Noe Valley Voice February 2005

Winter Light: Walking Around Dolores Park

By Stephen Vincent

On a winter Sunday afternoon, the fresh sunlight cuts in at an angle, a bright shorn interface against the painted wood Victorians, the wet peach and beige stucco Spanish-Moorish architecture, the rain-scrubbed sidewalks. The park's palm trees, their fan-shaped fronds, make louver-patterned shadows--pushed open and shut in the winter breeze--to offer illuminated saw-toothed laths of light that scale downward across the eastern slope's shiny green grass.

Kenneth Rexroth, the late poet, once said--and I think rightly--that San Francisco was not a city of weather, but a "city of light." It's not that we do not have variations in the weather, but that it is light that defines the way we look at the city--from morning to night, season to season. The angle of light defines and redefines architecture--its shapes and colors, and equally well, the temperament of the day, the energy, the intimacy, or distance between its citizens: a variation from the ecstatic and sublime to the remorseful and flat. It's a quality that alters from neighborhood to neighborhood and is as factual as what may be grown in the summer across the city's seven-mile expanse, from the Embarcadero along the Bay to the edge of the Pacific. Gold to green: corn on Potrero Hill, Brussels sprouts in the Richmond and the Sunset.

At the top of the park, looking down from the corner of Church and 20th, is arguably one of the most splendid views toward downtown, extending northeast across the Bay to Berkeley, or, split by the gray suspended towers of the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island, east to the Oakland hills to the bluish top of Mount Diablo in the far distance. And yet, there is the park, its slopes dipping radically down from the 20th Street sidewalk, first to the plateau for sunbathers and dog walkers, and again down to the tai chi teacher and her five students making geometric gestures and stretches in front of the beige sand, the wooden and metal climbing structures, and the wood boat within the contoured playground. Always the formation of palms, special small circular groves of them, mostly close to Dolores Street, where more palms form a rhythmic, shaggy line down the street's grass-filled divider strip.

"Sacred space" is not the first phrase that comes to mind when I'm walking through or along the edges of the park. Yet the Dolores Street side makes such an association inevitable. The high, shiny, gold-shingled dome of the Christian Science Church--between 20th and Cumberland--dominates (and beautifully so) any view across the eastern upper edge of the park. Though the church, built in 1915, seems barely used, the dome, in particular, promises a singular configuration of harmony--an uncontestable architectural testimony to a community's desire for spiritual perfection.

In the next block down, between Cumberland and 19th, is the Lutheran Church, a stodgy, dark, frosted window, a red-brick survivor. It has that early immigrant feel of Germans and Scandinavians reviving their Northern European village with an architectural model built to survive tough weather, tough wars, and hard lives. The Protestant struggle against evil and harsh nature are implicit in its design. Not unsurprisingly, it's a church that houses the homeless at night in its basement. Its community rooms are constantly busy with 12-step support groups--Alcoholics, Narcotics, Sex Addicts Anonymous-- as well as a Buddhist meditation group that has met for 18 years. It's a church that thrives on supporting the struggles of individuals and communities looking for redemption and/or liberation.

The current, relatively peaceful state and care of Dolores Park, in fact, is the result of many such struggles. Not too many years ago, there were gang murders, open dope-dealing, and homophobic bashings. Today, and ongoing, the moral struggle of the church and its neighbors is to figure out in what ways to deal equitably and compassionately with the homeless, so many of whom still sleep their nights and live their days along the park's edges.

Of course, in terms of the sacred, going further north on Dolores leads to the Catholic Mission of St. Francis at 16th Street, which faces the synagogue Sha'ar Zahav. A block to the west on 19th is the surviving façade of the B'nai David Temple, now converted into condominiums and once the home of the mikvah ritual baths for women. In the latter quarter of the 19th century, two synagogues used the current site of the park for adjacent cemeteries.

Indeed, given the number of churches that extend along Dolores, it is difficult not to imagine--going back to the Ohlone Indian presence--that the original neighborhood must have been considered a sacred zone, a place of reverence, including ceremonies for the burial of the dead, communion with ancestors, maybe even discourse, argument, and sharing among shamans and tribal elders. Back then, the site would have also included the waters of what later became known as Mission Creek, either pouring or trickling down from Twin Peaks by way of what is now the tar- and asphalt-covered 18th Street. Now the artery carries mostly cars, and the water goes unseen underground into sewage pipes. Ironically, probably not on account of divine intercession but because of the presence of a reservoir tank filled with water, the devastating fire caused by the 1906 earthquake was stopped at the corner of 20th and Church at the top of the park, a rescue permanently celebrated with a gold-painted fire hydrant.

The Dolores Park Café is situated on the southeast corner of Dolores and 18th streets. The high, wide western window and the sidewalk tables especially invite the afternoon light. The café is the kind window through which the park also bestows itself, a space in which issues, both secular and religious, appear transparent. Perhaps it's the great light that feeds in from the park, as well as the northern windows, but once you've gone inside, there is an inherent reflective quality to sitting at a table. It's definitely not a place that invites a sales or marketing meeting.

So it is no shock when I walk into the café and find the current exhibit: the walls are filled with several large, mostly gray-and-white paintings and prints. From the doorway, the tight script, the multiple lines of which fill the canvas from top to bottom and side to side, is unreadable. When I get up close, I see the artist, a man named Tim Fowler, has repeated the same word over and over, vigorously cutting the word into the surface paint. One diptych--black canvas on one side, white on the other--is filled with the word "Faith" in white on the black, and "Doubt" in black on the white. The caption below reads, "Faith/2,030 times" and "Doubt/2,040 times."

Interestingly, when I step back from the canvases to the opposite side of the space, the repeated words lose their clarity, become opaque, and dissolve back into the omnipresence of the café's afternoon light.

In fact, different from the churches up and down Dolores, the café begins to appear in my eyes as a church of immediate light, replete with its own ceremonies and rituals. The way the windows draw in and magnify the city's presence is the gift, I suspect, behind our architectural love of bay windows, the way they multiply one's sense of interior illumination.

Stephen Vincent, a poet and author living on 21st Street, writes about walks, poetry, and politics in his blog at

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