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Tending Our gardens

by Sean Timberlake

Sometimes, you just have to get your hands dirty.

For me, that mostly means finding strata of food under my nails after a sweaty day in the kitchen. But on a chilly morning in December, my hands got dirty with real, actual, honest-to-god dirt. As in, from the earth.

Me and dirt are like oil and water. Gardening is not something I have an innate passion for, but there is one garden I have a soft spot for. Tucked between modern apartment buildings on a dead-end street on the slopes of Eureka Valley, the Corwin Street Community Garden is more than a patch of pretty flowers.

As a tour guide in the neighborhood, I often drag my more ambitious groups up the steep incline to the garden and to the Seward Mini-park below. Here, deep in the residential tracts and close to the geographic heart of the city, they offer surprising morsels of our city's history.

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The view from the garden benches shows the hillside.

The garden and park combined fill a narrow strip of land that stretches between Corwin and Seward streets. After a house that occupied the Seward Street plot fell off its foundation and slid into the street below in the 1950s, the land lay vacant for nearly a decade. Plans were laid for a 105-unit apartment building to be erected on the land, spurring neighbors to take up the issue of preserving open space with City Hall. Years of hearings ensued. In 1966, on the day the contractors arrived to begin construction, the neighbors staged a sit-in, and the developers backed down. Ultimately, these actions led to legislation that set standards for a minimum amount of open space in the city.

For the lower portion of the plot, a contest was held to design a "mini-park" in 1973. The winning design, by 14-year-old Kim Clark, featured a pair of curved concrete slides. These slides never fail to bring out the inner child in everyone. I've had walkers of all ages toboggan down on flattened cardboard boxes. If the slides are dry enough, and you recline as if in a luge, you can even catch some air on the way down. It's exhilarating.

The park also features a bas relief by local artist Ruth Asawa, whose work can be seen in the lower level of the observation tower at the De Young.

Despite the modern buildings on all sides, pieces of San Francisco's deeper history lie all around.

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The slide at the Seward side of the hill.

According to a local neighbor, just steps away on Seward Street, marble steps connecting the walkway and the street are in fact blocks from the original city hall, destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. An adjacent retaining wall is built of red bricks salvaged from former mayor "Sunny" Jim Rolph's house.

Acme Alley, the cobblestone passage that runs uphill alongside the park, is a vestige of the cow paths forged in the area's days as pastureland in the 1800s. At the top, where it intersects Corwin Street, is the garden.

San Francisco has a rich tradition of community gardens, which by and large offer grave-sized plots of land for locals to indulge their gardening habits in an otherwise urban environment. The Corwin Street garden is different. Here, the "habitat garden" is dedicated to showcasing indigenous and drought-tolerant plants, installed in such a way as to be sustainable with San Francisco's existing rain patterns, and to avoid the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Unlike other community gardens, the Corwin garden requires a more singularly coordinated effort to maintain. Bill Murphy oversees the care and maintenance of the garden. Once yearly, on the first Saturday of December, he organizes a workday to bring the garden back into shape. Having schlepped perhaps hundreds of strangers by and through the garden, this was my opportunity to give back, at least a little. As part of a work force of some 30 volunteers, I helped plant iris and artemisia, lay mulch and remove rotten logs to make way for new walkway borders.

This year marked a sea change to the garden. The habitat garden would now be supplemented by an "urban orchard" of citrus trees. Future plans include a fence of fruit trees and berries, and raised beds of herb gardens. The orchard should be complete within the year, and Bill is working out a plan to distribute the produce of the garden to contributors and community members. I've often enjoyed the garden as a place of reflection and nourishment for the soul. On balmy spring days, it's a delight to see the butterflies and hummingbirds flit through to feed on the bounty of blossoms. It enthralls me to think that the garden will now become a source of more literal sustenance for the community.

Sean Timberlake (Class of 2002), is the current Vice-Chair of the Management Board, and co-developed and leads the Castro: Tales of the Village tour.

This article appears on Sean’s blog at

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