If you know San Francisco, you’ll know the newly remodeled Dolores Park, where people gather to eat ice cream in the sun.
You’ll also know the Presidio, the former military complex now designated a National Park. And you’ll easily name the city’s largest park, since it’s twenty percent larger than Central Park in New York: it’s Golden Gate Park. But can you name the city’s second largest park?
Few people can.
Here's a hint: this park offers picnic areas, playgrounds, a golf course, baseball diamonds, a small lake filled with ducks, an indoor swimming pool, a soccer field, a small redwood grove, 165 acres of preserved natural areas, basketball and tennis courts, dog play areas, forests, grasslands, and marshy riparian areas where springs feed Yosemite Creek. There’s even a sculptural concrete amphitheater.
It’s McLaren Park.
A History of Revitalization and Neglect
Being in southeast San Francisco, perched on a hill between South Mission and the Bayview, McLaren isn’t on the tourist maps. This is a place for locals, and it has a long, rich history.
In the 1840s, the Mexican government granted the former ranch land to a pioneer merchant. It nearly became a suburb in 1905, but thanks to Daniel Burnham’s ambitious city plan, these delicate natural areas were preserved as a park, and dedicated to John McLaren, the City’s first superintendent of parks in 1934. He was the Scottish-born naturalist who presided over Golden Gate Park for 53 years and was fiercely dedicated to preserving green space in the city. With a few final land purchases In 1958, McLaren Park expanded to its current size of 312.54 acres.
Since then, the place has yo-yo’d between ambitious improvement projects — like the 6.1 million dollar paving project begun in early 2015 — and periods of neglect. At one point it even became a dumping ground for unwanted bathtubs, carpets, furniture, and worse... bodies. So in 2009, Rec and Parks partnered with both SF Utilities and the Arts Commission to clean up both the physical landscape and the park’s reputation. They launched a project to would make the park feel safer and more inviting through public art. But what they built is more than just a statue, this is a 2.7-mile trail that pairs walking with philosophy. It cost $146,000, required more than 860 Parks and Rec staff hours, plus another 2,500 hours of grueling physical labor from volunteers, and was completed in January of 2013.
To find out how an ancient Socratic practice rebooted McLaren’s identity, I donned my hiking boots and headed to McLaren Park, where I spoke with the two public artists who created this project — Susan Schwartzenberg and Peter Richards.
Walk, Talk, and Think Art
The artists explained that the idea of philosophers talking students on discussion walks wasn’t new. The tradition goes way back to Aristotle. It is, however, the first and only one of its kind in the United States.
The trail they built is called the Philosopher’s Way. It’s designed to help visitors connect to nature, and to think about the landscape — but also about the people who came here before them, or those who will come in the future. The project is modeled after similar designed walking paths in Japan, Germany, and Canada.
“There’s a kind of learning that’s about walking,” says co-creator Susan Schwartzenberg. “Often philosophers would take their students on this walk up into the hills and talk and reflect. To give a little piece of that thinking to San Francisco seemed like a wonderful way to name this.”
It got the artists talking about naturalists like Humboldt, and philosophers like Kitaro Nishida, who would pair walking and thinking.
What makes the Philosopher’s Way a work of art and not just a 2.7-mile hiking trail are these black stone plaques the artists call “musing stations.” They’re situated at fourteen scenic spots along the trail and give visitors insight into the place’s natural and social history. Plus a few choice quotes from luminaries like Bangladeshi philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, which I found particularly meaningful when I realized I had nearly rushed past it:
“The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.”
A Mindful New Identity
As Schwartzenberg and Richards were researching the project, they observed that people who live close by only visited their own small section of the park — partly because they preferred to stay in their established safe zones, and partly because there was no easy way to get around from pathway to pathway and explore it all. The Philosopher’s Way was to fix that with connected paths that went all the way around.
“I'd been to McLaren once in the early 70s, maybe twice,” says Richards. “McLaren was always known as a scary place — it was near some tough neighborhoods.” Yet once he and Schwartzenberg started coming out to the park regularly, they were amazed to discover how many people do use the park, and how important it is for the surrounding neighborhoods. “Groups come and exercise by the tennis courts in the morning, and people are passing by all the time,” she says. “People really feel strongly about this place.”
Collaboration is Good for the Soul
The artists brought in stonemason George Gonzalez to etch and place the stones and trail markers, and worked with cartographer Ben Pease to build original maps.
