Mission Dolores Park History

Established: 1905
Location: Church/Dolores & 18th/20th Streets
Bus: #33 or J Muni Metro
Contact: Christine Nahnsen (415) 551-3660

 Photo: San Francisco History Center,
San Francisco Public Library.

The Ohlone Indians were there first. They had inhabited the area for several centuries before Spanish missionaries arrived in 1776 to establish Mission San Francisco Dolores. Thereafter, the Ohlone shared the land with Spanish ranchers and shopkeepers until the 1849 Gold Rush, when new settlers, gamblers, and tavern keepers joined the mix. In 1861, the site was purchased by Congregation Sherith Israel for a cemetery which became inactive in 1894. In 1905, the City of San Francisco bought the land and established Dolores Park. The next year it served as a refugee camp for over 1600 families made homeless by the earthquake and fire.
Source: Strategic Plan for Mission Dolores Park by Mission Economic Development Association.

Dolores Park has changed dramatically since the early 1900s. For close to 100 years, its 13.7 acres have offered open space, green slopes, and recreation to a richly diverse neighborhood. At the turn of the century, community residents were mostly working class Irish, Italian, Scandinavian, and German immigrant families. Following World War II, they began to move out of the neighborhood and were replaced by new immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Today, people come from the Mission, Noe Valley, and the Castro to enjoy the park while they await repair of some of its outmoded facilities. Constructed in 1906, it has undergone some renovations, but significant problems remain.

Dolores Park has six tennis courts and one basketball court; two soccer fields, a playground, and a clubhouse with public restrooms. The clubhouse recreation rooms cannot hold more than 20 people and its bathrooms are often dirty and graffiti-laden. Neither is handicap-accessible. The heavily-used playground was rated by the Recreation and Park Department as having the highest need for improvement; it doesn't meet city or state guidelines for playground safety nor is it handicap-accessible. For several months of the year, the soccer field is unusable because of severe drainage problems. In many areas the Park's open green space is brown or worn down, scattered with dog feces and marred by holes that dogs have dug.

Problems aside, Dolores Park has been the neighborhood mecca of cultural, political and sports activities since the 1960s. It has hosted political rallies, festivals, Aztec ceremonial dances, Cinco de Mayo celebrations, and San Francisco Mime Troupe performances. However, in 1998, increasing use and deteriorating facilities prompted the Mission Economic Development Association (MEDA) to survey park users about facilities, programs, staffing, safety, funding, and planning. The coordinating committee, led by MEDA, included representatives from the Friends of Dolores Park, the Dolores Heights Improvement Club, the San Francisco Youth Commission, the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, the Neighborhood Parks Council, and the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. They formed focus groups and worked for two years with community members, discussing problems and noting their views and comments. A press conference last June celebrated completion and publication of The Strategic Plan for Mission Dolores Park and announced that copies were available to the public.

Friends of Dolores Park's Donald Bird notes that some of the Strategic Plan's recommendations are beginning to be implemented: clubhouse hours have been extended; recreational staffing has increased; the soccer field was re-sodded ("but it's in bad condition again and a new solution needs to be found"); a new irrigation system and new lighting fixtures have been installed; new landscaping is in place around the statue of Miguel Hidalgo, the liberator-priest considered the "George Washington of Mexico" and around the historic "Liberty bell." And perhaps most importantly, drug dealing has been almost totally eliminated due to an increased police presence. Bird says that that the Friends of Dolores Park and Dolores Park Dog are working with Rec and Park on a solution to off-leash use for dog owners in the park, and he hopes for an outcome that will satisfy the both sides of the controversy. He also notes with pride that the park's western edge is now abloom with ground cover and that Friends have put in more than 200 new plants over the last six months.

Jeanne Alexander, Neighborhood Parks Council