Spots Unknown

Huge Ships, Tiny Ships, Polar Bears

San Francisco Maritime National Park

On Thursday, I attended the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association's 60th birthday bash. I'm a new member, and so I'm just beginning to learn about this little gem, and the maritime history of SF.

The park includes that bad-ass ship you see at Hyde Street Pier (in the photo at the bottom of this post), a submarine you can go into, and a museum in the art deco building at Aquatic Park with jaw-dropping ship models and other miniaturizations.

San Francisco Maritime National Park
The inside and outside of the Aquatic Park Bathhouse Building are covered with awesome WPA-era murals and mosaics.

Learn all about the association and the park here.

San Francisco Maritime National Park
Beware: Polar Bears often swim in adjacent Aquatic Park, so if you're sensitive to seeing half-naked old guys who like to maximize "shrinkage," look away - ooh, what a pretty ship!

Sweet Vintage Street Sweeper, circa 1950

Vintage Street Sweeper, San Francisco

This beauty of a machine is shown cleaning the street at Dolores Park, which apparently even back then was regularly trashed by hordes of Missionites. (If anyone knows the origins of this photograph please drop it in the comments so I can properly attribute. I found it here.)

You can buy a vintage ad for the Austin-Western "Model 40" on eBay (and, really, why not?):

Vintage Street Sweeper Ad, 1950

Here's the ad copy:

On any street, there are many things the operator of a sweeper has to watch, and with the model "40" he sees them all. Only with this sweeper does he have unobstructed view of everything around him. There are no "blind" spots for the man behind the wheel of a model "40."

Children don't always watch where they're going. Thanks to front steer and rear-mounted hopper, the model "40" operator can do the watching for them, because he sits in the natural place "up front" where he can see what's going on.

And there's another important angle... Not only can he operate Model "40" safely but efficiently as well, because it's the only sweeper with gutter brooms visible at all times.

Yes, for efficiency's sake as well as safety's sake... GET A MODEL "40."

Let the "hipster-proof" jokes commence...

Hazardous Cliffs Stay Back

Be sure to watch to the end for some sweet irony.

Feels Like Independence Day

I didn't see any fireworks over the weekend. Boo hoo.

But after watching this latest video by Daniel Jarvis, I feel like I can miss fireworks for the next three years.

Filmed at Dolores Park, 24th and Harrison, The Uptown, The Phone booth, Bernal Heights, and all over the roads of San Francisco.

Song is "Being a Teenager is Free Palestine" by The Downer Party.

Pulled From the Bay – An Angry Stingray

Clearly, the stingray is the star of this video, as it should be. The cruel, matter-of-fact way that the fisherman handles it doesn't seem to lessen its sinister awesomeness.

Perhaps it's a good symbol for this whole area of San Francisco.

This video covers Candlestick Point, Yosemite Slough, South Basin, and India Basin. Stay tuned as we explore the entirety of San Francisco's coastal edges in an ongoing series of vids.

The Stingray, San Francisco


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A Surreal Encounter Above Dolores Park (video)

I'm sure weirder things have happened at Dolores Park. But the weirdness combined with being four stories up on a bright, sunny day, really pushes this encounter into the red.

I was at home being all Sundayzee and thought about ignoring Daniel Jarvis' call at first, but then answered...

Jarvis: Dude, crazy dancing chicks on a rooftop! Bring your camera!
Me: I was gonna take a nap.
Jarvis: I said crazy dancing chicks on a rooftop! You're two blocks away! Let's go up there! With the camera!
Me: How do you know they even want us up there?
Jarvis (calling up to rooftop): Hey! Hey, down here! Can we come up and film you? We have a camera! Can we? (to me) They said we can go up there!
Me: Okay, Okay...

I think it was worth it.

UPDATE: The song is "Go Do" by Jonsi. Video shot and edited by Jarvis.

Victory of the Mad Viking: Brooks Park

Brooks Park, San Francisco

Not long ago it was a post-apocalyptic den of drug abuse, blood sport, and murder. Now, it has been re-made as a virtual Valhalla by The Mad Viking himself, Peter Vaernet, and is a tribute to the past figures who battled to make something noble out of the parcel of land atop Merced Heights.

