Hidden Garden Steps

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Hidden Garden Steps started with a chance meeting.  At the opening of the Bernal Heights library, Paul Signorelli and his wife, Licia Wells, happened to meet Colette Crutcher.  Colette and fellow artist Aileen Barr had done the brilliant Tiled Steps on Moraga between 15th and 16th avenues.  http://www.tiledsteps.org/   Paul asked Colette if she and Aileen would consider doing that sort of project again.  When Colette said, “Of course,” Paul and Licia had just the staircase in mind.  Constructed in 1926, the 148 steps on 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton were vandalized, dark, and dilapidated but also full of promise, considering the success of the Tiled Steps.  A few days after the library meeting, neighbor Liz McLoughlin told Paul and Licia, “Count me in,” and the Hidden Garden Steps had an organizing core.

It took four years to transform the steps into the mosaic tiled staircase it is today.  Monthly cleanup parties removed rubbish from the site, including golf clubs, a typewriter, a vacuum cleaner, and a cache of stolen, discarded purses.  Neighbors whose property bordered the stairs trimmed their overhanging trees and shrubs.  Others donated plants.  The city’s Department of Public Works replaced a broken retaining wall and a section of the stairs and installed the extensive erosion-control structures that serve as the foundations for the volunteer-maintained gardens.  Ultimately, former city/county Supervisor Sean Elsbernd drew upon a supervisorial discretionary fund to cover $7,000 in project permit fees at the city-county level, and SF DPW contributed more than $250,000 worth of materials and labor.  The HGS organizers raised money with door-to-door canvassing, online videos, social media, tabling at the farmer’s market, and community workshops where donors could not only buy tiles but help construct the mosaic.  The organizers wound up raising more than $216,000 in cash from some 600 donors and a San Francisco Community Challenge Grant.  If a deep-pocketed donor had funded the whole thing, the stairs would have been done faster, but many fewer people would have become friends.

The work and community building continues.  Two Parisians—Regis and Peter—have bought two tiles and have been coming to visit every year.  Recently, they put in three hours of work on the monthly cleanup.  Though they don’t speak English, they have been writing e-mails in beautiful English to Paul and Licia.  Thank you, Google translator.

The HGS website and the recently-established project blog offer quarterly newsletters and information about the monthly cleanups. A virtual tour is also under development on the project website. Keep in touch. This may not be the last staircase renovation in the neighborhood.

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