

We’ve had a spectacular year of successes, including $60,000 in cash support and more than $20,000 in donated and promised services to push us toward our $300,000 goal. A colorful mural has already been painted at the foot of the steps by artist/art and mural instructor Angie Crabtree and a few of her Woodside International School students and alums as an example of how the project will beautify the neighborhood. Substantial tree-trimming was completed free of charge by Tree Shapers, LLC to enhance the views toward and from the stairway. The clean-ups and plantings are already transforming the site in ways that are attracting birds, butterflies, other wildlife—we even had a black-and-orange-winged butterfly rest on the hat of one of our volunteers while we were working last Saturday.

Next steps in preparing to tile the stairway will be to fix an off-center section and adjoining small wall at the top of the steps; colleagues at the City/County of San Francisco Department of Public Works are drawing up plans to complete that work at no charge to the project. Then, under the direction of project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher, the mosaic tile designs will be constructed by volunteers. Under the direction of the artists, professional tile setters will then apply the mosaic risers and grey tread tiles to the steps.

For information about purchasing a tile 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. You’ll also find us on Facebook and Twitter (@gardensteps).

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


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