Today, Brooks Park is a model for creative land stewardship, urban gardening, and community pride.

Peter Vaernet is a cyclone of positive energy, and has swept folks like gardener John Herbert into the storm. Together they've completed the park's dramatic adventure from its auspicious beginnings with the Brooks family in the 1930s, through its 1970s and 80s descent, to its glorious present rebound.

We took our camera into the fog to Brooks Park last weekend while they were building a temporary tomato greenhouse in the garden, and met Peter and John:

Victory of the Mad Viking, San Francisco from Spots Unknown on Vimeo.

More after the jump...

I Want to Go to There: Bayview Park

Bayview Park, Sutro Tower, San Francisco

With the mild renaissance of Candlestick Point Recreation Area, you'd think there would be more interest in the conspicuous hill that juts up from the far side of the football stadium. It's called Bayview Park (or Bayview Hill, alternatively), and it sacrificed its eastern slopes in the 1950s as fill on which to plant the arena.

It has suffered from neglect and harsh urbanization throughout its history, and it it's barely appreciated even now by San Francisco residents, despite its natural beauty and kickass vistas. But it is getting attention by some for its high diversity of native plant species, including coastal scrub, oak groves, and the largest population of rare Islais cherry trees around.

Bayview Park, Cityscape, San Francisco

There are also a number of area and migratory birds that frequent the hill; I spotted a big, fat Horned Owl when I went last weekend.

I also went off-trail a bit and discovered the ruins of a makeshift structure:

Bayview Park, Fort Ruins, San Francisco

I don't know if it was a kid's fort or a homeless encampment, but it was cool. I'm not gonna tell you exactly how to find it - because what fun would that be? - but if you decide to go looking, be sure to wear shoes with some tread.

For anyone who claims to be fan of SF's hilltops, this spot simply must be visited and explored.


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Golden Gate Park’s Rhododendron Dell

Golden Gate Park's Rhododendron Dell; photo by Matt Baume

Of all the ghosts haunting Golden Gate Park, the most frustrated might be John McLaren.

When McLaren died in 1943 at the age of 96, he'd served as Golden Gate Park superintendent for 52 years, during most of which he lived in the stately lodge at Stanyan and JFK. His was a life distinguished by a devotion to trees and a hatred of statuary - so how did they mark his passing? With a statue, of course.

You might've spotted it on a walk through Golden Gate Park. He's the short man gazing at a pinecone, not far from the weekend roller-skaters.

That statue is more than just a commemoration of McLaren's decades of work on the park, which was no more than a strip of sand dunes when first entrusted to his care in 1887. It also marks the entrance to the John McLaren Memorial Rhododendron Dell, which has been closed since mid-2009, only just re-opened this month.

Statue of Joh McLaren, Golden Gate Park; photo by Matt Baume

The revamped dell seems strangely empty at the moment, since most of the new plantings haven't had an opportunity to grow in yet. Over the summer, the beds will become much more lush.

Until then, it's still a lovely place to wander and get lost. Highlights include a winding staircase to a shaded mound with out-of-the-way benches, and various interesting narrow unpaved paths that lead up into the hillsides.

This facelift for the dell is just the latest upgrade in a difficult history. Created in the early 1950s, many species initially died. As more appropriate varieties of rhododendron were planted, the dell began to fill in - only to be decimated in the same 1996 storm that nearly destroyed the Conservatory of Flowers. Various rehabilitation projects have struggled to keep the dell healthy since then.

But it's not as easy as simply planting a bush in the ground. A number of factors work against the success of rhododendrons in Golden Gate Park: direct sun can burn the plants to death, while strong winds can inhibit the flow of nutrients.

A 1955 article in the Journal of the American Rhododendron Society adopts an exasperated tone when discussing the failed plantings in the dell:

All rhododendrons are not for all people. Reluctantly we are forced to agree with many who have tried before us that the R. griersonianum hybrids are not going to live up to their rating in the San Francisco Bay area. We refused to accept the judgment passed on them and worked up a large stock of many varieties. These were placed in every conceivable location and condition that we could provide. The results have been far from satisfactory.

