By Amy O’Hair
When Sunnyside was laid out in 1891, there was no provision for any public park or open space built into the plans—just rectangular blocks filled with edge-to-edge lots for building (see early maps here). To put it in perspective, many more basic matters of infrastructure in the neighborhood were lacking for years: there were no streetlights or sewers, the roads were dirt, and the water supply spotty, even into the 1920s. It was not until the 1960s that Sunnyside got a park of its own.
Public parks were understood to be a part of the good life in the City from early on. Golden Gate Park, envisioned and built in the 1870s, was the City’s first great recreation ground, although until public transit routes went there in the 1890s, it was primarily a place for the rich to run their fancy horse-drawn carriages. Even with new streetcar lines, it was a long day out for families coming from the Mission. When in the mid-1890s community groups all over the City were clamoring for parks closer to their own neighborhoods, Sunnysiders got behind the push to make Glen Canyon into a park. But that beauty spot would never really be Sunnyside’s own.
The First Sunnyside Park
Long before the playground off Foerster and Melrose was built in the 1960s, there were other efforts to develop a park here. In fact, there was a “Sunnyside Park”—at least on paper—at about where Molimo Ave meets Teresita Blvd, up the hill from the present park. This was land deeded to the City when the Sunnyside Addition (now called Miraloma Park) was laid out by James P. McCarthy in 1892. (Read more about McCarthy.) McCarthy had more of an eye for the refinements of elegant living than cut-throat Sunnyside capitalist Behrend Joost. The original layout shown in the overlay below was changed completely in the late 1920s to the present curvy streets. (Read more about the Miraloma Park neighborhood.)
However, that Sunnyside “park” was never more than a lonely bit of undeveloped land near nothing at all. The City installed a very large water storage tank there at least by 1901, containing 565,000 gallons pumped up from the San Jose Road. A news article in 1910 describes it as “a small piece of ground … far removed from any residences” (SF Call, 12 Nov 1910). In 1912 the park is optimistically listed in a guidebook to San Francisco, though it was clearly not used for recreation (San Francisco: As it Was and How to See it, Helen Throop Purdy). In any case, this patch of land was not actually in Sunnyside, properly speaking, being north of Melrose Ave.
In 1910 Balboa Park to the south began its development into a playground and recreation space, with a boost from the Sunnyside Improvement Club. That offered some options for the neighborhood—though it was located on the other side of the treacherous Southern Pacific railroad tracks (now I-280).
In 1927, after great efforts on the part of that same club, the Sunnyside School PTA, and local merchants, tennis courts were installed at Judson and Phelan Avenues (where current CCSF health center is). The neighborhood held a massive celebration that saw Mayor Sunny Jim Rolph and a small army of supervisors make the journey out here. But it still wasn’t a park or a playground for children.
Vacant Lots, Full of Adventure
Although for the first half of the twentieth century the children of Sunnyside didn’t have a local playground, in one sense, at least in the early years, the whole neighborhood was a playground: there was a great deal of open land between the sparse houses here. As well, to the north was Mt Davidson, mostly wild and yet to be filled with houses. It was a favorite kids’ adventuring destination. (Read one young girl’s account of finding a snake from 1926.)
There was plenty of room for creative play before the neighborhood was fully built up. One early resident recalled as a child sledding down the steep dirt hill (now concrete steps) on Detroit Street just south of Monterey Blvd (oral history, Sunnyside History Project, 2006). Even in 1938, aerial photos show there is still much undeveloped land, with footpaths running across vacant lots—although of course all of it belonged to private owners and most lots would soon be built on.
Sunnyside parents did lobby for a playground. In 1937, a contingent from the Sunnyside School PTA went to visit Mayor Rossi, mainly to ask for a branch library (which we never got) but also for a playground. The tennis courts were taken back by the City at the beginning of WWII, and then City College was built, effectively cutting off use of that land as a possible park.
Children played in the streets and also on some of the land that would later become the Sunnyside Playground. Don Holmgren, who grew up on the 500 block of Mangels in the 1940s and 50s, remembers how he and his friends played baseball in what is now the open space closest to Foerster Street in the park. One year they decided to build themselves a backstop for their make-do baseball diamond, and “borrowed” some wood from the house of a man nearby who worked in construction. Unfortunately their bold initiative was discovered.
Sunnysider Greg Adams who lived on the 400 block of Mangels Ave in the 1950s recalls how he and his friends used to play ball in the street, where the current path into the Park comes out on Mangels. Invariably they would get into trouble with the woman who lived in the house just where the path met Mangels. To retrieve a ball someone had to step on her perfectly manicured lawn, and this would cause her to call the police, every time.
When the policeman reprimanded the boys, they would tell him they needed a place to play ball, and how about building a park?
A Real Playground?
