The Door

Frances Phillips

For four years now at the Walter and Elise Haas Fund I have been evaluating San Francisco projects in the arena of audience development. From my years as executive director of Intersection for the Arts I remember planning around percent of capacity, marketing strategies, and collaborative programming, but more than that, when I think of our audience I think about the difficult relationship between our arts organization and the street. Across the country, many arts organizations are based in troubled neighborhoods — that is where paying the rent is possible or it is the central city where older businesses have crumbled around historic arts facilities or it is where optimistic urban renewal efforts are placing new cultural centers. Sometimes it is where the organizations want to be.

I barely remember the first door, the one that led to Mancuso Bros. Furniture. The building had tilted gradually into the grainy dirt and the door no longer fit tightly into the frame.

The door was at the core of the question: “How do we get them inside the door?” It asked how to make the place safe for people who came from outside the neighborhood and to seem welcoming to the people in the neighborhood. I wanted the experience of coming in the door to be like coming into a house where you were instantly comfortable — the odor of gingerbread and warm cider, the tiny exhale of thick carpet underfoot.

I believed if the neighbors knew that something good was going on inside Intersection, we would be protected. If our faces were known, if our building were something they entered like they walked into a corner store, we would thrive. If we seemed like an invading virus, we would be consumed. So, from the time we moved into the building we hosted donut and coffee gatherings to kick off neighborhood clean-up drives and we hosted neighborhood meetings and we offered complimentary tickets to the previews of plays. I made a special effort to give tickets to the police officers who worked our beat so they would know us. We watched and waited. The neighbors, the business people, the police would come for the sweeping and arguing but would not come for the art.

“Invite me to your theater, Frances,” Constance, the homeless woman who camped outside our back door, asked me, “Ask me to something nice so I can feel dressed up.” But I invited her and she did not come.

I had always hoped we could do excellent work, challenging work, and in doing that meet the neighbors at eye level.

We had been looking, we had even signed a provisional lease. But I was not certain that moving was the right decision until I called our landlord the day after the 1989 earthquake to tell him that his building — which was not attached to its foundation and was near an underground creek — was still standing. (In photographs of that same block of Valencia Street after the 1906 quake, the Valencia Hotel had lurched at an angle like a cow who couldn't get back to her feet. Five people were killed inside it.) Our landlord said coolly, “I assumed that everything was okay because I did not see the building burning down on the news.” I knew that he cared so little that I no longer could bear to bring audiences there.

There are good stories about how we found the new building and the new landlord we adored and how our board chair saw the structural engineer driving home up Market Street one night, made an illegal “u” turn, followed him home, and made him come look at the new place. And how incomprehensible and formal the Estonian engineer was. And how there was so much steel rebar in the walls that the geotechnical engineer could not take a reading of their structure. The Mancusos had built the building themselves. They had made one miscalculation. An Irish cultural center with a swimming pool in the basement was going to be built next door, so they made the foundation on the side of the building next to the pool twice as heavy as the foundation on the opposite side. The cultural center was never built and, in time, the Mancuso building tipped toward its heavier side. But the building's essence was solid.

We moved just three blocks to the Mancuso building. However, in that short distance one crosses 16th Street to a different zip code and faces the walkway between a housing project — Valencia Gardens — and the 16th Street subway (BART) station. Would an audience go there? We had six months to make up our minds to stay or go, and to find out if the City would give us a permit.

Valencia is a central corridor in San Francisco's Mission District, an old working class neighborhood with hundreds of churches, social service organizations, murals, cafes, used bookstores, and restaurants. Once much of San Francisco's industry was based in the north part of the Mission and the presence of blue collar jobs there made it the center of the labor movement, later a center for grassroots liberal, political movements. Spanish is the first language of more than half of the Mission's population.

A neighborhood activist arranged a meeting for me with the Captain of Mission Station. Captain Brush was highly respected by the neighbors, a difficult position to attain in a neighborhood where policing and police politics were taken very seriously. He had just been promoted to Commander and out of the neighborhood. He had a modest moustache, reddish-brown, “like a small brush,” I kept thinking. We had breakfast at Aunt Mary's. He struck me as a man who had never been soiled by food. He used paper napkins as if they had the heft of cloth.

He told me that the 400 block had improved. Crime was down and he believed it would stay there. If any housing project in the city had a chance of working it was Valencia Gardens because it was built on the scale of the buildings around it so that it fit into the neighborhood. It was not a trap or a high-rise.