The article goes on to describe the meticulous breeding of various colorfully-named Rhododendron cultivars, including the R. Van Nes Sensation, R. Fastuosum Flore-plenum, and R. Prof. Hugo De Vries.

Interestingly, one of the few species of rhododendron to thrive in the dell was a clone named R. John McLaren. The ARS article praises the species' "legginess."

Today, GGP gardeners are able to ensure healthy vegetation in the dell. Over the next few weeks, the one-time sand-dunes will fill in considerably with blooming rhododendrons - an utterly fitting tribute to the park's greatest steward.

Matt Baume is a San Francisco writer and photographer covering transit, ecology, and the science of cities.


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Skaters Do San Francisco New Jersey Style

We met these kids while exploring Fort Miley a couple weeks back, and although they are way too nice and friendly to behave like their Shore-lovin' brethren from the Tellievision - figuratively, they kind of Snookie-punched our fair town in the face.

This video has all the key ingredients of a superb skate reel: ballsy stunts/wipeouts, great tricks, sweet camera work, SF, and a puppy!

Hat's off to Joe Zevallos, Kenny DeVoe, Sean Cornetto, and Kevin Makwinski. Look us up next time you're in town, guys, we'd love to follow you around for a while.

The Resurrection of Yosemite Creek

Yosemite Marsh, McLaren Park, San Francisco; photo by Matt Baume

"Nothing in the world is more flexible and yielding than water. Yet when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it, because they have no way to change it." --Lao Tzu

There's something about San Francisco's bodies of water that people just can't resist. We abuse them, we bury them, we fill them in with rubble and toxins - and then finally when we realize the error of our ways, if we're lucky we can pull them back from the brink.

Consider Yosemite Creek, a small but crucial part of the city's watershed. The creek's entire trip, from McLaren Park to Bayview, takes place in aging underground pipes. But it may not always be that way: the Public Utilities Commission is exploring nifty new ways to "daylight" the creek, ranging from creating new parks to placing watery channels alongside city streets.

The Marsh

Poor McLaren Park. It has a name, but sometimes it seems to lack an identity. Way out in the Excelsior - or is it Portola? - it boasts a head-spinning array of amenities: tennis and basketball courts, a pool, dog run areas galore, barbecue pits and an amphitheater, woodsy trails, and possibly soon a disc-golf course.

But among the Park's distinguishing features, a spot called Yosemite Marsh may be the most unique. Unlike two nearby asphalt-contained bodies of water - one a reservoir, the other McNab Lake - Yosemite Marsh is a naturally-occurring wetland.

You could be forgiven for walking right by without noticing it. It's small, and hidden by a thicket of trees. A wooden footbridge crosses through the thicket, spanning a thin gully. Nearby, and for no discernable reason, a concrete sculpture of a dolphin sits across from an always-empty park bench.

At this time of year, the creek is nearly completely dry; but during the rainy season, a steady stream of water emerges from the hillside to feed the marsh. The marsh, in turn, provides habitat to herons, quail, ducks, bullfrogs, lizards, and (thrillingly) wrentits.

Formerly a bit run-down, the Marsh enjoyed an extreme makeover in 2006 [PDF]. The most prominent upgrades are a nice footpath and seating, but there are more infrastructural improvements under the hood: erosion control, enlarged banks, and enhanced wetland plantings, thanks to a $150,000 grant and $150,000 in Rec & Park Department Funds. With riparian rehab projects such as this, it can take five to ten years for plants to mature; the hillside above the marsh still looks a bit scraggly, but you can definitely see where it's growing in.

Hal Phillips put together this very "electric" edit of footage we shot recently at the marsh:

There's still lots of work to be done elsewhere in the park. McLaren is currently in the running for a $30,000 grant from Sears (yes, Sears) to improve a particularly unkempt northern entrance to the park.

