TenderloinNationalForestGardenShed

It’s a chilly December evening and I’m walking down Ellis Street through San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Suddenly, I come upon the Tenderloin National Forest, inviting me to step out of a gritty streetscape and into something beautiful.

In 1989, Darryl Smith and Laurie Lazar, co-directors of the 509 Cultural Center, declared their intention to gain site control of the Tenderloin’s Cohen Place for the greater benefit of some 300 residents living in four buildings surrounding the dead-end alley.

They worked with Project SAFE to organize neighbors and establish the Ellis Street Neighbors Association. Through monthly meetings, interested parties expressed their ideas and expectations for transforming a hazardous, neglected open space into a community commons.

Lacking landscaping experience and knowledge of city permitting processes, they reached out to San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG) for assistance. SLUG provided architectural drawings reflecting the neighbors’ vision for what Cohen Place might become. After years of study and back-and-forth negotiations, the Mayor’s Office and Board of Supervisors agreed to lease Cohen Place to the 509 Cultural Center for $1 per year in 1998.

Neighbors wanted a safe place and a fence to protect it, so in 2000 the center commissioned Kevin Leeper to create a beautiful gate. Initial plantings included a redwood tree and Japanese maple. Over time they added murals, plantings, bird houses, a cob oven, and a thatch and mud gardening shed.

The Creative Work Fund supported their collaboration with artist Rigo ’23, who created a traditional stone path, installed by a stonemason from Portugal. Conceived by an immigrant artist (Rigo is from Madeira Island), it recognized the neighborhood’s immigrant population, but incorporated patterns from Ohlone baskets, honoring the site’s original residents. Rigo noted that changing a path from asphalt to stone affects the way people walk through the space. In Darryl Smith’s words, “It’s a psychic thing, it invites them to pause and reflect.”

Renamed the Tenderloin National Forest, Cohen Place has been widely acclaimed—recently included in the 2011 exhibition, “Against All Odds,” curated by Lina Stergiou, in Athens, Greece. It draws artists, tourists, and visitors from all over the Bay Area to a neighborhood many once avoided.

At the same time, the project was meant to be a gift to the people who live around it. Indeed, its neighbors can grow food together, compost together, create art together, and work with artists. At the site, on a regular schedule, Amara Tabor Smith creates and shares baked goods from the cob oven and visual artist Michael Swaine repairs clothing. Other artists create work through temporary residencies. On the evening of my visit, Brenna Ivanhoe was finishing The Keepsake Project through which she created small paintings of objects of deep personal meaning to neighbors.

I asked Smith if he would recommend a faster process. He admitted that it might have been less stressful, but asked, “Is it possible to open up, to create a pocket for the unexpected in a fast-paced project? This has been a small thing that has had a resounding ripple effect.”

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