I talked it over with anyone who would listen. I worried it would limit our size. At best it seemed we could fit eighty seats in our theater which would limit our earned income. But the rent was lower and the work we'd have to do on the building was much cheaper. Alan Millar — then director of The Lab — said, “Audience development is an assumption; lower rent is a fact.” I told artist Nayland Blake I liked to move “...because you got to throw away a lot of stuff.” “Yeah, like your audience,” he said.

While it was heavy and creaky, I liked cranking up the metal gate covering 446 in the morning as if I were opening my produce market. The gate's slats completely covered a three-panel storefront window and an inset glass-in-wood frame door.

The question of the kind of door we should have became the staff's most heated conversation. The gallery director was scared. She said I was crazy to not cover the windows: People on the street would come in and rob us. Our literary director wanted us to have an entrance like the one at The Lab on Divisadero. They had retained their storefront as a display space, but there was a wall behind the windows so that you had to come fully inside before you could see that it was a gallery. Then there was the entryway to New Langton Arts — at the time, a subtle blue neon sign in the window of a gray building. The New Langton door had mystique. It seemed like a door you had to know about if you were to find it.

Art may be something you want to come upon in unexpected ways and places. It may be the gray door with the red handle at the end of the block or down the stairs and past the bar.

This sounds like a civil conversation, but it was all consuming. There were tears, there was pacing, cigarettes were smoked. Ultimately I lost the storefront window — first to the gallery director who convinced me that we needed to do a “Day Without Art” installation that she failed to take down for a long, long time. Then I was defeated by seismic codes that deemed that the building was 1.5 feet too long for its width so that some of the glass would have to go from the front or rear walls.

After the October 1989 earthquake there was so much building to be done in San Francisco it was hard to get permits. By the time approval seemed eminent, we had gathered a little money and a lot of volunteer help. A board member who was a building contractor and an extraordinary sculptor built a level floor for us. Once the floor was level, the original door did not fit. For a short term solution that went on too long, we built a custom door that had an old fashioned latch with a latch bar nesting into a strike. The latch bar was raised and lowered by a string pulled from the inside or laced through to the outside of the building.

We thought of our block as a commercial strip, but soon realized that many people lived around us in little cottages on Albion, in studios above the plumbing supply, produce, and clothing stores, and in the gloomy SRO hotels — the Royan, Hotel Sunrise, the Apollo. According to the New Mission News, managers of such hotels charged for anyone who came to visit a room so they profited if there were drug dealing or prostitution. Constance, the homeless woman who camped behind our building, told me she was safer sleeping in the streets.

Later, as part of a “neighborhood revitalization” project, our 16th Street group surveyed everyone living and working in the area. My friend Robin and I hosted a neighborhood meeting in the community room of the subsidized housing across the street. When we asked the residents there what they liked best about the neighborhood, they couldn't think of anything. When we asked them which businesses they patronized, they said they didn't. They got into their cars and drove to the Tanforan Shopping Mall down near the airport.

Wind on Valencia blows the garbage east to west, so every morning Paul, our theater director, or I swept up the fallen leaves, cigarette butts, and greasy paper. Mornings of sweeping were my favorite time on the street. Mothers with toddlers and babies in strollers passed with small bags of groceries. Sometimes they would have eye contact with us but often they were hurried and self-contained. One brisk older man in a wool tweed hat walked by nodding, “Good morning, good morning.” We had no furnace at the time. He often said, “Nice sweater.”

One day a colleague who was new in town came by to have lunch with me. “I used to work in a place like this in Philadelphia,” he said. “My first day at work we found a nun decapitated on the back steps.”

What Captain Brush did not realize when he told me the block was getting better was that we moved in during a hiatus in the cocaine supply. A few months before our move, the police had found and seized two warehouses in Los Angeles filled with cocaine. It had cleared the streets up and down the coast.

The presence of the drugs was again evident about the time we were ready to open to the public. Once in a while you'd see a classic Mustang or Camero with gold chrome driving slowly past the projects. “Drug dealer's car,” Douglas told me. Once a week a limousine dropped off a suitcase in the Sunshine Hotel lobby. Jittery young men stood all day by the parking meters muttering, “Rocks? Rocks?” “They don't even bother to put it in baggies,” Paul said with disgust. One meter down by the Apollo had a loose base so when the cops drove by the dealers could slide their holdings beneath the base. Five alarms on our block usually meant an overdose, not a fire.

At night junkies sat on the steps of the abandoned mortuary. The bowls of their pipes glowed. The smell of it was sharp and sweet like the taste in your mouth when your stomach turns over — cardamom and clove and the aftershave you get stuck next to on the bus.

What did we think we were doing, bringing audiences here? What if someone were ever, ever hurt?

