Several months ago, when walking from the Civic Center Plaza to Van Ness we noticed this mysterious sign on an empty plot of land on Grove Street.
Time passed and we forgot about it. But then, going through our photo archives a few weeks ago, we came across it again and decided it was time to investigate the matter further. Which basically meant finally checking the tumblr website referenced in the sign. A few days later, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I finally had the chance to get a proper tour of the Please Touch Community Garden and to hang out with its project director — GK Callahan. Callahan is a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute graduate, a Bourbon & Branch bartender and a teacher at the Lighthouse, a non-profit that offers rehabilitation, education, recreation and employment services for the blind and visually impaired.
The Please Touch Garden has been a long time in the making. A couple of years ago Callahan started volunteering at the Lighthouse, located at the corner of Van Ness and Lech Walesa Alley. Just a few steps away lied this dirty vacant plot in between the former SF Arts Commission Gallery and an empty city government building. The fence in front of the plot had a hole in it which allowed Lech Walesa dwellers the chance to fill the area with needles, all sorts of illegal activities and bodily fluids. Callahan looked at the vacant plot every day from the windows of the Lighthouse and decided to do something with it.
After a year of negotiations with the city, in January he finally received permission to use the space followed by a grant from the SF Arts Commission to turn it into a community garden. His goal, Callahan says, was to strengthen the role of art and nature in the lives of the neighborhood residents. He wanted the garden to be fully accessible and inclusive to all. What makes it so special is that Blind Leaders Program (in collaboration with various public, governmental and community groups as well as neighborhood Volunteers) are designing, building and maintaining it — hence the name Please Touch.
Right now the 4,000 square foot garden has no access to water, so the plants need to be either watered by hand by carrying multiple five-gallon buckets from the Lighthouse offices, or a long hose has to be rolled out from there across the Lech Walesa Alley and to the lot. That’s why Callahan wants to incorporate a rainwater harvesting system to capture the rainfall water from the rooftop of adjacent buildings to be used for irrigation.
In recent months the Blind Leaders and volunteers have decorated pots for plants, germinated seeds and planted a variety of fruits and vegetables. Bigger physical tasks have included painting over graffiti-covered walls, and the process of sheet-mulching which involves moving large truckloads of cardboard, then shoveling mulch into wheelbarrows and spreading them both across the garden in order to choke out the weeds.
One of the things that caught my eye when visiting the garden was the extremely light “living wall“, built by Aurora Mahassine. She makes these by grinding materials that would normally go to the landfill and calls it Habitile walls. Landscape architect Alicia Yballa also volunteered her skills to the design of the space. A lot more still needs to be done, so they’re always looking for more volunteers (if you’re interested in volunteering, write to firstname.lastname@example.org).
Since this is a community effort and they are committed to full ADA accessibility and sustainable materials and methods, they are always in need of donations as they are facing all sorts of unexpected expenses (if you have some bucks to spare, you can make a check to the Lighthouse for the Blind, earmarked for the Please Touch Community Garden (it’s tax-deductible). Or you can also make donations in kind, of things such as old furniture, paint, wood, etc. If you are as broke as we are, you can always pass along the word or become a Facebook fan.
If all goes well, the Please Touch Garden should be fully open to the public in a few weeks and there should be an opening party some time soon. We can’t wait!