Buena Vista Park: Which Woods Were the Problem? 1980-1991

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Nestled in the hills of the Haight Ashbury district is San Francisco’s third largest park. Buena Vista Park (BVP), meaning “good view” in spanish, was the first parcel of city land to be exempted from development in 1867 and was a perfect place for visitors to stop and look upon an emerging West Coast metropolis. Around 1910, famed landscape architect John McLaren then supervised the forestation of it’s hills; adding eucalyptus, cypress, pine, Australian tee treas, etc. to create one of the most beautiful and serene view spots in San Francisco. [Jeanne Alexander, San Francisco Observer, 1999] Over the decades, however, Buena Vista sank into neglect. Having fell victim to lack of maintenance funds, the park eventually earned itself a murky reputation.

By the early 1980’s, the desirable San Francisco neighborhood, drew a proliferating number of affluent 30ish couples starting families. The demographic changes to the area were precipitous and these new neighbors wanted an “improved, more accessible park and they went to work to achieve this.” [Mildred Hamilton, San Francisco Examiner, 1987] In March of 1985 a multi-million dollar Buena Vista Park reforestation plan along with an erosion program, was proposed to the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. The Buena Vista Neighborhood Association (BVNA) had a vision to create a renovated public space that would better suit their young families. And although motives were widely publicized and praised as a community inspired project, this plan was unquestionably a manifestation of the homophobic moral agenda of a group people, who’s ultimate aim was to both marginalize and expel the gay male community (and the behavior they considered abominable), from a neighborhood they believed was theirs. This is a story of hidden motives, unheard voices, and a political manipulation of public space.

The summer of 1967 is considered by many to have marked BVP as the hot spot for anonymous sex. Despite it’s somewhat perilous reputation, the park and it’s wealth of lush undergrowth existed as a quintessential playground for gay men. “In the days when being caught in public with a same sex partner resulted not only in having your name printed in local papers, but also your home address and the name of your employers, the park felt like one of the few ‘safe’ places to conduct these clandestine encounters... With the sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s, the park just became one more place to party.” [Timothy Keegan, Panorama: The Newsletter of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society Addendum, June 16, 2002] Clearly, the park wasn’t as terrible as it was made to appear. As it may have been unkept and served as grounds for the occasional drug deal or violent crime, it was also a facility for members of the gay male community to connect with each other. It was a place where gay men could take pleasure in an anonymous fuck, blow-job, three-some, four-some, masturbation circle—whatever they wanted!—all within the privacy and the safety of some overgrown bushes.

Unless one ventured into the park looking to see a strange tangle of bodies, catching these men in the act wasn’t something that happened all too often (it was later made to appear as though these men were engaging in sex on the open trails). Isabel Wade, an involved and active neighbor of the park for more than 35 years, and president of the group, Friends of Buena Vista Park, lived across the street from BVP and claimed that the gay men who used the park were very discreet. She one stated, “Mostly one just sees them cruising, not actually having sex, and I really don’t have any objections against people walking around in a park. Besides, the cruise area is only at the most three acres (the entire park is a bit more than thirty-six acres) which is not a big part of so large a park.” [Robert Pruzan, Sentinel USA, 1986] Thus the term “cruising.” As mentioned above, the park offered gay men the safety of engaging in physical intimacy with each other. The impetus to do such a thing, surely stemmed from a socially repressive need. If it was their intent to have sex in places where everyone could see them, I assume they would’ve have chosen a more appropriate venue; like a street corner.

The three acres of BVP known for cruising were, and still are, referred to as East Slope, and used to sit directly across from old St. Joseph hospital. Despite neighborhood protests, St. Joseph’s was developed into an upscale condo complex called Park Hill, in 1984. The new development, which housed units costing up to $350,000, lured the new neighbors—those 30ish couples I introduced earlier—who were predominantly affluent and most significantly, heterosexual. One irate Park Hill resident claimed to have seen an “excessive amount of sexual activity...in the open view of my home”, when he looked down into the park. In a letter to Mayor Diane Feinstein, he expressed, that although he did not go to the window of his 7th story condo to seek these views, nor was he using “binoculars or spending hours looking for something to complain about...the situation literally cannot be ignored,” unless “I paint over the glass on my windows”. His letter suggests the notion that he was being purposely besieged by the “large numbers of men” who were “fondling themselves in the bushes.” [Tanner Boyer, Letter to Mayor Diane Feinstein, 1985] Letters like these to the city office only helped to proliferate the negative attention that was currently being drawn to BVP.

In 1980 a deplorable and seemingly bigoted piece of CBS reporting, entitled “Gay power, Gay Politics,” aired on public television. The footage revealed grainy, yet shocking footage of gay men having sex in the park’s bushes. In addition to gay sex, the park was a site for the occasional violent crime. That same year, a gang of neo-Nazi Skinheads tied a homeless man to a tree and set him on fire. It was these two incidents from the early 80’s, specifically—in combination with the earlier concern for the park’s neglect and erosion—that brought much unwanted attention, and went on to inspire the neighborhood to reclaim “their” park. [Timothy Keegan, Panorama: The Newsletter of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society Addendum, June 16, 2002]

At the fore-front, and responsible for reviving the long dormant Buena Vista Neighborhood Association, was BV neighbor John Hooper. Hooper’s influence along with the added support of the new Park Hill owners, would later change the park forever. Over the next few years, the BVNA’s vigorous volunteer work resulted in group meetings, nature walks, and tree-plantings as well as gained them the support of surrounding groups such as the Haight-Ashbury Improvement Association, The Cole Valley Improvement Association, the Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association, the Mount Olympus Neighborhood association and the Stanyan-Fulton Neighborhood Association. They also received partial funding for Enterprise high school student summer clean-up assignments, and were granted a request for an increase in police patrols around the park.

Then, in 1985, after what the BVNA claims were hundreds of hours of professional staff effort and volunteer work, numerous community meetings, the inclusion of over 400 citizens in mass mailings, and responding “in a balanced manner to the interests, concerns and priorities expressed by a diverse community,” the association developed a 40-page plan called the Buena Vista Park Master Plan and submitted it to the Recreation and Park Department. [Mildred Hamilton, San Francisco Examiner, 1987] They sought to receive the man power and the significant funding that their vision of park improvement required. Their goal was “to develop an economically feasible, long range improvement and maintenance plan...ensure the preservation of the natural character of the park while providing more recreational opportunities for a variety of park users.” [Robert Pruzan Collection, box 1, folder 4 Buena Vista Master Plan Summary] What they failed to mention was the thoughtless and barbaric nature in which they intended to carry out this Master Plan.

Two years later, in January of 1987, San Francisco Rec and Park issued a 70 page document outlining the $2.2 million work order. And alas, John Hooper and the Buena Vista Neighborhood Association had secured a relationship with Rec and Park that would become more and more private—eventually, and even quite sloppily, lifting the veil on their true motives, revealing the honest moral agenda of the people who now held all the cards. The first order of business on the BVNA inspired Rec and Park plan? Well, “the emphasis of the Recommended Plan (the one written by the BVNA) is on major renovation and restoration rather than improvements.” [Robert Pruzan Collection, box 1, folder 4 Buena Vista Master Plan Summary] This essentially means that although new amenities were on the list of improvements wanted to the park, priority number one, was pruning of the bushes—the same bushes that covered the “vigilant” acts of the gay men who spent time nestled inside them.

Once the BVNA had a hold of the support of Rec. and Park, it seemed liked the entire reforestation project was in the hands of one small group comprised of irate, homophobic prune-happy neighbors who wanted to take over a space that they initially did not feel welcome. In 1989 the Master Plan was amended by a “not-so-well distributed” document that outlined “erosion control” which in essence is the complete demolition of every last gay cruising spot in the park . Hooper was seen guiding “erosion control” gardeners through overgrown areas and even spotted a few times with his own chain saw. [Robert Pruzan, Sentinal USA 1991] Since when did John Hooper or even his guilty cohorts get designated as authorized park landscapers? Making his true motives even more apparent is that pruning of the park was already happening by the time this plan was published or even officially put into action.

Robert Pruzan, BV neighbor, frequent meeting attendee, and well known photojournalist, wrote an article for a February, 1986 issue of Sentinel USA outlining his thoughts on what he was seeing. As a gay man, Pruzan took offense to the renovations and considered them a form of “homophobic” pruning (although none of that was ever actually admitted by anyone in the Rec and Park Department). He felt that he and other members of the gay male community were being dismissed; their role in the BV community unconsidered. Although the BVNA declared that community planning meetings were frequent, well advertised and welcomed a diverse crowd, the reality of the situation was that the effort to include outsiders once support was received, was minimal if not completely diminished. And not everybody was always on the same page as the many published articles about the Buena Vista project mislead. In a paper written by Pruzan in 1986 entitled You Asked For It: City Parks’ Bond to Fun Buena Vista Park Changes, Isabel Wade admitted that there were often “shouting matches” at the neighborhood meetings. [Robert Pruzan, Sentinel USA, 1986] Pruzan writes “John Hooper, president of BVNA is not only highly veracious. One gay reporter recently stated, ‘Last summer Hooper threw rocks at us in the bushes.’” The article also confirms the unauthorized pruning in the park stating that John Hooper “was out there,” with high school worker volunteers, “directing the action.”

