Neighbors Transform Neglected Hillside Into Athens-Avalon Greenspace

Ekevara Kitpowsong/Ingleside-Excelsior Light

By Ekevara Kitpowsong

Once a dumping ground filled with old furniture, bottles and cans, the hillside at the intersection of Athens and Avalon avenues is now filled with about 350 different types of plants and a beautified staircase.

A ribbon cutting and dedication ceremony was held for the Athens Avalon Greenspace, a nine-year labor of love project by a group of Excelsior neighbors, on Saturday, June 24.

About 70 people attended the celebration as the Back Porch Band performed.

Volunteer Darin Greyerbiehl, who has been living in the house on the top of Athens Avalon Greenspace for over 20 years said, “This is a nice little oasis that is a beautiful place just to sit and contemplate it. You know there are really beautiful views from up on the top, you can see all the way out to the Farallon Islands. It feels very special.”

In the summer of 2008, about 10 neighbors living near the intersection got together to clean the hillside. Today, there are about 120 volunteers.

“It was just a hillside that was full of garbage and weeds and look really terrible. And so we started this group of neighbors as we walk past it one night going from one neighbor’s house to another. We thought, maybe we could turn this into a garden,” project leader Pamela Axelson said.

But the group didn’t know where is this hillside belonged to and tried to find the owner.

“Then we found out that it was the unimproved block of Athens Street and it belongs to the Department of Public Works. And it is considered a street, an unimproved street,” Axelson said.

The group tried to get in touch with various people, and then Axelson met Ahsha Safaí at one of his campaign rallies and told him about what they were doing.

“He referred me over to Sandra Zuniga of Public Works who came out and she talked to Mohammed Nuru who was deputy director in charge of street parks at that time. And he approved of the project so they took us on as a Street Park. They introduced me to Julia Brashares at SF Parks Alliance. Parks Alliance was willing to become our fiscal sponsor. We applied for that. And it just kept on rolling, I mean that’s really how it started,” Axelson said.

When John Avalos was elected supervisor and in 2009, he was supportive of the project and encouraged them to do the steps project, which was finished this year.

“You know it’s a very beautiful project, it captured so much of this neighborhood’s spirit. It is all about this community come together to make this happen. They work with tenacity and character to build this garden. We never gave up. They held a city accountable and it made it easy for us to bring the funding here to help put this garden together. And I’m just really thrilled overall,” said Avalos, who lives on Naples Street about half a mile from the hillside.

Tami Rowan, who at the top of the hill, said the project created a sense of community in the neighborhood.

“So many of our neighbors we’ve met through this and we hang out all the time now every month we come and clean and now we do dinner parties even,” Rowan said. “It’s just been great for the neighborhood all around.”

The 99 grey concrete steps running up the hillside has been transformed with the new look filled with bright colorful tiles that can be seen from a few blocks away.

The Athens Avalon Greenspace tile stair project was designed by a designer and volunteer Iran Narges, a design director by day, who has been living around the corner from the hillside for over 15 years. Narges created the original design in 2009.

“This stairway is very popular with people for exercise. It happens to be the most efficient way to get to Valmar Terrace above. So whether you want to get exercise or not — you’re going to — but people including myself will go up and down a bunch of times,” Narges said.

“And so you might be literally feeling cooler when you’re at the bottom of the stairs but by the time you’re at the top you’re going to have a lot more heat in your body and so that’s part of the inspiration for the way the gradient goes toward the warmer lighter.”

The tile project uses a lot of different colors and custom 6” x 1” glazed tiles with one die from KZ Tile. Each step is different.

“There are 99 steps, each riser has five rows of tiles, so each row is the same color all the way across. And no tread is the same, so there are 99 different combinations,” Narges said.

“It is abstract and there’s a minimalist aspect in that. There’s only one size of tile but then there’s a sort of richness and variety of the colors and the way they’re all mixed together.”

“On the risers of the stairs, at the bottom the colors are more dark. There’s a lot more blues and more dark tones. And then it starts to get into the lighter blues and greens in the middle and then towards the top. It’s more yellows and oranges but there’s like little pops of red and orange throughout in a couple of different tones of gray and it’s all sort of mixed up,” Narges added. “But with this when you stand back from it. It does have a little bit of a gradient feel from darker and cooler at the bottom to warmer at the top.“

There are some different inspirations on the design; the design reflects colors from grass, native wildflowers and trees of the Greenspace and McLaren Park, the views of sunset, ocean and sky from the steps.

“I think today is this is a wonderful celebration of community coming together. The planting symbolized the life and the rebirth and the tenacity of this neighborhood,” Supervisor Ahsha Safaí said. “I feel like this garden is a perfect symbol of how this community can come together and be beautiful.”

“We put in our budget over allocation for over 500 new trees to be planted every year in the District 11,” Safai added. “So we’re going to do that on August 26. So every year we’re going to do 500 trees and we’re going to continue to green and beautify and bring more life to the neighborhood.”

Steve Ah Nin, a volunteer who has lived just down the hill on Athens Street for 18 years, said he is glad to see the change. “We spent months and weeks and years, writing grants and going through the whole process and then seeing different steps along the way, retaining walls and irrigation and then we started planning plants and the whole from beginning to end and now we’re done. It’s nice to see it.”

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