Connecting to the Land Through Construction

A new development in the Mission aims to bring a piece of American Indian history and heritage to San Francisco’s urban core.

Frank Lloyd Wright once said that “no house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and home should live together, each the happier for the other.”

Unfortunately, the story of the modern American city often runs counter to the late architect’s vision. Hold the word “development” in your mind, and you may picture the opposite of rolling hills and trees bending in the breeze. Instead, you may see a natural world that has been sculpted, mined, and otherwise exploited to make way for angular apartment buildings and paved roads. Here in San Francisco, advocates for greenspace regularly battle with development advocates, further solidifying the perception of a clear dichotomy between the built and the natural worlds.

But a new six-story building going up in the Mission embraces a middle path — one that indigenous San Franciscans have known about since long before Wright began sketching out plans for the V.C. Morris Gift Shop.

The new “living, breathing” building is intended to be the central focal point of the American Indian Cultural District. The tall, timber-framed structure, called The Village, will be a hub for social and cultural services catering to 6,000 American Indians of many tribes living in San Francisco. Located at 80 Julian Avenue, the new building will be constructed directly adjacent to and share a courtyard with the existing Friendship House Association of American Indians

The building will run entirely on solar power, feature carefully-chosen indoor surface fabrics that support healthy air, an exterior and ground level garden that encourages vegetation to grow along the building’s walls, irrigation which utilizes collected rainwater, and windows that modulate wind and direct sunlight. 

Technology installed throughout the building will allow occupants to both monitor things like air quality and temperature while also teaching Village members how to participate in sustainable building management. A 4,000 square foot rooftop sustainable farm will support native plants and animals and offer a beautiful greenspace for Village members in the middle of the city. 

But these design elements aren’t merely for show. They carry symbolic meaning, as well — serving as a deliberate reconnection of displaced native populations with the natural environment and land that was stolen from them.

The Mission, for which the greater Mission District is named, continues to serve as a reminder of the Catholic church’s dark legacy of violence against Native Americans. The fact that indigenous peoples were not only relocated to reservations, but then pushed into urban centers via government initiatives in the 1950s and 1960s, also looms over a segment of San Francisco’s American Indian population. Many Native Americans found themselves in San Francisco through forced assimilation that forcibly severed them from their land and traditional ways of life. Not only does The Village reclaim land in that it is owned and run by a coalition of Native Americans, but it also goes one step further in replanting elements of the native ecosystem in the middle of the city. 

“Yes, we want our community, our elders and youth, to be able to touch the earth, put their hands in the soil, and experience the miracle of planting a seed and watching it grow,” said Peter Bratt, filmmaker and The Village project lead, in a press release. “But many of our ceremonies and cultural practices — including our deep ties to the land, plants and traditional foods — were deliberately and systematically disrupted. So we’re also trying to mend a relationship that has been broken and is in need of some nurturing, love, and repair.”

The rooftop garden is also a new resource for the community in and of itself, because it will be a source of local healthy food, generate local jobs, and cut building management costs by helping regulate the building’s temperature. However, the building will be a hub for many other resources as well. One of those programs is a Native Emergency Readiness Center, which will provide shelter in case of earthquake, fire, or other emergencies as well as serve as a warming and cooling center for low income and homeless American Indians. The building will also host a traditional American Indian sweat lodge, space to host ceremonies and community gatherings, a workforce development and continuing education center, youth center, and medical clinic. Non-profit organizations and community members will also be able to offer services using the building’s spaces. 

Crucial to the building’s design plan and operations is the collaboration between six Native organizations: The Friendship House Association of American Indians, Native American Health Center, American Indian Cultural Center, American Indian Cultural District, SFUSD’s Indian Education Title VII Program, and The Women’s Lodge. This coalition is also supported by other groups such as IlumiNative, Seeding Sovereignty, and Top Leaf Farms. 

“It’s really an exciting moment to be able to envision a living space in the middle of a city that’s actually a healing space, because so many of our living spaces create spaces of isolation for people and make it very hard to connect not only with each other, but between ourselves and the natural world around us,” says Dr. Rupa Marya, Top Leaf Farms Co-Founder and Director of Social Impact and Operations, physician, teacher and musician. The company helps build farmer-led design projects that encourage sustainability and fight climate change. 

The project is planned for completion in 2025. Phases I and II were completed in 2020, which included solidifying the coalition, assembling a project team, and engaging the support of Mayor London Breed, Supervisor Ronen, the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, and Director of Development for the Office of Economic & Workforce Development Anne Taupier. Phase III, which involves more intensive planning for the project, commences this year.

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