A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2021


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The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps Project

How one woman brought her community together to create a beautiful piece of public art.

By Marcos Soriano

At the corner of Moraga Street and 16th Avenue, in the Golden Gate Heights neighborhood of San Francisco, is the base of the most beautiful staircase in the entire city. A brightly-tiled panel caps the front of each of the staircase’s 163 steps, and as the stairs stretch up the hill toward 15th Avenue, the individual panels blend together to form a single massive mosaic. Stunning in its entirety, yet intricate and detailed enough to offer bountiful rewards when viewed up close, the 16th Avenue steps are a treasure shared by the people living in the Sunset District.

And the people deserve it. They made these steps happen. Every aspect of the creation, permitting, and funding for the Tiled Steps came from a foundation of community volunteers. The entire project is testament to what community involvement can achieve.

At the center of it all is a woman named Jessie Audette. Jessie came to San Francisco after several years of living in Rio de Janeiro. While living there, she fell in love with a tiled stairway in the Santa Teresa neighborhood. Inspired by that project, she began to imagine a similar mosaic decorating one of the stairways in the Sunset District. The 16th Avenue stairway, because it’s long, straight and visible from miles away, seemed like a perfect candidate.

So Jessie started talking to people, and people were interested. A conversation with her dentist led her to a particularly helpful comrade, Alice Yee Xavier, who lived in a house next to the start of the steps. Using Alice’s garage as an informal headquarters for neighborhood meetings, Jessie got more people involved, and the project started to pick up steam. They invited artists to present ideas for the steps at the garage meetings, and were drawn to the works of two different women: Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher.

“Aileen’s piece featured interlocking tiles in a sea to sky design,” Jessie said, in a recent telephone interview. “Colette’s piece was more abstract, a mosaic of big spirals.” Jessie and her project companions liked both designs, but also had some concerns. “We were worried that if we chose Aileen’s piece, it would be hard to repair if a tile broke. And Colette’s design, because it was a mosaic, would be less interesting close up. So we asked if they’d work together. Initially they were insulted by the idea,” Jessie said, laughing, “but in the end they loved working together, and have worked together on other projects since.”

With the artists chosen, Jessie faced two more significant challenges: navigating the complex paperwork and permitting processes required by the city, and raising the money to fund the project.

The fundraising started immediately. With money from their own pockets, Jessie and her comrades paid the artists to create a mock-up of a single tiled step, which they displayed at public events so that potential donors could get an idea of what the finished steps might look like. They also printed a brochure describing the project, and left copies of the brochure at the base of the steps. To insure that all donations would be tax deductible, Jessie started looking around for a way to acquire non-profit status for the Tiled Steps. Creating an organization for a single project seemed excessive, so Jessie decided to try to find a fiscal sponsor with 5013c status.

“Originally I thought of the Golden Gate Heights Neighborhood Association,” Jessie said. “But they were scared of the liability issues.” She then approached the San Francisco Parks Trust, who agreed to serve as a fiscal sponsor for a 6% fee.

But she didn’t give up hope of the help the GGHNA might give. “After I’d found a fiscal sponsor, I went back to the Neighborhood Association to ask for their help recruiting the people of the neighborhood. They let me use their 500 person mailing list.” With the list, Jessie found an even larger pool of donors and volunteers.

The growing public interest was good for more than just raising money. As more people became interested in the Tiled Steps, Jessie began to pool together a group of individuals whose expertise in various fields proved crucial to nearly every aspect of the project’s development. A student she met through USF, where Jessie was working on a Master’s Degree, designed and launched an informative website: www.tiledsteps.org. An engineer familiar with the city’s building requirements informed Jessie of which materials would pass code and be durable enough for the job. An architect who understood disability concerns served as a star witness for Jessie during her dealings with the Department of Public Works. “Having an informal committee of advisors is really important,” Jessie said, “because your decision making ability becomes impaired.”

Unfortunately, not all of the public interest was positive. At several points in the planning and installation of the project, Jessie encountered individuals who thought the Tiled Steps would have a detrimental effect on the neighborhood. Some were concerned that the artwork would increase traffic and parking issues in the area. One neighbor worried that the colorful steps would attract gang activity. “I wanted to get these concerns out in the open,” Jessie said. “And I realized that we needed an outside source, someone who had expertise but was also untouchable, to address these concerns.” In the case of the neighbor concerned about gang activity, for example, Jessie contacted a gang specialist from the San Francisco Police Department, and got him to endorse the project. “It’s actually a funny story,” Jessie said. “I asked him how he’d gained his expertise on gangs, and he said it was because he’d been a gang member himself [before he joined the police].”

The other major challenge in the project consisted of navigating the City’s complex permitting process. Because the Tiled Steps were on city property, Jessie and her group had to apply with the Department of Public Works for a Major Encroachment Permit. In order to receive that permit, they needed the full vote of the Board of Supervisors, as well as the Mayor’s signature. To satisfy City and State disability requirements, the project had to comply with Title 24 of the California Building Code, and with the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition, they needed referrals and approval from five separate city agencies: the Arts Commission, the Mayor’s Office on Disability, and the departments of Planning, Parking & Traffic, and Public Works. Throughout the permitting process, Jessie was well served by her informal group of advisors.

While all of these permitting steps were in the works, the artists were working on the artwork itself. In this area too, volunteers were crucial. Much of the tiles were donated by local companies, and volunteers helped to bring those tiles to the artists’ studio, and to organize those tiles once they’d been delivered--a formidable task considering the thousands of tile pieces used in the work. Colette Crutcher estimates that she and Aileen had as many as six volunteers working with them in the studio at certain times. The process of creating the panels was also opened up to the public. Each mosaic panel was constructed by gluing tile pieces onto sheets of plastic mesh. Volunteers followed Aileen and Colette’s patterns, which were drawn on the panels, and as much as fifty percent of the tiles were applied by the public.

The bulk of this public tile work happened in three separate workshops. The first workshop occurred over a week-long period, with the tiles set up in a large room in the Bridge Point Assisted Living Facility at 19th Avenue and L. The second workshop took place in a neighborhood church, and the third workshop, probably the most raucous and lively of the three, happened at the now defunct Canvass Café, on Lincoln and 9th Avenue. “It was very crowded,” Colette Crutcher said of the event. “We had 10 tables going. There might have been a hundred people working on the panels. It was a lot of fun.”

Jessie also remembers the workshops vividly. “Some people would spend three hours on six inches,” she said, “and when the workshop ended, they wanted to keep going.”

When all 163 panels were finished, and most of the permitting was in order, the money issues came back to the forefront. The tiles would have to be affixed to the steps by professional tile setters, and before that could be done a general contractor had to be hired to repair some of the steps. They also paid an architect to draw up the plans used in the permitting process, and the artists themselves were paid for their designs and their work.

“We consciously decided to pay all of the professionals involved in the project,” Jessie said. “We didn’t want to be dependent on anyone. We didn’t want to end up in a situation where, for example, the artist had been giving their work for free, and then decided they didn’t like the way things were going and took their work back, or tried to sue us.”

That control didn’t come cheap. The total cost of the project eventually ballooned to around $120,000. It took Jessie two and a half years to raise the money. “At one point I felt like giving up,” she admitted. “But once you’ve raised $30,000, you can’t just run away.” And the people of the neighborhood continued to give to the cause. Donors were allowed to “purchase” handmade commemorative tiles used in the panels, and these tile sales accounted for $80,000 of the total cost. Once that had been raised, the remaining $40,000 was given by foundations and grants.

Finally, after nearly four years of effort, the Tiled Steps were unveiled in a free street party featuring traditional Chinese lion dancing, live music, and an appearance by the Mayor himself. Hundreds of people came for the party, in which the steps were officially given to the City of San Francisco (by deeding the ownership to the Arts Commission).

The beauty of the Tiled Steps has continued to draw admirers in the years since, and to instill in the locals a sense of community pride. A group of volunteers, led by Alice Yee Xavier, have landscaped the hill on either side of the steps. And donors have contributed more than $12,000 to a fund set up for the maintenance of the steps, though none of that money has been needed so far.

Perhaps the greatest sign of the community’s love of the steps is revealed by the actions of the Golden Gate heights Neighborhood Association. Though they refused to serve as the fiscal sponsor for the steps when Jessie first asked them, the GGHNA seems to have grown to relish its involvement with the project. “They even changed their motto,” Jessie said, laughing. “It used to be ‘Keeping the neighborhood safe and stopping negative development,’ but after the steps were finished they changed it to ‘Promoting projects for the neighborhood.’”

For more information on the Tiled Steps, please visit www.tiledsteps.org.

Colette Crutcher, one of the artists involved in the project, will be releasing a book on the steps, which includes details relating to their construction. See her website for more information: www.colettecrutcher.com.


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