Cayuga Park is small, but it is big on artistic character. That is the verdict of the Native American Cultural Center (NACC) of San Francisco, which has awarded the park its 2003 Urban Design Award. The park’s gardener and sculptor, Demetrio ‘Demi’ Braceros, earned special commendation from the center for creating an environment that blends naturalistic plantings with a profusion of sculptures that evoke indigenous totem gardens.
Cayuga Park, which is in a small nook of San Francisco underneath the BART tracks, has undergone an amazing transformation through the focused efforts of Braceros. “This artist has shown remarkable skill with both plants and wood sculptures, and the blend is a refreshing and uniquely different approach to urban park design,” said NACC Chairman Andrew Brother Elk. “We commend Braceros for his creativity and ingenuity, and we commend the neighborhood for supporting his efforts. Together this community has created a very special refuge that focuses on the Earth.”
Braceros’ topiary can resemble the set of the Tim Burton film “Edward Scissorhands.” But it is his sculptures that really capture the public’s imagination. Buried among the many self-made paths overgrown with tropical plants, Braceros has placed totem sculptures of such luminaries as Barry Bonds, Mother Theresa, and John Lennon. Carved wooden birds sit perfectly still in the trimmed trees. Alligators serve as benches, and monsters suddenly come into view around a hedged corner. Fences and arbors are all made from wood recycled from the park itself. Park signage is hand painted in careful penmanship, and the texts can at times read like a self-help book. One path is called the Garden of Eden.
“What we liked about Cayuga Park was its idiosyncratic artistic vision,” said Brother Elk, who served for seven years on the San Francisco Arts Commission. “Rarely do you find an artists’ personality expressed so clearly in a public space, and rarely is this expression such an effective blend of nature, art, and local culture.”
The NACC committee that selected the park for the 2003 award included indigenous artists who have reviewed various sites over the past six months. The goal of the award is to honor urban designs that favor indigenous arts, plants, environments, and settings, and to serve as a balance to the alienating and often dispiriting effects of urban development.
“People are learning that healthy environments include beauty, and beauty in its native sense is based on Nature,” said Brother Elk. “The Earth heals and inspires us, and provides us with strength. This is what good urban design can do as well.”