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Douglass Is Our Only Park With 'Forest', But the City Will Sacrifice a Few Trees to Keep It Safe
By Richard Dodds
With all the attention Golden Gate Park has been getting in recent weeks, it's easy to forget that San Francisco has dozens of parks in need of tender loving care. Noe Valley has three: Douglass Park and Playground, Noe Courts on 24th Street, and Day Street Park within Upper Noe Recreation Center.
Though our parks are tiny compared to the expanses of Golden Gate Park, they are more convenient for neighborhood residents. People visit them daily -- to play with their kids and dogs, jog around a field, or just sit on a bench and enjoy nature. And while the problems in Noe are small compared to the crises afflicting the "jewel in the crown," residents want to make sure their local gems stay as green and shiny as possible.
This month, the Voice takes a look at Douglass Park, which -- thanks to its size, geography, and arbors -- comes the closest of the Noe Valley trio to being a real urban oasis. The 10-1/2-acre park, tucked around an old rock quarry that provides a border with Diamond Heights, covers two city blocks and extends west of Douglass Street from 26th to 27th streets.
In the lower half, known as Douglass Playground, there's a lawn and picnic area, a children's playground, a recreation room, a tennis court, and a basketball court. On the upper level, Douglass Park has a large open field and baseball diamond, a jogging path, and a hiking trail that doubles as one of the city's official dog runs. Both sections of the park are fringed by forest, adding to their appeal.
Unfortunately, some of that forest, at least in the lower part of the park, will soon be reduced. Nine of the largest trees near the children's playground have been painted with a yellow stripe -- a sentence of death from the Urban Forestry Division of the Recreation and Park Department. Within a few weeks, Urban Forestry crews will arrive to cut down this collection of pine, eucalyptus, and cypress trees, some of which are more than 100 feet tall.
According to Urban Forester Dan McKenna, it's a safety issue, which became obvious when a large tree fell last February in an area where children had been playing minutes before. Since then, every tree in the park has been assessed and assigned a hazard rating, with nine failing to meet safety standards.
Much of the problem stems from the thin soil base in the old quarry, acquired by the city for a park in 1926. "These trees are basically growing on rock," McKenna said. "So we are not going to be planting any new trees that could turn into a problem 40 years down the road."
But on a recent Sunday, the playground was in full swing, with even the massive stump of the fallen giant providing two kids with a fortress in which to briefly escape their parents' gaze. On the tennis court, some beginners were swatting earnestly, while on the adjacent basketball court a solo dribbler was practicing his layups. The toddlers were playing tag in the sandbox. A couple of older kids had worked their way up a nearby cliff and were busy digging a hole. Parents were sprinkled casually about, with the sylvan setting providing a cloak of security. A mother quietly nursed her baby at a picnic table. Off to the side, on a grassy field, parents and children were arriving with gifts for one of several birthdays being celebrated in the park that day. One father arrived toting a barbecue.
On weekdays, there is a more organized energy at play. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, the park offers a Tiny Tots program of activities for small children. In the afternoons, kids up to age 12 are invited to drop by for the after-school latchkey program. Both programs are usually operating at capacity, but there is still a sense of discovery for many who find their way to Douglass Playground.
"Can he play in here?" a mother asked playground director Steve Bell, as her little boy eyed the books and toys Bell had spread out in the clubhouse. Of course, came the answer. "What IS this place?" the mother asked next.
Soon another mother arrived asking if the clubhouse could be rented for her daughter's upcoming birthday. "I saw all the balloons when I drove past here on Sunday, so I thought I'd just come by and ask," she said. Bell found an open weekend date for her, and she burst into a smile. "I'm so excited," she said.
Bell has been with the Park Department for 10 years and has been director at Douglass for close to three years. He appears to like his job, and one mother whispered to a reporter, "He's really good."
"A lot of nice people come up here with their kids," Bell said. "And I think it's a great site, safe and clean."
The playground and the few-frills clubhouse do indeed appear tidy. An inspection of the men's room disclosed a usable facility, stocked with towels and toilet paper, although some vulgar graffiti had been scrawled across a wall. The restrooms are only open when a director is on duty (9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays), so vandalism is comparatively rare.
"That graffiti is a big deal," said weekend director Jill Ramsey. "We take it very seriously." She said she was a little upset that it might have occurred on her watch.
A climb up the steep hill at the rear of the playground does show some signs of unwanted activities. Beer bottles and empty food wrappers are scattered about. The park stays open until 10 p.m., and even after that the gates are not locked. There are occasionally homeless people who camp out overnight, Bell said. "But I've never seen more than one person at a time sleep here, and they are always gone by morning."
Even though they live closer to other playgrounds, several parents said they preferred making the trip to Douglass, which has easy street parking. Cathy Neto, sitting on a blanket while her 6-year-old twins played, lives near Upper Noe Recreation Center on Day Street. "Down there, they are always sweeping up broken glass," she said, "and always trying to keep up with the graffiti. It's clean here, and I've never seen any drugs."
Gabriel Grenot now lives in Portrero Hill, but he still brings his son to Doug-lass Park. "This is my favorite park for my boy and his friend," he said. "They like that they can climb up the mountain. They call it a big-boy park. We use Dolores Park sometimes, but they have a lot of drug dealers there. It's kinda scary."
While dogs are not allowed in the playground area, the attitude is tolerant in the park's upper level, reached from 27th Street. The land surrounding the baseball diamond has become a popular off-leash area, especially since free-range canines were banished from Noe Courts (see July/August 1997 Voice).
But to be strictly legal, off-leash dogs and their owners must head up to the woodsy, ill-defined paths along the old quarry's upper edge. Once there, they're often disappointed by the condition of the trails. Dogs bounding down one path immediately run into thick underbrush and a disturbing "Private Property" sign in the back yard of a Diamond Heights apartment complex. Then, on the return trip, they cross an equally rugged terrain and a series of "Hazardous Cliffs -- Stay Back" signs, posted on a chain-link fence in various states of disrepair. There were no dogs or their owners to be seen in this sanctioned area on a pleasant Sunday.
"I've never even gone up there," said Noe Valley resident Rick Kreisman, who had brought his dog Otto to the baseball field for some exercise. "I've heard it wasn't so great, and it looks like it would be unsafe after dark." Kreisman has been coming to Douglass Park since he and Otto "got shoved out of the other place," and he has found that "everyone seems to co-exist here."
The baseball field is used for various city leagues, and is often informally pressed into service by soccer moms and dads. The restrooms servicing this area, however, are out of service and covered with graffiti. Even the Recreation and Park Department's official web site refers to the bathroom facility as "abandoned." The upper level of Douglass Park is largely secluded and free of supervision -- which may help explain why the body of a murder victim was dumped there two years ago.
But down on the playground level, residents along Douglass Street help keep an eye on the park after hours. And in the daytime, the volume of parents and kids seems to serve as a deterrent to those who don't play nice. In fact, when Rec and Park saw how many kids were using the park during the day, it brought Bell in as a full-time director -- further enhancing the playground's desirability.
In the near future, Bell said, improving the safety of the playground equipment will be a top priority. Down the road, an evening teen program is being considered, and there has been talk of enlarging the clubhouse and making it available as an adult community center.
As for creature comforts, money is tight, but Bell pointed to a couple of picnic tables that were recently added.
"And I'd like to get some big umbrellas we could put out to help give some shade when the sun is really bearing down," he said. "We want to make people feel at home. That's basically what it's all about."