Why Giraffes are Appearing in San Francisco’s Civic Center

One of the great gifts of serving the Kenneth Rainin Foundation is access to a discretionary awards fund. These funds help to diversify our grantmaking and enhance our responsiveness to community needs. Our discretionary awards program is invitation only and  different from the Foundation’s core program grants in Arts, Education and Health.

For the past two years our board member Eric Rodenbeck has used discretionary awards to support art and community-building activities in San Francisco’s Civic Center Commons, a long-neglected but now exciting and vibrant cultural center. We asked Eric a few questions about this project and what he hopes will come from it.

Why is the Civic Center Commons Important to You?

Eric: I live in the Tenderloin with my family. The Civic Center is our neighborhood park. My vision is to walk from my house on O’Farrell Street to the Commons with my son and have that experience be safe and pleasant.

“When the Civic Center is a lush, clean, verdant space full of art, culture, and community, I’ll be satisfied.”

There’s a major shift happening in how we view cities, and city centers, and I want to be a part of it. In the 1990s, San Francisco removed seating in the Civic Center to try and deal with the homeless explosion. For many years this area has been a place where people, like me, walk through quickly trying not to look at what’s going on. What we’re working on today is the creation of a bright and hopeful future for the neighborhood and all the people that live in and use it.

What is the Hope for Civic Center Commons?

Eric: Our collective hope is that the Civic Center, and by extension much of Central Market and the Tenderloin, can be a safe, clean, vibrant gathering place. The Civic Center Commons initiative is a strategic effort led by the City of San Francisco and community partners. It’s already changing how people use and think about this space. It’s replacing antisocial behavior with art, music, and community.

How Does Your Discretionary Award Support the Commons?

Eric: My discretionary award supported the Trust for Public Land, a national organization focused on creating parks and protecting land for people, in assisting the City of San Francisco with the creation of an action plan for the new initiative. The goal of funding was to help bring together City of San Francisco department heads and staff and a range of community and private-sector stakeholders around a common vision for what the Civic Center Commons could be in the next two years.

Yarn bombed trees near San Francisco City Hall. Photo credit: Knits for Life

The City formed an advisory board to coordinate efforts and advance projects by neighbors, community organizations and cultural institutions. These stakeholders have been working with City agencies on various projects, such as bringing interactive art installations and play structures; more frequent activities and events; additional food and drink options; new stewardship approaches; and innovative workforce development partnerships.

As a result of the group’s efforts the first projects are on-the-ground, including:

  • Knitting the Commons” a temporary art project that aims to knit together over 80 trees. The artists behind Knits for Life have already yarn bombed dozens of trees in the Civic Center. Most recently, knitted giraffes and parrots have appeared.
  • The Commons Block Party, a family-friendly event on third Thursdays. These parties include food trucks, booze, bocce, big Jenga and live music. A final event for 2017 will take place on Thursday, October 19.

Beyond Funding, What’s Your Role in the Commons?

Civic Center Commons, Kenneth Rainin Foundation

Trees near San Francisco City Hall. Photo credit: Knits for Life

Eric: At the Kenneth Rainin Foundation I’ve learned that in addition to grantmaking, it’s best to use funds and attention to catalyze connections. It’s these connections that have the power to create even more positive change in our communities. As a result, I attend Civic Center Commons Advisory Board meetings and serve as a community ambassador to the various groups. In addition, I provide input (but don’t make the decision) on artists and their work.

What Does Success Look Like?

Eric: When the Civic Center is a lush, clean, verdant space full of art, culture, and community, I’ll be satisfied.

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