No Lot Left Behind

Two days after a violent murder took place next to an empty lot in Hayes Valley, a community arts organization moved in.

Parcel R, the new home of Hayes Valley Art Works. (Photo by Nuala Sawyer)

San Francisco’s 38th homicide of the year took place on the foggy, windy evening of July 20. Shortly after 7 p.m., the San Francisco Police Department rolled up at the corner of Lily Street and Octavia Boulevard to reports of a stabbing. They found Jason Little, 42, lying on the sidewalk next to a vacant lot. An altercation with an unknown assailant left him with life-threatening injuries, and despite medical attention, he died at the scene.

Two days later, Hayes Valley Art Works, a community arts group, moved into the lot. Scant evidence remains of Little’s violent death: A friend taped a single laminated sign haphazardly to the chain-link fence. But beyond the sidewalk where the gruesome scene occurred, the lot has come alive. Raised garden beds sprout new greenery, a small shipping container was hauled in, and rows of blue plastic kids’ chairs face the street.

Until July 22, the lot was known simply as “Parcel R,” a small stretch of real estate left over from when the Central Freeway came down after the 1989 earthquake. Empty for years, it’s been earmarked for affordable housing — though construction isn’t expected to begin anytime soon. Now, it’s the latest home of Hayes Valley Art Works, a place to — by the group’s own description—  “discuss, learn, teach, share, and express artistic vision for the betterment of the neighborhood.”

The project isn’t new, although the location is. In late 2015, a group of Hayes Valley residents came together to “activate” Parcel O at Fell and Laguna streets — the former site of the Hayes Valley Farm. Next to the already-built luxury apartment building Avalon, 108 units of low-income family housing will be constructed. But while the project worked its way through Planning, the lot sat empty — until developer Mercy Housing agreed to lease it to local residents as an art-exhibition space. During its 18-month tenure at Parcel O, Hayes Valley Art Works was home to large-scale stone labyrinths, several multi-media art exhibitions, live-music performances, and craft lessons.

But all good things must come to an end, and when Mercy Housing received permission to break ground on Parcel O, the art group was displaced — temporarily. Gail Baugh, president of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association, saw an opportunity with the other vacant freeway lots in the neighborhood.

“HVNA has worked closely with the Real Estate Division to activate parcels during the Hayes Valley Farm period, and more recently with Hayes Valley Art Works site on Fell at Laguna,” Baugh tells SF Weekly. “It’s hoped that they will remain [at Parcel R] until the sites are developed for 100 percent affordable housing, perhaps two years away.”

With the new space comes a new vision for programming. For Daniel Farnan and Earl Speas, co-site managers for Hayes Valley Art Works, the sky’s the limit. Despite the fact that Parcel R is about one-twelfth the size of Parcel O, plans are in progress to renovate the shipping container and host poetry readings, open-mic nights, sober meetings, art exhibitions — and gardeners.

The opportunity to get one’s hands dirty — in a city where a community garden just up the hill has 59 people on the waiting list — is an important draw to the space.

“It would not be the same as a community garden, where everybody has their own plot, but more similar to the Hayes Valley Farm, where things were more open,” Farnan says. “We’re definitely open to food crops of some kind — within reason. Most of these beds would be good for cabbage, squash, and so on.”

But for Speas, who, for decades, was an elementary school art teacher, the raised garden beds offer another opportunity.

“I see these planters as pedestals for art installations,” he says.

Farnan’s relationship with the community art group dates all the way back to the Hayes Valley Farm, where he volunteered from Day One with organizer Jay Rosenberg. When the farm’s days ended, and Rosenberg launched Hayes Valley Art Works, Farnan shifted his attention to the new venture.

Speas’ involvement was more accidental.

“When I retired, I wanted to volunteer and do something,” he says. “I was walking down Laguna, and I saw Jay in the middle of this vacant lot. I went in, and he made me enthusiastic about spending time there. My first task was just cleaning things up, but little by little, I saw it as my playground in the heart of San Francisco. I felt like this was my place. Being retired, this is how I have reinvented myself.”

A makeshift memorial for Jason Little, who was killed July 20. (Photo by Nuala Sawyer)

But with the move to the new lot come some fresh challenges. There is no restroom, though the owner of nearby Mercury Cafe has agreed to let volunteers use theirs. There’s also no electricity, though Farnan is working on getting that set up. And there are frequently piles of used needles lining the edges of Parcel R — so many that Hayes Valley Art Works now has a syringe container, which is currently full. “There are so many more needles here [than at Parcel O],” Farnan says.

“There were what, six to 10 on Monday?” Speas asks.

“Then another 12 to 15 just on the sidewalk and in the gutter,” Farnan replies. “Part of the hope is to bring more peace to the community, that has been struggling with quality-of-life issues surrounding homelessness.”

And now, Hayes Valley Art Works has some financial backing for its work. Supervisor London Breed granted the group $30,000 to fund its programs.

“I want to make sure that I provide something for every area of District 5 that’s about bringing community together and doing something fun and engaging,” she tells SF Weekly. “Parcel O was a gathering space that brought communities together and gave artists an opportunity to showcase their work. It was a very organic, fun thing, and definitely important to a lot of folks in Hayes Valley. We’re not using these spaces in a timely manner, so let’s use them if we can.”

Breed also acknowledges that fixing up empty spaces can make streets safer: “The neighborhood has come a long way, from what it used to be to what it is now.”

For nearby resident and volunteer Jennifer Maria Harris, Hayes Valley Art Works has tied together her love of art and the neighborhood.

“I think there’s something very much at the heart of San Francisco that’s about having this kind of community, where it’s just defined by who lives here, and nothing else — not age, not race, not religion,” she says. “Here we all are, let’s just do all this creative wonderful fun together.”

Hayes Valley Art Works is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Monday. More information, including how to volunteer, can be found at hayesvalleyartworks.org.

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