part 3: “it’s just trespassing”

The Last Flower Children Guard San Francisco’s Most Secret Garden


+ go back to part 2

“I have gone in there many times, to smoke weed, make out with girls, pick roses,” said Chris Lux. “I jump the fence or go through a hole. I have been going there for a while but it’s sad. It’s really falling down a lot more than in the past. Probably better not too many people know about it, I think.”

Lux grew up on the other side of McLaren Ridge in the mid-1980s, an avid graffiti writer and “general explorer of the less-than-used.” After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, Lux said he and his father used to skateboard and ride bicycles on the closed freeways. “I have been in the sewers from under Potrero Hill all the way to Third Street while they were under construction, and many other amazing places that don’t exist anymore,” Lux said.

As children, Lux and a friend who lived on Cambridge Street used to sneak into the old Cornerstone Baptist Academy building (on Cambridge and Bacon), “mostly to just play and unfortunately throw an occasional rock. The church school had huge grounds back then, and trees. The whole area was not totally developed and rather wild.” When just a few blocks away they discovered the faded roses shed of University Mound Nursery, breaking in seemed only natural. “It’s just trespassing,” Lux said. “And I am very comfortable with that.”

Once, an ex-girlfriend whom Lux had told about the nursery decided to throw a birthday party there. She and her friends went inside and ate psilocybin mushrooms amidst the glass and roses. “[They] got kicked out in like 30 minutes,” Lux said.

Entering the greenhouse it is tempting to think yourself a sort of Egyptologist, crossing into a fossilized mausoleum no one else has penetrated in decades (if not, impossibly, centuries; and if pyramids were only 15 feet high, full of greenery and made entirely of glass). Instead traces of vagrants, vandals and other tomb-raiders are immediately and everywhere apparent. There are ruts and pathways cleaved through the overgrowth, piles of litter and dozens of graffiti marks. Leftover encampments are evident by the areas of tamped-down grass with food wrappers or bottles close by.

There are so many surreal, cobbled-together sculptures that it becomes hard to tell what is an ancient piece of nursery equipment and what some kind of DIY hobo art. Now a rusty pulley chain attached to a crank. Now a bunch of old saws and a machete-like knife hanging from a rope.

The strangest installation looks like a setup for a cult meeting or the shrine in some bizarre ritual. Two old doors laid flat, end to end, on top of table legs, make a riser for a pair of wooden chairs, like thrones. The chairs face a wall of barnlike doors on which has been painted concentric ovals or spooky eyes. Fastened to this partition are slatted window shutters, a felt curtain and a white plastic bottle with a red cap wrapped with a red ribbon. Paint jars have been strewn about on the earth floor between the riser and painted backdrop. And as the centerpiece of all this, a burnt, knobby root spikes ends-upward about a foot and a half into the air. A twisted, alien thing.

Of course there are also roses. Red roses, pink ones, yellow ones. And carnations like so many watercolored flounces. The flowers compete with Pampas grass and briars but their blooms stand out, accented by the light through greenhouse panels stained with moss and lichens.

Much of the glass has already fallen. “Every time it gets windy, you hear the tinkle,” Rayna Garibaldi said. “Once we were driving around back there and we saw a puff of dust go up.”

Shards and broken panels crack underfoot at every step, the glass mostly invisible beneath a thick carpet of grasses. Some parts of the canopy hang drooping, unsustained, while the western side of the framework lies almost completely collapsed, overcome by brambles and its own age.

“I have never worried too much about the structures falling,” Lux said. “Though if one did on top of you it would be very bad, obviously. I worry more about the brambles and stuff, as you know a large part of it is just too overgrown to really hang out in.”

Between the two rows of conservatories runs a middle pathway, above which courses an overhead irrigation duct that, in one place, has unraveled some of its insulation. Here a visitor spraypainted, quaintly, THIS IS HOME. Some glass panels feature graffiti X’s eerily like those inundated homes marked by rescuers in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The outbuildings on the Woolsey Street side of the property serve as landscape to waves and waves of multicolored aerosol signatures. (“I can tell you by the tags that it’s mostly kids from the area tagging in there, and not many from outside,” Lux said. “Based on the names and the styles.”)

A pine tree pierces the glass ceiling in the nursery’s southwest corner, then rises another 20 to 25 feet above that. How does a pine tree get inside a greenhouse? How many years does it take a pine to grow to 40 feet? Upright civic people have words for this kind of neglect and despoliation.

“It is a blight. I’m sure there are ordinances against it,” Franco Mancini said. “Everyone complains about it. Over the years I’ve gotten word from residents who want a petition.”

“It’s an eyesore. It definitely is an eyesore,” said Irene Crescio, a longtime Portola resident and an active voice in the neighborhood. “They keep throwing rocks at it and it’s beginning to sink.”

“It contributes to neighborhood crime,” said Anson Lee, who lives across from the greenhouse on Hamilton Street. “We had a problem with people breaking the windows. If they break the windows they also break the car windows.”

According to, the block around 770 Woolsey Street received 173 police calls between January 1 and September 15, 2010, significantly more than the city average of 98.7 calls per block. Of course that is far fewer than Alice Griffith Public Housing (2,705), Mission and 16th (4,713) or Turk and Leavenworth (9,690), but high-incidence areas like those also inflate the overall average, meaning University Mound Nursery’s block suffers that much more than typical.

Shirley Chen, spokesman for the Portola Steering Committee, an organization of businesses on San Bruno Avenue, indicated that her group views the nursery as a blight that impairs the neighborhood. “It’s been like that for a really long time,” Chen said.

“That’s a disaster,” said Angelo Stagnaro, the SF Flower Growers Association president. “I’m really surprised the City of San Francisco hasn’t told them to clean that up. It’s an accident waiting to happen.”

There are no complaints about the property registered with the Department of Building Inspection, said Bill Strong, the DBI communications manager. But that does not mean it can’t be cited. “Certainly if there are structures falling down it’s in violation of the blight ordinance,” Strong said. “And especially if there is graffiti and trash or other signs of neglect.”

The most bewildering question about this ruins, then, is not how it came to be this way, but why it remains so.

“It’s just like the other parts of the city used to be for me, but it’s still there,” Chris Lux said. “The flowers are nice though, not many of the other places had flowers.”

continue to part 4 +

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