Because of the ominous nights, we thought to experiment with Sunday afternoon matinees. It turned out that Sunday afternoon, preteen boys living at Valencia Gardens had time on their hands. Our landlord had told us that they used to come and bang on the glass window until he ran after them. One Sunday, during “Impatiens” by Octavio Solis, they decided to break into the theater and disrupt. They got up on stage for a few minutes, until one of the actors told them they could not do that but were invited to sit in the audience. In the play a suitor bleeds blue and this metaphor held their attention briefly. They sat in the front row for about half an hour and then noisily got up and went back outside. Those in the theater probably breathed faint sighs of relief as the “incident” had been minor, only to discover when they tried to leave that the boys had pulled the latch string out through the hole in the door, locking everyone inside.

I believe Sean, the lighting designer, unlocked the back door, scaled the fence, and rescued them. However it ended, this became the story that was told and told. The next day we called everyone who had been in the theater and apologized. It was not a decapitated nun, but it marked us.

Our neighbors at Mission Housing Corporation let us use an empty parking lot down the street. Safe parking seemed like a good public relations move. We hired a guard — first an off-duty cop who rarely showed up but drove up to our entrance at great speed when he did appear, and then Joe, from a guard service. Joe's job was to unlock the parking lot forty-five minutes before the show, greet any patrons, lock the lot after the show started, keep an eye on the building during the show, and then escort people back to their cars when it was over. Joe was a lovely man. He seemed physically powerful but sweet. His presence was good for staff morale. But it bothered the audience. “I see you have a guard. What happened? Have you been having problems?” When Joe got transferred to another job and his replacement was flaky, we dropped the guard service.

Why couldn't we make it work in this place? We worked with artists who made challenging art. It seemed that the edgy uncertainty of being an artist and the difficulties of the place had everything to do with one another. How could the outside of the organization be in the meaning of the inside? How could the inside get to the outside? The artistic staff was brilliant and they worked incredibly hard. Sometimes it seemed we were pushing an enormous counter force with pure will. Either it was stubbornness that would pay off or it was tenacity that would bury us.

At the same time, I loved the building. I loved its cave-like qualities, the cool of its cement. When you came in off the bruising of the street, it was still inside, like hiking into a circle of trees. Soon after we moved in I found myself thinking of a poem I love by George Oppen. I always thought of it as a poem about aesthetics, but now it seemed like a poem about the street. I wrote it out on a piece of graph paper and posted it above my desk:

The little hole in the eye
Williams called it, the little hole

Has exposed naked
To the world

And will not close

Blankly the world
Looks in

And we compose

And the sense

Of home
And there are those

In it so violent
And so alone

They cannot rest.

Joseph Savage played the part of a carnival actor who swung from a rope net far above our stage. He had two spoken lines. Tom, the director of “Carne Vale,” told me that Joseph wanted to make theater with children. Could I help him?

At a 16th Street meeting I'd met a woman named Ethel who worked at a neighborhood tutoring center. The center had been around for a long time, serving African American and Native American children living in Valencia Gardens. Now more and more of the children were from Woodward Alley, the Southeast Asian enclave in the Duboce/Mission triangle. These children were living with their families of eight in single room apartments in those SRO hotels you wouldn't wish on anyone. We never saw these children on the streets, though they walked home through the neighborhood from Marshall Elementary and Sanchez or Everett Middle schools. The girls wore coppery jewelry that glowed against their skin and hair. All of them had great warmth combined with a social formality. They would shake your hand. They crawled all over Ethel wanted to be lifted, hugged, tickled.

Joseph and I walked down the block past the Apollo Hotel and Munroe Motors, past Swords to Plowshares, to 15th. We crossed toward the Royan and walked down to Julian Alley. The walls along 15th smelled like urine, but when you turned onto Julian and then into the churchyard, the church itself was lovely and there was a beautiful, formal rose garden. The scent of rose gave the feeling of sanctuary. “The rules,” Ethel told me, “are they have to show respect and they cannot mess with the roses.”

The tutoring center's director, Kyle, was tough with Joseph. She told him that he had to have a curriculum, lesson plans, a structure if he was going to do theater with these kids. Lack of form would lead to disaster. They struck a kind of bargain in which it was clear that volunteering was an honor not a favor. The project would be co-sponsored by Intersection.

