Dean Clough

August 8, 2022

Portico Darwin: Historically Good, Volume II


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It would be hard to calculate, but I am not sure there's a place where I've ever spent more time in my life than in The Presidio, a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, here in SF.  Because since 2014, I've walked 5 miles most every day somewhere in its 1,500 acres of splendor.  And before that, Julie and I were frequent guests, reveling in its stunning evolution since opening to the public in 1994.

Given that, I thought I'd book-end last Friday's blog on The Marina District with one today on my cherished Presidio.  Narcissistic?  Sure - but that's certainly nothing new here.

But again - like Friday, you might just enjoy this.  Although it's long.  Like holy shit long.  And a lot of photos.  Like holy shit, there's a lot of photos.
Brief History and Some Context
As it happens, I'm reading a Killer history book about California right now, and I can confirm this photo matches what's in the book.  Naturally, it's of indigenous people being rounded up (and likely killed) in The Presidio, which got its start as a Spanish military installation in 1776.
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From there, the Mexicans took it over in 1820, but were themselves turned out in 1848 by the good ol' US of A.  It was a major US Army base from that year until 1994.

What attracted everyone, at least initially, was The Presidio's geography, and I don't just mean its nice rolling hills.  Rather, The Presidio offers literally commanding views of both the Golden Gate and the Pacific Ocean, as it occupies a very large portion of the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula.  

But it also was loved by the US Army and those serving in it for more normal reasons:  it is one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Said its final commander, Lieutenant General Glynn Mallory, in 1994, "An officer in the Army had three ambitions:  to make colonel, to be assigned to the Presidio, and to go to heaven.''

World War II
But it was always a military base.  Over time, and into the 20th century, The Presidio evolved from active gun batteries on the cliffs to the most important Army HQ and base on the West Coast. 

In conjunction with Fort Mason, it was the center of the universe for all Pacific operations during World War II, for example.

Korea and Vietnam
Its role continued mostly as is through the Korean and Vietnamese wars.  During this time, approximately 10,000 military and civilian personnel worked and lived onsite in its 900 or so buildings.  This photo is from March of 1965 and the Crissy Field airstrip is still active.

Indeed, as late as 1968, the Army was adding, not subtracting, to The Presidio.   Here is a photo of the new Letterman Army Medical Center under construction during that period, built to treat those wounded in Vietnam.

1972 and The Golden Gate National Recreation Area
In this year, Congress established two National Recreation Areas as the first urban National Parks:  Golden Gate National Recreation Area here in SF and the Bay Area, and Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City, both with beaches, historic military sites, and natural conservation areas.

(There are some readers of this blog who shall go unnamed - OK, it's Elizabeth "Polly" Michaels and Primo Harvey PhD. - that are obsessed with National Parks vs. National Monuments vs. National Historic Trails vs. National Recreation Areas vs. etc.  Maybe this will clear up the confusion for them.  For the record, Muir Woods National Monument is part of The Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  Does this count as a National Park visit?  At least it's in the US . . .)

The history of The Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) area is relevant for TODAY'S RAMBLINGS because it included a critical provision.  If the Army ever decided to depart The Presidio, its land and buildings would become the property of the National Park Service.  Specifically, it would become a part of the GGNRA.

For you out-of-towners, the person credited with this is Phillip Burton, SF's representative in the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi's current job.

As it happened, a lot changed after 1972, and Representative Burton proved to be prescient.   The collapse of the Soviet Union and other factors meant a lot of military installations nationally were superfluous; the topic being such a political hot potato naturally meant a special committee was needed to say the hard things. 

Congress, in May of 1989 and after a whole heck of a lot wrangling, approved the shuttering of 86 facilities, The Presidio of San Francisco included.

The US Army took the flag down for the last time, and turned the keys over to The National Park Service, on October 1, 1994.  The National Park Service would administer it, with federal funding, for the next few years while an epic battle transpired. 

The battle?  It's a shocker I know, but Republicans in Congress couldn't imagine having America pay for a posh park enjoyed mostly by equally posh (and almost uniformly Democratic) San Franciscans.  Even harder to imagine:  most local, state, and federal Republicans wanted to sell off The Presidio to developers. 

Why not?  After all, it's among the most desirable real estate in the world.  Imagine the golf course and homes that could have been built, right here?  "What's the harm?" said Republicans at the time.

1996:  The Presidio Trust
Thankfully, that fiasco was averted - kind of.  As a way to avoid The Presidio being turned over for private residential and commercial development, a compromise was reached in the creation of The Presidio Trust, created by an act of Congress in 1996.

H.R.4236 - Omnibus Parks and Public Lands Management Act of 1996

The Presidio Trust is necessary for a single, obnoxious reason (compromise):  The Presidio is the only park within the entire National Park Service system not funded by taxpayers.  So in exchange for The Presidio not becoming Mall of America West, the Republicans in Congress insisted that The Presidio be self-sufficient.  In this case, they required that to happen by 2013.

Thus, The Presidio Trust (and not the National Park Service) was chartered by Congress with running and maintaining The Presidio, but as important, owning and leasing the hundreds of residential and commercial space - such that it could survive financially.
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The ending is mostly happy:  The Presidio Trust has nailed it.  The goal of self-sufficiency was met, at least in terms of yearly operations:  more money comes in than goes out, even after the pandemic.  In my research for today's post, I was astounded and impressed to learn The Presidio's occupancy rate for both its commercial and residential properties is over 90%.

But there is a big cloud on the horizon.  The Presidio is essentially an old city within a city, and there is a lot of work to do.  The Presidio Trust estimates there's an unfunded $400 million backlog of deferred maintenance and repairs across the park's buildings, roads, and utility systems.  Ouch. 

Its Role Today
But I am confident the park is forever now.  Because the place is far beyond Diamond Certified.  "Urban Oasis" doesn't cut it.  That's suitable for a smaller spot, say, like Central Park in NYC. 

To this observer, the 1500 acres of The Presidio is a central component of what makes San Francisco the most livable major city of any.  It is a privilege to enjoy it.

I'll offer as evidence photos I took in the past few weeks, from newly upgraded portions of the park.  Through it all, The Presidio remains on of the most beautiful places in the world, with a great message for everyone.
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Shocker.  I went on and on so much, there's no room for anything else.

Thank you to any one that is reading this newsletter.


This is perfect today for its title, the music itself, and maybe even more. 

Here is the storied DJ Paul van Dyk and the exceptionally chill "Escape Reality".  It's so relaxing, even I almost become normal whilst enjoying it.

About Dean Clough

Plans To Enjoy Life.