Interesting Parallels

By: Judith Taylor

Judith M Taylor, a retired Oxford-trained neurologist, now practices history without a license in San Francisco. She has published several…

More From This Author

Young, Terence. 2004. Building San Francisco’s Parks 1850-1930. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press.

Hart, John, Russell A Beatty, and Michael Boland. 1996. Gardens of Alcatraz. San Francisco: Golden Gate National Parks Association.

It might not occur to the majority of San Francisco’s visitors that two of its most important and popular attractions are actually human-made gardens—one masquerading as a natural forest, the other with a checkered history as a penal institution. Both have an air of inevitability but, in fact, date only to the mid-1800s. They reflected larger political trends of the era.

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 had begun to boil over. In England, the public parks movement, which began in 1841, was one response.

Victoria Park, in the east end of London, and Birkenhead Park, in that Merseyside community, both offered something totally new: open space that was public from the outset and belonged to the people by right and not by noblesse oblige. The cost of building such parks was seen as an investment in civic calm. New York soon followed with Central Park in 1843. A large municipal park became a source of civic pride, quite apart from its political significance.

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 that ravaged Ireland also attacked potato crops on the continent. There were areas of local famine, but European authorities responded in a much more humane way than did the English. Nevertheless, Socialism grew, resulting in the “Red Revolutions” of 1848. Some attempted to overthrow the governments in Paris, Berlin, and Vienna; order was forcefully and rapidly restored. Only the British Isles avoided mass rioting. The parks there may have played a minor role in keeping the lid on discontent.

During this period, gold was discovered in California. The population of San Francisco rose exponentially from a few hundred to many thousands by 1850. California had 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, San Francisco’s mayor, Frank McCoppin, called for the city to build a great municipal park on the lines of those in New York and London. There was little open space within the city’s developed areas. Private groups had created some landscaped “public gardens,” such as at South Park, but their use was restricted to contiguous property owners, much like London’s neighborhood squares.

McCoppin and his party settled on the “Outside Lands” in the western half of the city as a potential site for a municipal park and battled with the federal government for eighteen years until the city received full title to this unpromising tract of shifting sand dunes in 1870. Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect of New York’s Central Park, was invited to submit a plan for a park, but he considered the land in question to be totally unsuitable for the cultivation of trees and, thus, inappropriate for the development of a “proper park.”

In Building San Francisco’s Parks, Terence Young shares this history and provides substantial detail about the events that led to the building—and the planting—of Golden Gate Park. Opened in 1876, the park was designed and constructed by William Hammond Hall, a young surveyor and self-taught landscape architect.

Young also explores the sociological aspects of the park movement worldwide, untangling threads of arguments about the supposed uplifting effect green space has on public behavior and the fact that, for many years, parks were intended to be places where men could go to relax; women and children were not part of the initial equation. The idea that it was healthy for city children to play unimpeded in the open air took some time to be accepted; children were only allowed into the park on sufferance and were to be carefully controlled at all times. Women were permitted either as wives or mothers, but not in their own right as citizens.

Out in San Francisco Bay, at the same time, Alcatraz Island was slowly undergoing development as a military installation. John Hart offers a succinct history of this inhospitable rock in Gardens of Alcatraz. The island was home to various kinds of birds, but humans had largely avoided it. An 1850 photograph shows a featureless, rounded, rocky contour, with its surface covered in guano. What appealed to the successive military commandants was its location; a small number of men and guns on the island could safely defend the city from attack.

Alcatraz had few plants of any kind growing on it before the army began construction of a fort with fixed guns in 1853. Every contour seen today was carved out of the rock to enhance the natural defense of the cliff-like perimeter formations. All resources required for construction and for daily living were transported across the bay by boat; this included soil, water, building materials, food, and all the military equipment.

Eventually seeds and plants followed, both intentionally and otherwise, and the rock slowly became vegetated. The imported soils contained seeds of wild plants as well as unexpected pests. In the mid-1800s, “wild” did not necessarily imply native, as exotic plants had already infiltrated California in preceding decades.

Garden history on Alcatraz can best be understood as a palimpsest, layers superimposed on one another. Beginning with the first military occupation, officers’ families planted small gardens for themselves. Soon, the army began to use the island as an informal brig, but resident staff continued to create gardens. In 1860, the island was officially designated as a prison. In 1933, the army ceded the property to the federal Bureau of Prisons for incorrigible civilian prisoners. Thirty years later, the prison was closed due to the high cost of maintaining it.

Hart and Beatty describe the men who created gardens at each phase of the island’s development. Beatty also describes the origins of the plants that were used, noting that essentially everything was an exotic. A few native plants were introduced intentionally to counteract this trend. As Beatty points out, 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.

The astonishing thing is that, almost forty years after the federal prison closed with no money appropriated for maintenance of the island, 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, and various bulbous plants. They have naturalized (or acculturated), but they turn our ideas about gardening upside down. Some of the island’s gardens were carefully planted in the lee of buildings, walls, and cliffs, but others had to be on the windward side. That does not seem to have made a great deal of difference in survival of the fittest plants.

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 few miles 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.