It became a privilege to have a toehold on this project. Joseph was magical with the children and quickly respected by Ethel and Kyle. The center found a wonderful co-teacher. They raised some drug, alcohol, and tobacco-prevention grant money so all of the children's plays were sad stories about what happened to an uncle, an absent father, or a step brother who could not abstain. The plays usually ended with a funeral scene and someone sadly announcing the moral of the story. But the loveliness of the children and how they improved as actors, singers, writers was profound. Joseph said the children never stopped surprising him: A Laotian child played one of the flutes and none of the Vietnamese children would then touch it.

When the tutoring center theater troupe, who named themselves, “The Fresh Kids,” premiered a new work, they opened their show at Intersection and then “toured” it to their elementary and middle schools and sometimes to the children's ward at the hospital. This seemed like our opportunity to fully be in and of the neighborhood, to bring in the families, to reach those harried mothers with strollers and toddlers and groceries. Wouldn't any parent go to see his or her kid in a play? We propped the doors open, tied balloons to the door handles and to the trees. Joseph bought pizza and coke and we put the food on a table that was visible from the sidewalk.

The theater was packed but the parents did not come. The tutors were there and the “Fresh Kids'” older brothers and sisters came. Maybe we were naive about the parents' working hours or their having other kids at home who had to be watched and tucked in bed, but we were surprised and discouraged. We tried again six months later, and had the same results.

What was it about crossing our threshold that was so ominous or so foreign?

If you stood at the southern corner of our building and looked across the street, there was Sparrow Alley. Straight down Sparrow was a profuse and deep pink bougainvillea bush against a wall. That was the best thing one could say for it. When a problem was swept from the Tenderloin, from Capp, from 24th Street, it ended up on or near Sparrow as if that crevice were an old wound that was easily reinfected.

Every open space in the neighborhood became the arena from which the buried syringes must be removed in double plastic, from which ivy must be pulled to prevent rats, from which the homeless were moved along and drug dealers held their own. On Capp down near 20th the neighbors got together to fence, lock, and plant a desolate, crime-ridden mini-park. They made it lovely. Step-by-step the smaller open spaces were filled or fenced: It was confounding, counter-intuitive that the closing of formal and informal public space would cure a neighborhood. Openness was vulnerability.

At the end of the summer, the children at the tutoring center constructed a model called “Peace in the Neighborhood.” It grew too large to leave up in the church and Ethel asked me if they could set it up in Intersection's front window. “Peace in the Neighborhood” was written over a vivid arching rainbow and attached to our inner wall. On the window shelf were homes made of twigs and toothpicks with roofs of straw and pine needles — little straw and wood cottages with front porches and open doors and windows. Behind each cottage was a square or oval pool of water. Everything was open, trusting — so unlike the barred windows around us. We had “Peace in the Neighborhood” in the window when the Rodney King verdict was read and when later that week Amiri Baraka and Juan Felipe Herrera read in our theater to a crowd that lined up around the block to hear them.

In time we accepted that if we wanted to meet the neighbors, it required a different medium of exchange: a garage sale, a book sale, a community raffle. My friend Pamela Carroll tells me that she provides foster care to dogs from the animal shelter and her neighbors come into her gallery when the puppies are there.

After I left Intersection, Kate Eilertsen and Charles Wilmoth started, and Deborah Cullinan has continued, an arts event called “ExperiMission.” The events begin on the street with the artists becoming Pied Pipers who draw the audiences to them as they pass. This year I helped at an “ExperiMission” event. Joe Kreiter with dancers from Zaccho Dance Theater and children in Zaccho's after school program performed a dance piece in and above Sparrow Alley. Several of the dancers climbed to the roof of the Hotel Sunrise. A crowd gathered for the performance — both friends of the artists and passersby. The dancers, costumed as large dark birds, flipped down over the fire escape like a Jacob's ladder unfolding. Musicians played live from the balcony of the hardware store next door. Inside the Sunrise, residents seemed to be running from floor to floor. Windows were yanked open and slammed shut. Some of the passersby went away and came back with others. By the end of the performance, we had to herd the crowd in from Valencia Street towards the sidewalk so they would not block traffic.

This is a small part of the story of an arts organization and its neighborhood. Today, eight years after my meeting with Commander Brush, the neighborhood seems to be changing. Last year the Utne Reader identified the Mission along Valencia Street as “...the second hippest neighborhood in America.” And Intersection is thriving, more often with packed audiences, while the effort continues to open the door. This year Intersection started work with neighborhood activists to create a play about and including people living on the streets and in the nearby SRO hotels. They've been meeting every Thursday. They call themselves “On a Mission.”

Poet Frances Phillips is a program officer at the Walter and Elise Haas Fund in San Francisco.

“The Little Hole” by George Oppen is from his COLLECTED POEMS. Copyright © by George Oppen. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.