Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories about Golden Gate Park that San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the June 2017 issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.
At 1,017 acres, Golden Gate Park is vast; it dwarfs New York’s 843-acre Central Park—which was its model, down to the bacon-strip shape. Golden Gate Park’s gargantuan size allows it to be nearly all things to all people. It’s a place to meet others and socialize; to get away from everyone; to play rambunctious games; to meditate in peace; to smoke and drink and murder brain cells; to visit an art or science museum or the Shakespeare Garden; to enjoy the splendor of the natural world; and to realize, at some point, that the park is a wholly artificial construct and an explicit rejection of natural San Francisco.
Golden Gate Park, on which work commenced in 1870, was conceived of and promoted by people who lived in cities but weren’t entirely enthralled by the concept of cities. The poverty, squalor, immorality, and misery of 19th-century urban life were seen as indicators that urban life was inherently corrupting. The further we strayed from some mythical, Rousseauistic state of nature, the worse off we’d be. The solution to all of the above and more: parks.
This was an America in which germ theory was not a settled matter and diseases befalling tightly packed cities were blamed on “miasmas,” pockets of noxious “vaporous emissions.” Cleansing the metaphysical filth of city life required a park large enough to allow “visual banishment” of the city, so that one might lose oneself within nature—but not the scraggly, dusty, manzanita bush kind of nature offered by sand-dune-covered San Francisco.
Rather, the city’s early denizens preferred the verdant fields and towering trees of their birthlands in the Northeast. This was a conventional version of nature for a conventional version of citizen; the vision of the people who spearheaded America’s parks movement in general, and Golden Gate Park in particular, was inevitably constrained by their white, middle-class, male, 19th-century worldview. As Terence Young notes in Building San Francisco’s Parks, 1850–1930, the earliest park advocates “thought adult men benefited most from parks,” because they were most depleted by their work lives. The park’s first backers “rarely connected women or children to parks,” because they deemed women, who were seen as confined to the domestic sphere, to be less in need of the uplift provided by parks than men. One advocate even went so far as to inveigh against “boisterous” children, whom he feared would disturb landscape contemplation.
So that’s something to think about the next time you’re lolling about Sharon Meadow. This park was created by men who had a well-meaning but gauzily romantic—and often condescending and patriarchal—vision of the function it was intended to serve. If you’re not white, male, and of Northern European extraction, this park wasn’t exactly intended to exclude you. But it wasn’t built with you in mind, either.
And yet the park that emerged from this time-bound and limited premise is inarguably glorious (and, despite the constrained vision of its founders, it was enjoyed by broad swaths of society since practically day one). So much of San Francisco is defined by the limited conceptions of our forebears. But not Golden Gate Park. It has only grown grander and richer and, amazingly, vaster in every way.
Furthermore, each generation sees its own real and imagined problems reflected in whatever’s going on in the park. Through the years, this has manifested itself in hyperventilating over immorality, saucy bike riding, overdevelopment, amorous people in cars and in the bushes, drugs, roustabouts, and, of course, drugged roustabouts. In 1881, a prim editorial in the magazine the Wasp worried about the increasing instances of men and women hugging in the park. In 1944, reports of Japanese commandos hiding in trees resulted in machine-gun-toting cops swarming the grounds; the “commandos” turned out to be Lowell High ROTC cadets. In 1997, 700 homeless encampments were driven from the park.
The same face-in-the-mirror dynamic holds true today, and the numbers bear it out: If you peruse 2017 crime statistics on the city’s open data site, it’s clear that the problems most commonly plaguing Golden Gate Park are indeed the problems most commonly plaguing the rest of San Francisco. Click on dot after dot on the incident map and the readout states: “GRAND THEFT FROM LOCKED AUTO.” The captain of the San Francisco Police Department’s Richmond Station, Alexa O’Brien, a native of the Richmond, confirms that “property crime is the main crime occurring in and around Golden Gate Park.” But the captain also wants people to know that, statistically, they are safer there than they are throughout much of the city.
From the point of view of its founders and early backers, Golden Gate Park could be viewed as something of a fabulous failure. It doesn’t stave off real sicknesses emanating from imaginary miasmas. It doesn’t improve public morality. It is no longer a repository of men receiving uplift from all-beneficent nature by staring forthrightly at the flower beds and forests that their brethren planted atop the dunes. The playfields and museums drawing the bulk of the park’s visitors all run counter to the vision of its founders. Multi-day music festivals would not have sat well with the Rousseauist crowd, either.
But the park still works in ways that they did intend it to. Unlike in Dolores Park, which is packing ’em in like Jones Beach these days (and about which Yogi Berra might have noted, “Nobody goes there anymore—it’s too crowded”), there’s always another meadow or gully or clearing or scrap of land to explore and inhabit at Golden Gate Park. The city may be small, but the park is large. Symbolically huge, too—it stands as a reminder of the humility that any San Franciscan should embrace before making definitive statements about who belongs as our neighbors.
It is also still very much in flux. During the long-running and recently concluded battle over whether to install an artificial-grass soccer industrial complex on the park’s westernmost boundary, opponents bemoaned the fields’ failure to “emphasize the naturalistic pastoral landscape.” Calls were made to adhere to the 19th-century forefathers’ visions of the park. But those visions would snub nearly everyone and everything now celebrated there. And, bottom line, all grass in the park is artificial. Tempers remain hot, but with time this conflict, like all the existential park conflicts before it, may well be lost to the ages.
The park today serves as a testament to an idea whose greatness overpowers its flaws. Those who have made self-assured statements about city life have often been proven fools with the passage of time. But this much seems certain: In the future, the park will continue serving the same role it did in the past and that it does in the present. It will fulfill not the wants of our leaders, but the needs of our people.
Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco