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Trees take root in the Tenderloin

“Right now we’re standing in front of a more arid desert feature,” says my tour guide Darryl Smith. It’s an odd thing to point out in the middle of San Francisco — and the street sounds nearby don’t let you forget that you’re in the heart of the Tenderloin, but as soon as you set foot in this park, you know you’ve walked into a unique space.

Smith is the co-founder and director of the Luggage Store Gallery with my Laurie Lazer. Together they founded this place, the Tenderloin National Forest. It’s off of Ellis Street between Hyde and Leavenworth. And let’s be real — it’s still a concrete alley sandwiched between tall brick buildings. But, if you let yourself zoom in on what’s in here, it really can feel like a verdant oasis. Trees and plants of all colors and sizes surround us. Smith even points out a hummingbird nearby.

A water fountain filled with bright orange fish bubbles in one corner. A neon sign hangs over a shed with a living grass roof. It reads in cursive script: “Tell your stories here.” There’s an earthen oven and giant colorful murals on every wall. My favorite touch is the arrowhead-shaped greeting sign that looks a lot like the traditional National Forest logo.

“It’s comforting,” says Frankie Madison, who comes here to relax. “In this chaotic city,” Madison says, “it’s nice to have a little quiet place to be.  Especially here in the Tenderloin, everything is so upside down and backwards that to step through that gate and to come in here is you just transcend to a different place. You’re not in the Tenderloin anymore.”

But if you had peered into this alley 15 years ago or so, you would have seen a very different picture. “Back then,” says Smith, “it was all asphalt. It was a classic inner city alleyway. There was a lot of garbage, lot of excrement, drug paraphernalia. Kind of, you know, it had its own story.” Which is, in part, the story of the Tenderloin itself.

Ben Grant of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association says it was”a very dense and very mixed part of the city from a very early on, without a lot of provision for open space.” Grant can think of only one substantial public park in the Tenderloin — Boeddecker Park — built in the mid-80s. But it has tall metal fences and iron benches. It’s not that welcoming.

“I think the contrast between Boeddecker Park and the Tenderloin National Forest really reveals the importance of local stewardship and community advocates especially in a district that has significant problems with homelessness, with substance abuse, and with social issues,” says Grant. So how did they do it? How do you create green space where there’s practically none?

In the 1980s, artists Darryl Smith and Laurie Lazer were living and working in the Tenderloin, right near this alley. Then it was called Cohen Place. And at that time, Smith says the alley received an average of a thousand police calls a year. So in the early 90s they began a public art series there. They called it “Performance in the Gutter."

“We’d clean up and then we’d do installations and have performances go on here. Just to kind of give a sense of what could be, of what the possibilities could be if we could kind of turn it around,” explains Smith.

But they couldn’t do it right away. First, they reached out to their neighbors for ideas and support. Then they went to local nonprofits that helped them with research, planning, and connections so they could approach city government. A decade later, the city agreed to lease them the space for a dollar a year. Then they knew they could really build something. But they started small.

It started with one redwood tree called “Mama Tender”, which is now four stories tall. And as it grew, so did their vision. One day they laid out a blanket of grass for an event. When they were about to pack it up, somebody whispered out a nearby hotel window “keep it,” says Smith. That planted the seed. And that’s when the alleyway really started to change.

Smith says garbage collection trucks stopped coming into the alley and fire fighters didn’t pull their trucks all the way in for emergencies.

These changes allowed the alley to flourish. Today, there’s all kinds of trees: pine, maple, lemon, olive, gingko, and not one, but two redwoods. From cacti and succulents to bamboo and ferns — sage, rosemary, lavender, and mint — the diversity of plant life in this small space is astounding.

Anne Thomas was caught by surprise when she first saw the forest. “I was walking really fast and I was really upset because I had to search for a bed. I seen this place and I stopped and I moonwalked back and I said, ‘Oh my gosh!’” she remembers. Founder Darryl Smith says the neighbors have really embraced the forest. “The neighborhood’s over the years gotten much more involved in it,” he says, “taking care of it, watching over it.” But the park’s most frequent visitors are the hummingbirds.

It’s the only bird that can fly backwards and it has the largest heart in the animal kingdom, relative to its size. It’s also, Smith says, “the link from green pocket to green pocket.” The hummingbirds only started arriving when the greening of the alley began.

During my visit, a few ruby-throated hummingbirds flickered in. They’d hover for a sweet moment, then flicker away, kind of like the neighbors who wander in and out of this space. For now, it’s forest enough.

This story originally aired on November 30, 2011.

Ali Budner came to KALW as a volunteer reporter with Crosscurrents in early 2009, then joined the Your Call team as a producer in March of 2010. She loves the dynamic daily interactions of live radio and the inspiring guests and listeners that Your Call attracts. She still makes stories for Crosscurrents in her free time.