Friday, September 10, 2010

Secret Neighborhood Comes Out Of The Closet In San Francisco

The Street Fair/La Feria.
An Illustration From:
Crossing The Street
Tales of The Portola,
By Kate Connell and Oscar Melara.

(All Images Courtesy Of The Portola Branch Library of
San Francisco Public Library.)

The Portola-- the natives pronounce it: "POR' da la"-- is a working-class neighborhood of San Francisco at the southeast rim of the city. It was long known as "San Francisco's Garden," because fruits, vegetables, and flowers for the entire city were grown in the district as far back as the early 1900's. In those days, the Portola was marked by windmills, water towers, farms, stables, greenhouses, and nurseries. But as in every neighborhood, over the years things changed.

The Bee/ La Abeja:
"Bzzz, bzzz around and around pollinating."

The Water Tower/ El Tanque de Agua:
"The La Grande Tank has water enough for all."

The Portola District was the location of San Francisco's United States Immigration Station. This made it the first American home for two successive waves of new immigrants: first German and Eastern European Jews, then Italians and Greeks. The Portola at one time had such a large community of new arrivals from the Mediterranean archipelago of Malta that it became the home of the Maltese Consulate. (Despite this obvious clue, Dashiell Hammett had shamus Sam Spade search for The Maltese Falcon not in the Portola, but in downtown San Francisco. Go figure...) Later settlers in the neighborhood were African American, Latino, Filipino, Chinese, and Vietnamese.

The Rabbi/El Rabino:
"He brought the Star of David."

The Herbalist/El Herbolario:
"With the wisdom of centuries, medicinal plants are prescribed."

When the Portola finally got its first public library in 2009, two residents, Kate Connell and Oscar Melara, set out to create a visual celebration of the history and daily life of their neighborhood. This dynamic duo are highly respected artists, whose work has been exhibited at the Alternative Museum of New York, the Berkeley Art Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution. But--like most American artists--they listened to their mothers' advice, and didn't quit their day jobs: Connell is a librarian and Melara is a bus driver. Through a series of town meetings on one city block in the Portola, the artists collaborated with their neighbors to record stories of a place where families helped each other during bad times, such as the 1906 earthquake and fire, and celebrated together in good times, like joyously pouring into the streets at the end of World War II.

The Earthquake Tent/ La Carpa Del Terremoto:
"Safe and comfortable, a temporal community."

The Parol/El Parol:
"Twinkle, twinkle little star at the Filipino Fiestas."

Together Connell and Melara have written and illustrated seven artists' books to be housed in the permanent collection of the new Portola Branch Library. These handmade books, Looking Up: Portola Skies; Tracing the Portola: A Neighborhood Atlas; Side by Side Stories; Portola Cognito (a giant book with give-away pages); Bonnie: Up at the Park / Shirley: Down on the Avenue (paired graphic novels); Drawing our Neighborhood; and Following the Pictures, a 3D book, will be on display throughout the Library for the first time on October 2, 2010. Collectively they make up a "social sculpture" called: Crossing the Street: Tales of the Portola. (Portions of the books can be viewed online at www.

The Artists: Kate Connell and Oscar Melara.

This is the second presentation of Melara and Connell’s two-part project, Made in the Portola. The first part, Portola at Play, presented film, music, games, and events to coincide with the 2009 opening of the new library. The Made in the Portola projects are rooted in the artists’ love of their neighborhood, and their desire to explore and reveal the nearly undocumented history of its everyday life. By working with friends, colleagues, neighbors, and the library staff over the last four years, Oscar Melara and Kate Connell have combined the public service of their everyday lives with their artistic vision. They have created works which prove that the district nicknamed "the secret neighborhood," has an identity and heritage worth cherishing. Crossing the Street will be on exhibit at the Portola Branch Library through February 25, 2011.


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