They call it San Francisco’s great forgotten park. Despite sprawling hilltop vistas of the East Bay, the downtown skyline and the Pacific Ocean, John McLaren Park rarely even makes it on to the tourist maps.
It’s an embarrassing slight for the 350 acre park on the city's southeastern edge, second in size only to Golden Gate Park.
“It’s had a sort of unsavory reputation,” artist Peter Richards said. “I don’t know if it’s deserved or not.”
Richards and fellow artist Susan Schwartzenberg pondered, and thought, and contemplated how to improve the park’s image. For inspiration, they walked the park’s grassy hilltops, taking in the murky cypress grove and surveying the storied views. In the end, they figured maybe others visitors would simply also like to walk the park, and think.
“Turns out a lot of really great thinkers walked as they pondered their ideas,” Schwartzenberg said. “Darwin was known to walk in a field to contemplate his thoughts.”
In homage to that great lineage of walkers and thinkers, the pair crafted the idea of a Philosophers’ Way, a 2.7 mile trail through the park where visitors could take-in views with some unexpected twists. Those twists were provided courtesy of a series of 14 “musing stations” set-out along the trail.
“The musing stations are places where you stop and rest and explore a view,” said Schwartzenberg, who designed the stations. “It kind of helps annotate that view.”
Many of the stations consisted of blocks of black granite engraved with a quote, observation or a historical tidbit provided by one of the park’s Visitacion Valley neighbors.
Another granite slab featured a picture of Martin Luther King in the foreground of a far-off view Cow Palace where the civil rights leader once spoke. In a grove of cypress trees, another station included a stone vessel catching water from a natural spring.
“We said when you walk through a park you tend to think about things,” Richards said. “So we thought we’ll create a situation where we can stimulate thinking as well.”
The pair was inspired after learning of philosophers' trails in Kyoto, Japan and Heidelberg, Germany. But few park’s anywhere can boast views as expansive as McLaren’s. From various vantage points, a visitor could take in Marin’s Mount Tam, the East Bay or the Pacific Ocean.
“The views were always here,” Susan Pontious of San Francisco’s Arts Commission said. “But the artists have kind of directed our attention to things we may have missed in the past.”
The project’s $140 thousand tab was paid for by San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission. On Saturday the city will dedicate the trail during an 11 am ceremony.
The city hopes the new trail will draw visitors and finally put McLaren Park on the map. And maybe truly give those visitors … something to think about.