part 8: public wilderness

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


+ go back to part 7

In 6th grade my English teacher chalked on the board a table delineating the “three types of conflict” used in drama: Man (protagonist) versus Man (antagonist), Man (antihero) versus Himself and Man versus Nature. I can remember thinking something was missing from that matrix, Nature versus Nature, and I specifically recall my rather naïve shock when I realized how central human (or at least anthropomorphic) identity is to narrative.

Well, science has solved the problem, by following Jefferies after a fashion, beginning in 1996 when New Scientist evaluated Jefferies’s predictions by enlisting experts in the emerging studies of biogeochemistry and reforestation dynamics, and using more complete understanding of integrities of materials like steel and concrete, plus of course plastic which did not exist in Jefferies’s time. These considerations abandoned the pretense of a survivor narrator and homed directly on the overlapping clashes of natural systems.

The New Scientist example initiated a trend in ecofuturist nonfiction that became a hit. Alan Weisman’s 2007 The World Without Us, based on a Discover article reviving New Scientist’s experiment from a more global perspective, became a bestseller. That inspired more books, The Earth After Us (Jan Zalasiewicz) and After Man (Dougal Dixon), and documentaries, “Life After People” (History Channel), “The Future is Wild” (Discovery), “Aftermath: Population Zero” (National Geographic).

In other media, Alexis Rockman’s “Manifest Destiny,” an 8-by-24-foot mural shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 2004, depicts the view from a New York City reconquered by abundant nature 3,000 years in the future, with a particularly underwater perspective. The 2007 movie “I Am Legend,” based on a 1954 Richard Matheson novel also filmed as “Omega Man,” briefly delves into ecofuturism, showing deer and trees growing wildly in an uninhabited Times Square, before swerving back to the vampire-zombie genre. Even 2008’s “WALL-e,” a cartoon on a future earth resistant to all organic life, showed some ecofuturist leaning.

But, as Weisman pointed out, the novelty of imagining an urban environment without humans need not require leaps into the future. Weisman names settings where nature has already begun dramatic performances on such landscapes, including the Korean demilitarized zone; Prypiat, near Chernobyl (where “city squares have been smashed and, in places, pushed up almost a meter by tree roots”); Mayan ruins, as inner-city as it got for their time; and urban “prairies” caused by depopulation (Detroit, whose verdant wastelands Vice calls “ruin porn” for the way they attracts journalists) and strategic bombing (Berlin).

To these already posthuman places I would add Nova Zembla, a nuclear-blasted archipelago in the Arctic Circle, and Hanford Site, an irradiated former producer of weaponized plutonium near Tri-Cities, Washington, which Seattle writer Charles Mudede labels “radioactive catastrophe, ecological paradise” because plant and animal life flourishes there.

And another, to a lesser degree, is University Mound Nursery.

Something of the same impulse that leads to the recent spike in ecofuturist media, both fiction and science, can help explain the haunting fascination surrounding these broken greenhouses nearly swallowed by wilderness. Henry David Thoreau said, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world,” but, as Mike Davis reminds us, “Agriculture, for eight thousand years the primary locus of human and animal labor, is now secondary to the immense, literally ‘geological’ drama of urbanization.” People want to reconcile these two things, and the nursery seemingly dangles at once a confirmation of both claims, and a release from them.

“It is really important, I think, to have this kind of no-mans land in the city,” said Chris Lux, the graffiti artist. “It creates amazing spaces for thinking and interacting with the city and people in ways that are so far outside normal day-to-day interactions.”

A number of the greenhouse’s neighbors did not consider the wrecked structure a blight or an eyesore, and did not even prefer that they be built into something else. The neighbor on Hamilton Street who tried to cover some graffiti, and didn’t give her name, said she enjoyed that the lot played host to “skunks, hawks, snakes — its own habitat.”

Bonnie Bridges said there is a family of red-shouldered hawks nesting inside the framework. “I think they’re beautiful, decrepit structures and I liked that it was opened space,” Bridges said. “It’s like part of our front yard, like living in front of a forest or something like that.”

Some admirers’ gave reasons that were entirely non-aesthetic. “Personally I like it,” said Arthur Lee, Anson’s uncle. “Having the greenhouse is better to me, because we have access to parking.”

