Duboce Park and Harvey Milk Recreation Center

Photo: In 1906,  Duboce Park became one of the “tent cities” for refugees of the earthquake and fire. From the collection of Greg Gaar.

The site was reserved for a hospital. San Francisco alderman James Van Ness in his eponymous Ordinance designated it for “Hospital Purposes” in the early 1850s. In 1880 it was leased to the San Francisco Female Hospital for a facility that was never built. Meanwhile Colonel Victor Duboce, who served with the First California Volunteers in the Spanish-American War, returned to the city and was elected to the Board of Supervisors. He died on August 15, 1900 and was buried in the National Cemetery, at the Presidio. In passing a resolution extolling his “high character, loyalty, and amiable disposition,” the Supervisors changed the name of Ridley Street to Duboce Street and turned the old hospital reservation into Duboce Park.

“Duboce Park Is Now For The City,” proclaimed the San Francisco Call, reporting the dedication on September 9, 1900. Amid the boom of a cannon and cheers of the crowd, the president of the Duboce Park Improvement Club introduced Mayor James Phelan, who complimented the Club for its work in securing the old hospital lot and spoke with feeling about the late Colonel Duboce. He said that the park was a fitting tribute to the hero’s memory. The Mayor promised to expedite the $5,000 appropriation requested by the Improvement Club, and in 1901 Duboce Park was under construction.

Originally bounded by Steiner, Ridley-now-Duboce, Waller and Scott Streets, the three-block-long, one-block-wide park acquired its irregular shape when a District Court awarded portions of the 4.21 acres to two claimants in the late 1880s. The Van Ness Ordinance attempts to straighten out San Francisco’s muddled land titles sometimes ended up in court.

In April 1906 the park became one of the 18 “Tent Cities” for people made homeless by the earthquake and fires. Pup tents and a large kitchen tent sheltered and fed nearly 900 refugees for the next 10 months. When they left, the park was restored for $5,400. Source: “From Tents to Shacks: A guide to San Francisco’s 1906 Earthquake Refugee Camps” by Jane Rydan, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Its major renovation began in 1999 when Friends of Duboce Park met and decided on a two-stage plan. The first was the playground renovation, the second was the labyrinth. “Along the way, we also improved our irrigation, added a bulletin board, upgraded our lighting, and added a doggie play and a people-only area,” says Friends’ Janet Scheuer. In collaboration with the Recreation and Park Department, the broad-based upgrade included ADA; removal of the vandalized restroom; Park Plan and Multi-use and Dog Play Area; play structures and swings for each age group; and a labyrinth. Friends raised over $45,00 for new play area structures and replacement of standard issue cobra lights; Rec and Park’s Capital Improvement Division gave $380,000 and the labyrinth was created as a separate account.

The Labyrinth
It was proposed by Friends’ Janet Scheuer, who had walked labyrinths all over the world. “We need to create a quiet spot for people,” she said. She volunteered to “own” the project, find funding and work with designers. Hal Fischer headed up the fund raising. They raised $90,000, with $5000 from San Francisco Beautiful, $25,000 from the CPMC Davies Campus that adjoins the park, and $10,000 from Charlotte Wallace and Alan Murray. Rec and Park contributed around $80,000, says landscape architect Marvin Yee, Capital Improvement Division.

The Scott Street site had been occupied by a play structure in the shape of a pirate ship. Toxic, closed down and rotting away, it was ripe for extreme makeover. Janet recruited designers Richard Feather Anderson, a founder of the Labyrinth Society and Willett Moss, CMG landscape architect to create a labyrinth. The 23 ft. wide multi-circular path was sand-blasted into concrete. A border of mosaic tiles made by members of the community surrounds it, and a commemorative tile collage of the pirate ship graces the concrete bench facing the path. On the adjacent mosaic pedestal sits a labyrinth that allows sight-impaired and other visitors to trace a path with their fingers. Rec and Park put down grass sod and planted flowering cherry trees near the entrance and podocarpus trees against the rear fence.

The joyous opening celebration April 28, 2007 was short-lived when the labyrinth was closed two days later due to the misapplication of anti-graffiti coating, damaging the labyrinth surface and making it slippery. A reopening eventually took place3 seven months later, on Nov. 2. One of the city’s most unique open space features is now a multi-use area. “People are doing tai-chi, picnicking, reading, walking and meditating,” says Janet happily, adding, “and it all works.”

The Playground & Multi-Use Area
The playground area is another example of the creative efforts of the Duboce community. A handsome bollard (post) and cable fence borders the playground and the lawn area on the west. The quote on the playground wall — “Our community came together to build this playground. Along the way we grew closer”– came from Friends’ Carol Maxwell, Janet’s co-chairman on the project.

The children’s playground is divided into two sections for ages 2-5 and 6-12, with new, age appropriate equipment for each. Next to the basketball court a new Youth Play Area for school-age children is planned for the space that currently houses a shed for tools and a Toro cart. A committee of neighborhood groups held a Design Day in July, 2008 and the plan will be presented and discussed at a community meeting in September.

The long-controversial issue of dogs on and off- leash has been peacefully and practically settled with a division of “Dog Play Area” (complete with dog push-button water fountain) and “Public Lawn Area for People Only- No Camping, No Dogs, No Bird Feeding.”

Last year Friends of Duboce Park and the Duboce Triangle Association won the Robert C. Friese Award for Neighborhood Conservation and the Friends were given NPC’s Award as the “Outstanding Park Group of the Year.”

Harvey Milk Recreational Arts Center
The Park’s neighboring Recreational Arts Building sits in the southwestern area of the park bordering the basketball court and Youth Play Area. Renamed the Harvey Milk Recreational Arts Center in 1979 in honor of the Supervisor, slain in 1978, the building headquarters the Recreation and Park Department’s Drama, Dance and Music Divisions and its unique Photography Center. As a regional facility, it offers classes in ethnic-jazz, tap, hula, and ballroom dance; voice and piano; and aerobics. It houses such citywide programs as the Young People’s Teen Musical Theater, the San Francisco Adult Free Civic Theater and the Midnight Music Program. The Center is currently closed, with classes relocated, for the $7,995,000 renovation funded by the 2000 Park Bond and managed by Rec and Park’s Capital Improvement Division.

Project Director Keith Kawamura says that renovations, begun in July, ‘07 are 70 % complete and the Center’s reopening is scheduled for the first quarter of next year. Meanwhile a survey has been circulated to 3000 households in the Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association and to over 300 addresses on the Friends’ mailing list to determine what programs and activities could be added to the Rec Center curriculum when it reopens. Follow up community meetings are being held by Chris Boettcher, executive director of the Randall Museum, Terry Schwartz, superintendent of Citywide Services, and Bob Palacio, Rec & Park director of Neighborhood Services.

Some visitors may be looking for Joanna Peothig’s iconic memorial mural of Harvey Milk. Although it had to be deaccsessioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission and painted out when construction began, they will find a reprise in Rec and Park’s commemorating plaque with a full-color image and brief explanation of its origin and mystery. More artwork by Susan Schwartzenberg and Michael Davis has been commissioned, says Tonia Macneil, of SFAC’s Public Art Program, adding that some two percent of the Center’s construction budget was set aside for the purpose. The main lobby will hold an installation whose elements include a collage of Milk’s personal photographs; a ladder holding images of his life as a professional politician; and a Camera Obscura connecting the facility to his life story. Elsewhere in the Center photos, news clippings, props, puppets and hand-made instruments reflect its multi-faceted history.

And for lagniappe, on the wall facing East, adjacent to the Park, Friends of Duboce Park, Hal Fisher and an anonymous donor have funded the quote from a Harvey Milk speech in 1977: “The American Dream starts with the Neighborhoods.” –Jeanne Alexander

Established: 1900
Location: Duboce between Scott and Steiner Streets
Transportation: Muni Metro, N Judah
Contact: President, Doug Woo, Doug@Duboce park.com
Janet Scheuer, Janetscheuer@comcast.net