OPINION: Community Correspondent
OPINION: Community Correspondent

Crossing the Street: Local Artists put The Portola on Display

Ruth Wallace's picture

San Francisco artists Kate Connell and Oscar Melara are seeking to put their neighborhood, The Portola, on the map, literally. Their newest work called, Crossing the Street, is a series of interactive books and maps about the working class enclave on The City’s underserved southeastern corner. Crossing the Street is now on display until February 25, 2011 at The Portola Branch Library at 350 Bacon Street. At the exhibit opening, on Saturday, October 2, attendees were given eight colorful and informative maps of The Portola, in poster form. 

The maps are just a part of this energetic project. The work includes four unusual books focusing on The Portola and its people. The books are a flip book with images and poems on silk focusing on The Portola sky, a graphic novel highlighting the differences and similarities of two young women growing up in The Portola 60 years apart, a tunnel book depicting two families and multiple generations living next door to one another and the families that lived in the houses before them, and an atlas of The Portola. The maps are gathered in the atlas showing San Francisco and The Portola from the earliest recorded data until the present.

The artists, Kate Connell and Oscar Melara, are a husband and wife team and long-time Portola residents. They conceived of Crossing the Street as they became close to their neighbors and realized the ties that bind people together in a neighborhood.

It’s obvious that this project is a labor of love for them both. Even as they were showing their work, they were gathering material for another book. Children present  were given coloring pages drawn by Melara, to draw their impressions of the neighborhood to add to the future book. “The coloring pages are designed as an ‘anti-coloring book’, the design asks the children to draw what they see with their artwork framed by Oscar’s drawings”, said Connell as she hurried from one station to the next.

Much of the neighborhood history is gathered in these books. The flip book which focuses on the sky as an avenue of freedom and possibility includes poems of the interred Chinese from the immigration center on Angel Island. After the Angel Island facility burned, the immigration center was moved to The Portola to what was originally a Presbyterian College and is now a school, Cornerstone Academy.

The graphic novel tells the stories of two young women who have lived their entire lives in The Portola sixty years apart, Bonnie and Shirley. Bonnie began life in The Portola when the hills now covered with homes were grazing land for cattle and rode horses in what is now McLaren Park. Shirley grew up learning business skills and Chinese Opera in her mother’s store on San Bruno Avenue and hanging out with friends in local establishments.

The tunnel book draws you from the present inhabitants and owners and their families back in time to previous families and how they lived in the same home. This book is designed with a mail slot and postcards so that visitors can jot their memories of The Portola and “mail” them to the artists for a book in progress.

The Portola Atlas called; Tracing the Portola: a San Francisco Neighborhood Atlas seemed to draw the most attention at the exhibit. It includes the eight maps which the artists gave to attendees. Lifelong resident, Raina Garibaldi, served as a docent at the atlas and to field questions. Garibaldi wrote the book on The Portola, San Francisco’s Portola, one in a series about regions and neighborhoods by Arcadia Publishing, called Images of America. “The atlas is beautiful, just beautiful as is the whole project. There is a lot of information and history here.” she said of the project. Garibaldi’s family is one of the flower growing families that helped define The Portola as San Francisco’s Garden District.

These eight maps that drew so much attention show The Portola as it was when Europeans first came to The San Francisco Peninsula; a map of the disappeared Oholone people, the watershed and The Portola as range land, ranches and farms; a directory of the early institutions in The Portola some of which still stand and operate today such as the University Mound Ladies Home and the immigration station; a listing of the current churches and institutions; the map of The Portola as San Francisco Flower growing district and what flowers grew where; a grid of The Portola as the working class neighborhood as it evolved into in the late 19th and into the 20th centuries; the plan to develop The Portola and what it became and how it is moving forward; and The Portola neighbors views of what makes the neighborhood special.

“This project has been exhausting, but fun”, said Melara of his work on Saturday. “Everyone seems to enjoy it and we learned a lot”.

The Portola as inspiration to Connell and Melara shows in their past work together as well. They designed a visual, bingo-type game, based on the Mexican Loteria game, called Porto-Loteria which features images of The Portola’s people and places, flora and fauna. Proceeds from the sale of Porto-Loteria went toward the fundraising efforts for the fixtures and furniture of the new Portola Branch Library that was one of four new branch libraries built or being built in San Francisco. The new Portola Branch Library opened in February of 2009.

The exhibit is on display at The Portola Branch Library through February 25th, 2011. Maps are available to the public by request and determined by availability. For more information, click here.