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If you are from the Portola District, you lean down hard to pronounce the name’s first syllable. If you grew up there long ago, you remember abundant greenhouses and cattle drives down to Butchertown.  The Portola has streets steep as roller-coasters, an enormous park, and shifting populations, but it’s little known.  Historian Gray Brechin says “That edge of the city is San Francisco Incognito.”

Artists Kate Connell and Oscar Melara moved to the Portola 16 years ago. Soon after, they opened their garage as a polling site, and started collecting stories from neighbors who came to vote. Noticing that those neighbors rarely talked across generations and cultures, they opened their home for Autumn Moon potlucks and lantern-making parties.

The San Francisco Public Library was building a new branch for the Portola and Connell and Melara wondered how they could help ensure that the library attracted and served all those neighbors.  They began gathering images and stories from residents and ultimately gave them back in forms that were tactile, multi-lingual, and celebratory.

An early project was the Porto-Loteria board game with tiles featuring images of local characters and icons. With a Creative Work Fund grant they made Crossing the Street—seven handmade books in varied formats, including graphic novels, coloring books, dioramas, postcards, a silk book featuring fragments of Chinese and Spanish poetry, and an atlas with eight of its entries also printed as posters—now displayed in homes throughout the neighborhood.

Crossing the Street was exhibited throughout the new library, and the exhibit was loved and extended. The artists’ Portola work continues to evolve in new forms—next as part of the Alemany Island Project. In the meantime, the small and new Portola library draws some of the highest usage of any of San Francisco’s library branches. The artists’ Portola projects can be viewed at www.madeintheportola.org .

Lessons learned:

Working in your own neighborhood requires commitment for the long term. Connell writes, “Living within the endeavor adds new meaning and seriousness to the connections we made.”

Doing place-based work, one must adapt when people feel uncomfortable about revealing their stories and where they live. Connell and Melara planned to name their collaboration after their street and changed it to the more anonymous “Book and Wheel Works.” Protecting children’s images is particularly important.

Don’t limit ways neighbors can participate. Connell and Melara created a “laborhood” of workers who helped with carpentry, bookbinding, and other aspects of the project. Portola residents also served as docents for the exhibit–youth were particularly enthusiastic and helpful guides.

Recognize the powerful meaning of parks, libraries, and other public institutions in people’s lives. They may be more comfortable meeting grounds than art-specific facilities. At the same time, the right people make all the difference: well-connected and enthusiastic librarians ensured the project’s success.

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