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Victory of the Mad Viking: Brooks Park

  |   History, Parks, Politics, Spots Explored, Urban Wildlife, Video   |   2 Comments

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…

Here are excerpts from Woody Labounty’s full history of the park:

Certainly the Ohlone Indians who camped along Lake Merced’s shores took in the ocean breezes from this same hill…

One hundred years ago, the Merced Heights ridgeline appeared almost bald. The grasses and low plants amidst the rocky outcrops seasonally shifted, like on most California hills, from green to brown…

In the 1910s and 1920s streets and sidewalks followed the train and streetcar lines west and south, and the larger developments began encroaching on what locals called “Pansy Hill”, “Poppy Hill” or “Kite Hill”…

In 1936, Jesse and Helen Brooks bought the peak of the far western hilltop “because it was out in the country…

Helen Brooks recognized the beauty and usefulness of the native plants and to these she added flowers, a vegetable garden, trees, and a bee hive. She recycled and composted years before most people knew those words existed. She taught local kids gardening and offered her “spare” plants and flowers to any community event that asked for them. In the house she had a loom and made her children’s clothing…

In the mid-1960s, Helen and Jesse decided to retire to a more rural setting on the Peninsula, and explored selling the house and land, which amounted to some 14 city lots. The City of San Francisco became interested in having the magnificent plot as a public park, and the Brooks were initially very excited about the idea. Neighborhood groups became thrilled that the home could be a community center and Helen’s gardens a recreational spot and learning lab for children at Jose Ortega Elementary School next door. Helen was particularly hopeful that her gardens would live on, rather than being paved over for development.

The Brooks’ enthusiasm soured as the city reneged on its initial price and bid far below other offers and independent appraisals. After some threats to take the land by eminent domain, the city forced the Brooks’ hand and purchased its newest park for $70,000 in 1966…

As most of the community fought to make Brooks Park a welcoming garden spot for families and neighbors, some other part wanted it to remain a ground for crime and violence…

The 1980s brought crack cocaine, and Brooks Park became a haven for drug dealing. At least two bodies were dumped up on the hill until the old driveway was blocked off. In the early 1990s came the new “sport” of illegal pit bull fighting. Neighbors saw the shadowy figures leading the animals into the park at night, and in the morning often found the carcasses of losing dogs. Seriously wounded pit bulls, bred to be aggressive and dangerous, wandered bleeding around the streets.

These days there is a multitude of programs for area schoolchildren to learn about things like native plants, urban gardening, and mindfulness.

And it’s not there only for area kids – Peter encourages everyone to visit and use the park’s picnic areas, sweeping vistas, and nature paths. And for those with the motivation, they always need volunteers to keep things maintained.


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