It was not until 1961 that the idea of building a playground for the neighborhood was seriously addressed by the City. The site at Melrose and Foerster was first proposed by the SF Planning Dept in a report in 1954 about parks to be built in coming years, but not acted on for several years to come.
The process was not without its bumps in the road. Although money to purchase lots from private owners was authorized in 1961, no further action was taken for a year, and even then no money had been set aside for actually building the project. Parents from the neighborhood appeared before the Supervisors’ Finance Committee to ask that funds be reinstated.
When the issue was reported on by the Chronicle then, the reporter, Mel Wax, headed his story “They’ve Only Waited for One Generation.” He was sympathetic to the struggles of Sunnyside to get its fair share of public money for public good (SF Chronicle, 3 May 1962, p.6). He ended his piece “Sunnyside parents had better be patient.”
And they were patient—nonetheless two more years passed with no work being done on the park, marking ten years since the site was first proposed. Parents in the neighborhood suspected it might not ever get built, and rightly so–for that year Mayor Shelley’s administration dropped the rank of the playground to number 49 among City projects. A group of Sunnyside residents went to a meeting of the Board of Supervisors in April 1964.
The mayor admitted he had made a mistake by blindly following his budget committee’s recommendation to put the project off. “I’m for playgrounds,” he said (SF Chronicle, 2 May 1964, p.3). So funds were reinstated, with the support of the Recreation and Parks Department.
Still, it seemed all was not yet set to forge ahead, because not until another year had passed was money authorized for it from the general fund (SF Chronicle, 16 April 1965). This may have been the result of yet another contingent of Sunnysiders visiting City Hall for another round of pleading.
Jackie Lantheaume, who was at that time a Sunnyside mother with a young child, told me about how she was part of a group of mothers who went down to the Mayor’s office to voice their protest about the park, which seemed to them as if it would never be built. She does not recall the date, but says they were inspired by the recent sit-in at UC Berkeley organized by Mario Savio.
This was a big event in the turbulent 1960s that took place October through December 1964—so this visit she spoke of may have taken place in early 1965. She remembers that the group was organized by Barbara Holman, then president of the Sunnyside School PTA. They went to the Mayor’s office with young children in tow, and conducted a sort of sit-in of their own, with some of the bolder children speaking directly to the mayor to ask that they have a playground.
Fortunately for the moms and kids of Sunnyside, there were no cops to haul them off to jail. Apparently the mayor listened, because, as Lantheaume told me, “The playground was built by that fall.” She may be exaggerating slightly, but this generally accords with the record of the Department of Public Works, which began work by late 1965.
Make Way for Progress
There were a least two people whose lives were directly impacted by the City scooping up 21 lots in our residential neighborhood for the project. All but one of those lots were vacant, making it an easier enterprise than it could have been. But one lot, smack in the middle of the intended park, had a house on it—built by Arthur Pickelle in 1938. This house served as a kind of excuse for some of the early delays in the project, though when it was finally purchased, the price the city paid wasn’t large, and the two people I talked to remember it as a very modest bungalow. Nonetheless, it was one man’s home. Here is the 1938 aerial photo, with an overlay of where playground would be built.
There was no paved street into the grove, just a dirt path where Pickelle could drive up to his home. It must have been a pretty nice setup, a lone house in a wild patch of the neighborhood. Two of the people I interviewed remember Pickelle as a somewhat reclusive man, living in his lone house, which was located about where the play area is now.
Sunnysider Greg Adams was a child then and recalls how the man had an old Ford that he would drive right up to the house. The open land near this on the west side next to the new play area was very swampy—as it still is sometimes today. According to him, there were fruit trees and vegetables grown in this area.
A Lost Dream
Besides the removal of one man’s house, the other person impacted by this building project was third-generation Sunnysider Ann Marie Garvin, a professional dancer and dance teacher. As a young woman in 1959, she bought two undeveloped lots between Mangels and Melrose Avenues. She intended someday to fulfill her dream of building a dance studio or performance space in our neighborhood.
But in 1963 the City began to buy up the lots that would be developed into Sunnyside Playground, and that included her property. At the time it happened she was traveling and dancing in many different venues around North America. Hers was a typical dance gypsy’s life—“You go where the work is,” she told me when I asked her about it. Here is a photo from that time, when she was dancing in a revue at the Seattle World’s Fair.
Garvin fought the City, asking for an exchange of property—which she didn’t get. They took her property by eminent domain, as they did from all the other property owners, although all were paid. (Garvin opened a dance studio on Monterey Blvd. in the early 1970s, which she ran until her death in 2019.)
The City Gets to Work
The required money for the project was authorized from the general fund in April 1965. The lots had been bought, the single house removed, and the construction contracts secured; the work on the site began in late 1965. Before construction, the site looked like this:
The site was described by the Department of Public Works (DPW) as very steep and as more challenging than any other similar site. The DPW’s Annual Report said:
“The ‘build-it-on-a-cliff’ method was necessary in the construction of Sunnyside Park….Probably the steepest terrain extant for a recreational facility of this type….The site climbs 86 feet vertically in a horizontal distance of 350 feet”
Retaining walls had to be designed and built to stabilize steep hills in an area that once had a creek running through it, and still to this day has a small riparian spring (more on this below). (From Annual Report of the Dept of Public Works of City and County of San Francisco, June 1967, p14-17).
Coincidentally, one of the Recreation and Parks Department civil engineers who worked on this challenging project was Douglas Martin, grandfather of the ex-president (2016-2020) of the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association, Steve Martin-Pinto.
Sunnyside Got a Park
The landscaping was finished in 1966, and the M. M. Casey Recreation Center in 1969. Here’s a DPW “after” photo from the article cited above.
The DPW writer complained that, even after so much brilliant engineering and landscaping work, the site was likely to be called a playground, when it should (in his opinion) more rightly be called a park. Still today it is officially called Sunnyside Playground, though unofficially referred to Sunnyside Park by many.
Neglect and Decline
It is probably better that a playground not make the news—that usually only happens because of crime—and in the decades that followed its construction, Sunnyside Playground was mentioned in the news only a few times. In a 1978 Chronicle article, its tennis courts were featured, encouraging tennis buffs to try their local courts, rather than (apparently) making the trek to some fancy place out of town (30 April 1978). During these same years the realty firm Grubb & Ellis invented a new neighborhood designation, “Sunnyside Park” and used it to advertise houses near the Playground (e.g. SF Chronicle, 9 Dec 1979, p.100).
The play area that was created for younger children was not very engaging—a kind of half-hearted collection of wooden stumps where the current open plaza is. The City had not really finished the project of furnishing the neighborhood with a real playground.
New Money, New Improvements
The Playground became rather seedy during the two decades after its construction. By 1990, it was a neglected, graffiti-ridden hangout and de facto off-leash dog-run. At about that time a new neighbor to the park, Andrea O’Leary, saw the problems and also the potential, and took on the project of organizing neighbors and families, in order to secure City money for rehabilitating the grounds and looking after its upkeep. Over the last 25 years, she and other advocates and neighbors have worked to organize support for improvements both in the park and at the Sunnyside Conservatory. O’Leary is a veteran by now, and her stamina is exemplary. There were many families in the neighborhood who supported changes that better served their needs; there were also some years of contention between those who wanted an off-leash dog area in the park’s lower field and those who wanted a children’s play area there.
Despite difficulties, persistence paid off—after five years of looking for City funding, O’Leary’s group of families and neighbors got it in 2000. Proposition A passed, which included money for improvements to Sunnyside Playground. The group developed plans with neighborhood input, a process that took many years, and which was additionally delayed due to the tussle over matter of whether or not Sunnyside would have an off-leash dog area or remain–as it always was, as far as park rules went–restricted to dogs on leashes. (Read more about this battle—sign in with library card.)
By 2006 construction began on a new play area for young children in the field, followed by improvements the clubhouse, which were finished in 2009. Also, as per city requirements, the park got its bit of art, a piece by Deborah Kennedy called “Solar Sight,” (2008) in the form of panels on the fences (photo below). Read more here.
Part of the work of the park advocates over all these years has been to track the expenditure of money the City allotted to the park, and when a project is left with a sizable surplus, make sure those funds are retained for other improvements here—otherwise the money would go elsewhere. The group is still working on projects, including an outdoor meeting plaza where the old play area was, and a pergola near the new play area. O’Leary said: “The plaza is suitable for more sophisticated gatherings, set aside from the noisy playground.” There is a kitchenette adjacent, a barbecue grill, and, soon, she hopes, chairs, tables, and umbrellas. Plus, the view is great.
The Riparian Spring
One project on the park advocates’ list is to return the natural riparian spring (photo below) in the hillside into an acknowledged park asset, rather than a nuisance. But the Recreation and Parks Department doesn’t yet have a set procedure for how this is done.
As I have been finding out by talking to many Sunnysiders, there are quite a few little “seeps” left in our hills—all that is left of the old waterway long gone from our landscape. (Read more on our lost creek.)
If you wish to support this effort at foregrounding our little spring, or any other of the worthy projects for the park like landscaping and clubhouse programming, please contact the group currently still at work: Sunnyside Park Advocates, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our park is a work in progress that owes much to those many activists and advocates through the decades, both named and unnamed, who have worked to help make open space a priority here in Sunnyside.
Many thanks to the following people whose time, memories, and good will have contributed to this post: Sunnysiders (present, former, and honorary): Greg Adams, Ann Marie Garvin, Jennifer Heggie, Don Holmgren, Andrea O’Leary, and Bill Wilson; and Jeff Suess of the Real Estate Division of the City and County of San Francisco.