In 1991 a young worker admitted that he’d been told the real reason for the park’s remodeling was to discourage deviants, but also states he was told he had to be proper and non confrontational. He said “they want to make sure they can see everything that goes on up there.” Incidents of other crew members (student volunteers from Enterprise for High School Students) were seen chasing gays from the park, throwing pinecones and yelling “faggot!” and “queer!” and their supervisors didn’t object. One student even admitted four years later that he felt that the work he had done was pointless and that workers were simply following the orders of the officers on site—John Hooper and his buddies. [Robert Pruzan paper, You Asked For It: City Parks’ Bond to Fun Buena Vista Park Changes, 1986]

6 years after the official kick-off date of the BVP Master Plan, Robert Pruzan paints a dim picture of the renovation aftermath written in a September, 1991 Sentinal USA article.

“Anyone walking in or around Buena Vista Park these days can see remodeling has been going on. Once so luxuriantly overgrown that families of rabbits and quail bred freely in the protective underbrush, now glimpses of Haight Street are seen, 1000 feet down steep slopes formerly covered with trees and shrubbery: the drought-tolerant ecological masterwork of Adolph Sutro, and John McLaren. But with a wave of the disregard of the park’s constituencies, a Herculean transformation has occurred. Visitors seeking solitude or escape from urban landscapes now gawk in disbelief that there isn’t any. Fences and barren hills have replaced the hundred-year-old plantings.”

And he ends the article by saying,

“...this arrogant, unattractive, unecological, prejudicially conceived, vindictive, and clearly homophobic project continues daily, unchallenged, at the public’s financial, emotional, and aesthetic expense.” [Robert Pruzan, The Sentinel USA, 1991]

It is clear now, that not everybody in the community was onboard for the way this project transpired. After searching through files in the San Francisco Historical Room as well as the GLBT Historical Archives, Robert Pruzan was the only gay man (other than a few brief responses in various newspapers editorials) I could find who published—or even really voiced an opinion about the changes he witnessed in BVP during it’s 10-year renovation.

While unable to find direct evidence of why more of a fight was not put forth, it seems justifiable to presume that the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco during the 80’s had a significant impact in the strength of the gay male community as a whole. According to the Aids Education Global Information System’s website, the number of reported death from AIDS in the United States in 1980 was a modest 31 people. By 1991 20,454 Americans had been infected with HIV and later died from AIDS; that number consisting predominantly of gay men. Given the dense gay population, the silent killer flowed heavily through the veins of San Francisco and it’s people. I imagine that after the liberation and excitement that anonymous, fleeting sex in the bushes, offered gay men, contracting the AIDS virus was the ultimate way to put a damper on the party. Further, if the gay men didn’t have AIDS themselves, I’m sure they were too busy dealing with the sicknesses and losses of their loved ones who did. In the end, it seems as though the priority was for each other and not for the bushes they used to play in.

Why does this all matter? How does John Hooper and the BVNA, wanting to renovate the park have anything to do with the displacement or the alienation of the gay male community at large? Examining the gay male sexual lifestyle is fundamental to understanding the gay male community. Promiscuity and anonymous sex are behaviors heavily associated with gay men. This can be explained in myriad ways, but for all intense and purposes, I think Samuel R. Delaney, author of ‘Times Square Red, Times Square Blue’, offers an applicable explanation and insight into the topic. In this book about the re-urbanization of Times Square in New York City, Delaney discusses the human connection among people living in urban areas. He insists that, even the most transient of encounters, provide an emotional fulfillment as well as a sense of community to gay men; that through these encounters, exists fluidity, openness and special contact, which he claims, are perhaps the most valuable facility of an urban life. [Samuel Delaney, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York: New York UP 1999]

The validity of Delaney’s perspective comes from personal experience. He recounts tenderly of his own participation in these sorts of unplanned, serendipitous sexual encounters in Times Square in New York City in the 1980’s. His stories offer insight into the disdainfully dismissed world of public gay sex; for it happens in all parts of the country. The reforestation of BVP is an utterly perfect example of how urban redevelopment projects try to eliminate that contact, resulting in a sterile suburban form of social connection. John Hooper maintained that his work in Buena Vista was “...a way of breaking down anonymity...a way of cultivating a community.” [Maitland Zane, San Francisco Chronicle, 1991] However, he failed to recognize or even acknowledge the community he was disrupting in the meantime. He was thinking only of himself—of others like him. In fact, every person who participated in this project under the guidance of Hooper and the BVNA including Rec and Park (who supported a private group and kept themselves out of trouble by saying they were supporting the greater public), is responsible for supporting and perpetuating the oppression that homosexuals have been battling since the beginning of time.