If not for the hapless mistakes made by the Sunnyside Land Company in 1891, our district would have no parks at all. An ill-advised street layout meant that some lots were too steep and rocky to build on, leaving them vacant for decades. This resulted in enough conjoined lots that the City, two generations later, could buy up and create the Sunnyside Playground and Dorothy Erskine Park.
Additionally, by laying out streets without regard to slopes, the City had to later buy up several residential lots in Sunnyside, in order to lay the sewer pipes—which must of course go where gravity dictates. This happenstance has given Sunnyside several small open spaces for public enjoyment, such as the Joost-Baden Mini-Park and the steps behind the Sunnyside Conservatory.
Yet still today there remains a City-owned piece of land—500 square feet in size—that is undeveloped as a public open space. It is fenced off and inaccessible. One half is used as a private side yard by an adjacent homeowner. The other half is currently leased to Friends of the Urban Forest, but that organization has never used it. These non-public uses of public land represent a loss to the community, and it is time the situation was rectified.
Traffic calming – planting and saving trees – safe places for children to play – newly revealed local history: the issues on the minds of Sunnysiders fifty years ago were not so different from things that interest residents now. The newsletters of Sunnyside’s local organization from those years have recently been archived and made available online at the Internet Archive, and tell some inspiring stories about actions that still impact our lives today.
Although Sunnyside has seen organized advocacy by residents since the 1890s (more here), the current organization, Sunnyside Neighborhood Association (SNA), dates to late 1974. The 1970s saw a surge of local activism in the many neighborhoods in San Francisco. Five decades later, we still enjoy some of the fruits of that upwelling, for instance in open spaces that were established as parks. There was also a downside to the activism then that still affects the city; in some areas, such as the Richmond district, residents fought density with downzoning measures, working to exclude multi-unit buildings and “retain local character,” resulting in a dearth of housing units in subsequent decades, and de facto residential segregation.
But SNA was, according to the record of these early newsletters, more intent on trees, parks, and calming traffic. Monterey Boulevard had already undergone big changes in the 1950s and 1960s, with an extensive apartment-building boom. The 1970s saw even more upzoning on the boulevard. SNA didn’t oppose more housing, but as we’ll see, it did try to rescue trees that were eventually to fall victim to a particularly determined developer of multi-unit buildings, among many other projects, such as tree-planting and boosting local businesses.
The shabby open space that makes up the remaining portion of the Balboa Reservoir was certainly one place where a person was unlikely to catch Covid this year. Plenty of people came to chill out, literally in the fog or figuratively in the solitude.
From February to June 2021, the reservoir land played its part in the recovery by serving as an overflow route for people in cars coming to the adjacent City College of San Francisco mass vaccination site. The goats were back for their annual munch in August. The big storm in October briefly left more standing water than this would-be reservoir ever held before. Construction on the planned housing project. for the site is due to begin in 2022. All photographs Amy O’Hair except where noted otherwise. Thanks to Susan Sutton and Joanna Pearlstein for their contributions.
Okay, it’s been more than a year of photographing this soon-to-be-lost semi-wild open space. By this time next year, maybe, the lower portion of the Balboa Reservoir will have begun its transformation into a housing development.
Although Sunnyside Playground is a favorite destination for families, little known to even locals is our other park, Dorothy Erskine Park, located at the top of Baden Street. Poised on the edge of a rocky outcropping, the small park affords great views of the southeast of San Francisco, from among a grove of eucalyptus trees—though without even the amenity of a bench from which to enjoy the vista.
For twenty years there were public tennis courts at the corner of Phelan and Judson Avenues—the only park facility in Sunnyside then. It attracted tennis aficionados from all over, such as these folks visiting from a fancier part of town in 1932.
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.
In 1913 someone who was far from home, new to the City, and despairing of his future came to a lonely hilltop at the northern edge of Sunnyside to do away with himself. But he didn’t count on the appearance of a local man, Hugo Ekenberg of 400 Joost Ave, who would save his life. The “knoll” where it probably happened is one of our hidden treasures, the rocky outcropping now called Dorothy Erskine Park, at the top of Baden Street.
Here is the news report in the San Francisco Call (19 April 1913):
Before it was diverted into the drains–probably in the 1920s after improvements to streets and sewers–Sunnyside had a tributary of Islais Creek running through it. Sounds bucolic perhaps, but it seems mostly to have been a nuisance to residents, and for one man, his death-trap.