The Panhandle’s Path

From sand dunes to Grateful Dead concerts to Warriors-funded basketball courts.

A long, thin park divides Haight Ashbury and NoPa. Only one block wide and three-quarters of a mile long, it’s sandwiched between two fast, busy streets, and doesn’t have the grand views that parks like Dolores, Alamo Square, or Buena Vista offer. But its presence as the dividing line between two residential neighborhoods has made it an integral part of many peoples’ lives — for their commutes, picnics, dogs, barbecues, and kids.

The present-day Panhandle is filled with towering redwoods and cypresses, overgrown bushes, and areas of thick grass. But 150 years ago, it looked starkly different: It was filled with shifting dunes, and in an 1853 map, it was lumped in with the future Golden Gate Park and titled “Great Sand Bank.”

Unappealing name aside, the Panhandle played an important role in the development of the western neighborhoods. In 1870, engineer William Hammond Hall used it as a testing ground for his bigger plan to convert Golden Gate Park from dunes to a recreation area. He planted various bushes and vegetation to see what would stick, and over time, sea bentgrass and barley stabilized the dunes enough for a topsoil and manure layer to be added, into which many of the still-standing pine trees, cypresses, and eucalyptus trees were planted.

Over the years, the park’s existence has been threatened, most notably by an urban-development proposal in the 1950s that would have replaced a road that ran through the center of the park with a freeway. But local citizens revolted, and instead of a raised highway, Oak and Fell streets were developed to be the speedy, one-way, east-west corridors that they are today.

Shortly thereafter, the Panhandle’s presence at the northern end of the Haight Ashbury neighborhood made it a common gathering ground for hippies in the 1960s. Janis Joplin lived just two houses up Lyon Street from the park, and on sunny days, musicians turned the stretch of green into their playground. On New Year’s Day 1967, Joplin played a free concert in the Panhandle, a move the Grateful Dead copied later that year.

“When weather permitted, we pulled together wonderful free concerts in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park,” photographer and Grateful Dead groupie Rosie McGee wrote in her book Dancing with the Dead — A Photographic Memoir. “All it took was a flatbed truck, makeshift electricity, food, wine, friends, sunshine, and wonderful bands that hadn’t hit the big time yet.”

In the decades since the Summer of Love, activity in the Panhandle has become less impulsive and more predictable. On nice days, neighbors roll out their BBQs, set up cornhole boards, and inflate their air-filled loungers. Slacklines, though prohibited, are strung between trees. Off-leash dogs dig up gopher holes. And on 4/20, Bay to Breakers, and the Haight Street Fair, thousands flock to its green stretch to celebrate, meet friends, and pee in the bushes.

The latter activities, plus the inevitable march of time, have taken a toll on the Panhandle. The southern walking path has cracked and heaved around tree roots; the playground is old and rusting; the strangely low benches are missing slats; and, for the better part of a year, a faded, bent hula-hoop hung over the neck of the brass woman gracing the monument to William McKinley. While Dolores Park and Alamo Square recently received multi-million-dollar renovations, the Panhandle’s grass faded and its trees dropped huge branches across the paths. Aside from a group of Panhandle Stewards who painstakingly took care of a garden on the second Saturday of every month, it felt forgotten.

But, behind the scenes, the North of the Panhandle Neighborhood Association, the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council, and the Recreation and Park Department were assessing what changes to make with a limited budget. In 2016, the park got its first noticeable improvement in years: brand-new basketball courts at Clayton Street. Funded by the Good Tidings Foundation and the Warriors Community Foundation, the new blue-and-yellow courts have new hoops, springy surfaces, and draw more of a crowd than ever before.

In the first few months of 2017, the old park benches were slowly replaced by bright new ones. Trash cans have been upgraded, and dozens of bike racks have been installed. A fence has gone up around McKinley’s monument while expert conservationists clean the marble, restore the brass, and earthquake-retrofit the sculpture to the tune of $300,000.

And in June, after years of fielding requests and complaints from residents who’d fallen on the bumpy southern path, the city repaved it, creating a smooth black surface stretching from Baker to Stanyan streets.

There is still more work to be done: The aging trees need constant care, and it’s unclear how badly the years of drought have weakened their roots. The northern, multi-use bike path could use fresh striping, and the park is still missing informational signs, which could direct tourists to Golden Gate Park. The irrigation system is patchy, and many areas of the park have lost turf, creating stretches of dust that are churned into heaps by a never-ending invasion of gophers.

But none of this seems to affect the Panhandle’s popularity as a destination for the neighborhood’s residents to relax. On a recent warm weekend, the smell of charcoal and burgers floated through the park on the ocean breeze, music thumped out of portable speakers, dogs chased frisbees, and Hall’s work to create what he desired — a place “for fresh air, bright sunshine, cool shade, for gentle exercise, for quieting and reposeful rest, and for pleasurable mind-diverting recreation” — lived on.

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