John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
These kitchen bowls were made from soil beneath the city's notoriously nasty Tenderloin neighborhood.
When shopping for quality dishware, many people look to where it was made: The ceramics of Japan can be impeccable, for instance, and nice things are said about England's bone china. In the case of Ilana Crispi's homemade bowls, however, perhaps it's best not to know where they originated – under the needle-infested plague-turf of San Francisco's famously filthy, drug-infested neighborhood, the Tenderloin.
On Thursday, visitors to San Francisco's Ramon's Tailor gallery will have the opportunity to eat salad and drink tea served in Crispi's questionable dinnerware for the exhibit, "Tenderloin Dirt Harvest." For those who aren't experiencing involuntary gagging right now, some background about the 'Loin: It's home to roughly 6,000 homeless people, many with substance-abuse and mental issues. Three major crimes reportedly happen there every hour, and a full third of the city's drug infractions are crammed into the relatively small area.
During a recent tour, I noticed people selling nugs the size of walnuts, trading pills out of prescription bottles, and openly shooting what I presumed to be heroin in front of a BART station. Inside that station, an attendant had helpfully put orange traffic cones around an unmoving body lying in a pool of similarly orange vomit.
All this is lead-up to say that the ground in the Tenderloin is not something you'd want to eat off of. That's why Crispi, who's in her mid-30s and lives in the Mission, was so interested in doing exactly that. She says by phone she wants to have an "exploration of place that goes beyond the temporary stigma." Here's a bit more from the gallery:
“Most people I have spoken with demonstrate a visible disgust at the idea of touching the ground here, so through this installation I’m challenging people to experience a beautiful version of this neighborhood,” says Crispi.
With permission of the City, Crispi harvested dirt from Boeddeker Park, a one-acre city-owned park in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district that is undergoing a major renovation. Crispi spent months testing the quality of the dirt and creating hundreds of test pieces, discovering that at just the right temperature the Tenderloin dirt melts and becomes a self glazing clay. Some of her pieces layer porcelain with the dirt, creating a stark contrast between the valuable – porcelain was once as valuable as gold – with the grotesque and soiled.
Boeddeker Park is a fine representation of how far the neighborhood has fallen since its late-1800s glory days as a destination for classy nightlife. The Project for Public Spaces has this fine narrative of the park's troubled lifespan:
Park was designed with safety and security in mind, but in all the wrong ways. It's cut off from the streets by fences and walls, and activity areas are also segregated in "open rooms" formed by six-foot fences. The main, bench-lined walkway through the park became known as "the Gauntlet" after it was colonized by drug dealers a year or so after the park's 1985 opening. Ultimately, accessibility was sacrificed in the name of safety, and the community decided the close the park in 1999. One entrance is permanently locked except for rare special occasions; the other is open only on a variable schedule. Loiterers simply moved to the sidewalk; the park is now an empty cage watched from outside by drug dealers and drug users.
Crispi headed into the park to excavate soil after getting permission from city officials (they were "perplexed but encouraging," she reports). She had to remove a scattering of used syringes before commencing to dig, and used gloves at the beginning to avoid getting poked by something nasty like this:
She eventually wound up with 90 gallons of clay and dirt, which she modeled into bowls and dirt-glazed cups, as well as stools that people can sit on while eating at the gallery. The high temperatures used in the crafting process destroyed all possible remnants of spittle, urine, upchuck, and other potentially pathogenic substances of the Tenderloin, Crispi assures. She expects a big turnout Thursday night. "I think they're going to enjoy the food," she says. "It will be a really beautiful presentation."
Here are a few photos of those objects that Crispi sent over:
And here's the artist hard at work getting the base material for her products: