Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

A park with personality


Dolores Park rehab

The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department installed warning signs at Dolores Park, such as these at the 19th and Church Street entrance. The park is in the midst of a renovation project that will affect everything from dogs to kids to the Gay Beach. (Photo: Rick Gerharter)
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It is easy to see in Dolores Park a symbolic microcosm of San Francisco as a whole, with all the city's history and diversity contained in one 14-acre space in the Mission District. The way different demographic groups arrange themselves in seemingly arbitrary turfs makes a fascinating study.

"I actually have a friend who wrote her master's thesis in sociology on that topic," said San Francisco resident Catherine Cole, 30, an out lesbian. "It is fascinating, but I just want the best view with the most sun."

A poster on Yahoo Answers humorously listed the park's denizens: "Hippies, yuppies, families with kids, skaters, orators, green-smokers, gay couples, Hispanic BBQ-ers, hipsters, jocks, drum-circle dancers."

Dolores Park is now in the midst of a multi-million dollar renovation project that is being overseen by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department.

Steve Cancian, facilitator for the project's community workshops, told the Bay Area Reporter, "I've always thought of Dolores as the park that best represents San Francisco. Not just the traditional demographics, but people who enjoy all sorts of diverse activities right next door to each other. You take a few steps and you're in another world. It's just like in the city, where you walk one block and you're in another neighborhood."

Inevitably, the different groups occasionally clash, and never more so than now, with a major renovation of the park in progress in which some groups are bound to lose ground while others gain.

A blog post on SFist following the fourth community workshop at the end of August seemed to stoke infighting with the headline, "New Dolores Park Plan Features Huge Kids' Soccer Field, Slightly Smaller Gay Beach."

Robert Brust, chair of nonprofit park advocacy group Dolores Park Works, offered his perspective.

"I don't think the gays are going to lose a lot of space, except for where the super slide cuts into the hill," he said. "The new design has it coming up the hill and it will sit on top of the terrace, which is the most obvious encroachment."

The park is very popular, especially among residents and visitors-in-the-know rather than tourists.

"The crowd seems to be primarily San Francisco and Bay Area residents, although that may be changing," Brust told the B.A.R. "The other day I was riding the J [Church] and there was a guy leading a tour group on the train. He was telling them about the park and what a hip hangout it was."

As parks go, Dolores is about as liberal and permissive as it gets. But some say that permissiveness has gone too far and corrective measures are needed.

Lindsay Kefauver of nonprofit group Dolores Park Dogs, which organizes a park cleanup on the first Saturday of every month, expressed irritation at "Hipsters who leave their trash on the hill for the rest of us to pick up."

In summer of 2010 Dolores Park Works organized a volunteer cleanup effort, installing garbage and recycling bins and portable toilets in the park. At the same time, new signs forbidding alcohol and smoking in the park appeared.

Former Dolores Park Works Chair Robert Lord posted a disclaimer on the organization's website, denying responsibility for the signs, which were installed by Rec and Park. "Casual daytime drinking and smoking has scant correlation to violent late-night crime," Lord wrote. (A stabbing and robbery had occurred in the park a short while before.)

The park's popularity is not universal even now, and at times in the past it has waned to the point of neglect.

Miguel Chavez, a bartender at the Hole in the Wall on Folsom Street, told the B.A.R., "I don't hang out in Dolores Park, it's too trendy."

Another gay San Francisco resident, Daniel Ponce, avoids the park out of safety concerns.

"Over the years I've read too many stories – most in your very newspaper – concerning robberies and homophobic or gang-related violence occurring in its vicinity," Ponce, 42, told the B.A.R.

Flashback: History in a nutshell

The Spanish missionaries who built Mission Dolores in 1776 – putatively San Francisco's oldest surviving structure – shared the land with its original occupants, the Ohlone Indians. A Jewish congregation purchased the land on which Dolores Park now stands in 1861 and made it a cemetery. In 1904 the city outlawed burials and purchased the land back (the Jewish remains were transferred to Colma), creating a municipal park for the first time, inspired by the contemporary city beautiful movement.

Then came the earthquake and fire of 1906, and Mission Park, as it was then known, became a refugee camp for hundreds of families made homeless by the disaster, as documented by a number of black and white photos from the period.

The J Church line started running in 1917. By 1929 the first playground was in use. Ramon Rodriguez was convicted of murdering a 16-year-old girl by the park bandstand (now the Clubhouse) in 1952, and there was a sensational murder trial. A 1964 photo shows a wading pool (where the playground is now, according to Kefauver).

Beatniks had made a big enough blip on the city's radar by 1958 for Herb Caen to name them in the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Beats' hippie progeny were right around the corner – countercultural forerunners of the trendy young people who today hold court on Hipster Hill. Parks like Dolores and the Golden Gate Panhandle were perfect platforms for sports events, rallies and protests, and performances by civic groups like the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which debuted The Dowry in 1963 in Golden Gate Park. By the mid-1960s black civil rights activists, feminists, and anti-war protesters were all causing a scene and claiming their spot in the sun – and along came the gays and sat down beside them.

