Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Open Secrets


In San Francisco’s Mission, there is a secret garden. Its short, narrow entrance off Harrison Street near 23rd was, tonight, lined by jars that formerly held nourishment, now cradling small candles barely able to sustain a flame.

The garden itself opens wide behind houses that seem a bit too renovated to be affordable; it’s an unexpected oasis of green trees, but the Northern California kind that seem a bit cold, like the fog-tinged evening air. There are garden plots, but they stand empty or only host a few hardy weeds and a forlorn wooden sign, tipped on its side, reading “beans.” Childlike murals fill the wood fences surrounding this spot, with, say, a smiling sun next to the words “you can bury a lot of troubles digging in the dirt.”

There are few people for the welcome poem, ritual, blessing, where all are asked to stand and turn, after spoken-aloud social justice prayer-reminder, to each of the four directions, where lands have been stolen, borders have been crossed, wars are being waged, people are suffering. “Light a candle for all the warriors killed by police brutality,” says a poet, and smoke circles up into the sky from a burnt offering, sage perhaps, toward Bernal Hill, in the unseen distance, but fully present.

A paper mâché version of the hill sits on a table, with tubes of paint and sharpies in a tin marked “love and freedom,” the instruments to write out grief on this healing-arts piece. Friends of Alex Nieto sing songs or read their poems as the night comes closer. Alex had brought flowers to one of these childhood friend’s mom and helped her with errands; she’s battling cancer, still, but Alex is lost.

Someone steps into this secret place with arms overflowing with flowers, already half dead, yet more beautiful for that fragility. The flowers are tossed on a big table, likely one for feasts and fests, and now looking tomblike with its cold, gray stone top. People are urged to take a rose, Alex’s favorite, and to perhaps donate money, to go to his family. His mom wanted people here to know that Alex loved roses.

The police who shot him dead, on Bernal Hill, keep a far different secret than the magic of this little garden. They don’t speak of their murder or the murderers among them, or the forces of racism and gentrification that, too, are complicit. Some people know this, on this now-cold Friday evening of community arts dedicated to Alex Nieto.

The secret garden feels like its days are numbered, though. It fills up with too-happy, too-distracted techies, for lack of a precise term, wandering from art spot to art spot, and looking perplexed at what sniffs of politics and things that might burst the bubble they are part of creating, where police seem their friends. They barely have the patience to linger in this garden. The night gets colder still.

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I’d love for you to regularly read my wordsmithing. Sign up to receive notices when I post to my blog, Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Share, enjoy, and repost too—as long as it’s free as in “free beer” and “freedom.”

(Photo by Cindy Milstein, Secret Garden, SF, June 7, 2014.)

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This entry was posted on June 8, 2014 by in Dispatches from Gentrifying San Francisco.
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