part 4: inside forsaken time

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


+ go back to part 3

Steve Garibaldi, with his cousin Andrew and a team of workers, installed an 18,000-gallon water boiler at the University Mound Nursery in 1953. The new boiler was so big it had to be unloaded using a high, heavy crane, but its greater volume was meant to send more moisture and more heat into the conservatories, and an advanced system would circulate chemical pesticides and fungicides, mixed with the water vapor and delivered by a system of central piping directly to all the nursery’s plants.

Andrew and Steve were the sons, respectively, of two original brothers Andrea and Giovanni Garibaldi, and these cousins had over the course of years become de facto managers of the greenhouse.

“Some of the older ones got old,” said Angelo Stagnaro. “The second generation got into the business. But after that, no one.”

The flower industry was booming in the postwar years, but improved transportation and refrigeration had allowed growers from larger tracts and better climates in the East Bay and Peninsula into San Francisco’s wholesale flower market. “[In the beginning] all the growing was where you could get on a horse and buggy and come downtown and sell ’em,” Stagnaro said.

With rural growers bringing larger volumes to the downtown market, the Garibaldis’ reinvestment in their boiler must have seemed a shrewd upgrade at the time. Added humidity would promote blooms even in bad weather, while the chemicals protected crops and increased the nursery’s yield.

Instead, as decades passed, the energy costs associated with closing the gap in this floral arms race, together with rising wages and later environmental regulations that restricted harmful pesticides, made the Portola nurseries incapable of adjusting against the sudden adversary that finally killed the urban grower: cheap imported flowers.

“It was the jet,” Franco Mancini said. “Flowers would start pouring in from all over the world. A dozen roses at the flower market would get 35 cents — now we sold a lot of flowers. And florists are very competitive. And we shipped all over the country.

“All of a sudden these 20-cents- and 15-cents-a-dozen roses were coming in. And they imported them from Asia and South America — because of the jet! Used to be the old clipper ships would take a week or more and you couldn’t get the flowers fresher [than locally-grown].”

Four months after Charles Leveroni reminisced about his hippie clients, on December 17, 1978, the Sunday Examiner & Chronicle front page was still splashed with pictures of the Jonestown Massacre and Milk-Moscone assassin Dan White, while a story tucked on page 12 quietly carried the headline CALIFORNIA’S FLOWER TRADE SMELLS TROUBLE.

The report described the flower industry “on the edge of a precipice” as Jimmy Carter considered lifting a 10 percent import duty on cut flowers to help normalize relations with the Dominican Republic. Among the bad news, foreign imports had almost tripled, from $15 million to $42 million, between 1972 and 1976. California’s volume still dwarfed that at $250 million, but the newspaper said domestic companies had higher costs — in part because of heated greenhouses — while “foreign growers may freely use pesticides” (the federal EPA outlawed DDT and regulated other applications beginning in 1972).

According to a 1977 Carter administration investigation, California growers had increased sales 32 percent in the previous four years, but operating costs were up 41 percent. Net profit declined 68 percent in the same period, as profit margin dropped from 13 percent to 2 percent of sales.

Specifically, United States production of carnations, roses and chrysanthemums as a group fell marginally from 1970 to 1977, while foreign product rose 50 percent. In that seven year span, foreign carnations rose from 16.4 million blooms to 284.6 million, a shift in proportion compared to the U.S. crop from 2 percent to almost 50 percent.

And the tariff reduction hadn’t even taken effect yet.

“It’s getting hard to grow flowers in this country,” Stagnaro said. “With transportation and costs. The problem of regulations. And land.”

In San Francisco, Portola’s greenhouses disappeared one by one, sold to developers and replaced by homes. The growers moved their operations to the Peninsula or retired. It is not clear exactly when University Mound Nursery stopped production. Franco Mancini said it’s been disused “30 years, easy.” Others remember it operating as recently as the late 1990s, which seems to conflict with Lux’s account. And perhaps the pine tree.

Property records only detail transfers of the lot’s ownership into various family trusts. The company name does not appear in available documents. What is certain about the Garibaldis’ business is it lasted longer than any other in the district.

“The Garibaldis never wanted to do that, sell out,” Rayna Garibaldi said. (Her grandfather Ernesto sold his share to Andrew and Steve Garibaldi in the early 1970s, so Rayna is not involved in decisions about the existing property). “They wanted to keep the land.”

Stagnaro said the nursery kept going right until Steve Garibaldi died in 1990. Stagnaro dealt with Steve Garibaldi for years at the flower market and remembers him as “a rough and tough guy,” an outspoken eccentric and the public force of the two cousins.

“No finesse. He told you like it was,” Stagnaro said. “He was colorful, let’s put it that way. He was not a salesman. He was a grower and he brought his flowers here and you either liked him or you didn’t.”

Mancini speculates Steve Garibaldi himself might have put the chairs on top of the table in the garden, because Garibaldi liked to sit in there for hours, just looking at the roses. Another neighbor remembers Garibaldi’s widow, Mary, visiting the nursery years after his death.

“She used to come and sit and knit and watch over things,” said Bonnie Bridges, who has lived directly across from the greenhouse, on Wayland Street, since 1999. “Her two kids, the son and the daughter, used to come and pick up garbage and fix the fences.”

Andrew Garibaldi was quieter than Steve, more shy and private. He never married, and did not venture to the wholesale market, Stagnaro said, preferring to stay behind and run the nursery.

