Bernal Heights Park History
Transportation: Muni: #24 Divisadero, Cortland & Ellsworth stop;
#67 Bernal Heights, Ripley & Folsom stop
Contact: Matthew Silva, email@example.com
Don Jose Cornelio Bernal was grazing his cattle on what was then part of the Rancho de las Salinas y Potrero Viejo when the Mexican government granted him the land in 1839. He died in 1842 and in the 1860s, a French merchant subdivided Bernal’s 226 acres into smaller lots where Irish immigrants settled, farmed and ran dairy ranches. Standing firm on the hill’s bedrock foundation, the district survived the 1906 earthquake, and its sparse development helped protect it from the firestorm that followed. In the city’s accelerated rebuilding program, the hilltop’s pastureland was developed for homes, as people moved to Bernal Heights after the earthquake. World War II attracted workers from the naval shipyards in China Basin, shops sprang up along Cortland Avenue and the unique neighborhood began to develop.
|Looking West at Bernal Hill over Alabama and Waltham Streets, 1936. Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.|
Then it was time for Bernal Heights Park- the hill with 26 acres of open grasslands lying between a telephone company’s microwave tower at the top and Bernal Heights Boulevard below. It belonged to the Department of Public Works. In 1972, the Recreation and Park Commission voted to transfer the land to itself to protect it from possible development. Bernal Heights residents, who had pushed for the change, gathered at McLaren Lodge and cheered. Recognizing that Rec and Park had postponed the transfer because the department lacked funds for maintenance, they agreed not to seek capital improvements for the next several years. And in June, 1973, with soaring kites and bouquets of balloons, officials dedicated what one called, “the last and biggest city-owned space available for a park.”
One of the city’s 35 Natural Areas, Bernal Heights Park is managed by NAP, Rec and Park’s Natural Areas Program. Created in 1985 and staffed in 1987, NAP’s mission is to restore San Francisco’s ancient wild landscape of grasslands, plants, trees and wildlife and to remove the invasive species that accompanied urban development.
On Bernal Heights hilltop, the native grasslands nourish a remarkable urban ecosystem, including the California poppy, raccoons, opossums, skunks, the Red-tailed Hawk, Great-horned Owl, and the occasional coyote. Near the peak are the table rocks, the collection of rock formations that can stand in for picnic tables (there aren’t any). The panoramic view–from Noe Valley, the Mission and China Basin to the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin–rewards sturdy climbers; drivers can go up Folsom Street to the tower gate and a small parking area. For dog owners, the park’s off-leash dog designation is a mecca for frolicking canines. At the bottom of the hill, the west side of Bernal Heights Boulevard is closed to automobiles and offers the parklike amenities of benches and community gardens with welcome signs on their gates.
A more boisterous park amenity–the city’s longest pair of outdoor slides–greets visitors to Bernal Heights Mini Park just a few blocks away at Winfield and Esmeralda. In the late 1970s, neighborhood activists, with help from then-Mayor George Moscone, turned the empty corner lot into a garden spot with spectacular views and a twin, 42-foot sloping steel slide. The highlight of its dedication in 1979 was the photograph of Mayor Dianne Feinstein flying exuberantly down the chute.
At the top of the 450 ft. Bernal Heights hill, park lovers won’t find customary facilities like barbecue pits, benches and seclusion. But what they will find besides spectacular views, full sun and happy dogs is a rare and valuable site that, like all the other natural areas in the city, “need more citizen involvement,” says Jake. “We need more residents to come out and work in our natural areas. They tell us ‘that’s what we used to be’ and that’s how we learn our about our history– firsthand,” he declares.
– Jeanne Alexander, Neighborhood Parks Council