Bike, walk, or take a tour of San Francisco's newly renovated Presidio
Martin Sundberg Cyclists favor the scenic, rolling roads of thePresidio, like this one leading to the Main Post.
Just inside the 15th Avenue Gate of the Presidio of SanFrancisco, in the lower level of Arion Press, our tour guide has toshout over the noise. A clanging type-making machine spits outnewly formed letters and lines them up in orderly rows. Down thehall, bulky letterpresses stand ready to fold these words intosheets; in another 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 Presidio is an anomaly. The post has been under Spanish,Mexican, and American rule and had a role in every U.S. militaryconflict of the 20th century. Charged to become financiallyself-sufficient by 2013, the park is rolling through unchartedterritory. With 1,100 residents living in rehabilitated militaryhousing, new businesses such as the huge Sports Basement store, andthe much-discussed Lucasfilm digital center under construction,this is a national park like no other. It balances thosedevelopments with a mandate to preserve the post’s architecturalcharacter, endangered species, and open space, making it anexperiment in urban harmony, set in the city’s prettiestcorner.
And in Arion Press’s light-filled gallery overlooking MountainLake Park ― where explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and hisparty camped in 1776 as they established the beginnings of SanFrancisco ― it seems that all of the Presidio is today, inour guide’s words, quite a collaboration.
A marvel of nature
On Anza’s expedition, fellow explorer Pedro Font, a priest,called this landscape “a marvel of nature.” Though the place looksdecidedly different now, the views remain majestic. Up on thePresidio’s Inspiration Point, tourists and residents take in theblue calm of the bay, dotted with white sailboats. Forested slopesstretch out below, a green carpet so lush you could be fooled intothinking you’re not in the city at all.
And you wouldn’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’s one example of the remarkable pairings here. Raffa says heseeks to create “harmonious coexistence” for wildlife and humanresidents. Residents, for their part, are embracing the opportunityto live with a bit of wildness. “We’re demonstrating that naturedoes have a place in cities,” Raffa says.
What has kept the post undeveloped has largely been the public’saffection. This has also helped transform the landscape in a smallbut revolutionary way. In the last decade, hundreds of volunteershave worked to restore native plant communities to Crissy Field,Mountain Lake Park, and the bluffs under the Golden Gate Bridge.”It’s the big bonus ― to be somewhere beautiful and make itmore so,” says five-year volunteer Bernadette C. Hooper.
Others come just to appreciate the scenery. On a weekendafternoon, strollers, runners, and dog walkers parade past thesparkling bay on the promenade along Crissy Field. The partiallyforested Ecology Trail, under the eucalyptus and pine trees plantedby the U.S. Army, is a quiet, shady refuge allowing glimpses ofwildflowers and the California state rock, serpentine. And a walkalong windy Baker Beach offers peaceful views of the MarinHeadlands.
That’s a lot of variety in this small space. “There’s a textureand complexity in the landscape that is remarkable,” says MichaelBoland, associate director for planning at the Presidio Trust, thefederal agency established by Congress in 1996 to manage thelong-term care of the park. “We have a 300-acre historic forest, atidal marsh, the last year-round free-flowing stream in SanFrancisco, a host of historic structures, incredible recreationamenities, endangered species … You could go on and on. It’sincredible.”
Moving forward, carefully
Taking care of this diversity is the challenge facing the park.At the Main Post, the former parade grounds at the Presidio’sheart, the sound of hammers and power tools indicates that changesare afoot. But plans involve carefully folding history into thefuture: The post’s oldest building, the Officers’ Club, part ofwhich dates to 1812, now houses a visitor center and gallery withchanging historical and art exhibitions. Down the road,cream-colored Victorian homes built for officers now house officesfor nonprofit groups. And in the remodeled Mediterranean RevivalSan Francisco Film Centre, cozy Desiree Cafe serves warming soupsand leafy salads.
Beyond, young families overflow from the former army barracksthat now serve as apartment buildings on MacArthur Avenue near ElPolin Spring, a burbling stream reported (back when its water waspotable) to reward drinkers with fertility.
Around the spring’s meadow, a father and daughter bicycle, sheteetering despite training wheels. She rolls down the hill slowly,so cautious she’s in danger of toppling. The father reaches out ahand to steady the back of her seat as she concentrates. It’s aquiet, personal collaboration ― and a snapshot of thePresidio’s new harmony.