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The Glen Park Greenway closely follows the old path of Islais Creek. Islais is derived from the word “slay” or “islay,” the name given by the Salinan Native Americans to the Hollyleaf cherries (Prunus illicifolia) that lined the banks of the creek. The historic Islais Creek was the largest body of water in Yerba Buena (the original name of San Francisco) covering an area of nearly 5,000 acres. From its sources in Glen Canyon, the entire creek stretched about 3.5 miles (5.6 km) to the San Francisco Bay. The mouth was nearly 2 miles (3.2 km) wide, providing up to 85% of the drinking water in San Francisco. The creek once covered a large number of neighborhoods in San Francisco, such as Bernal Heights, Hunters Point, Visitacion Valley, parts of the Mission and Potrero Hill.
Attendant on the Gold Rush of 1849, the population of San Francisco increased from 500 to 150,000 between 1847 and 1870. This surge led to unprecedented development in retail, shipping, entertainment, lodging, and transportation, as well as boardinghouses, food preparation, sewing, and laundry. All were highly profitable businesses that inevitably took a toll on the natural environment. For example, in 1871, the area along Islais creek became known as the city’s “New Butchertown” when more than 100 slaughterhouses opened. The creek literally became a dumping place of garbage, sewage, animal waste, and unsold meat products. The condition became so bad that the creek was commonly referred to as “Shit Creek” by San Franciscans, according to historian Karl Kortum.
After the 1906 Earthquake, Islais Creek almost completely disappeared when the City of San Francisco diverted much of the creek into underground culverts and covered them with debris from fallen buildings. For most of its length the modern creek is contained by the City’s combined sewer and stormwater system so it now flows invisibly beside and under The Greenway.
In the middle of the 20th Century, Glen Park suffered another environmental assault. The city purchased and razed nearly 20 structures along the north side of Bosworth Street as part of its plan to build a Crosstown Freeway. Fortunately, this misguided plan to connect Interstate 280 with the Golden Gate Bridge through Glen Canyon Park was halted in the 1960s by neighborhood activists: Zoanne Theriault Nordstrom, Joan Seiwald, and Geri Arkush. These young women were deprecatingly named the Gum Tree Girls by the officials in charge of the freeway project. The activists proudly adopted that name and their successful campaign against the freeway is now commemorated in the name of a trail in Glen Canyon Park.
Today, the land along the Glen Park Greenway corridor is owned primarily by the San Francisco Department of Public Works (PW) and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC). Additionally, The Archdiocese of San Francisco owns a portion near St. John School. Most of these parcels are remainders of the property acquired for the Crosstown Freeway. After the Crosstown Freeway plan was thwarted, the city planted trees on the undeveloped land. Unfortunately, due to a lack of funds, the city stopped tending the area, and it became seriously overgrown. Undeterred, walkers and hikers gradually created a trail through the vegetation, establishing a shortcut between Glen Park Village and Glen Canyon Park.
In 2012, after about a decade of work with the Glen Park Association (GPA), and in concert with interested residents, the Board of Supervisors approved the Glen Park Community Plan. This plan included, as one of its key objectives, improvement of the unmaintained land as an open space corridor and pedestrian path connecting Glen Park’s retail village and transit hub to Glen Canyon Park. Once the concept of the Greenway was well established as a project, the GPA sponsored it as part of the PW’s Street Park Program allowing the community to share responsibility for the stewardship of the public land. After obtaining Street Park status for the Greenway, GPA transferred the entire project to the San Francisco Parks Alliance (SFPA). The mission of SFPA is to engage with communities to champion, transform and activate public spaces. The Friends of the Glen Park Greenway is now a project of SFPA. In 2019, the Greenway became part of the 17-mile SF Crosstown Trail running from Candlestick Point State Recreation Area in the southeast corner of the city to Lands End in the northwest corner.
Thanks to the generosity and labor of many in the community, this sylvan retreat is enjoyed today by walkers and runners and hosts a variety of local wildlife.