This wasn’t first time Schwartzenberg and Richards have worked together. As Senior Artists the Exploratorium, they’ve been longtime collaborators. Separately, they’ve created a lot of public art, too. Richards created an acoustic sculpture called the Wave Organ in the Marina and Schwartzenberg designed the Rosie the Riveter memorial in Richmond. After so much experience, the artists knew it can be a struggle to get community buy-in on public art. So the artists made sure people in the surrounding areas had a voice in the creation of this art trail. In some cases, literally. Such as Frank Taylor, Visitacion Valley resident who submitted an aerial photo of the place taken in 1935.
Richards says he’s proud of the warm community response to their project.
“Instead of feeling defensive, like we’re intruders, which can often happen when you're doing public art, we felt like we’d joined a community.
“Susan was particularly good about meeting with groups and getting them to talk about what was important. Those conversations are reflected in some of the musing stations.”
Musing About It
At one site, a local woman tells a story of how workers from the pumping station on Leland Avenue had to use flags to signal the opening and closing of the gates to the reservoir.
Most of these sleek black musing stations are etched with information about their location, so you can ponder both the view and a memory, or your place in the geography, or learn about plants, like the Soaproot that Native Americans once used to make brushes and mattresses.
“Some of the grasses here are hundreds of years old,” Schwartzenberg says. “Older than the park itself. Older than most of the trees in the city.”
The most stunning of these musing stations overlooks the Cow Palace. The plaque has no words: just George Conklin’s stunning black and white photograph of Martin Luther King speaking to a packed interfaith rally in that agricultural arena in 1964. It’s a vivid reminder of how much has happened here over the years. The Beatles once played there, as did the Rolling Stones.
Ruth Wallace, a community advocate thinks these kinds of tributes are essential.
“I don’t really think that Californians have a deep sense of history because everything’s so new here,” she says, “and so every little bit that we can hold on to is very important.”
Meadowlarks, Hawks, Foxes and Great Horned Owls
Wallace is a bird watcher who walks her dogs here daily. “In the early morning we see quite a lot of wildlife,” she says. “Coyotes, for sure, and of course raccoons, opossums, skunks, and later in the day we see birds, and snakes, occasionally. So it’s really a fun place to be. Every day it gives you a little taste of nature the start the day.”
Wallace has lived next door to McLaren Park for 14 years and brings all her out of town guests here. She’s been on the board of the Portola Neighborhood Association since 2009. That’s right around the time when Rec and Park joined forces with Public Utilities and the Arts Commission to put a call out for ideas for a public art installation for McLaren Park. Once they’d whittled all the entries down to three finalists, they asked the neighbors to pick a winner. Ruth Wallace had a vote.
“I didn’t, actually, vote on this one,” she says with a chuckle. “I was hoping for something more sculptural. But I am so happy with this and I’m glad that my neighbors made this decision for me.”
More than Just a Breath of Fresh Air
She’s not the only one who was happy with the decision. Local philosopher Nathaniel Paluga says he felt like the artists had read his mind when they put in the Philosopher’s Way trail, since he was already using the place for physical and mental exercise.
“The mind is connected to the body and being in a healthy environment for the body leads to a healthy mind as well.”
When Paluga isn’t conducting tours of the Haight through SF City Guides, he’ll lead discussion walks here on the Way, often posing questions from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. He says people have come from all over the Bay Area - even from out of State - to experience a tradition that goes back to ancient times.
“Some people had gone on the other walk trails, the ones in Germany, or Canada, Japan, and then they wanted to go on this trail as well.”
Paluga says that the experience of walking while talking about philosophical concepts can help people be more aware of the world around them — but also, the world within them.
“In between the talking we’ll walk silently for a bit, and then we can take in a more ineffable state and breathe the fresh air, take in the sunlight, and be here now.”
As McLaren Park’s self-appointed Resident Philosopher, his discussion walks literally take a page out of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Previous walking groups have discussed such concepts as ‘What is good judgment?’ and ‘What is respect, free will, and imagination?’
“When I taught the course analyzing peace, we had a really nice turnout for that,” he says.
Along the Way today I’ve passed many fellow travelers—runners, power-walkers, dog-walkers, and families having cookouts. I’ve also seen butterflies and ducks, and more dogs than I can count. Plus I got some really unique views of the city - both physically and throughout time.
Since it is a loop trail my walk ends where it began this morning, back at the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, named after the Grateful Dead guitarist who grew up next door in the Excelsior district.
There I buy a refreshing real orange popsicle and grab a spot on the hill amongst couples and families enjoying live theatre by SF Shakes.
Discovering McLaren was time well spent today. What I found was a calmness of body and mind after a thoughtful — even soulful — experience of San Francisco.