Of course, the marsh isn't the only moisture in the area. Various trickles of water can be found throughout the park. (And in fact, I carelessly stepped into one up to my ankle when I visited after a rainstorm.) Why is McLaren so wet? Bedrock. Soil is slow to discharge moisture, so water tends to hang around a bit.

And when the water finally does trickle out of the park, it has quite a trip ahead of it. From McLaren, it winds its way underground past University Mound Reservoir under Portola and the Phillip Burton Academic School, under the 101 and the 3rd Street light rail, and then finally aligning itself with Yosemite Ave - its namesake - before emptying into the South Basin in an area known as Yosemite Slough.

The Slough

Yosemite Slough, San Francisco; photo by Spots Unknown

The most complicated step in Yosemite Creek's journey lies at the very end, in Yosemite Slough. It's a highly sensitive ecological area, decimated by decades of heavy industry. But there's reason for hope: a massive environmental restoration is underway [PDF], featuring the planting of thousands of native species, soil remediation, and habitat construction.

But it is only hope at this point. As the video below shows, the area is currently an industrial dumping area. (The song is "33" by David Molina's Ghosts and Strings.)

It's not exactly an easy spot to access, and lord knows it's toxic in several different ways; we've done the exploring so you don't have to.

The Slough is part of Candlestick Point State Recreation Area, which in general is well worth a visit. Don't let the unseemly history scare you off. Yes, legend has it that it got its name because of all the burning abandoned ships nearby. And yes, for years it was used as a landfill. Okay, and the Navy didn't exactly take great care of it during WWII.

But! You can't beat that view. And apparently the birds agree: there's no better place in San Francisco for spotting herons, loons, egrets, and avocet than nearby Heron's Head Park. Environmental cleanup - much of it led by students - is gradually turning the area from a garbade dump to prime real estate.

With Yosemite Marsh stronger than ever, Yosemite Slough on the mend, and Yosemite Creek facing a new lease on life, there's never been a better time to thank San Francisco's watershed for sticking with us through thick and thin.

Matt Baume is a San Francisco writer and photographer covering transit, ecology, and the science of cities.


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Original Video: Pre-Summer Sunday in Dolores Park

Pre-Summer Sunday in Dolores Park from Spots Unknown on Vimeo.

Unknown? Admittedly, hard to make that case.

I mean, I could weave a clumsy tapestry of ugly logic suggesting that, even in spots that are "familiar," elements of those spots can still reveal themselves - how much is truly "known" of any spot? And when you're at Dolores Park, do you have any clue what's happening a few hundred feet away?

Furthermore, time changes everything. Maybe we're documenting DP for future times, after The Big One, when the park will have long become a memorial to those brave hipsters who tumbled into a fiery chasm while texting or shotgunning beers. "In Your wisdom, Lord, You took them... So say we All..."

But, to be honest, this is red meat and we know it.

Shot last Sunday, May 2nd, this video is the first collaboration between myself and hotshot local video dude, Daniel Jarvis. Daniel was featured around the blogs a while back for his stunning footage of Dia de los Muertos. Give him some love:

Document Document
Welcome to the Stage

We're going to be producing a series of video pieces providing off-angle views onto the spots we cover, so stay tuned here, or follow our Twitter and Vimeo feeds.

The music in this video is "You Hid" by Toro y Moi.

The Battle for Edgehill Mountain

Edgehill Mountain, San Francisco

It's wedged between Mount Davidson and Forest Hill, and it offers some amazing vistas and a thriving natural area, but you won't find Edgehill Mountain or its open space labeled on any official maps. Yet.

Because it's San Francisco, there is of course an epic clash between good and evil unfolding on this obscure, scenic bump in the topography. Land developers vs. stewards, citizens vs. city officials, native vs. invasive plants - and stuck in the middle, a humble little hillside that just wants to be who it was meant to be.

Large homes - many of them owned by Italian land magnate Angelo Sangiacomo - are densely-packed right up to the summit, but the south side is too steep. This fact was demonstrated several times in the past when large portions of the hill turned to mud and slid away. In the '50s a house was taken out entirely, and in 1997 mud crashed into some unfinished homes.

