Concrete is not soothing to the soul, and as the population gravitates towards urban centers I wonder what happens as people become less connected to nature. While I’m no child of the soil I was fortunate to have grown up in a house with a backyard which was a constant source of amusement. There was work to be done, of course, but my family’s high hopes for a well groomed garden never lasted particularly long after planting and it was soon left to grow wild, unmolested except for my father’s periodic moments of zen with the hose.
Most city-dwellers rely on parks for their periodic fixes of grass and trees, and San Francisco has a pretty good distribution of manufactured spaces to take the kids. Although I live in the center of town I have three parks which I can walk to in under five minutes. The closest and most accessible (because it’s not uphill) is Duboce Park, which we used to call Dogshit Park because its main use seems to be for pet-owners to neglect their responsibilities in public. There’s also a basketball court which is under renovation and a little sand lot they filled in with rubber and a play structure they filled in with plastic. The second closest is Alamo Square, a hulking hilltop copse of trees buffeted by constant ocean winds with sharply angled, grass-covered slopes and meandering walkways. The furthest is Buena Vista Park, the largest and most unkempt, which rises high above the neighborhood as the hills climb towards Twin Peaks. This is the hinterlands of my neighborhood parks, dark and menacing like a good fairytale.
At some point you’re supposed to be too old for swings and mudpies but I always found myself in parks. We would sit in the dark of Esprit Park drinking, or in the dark of McKinley Park drinking, or the dark of Dogshit drinking and huffing butane. I once wandered through both Stern Grove and Golden Gate Park on acid in the same night which was an awful lot of walking. Some people may be weary of parks at night but they were always safe havens for me and my friends, isolated pockets of quiet usually safe from the prying eyes of cops or hooligans.
At some point you’re supposed to be too old for sitting in the dark drinking and I stopped spending so much time in parks. It wasn’t something I noticed until wandering Golden Gate Park one idle weekend, completely enamored with my surroundings. It was as if I had never been there before, it was as if I had never seen so many trees before, it was as if I had never been able to just take a walk without watching for cars whipping around corners or junkies in the doorways or dealers on the corner or cops coming up the street. It made me feel guilty to take these places for granted, and in between the angling ponds and a hillside looking out over a Renaissance Faire I promised to spend more time outside.
Instead I continued to take the parks for granted until I began having some stress-related problems. A suggestion was made that I needed to get out and let off some steam and so I started taking little walks during my lunch break at work. Fortunately my job is near both the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park. But every morning I would walk past Buena Vista trying to beat the clock, thinking that I should cut through instead of circumvent.
It wasn’t the steep stairs climbing from Haight Street so much as the reputation. Every morning I would pass the local guttersnipes waking up and staggering about collecting their grubby little possessions and their grubby little dogs. Every evening I would pass the local guttersnipes getting wasted and babbling to each other or shouting randomly. At night it’s supposedly a pickup spot for cruisers but it seems more likely that it’s a good place to run into a junkie or a dealer or a lunatic. Still, it doesn’t seem as menacing as the days of yore when, according to older friends, skinheads would occupy the lawn facing north and wait for people to fuck with as they walked by.
One morning I just said fuck it and took the stairs. It wasn’t teeming with untold dangers or even the expected annoyances– in fact it was almost entirely empty. Sounds of the streets disappeared behind a curtain of foliage and the sun filtered lazily through the canopy. Squirrels ran past. There’s a playground at the far end of the eastward walkway and there’s sometimes a guy doing incredibly difficult yoga poses at the top of a hill overlooking downtown. It’s peaceful and for a couple minutes every morning I get to take a deep (if somewhat labored) breath before plunging back into the concrete and cars and people.
Hard times have hit the city’s parks, just as they’ve hit everyone. By the end of the month seventy-eight employees of Parks & Rec are going to be laid off due to the most recent round of budget cuts. All departments are suffering and I know when you’re making the call between parks and public health the parks will lose, however, when people are getting laid off it’s embarrassing to have a report issued by the City Controller indicating executives employed by the city have been increasing at rates far exceeding lower-level employees. It’s especially embarrassing when Mayor Gavin Newsom’s former chief of staff, Phil Ginsburg, is on the shortlist to become the new director of Parks & Rec. Meanwhile some of the city pools will operate less hours and some staff has been cut from rec-centers and, I suspect, many gardeners who keep the greenery green and the needles off the ground will receive pink slips.
Buena Vista has a bad reputation because it had been left alone for so long and was falling apart. It wasn’t until the late 70’s that a major renovation took place for controlling erosion, and it wasn’t until the late 80’s that a major investment of money cleaned up San Francisco’s oldest park. Neighbors really pitch in as well– every couple of Saturdays I weave around volunteers who are clearing brush and ripping out invasive plants. I would like to think that even if the gardeners were gone community groups would press on, keeping up with maintenance projects and cultivation, but without the expertise, tools, lumber and assorted supplies, it’s hard to imagine they could be as effective. It would be sad to see the city’s parks fall into disrepair, particularly as people are dealing with more and more stressful situations like unemployment and economic uncertainties. Just when we need them the most will our parks wither and die and decay?