Note from the Artist and founder:
“Before you read the story of the Please Touch Garden I would like to dedicate this story with a thank you to the many that helped make it possible. I did pour my heart into making the Please Touch Community Garden a reality, but it was truly the many folks like; Jay Rosenberg, Joanna Hirschi, Alicia Yballa, Theresa Novarro-Bui, Jennifer Yeagley Russell, Starr Winchester, Bob Fitch, organizations like the Lighthouse for the Blind, San Francisco Real-estate office, the San Francisco Arts commission, City Hall, San Francisco Permaculture Guild, San Francisco DPT & DPH, Pacific Pavers, Intersection for the Arts, and many others who have made this project what it is today. But there is no one more important to the garden’s success than Rob Joyce, who was a volunteer from the beginning. With thousands of hours poured into helping, Rob quickly became a partner and continues to dedicate his time, by over seeing the logistics and operations as the Director of the Please Touch Garden. Thank you Rob!” —Gk Callahan
Several years ago, social practices artist Gk Callahan began working as an art teacher and community outreach program coordinator for The LightHouse, a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting blind and visually impaired citizens of San Francisco through rehabilitation, education, recreation, and employment services. While teaching, Gk often gazed out of the classroom window at the run-down lot located across the alleyway and dreamed of the things he could do with that space, to better serve the surrounding community.
The lot was in a state of neglect for over thirty years, and provided a stark contrast to the beautiful San Francisco City Hall located across the street. The Lech Walesa alleyway adjacent to The LightHouse was a popular location for illegal drug activity, which oftentimes spilled over into the abandoned lot. Gk Callahan decided to develop a plan to transform it into a space that not only allowed his clients to have access to fresh air and sunlight, but a space that was accessible to all, an everyman's land devoid of the segregation that people of different socioeconomic back grounds face. In the end he thought it was best to build a community garden. Through this revitalization Gk aimed to make the area safer, increase access to art and nature, and provide a fully ADA-accessible garden that would be inclusive to all. A place where one could meet and interact with someone you might never have had the opportunity to otherwise, in a non-judgmental and safe environment.
In 2010 Callahan received a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, but it was more than a year later when he finally set foot on the lot. In 2011, after clearing red tape, and making a long-lasting partnership with the city of San Francisco, his team began construction of the Please Touch Community Garden. Over time the efforts of numerous community volunteers has transformed the garden from an idea to a reality. One full community volunteer day was dedicated to sheet mulching the entire lot, which ensured that the soil was safe for planting. Other community volunteer days resulted in the construction of garden beds and wheelchair-accessible planters, and the installation of an artwork titled The Living Wall.
With the generous support of a local landscape architect, the organizers at the garden developed a plan that was completely wheelchair-accessible and compliant with ADA regulations. It is the contributing angels, and the openness of the community to engage with the space, from the many passersby, to schools like Stanford and California College of the Arts (CCA) that brought donations, manpower, and support, that help the garden thrive.
A bright red needle dispensary box was placed just outside the garden gates. Once installed, the number of needles found around the lot dropped dramatically. The needles were one of the bigger problems the team faced at the beginning of the project. Over 2,000 used needles were collected initially, and for a long time after the initial clean up, five to fifteen needles a day would need disposal. It was a biohazard, it was scary, and in its own way an epidemic. It was one of those said angels, and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, who were instrumental in helping get the sharps dispensary box installed. It was the needles that led Callahan to his next project . . .
The needles are a byproduct of combating the AIDS epidemic; they are the aftermath of saving lives. It was a moment for him where an issue he had only known to fear as a sort of boogie monster manifested itself as a reality. The accumulation of needles forced him to see something that has always been in his face. He wondered where had the culture that formerly addressed this issue gone? Had it moved? Had the fear of something still very real become sedated by it’s own presence? So he began investigating and listening to people’s stories, they were so enlightening; he felt they needed to be shared. The idea for the Contracting An Issue project was born from the waste and challenge of creating a garden on a blighted lot.
Please Touch Community Garden is not a traditional plotted vegetable garden; all of the food grown at the garden can be grown and harvested by anybody at any time the garden is open. There are no dividing lines between plots, and everyone shares responsibility for the care of the plants. There are many works of art that fill the garden, ranging from sculptures, murals, and mosaics. The first artwork created for the garden was the eye-catching Beaded Quilt, a large mural installation of Perler bead squares. The Beaded Quilt is installed on the wall of The LightHouse; it was made over a period of one and a half years at the LightHouse. This beaded-quilt mural is a beacon leading to the Please Touch Garden entrance. It was constructed by clients, donors, volunteers, and staff of the LightHouse for the Blind. Resembling a patchwork quilt, this mural is made of 576 squares and over 147,000 beads. Each square is a small reflection of the person who made it, highlighting the colorfulness and diversity of the community.
Many times people ask why we did not create a new entrance on the more active (read: safer) Grove Street side of the garden. It was an abridged version of Rob's answer we almost always used to explain: “to activate the alley and the space behind the project not only helps clean up the overlooked, connected alley, it helps complete our original vision to include everyone in the project.”
Another one of the most dramatic works of art is The Living Wall, an innovative vertical garden designed by local eco-artist Aurora Mahassine. The hexagonal building blocks of the wall, called “Habitiles,” are made of waste materials, like Styrofoam, and are molded into concrete-like planters and filled with soil and colorful plants. They provide an eco-friendly form of gardening by insulating buildings, improving air quality, protecting watersheds, and saving garden space.
Intersection of the Arts is the Please Touch Community Garden’s fiscal sponsor. The city of San Francisco has been very helpful in the creation of the garden, mainly through their permission to use the lot. It is understood that although the garden has an agreement with the city of San Francisco to lease the space for now, the city may one day reclaim the lot for a project.
But the biggest collaborator with Please Touch Community Garden has been the people who touch and activate the space, and their continued collaboration, contribution, and engagement. Whether it is volunteering, educational programming, or event planning, they keep the garden thriving.
-Story contributed by Ashlie Flood, Smithsonian Gardens 2014 Katzenberger Intern, and Gk Callahan.