Like many Franciscans, I loved walking around town – North Beach, Ocean Beach, the boardwalk, Chinatown, the Mission, the Marina, everywhere. San Francisco is a great city for hikers with a surprise around every corner. But when the coronavirus hit, I took the edict seriously at home.
The city was closed. Traveling two blocks to mail a letter seemed like a dangerous expedition. After a few weeks, cabin fever set in and people ventured cautiously and cautiously like domestic cats in dog country. Then I discovered Holly Park on a windswept hill south of Bernal Hill, only 15 minutes from my house. Discovering Holly Park was a bit like Columbus discovering America. It was there all along. I just wasn’t aware of it.
Holly Park is one of those places off the beaten path in San Francisco, one of the city’s little surprises. It comes with a story. Holly Park is an example of the changes that have swept the city.
We start at the beginning. It is one of the oldest parks in the city. It was donated to the city in 1862 by James G. Fair, an Irish immigrant who came to California when he was 18 to seek fortune. He invested in real estate in San Francisco and a silver mine in Nevada. He bought part of the Bernal family’s Mexican-era land grant for $ 375,000, a fortune in those days. That kind of money was peanuts for fair. With three partners he developed the fabulous Comstock Lode in Virginia City. When Fair died in San Francisco in 1894, he was worth $ 52.9 billion today. The Fairmont Hotel in Nob Hill is named after him.
The area around the 7 acre hill that Fair donated to the City of San Francisco was not so good. The so-called park was just a tangle of bush, grass and a small shrub called Islais Holly, which was native to the area.
Booms and busts are nothing new in San Francisco, and Holly Hill had its share. In 1874, residents of the area persuaded the city to build a street around the hill – this is Holly Park Circle, a street that surrounds the park, a rarity in San Francisco that gives the neighborhood a vaguely European look. But Holly Park is a long way from City Hall, and it took the city more than 50 years to clear the bushes and set up a children’s playground, tennis courts, and basketball court.
This part of San Francisco had never been on the city’s radar before. It was a neighborhood where the bus drivers lived, along with the waterfront workers, carpenters, and shop clerks. When the city’s economy changed, many of these people left the city. The neighborhood took on a rough edge. There were drug gangs, gunfire in the night.
“When I first looked at houses in the Holly Park area. People said, “Oh, don’t move there. It’s dangerous, ”said Eugenie Marek, who moved to the neighborhood in the early 1990s.
She is a New York born nurse, one of the many transplants that have moved to San Francisco in recent years. She’s one that made a difference. She was taking her morning stroll around Holly Park Circle and into the park and found that it was shabby. “The benches in the playground were full of splinters,” she said. “It’s a miracle the kids weren’t hurt.”
The grass was not pruned and the trees were sick and dead branches, the barbecue areas were a mess, the cobbled paths were full of holes. The city parks department didn’t offer much help. They had other priorities. “To the city, Holly Park was Siberia,” she said.
Many neighbors thought something should be done and organized a charitable organization called Friends of Holly Park. “The park needed it,” said Marek. At that moment, San Francisco voters passed a $ 110 million loan program for the city’s parks.
The trick was to get Holly Park a priority. “One of our members was a woman named Joyce McKinney,” said Marek. “She was at UCSF and knew how the system worked.” The group worked out a strategy: building diverse neighborhood support, public awareness of the park, and lobbying for the people who run the city.
They hosted public events – an open air dinner called Café du Parc was one, a celebration of Native American history was another – and put the park on the map. They hired naturalists and the children of Junipero Serra Elementary School. They organized Saturday working groups, planted flowers, and helped transform Holly Park.
“It was pretty much seeing the community come together,” she said.
Not everything went smoothly. All politics are local, they say, and nothing can be more local than neighborhood politics. Marek wanted tighter controls on dogs roaming free in the park, but dog owners felt different. The argument was intense. “You will still find some people who think I am a demon,” she said.
But now, with a lot of help from the neighborhood and city, and a new take on city parks, Holly Park is a showpiece. It’s big enough for people to spread out and small enough to be a neighborhood hangout. “It’s the right size. It’s cozy, ”said Marlene Marin, one of Holly Park’s friends, who was walking in the park the other afternoon.
I think the size of Holly Park and the streets around it made me – and made me ignore the park in the past. It’s not big enough to be a destination, but a few laps around Holly Park Circle and a stroll up to the top are worthwhile activities on a quiet afternoon. There are spectacular views, the city, the hills and the bay.
Best of all, it’ll get you out of the house. A wonderful cure for cabin fever.
Carl Nolte is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @CarlnolteSF