A Brief History of Holly Park’s Creation, Rise, Decline, and Fabulous Rejuvenation

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This is a special post by contributor David Young, courtesy of our friends at Hoodline.

Nestled on the southern slope of Bernal Heights, just behind the hill’s more famous peak, Holly Park one of the least well-known parks in San Francisco. Yet with a history that dates back over 150 years, Holly Park is also one of the oldest parks in the city. Thankfully, lots of effort by determined neighbors and local nonprofits have combined to ensure that Holly Park doesn’t show its age. Today it remains a prime destination for dog walkers, young families, and in-the-know San Franciscans.

Holly Park was established in 1862, when silver magnate James Graham Fair purchased the 7.5-acre parcel for $375,000 and deeded it to the city. At the time, the area around it, called Bernal Rancho, was almost entirely undeveloped, so residents had little access to the new public land. That was the case until 1894, when the Holly Park Improvement Club convinced the city to build Holly Park Avenue (now known as Holly Park Circle). The street gave the rapidly expanding neighborhood a park they could finally call their own.

It took until 1926 for the unremarkable collection of small trees and shrubs on Holly Park to be replaced by proper landscaping. Basketball and tennis courts were added, along with a playground and the park’s now-towering eucalyptus trees. That was a triumph, but it was also was the last major improvement the park received for decades. Despite consistent popularity,  large sections of the park fell into disarray over the decades. By 1991, citing hazardous conditions, Rec and Park fenced in the playground.

Fortunately, that sad state of affairs did not last long. In the early 2000s, Bernal neighbor Eugenie Marek enjoyed taking early morning walks around the neighborhood. Circling Holly Park, she regularly noted the poor state of the park’s facilities. In March, 2000 voters had allocated $110 million  for open-space improvements, so Neighbor Eugenie organized Friends of Holly Park and developed a proposal to upgrade the park grounds. The proposal collected over 200 signatures and was passed by the city in 2002. Two years later, renovations were completed and the park was once again reopened.

Today, Holly Park is a regular destination for locals. A short, five-minute walk from the commercial strip of Cortland Ave., Holly Park is a great place to enjoy breathtaking views of the Bay from a unique southern vantage point. It’s even better with children: In 2006, the Chronicle rated the playground Holly Park one of the best in San Francisco. There’s a lot to love, including the baseball diamond, a tennis court, a basketball court, picnic and BBQ areas, and an upgraded playground.

Holly Park is located at Holly Park Circle, south of Cortland Ave. The park is is open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. The picnic tables and barbecue pits can be booked through the SF Rec and Park website.

IMAGES: Top, detail from Whitaker & Kelley: Map of Bernal Heights, June 1889. Below, 2016 photo of Holly Park baseball diamond, by David Young.

12 thoughts on “A Brief History of Holly Park’s Creation, Rise, Decline, and Fabulous Rejuvenation

  1. Wait, wait! I’m a bit embarassed here! It was not a solo effort by far.
    While I was encouraged to organize a first meeting, numerous people came on board immediately. City voters had passed a park renovation measure in 2000. Since Holly Park was so woebegone, we advocated for a speedy renovation, and this was granted. The renovation was completed by 2004.
    I could name so many people and organizations that played important roles in bringing this about.

  2. I lived on Holly Park Circle from about 1933 to 1941 when we moved to Gladys Street on the west side of the reservoir. We had to move because my dad had homing pigeons and neighbors complained about the birds flying overhead. The huge old trees, the two enclosed handball courts, the trails, the swings and baseball field were great and well used with right field an automatic “three outs”…forcing us all to pull the ball and hit only to left field. An enormous tree in deep center marked the division between right and left fields. Old timers used to play cards on the sturdy tables and used little pebbles instead of money as their bets… From my vantage from the 3rd floor of Junipero Serra elementary 5th grade we could see the many trees, and a beautiful circular but flat cypress tree that we loved to climb..
    Every year Holly Park Circle would be used for a huge skating competition with a lap or two around the circle’ and no cars allowed. There was an old fire house adjacent to Junipero Serra and it was moved to the vacant east end of the open large lot (you’ll see it on the map) where the projects were built in 1942, A new firehouse was built around 1946 on the lot left from the original location, across the street from Junipero Serra.
    The City rec department did little since they had no one assigned to the park and when someone came for a day or so you could see supplies like new tennis balls and a couple of bats in their storage area…but never used by us kids. In those days there was a small backstop but not the more modern one that is there today.
    I also see that names of many streets were changed or added from the original 1862 map.
    We were very lucky to be raised in such a wonderful neighborhood. Patrick O’Brien, Sacramento, CA.

  3. The big beautiful olive trees in Holly Park were transplanted from Civic Center/United Nations Plaza around 10 years ago.

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