Carlos Santana says Precita Park in Bernal Heights is “where it all started.”
Santana hailed from northeast Bernal Heights, and he launched his musical career during freewheeling weekend jam sessions that transformed Precita Park into an urban amphiteater.
Precita Park was where it all started for Bernal neighbor Orlando Galvez as well. Orlando was a young kid at the time, but he lived on Folsom, just up the street from Precita Park, and the scene that sprang up around Santana during those musical weekends left a lasting impression.
These are Neighbor Orlando’s memories:
I remember when I was a six year-old boy, watching Carlos Santana play his guitar. I thought he was the coolest kid in the Precita Park. When Santana was playing, I would even drift away from my beloved satellite spinner to get a better view.
Precita Park was a weekend mecca where hippies, Black Panthers, Symbianese Liberation Army radicals, and neighborhood Chicanos with their spectacular, sparkling lowriders would all gather around the playground right near where the satellite spinner still spins today.
“Oye Como Va” always got the party started.
The whole park smelled like cannabis and fried chicken. It didn’t matter where you stood or what spot you claimed for your picnic; there was no escaping the foggy clouds going Up In Smoke. I remember it looking sort of like a gigantic outdoor steam room. Bongs traveled around the park as all the different tribes shared the “weefer” (that’s what they used to call it) from their pipes. In-between were dozens of Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets, half emptied of deep-fried original recipe wings, drumsticks, and buttered sourdough rolls. Along the street, dozens of customized lowriders parked bumper to bumper, stealthily showing off their power by competing for the highest hop near the mound in Precita Park where Carlos liked to play his guitar.
That’s how I remember Precita Park in the late sixties and very early seventies. I feel fortunate to have been a part of that era. This was before America declared war on the poor through Reagan’s “war on drugs.” It was also way, way before LAPD chief Daryl Gates began using gangster tactics to antagonize non-white, non-affluent neighborhoods. It was before the Black Panther raids, and before Gates-inspired SWAT teams were given the “go ahead” to begin terrorizing citizens.
In hindsight though, I realize I’m also fortunate to have had the unique opportunity to grow up in Bernal Heights, one of San Francisco’s most unique and profound neighborhoods, at a time when it was so rich in culture, politics, art, and (most of all) controversy. Where else on this planet could a six year-old boy hear Santana’s electric guitar on any given Sunday, free of charge, in seventy-ish degree weather, before an evening mist of Pacific fog rolled in?
A six year old boy pays attention to the adults around him, because those adults seem like godly giants. As I write of these remembered moments, I feel incredible gratitude for all the care and love I received from everyone who was in the park in those days. Listening to Santana in Precita Park had a big influence on me, but only now do I realize how much it shaped me into the person I have become.
Such awesomeness. Have a Bernal memory to share? Email your story to us: bernalwood at gmail dotcom.
PHOTOS: Top, “Inspire To Aspire,” a Carlos Santana tribute mural (now effaced) painted in 1987 by Michael Rios at South Van Ness at 22nd Street. Below, Precita Park in 1973. Santana played on the mound in the foreground, and on a patch of concrete just to the left. Orlando called this play structure The Octopus., “That thing was so hard to climb,” he says. “The pegs were too short, and they were made of iron, so they were super slippery.” Photo by Max Kirkeberg via the Bernal Heights History Project.