By Chris Faust
Thanks to local resident, tireless volunteer and faithful correspondentChris Faust of Upper Noe Neighbors/Friends of Noe Valley Rec Center/Friends of Upper Noe Dog Owners Group for providing this account of the opening of the Beacon Street Trail!
June 15, 2016
Standing at 30th and Church, I notice the time is 2:52. Yikes, only eight minutes until the ribbon cutting for the new Beacon Street Trail. “Let’s go, Grover” I command to my faithful but less energetic, middle-aged canine. Much like his master, he is less enthusiastic about uphill hikes these days. But the weather was perfect, time was short, and we had reason to want to be at that event.
Huffing and puffing to the top of Billy Goat Hill, a City worker named Ryan at Beacon Street informed me “Everyone is on top.” Great! Finding that last bit of energy, we persevered on until reaching that last step. Phil Ginsburg and Scott Wiener were now visible before a group gathered just beyond the row of shrubs leading out of the woods. “Phil, I thought you were going to put an escalator on this trail!” I breathlessly called out. He smiled and replied that he put the trail in so that I could be healthy. Hmmm.
A crowd of about 40 neighbors, leaders of neighborhood associations and parks groups, and officials gathered before a broad red ribbon. Recreation and Park Manager Phil Ginsburg presided and gave a short speech, as did Wiener, Diamond Heights Community Associations’ Betsy Eddy and Recreation and Park Commission President, Mark Buell. Then they cut the ribbon and descended the trail. Open for business at last.
Going back, it was three years ago when Phil Ginsburg mentioned to me his desire for an improved connecting trail between Billy Goat Hill and Walter Haas Park. It would be part of a project to link parks and open spaces to encourage hiking and exploration. Dutifully, I nodded agreement. Secretly, I screamed, “Noooooooooo.”
You see, I was a fan of the old social trail. It had charm and character, and that special certain creepiness to it that makes forests feel at least slightly dangerous. It stirred one’s sense of adventure. Such sense, or lack of, was almost a requirement to enter and exit the trail, with its steep, muddy plunge at the top and challenging grade at the bottom. But once on the trail, the walk became easy and interesting. While one could catch glimpses of the city through the trees, the magic was that one could equally ignore the outside world. For here, the mark of man appeared only as a trail. No signs, groomed trees or manicured bushes, and seldom even any litter. This place, one of the last undeveloped woods of San Francisco, felt sacred almost.
So, the idea of “developing” the trail seemed tantamount to turning Yosemite over to Disney. I watched, communicated, formed alliances, went to meetings, talked to the landscape architect, and walked a couple proposed paths for the new trail. And I bitched and moaned with like-minded neighbors who wanted to preserve that adventurous, woodsy experience. And we compromised. This option has too many stairs; that option is too steep; another option is too close to houses; no, that one removes too many trees. It was exhausting. Through it all, it felt that Rec & Park was really listening, trying to satisfy the need while capturing the spirit, but that they just were not hearing us. The path seemed destined to jut straight out into the middle, the thinnest part of the woods, with an almost unobstructed view of the city. The serenity would be gone and the contrast to the open experience of Billy Goat Hill diminished. Again, many of us pressed to move the design back closer to the original path, especially the shrubby western end. Again, they enumerated reasons why that could not happen. Assuming that the conversation and compromise were over, this project fell off my radar. Only faint noises came through about construction beginning soon.
In late June, I found myself in Diamond Heights, well dressed, and needing to descend into Upper Noe. Resisting better judgment, I moved into Walter Haas Park toward the trail. Facing slim chances that my shoes would hold to the slippery slope or that my pants would remain un-muddied, the call of the wild beckoned. But…what is this?…a sign! A path through the shrubs. Is the trail complete already? Yes…steps!!! And surprisingly, they do not lead straight ahead into the open center.
From the shrubbery, the stairs descend immediately to the left almost 180 degrees. The clay walls alongside show the multicolor strata of the ages, as one sees in rock canyons. Gorgeous. Following the initial plunge, a gentle path leads west to more stairs at approximately the same location as the original path’s turn, into that mysterious dense cloak of trees and shrubs. Heading back east, the path has been given an even grade and just enough width for two to walk abreast. Quite a few old trees of various species were felled to accommodate the path or because they were near end of life and presented a hazard. And while that impacts the experience, it hasn’t eliminated it. The stump of one felled tree is fashioned into a chair aside the trail and serves as the scenic overlook site. Hikers can rest there and catch glimpses of the city.
The path continues gently on toward a final set of steps, emerging into the sunshine at Beacon Street where a post marks the trail. From there, hikers can cross to Billy Goat Hill. The trails do not line up across the street but a crosswalk is coming soon. That should help guide travelers and perhaps even slow traffic.
My hat is off to everyone involved with this project. From the neighbors who put this project in gear and kept it in motion; to the community leaders, neighborhood associations and park organization who rallied support and attended oh so many meetings to make sure that the community’s vision was communicated; to Rec & Park who had the wisdom to truly listen, go back to the drawing board again and again, and find unique solutions; to the Parks Commission and city leadership who understood the special needs of this project and supported it all the way, Beacon Street Trail represents an amazing compromise. It makes me proud.
Take a hike!