When Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood residents were asked whether they wanted a new library in place of the older one, few said anything but "Yes!"
Fans of the old building, which held good memories for many, had mixed feelings from the start, but prioritized the new library. Now that the old building is rubble, along with the building next door to it, some neighbors, artists and policymakers are reflecting on the process.
A piece of art designed by internationally respected artist Jacques Overhoff, whose work can also be seen at Hilltop Park and Charles Drew Elementary School, was created in 1968 when the old library building was constructed. It was created in partnership with St. Paul of the Shipwreck Church, and with the involvement of many children in the community. The piece was a fixture of the old building ... literally ... as it was a sculptural part of the entryway wall.
The sculpture and the wall came down last Thursday as part of the overall demolition, emotionally tinging the excitement about the new, larger library. Though gone, the artwork may illuminate the community's relationship with pieces of public art, and the City's management of them.
In October of 2009, the San Francisco Arts Commission gave a thumbs-up to the San Francisco Public Library's request that the art piece be "de-accessioned," or removed from the City's list of protected artwork, so that the new building could go up on schedule. The recommendation enjoyed the support of the San Francisco Department of Public Works, the architects of the new building, and vocal Bayview Hunters Point residents. (See more.)
Recently, when the announcement came that the old library building would be demolished soon, Quesada Gardens Initiative organizers offered to incorporate the pieces of the Overhoff sculpture into something new, such as landscaping at a public gathering space that would include historical markers about the artwork and the old library building. The first Quesada Garden is just a block away from the library, and seemed an ideal place to preserve these pieces of the community's past.
Jacques Overhoff, speaking from Germany where he and his wife now live, was pleased that interest was being shown. Such interest had seemed to him sorely absent up until the latest proposal had been made. He felt that the cost of preserving a piece of public art should not be pushed back onto the artist when development puts that piece at risk, and that it was possible to design the new library in such a way as to preserve the sculpture.
Mr. Overhoff hoped something could be accomplished so that the dedication of the piece to Medgar Evers, which had been part of his original intent, could still take place. He supported the idea of using pieces from his sculpture in a new community space, and shared an idea of his own: that a contractor he knows come to cut the sculpture from the building, intact, and move it to one of the Quesada Gardens Initiative's gardens and gathering spaces.
With permission from Mr. Overhoff, representatives from SF Department of Public Works and the SF Arts Commission worked with QGI to save as much of the sculpture as possible, short of postponing demolition. Sadly, the schedules of the contractor and the City did not allow for saving the piece in its entirety.
Ultimately, several medium- to small-sized chunks of the sculpture were set aside. Quesada Gardens volunteers quickly moved them to a new location so that all concerned would be able to participate in some process defining the future use of the pieces.
Whatever use is made of the pieces, serious questions about a community's willingness to protect its public art have emerged. It is fitting, perhaps, that those questions will be lasting because of new work that incorporates elements of something that did not survive development. Those elements will always be a reminder that a community's progress can carry a heavy cost to its history.
See much more about the Bayview branch library, the old building and the new one, and the people who care about them.