Block Fest: Shattering Assumptions and Building Community

Block Fest: Shattering Assumptions and Building Community

It’s not immodest of me to say that CounterPulse is one of the best things that could have happened to the Tenderloin, because it’s true. Although we have been in operation at 80 Turk since March 2016, we are still the new kids on the block. The mission of CounterPulse is deeply rooted in social justice, and it is through this lens that CounterPulse engages the world.

Block Fest has been a ten month laboratory for public art on the block. Every first Friday of the month, Tenderloin Artist Activators offer free art making events in collaboration with Central City SRO Collaborative. When we began, a  common assumption was that CounterPulse would be an agent of gentrification. That Block Fest would be untenable in terms of engaging some of the more challenging neighbors. That the alcove and its proximity to the sidewalk would be an unworkable setting for rich engagement.

These assumptions have been shattered. Neighbors now anticipate Block Fest, asking what’s next, providing feedback, and making suggestions for the future.  For the first few months we had to really encourage people to participate as people were unsure of our intentions.  They now have enough history with us to know that we sincerely want to have a shared arts experience. More recently neighbors and others use Block Fest as an ‘ice-breaker’ to starts conversations, conversations they may have felt uncomfortable starting otherwise.

In the last 10 months we have (through trial and error) become quite facile with producing work in the alcove. We have staged interactive performances, such as Craig Osterberg’s Town Crier. Modeled on the medieval English town crier, Osterberg used a tricine hat and large hand held bell to provide a setting for our neighbors and others to share their news and opinions.  Many Block Fest events are based on making and doing, and often have materials and equipment that is new to the neighbors, particularly the older generation who have had little exposure to art and art-making due to economic inability or histories of incarceration. “You don’t get this in jail,” one man told me during the very first Block Fest.

Craig Osterberg's Town Crier

Craig Osterberg’s Town Crier

We painted a 4’ x 6’ community mural, entitled GRATITUDE, facilitated by artist activator Jose Rojas. The neighbors took great pride in the finished product, insisting we put it in the window.  We were delighted at the sense of ownership people had towards the mural. It wasn’t unusual for a neighbor sunning himself in the alcove to jump up and talk about the mural with the same passion you would see in a docent at a large museum.

One last example of the trust that has been developing concerns documentation. For a number of reasons, our neighbors abhor being photographed; one even slapped the camera from an impudent tourist taking snap shots. Through a respectful engagement process we have been able to build a surprising level of trust to photograph and videotape Block Fest participants. Staff share flattering and outstanding photos with our neighbors, and we encourage selfies with the artists. It’s a wonderful privilege to serve our block in this way and document their joy.


Rick Darnell is the Community Engagement Associate at CounterPulse.

Cover photo of Block Fest in the Forest by Robbie Sweeny.


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