South Park Revisited History

Established: 1852
Location: Between 2nd & 3rd Streets, and Bryant & Brannan
Bus: #15 Third; #10 Townsend
Contact: Louise Bird, Friends of South Park, (415) 957-0199

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

In 1852, an aristocratic Englishman, entrepreneur George Gordon, began buying up lots between Bryant and Brannan and Second and Third Streets, on what he described as the only level spot free of sand in the city. There, at the base of fashionable Rincon Hill, he designed and built South Park, San Francisco’s first planned community. Modeled on the squares, ovals and crescents in London and New York City, it featured 68 elegant residences of uniform architecture circling a 550 ft. grassy oval park that was ringed by a locked ornamental railing. Only the homeowners had keys. A Dutch windmill in the middle of the park pumped water for residents who paid a monthly fee for maintenance of the property. Streets and sidewalks were the first in the city to be paved, and on sunny days, the park was crowded with white-uniformed maids watching over children at play.
Home to many of the city’s civic leaders, intellectuals, legislators and captains of industry, the area flourished as a wealthy enclave until 1869 when Second Street was built, cutting through the center of Rincon Hill to the waterfront and making the area accessible to the working poor. The wealthy migrated to Nob Hill and working class families moved in to enjoy the park and its sunny weather.
In 1897, the city acquired the site, established it as a public park and removed the locks on its gate. In 1906 the earthquake and fire removed the neighborhood.

After the fire, South Park was rebuilt into a motley collection of warehouses, machine shops, sleazy hotels and honky-tonks. An influx of immigrants–Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Mexicans, and African-Americans—was joined in the ‘30s by longshoremen. To warm themselves while waiting for calls from the Union Hall, they built a bonfire in the middle of the park. Noxiously, it burned for the next 40 years, furthering the park’s decline into a dangerous slum abandoned by city planners. It was fed with construction refuse, neighborhood garbage and junk and the park became a gathering place for drug addicts and the mentally ill. The city provided them with wood so that they wouldn’t demolish historic buildings for fuel.

In the late ‘70s, when the low-rent site began attracting a few intrepid artists and other professionals, South Park began a turnaround. The architects, designers and photographers who moved into live/work spaces formed a South Park Improvement Association, and worked to evolve a European-style neighborhood. By the end of the ‘80s, it had become a mixed-use residential and commercial district with restaurants, businesses and retail shops (including several famous discount outlets for women’s wear) on the ground floor, and apartments above. Fast forward to the "irrational exuberance" of the dot- com explosion. In the mid- ‘90s South Park became "the cultural hub of San Francisco’s trendy interactive media district." (New York Times). Rents zoomed skyward, new restaurants sprang up, as did their prices, artists and small businesses were edged out.

The boom came to an end in 2000, and the park’s retail and restaurant businesses hit hard times. By 2003, however, the neighborhood seems to be edging back. NPC is holding its second annual gala at the park on October 9th, hoping to attract visitors who may not have visited this unique neighborhood park. "Vacancy" signs are decreasing and new people are moving in –architects and industrial designers, joining those who, like architect Toby Levy, stayed through boom and bust. In fact, Levy who has lived and worked at South Park since 1984, is expanding her studio and office.

A grant from Rec and Park’s Renaissance campaign funded new picnic tables, benches and lighting fixtures that were installed three years ago. Further improvements under Rec and Park’s Capital Plan are on its ‘03-‘04 calendar, and at the district park planning meeting this month (September, ed.), the community will discuss priorities and options. Friends of South Park’s Louise Bird, a longtime resident, hopes that new residents in the neighboring apartments and high-rise buildings will attend the NPC gala and as the slogan says, "Rediscover South Park on Thursday October 9th". "We want this to be a park for everybody in the community. It’s not just for those of us living on the circle," she declares.

- Jeanne Alexander, Neighborhood Parks Council