By Neal J. Riley, SF Chronicle
It was almost impossible to hear a Recreation and Park Department official call Cayuga Playground a “hidden treasure” because he had to shout over the roar of a train passing overhead.
Many of the city’s open spaces have claimed that cliche, but there’s no doubt that the Outer Mission oasis is one of the most unusual San Francisco parks. Not only is it next to Interstate 280 and the BART tracks that loom above, but it is famous for a collection of hundreds of hand-carved wooden sculptures that attract visitors from around the globe.
After being closed since December 2011 for a $9.4 million renovation, the 63-year-old playground will host a grand reopening celebration at 11 a.m. Saturday. On Thursday, workers at the 3.89-acre site were putting the finishing touches on a new 2,500-square-foot clubhouse, an upgraded children’s play area and refurbished basketball and tennis courts.
“We’ve kept the character, but we modernized it,” project manager Marvin Yee said. “It feels like you’re walking in someone’s garden.”
About $7.3 million is paid for by the 2008 voter-approved parks bond, $711,000 from a state urban greening grant and $1.36 million from BART’s Earthquake Safety Program Impact Compensation.
The playground’s old clubhouse had fallen into disrepair before the renovation, vandalism had increased and the baseball field was usable for only about three months of the year because of irrigation problems from the creek that runs beneath the park. On one occasion, a lawnmower got stuck and had to be pulled out of the swampy field.
But those problems were nothing compared to the state of the park prior to the mid-1980s, Cayuga Improvement Association President Barbara Fugate said. Back then, it was an ugly and depressing place that neighbors rarely visited because it was known to attract gang activity, she said.
“This was a park you didn’t come to without a group of friends or two big dogs,” Fugate said. “It was scary.”
That all changed when gardener Demetrio Braceros was assigned to care for the park in 1986. Known as Demi to everyone in the neighborhood, Braceros started creating his wooden folk art after a storm felled two tall trees in the park.
“What I saw was darkness,” Braceros said in 2000. “It challenged me. My duty is to make it beautiful.”
During renovations, the San Francisco Arts Commission took inventory of 376 wooden sculptures found in the park, almost all made from tree stumps native to the site. About one-third were determined to be in good condition and given new protective coatings, and some will be put in display cases in the clubhouses. Another third in fair condition are being kept in storage for now, while the remainder, in poor condition, were left where they were.
“His idea was that the wood sculptures wouldn’t last forever and would decompose over time,” Yee said.
The sculptures include a person holding the Book of Knowledge, an elephant and other fantastical creatures.
Chris Dillon, former Cayuga Improvement Association president, said it wasn’t just the carvings that revitalized the park, it was also Braceros’ tireless commitment to gardening.
“It changed our whole neighborhood; it was a ripple effect,” said Dillon, who has five Christmas trees in the park that were replanted by Braceros, who retired in 2008. “We weren’t an open community, but now we are.”
And though a few speeches may be interrupted by BART rumbling by on Saturday, Dillon said park patrons don’t seem to mind, and there’s a long tradition of waving to the trains rolling through.
“After a while, BART falls into the background because of the magic of the park,” she said.
“Either that,” Fugate said, “or you do a primal scream because nobody can hear you.”
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