How Public Art Exposed Class Tensions in San Francisco — a series of conversations about art, class and race that emerged from “Block by Block,” a public art project.

The Artist With a Playful Idea for Public Seating in San Francisco

Reflections by Marisha Farnsworth, Designer at Hyphae Design Laboratory

Marisha Farnsworth, “Block by Block” designer. Credit: Kenneth Rainin Foundation

Farnsworth’s role: Marisha Farnsworth is an Oakland native who has made a career in outdoor art installations, often using reclaimed materials. Having created art for Central Market before with the Luggage Store, she designed “Block by Block.”

Read the series intro: How Public Art Exposed Class Tensions in San Francisco


Marisha Farnsworth’s Perspective

One morning Laurie Lazer from the Luggage Store sent me a photo of someone sleeping on the platform’s swing. I texted her back and said, “Sleep on art.” If that’s where we’re at in Mid-Market — people need a place to sleep, then that’s the purpose it should be serving.

Our hope with “Block by Block” was it would bring people together. You have a really diverse population in the neighborhood: techies, people living in SROs (single room occupancy hotels), homeless people, and tourists…anyone can sit on “Block by Block,” unlike say a café behind a little wall. The idea behind “Block by Block” was to create a space that wasn’t obviously programmed.

It wasn’t clearly street furniture: there was a giant swing, a seesaw, and a stacked series of sculptural blocks.
People gathering at “Block by Block.” Credit: Darryl Smith, Luggage Store Gallery

When we installed it, I saw tourists taking photos there, people eating lunch there, it was just nice to have a break from the monotony of the sidewalk. But as time went on, you had people sitting outside at the tables at The Hall [the food court nearby], and the people sitting on “Block by Block”: you could really see a divided population.

Some city officials said the neighborhood wasn’t “ready to try art.” Yes, it is. I think part of the reason people were so upset when “Block by Block” was removed, is it provided a sense of place and people had become emotionally attached to it. They also took responsibility for the project in some ways. If I ever brought out a broom, the people hanging out would help clean and would discourage other people from graffiti-ing.

I definitely think it provoked a lot of really interesting conversations in the city. And I’m not talking about discussions about art — discussions about what’s really going on in the neighborhood. And to me, that’s a success.

This post is part of a series of conversations about art, class and race that emerged from “Block by Block,” a public art project.

Let’s hear from the next stakeholder…

The City Planners: Paul Chasan and Neil Hrushowy
The Entrepreneur: D’Mond Hill
The Changemaker:
Ilana Lipsett
The Gatekeeper:
Simon Bertrang
The Funder:
Shelley Trott
The Neighbor:
Wayne Shaw
The Guardian:
Darryl Smith

Where does the story begin?

How Public Art Exposed Class Tensions in San Francisco

What did we learn?

Insights From Our First Public Art Collaboration