San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood is about as concrete as it gets. It's gritty character is imbrued with the poor and down-and-out who inhabit its streets and single room occupancy hotels.
It isn’t a place to imagine rolling grass or lush gardens.
At just over an acre, Boeddeker Park represents the Tenderloin’s largest open space. It is the playground for neighborhood kids, and a backyard for the area’s estimated 50,000 residents.
Founded in the 1980s on the site of a former bowling alley, the park is a maze of heavy black fences and brick walkways, giving the sense of a fortress.
"The park is so fenced in,” said Betty Traynor, head of the Friends of Boeddeker Park. "Many people have said it reminds them of a prison."
On a recent day, a group of uniformed kids from the San Francisco Christian Academy played on the park’s antiquated playground. The school doesn’t have its own playground so kids come to Boeddeker for recess.
We play freeze-tag and we just talk and hang out," said student Tracy Martinez. "It’s like a yard when you play."
The park is now about to undergo a massive transformation thanks to an unlikely savior. The Trust for Public Land, a national organization devoted to preserving the nation’s open spaces, is spearheading a makeover of Boeddeker. Through its urban space programs, the organization is helping to raise nearly $6 million dollars to renovate the park.
"This is going to be their backyard where they can run and play and sit under a tree or exercise," said Trudy Garber of the TFPL. "Get out and breathe fresh air."
The plans call for the removal of many of the park’s menacing fences and the addition of a new club house, a full basketball court, soccer field and childrens’playground. A large cistern will catch rainwater for use in a new community garden.
"This park is not working right now and we need to make it better," said Garber.
Neighborhood activists say greening the park will enhance the rare commodity of space in an area famous for its drug dealing and street crime.
"To have a place where kids can run around and play," said Esan Looper of the San Francisco Boys and Girls Club, "it means everything when you don’t really have that.'
Some critics have questioned whether the changes improve safety, and whether the some of the features, like a basketball court are necessary. San Francisco’s Parks and Recreation Commission is set to vote on the plan Thursday. If passed, groundbreaking would take place in August.
The City says the downside is the park would be closed for about two years while the work is done. It expects other smaller parks in the Tenderloin will pick up the slack while the work is done.
Once it’s done, planners ultimately hope the rolling lawns will bear little resemblance to the concrete world just beyond its gate.