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.


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.


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: Libraries, Community, and Collaboration

March 30, 2011

Most people use public libraries to check out books or access other onsite and online resources. A few of us sometimes walk into libraries with much less focused goals in mind, and walk away with unexpected opportunities beyond our wildest dreams.

When Licia Wells and I joined a friend at the reopening celebration for the Bernal Heights Branch Library here in San Francisco on January 30, 2010, we had no idea that we were about to become involved in a community-based, volunteer-managed, neighborhood beautification project in an entirely different part of San Francisco.

As a former San Francisco Public Library employee and ongoing fan of what libraries offer all of us, I was excited about visiting the newly renovated branch and having a chance to see the branch manager and other colleagues that afternoon. And when Branch Manager Lisa Dunseth—who now is working in the Main Library San Francisco History Center—asked if we wanted to meet Colette Crutcher, an artist who lives in the Bernal Heights neighborhood, none of us could have imagined where our introductions and conversations were about to lead us.

Within a few minutes of meeting Colette, we all realized we had something in common: the Inner Sunset District’s Tiled Steps project connecting 15th and 16th avenues on Moraga Street. Colette and Aileen Barr had designed and overseen installation of that project; Licia and I were among the many admirers of that much-loved neighborhood landmark which attracts visitors from all over the world, so we had one question for Colette: If we could pull together another group of interested neighbors as Alice Xavier and Jessie Audette had done for the Moraga Steps, would she and Aileen be interested in working on a second tiled-steps project near the original site?

Colette, as we learned later, had had conversations like that one many times. Nothing had ever come of them. But this was to be a different set of circumstances, starting with a few of us who loved the non-tiled steps near our homes and wondered what we could do to stop the vandalism and deterioration that was making them a less-than-inviting walkway.

The thought turned into action a few days later when I saw Liz McLoughlin, who lives at the top of the 16th Avenue steps that connect Kirkham and Lawton streets. Liz and her husband Tom had spent countless hours sweeping debris from the steps and painting over graffiti which continually reappeared on a large wall near the top of the walkway. She immediately expressed interest in and enthusiasm for the idea of trying to form an organizing committee that could bring the project to fruition while creating a stronger sense of community within the Inner Sunset District.

With little more than a vague awareness of how Alice and Jessie had ceaselessly worked to lead the Moraga Steps project to fruition—and with a lot of information generously and graciously provided by Alice in the early stages of our discussions—Liz and I agreed to serve as co-chairs for a new organizing committee, Licia agreed to help oversee the effort to raise the $300,000 we eventually determined we would need to bring the effort to completion, and Colette and Aileen started working on designs for what became the Hidden Garden Steps.

The year-long process of creating the infrastructure to make the project work is a story for another day. What remains to be done here is to draw a line from that initial conversation at the Bernal Heights Branch Library right back to the San Francisco Public Library system’s continuing  role as a community resource that helps foster the creation and growth of communities and community efforts.

When we officially began our fundraising and marketing efforts early in 2011, I visited with a colleague at the Sunset Branch Library—a few blocks away from the proposed site for the Hidden Garden Steps installation—to see whether a public presentation by the artists would be of interest to the library’s community of users. A few hours later, a second colleague—Robert Crabill, who was unaware of that initial conversation but had just come across an online description of the project—contacted me about the possibility of having the artists do exactly what I had proposed. And the event, held earlier this week, drew 30 people into the library’s small community meeting room to hear about both tiled-steps projects from the artists; see sample tiles; and learn how they could become engaged in our efforts if they wanted to be part of what we are well on the way to accomplishing.

We have received other requests for similar presentations, are planning more events, and are delighted that new volunteers are joining the effort to continue what Alice, Jessie, Aileen, and Colette started. And those of us who are continuing to work on the Hidden Garden Steps and add to the existing sense of community that exists here in the Inner Sunset District couldn’t be happier than to have such wonderful informal and formal partners.

N.B.: This is the third 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.


Hidden Garden Steps: Building on a Dream

August 31, 2010

A dream achieved has taken on new life.

Several years ago, Alice Xavier and Jessie Audette in the Golden Gate Heights neighborhood of San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District, dreamed of turning a drab gray set of 163 steps connecting Moraga Street between 15th and 16th avenues into a beautiful ceramic tiled community meeting place. They teamed up with local artists Colette Crutcher and Aileen Barr—“local” being a relative term since Aileen arrived in San Francisco from Donegal, Ireland shortly before the project began and is there on vacation as I write these words—and literally had to build from scratch—a process colorfully documented in the artists’ book, 163: The Story of San Francisco’s 16th Avenue Tiled Steps. They also created an incredible group of neighborhood supporters to bring this innovative community-building project to completion.

Inspired by the Santa Teresa steps in Rio de Janeiro as well as Antoni Gaudí’s mosaics in Barcelona and La Scala (the stairway) in Caltagirone, they literally fought an uphill battle in their efforts to create a work of beauty that now entices walkers to climb the stairs for a stunning view of the Sunset District as it extends west to the Pacific Ocean—on those days when the view isn’t obscured by fog. They had to gain political support for the project, convince neighbors that their project was well worth undertaking, attract donors and volunteers—something at which Xavier clearly excels—and organize and orchestrate fundraising events, planning meetings, and in-kind donations to support the project in those years just before Web 2.0 social networking tools like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn grew to make it far easier to reach and/or develop communities of interest.

When the innovative project was complete, many of us who had watched the stairs become a community meeting place were stunned, inspired, and motivated to see this as a beginning, not an end. Furthermore, because the Inner Sunset District has numerous concrete stairways linking streets along the hills and waiting for similar treatment, it’s natural for many of us who live and thrive in the neighborhood to think about how wonderful it would be to build upon what Audette, Barr, Crutcher, Xavier, and all their supporters and volunteers have created.

So it’s no surprise that during a party at the foot of the Moraga Steps less than two weeks ago to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the completion of that project, a group of us were on hand to announce the official beginning of a new project: the Hidden Garden Steps, to tile the dank, overgrown, and graffiti-laden steps linking 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets, create a community garden on either side of the steps, and provide a complementary wall mural at the top of the steps.

N.B.: This is the first in an ongoing series to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco. Next: Building a Community of Support.


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