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The most urbane RV park in the world sits just eight blocks south of Union Square and a short walk from San Francisco Bay. This park doesn't offer much in the way of amenities. Its two blocks of tarmac are unadorned except for a store and rec-room building placed drive-in-theater-refreshment-stand-style in its center.
It has nonetheless earned fame among motoring vacationers because of its South of Market location on Townsend, between Third and Fourth streets; veteran recreational vehicle enthusiasts say it is the only such park in the center of any of the world's great cities.
But the San Francisco Recreational Vehicle Park also has its share of permanent residents, and at $750 per month they have their own reasons for living there. Every summer, European tourists finish their RV vacations in San Francisco and bestow long-term park residents with piles of nearly new hibachis, crates of half-empty Crisco bottles, and oceans of kitchen salt.
"It's been two years since I've bought salt," one resident boasts.
The park also is frequent host to movie crews and fashion photography trucks up from L.A. for a week or two. Sometimes the crews simply do their business in the RV park, providing residents with spectacles unavailable in other neighborhoods. Similarly, musicians, evangelists, and other bus-dwelling performers pull their vehicles into this RV park, allowing residents to briefly live next door to such luminaries as Franklin Graham, son of Billy. "He was walking around near his bus and I got to talk with him about the city for a while," says an ex-con who lives in a 20-footer with his wife.
The park's permanent residents also have a unique opportunity to help shape the United States' image in the world, thanks to the thousands of European tourists who pass through each year. "Last week a group of six Dutch kids came over to play with my dog," says a Texan electrician who has lived with a buddy in his 30-footer for a year. "I had them listening to me wide-eyed for two hours."
Now, though, this RV park just south of downtown is scheduled to be torn down.
The end was bound to come sooner or later. Entrepreneur Rich Hightower and his brother leased the land and laid the RV park's plumbing and pavement in 1978, three years before Hightower's landlords unveiled the first set of plans for a Mission Bay construction project that would include the site of the park.
The RV park has been able to survive and flourish thanks to a protracted battle between community activists and the owner of the property, the Catellus Corp. Initially, Catellus envisioned Mission Bay as a giant corporate headquarters ringed by a retinue of lesser office towers. Sixteen years of community resistance scuttled that and other proposals for the Mission Bay property, and the current 2,000-unit midtown-neighborhood scheme was approved after 13 years of negotiations with citizens' groups.
Next fall, Catellus hopes to break ground on the short-and-tall mix of brick apartment and retail buildings, complete with awnings, patios, and shrubbery-bordered walkways meandering between them. A UCSF Medical Centers campus also may be part of the development.
Hightower would like to build a new park somewhere else, but the city has shut the door in his face everywhere he's tried, he says. "We need to find two or three acres in San Francisco," says Hightower. "I'd go anywhere in the city, but where are we going to find it?" San Francisco's only other RV park, a piece of pavement near Candlestick Park, is slated to be torn out for a new football stadium. And San Francisco's era of RV living will end.
"Yeah?" says David Prowler, the city's project manager for Mission Bay. "Well it happened in New York and Paris a long time ago."
If those cities are anything like San Francisco, they've suffered the loss. Because when the bulldozers start to roar on Townsend Street, something more interesting and important than a motor-home lot will disappear.
For the past 19 years, the San Francisco RV Park has been an asphalt field of dreams.
This is where Alyson McKellar, a no-nonsense, jewelry-making hippie, convinced "Ruckus" Rickey, her badass boyfriend, to mend his ways and devote his life to loving her.
It's where a 60-ish former accountant from Dallas named Helen Robbins realized her lifelong dream of becoming a woman about town.
And it's where Skid Row lovers Jeffrey and Al got their own home, their own pickup, and their own business, allowing Al to die of AIDS with dignity.
Halfway between the tarnished lives they've left behind and the better ones they're striving for, the park's dozen or so permanent residents have found a modern homestead, a tarmac foothold inside the RV park's chain-link walls. The residents are oddly effusive in their praise for the park, describing it as the most wonderful place they've ever lived, an oasis in a ferocious world, the basis for a better life.
For Alyson McKellar and Rickey Schaller, a pair of former Deadhead jewelry-makers who live in a 40-foot school bus, the San Francisco Recreational Vehicle Park has become a foundation for marital harmony.