There shouldn’t be a park here. That’s what Frederick Law Olmsted, the legendary designer behind New York’s Central Park, told San Francisco bigwigs in 1865, when they first approached him about creating an equally grand park in their city. The frontier metropolis, he said, was too windy and sandy to support even a tree.
And yet, here it is. Born 150 years ago, Golden Gate Park is a lovely surprise, 1,017 green acres in the heart of one of the densest cities in the United States. It’s a place where San Franciscans can toss a Frisbee, row a boat, and joyously decompress. “The best urban park in America,” says Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department. Ginsburg’s position might make him seem biased, but trust me, he’s right. The park has been my family’s beloved backyard for nearly 20 years. It is beyond compare.
Ignoring Olmsted, legislators approved the park’s development on April 4, 1870. But the proposed site was wilderness, mostly giant sand dunes dotted with tangles of scrub oak. Luckily, two intrepid San Franciscans—park surveyor William Hammond Hall and horticulturist John McLaren—rose to the challenge. “They planted trees to block the wind,” explains Ginsburg, discovering that “by mixing barley with sand, they could get things to grow.” In two years, the duo had planted 22,000 hardy saplings. Today, the park is verdant with redwoods and rhododendrons, conifers and camellias.
On the map, Golden Gate Park is deceptively simple. Two linked rectangles stretch from the middle of the city to the Pacific. But it holds a parade of wonders: 10 lakes, two windmills, and a bison herd. Plus, on Sundays, an open-to-anybody swing dance class so hot it almost convinces you that you, too, could Lindy Hop to "Jump, Jive an' Wail."
It's a much-used park, with 25 million visitors a year, two major music festivals, and weekly band concerts. There are flower shows, lawn bowling contests, and dozens of races.
And for me? Golden Gate Park has sculpted my life. My wife and I chose our house because it lies next to the park, and the park helped us raise three dogs and one son. It has been our jogging path and our family Christmas photo backdrop. (One year, we dressed our then 4-year-old in a jaunty fisherman's outfit and sat him outside the Angler's Lodge.) Above all, the park is our congratulations when we're feeling good, and our solace when we're feeling bad.
After years of exploring those 1,017 acres, I've come to understand that, like all great urban parks, this one channels its city's soul. Like San Francisco, Golden Gate Park is radiant but sometimes moody, welcoming to everyone— art lovers, bison lovers, and Lindy Hoppers—and rich in ways that no one could have dreamed of back in 1870. Don't believe me? Come to the park. I'll be there.