Best Community Art

Hidden Garden Steps

By Joe Eskenazi

If San Francisco were ever to launch a literal 12-step program, it would have to be set in the Inner Sunset. The hilly realms of one of San Francisco's most neighborhoody neighborhoods are to staircases what the Inland Empire is to meth labs. You can't walk around the block without running into — or up, or down — one.

While staircases are ubiquitous in the district, most of them are, if you'll excuse the pun, somewhat pedestrian. And yet, in 2003, a group of neighborhood residents commissioned artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher to create a stunning mosaic up the 163 steps on Moraga Street between 15th and 16th avenues. Six years after those steps' completion, a group of residents a hop, skip, and a jump down the road have decided that the Inner Sunset could use two spectacularly tiled staircases. They've persuaded Barr and Crutcher to, once again, invest years of their lives crafting God-knows-how-many tiles to festoon some steps — only 148 this time. The staircase in question is on 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton. But when the artists are done with it, locals hope it'll be known as the Hidden Garden Steps.

The project is poignant in its sweetness. The steps will be decorated with tiles which, when amalgamated, will resemble animal and plant species native to the neighborhood. Patrons of the arts can band together to sponsor, say, the passionflower or California poppy. Or, perhaps flora and fauna more befitting your personality beckon: A Sunset LGBT group chose to sponsor the tile representation of the fairy lantern for exactly the reason you'd think.

Gilbert Johnson, who has lived a stone's throw from the steps for 58 years, suggested to the artists that they include the Green Hairstreak Butterfly on the steps — one of the only places in the world it congregates is right by the staircase. His suggestion was adopted. “I remember them from my backyard from when I was a kid,” he says. Johnson plans to sponsor tiles for himself, his family, and his out-of-town friends: “It'll be their little piece of San Francisco.”

Co-organizer Paul Signorelli says the chance to pull together a project with small-town vibes in the midst of the big city was too good to pass up. That being said, this is San Francisco — and the city doesn't just require one to just jump through hoops, but first obtain multiple hoop-jumping permits. He estimates the project's overall costs may hit $300,000 — but he pledges it'll get raised. Step by step.

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