The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps (San Francisco, California)

The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps
Photo by John Weiss

Tucked away at the southern end of San Francisco, about 15 minutes from Golden Gate Park near 1700 16th Ave, between Noriega St & Moraga St. The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps are an example of community enrichment artwork and collective achievement. The project was a neighborhood collaboration to create natural themed mosaic in the Golden Gate Heights neighborhood up a 163 step stairway

Jessie Audette and Alice Yee Xavier, both residents of the Golden Gate Heights neighborhood, started the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps project in 2003 as a way to connect neighbors and beautify an otherwise ordinary and drab staircase. They enlisted the help of artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher creation of a design of 163 mosaic panels leading their way up the steps.

The theme for the mosaic was from the sea to the stars and features shells, fish, and other sea creatures twisting their way up the steps among celestial bodies rather than through the ocean.

The majority of the project to beautify the steps was paid for by tile sponsorship. Neighbors sponsored specific handmade tiles within the mosaic, and three mosaic workshops were held to further increase local participation in the production of the required panels.

On August 27th, 2005, an opening day ceremony was held for the completion of the project complete with lion dancers leading the inaugural trip up the steps. Francesco Pignataro, Mayor of Caltagirone, Italy, took part in the ceremony as a representative of the sister stairway, the Scala Steps.

Project supervisor and local politician Sean Elsbernd was also on hand for the unveiling of the steps. Thanks to his position as Mayor for the day, he was able to lend an official hand to the proceedings and to declare August 27 as the official “16th Avenue Tiled Steps Day”.

Along with the mosaic steps, there is a large garden component to the beautification project of the neighborhood. On both sides of the steps there are gardens filled with native Californian flowers, shrubs, and succulents. The gardens have over the years become a large draw on their own, and are one of the few parts that require constant care and fundraising.

In 2014, Nature in the City helped turn the steps and gardens into a butterfly habitat. Through their restoration efforts, Californian native plants specifically chosen to support the green hairstreak butterfly were added to the upper areas of the surrounding hillsides.

16th Avenue Tiled Steps Facts

  • August 27th is “16th Avenue Tiled Steps Day”.
  • More than 220 neighbors sponsored handmade tiles to fund the majority of the project, and more than 300 people helped with the tile installation.
  • The steps have a sister stairway in Caltagirone Italy known as the Scala Steps.
  • The gardens on the south side of the mosaic stairway were donated by the Xavier family.
  • Volunteer Days for the steps are held twice a year, once on Earth Day weekend, and once in the fall.
  • A 2006 grant from San Francisco Beautiful was used to develop the north side of the stairway gardens.
  • The San Francisco Succulent Society members donated succulents to further enhance the gardens in 2010.