Every day at sundown I head to South Park, my neighborhood park, and sit in the spot where Cate Blanchett had a mental breakdown in Blue Jasmine. It’s fitting because, like Cate’s character, my mind is also nearing a stage of deterioration brought on by fear and daily isolation. And it’s even more fitting because the location is in front of the South Park Cafe building where one of the first San Francisco cases of COVID-19 was discovered. The perfect park to sum up San Francisco 2020.
Established in the 1850s, and ravaged by the fire following the 1906 earthquake, the .85-acre park, bounded by Second, Third, Bryant, and Brannan streets, was reborn during the tech boom of the late 1990s, and most recently underwent a complete renovation in 2017. The little oval park—and the eponymous neighborhood that surrounds it—has seen a lot of change, from hosting nightly bonfires for out-of-work longshoremen in the 1930s to today’s iteration as a flora-strewn space ideal for dog walking and calming strolls.
As the city’s oldest park, South Park has a rich and thrilling past, which includes playing host to the inception of the world’s most addictive social media platform and setting the stage for an Oscar-winning performance.
Below, a brief history of one of San Francisco’s best—and most underrated—public parks.
1852: British sugar and iron magnate George Gordon purchased the lots surrounding the block, and laid out a plan modeled after the squares of London. Megamansions of the city’s ultra-elite surrounded the park, which was only accessible to residents with a key. A Dutch windmill sat in the middle of the park, pumping water for area residents. (Bring back the Dutch windmill!) The pamphlet Gordon published in 1854 described his plans, The Prospectus of South Park, noting his intention to “lay out ornamental grounds and building lots on the plan of the London squares, ovals or crescents, or of St. John’s Park or Union Square in New York City—and equally elegant.”
1854–1869: The tony days of South Park, when it was a fashionable neighborhood for the rich and famous.
1869: Following the Second Street cut, wherein the incline on Second Street was leveled flat to allow easier access for pedestrians and a less taxing route for horses, the area became more reachable to the working class. With the influx of a new socioeconomic group, the park’s cachet faded among the city’s finicky wealthy.
1897: San Francisco bought the site and established it as a public park. After 45 years, South Park was no longer under lock and key. Behold.
1906: Now firmly established as a working-class area, the neighborhood saw its brick town houses obliterated following the 1906 earthquake and fire. The oval park, unaffected by the tremor, turned into a refugee camp site. Trees in the park are cut down to make space for the camp. The neighborhood was later rebuilt as warehouses, light manufacturing, nightclubs, and hotels, according to a history by the Neighborhood Parks Council.
1906-1930s: South Park becomes popular with Japanese immigrants who operate four residential hotels in the small neighborhood: the Eimoto Hotel at 22–24 South Park Street, the Kumamoto Hotel (no longer extant), the Bo Chow Hotel at 102 South Park Street, and the Hotel Omiya at 104–106 South Park Street.
1921: Filipino merchant marines purchase the three-story building at 104–106 South Park Street for $6,000. The group christened the building the Gran Oriente Filipino Hotel in honor of their fraternity in the Philippines. The building—and its “Gran Oriente Filipino Hotel” signage on the front gate—can still be seen today.
1930s: The park became a meeting spot for immigrants and longshoremen to hear word about possible work from the nearby Sailors Union Hall. As the Neighborhood Parks Council recalls: “To warm themselves while waiting for calls from the Union Hall, they built a bonfire in the middle of the park. Noxiously, it burned for the next 40 years, furthering the park’s decline into a dangerous slum abandoned by city planners. It was fed with construction refuse, neighborhood garbage and junk and the park became a gathering place for drug addicts and the mentally ill. The city provided them with wood so that they wouldn’t demolish historic buildings for fuel.”
1970s: Due to the low rent, architects, artists, designers, and photographers moved in and helped turn the park around by forming the South Park Improvement Association.
1980s: The park turned into a mixed-use residential and commercial area with restaurants, businesses, and retail shops.
1990s: The first dot-com explosion (hello, Kozmo) ignites in the city, taking the South Park neighborhood with it. During this time, South Park became “the cultural hub of San Francisco’s trendy interactive media district,” according to a 1998 New York Times article.
2004: Rent, the terrible film version of a great stage musical about a gaggle of Bohemians in New York City’s East Village, filmed in San Francisco, using South Park for exterior shots. The park was briefly covered with fake snow and early-’90s cars to complete its transformation into a NYC neighborhood.
2006: South Park, now made up of two large lawns surrounding a small sandpit and a 1970s-era wooden playground, is where Jack Dorsey first mentioned the idea of Twitter to Biz Stone, one of four other cofounders of the social media titan.
“On that playground right up there is where I first brought up the idea,” Dorsey explained to CNBC for its Twitter Revolution documentary. “And then we brought it back to the company [Odeo] and demoed it. We wanted to see everything that was happening. Not just where people were but what they were doing. I wanted to be able to see the world in real time.” (At the time, Dorsey wanted to call his newfangled company “Stat.us,” a name that, mercifully, never stuck).
Twitter opened its first office at 164 South Park Avenue in San Francisco, in a space “where the only sources of natural light were the two skylights and small-block glass windows.” It’s now the office of venture capital fund Innov8. Twitter also opened a larger office nearby at 539 Bryant Street, one block away from South Park.
2007-2013: Arguably more important, that rickety playground also played a key role in my life: After having one too many nightly whiskeys at Orson (RIP) or early-aughts hot spot Nova (now Lord George, in honor of the aforementioned developer of South Park), I routinely slumped onto one of the playground swings and rocked back and forth until I was ready to fall asleep, waddle to an after party, or vomit on the grass.
2012: Blue Jasmine, staring Cate Blanchett, films in San Francisco. Her character’s finale, wherein she has a mental snap following a series of unfortunate events, takes place on a bench in the park. Behind her you can see the storefront of South Park Cafe, one of the park’s most popular restaurants. Blanchett would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her stellar performance.
2017: After shutting down for nearly one year, the park revealed its $3.8-million renovation. Comprehensive infrastructural and cosmetic upgrades include a new ADA-compliant recreational area. Reimagined by Fletcher Studio, South Park now features new grass, circular steel tables, swooping meadows, and a curving cement walkway. The addition of a custom universal play area with undulating forms, both in structure and in the mounded surface, punctuate the green space.
The six new benches, designed by Yves Behar, also feature armrests that double as laptop holders and no obstructions in the seating area, meaning that one could stretch out for a nap. This is a radical departure to the “anti-homeless” design found throughout the city. San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic John King rightfully fawned over the remodel, calling South Park “one of San Francisco’s most satisfying public spaces.”
During the spring months, the park comes alive with blooming flowers in shades of yellow, blue, red, and white. The only part of the original South Park that remains are its characteristic rounded curbs.
2020, March: South Park Cafe, the park restaurant run by the corporate-card startup Brex, shuts down after a Brex employee tests positive for coronavirus in early March. It’s one of the first reported cases of the virus in the city.
2020, May: Today the park is where many local residents gather to walk their dogs, soak up some vitamin D, or ponder the meaning of life in the face of a global pandemic. And until shelter-in-place orders are lifted and life returns to whatever version of normalcy awaits, the pretty yet petite park is also the star of my Instagram.