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tiexp: the city: nature: golden gate park
Golden gate park is a half mile wide strip of green running three miles from the pacific ocean beach to the middle of the city. You might guess that the park is a natural oasis of ancient california, carefully preserved during the last century's construction of the city.

You'd be wrong.

Golden gate park is, almost down to a tree, artificial. In the mid 1800's, almost the entire western half of what is now san francisco was restless, barren sand dunes. The effort to build and preserve golden gate park as a lush, green nature preserve has been a long, hard fight, not against the forces of nature so much as political ridiculousness.

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the conservatory qtvr
This quicktime vr movie is a 360 degree view of the conservatory of flowers, the oldest building in the park. The conservatory has been closed to the public since it was damaged in a winter storm in 1995, but is currently being refurbished.

the alps

hippy hill qtvr
This quicktime vr movie is a 360 degree view of hippy hill. Every sunny weekend, drummers, dancers and their audience soak up the sunshine here. The large green bowl is a short walk from haight street.

golden gate park: history
It's hard to imagine that the city of san francisco and the united states federal government fought over this piece of land for several years; it appeared to be, after all, a nearly worthless expanse of sand.

Assuming the feds would win control of the land as part of the land acquired by the usa in treaty with mexico, homesteaders started staking claims. The city claimed the land was really part of the pueblo of san francisco under earlier mexican law, and eventually won. It struck a compromise with the settlers to provide them clear title for their land in exchange for city land for hospitals, fire stations, schools and parks.

The city looked to be shortchanged in the deal, but the area designated for golden gate park turned out to be a good location: being mostly sand, it had good drainage, and there was a good supply of underground water.

In 1870, a state commission was formed to start building the park. The commission was appointed by governor haight, and included city supervisors now known as neighboring streets: stanyan, ashbury, schrader, cole and clayton.

A southerner named william hammond hall was appointed to engineer the shifting sand into something more friendly. Hall started by grading valleys and hills to divide the landscape into useful forms, and planted sand grass imported from france to anchor the dunes. The curves and turns of the hills and roads were designed to slow down vehicle traffic and tame the ocean winds. Roads were separated from pedestrian paths and the low meadows designed to attract wildlife.

The politics of today haven't changed much since then: over a century ago there was already the practice of new mayors replacing city employees with their friends. Good public employees were regularly replaced with idiot political contributors as political tides changed.

After a change in city leadership, hall was replaced by a series of less able engineers. When the political tide ebbed back, hall returned as an engineering consultant to find a mess brewing.

There were many trees planted too closely, so he started thinning out the dying saplings to encourage growth. The public was outraged that trees that took so long to get started were being cut down, but that can be expected, as democracy does not engineer very well. Thinning continued.

The sandy park was using a lot of water, but there was no money to build wells to tap the known sources of water just below the surface. So instead, water was purchased from a private company. As bills rose past $1000 per month, the park started refusing to pay them, and so the water company started refusing to pay taxes. The two windmills on the west end of the park were eventually built, each designed to pump fresh water from underground uphill to the rest of the park.

Another fight started when heavy trucks with narrow wheels started tearing up park roads. The park refused entry of narrow-tired trucks. The road department complained, saying less wear on roads would require less road work and cost men jobs. The park refused to change the policy, so the roads department stopped hauling its street sweepings and horse manure to the park for fertilizer, and began dumping it in the bay instead. The issue took a decade to resolve.

Hall's assistant john d. mclaren took over in 1887, and managed the park for the next half century, until his death at the age of 96 in 1943. Mclaren insisted on keeping the park a park, and not a development zone.

As today, there was pressure to generate revenue from the park, rather than consider it a public resource. A midwinter fair in 1894 delivered the first blow to the park, promising to use five acres and return them to back to parklands when the fair was over. Instead, the fair eventually took 160 acres, and then balked at restoring the park land afterward.

The development associated with the 1894 midwinter fair and a series of add-on developments thorough the years built the music concourse area where the de young museum and california museum of sciences are now. These institutions now have plans to build a huge underground parking garage and a modernist new building for the de young within the park.

The great earthquake of 1906 trampled the park under the feet of 200,000 refugees, who cut down trees for firewood and trashed park greens, totaling $175,000 of damage. But the greatest ruin came from the refugee camp's increased use of park roads for auto traffic, which developed major streets that still cut through the park.

In 1915, the pan pacific exposition planned to temporarily develop the western end of the park and promised to return the parklands to their original condition. Fortunately, the exposition was instead held in the marina and cow hollow area. Even so, the organizers tried to dump the remaining buildings in golden gate park afterward. The fair prompted then president taft to exclaim, "san francisco knows how!" The city that knows how has become an optimistic city slogan since.

Throughout the last century, the park has been asked to receive ego donations and named gifts of various kinds, from statues of all types to unwanted buildings to 'gifts' of private development, all named after the giver, that the city has ended up paying to support and maintain.

On sundays, the main drive through the park is closed to traffic, and the main portion of the park is turned over to bikers, skaters and walkers.

More information about the park, sf history and john mclaren:

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San francisco's golden gate park
San francisco then & now
San Francisco, you're history!
Historic san francisco: a concise history and guide
The great san francisco trivia & fact book
The earth shook, the sky burned: the 1906 earthquake and fire
San francisco
Boss gardener: The life and times of john mclaren
2001 the treasure island experiment. All rights reserved.