Charles Mudede, the author of Last Seen and a columnist for The Stranger, has written often about what he calls “orphaned space.” It’s a term borrowed from the language of interior design, for which “orphaned spaces exist, for example, under staircases,” and Mudede in expanding on it follows architects Rem Koolhaas, Jeffrey Boone and Lawrence Halprin (the architect who designed San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, U.N. Plaza and Stern Grove Amphitheater, and who said, “The garden in your own immediate neighborhood, preferably at your own doorstep, is the most significant garden.”)

According to Mudede, orphaned spaces include so-called public wilderness, “sites that are within the city, but not part of it, and so confuse (or worry) the line between in and out, between country and urban, between natural and social.”

These are the odd pockets in urban environments — under highway superstructures, in sealed-off courtyards, between anomalous fences — that are public places inaccessible for one reason or another, or sometimes just psychologically impenetrable, to the general public, “locations of abandonment regulated into being.”

Think the vacant lot between St. Mary’s Square and the Bank of America building, on Kearny and Pine. Think the former Highway 101 on-off ramp before Chris Burley and Hayes Valley Farm took over. Or the abandoned Bethlehem Steel headquarters at Illinois and 20th. They are in plain sight, but confoundingly neglected and off-limits.

These places prey on the imaginations of curious people. For the incurious, they are black holes. More often than not they become incomparable corners where wilderness, and crime, thrives.

Like University Mound Nursery, such orphaned spaces “resist every challenge posed by city power,” Mudede writes. “They are as tough as weeds, these spaces, that are neither city property nor the property of a city prince, but public in the most radical and exciting way.”

Spaces like the Garibaldis’ greenhouse can be owned, Mudede said, “in theory, but in reality no one owns them.” Public wilderness “represents the negative of the city and its ideals.”

These conditions are not cause, for Mudede, to bulldoze, pave over or develop orphaned spaces. There is no use integrating them into social or economic systems. “We should not try to find a family for orphaned spaces,” Mudede said. He dismisses the trend of turning them into city parks, preferring to remand them to the underground economies and the benefit of “men and women who have nowhere to live and no money to spend.” “Property values do not exist in the realm of orphaned spaces,” Mudede said.

Franco Mancini admits that even though neighbors complain and visitors gape at the sight of University Mound Nursery, he holds a secret fondness for it just the way it is. “Its poetic value has as much value as the property itself,” Mancini said, sounding rather like Mudede. “If you can gild the thing it would be the biggest, coolest piece of art in the city.”

It is this poetic value that I think of when I hear the litany of intentions for transforming the nursery lot.

“A local farm is the most desirable development for that lot,” said Ruth Wallace. “Maybe a heritage garden, with roses. Food growing is a great idea since it grows so well here and we have land available.”

“I’d just finish the neighborhood like it is,” said Frank Carraro. “I’m a developer so I’m looking at it from a residential point of view. I think they should just finish the neighborhood by putting in something that’s compatible.”

“A senior center with some open space would be great,” said Bonnie Bridges. “Maybe combined with garden education programs.”

Asked if the SF Flower Growers Association had any preference for what happens to the University Mound Nursery site, or if he saw any sentimental reason to restore the property, Angelo Stagnaro said no. “It went out of business,” Stagnaro said. “It’s a business like any other business.”

“I’d like to see it restored, the greenhouses, the timbers, and see it growing flowers. So the children could go and see it,” Rayna Garibaldi said. “I would hate to see it torn down and left empty space.”

“If it’s just asking, ‘It’s a free blank canvas, what would you do with it?’ It could be a skate park, with that slope there,” Mancini said. “It’s fabulous. People and artists would come out of the woodwork. It could be a skate park and a public garden. It would be amazing!”

I hear all these and I choose the tilted skylight panels. I choose Ozymandias, I choose strange persistence. Let the guerilla gardeners brave the fragments.

That the University Mound Nursery can for all these years have escaped red lines of city planners, or the motives of so many developers, environmental do-gooders and economic graspers, is a marvel.

The greenhouse becomes a capsule incubating at the threshold between promise and too late.

go back to part 1 ::

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