Carolina Island Potrero Hill’s Newest Park

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90-year old Nancy Pagan. Photo: Michael Iacuessa

Prompted by the mugging of an elderly man and regular littering of hypodermic needles, Potrero Hillians living along the median on Carolina Street, between 22nd and 23rd streets, began meeting last summer to discuss turning the long-overgrown strip into a municipal park.  Last month, more than two dozen volunteers and a matching number of San Francisco Public Works personnel began clearing heavy brush in the area.

“We didn’t know what we were working with until we started this clearing process,” said Kate Sheets, climbing down from a muddy embankment after clipping wet branches in misty conditions. She admitted to feeling a bit overwhelmed, noting that the 1,000-foot long, 20-foot wide median is going to take several efforts to fully cleanup.

Last fall, advocates were able to designate the median as an official park under the Street Parks Program, a partnership between Public Works’ Bureau of Urban Forestry and the nonprofit San Francisco Parks Alliance. To keep the designation, the neighborhood group pledges to maintain the open space they’ve dubbed “Carolina Island Park” for at least three years.  In exchange, the City will provide resources, such as the staff, tools and a Recology truck that were on hand for the February cleanup.

“Being official gives us access to more resources,” said Kathryn Blum, who said the group was spurred by the success of a similar effort at Tunnel Top Park. Blum, who hosted the group’s first meeting, has lived along the median for 21 years. “It’s a fine swatch of greenery and special, so we wanted to make it our beautiful corner of the world,” she said.

According to Julia Brashares, program manager for Public Works, the median has been an illegal dumping ground for some time, and has hosted homeless campers. “No major appliance, no toilets,” Brashares said half-joking of common items found during similar cleanups. But heavy brush did hide two bicycles and a large plastic bin with leftover belongings, as well as several additional containers. Not all clandestine users had been roughing it, though. “Whoever was here was enjoying some fine wine,” said one volunteer, pulling two empty bottles he deemed top shelf from the dirt.

A clearing at the top of the median near 22nd Street revealed six now-uneven cement slabs where a sitting area had been sited decades ago. The finding prompted a memory from a 63-year old volunteer, Katrina, who grew up on the block and still lives nearby. She’d signing her initials in the cement when it’d been poured. “This actually was a nice area, but the City didn’t really maintain it,” she declared wistfully.

Joining her in clearing that patch was Nancy Pagan, who has lived a block away most of her 90 years, and still owns a three-unit building her late husband built. “Today is a big day for us, “she said, in between carrying large bundles of twigs and picking rocks from the dirt. Pagan’s daughter, Kathy Pagan Quadros, is one of the effort’s main organizers.

The group is considering rebuilding the sitting area along a bit more than 100 feet of flatland before Carolina Street begins its sharp down slope. And it hopes to raise money for landscaping. “We want to come up with a plan to make it sustainable so it will take less work to upkeep,” said Sheets. “The idea is to have sustainable trees and plants that aren’t going to get too bushy.”

The lone streetlight on the block fails to illuminate either of the two staircases that allow for street crossings. “They are dark at night and scary, so we need more lighting for safety,” said Kathryn Blum, who has lived on the block for 21 years.

According to Marissa Alexander, Parks Alliance program manager, park improvements costs will have to be paid for by citizens, rather than the City.  Assisting with fundraising is her organization’s main role. “There’s been a few attempts over the years to get this cleaned up and hopefully this time it works,” she said. Parks Alliance is involved with 130 similar San Francisco projects. Before being hired by the City five months ago, Brashares worked at Parks Alliance in Alexander’s position, which Brashares said has proved an asset in communications between the nonprofit and the City.

The Good Life Grocery, Chiotras Grocery and Goat Hill Pizza contributed food and snacks for the volunteers, who felt satisfied with their first day’s effort.  They expect to hold another one soon.