One of my favorite things about San Francisco is its beauty. Thanks to the hills, from most intersections, you can look down the street to the water and see the foggy headlands in the distance. Even though I’ve been here for almost two months, it’s not uncommon for me to be walking and stop suddenly, just to enjoy the view. Tourists standing in the middle of intersections to take photos is a common sight.
In addition to the esthetic pleasure, another benefit of the landscape is that it makes me want to go for runs. While I’ve moved around a bit during my time here, a neighborhood I run though often is Pacific Heights, which is San Francisco’s closest equivalent to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Pristine estates sit perched above the rest of the city, overlooking the water and skyline below, as the fog rolls down along the hills below, creating the illusion that these estates float an actual heaven. Along the street, lush trees and running flowers give the air a fresh scent, and the checkerboard concrete sidewalk sparkles its natural, pearl white.
Pacific Heights is the picture of San Francisco that makes the city look so wonderful. And San Francisco is a wonderful city. But this beauty doesn’t reach every neighborhood quite the same. I knew before I arrived that I wanted to help beautify the city. Although I’m lucky to live in areas of the city that are lush and have incredible architectural detail, there are parts of the city I walk through or stop in that don’t have the same elegance. As an experience designer, I tend to pay a lot of attention to the vibes of places, and when I go to places like 9th and Market (the Twitter Building), the surrounding area is just depressing. It’s dirty and lacks trees, flowers, or any kind of art. People lay drugged on the side of the road, as people from my class listen to psychedelic rock in their AirPods while riding electric scooters to offices with complimentary coffee bars and guided breathing sessions. It’s certainly not this black-and-white, and I can’t generalize the experience of others in my socioeconomic class, however, what I just described was one of my days downtown. So I at least have a solid knowledge of one person’s experience as it compares to his surroundings. I can’t imagine living in such a depressing environment, and while I recognize there are many “worse” problems that need to be addressed, I think a quick and cheap way to make the day a little brighter for people in those circumstances is to bring beauty into their space.
In this spirit, my original plan before I arrived in San Francisco was to volunteer at an organization called “Friends of the Urban Forest” that plants street trees. While they still seem like an awesome organization, my first week here, I got an email from my grandmother about the best places to take nature pictures in the city. In the email, she shared an article about a newly opened, 17-mile “Crosstown Trial” that spans the entire city. Along the way, the path is lined with plants, trees, and occasionally opens up into a series of community gardens. I checked out their website and saw that they were hosting a volunteer day the following Saturday at one of the gardens in a disadvantaged residential neighboorhood called Visitacion Valley. It seemed like just the thing I was looking to work on, so I emailed to say I would be there, and that Saturday took an Uber down to “Viz Valley.”
My only objective was to help make the city even more beautiful. Besides that, I went to the garden with no expectations. I arrived at an empty garden behind a locked gate. Assuming someone would show up eventually, I decided to walk along part of the path. When I returned to the garden about ten minutes later, I saw a woman about the age of my grandmother walking toward the garden. “Alex?” she asked. She introduced herself as the person who I had talked with over email and explained that she didn’t expect many volunteers that day because she hadn’t done much outreach. She showed me around the garden, explained their mission, and introduced me to her husband—who was the only other volunteer that day.
I started my first day at the garden watering the beds and the potted plants that surround the outdoor classroom, eventually moving on to trimming the vines on the front gate, and finally planting new flowers. That day I worked for about three hours, and as I worked, I talked with the couple, sharing what I’m doing in the Bay Area and learning about their story. They are both artists; the wife is originally from Washington State but grew up in California, and the husband is from Michigan and moved to the Bay Area in 1969. Both of them have Masters degrees, and the wife took part in the Free Speech Movement while an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley. She also shared that while she was younger than the Beat Generation writers, she hung out with them, listening to their stories at City Lights and Vesuvio. The husband, despite protesting it, had to serve in Vietnam and is currently the artist-in-residence at the local recycling center. His job is to create sculptures out of recyclables that the plant collects, and he gives tours of the center to school groups—teaching kids about the recycling process.
I love talking with and learning about them. On this first day, two things made me so incredibly happy I choose to volunteer: their stories and their mission. NorCal has always had an important place in my heart, and although I work in the tech industry, I didn’t want to come and just spend time with people who were here to make money and leave. I wanted to get involved in the local community and give back to this place that has had a profound impact on my life. Working with the couple in the garden allowed me to understand the local culture. I heard their concerns about the area’s future; I heard about their memories. Their openness made me feel welcomed and taken into this place. In addition to their stories, of course, was their mission. The woman who runs the garden describes it as a “tool of empowerment.” By this, she means that for kids and the people who live in this low-income area, the garden allows them to have control over something in their lives and that something is beautiful.
I think about that mission often. I’ve experienced so much failure in my life already, but I’ve always had support to show me where I have succeeded. And while it’s sometimes difficult to acknowledge my successes, I’ve always had people to encourage me to push forward again, and I always have. While my contribution is extremely small, small contributions add up, and we need each other to push forward.
When we finished the day’s work, we sat under the vine cover cabana and talked more. The conversation spanned a variety of topics—education, counterculture, poetry, the area, and even current politics. They shared that they were cautious to mention political topics with me at first, with the knowledge I was from Florida. Although I understand where they’re coming from, it made me a bit upset that this label that I had no choice on made them question my values. Fortunately, with this particular label, it’s invisible. Once I clarified my alignment, all their hesitation flew out the back door, and we grew closer. From that point on, I waited to mention to others I would meet that I was from Florida.
After 20 minutes or so of talking, they invited me to join them for coffee at their friend’s newly opened café just down the street. We walked down the greenway to get to it, and the wife pointed out native plants to me along the path. When we got to the café, it was clear how involved the two were in the local community. It seemed like every person who came into the coffee shop/gallery was a friend of theirs. They insisted that they pay for my coffee, and urged me to get a croissant and a banana bread for the road. We talked for a few hours, and they introduced me to people as they came into the shop. The owner was also originally from Florida.
I had left my apartment at 9:20 AM and returned at 4 PM. It was a nice day. I had joined a new community.
From San Francisco.