A Little Slice of Eden in the City

| 8/25/2011 5:03:32 PM


Sometimes paradise springs up in the unlikeliest of places. Cohen Alley in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district is one such place.

“Syringes and human feces littered the ground,” writes Next American City’s Johanna Hoffman, describing Cohen Alley in the 1980s. “[P]rostitutes used the spot to turn tricks. For local contractors, it was a convenient, if illegal, dumping ground.”

Twentysome years later, the 40-foot-wide space hidden between two busy streets looks drastically different. Bright murals painted by local artists decorate the buildings that straddle the alley. Small tables are set out for impromptu conversations. Soft warmth emanates from a small, homemade clay oven. A three-story redwood tree would normally seem out of place in the city—but blends perfectly into the environment of Cohen. The area is so lushly precious it even earned a new name: the Tenderloin National Forest.

The transformation was no fluke; creating Tenderloin National Forest took decades of manual labor, community organizing, and politicking—mostly from native San Franciscan Darryl Smith. “We saw how the alley was being disrespected,” Smith told Next American Ctiy, “It wasn’t a healthy place to be, and we wanted to change that. We wanted physical and environmental safety.”

Smith and his collaborators started low-key. At the end of the ‘80s, Smith dragged sheets of grass sod into the alley and established a DIY performance space. Local residents developed a pride of place around the alley, and eventually politicians started to notice—and fight for the space. Smith’s next project, according to Hoffman, is to install a wastewater treatment system, and he’ll likely do so without a permit. And that will be fine.

9/7/2011 11:13:58 AM

"push gently, but..keep pushing" can be the next slogan for solving this planet's human problem. The kindergarten lessons of sharing and good behavior are now to be learned, as the Great Shock approaches. (The preludes to the shock are seen in all the current failures of technology, of government that has forgotten how to serve, the Arab Spring, and Great Depression II now ongoing. The human problem will be solved; it's up to you how it is solved.

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