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Musings » Building San Francisco’s Parks 1850-1930, and Gardens of Alcatraz
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Young, Terence
Hart, John, Russell A. Beatty and Michael Boland
Baltimore - London - San Francisco
The Johns Hopkins Press 2004
California Golden Gate National Parks Assoc 1996

We are so accustomed to our feelings of warmth and pride in the Golden Gate Park that we tend to forget how it fits into a larger scheme. The 1840s were a time of upheaval all over the world. The industrial revolution had dislocated millions of people from the countryside to city slums and discontent began to boil over.

In England, the public parks movement was one response, starting in 1841. Victoria Park in the east end of London and Birkenhead Park in that Merseyside community both offered something totally new, open space which was public from the outset and belonged to the people as a whole by right and not by noblesse oblige.

The cost of building such parks was seen as an investment in civic calm. New York followed with Central Park in 1843. A large municipal park became a source of civic pride in its own right quite apart from its political meaning.

In 1848, hunger was rampant in many parts of Europe. The poor were desperate and middle class liberals sympathized with them. Poor people in France and Germany depended on the potato as a basic food almost as much as the Irish. The potato blight which ravaged Ireland also attacked the potato crops on the continent.

There were areas of local famine but the difference was that the authorities responded in a much more humane way than the English. Even so, Socialism grew and the “Red Revolutions” of 1848 were the result. There were attempts to overthrow the governments in Paris, Berlin and Vienna. They all failed. Order was forcefully and rapidly restored. Only the British Isles avoided mass rioting. Possibly the parks played a very minor role in keeping the lid on discontent.

While all this was going on, gold was found in California and anyone who could scrape together the price of the fare travelled west. The authorities in France gladly subsidized this travel to get rid of the troublemakers.

Everyone knows that the population of the village of San Francisco, formerly Yerba Buena, rose exponentially from a few hundred to many thousands by 1850. Other dramatic changes had been occurring.

California became part of the United States under the treaty of Guadalupe and Hidalgo in 1846. By 1850 it was a full state of the union. Two years later, Mayor Frank McCoppin of San Francisco was calling for the city to build a great municipal park on the lines of New York and London. There was very little open space within the city itself. Private groups had created some landscaped “public gardens” such as South Park but their use was restricted to contiguous property owners, much like the London squares.

McCoppin and his party settled on the “Outside Lands” as a potential site for a municipal park and did battle with the federal government for 18 years until the city received full title to this very unpromising tract in 1870. Frederick Law Olmsted had been invited to submit a plan for a park but considered the land in question to be totally unsuitable.

Terence Young tells this story and goes into great detail about the next decades and their events. Golden Gate Park was opened in 1876, designed and constructed by a 25 year old surveyor and self-taught landscape architect, William Hammond Hall.

Young goes into the sociological aspects of the park movement, untangling the threads of arguments about the supposedly uplifting effects of green space on public behavior and the fact that for many years the park was intended to be a place where tired men could relax. Women and children were not part of the initial equation. The idea that it was good for city children to play unimpeded in the open air took some time to be absorbed. They were only allowed into the park on sufferance and needed to be carefully controlled at all times. Even to this day children have to be supervised by adult guardians in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Women were after-thoughts as users of the park, either in their roles as wives or mothers but not in their own right as citizens. What else was new?

Out in the bay, the island of Alcatraz was slowly undergoing development during this period. John Hart gives a succinct history of this inhospitable rock in Gardens of Alcatraz. The name, long thought to mean “Island of the Pelicans” but which is now considered to mean “Island of the Cormorants”, was originally applied to the larger island of Yerba Buena by the Spanish seaman Ayala.

Captain Beechey transferred the name to the present place in 1827.

Birds and animals lived on this bare rock but humans largely avoided it. An 1850 photograph shows a featureless, rounded contour. The surface was known to be covered in guano. What struck the successive military commandants was its wonderful siting. A small number of men and guns on this island could safely defend the city from attack.

Alcatraz had few if any native plants growing on it before the army took charge. Starting in 1853, the first buildings were military installations, a fort or citadel with fixed guns. Every contour now seen was carved out by the military engineers, emphasizing cliff formation as a natural type of defense. The great light and foghorn were constructed in 1854. Whatever resources were required were taken across the bay by boat. This included soil, water, building materials, food, and all the military equipment.

Eventually seeds and plants followed, both intentional and unintentional. The imported soils contained the seeds of wild plants as well as unexpected pests in dormant form. “Wild” by then does not necessarily imply native, as the very weeds in California had been heavily infiltrated by exotic plants in the preceding thirty years.

Garden history on Alcatraz can be seen as a palimpsest, each layer superimposed on the one before. It began with the first military occupation. Officers’ families planted little gardens. It was not long before the army used the island to hold military offenders, an informal brig.

By 1860, the penal function took over and the island was designated officially as a prison. It was very expensive to maintain and in 1933, the army ceded the property to the federal Bureau of Prisons for incorrigible civilian prisoners. From 1933 to 1963, it housed some of the most notorious criminals in modern history. Then even the federal government recognized it was simply too expensive to maintain and closed the prison down.

John Hart and Russell Beatty describe the men who created gardens at every step of the way. Beatty also describes the origins of the plants which were used, noting that essentially everything was an exotic. A few native plants were introduced intentionally to counteract this trend.

His comments fit very well with my own thesis that exotic plants now dominate in American gardens, whether measured as number of plants sold or in the amount of money spent on them by the public. Michael Boland’s wonderful photographs illuminate the discussion beautifully.

The astonishing thing is that almost forty years after the federal prison closed and no money was appropriated for maintenance, many of these exotic plants have not only survived but thrived. The roses alone are extremely vigorous, if a little tangled, but so are the fuchsias, pelargoniums, bulbous plants and much rarer species and cultivars. They have naturalized or acculturated, however one wants to look at it, but they turn our ideas about gardening upside down, to put it mildly.

Some island gardens were carefully planted in the lee, but others had to be on the windward side. That does not seem to have made a great deal of difference in survival. Gardening protected the sanity of both prisoners and guards. This was a de facto extension of the sociological theory that communing with nature has an uplifting effect on modern man.

I am struck by the resonance of the barren rock used for penal purposes and the barren sandy wastes converted into a romantic, woodland park not more than a mile or two away from each other in the same city. Both deserving and undeserving citizens were exposed to plants and growth, beauty and responsibility for its maintenance, yet in utterly different contexts.