McLaren Park Wants to Step Out of Golden Gate Park’s Shadow

The Jerry Garcia Amphitheatre will see some action on Saturday for the 15th annual Jerry Day

San Francisco has many seldom-visited green spaces. Who among us has spent much time picnicking at Lakeview and Ashton Mini-Park, for instance? (Admittedly, that’s sort of a trick question. It’s a craggy summit full of broken glass and bounded by four dead-end streets in Ingleside, although the views are panoramic.)

Curiously, one of the most undervalued parks in the entire city happens to be its second-largest: John McLaren Park, a 313-acre site just west of Portola that’s about one-third the size of Golden Gate Park. Whereas its better-known counterpart sits on windswept dunes that 19th-century visionaries terraformed into a manicured rectangle, McLaren Park retains a lot of the characteristics of what it looked like before European contact — which is somewhat curious, seeing as how John McLaren was the Scottish gardener known as the “godfather of Golden Gate Park.” Largely built during the New Deal, McLaren was to be the site of a freeway until citizen revolts wrested control of the cityscape back from imprudent planners. After a few additional land purchases, it reached its current size in the late 1950s. A $12 million investment stemming from a 2012 bond issue wants to improve it and make it more appealing to visitors, but without sacrificing that urban-wilderness quality.

Last month, the urbanist nonprofit SPUR held a hearing soliciting feedback from McLaren’s neighbors and anyone else who’s hiked through its forested expanse. Chief among the concerns was the lack of signage to keep people oriented as they roam about. It’s not as though McLaren is dangerous, however — nor is it undeveloped or devoid of amenities. There are lakes, a pool, and two off-leash areas for dogs, one of which encompasses some 60 acres. Newly striped bike lanes went in over the winter on Mansell Street, the primary east-west artery through the park, and seven miles of trails snake through the wildflower-covered slopes. And if you like Monterey Cypresses, the somewhat Dr. Seuss-esque evergreens that only grow in a limited range on California’s Central Coast, they’re all over the place here.

Arguably the most undervalued feature is the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, a terraced venue named for the Grateful Dead frontman who grew up in the nearby Excelsior district. With 700 seats — and room for about 1500 more people on the adjacent lawn — it’s a tiny fraction of the size of the Hollywood Bowl, and it’s finally getting the attention it deserves this summer as a festival called Wildwhere takes over.

Like a smaller Stern Grove festival, Wildwhere opened on Saturday, July 30 with a performance by the S.F. Mime Troupe, and runs for 12 more weeks with taco trucks and a beer garden by Ferment Drink Repeat. As Garcia’s birthday was Aug. 1, 1942, and he died on Aug. 9, 1995, the 15th annual Jerry Day takes over on Aug. 6, with appearances by Stu Allen & Mars Hotel, Melvin Seals and JGB, Midnight North, and other special guests. Through the rest of the season, Wildwhere’s wide-ranging programming includes theater, kids shows, a performance of Hamlet by Free Shakespeare in the Park, and bluegrass. The run winds down on Saturday, Oct. 21 with a metal festival — and, considering that Metallica is headlining Outside Lands once again this year, this free event is a fitting counterpoint to the (somewhat overpriced) festival in that fog-bound park a few miles to the northwest.


Check out more stories from our Portola issue:
Neon Revival: Portola’s Avenue Theater Returns
After a quarter million dollars in grants and community fundraising, the neon sign at Avenue Theater will finally be turned back on.
Cutty Bang: The Real San Francisco Treat
It’s a DIY alcohol adventure with a hip-hop sensibility.
Eating Your Way Down San Bruno Avenue
From Four Barrel to loco moco, the Portola’s commercial strip is extremely diverse.
Portola Has the Coolest Librarian in San Francisco
You can’t be more dedicated to the kids than Nicole Termini Germain
Urban Agriculture or More Housing?
One block of greenhouses is all that remains of Portola’s garden industry, and its future is uncertain.
Portola’s Pronunciation Quandary
This neighborhood’s name is at the center of an oratorical debate.
Reimagining (Tiny) Vacant Lots
Through grants for public artwork and landscaping, Portola brings new life to empty land near the highway.

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