Bike, walk, or take a tour of San Francisco's newly renovated Presidio
Just inside the 15th Avenue Gate of the Presidio of San Francisco,in the lower level of Arion Press, our tour guide has to shout overthe noise. A clanging type-making machine spits out newly formedletters and lines them up in orderly rows. Down the hall, bulkyletterpresses stand ready to fold these words into sheets; inanother room, the pages are sewn into bindings.
Largely handmade from start to finish, Arion's extraordinarybooks include Andrew Jackson Grayson's Birds of the Pacific Slope,as well as a Seamus Heaney book illustrated by Sol LeWitt. Ourguide opens one of Arion's best-known works, a copy of Moby Dickillustrated with wood engravings by artist Barry Moser. "This isquite a collaboration," she says.
It's a surprise to find the press ― an educationalinstitute, bookmaker, publisher, printer, and typefoundry allrolled into one ― in the Presidio, a former military postbetter known for its bayside views. But with its richly layeredhistory and spectacular location, this army post-turned-nationalpark is full of discoveries, especially right now.The Presidiois an anomaly. The post has been under Spanish, Mexican, andAmerican rule and had a role in every U.S. military conflict of the20th century. Charged to become financially self-sufficient by2013, the park is rolling through uncharted territory. With 1,100residents living in rehabilitated military housing, new businessessuch as the huge Sports Basement store, and the much-discussedLucasfilm digital center under construction, this is a nationalpark like no other. It balances those developments with a mandateto preserve the post's architectural character, endangered species,and open space, making it an experiment in urban harmony, set inthe city's prettiest corner. And in Arion Press's light-filledgallery overlooking Mountain Lake Park ― where explorer JuanBautista de Anza and his party camped in 1776 as they establishedthe beginnings of San Francisco ― it seems that all of thePresidio is today, in our guide's words, quite a collaboration. Amarvel of nature On Anza's expedition, fellow explorer Pedro Font,a priest, called this landscape "a marvel of nature." Though theplace looks decidedly different now, the views remain majestic. Upon the Presidio's Inspiration Point, tourists and residents take inthe blue calm of the bay, dotted with white sailboats. Forestedslopes stretch out below, a green carpet so lush you could befooled into thinking you're not in the city at all. And youwouldn't be the only creature fooled. Damien Raffa, anatural-resource specialist for the park, was shocked whenresidents reported coyote sightings in the park two years ago. Hewas skeptical until the claim was documented with photographs. It'sone example of the remarkable pairings here. Raffa says he seeks tocreate "harmonious coexistence" for wildlife and human residents.Residents, for their part, are embracing the opportunity to livewith a bit of wildness. "We're demonstrating that nature does havea place in cities," Raffa says. What has kept the post undevelopedhas largely been the public's affection. This has also helpedtransform the landscape in a small but revolutionary way. In thelast decade, hundreds of volunteers have worked to restore nativeplant communities to Crissy Field, Mountain Lake Park, and thebluffs under the Golden Gate Bridge. "It's the big bonus ― tobe somewhere beautiful and make it more so," says five-yearvolunteer Bernadette C. Hooper. Others come just to appreciate thescenery. On a weekend afternoon, strollers, runners, and dogwalkers parade past the sparkling bay on the promenade along CrissyField. The partially forested Ecology Trail, under the eucalyptusand pine trees planted by the U.S. Army, is a quiet, shady refugeallowing glimpses of wildflowers and the California state rock,serpentine. And a walk along windy Baker Beach offers peacefulviews of the Marin Headlands. That's a lot of variety in this smallspace. "There's a texture and complexity in the landscape that isremarkable," says Michael Boland, associate director for planningat the Presidio Trust, the federal agency established by Congressin 1996 to manage the long-term care of the park. "We have a300-acre historic forest, a tidal marsh, the last year-roundfree-flowing stream in San Francisco, a host of historicstructures, incredible recreation amenities, endangered species ...You could go on and on. It's incredible." Moving forward, carefullyTaking care of this diversity is the challenge facing the park. Atthe Main Post, the former parade grounds at the Presidio's heart,the sound of hammers and power tools indicates that changes areafoot. But plans involve carefully folding history into the future:The post's oldest building, the Officers' Club, part of which datesto 1812, now houses a visitor center and gallery with changinghistorical and art exhibitions. Down the road, cream-coloredVictorian homes built for officers now house offices for nonprofitgroups. And in the remodeled Mediterranean Revival San FranciscoFilm Centre, cozy Desiree Cafe serves warming soups and leafysalads. Beyond, young families overflow from the former armybarracks that now serve as apartment buildings on MacArthur Avenuenear El Polin Spring, a burbling stream reported (back when itswater was potable) to reward drinkers with fertility. Around thespring's meadow, a father and daughter bicycle, she teeteringdespite training wheels. She rolls down the hill slowly, socautious she's in danger of toppling. The father reaches out a handto steady the back of her seat as she concentrates. It's a quiet,personal collaboration ― and a snapshot of the Presidio's newharmony.