The gays got an excellent spot, at the southwest corner of the park near the outbound J Church stop: the hilltop roost known as Gay Beach, or alternatively as the Fruit Shelf, Fairy Prairie, and Queens Corner. As the crown of a park offering the best people-watching in the Bay Area (according to this year's San Francisco BayList Awards), Gay Beach is a prime perch indeed, symbolizing the dramatic cultural ascension of a once-maligned, and still embattled, minority.

"Gay Beach is the best part of the park, in my opinion," said Brust. "It gets the cool breezes, lots of sun, great views, and it's reasonably safe."

The park hasn't always been a safe space for LGBTs to congregate, however. A "Dolores Park Timeline" available on the website Mission Multimedia refers to "homophobic violence" that impacted the park in 1980, when gays were moving en masse into the primarily Latino neighborhood.

That was one year after the first appearance of Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, whose annual Easter celebration draws gays from all over.

Thus began one of the park's dark chapters.

"There was a time the park wasn't used much, in the 1980s," said Nancy Gonzalez Madynski of the nonprofit Friends of Dolores Park Playground. "That was a time of much crime and drug-dealing."

Brust said of this time, "It seemed people didn't realize that it's one of the great parks of the city."

By 1993, when the first Dyke March kicked off in Dolores Park, it was clearly undergoing a renaissance. In 1998 the Mission Economic Development Agency created a survey for park users aimed at improving Dolores and other parks.

Ten years later, when voters passed the Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond, Dolores' brighter future was assured.

Community spirit and strife

To date, four community workshops – not to mention countless committee and subcommittee meetings – have taken place, inviting public comment and participation in the matter of the Dolores Park Improvement Project.

"We've had at least 100 people sign in for each of the workshops," said Cancian. "Originally the August 25 meeting was going to be the last, but we're extending it for two more now. People aren't accepting the first answer, they're saying, 'No, that's not good enough for this park.' And I think that's great."

Kefauver, who has a long history working with Rec and Park on various projects, described the department as "reactionary, inflexible in certain areas, schooled in the 1950s and 1960s," but added, "I have to give them credit for really making an effort this time to be more modern and do outreach to the community."

Kefauver praised Cancian for his deft facilitation. "The meetings have been enjoyable, and that never happens. They've been highly organized throughout, very well run. Steve knows how to win over a crowd, and he has some tough people to deal with."

Madynski said she valued the fact that anyone could have a say in the plans, although some suggestions were outrageous. "We had one person say, 'Why don't we charge people to come to the park?'" she recalled.

Still, some remain unsatisfied.

"In the first few meetings, there was a lot of public interest in preserving the existing character of the park," said steering committee member and gay Castro resident Harry Clark, 58. "But now, having overlaid all the requirements by Rec and Park and ADA and maintenance, our concerns have been placed on the back burner."

Clark was referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility requirements that have resulted in a wide central road planned for the park (see

Cancian denied that anything was strong-armed into the design.

"The park needs to be accessible, which it never has been, except where it meets the street level," Cancian said. "And it needs to be maintained. But we didn't start with a design and then ask for public input. We didn't draw anything until the third workshop, and every part of the design has been open to community discussion."

Cancian added that nothing so far – including the proposal to combine the universal access path with the maintenance road as one 12-foot-wide central road – is set in stone, and anyone can attend the next meeting and have their say.

Brust told the B.A.R. he hadn't seen a strong LGBT presence at the community meetings so far.

But Cancian indicated the LGBT presence was distributed throughout the group rather than concentrated in one phalanx. There are, after all, gays who own and love dogs, gay couples who raise children, gay hipsters, gay tennis players (they are involved on the project's tennis committee).

One item of interest to the boys of Gay Beach, is the proposal to install a pissoir – "a tastefully designed outdoor urinal," in Cancian's words – on the Southwest ridge, in addition to the two new bathrooms that will grace the tennis courts and playground.

"Our intention was to have enough restrooms in the park that on a sunny weekend day we wouldn't need Porta-Potties, except during the huge events, like Easter with the Sisters," Cancian clarified. "It made sense to place them on opposite ends of the park. But when you try to be equal, the reality you wind up with is an unfairly long line for the women's restroom. The same thing goes for an area like Gay Beach where beer-drinking is common."

Kefauver said one of the park's two off-leash dog areas – on the north side of the park between Hipster Hill and the old soccer field – is currently "up for grabs," since other groups are vying for the space. She expressed hope that people would attend the next meeting and voice support for keeping the second off-leash area.

Madynski was optimistic that differences could be worked out.

"If everyone in the park can get along and co-exist side by side, then everyone at the meetings can get along too," she said. "It takes magic to make that happen, but I believe in magic, and Dolores Park definitely has it."

The next community workshop for the Dolores Park Rehabilitation Plan is scheduled for Thursday, October 13, from 6 to 9 p.m. at Mission High School, 3750 18th Street. To check the project's status, or submit comments online visit

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