Fans of McLaren Park, the 317 acres of open space spilled across a ridgeline in southeast San Francisco, often use the words “potential” and “future.”
The problem is, this has been the case for generations. So when boosters tout the virtues of a park that not long ago was known within the city primarily for crime, they realize that not everyone shares their faith.
“There are a lot of people in my neighborhood who don’t use it, and a lot who use it all the time,” said Tom Scott, who moved nearby in 2007. “I love it, and I’m still discovering things – but I heard all those same things when I moved here, ‘It’s scary, don’t go in alone.’ ”
The park’s contours loom on the west as drivers enter San Francisco on Highway 101. Above the modest houses at the base are grassy slopes, trees and such occasional structures as a 30-foot-high concrete elevation tower built in the early 1980s with federal funds. There’s also a gaunt amphitheater from a decade earlier, tucked into an eastern slope protected from afternoon winds.
The tower has been padlocked for at least 15 years, neighbors say. The amphitheater still functions, but without the lighting and sound system that was part of the original project.
These days, the emphasis isn’t a push for structures that politicians can announce with fanfare. The idea is to pull in as many types of people as possible with lures that will make them want to return.
There are nature and photography walks. Repaved tennis courts host after-school programs, and a rebuilt playground is set to open next month. A community garden near Visitacion Valley is being revived after years of neglect.
There’s also Philosopher’s Way, a 2.7-mile loop of trails with 14 “musing stations” that opened in December. Completed last winter, the stations include stories from longtime residents as well as quotes from the likes of author Wendell Berry.
The loop, paid for by arts funds from a water tank upgrade but helped along by volunteers, last week brought Kadri Jugandi south from her home near Duboce Park. With her were two friends and her 3-month-old.
“It’s beautiful, gorgeous. I never realized what was here,” said Jugandi, who moved to San Francisco five years ago from Estonia.
She read about Philosopher’s Way in Sunset Magazine – not the sort of publication that, in the past, took notice of a park that always has seemed on the verge, but never really arrived.
“The dream of John McLaren has almost hardened into reality,” proclaimed The Chronicle when it visited the scene for its Hills of San Francisco series in 1958. While the “unspoiled Alpine joy” would remain, the paper’s verdict after reviewing various investments was that “more than all the hills, it dwells in the future.”
That future proved not to be so radiant.
“McLaren Park: great potential, much trash,” was the headline of a 1981 Examiner article.
It described lawns where squares of sod had been stolen, side streets lined by furniture and car parts, and crime statistics for the prior year that included two murders, six rapes and 18 stolen automobiles.
When Chuck Farrugia heard these figures this week, he wasn’t surprised.
Now 45, he grew up in the neighboring Portola district and recalls walking his dog as a boy and coming across a dead body (like others, it had been delivered to the park in that condition). He’d see burned-out cars and scars left by joy-riding motorcyclists.
But Farrugia also relished access to the wide open spaces, adventures of all sorts.
“You could climb a tree, ride bikes on the trails, capture snakes – it was like a forest,” Farrugia said. “It was a great place to hide, and kids like to hide.”
He became a firefighter and bought a home near his parents. As childhood friends headed to the suburbs, he found himself taking on the role of activist.
“We were hearing gunfire in the park – that was new for me,” he explained. “Families were leaving in droves, or figuring that nothing would change.”
His group Help McLaren Park was founded in 2007, after neighbors realized that the next parks bond included no funds for the second-largest park in San Francisco. When a subsequent parks bond went on the ballot in 2012, it included $12 million for McLaren Park.
Spending the money will be easy. Farrugia remembers five playgrounds on the north side of the park. Now there’s one. The waters of McNab Lake regularly darken with algae and silt because the reclaimed former marsh was designed poorly in the 1960s. There are few sidewalks.
There also are the realities of a park that’s difficult for outsiders to reach, split by a roadway, Mansell Street, which was designed to lead to a freeway that was never built. Illegal dumping is still a problem.
The residents of the Sunnydale housing project on the southern slopes have little access to any park amenities except the nine-hole golf course, not the most logical fit.
Even so, “for this corner of the city, it’s our Golden Gate Park. It has such potential,” saidLinda Litehiser. She moved nearby in 1999, after living in the city for 30 years, and got to know a park she had never before entered.
Everyone has different reasons for visiting. Scott, who designed the signs now at several park entrances, savors the wildness. Litehiser helped form Friends of the Amp, which has lined up free concerts in the amphitheater.
This weekend, for the first time, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival will bring the Bard’s work to the park.
The play is “Macbeth,” with 2 p.m. shows on Saturday and Sunday. For McLaren Park, a drama of a different sort.
More information on activities and initiatives at McLaren Park is athttp://mclarenparksf.org/.
About the series
The Chronicle is retracing the steps of its 1958 “Hills of San Francisco” series. Each Wednesday, Urban Design Critic John King explores what individual peaks reveal about today’s city. Find more images, an interactive map and previous installments in the Urban Landscapes blog at www.sfgate.com.