The Story of The Moraga Steps
(This article appeared in the August 2013 issue of Image magazine, a print publication of Silicon Valley Community Newspapers. Photos by Alice Yee Xavier, Colette Crutcher and Sandy Sims.)
If ever there was an embodiment of the notion it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination, the Moraga Steps are that—literally.
The 163 steps in San Francisco’s Sunset area that climb from 16th Avenue straight up the hillside toward Grand View Park are covered with a stunning mosaic design. Blues, greens, browns, yellows and more dip and swirl upward, representing ocean, earth, and sky. Hand-made tiles of animals, flowers and stars highlight the theme.
Completed in 2005, the three-year project began simply as: “Hmmm wouldn’t it be lovely if…”
When Jessie Audette moved to San Francisco’s Sunset District, to work on her MBA at the University of San Francisco, she came across the 16th Avenue staircase.
Built in 1926, the steps were, old and drab, but in a straight line and “visible near and far,” Audette says in an email. This conjured for her the memory of the mosaics of the Santa Teresa Steps in Rio de Janeiro where she’d lived. “The steps in Rio were a place that people would go to relax, play guitar, chat, etc.” Audette wondered if it would be possible to create something similar here.
Audette mentioned the steps and her idea to her dentist. He happened to be the former brother-in-law of Alice Yee Xavier, whose home sits alongside the 16th Avenue Steps. She had been sprucing up the staircase for years by planting and tending gardens along its edges.
Audette dropped a message in Yee Xavier ’s mailbox.
“I liked the idea,” Yee Xavier says. And that sealed the future for the 16th Avenue Steps.
Little did they realize what an undertaking this would be, but they dove in, using their own money to establish a headquarters in Yee Xavier ’s garage. Joined by an engineer, an architect, a few neighborhood residents and students from USF, they began.
They hired two San Francisco artists who’d never worked together, Colette Crutcher, a mosaic artist, and Aileen Barr—who creates art with her own handmade tiles.
The administrative hoops were arduous—permits from five city departments (the steps are on city property), fund raising, publicity, learning what materials would pass code, dealing with disability codes, approval by the board of Supervisors as well as the Arts Commission, and the Mayor’s Office on Disability, and on and on.
“We divided up the work,” Yee Xavier, who manages her husband’s chiropractic office, says.
“Alice is much more pragmatic than I am,” Audette says, in an email from Rio. “At the same time she is also a creative and very energetic person (like me). Audette, no doubt gets her creativity from her mother—celebrated American artist Anna Held Audette.
“Jesse is the big idea person,” Yee Xavier says. “I balanced it by getting ideas off the ground.” Yee Xavier knew people who knew people in powerful positions. “You have to keep selling your idea over and over,” she says.
They knew to set an end time. “If it takes too long, people lose interest,” Yee Xavier says. Some did come and go along the way.
Audette, who works in wind and solar energy in Rio, says her professional experience as a project manager came in handy. “We had to organize people and create schedules and budgets, and it was a challenge to get people to contribute time and work offering them only pride in participating in the project.” she says.
This was before Facebook and Twitter, so the project grew by word-of-mouth, picking up steam as residents slowly became aware of it. Remarkably, 300 volunteers worked on the project, making this once-unconnected neighborhood a close-knit group.
Financial contributions came from residents and Bay Area businesses and organizations, including the San Francisco Mayors’ Neighborhood Beautification Fund, Union Bank, even the San Jose Sharks, Oakland A’s and Winchester Mystery House. Local tile and granite companies gave generously of their time and products.
While the two women jumped through administrative hoops, the creative side of the project was in full swing. Volunteers ferried thousands of tiles—donated mainly by local companies—to the artists’ studio and helped organize them.
Following their design, Crutcher and Barr and volunteers painsakingly glued some 2,000 tiles to sheets of plastic mesh—the mosaic panels for the risers. Workshops took place in an assisted living facility, a church, and a cafe. Each time more volunteers came and worked long hours, applying some 50 percent of the tiles.
Handmade tiles in shapes of animals, flowers, stars and more bear names of some 200 residents and businesses, even a memorial tile for Crutcher’s dog, who died during the project.
Yee Xavier says the Tiled Steps turned out to be much more than envisioned. “When installation was complete, we were in awe over the end result.” She jokes that she has had to take on the role of overseeing maintenance of the steps, including trimming and weeding the gardens. She calls on volunteers, however, and the city provides bags and other supplies.
Visitors can climb to the top of the Moraga Steps and then up even more steps to windy Grand View Park to see amazing views of the city and ocean (on a clear day).
The official website for the Moraga Steps is www.tiledsteps.org
Note: Just around the corner on 16th Avenue between Lawton and Kirkham streets another set of drab concrete steps (called Hidden Garden Steps) will be transformed by mosaics also designed by Crutcher and Barr. The Hidden Garden group, inspired by the Moraga steps, plan to begin installing mosaic sheets on the risers in April 2014.