In rush to open new S.F. parks, one neighborhood got left behind

‘It feels abandoned because it has been’

San Francisco has been on a green streak. In recent weeks, Mayor London Breed has inaugurated several new parks across The City, including the expansive Battery Bluff in the Presidio and Francisco Park in Russian Hill – the largest public park to open since 1983.

With the grand opening of the Presidio’s Tunnel Tops also on the horizon, these parks will add nearly 65 acres of green space to San Francisco’s urban landscape, giving residents more places to safely gather as The City continues to emerge from the pandemic.

Though any new park space should be cause for celebration, one has noticeably been left behind.

The Fillmore Turk Mini Park is nestled on a busy street between a McDonald’s drive-through and an erstwhile railway substation. It’s a patch of grass that lays fallow and forgotten, sparsely lit, prone to flooding, and long awaiting the promises of revitalization that have yet to come.

At first blush, the nearly 10,000-square-foot park in the heart of Western Addition is a place that people pass unnoticed while traversing the Fillmore Street corridor.

If you stay awhile, though, another picture emerges entirely. This park is a respite for the neighborhood’s elderly and school-aged — a place to host community events, play chess, wait for the 22 Fillmore or unwrap a Big Mac on its single table. It’s a small pause in an otherwise bustling part of town.

“The Mini Park is one of the last hubs or meeting areas for the Black community,” said Jameel Patterson, associate director of the New Community Leadership Foundation, a nonprofit that works to empower Black and other disenfranchised communities.

But to Darcy Brown, executive director of the nonprofit San Francisco Beautiful, the park is also an example of how The City has continued to neglect its underserved and historically marginalized populations.

“It feels abandoned because it has been,” said Brown. “We’re talking about a tiny little park for a community that really needs a boost in San Francisco. It’s all fine to post Black Lives Matter posters everywhere and march around. But what are you doing to really back that up for the community?”

The Fillmore District is known as a rich cultural and commercial corridor in the heart of San Francisco. It’s a place that gave the world the “Harlem of the West” for its renowned jazz scene, nightclubs, restaurants, churches, and Black-owned businesses that flourished here.

But the Fillmore also bears the scars of displacement, redlining and neglect. The Mini Park itself was part of a larger “urban renewal” effort known as the Western Addition A-2 redevelopment program implemented by Redevelopment Agency in 1966. The program razed large swaths of the neighborhood, uprooting thousands of Black families who owned homes and businesses here.

Records from the Planning Department indicate efforts to rehabilitate the property as a park began in 1968 with the construction of the rear boundary wall and stage, which now doubles as a memorial for Lamar Williams, a beloved high school sports coach killed in 2020.

The latest push to improve the park began in 2012 as part of the Recreation and Park Department’s Community Opportunity Fund, a bond that allocates funding to capital projects. The plans for the park’s future included upgraded drainage, a new lawn, planting beds, trees and a bid to refurbish the stage and add more seating to better accommodate the park’s many events.

“The main thing we wanted was a stage, lighting and seating,” said Majeid Crawford, the New Community Leadership Foundation executive director. “We need tables and chairs in the park so the community can come and play chess and dominoes and just sit down at a table.”

But as soon as the project got started, it stalled. It took Rec and Park four years to assign a project manager, and once it finally secured someone, that person was swiftly replaced with another.

Things finally started rolling again in 2019 when Ward’s organization was awarded $100,000, and former supervisors London Breed and Vallie Brown also committed money from the General Fund, bringing the total funding close to $1 million.

Over the years, the project slowly snaked its way through the construction bid process. Then the pandemic hit.

Despite the newfound challenges, a glimmer of hope emerged last year. Rec and Park had finally secured a contractor and started to push ahead on construction. But the process felt rushed, said Crawford, and the bid that emerged from the years-long process left out funding for the much-needed tables and chairs.

“The first thing that we said when we had our first meeting is the last thing we want to do is raise a lot of money only to have it absorbed into Rec and Park for ‘soft costs.’ And that’s exactly what happened,” said Darcy Brown. “I’m not going to sit here and raise money to donate to Rec and Park and get nothing in return.”

In February, the contractor, Empire Construction Inc., dropped out of the project altogether, citing material shortages, unprecedented price increases and administrative challenges, placing the project in limbo once again.

The experience has left the community with a sense of whiplash and disappointment. “It did seem like it didn’t matter that we were patient for a long time,” said Crawford, who was left scrambling to secure funding for the seating area when he was told the construction was moving ahead. “Seven years later, during a pandemic, all of a sudden you have to run.”

And as other parks have opened with great fanfare, it’s a stark reminder of where investments are flowing — and where they are not, said Brown. “We’re not talking about Alta Plaza. We’re not talking about the Golden Gate Panhandle. We’re talking about a pocket park. And a tremendous amount of money has been wasted in the interim.”

Still, community advocates remain hopeful that Mini Park, once completed, will help the Fillmore Street corridor come back to life. “This could be a rebirth of the Black Fillmore, but the new Fillmore as well,” said Crawford. “This could be a rebirth of all the creative potential that the community has, but don’t have the space or the invitation to express themselves.”

Patterson agrees. “The Mini Park is just a mini part,” he said. “We just need the attention to bring back the Harlem of the West.”

jwolfrom@sfexaminer.com

The Fillmore Turk Mini Park along Fillmore Street in the Western Addition includes a stage. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

The Fillmore Turk Mini Park along Fillmore Street in the Western Addition includes a stage. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Landmark St. Ignatius Church needs repairs, and it’s not going to be cheap

Preservation of historic San Francisco beacon still $4 million short

The temporary shelter debate for San Francisco’s homeless

With a dizzying array of proposed amendments, it’s unclear whether supervisors will support legislation.