SF Historical Society contest inspires next generation of local historians

High school students tackle Golden Gate Park’s history and pass its stories along

To commemorate Golden Gate Park’s 150th anniversary this year, the San Francisco Historical Society centered its Fracchia Prize writing contest on creating a walking tour for a perfect day in Golden Gate Park.

Second-place-winner Indigo Mudbhary — whose tour is called “Horticultural History: Learning about San Francisco’s Past through the Garden Gems of the City’s Favorite Park” — prepared for the contest by making a long list of things she loved in the park. Mudbhary, a student at Lick Wilmerding High School, was fascinated by the concept of natural spaces in urban settings and struck out to research their histories.

“I took a lot of notes and went to all these sites on my own. Once I had the ones chosen, I added some I didn’t know about, like the colonial trees,” Mudbhary said, referring to the park’s collection of trees that were planted in 1896 as tributes to the U.S.’s original 13 colonies.

The tour contains eight stops at historical statues, gardens and groves.

One feature of the tour that impressed Lana Costantini, SFHS director of education and publishing, and Phil Ginsburg, the head of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department and a contest judge, was her inclusion of the Pioneer Mother statue, the only statue of a woman in Golden Gate Park.

“History is very complicated, obviously. I thought it was important that we have a statue of a woman and we only have one,” Mudbhary said. “It says a lot as a time capsule of the past. Colonialism, Manifest Destiny and the pioneer mentality itself is a glorification of genocide of Native Americans.”

Instead of focusing on those far-reaching concepts, she wanted to mention the statue’s gender, how the vision of Golden Gate Park was shaped by men, and what it meant for the course of history.

“What I wanted to focus on was not so much what the statue represents, but the fact it was a woman and touch upon with my essay that the history of Golden Gate Park is dominated by white cis men. I wanted to hint in my essay that no historical account is ever complete,” Mudbhary said. “It’s important to take into account what voices are missing and talk about them.”

At the same time, Golden Gate Park has long served as a valuable community space, where Mudbhary and countless others hold valuable memories.

“Your own memories are your own personal history and you can go deeper from there,” Mudbhary said. “I encourage young people to definitely look into the [Fracchia Prize] contest. The process of researching and learning about the park in the larger context of The City was the greatest prize.”

Three people received the award, given to recognize exceptional original writing about San Francisco history by students in public and private high schools. The award includes prizes of $2,500, $1,500 and $1,000 for first-, second- and third-place winners, respectively, and publication in SFHS’s magazine The Argonaut or newsletter Panorama.

For the first time, The City’s Recreation and Park Department, as well as San Francisco City Guides, served as cosponsors.

“I think the importance of the competition is that Golden Gate Park is one of the most special places in America. As we think of its 150 years of history, there is no question the park will need champions and stewards for the next 150 years,” Ginsburg said. “Everyone who answered to this contest will be a Golden Gate Park champion in the years to come – someday, one of the contestants may have my job.”

Accommodations and supplementary resources were put online to help those who entered the competition, since the pandemic complicated the application process.

“We figured with everything being disrupted we should extend the deadline to July 15,” said Costantini. “SF City Guides put together a guide on how to make a good walking tour, and Rec and Park gave us a map with locations marked on it. We figured out who could promote the contest to kids, and we asked Rec and Park to keep promoting it and keep it alive.”

The efforts paid off. All the contestants “did a terrific job” and “made interesting and well-informed guides,” Ginsburg said.

Costantini, who weighed the rankings of the judges, said, “The winners in particular were impressive due to the depth of their research and their ability to trace the past with the present. They showed enthusiasm, a sense of engagement and the ability to see relevant things.”