The city refuses to maintain Edgehill Way, the single-lane road that circles the crest. A patchwork of filled potholes and an abundance of foliage make it feel like a country road in the middle of the city. The lookout facing south at Mount Davidson is quite special:

Edgehill Mountain Lookout, San Francisco

On a clear day you can see the ocean from the park.

Edgehill is easily accessible from the Forest Hill and West Portal Muni stations. Check the Spots Map for exact location, and then visit. Go on a second Saturday for a work party and help local resident Stan Kaufman, president of the Friends of Edgehill Mountain Park, and Randy Zebell of SF Rec & Parks fight the good fight against non-native weeds.

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Let’s Vex Us Some Coyotes!

O'Shaugnessy Hollow, San Francisco

"Maybe they need to be tased."

Ralph Montana was referring to people who let their dogs run off-leash in San Francisco's coyote zones. I'm pretty sure he was joking. (More after the jump...)

Dorothy Erskine Park Exists

Dorothy Erskine Park Exists, San Francisco

If you've ever walked up Bosworth from the Glen Park BART station, you've probably glanced at the little cliffside pictured above. You see that strip of greenery on top? It marks the edge of one of the city's lesser-known parks, named after an early advocate of open urban spaces.


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The number one reason to peel off on your way to Glen Canyon Park, or slip over from the Sunnyside Conservatory and visit this little perch is for the South-facing view at the top amidst the charming miniature forest.

Coming in a close second, is bragging rights. I guarantee less than one percent of your local friends have ever heard of it. (My friend Steve gave me his Erskine "virginity" there on Saturday, and he lives just a few streets over.)

Oh, and there's a tire swing:

Tire Swing, Dorothy Erskine Park, San Francisco

Name That Spot

Name That Spot, water tower of McLaren Park, San Francisco

So, it's pretty obvious what the subject of this photo is. But can you guess where I shot it from? Do it in the comments. (Hi-res version)

UPDATE: This was maybe a bit unfair since it was taken from a spot that's not a landmark of any kind. The fence that frames it runs along the South side of Monterey and I was, of course, facing South.


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Hillapalooza – an Urban Hike

Hillapalooza, Twin Peaks, San Francisco

If you've got half a day some weekend or holiday, and you like a moderately challenging hike, this easily-accessed, 4.5-mile route with a 900 ft. elevation means you don't have to leave the city of San Francisco. Details after the jump...

Spot the Urban Coyote

Urban Coyote, San Francisco
Urban Coyote close up, San Francisco

I don't usually have a need for a telephoto lens, but on Saturday while hiking across some of San Francisco's biggest hilltops, I spotted a coyote in a park. It made me think more seriously about moving beyond my digital point and shoot camera, to SLR, with at least one good telephoto lens.

So, with tax refund season upon us, I guess I'm in the market for a <$1k rig. I've been looking at the Canon T1i and the Nikon D5000. Anyone have opinions on one or both of these? Are there other competitors in this class I should be tracking? Let me have it in the comments.

“Playland at the Beach” Documentary Premier

Playland at the Beach

This now-extinct amusement park at Ocean Beach was established in the 1880s and dismantled in 1972. It has a rich, weird history. Rick Prelinger unveiled some great amateur footage in his latest Lost Landscapes screening in December.

On March 16th, the Balboa Theater will premier a full-length documentary about the park by Tom Wyrsch.

Gone now for more than 3 decades, it remains one of the city’s lost treasures. Go back in time to see Laffing Sal, the Fun House, the Carousel, the Big Dipper, the Diving Bell, Dark Mystery, Limbo, Fun-tier Town, and much, much more, all through the eyes of the people that were there. The first and only documentary ever made about Playland.

Playland Documentary, San Francisco

(Spotted @SF_Explorers)

Parkour in the Park

Parkour in the Park, San Francisco

YouTube parkour practitioner, NoSolePK, runs, leaps and spins Hobbit-style through George Christopher Playground in Diamond Heights.

Also, SF Parkour seems to be training a scary army of monkey/human hybrids:

Keep in mind, videos like the ones above are carefully edited to look awesome. For a little balance, see this. (But be warned: it's rough viewing.)

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