SFGate: Buena Vista Park’s spirit infuses volunteer corps

Coast Live Oaks in Buena Vista Park

By: Sam Whiting, SF Chronicle

Ride the 37-Corbett up 14th from Market and you will be greeted at San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park by a set of three new wooden benches that look so inviting you’ll want to get off the bus and try them out, regardless of your final destination.

Those benches, installed over the summer with a freshly planted lawn in front and a stone wall behind, are for the benefit of everyone. The project was paid for by the state and built by the city, but it might never have happened without five years of planning input and another five years of pushing by the Buena Vista Neighborhood Association (BVNA).

BVNA, which began as a NIMBY uprising against nearby Davies Hospital, has evolved into a force with one focus – the circular park at the top of the hill. Plotted in 1868, it is the oldest park in San Francisco and site of one of its last groves of coast live oak trees.

Group nearing 50

“Thirty-six acres of wilderness in the middle of the city,” is the description given byRichard Magary, chair of the steering committee for BVNA, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2014.

Four hundred members pay dues of $25 a year per household for the privilege of gathering the first Saturday morning of each month to pull weeds and otherwise beautify the park. These monthly volunteer days are as far as it goes in terms of regular meetings for BVNA. That’s a big reason for its success and spirit. There is no president, there are no politics and they don’t fundraise.

“We aren’t constantly shaking the can, and our members aren’t interested in meeting,” says Magary, who works at home across the street from the park.

Magary, 72, has been in his rental unit since 1976 and from his perch he can see the crown of the park, and across to the bay. He could sit here staring all day, but he prefers to be on the ground with the people, whether they are tourists with guidebooks or Haight-Ashbury pilgrims who wander into the park from its north entrance.

His point of entry is at the intersection of Buena Vista Avenue and Upper Terrace, where a wooden boardwalk cuts across the side of the hill, leading to a view of Mount Diablo. That’s the new park. The old park has a path with gutters and walls built of marble tombstones remaindered when the graveyards were moved to Colma.

Magary knows where to spot random letters and numbers on the marble and he also knows the history of BVNA, going back to the precise moment in 1964 that word drifted up the hill that Franklin Hospital (now the Davies Campus of CPMC) wanted to install a rooftop helipad for airlifting in trauma patients.

“The neighbors succeeded,” says Magary, who was not yet involved. “The helipad was never built and as a result of that the neighbors felt unity. They needed a name and the natural choice was Buena Vista, because the park is the centerpiece of the neighborhood.”

Soon enough BVNA had another issue with a hospital, St. Joseph’s, on Buena Vista East. The church-run facility was closed and sold to a developer who had big plans for condos. Too big. When BVNA put up a fight it was downscaled significantly.

Small-scale issues

At that point, BVNA was two for two and retired from the wars though it still does battle with potholes and crime.

“The only thing that we don’t do is get involved with Planning Commission issues,” Magary says.

The downhill entrances, on Haight Street, get the crowds and the noise from the park playground. The uphill entrances are residential and serene. Put a fence around it and give homeowners who face it the key and you’d have all the elegance of a private park in Manhattan.

“It’s like a very big Gramercy Park but not quite as elite,” says Magary, laughing at the comparison. “Buena Vista Park is very heavily used, not only with recreation walkers but with dog walkers and everybody else.”

Friends of parks

San Francisco has more than 300 parks and more than 100 volunteer groups that support them.

New city parks, under the jurisdiction of the Recreation and Park Department, and street parks, under the Department of Public Works, are opening all the time. One is sprouting up even now, an updo of a parking lot into Noe Valley Town Square, which already has a booster group waiting to take care of it.

Here are some of the other groups that deal specifically and only with keeping up their neighborhood parks. To join one of these “Friends of” groups and to find more of them, go to www.sfparksalliance.org, or call (415) 621-3260.

— Buena Vista Neighborhood Association

— Huntington Park Playground

— Lincoln Park Steps

— Sutro Stewards

— Hidden Garden Steps

— Kezar Triangle

— Lafayette Park

— Larsen Playground

— Mountain Lake Park

— Pennsylvania Gardens

— Progress Park

— South Park

— Upper Douglass Dog Park

— Waterfront Playground

— Park Presidio Neighbors

Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail:swhiting@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @samwhitingsf