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Golden Gate Park, an Urban Refuge, Turns 150

A San Franciscan reflects on its significance

Golden Gate Park, Conservatory of Flowers

John Elk III / Alamy Stock Photo

Conservatory of Flowers

On April 4, 2020, fog obscured the top of a Ferris wheel towering over San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Recently installed on the outdoor Music Concourse for the yearlong celebration of the park's 150th birthday — a celebration due to kick off that very day — the wheel should have been sweeping crowds of laughing, awestruck San Franciscans nearly 15 stories above the meadows, lakes, museums and gardens of the 1,017-acre park. Instead, on a concourse eerily devoid of any human sound let alone the music planned for that day, it stood stock-still in the gray light, a ghostly memento of life interrupted in pandemic San Francisco.

We San Franciscans had been eager to celebrate Golden Gate Park. We're proud that it's one of America's great urban refuges: The nation's second most visited city park and slightly larger than the first, New York's Central Park, it stretches four miles from the tip of its Panhandle to the crashing Pacific surf and holds 77,000 trees. For generations, we've sported here: played football, baseball and golf; enjoyed fly-casting pools, horseshoe pits, a lawn bowling green and even an archery range. We've roller skated to a disco beat and jived during outdoor swing dances; sailed model yachts, rowed boats, ridden horses and practiced tai chi. In a city that revels in both a lively public party and the aura of nostalgia that drapes our fabled hills, it seemed only right to honor Golden Gate Park in high style.

But COVID-19 put the sesquicentennial party on hold, postponing a year's worth of performances, exhibits and other public events that would have broadcast loud and clear just how significant this park is to the city. And at least for the moment, all of us who love Golden Gate Park have been left with a quieter, more personal contemplation of what it has meant, and continues to mean, in our lives.

That the park even exists is astonishing given its site, originally a windblown wilderness of shifting sand in the then sparsely settled western side of the city. The crucial problem of stabilizing the dunes and converting them to arable soil was solved almost by accident when workers noticed that spilled barley from a horse's feed bag sprouted in the sand. What followed were decades of sowing quick-growing grasses and other species, covering the mixture with topsoil and cartloads of street manure and then planting tree seedlings. It was a Herculean effort, especially considering it was done entirely through equine and manual labor, and eventually today's lush, naturalistic sanctuary took shape.

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Over the years, Golden Gate Park has witnessed pivotal events in San Francisco history. More than 40,000 refugees sheltered there after the 1906 earthquake and fire leveled the city, and its Polo Field hosted 1967's Human Be-In, a massive counterculture gathering that heralded the Summer of Love and the birth of the hippie movement. In 2000, the first message on an online platform that would later be Twitter was sent from the paddock where bison have grazed since the 1890s.

But it's been far more than a setting for historical events. “From its early days, the park began to have a special place in the hearts of those who live here,” says Christopher Pollock, the author of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park: A Thousand and Seventeen Acres of Stories and a historian whose own self-described love affair with the park began when he moved to the city in 1979. “We remember eye-opening museum shows or concerts we've heard. Or things that happened at specific places — ‘Oh, Huntington Falls. That's where we were engaged.’ In the end, what makes the park special are the countless memories of small but important moments of our lives that were made there.”

Golden Gate Park Japanese Tea Garden


Japanese Tea Garden

Talk to a San Franciscan and you're bound to hear a park memory. Elizabeth Shypertt, who grew up close to the park in the ‘50s and ‘60s and still lives nearby, fondly recalls her father taking her there on Thursdays, his day off, to ride the carousel and snack on pink popcorn. Erik and Sarah Jutras treasure the recollection of their 2018 wedding amid the blooms of the Shakespeare Garden, where they arrived and departed in a shiny, black 1964 Impala. Carole Ruffo remembers swinging, climbing and sliding every week at the playground. “Later on, I'd take my daughter there,” she says, “and now I take my 3 1/2-year-old granddaughter on the days when we're not feeding ducks at Stow Lake."

My own trove of park memories, 43 years in the making, is deep. Recollections of pure, rollicking fun — hollering “yee-haw!” during the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival; running the wacky Bay to Breakers race while dressed as one-third of a BLT sandwich-themed team — still make me smile. But I also recall quiet things like the tickle of a butterfly landing on my nose at the California Academy of Sciences, or the soughing of wind through redwood trees during solitary walks in the National AIDS Memorial Grove. Most cherished of all, perhaps, are thoughts of picnics under blooming cherry trees, of sipping green tea on a drizzly afternoon in the Japanese Tea Garden and of so many experiences shared in the park with the love of my life.

On a breezy September day, nearly six months after the canceled launch of the park's celebratory year, I was back at the Music Concourse. The Ferris wheel still stood unused, awaiting further abating of the pandemic, but a flutter of activity surrounded the adjacent de Young Museum, which had just reopened. Inside, the carved wooden spirit figures from New Guinea mesmerized me, as they always have, and I realized that Golden Gate Park is like other special places of the heart. We might sometimes take them for granted, or a pandemic might cause dramatic disruption, but they remain welcome constants in our lives.

For all of us, whether San Franciscans or not, plenty of memories remain to be made here.

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