By James Salazar
For almost 20 years, the Goettingen Neighbors Group has landscaped and maintained the hill at the intersection of Dwight and Goettingen streets, turning the area from a derelict dumping ground to a lush green space with views of Bernal Heights and the downtown skyline. Should the Portola residents reach the last step in their fundraising goal, they will be rewarded with “Steps to Wisdom,” a public art project created by Phillip Hua, an artist and neighborhood resident.
Hua designed the steps as a multicolored tiled gradient, which gradually transitions from charcoal gray steps at the bottom to golden yellow steps in the middle and then fully mirrored tiles at the top. Interspersed throughout the stairwell will be “words of wisdom,” customized tiles that offer advice, musings and reflections submitted by the Portola community. As visitors ascend the stairs and read the tiles, the idea is: They’ll have a chance to reflect on how the messages apply to their lives. At the peak of the 35-foot journey, climbers will be greeted by a reflection, in the mirrored tiles, of themselves.
“I thought about this idea of ascension, going up and down stairs and how that could be a metaphor for enlightenment and growth. I also wanted to use mirrored tiles, again just sort of this idea of reflection and light,” said Hua, 42, who graduated from Academy of Art University with a degree in illustration. He moved to the Portola neighborhood from the Castro with his husband because his new home had space for an art studio.
Hua added, “San Franciscans love their tiled stairways. They’ve got so many. I just didn’t want to do another staircase like all the others.”
As a member of the Goettingen Neighbors Group, Hua and other volunteers are dedicated to community building by talking with neighbors and cleaning and greening streets, among other activities.
In 2008, awards and grants from San Francisco Beautiful, the SF Parks Trust and Fiskars’ Project Orange Thumb award allowed the group to landscape the hill and add native plants, a retaining wall and an irrigation system, establishing the Goettingen Neighborhood Garden. For the past seven years, the group has been working on adding an art element to the staircase, spearheaded by Hua, through the Goettingen Cascade project.
Hua envisions “Steps to Wisdom” as a neighborhood landmark that will draw crowds to the Portola because, he said, “People just don’t come out here from San Francisco proper to hang out.”
The Portola neighborhood, approximately one square mile of land nestled in The City’s southeastern section, was once San Francisco’s “garden district,” as produce and cut flowers were grown there in the early 20th century by farmers who took advantage of the area’s sunny microclimate. World War II and the authorization of the Federal-Aid Highway Act shifted businesses away from agriculture to manufacturing, and the Portola neighborhood’s cash cow gradually became no more. The neighborhood has welcomed waves of Jews, Italians, Maltese, and most recently Asians, who now make up half the neighborhood’s population of about 18,000.
Hua initially wanted to incorporate glow-in-the-dark elements to create a waterfall effect, in a nod to the neighborhood’s agricultural roots, but logistical issues and safety concerns ruled that out. Instead, his focus shifted to honoring the past and present diversity of the area through his choice of different colored tiles.
Jeanette Wright, another Portola resident and Goettingen member, said the tiles “represent the various ethnic groups who originally settled in and built the Portola community.”
Like Hua, Wright hopes the steps will become a neighborhood attraction. “Art is for everyone to enjoy and to ask questions about what purpose it can serve or how it moves you,” she said. “The GNG staircase art will be a reflection of unity, community and, of course, the all-important objective: Words of wisdom that encourages and sustains all of us.”
After being awarded roughly $150,000 from San Francisco’s Community Challenge Grants program, which covered the bulk of the project’s costs, the Goettingen group has been fundraising for the remaining $65,000 needed for fabrication and materials, with $15,000 raised so far. Donations can be made through StepsToWisdomSF.org.
The Goettingen Neighborhood Group aims to complete the project by spring 2023. Once installed, Wright hopes “Steps to Wisdom” will inspire additional community art projects in the Portola. “I just want to see more beautiful things in the neighborhood,” said Hua.