When he died, Andrew Garibaldi left his stake in the property as a trust in the name of two nephews, Fred and Stephen Assalino. Steve’s will divided the other half among his wife Mary and his own adult children, Steve and Diane Garibaldi. Mary Garibaldi died last November after consolidating her share with Diane, who still lives in the ancestral Garibaldi home just one block from the nursery.

These four now control the future of the ruined greenhouse, with legal possession distributed like this: the Assalino brothers, one quarter each; the younger Steve Garibaldi, one eighth; Diane Garibaldi owns three eighths.

One complicating factor is that a building contractor owns right of first refusal on the property.

In June 1958, Vittorio Garibaldi’s daughter Bernice married Rinaldo Carraro. As part of a convoluted agreement between the families, Steve and Andrew Garibaldi sold their shares of Block 43, as well as a portion of Block 32 (the adjacent lot between Holyoke and Hamilton Streets, on which the Garibaldis lived and grew stock flowers; the blocks are now coded as 6055 and 6054, respectively), to Rinaldo’s brother Frank Carraro in exchange for some improvements to Hamilton Street done by Frank. Two weeks later, after the street work was done, Carraro sold Block 43 back to the Garibaldis, retaining right of first refusal on any future sale. In 1981, Carraro transferred that right to his construction firm, Portola Building Company.

“All it means is when they make up their minds to sell, I guess we by necessity have to be told,” said Frank Carraro, Jr., who now runs his father’s company. But whether or not Carraro would exercise that option, he confirmed that he has never heard of any impending sale.


“We figure it was a personal thing,” Carraro said. “It’s kind of a shame for the neighborhood. It would be nice if they could at least demolish them and clean them up a bit.”

But if the Garibaldis and their cousins don’t want to sell the property, why haven’t they done anything with it or maintained it better? Are they just holding out for an offer they can’t refuse? Only the family knows for sure, but neighbors describe the Garibaldis as reclusive and standoffish.

“It’s like a secret,” Irene Crescio said. “Nobody knows anything.”

A neighbor living on Hamilton Street, who did not want to give her name, said she tried to paint over some graffiti, but “I was yelled at by the owner.” (Though the greenhouse interior is filled with tags, the Garibaldis do keep up with covering graffiti on the outside fences themselves.)

“I actually spoke to the owner once,” said Donna Chui, whose house on Woolsey Street faces the greenhouse. Chui witnessed a car accident in which a vehicle ran into the nursery’s fence. Even though Chui lives just one street away from Diane Garibaldi, “I had to ask a neighbor to ask a neighbor to get in contact,” she said.

Shirley Chen of the Portola Steering Committee said her group tried to get a hold of the Garibaldis to discuss improving the block, but they got bogged down in confusion because there were so many owners. Most neighbors don’t know which family members are responsible, or exactly how the ownership breaks down. “We wouldn’t know where to start,” Chen said.

“It seemed like they were actually quite paranoid and really didn’t want to engage with people,” Bonnie Bridges said. “My suspicions were that they had been hounded by people to sell and they didn’t want to talk to anyone.”

When I knocked on Diane Garibaldi’s door, she declined to open it, asking me through a window if it were any of my business. She refused to give any information about the nursery property.

Even residents who want the greenhouse cleaned up are apprehensive about a possible sale or development, apparently because of a rumor that the city wants to utilize the block for public housing.

“Those [blight] complaints never got traction because people do worry about it becoming a project area. Which is much worse,” Mancini said. “Just as a logical extension, people connect the two and say let’s just leave it rather than have high-density projects.”

In fact in 2005 the city did try to acquire the land, but not for a housing project.

A March 2009 San Francisco Public Utilities Commission report outlining the city’s urban watershed management program reveals a plan to transform the nursery site into a bioswale system, a method of naturally filtering water streams, for the underground Yosemite Creek which flows nearby.

The report mentions that the Recreation and Parks Department tried to buy the property in 2005 for $500,000, to use as a “maintenance facility,” but were evidently rebuffed by the Garibaldis.

The watershed program proposes bringing a winding, shallow waterworks to ground level, surrounded by an interactive park with “water features (waterfalls), playground features (rock climbing), or artistic exhibits.” The plan acknowledges University Mound Nursery as “once a centerpiece of the Portola neighborhood, employing a large number of local residents” and its design includes signs “describing the native plants and the significance that the nursery held in the history of the neighborhood.”

The SFPUC proposal concludes: “Ability to acquire land requires more investigation.”

That $500,000 offer seems rather low considering the real estate value of an entire city block in San Francisco. When Frank Carraro resold Block 43 to Steve and Andrew Garibaldi in 1958 the figure was $140,000, which adjusts to more than a million dollars in 2010.

If you multiply a conservative median estimated home value in the zip code ($490,000) by the number of lots on an equally-sized, adjacent block (35), the gross resale value were the block developed exactly like its surroundings is more than $17 million. Surely, even after demolition and construction, that net margin clears $500,000.

The Parks & Rec figure comes from rounding up the city Assessor-Recorder’s entry listing the property’s taxable value at $429,247, which itself derives from a baseline worth of $362,094 for the land plus $67,153 in “improvements,” meaning buildings and fixtures on the property.

I am reminded of poet Dan Chiasson’s definition of improvement: “a profit made from forsaken time inside forsaken time.”

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