Natural Selection: What's Happening to Golden Gate Park isn't Natural. But it Never Was

Thanks to Google Maps, the gopher holes in the Beach Chalet Soccer Field are now visible from space. You can't see what's going on in the bushes surrounding this field on Golden Gate Park's far west edge, but perhaps that's for the best. A city filing — which is especially entertaining if read in the voice of Alec Baldwin — describes it as “undesirable uses such as camping and sexual activity … aided by dense growing shrubs.”

Aficionados of camping, sexual activity, and shrubs notwithstanding, the field's dilapidated status quo isn't satisfactory. The city's solution would be a rather industrial-looking facility featuring synthetic turf and 60-foot light towers, and backed by every last vestige of big-money political power in San Francisco. That's enough to make one uneasy. But so were objections generated by the staff at the California Coastal Commission — even though that body last week ultimately blessed the city's controversial plan.

Among the many complaints leveled at the city's proposal were its inability to “seamlessly integrate with the natural environment” and failure to “emphasize the naturalistic pastoral landscape” of San Francisco's westernmost boundary. The Chronicle derided those criticisms as “turn-back-the-clock nonsense,” but that's nonsense, too: Golden Gate Park was never a “natural environment”; it's a calculated rejection and utter conquest of this city's natural environment. It is, specifically, an attempt by mid-19th century Caucasian men to make their adopted city look more like home — “and, for these guys, 'home' was Connecticut,” says Terence Young, author of Building San Francisco's Parks. “So they built it. And it made them feel better.”

It makes us feel better, too. Perhaps even more so: San Franciscans of the 19th century knew of the “Outside Lands” past Divisadero as a Tatooine-like desert, and even mid-20th-century residents grew up playing King of the Mountain on dunes pervading the avenues. But, for those of us who have inherited their city, the tall trees and lush green parks have always been here. Our city forefathers' transplanting of their preferred “natural” environment atop the city's actual natural environment has taken root in every possible way. And the battle over whether the park should offer “intermittent benches” for isolated hikers to contemplate bucolic landscapes, or grandstands for a thousand soccer fans to take in a night game on turf is just the latest battle in an ongoing war to determine what — and whom — the park is for.

In the days before germs were invented, people believed disease was caused by “miasmas” – pockets of fetid, invisible gases (“malaria” is derived from the Italian mal'aria — “bad air”). Generations of San Franciscans have spent countless joyous hours within the verdant acres of Golden Gate Park. But, as Young points out in his book, it was created in large part to provide “green and clean spaces where spontaneous generation of disease did not occur because of purifying vegetation.”

When Golden Gate Park's metamorphosis from a vast sea of rolling dunes commenced in 1870, parks were seen as a tonic with which men could “brace” themselves against the loss of “vitality” incurred by city living. Commingling with nature in lush, green parks required a total escape from the inherently corrupting urban environment. So the nationwide trend was toward massive projects like Golden Gate Park and its model (down to the bacon-strip shape), New York's Central Park. The “vitality” of women and children, incidentally, weren't of principal concern to park designers of the day. Women, it was believed, lived easier lives and did not suffer the strains of urban existence. And kids made too much noise. Parks weren't for playing ball or revelry — and certainly not for that tightrope thing you see nowadays. Approved activities included reading, picnicking, and, most especially, “landscape contemplation.”

This required both broad swaths of land and a narrow definition of “nature.” William Hammond Hall, Golden Gate Park's first superintendent, wrote of his efforts to “leave nature as nearly in her normal state as possible” rather than create “artificial landscapes.” It raised no contradiction in his mind that, at the time, he was utterly transforming the park's actual natural landscape. But another transformation was coming — and this was one that enraged Hall and set the course for the battle of Beach Chalet.

There's a problem with “landscape contemplation.” After you're done — then what? In Golden Gate Park, you can go to a museum. Former Park Board President William Stow once argued that a museum doesn't “belong in a park.” Since he was debating with M.H. de Young, well, suffice to say he lost that one.

Starting in the 1880s, a broader swath of San Franciscans began expecting more than “landscape contemplation” from their park — and getting it. Golden Gate Park was equipped with ballfields, playgrounds, race tracks, museums — even an astronomical observatory and a casino. (When this latter enterprise failed, it was briefly replaced with taxidermy exhibits of animals that expired within the park. Amazingly, that failed, too). Since the folks calling the shots no longer envisioned parks as isolated refuges from the big, bad city, vast tracts of land weren't a prerequisite. This led to the creation of San Francisco's many smaller parks.

But it also launched the ongoing battle over what a park is and who it's for. The Coastal Commission staff — and, in fact, the Golden Gate Park Master Plan — call for adhering to Hall's vision. But Hall deeply and profoundly objected to the museums and other attractions park historian Raymond H. Clary pegged as drawing 95 percent of visitors to Golden Gate Park. So, is the park for “landscape contemplation” from “intermittent benches” — or grandstands and night games on astroturf? It's a vexing question. Nobody likes artificial grass — but in Golden Gate Park, all grass is artificial.

It has been 143 years since the first dunes were tamed, and Golden Gate Park is still the city's crown jewel. It remains so despite the goals of its founders and former stewards being as alien to present-day San Francisco as the park's lush terrain is to past-day San Francisco. This should provide both supporters and opponents of Beach Chalet-like projects with some degree of comfort. And a greater dose of humility.

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