For widely traveled LisaRuth Elliott, the pandemic shutdown opened up space and time to further synthesize her work as a paper and textile artist, urban farmer and community historian.
“I’ve always been drawn to the connection to place and interested in my immediate environment, where I am, who I’m with,” said Elliott, co-director of the archival and publishing project, Shaping San Francisco. For the past 25 years, Shaping San Francisco has quietly presented talks and tours around The City’s secret corners and hidden histories. Throughout the pandemic, the organization’s events have been filled to capacity and waitlisted with locals seeking deeper knowledge or willing to share what they already know about the origins and mythos of this place we call home.
“People are indulging their sense of curiosity. As soon as you start researching, the world opens up beneath you and you realize you have so much more to learn,” said Elliott. “I’ve witnessed people experiencing for the first time things that have always been here.”
Originally from Washington state, Elliott had done her share of pre-pandemic travel to far flung locales from Chiapas to China as a peace studies major and international solidarity worker. Serving as a witness to conflict and provider of disaster relief, she loved the heightened awareness travel brought her and still feels an affinity for certain people and places on the planet. Yet, she said, “I don’t think it’s really possible to understand a place without putting in the time.”
Settling in San Francisco in the ’90s, she was drawn here by “the vibrance, the magic that I found in the neighborhoods like the Mission District, North Beach, Haight Ashbury…I felt at once at home and inspired.. the sense of exploration here was very inviting.”
Alemany Farm is but one of the largely hidden spots she’s cultivated and shared with fellow city-dwellers over the pandemic year.
“It was great to be able to introduce people to a green space and respite of a 3.5 acre farm in the middle of The City,” said Elliott. Located on the Southern slope of Bernal Hill, Alemany Farm produces over 12 tons of organic food annually, which it distributes for free through the Alemany Food Pantry, Poder SF and the Sunday farm stand at 23rd Street and Treat Avenue. The farm, now celebrating its 15th year, is also open to harvesting by anyone who visits and cares to pick their own — within reason.
“As people discover the farm, they discover birdsong, they may be taking pictures of wildlife or documenting the changing seasons,” said Elliott, who has been a volunteer at the farm since 2010. “Every year that goes by, I discover new things, new trees, new plants, new migrations of birds,” she said. Among the farm’s crops are all varieties of greens and root vegetables, a thriving native plant area, medicinal herbs and a dye garden which Elliott is looking forward to tending and incorporating into her fiber artwork.
“I’ve been foraging plants, starting to see the food landscape of the farm as a color landscape,” she said of dye plants like indigo, woad, weld and madder. Elliott’s own engagement with the land, the noticing of colors and how things are integrated seasonally in parks and gardens has contributed to broadening her understanding of indigenous culture and struggle. On April 21, she’s hosting a webinar with Gregg Castro, the Association of Ramaytush Ohlone’s cultural consultant, on the history of the land, the farm and the ongoing work of creating a land trust and food sovereignty for indigenous people.
“The Ramaytush Ohlone have patterns, baskets, dye techniques that go back thousands of years,” she said of the handcrafts and tools used by the original inhabitants of the San Francisco peninsula. Elliott noted that the mosaic by Rigo 23 in the Tenderloin National Forest and the reflection garden, Oche Was Te Ou, in Yerba Buena Gardens, as examples of contemporary use of Ohlone pattern and design hiding in plain sight. But there is a much older piece with similar pattern, obscured by the altar at Mission Dolores.
“There is a 230-year-old mural, painted by indigenous people, though it is not visible to the public,” explained Elliott. A detailed accounting of that mural’s history and others is on Shaping San Francisco’s digital archive, FoundSF.org. The site compiles photographs and historical essays on a wide range of local subjects, from Fatty Arbuckle and former Mayor George Christopher to avant garde designers, Ant Farm. Elliott recently filed her own report on SoMa street names, debunking the longstanding myth that Jessie, Tehama and Clementina were named after ladies of the night from the Barbary Coast era.
“I wondered where were the legends that accompanied the women since we know the stories of the men,” said Elliott. “Why would we use their first names for streets when we don’t use the first names of men?” Culling the historical record, Elliott found that the streets were indeed more likely named for vessels docked at the nearby shipyards.
“Street names and monuments are ways we memorialize people,” said Elliott of the unlikelihood that a series of streets would named for sex workers way back when, though the story certainly plays into the freedom synonymous with San Francisco. But despite the myth on one hand, Elliott acknowledged we do have a contemporary building, the St. James Infirmary, named for Margo St. James, the sex-positive feminist. St. James died earlier this year (a public memorial will be held online May 1), and there is more information on her life and legacy on FoundSF.org.
Connecting the dots between people and place, lives and legends, is Elliott’s unique contribution to our collective history, always evolving and still unfolding.
“I’m still continuing to deepen my understanding of place, relationships, how the world works, by being here,” said Elliott, whose personal circumstances also expanded in the pandemic year: She moved to a larger place in the Mission, where she could set up a loom and stretch out her textiles; she regularly attended Zoom yoga and biked weekly up San Bruno Mountain.
“I learned more about self-care and that I hadn’t been super great at the cooking and nourishing part of life,” she said of her unexpected gifts from the past year, while the context of the big event continues to reveal itself.
“We don’t know what we’re going through completely and we’ll be processing it more and more as we come out from under the weight of this pandemic,” said Elliott, though reshaping The City will ultimately come down to us examining how we want to live.
“Shaping San Francisco has used the slogan ‘History is a creative act in the present’ for 25 years. For 24 years people were like, ‘yeah, whatever,’” said Elliott. “With the Black Lives Matter movement and the palpable nature of climate change, people are more like, ‘Wow, we’re making history.’ We’re all on the same page now.”
Alemany Farm Through Time: A History of Land and Food Production
Zoom workshop with LisaRuth Elliott and Gregg Castro
When: 5:30 p.m. April 21
Cost: Free, $10 suggested donation