Grounds for Fun

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Everybody loves to play, and this includes every full-grown San Franciscan I know. That is probably the chief reason why we live here and not in Fresno – this is a fun town with fun things to do.

But what if your idea of play isn't playing like an adult – and doesn’t involve things like tattoos, drinking, or burlesque shows? What if you really just want to play like a kid, that is, swing on swings and slide on slides?

Then you might be hard-pressed, unless you want to involve the authorities. As a recent incident at Mountain Lake Park showed us, the wrong adult at the wrong playground can expect a barrage of ugly looks, followed by a barrage of anxious phone calls to the police, with the ensuing embarrassing scene dominating the news all week long.

There are public places for a 30-year-old to play like a child without getting arrested. Leave it to me: I found out.

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Perhaps no one’s more in need of a playtime break than the corporate kids who work downtown. They have a fine option right in their backyards: Zeum, at Yerba Buena Gardens. But not for the carousel, ice rink, or theater space – it’s the springy-bottomed, rubberized-surfaced playground, a fall-prone person’s dream.

Before we hit the playground, my companion and I decide to enhance the experience courtesy of a few glasses of ale at nearby Salt House. Sufficiently relaxed, we stroll over to the playground, and my, my. The one slide has to be at least a story tall, enough to absolutely terrify a little kid. Maybe that’s partly why the children present are on the mellower wide slide (which is probably 20-feet long) or playing in the water fountain nearby, leaving us to shoot down the chute.

It is a slide built with kids in mind, but with a little extra effort, it’s worth a post-college try. At the slide’s precipice, I put both hands on the bar above my head, and push off to catapult myself down. I get enough speed to catch a tiny bit of air on the dismount, landing on my feet and taking a running step or two to kill the momentum. I give it a few more goes, and while it’s grin-worthy, not much else. And not the thing to do with a belly full of beer. We need something more.  

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Play is nice, but finding a respite from the heat on those rare sweltering San Francisco Indian summer days is even better. On a recent hot day, I headed to the Hamilton Recreation Center in the Western Addition, which has what’s been described as a "mini water park” for a wet and wild ride.

The Hamilton Pool has two slides to enjoy, both big enough to scare little kids to death and inspire healthy respect in adolescents. There's a yellow, open-topped spiral and a closed-topped orange slide with a six-or-so-foot drop from the end of the slide to the water. I want a thrill, so I want the orange bugger.

I get an odd look from the occasional nanny and child on my hurry over to the slide’s mounting stairs, but the three neighborhood kids ahead of me dig my enthusiasm. "It's hot," one tells me, referring to the experience and not the weather outside. And so it is. The shot through the tube has the right mixture of suspense, speed, and then free fall to get a good dose of adrenaline going by the time you shoot through the tube and hit the water. I hit the slide five or six more times, just enough to feel a little absurd to be an adult hitting a waterslide in the middle of the working afternoon.

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It’s time for me to graduate to some real slides. Finding those inclines means traveling toward places with names like Clarendon Heights and Kite Hill Open Space. This all sounds very “locals-only,” but the Seward Street slides aren’t much of a secret, not with hundreds of mentions on the Web.

But they’re still remote, wedged as they are on a residential hillside, six blocks up 19 th Street from Castro Street’s commercial drag. Trekking here is all about working those calves – after getting up to 19 th you turn on Douglass and go up two more hills before you reach Seward Street.

The Seward Street slides are two very long concrete slides laid into the hillside. They even have a dip in them, much like a waterslide. Grabbing a length of cardboard from the readily-available stack at the slide’s end, I stumble up the hillside excited as the school children warily watch me jump in on their fun.

Getting going is a breeze: you lay the cardboard down at the top of the slide, maybe even putting some sand underneath to get it greased up, put your butt down and arms up on the bar, and propel yourself down.

It’s the longest slide I’ve been on. It’s long enough for an adult to get some momentum before hitting the dip, where you can catch a little bit of air. And when you reach the bottom, there’s another jump in store as you exit the slide, leaping up with enough forward momentum to almost knock you off your feet. Hey, this is fun! And it’s just enough of an adrenaline rush to make you hungry for a more legitimate thrill. So it’s nice there’s one to be found less than a mile away.

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Billy Goat Hill Park is another one of those “where the hell is that?” places: it’s a rocky, steep outcropping in Upper Noe Valley with beautiful open views of the Mission District, Potrero, and even some glimpses of Bayshore. Situated south of Twin Peaks and directly east of Glen Canyon, it’s open space mostly because it’d be too hard to build anything on it.

To get here, you can go the confusing Upper-Upper Market Street to Diamond Heights Boulevard to Diamond Street to Beacon Street route, or you can go the hipster route, which is hopping off the J-Church or the 24 bus at 30 th Street and – you guessed it – walking up some more hills.

Once you do get up there, the view is stupendous. And the reward is hanging from a lone, massive eucalyptus tree: two lengths of rope dangling from one of the tree’s huge branches.

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The rope swings are cut down every so often, and have at times been longer: about 20 feet from the tree is a stump on the side of the hill, perhaps a perfect launching pad for a death-defying swing, but not in the cards today. When I visit, there’s a rope with a two-by-four tied at the bottom and another length with just a loop tied at the end.

The one with the two-by-four is the beginner’s loop. You grab the rope by the board, get into the tree and plant your butt in it. When you’re ready to go, you push off from the tree, and – whoa! The rope’s not long but you swing far enough over the slope that you’re easily 30 feet up off the ground at the swing’s longest extension, and have enough of a sense of free fall with San Francisco around you that you’re still breathless when you bang into the tree on your way back down.



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Giddy with excitement, I grab the other rope, the one with the loop. I try to put my foot in it as I leap up and grab at a knot, but I’m neither spry nor athletic enough and nearly end up heading headfirst toward the Mission. I manage to not trip on a root and try again. I lead the rope up the hill, take a deep breath, run and grab at a top knot, and I’ve found it, that little special, happy place. I pendulum out over the open expanse, around to the side of the tree and back again. On each trip up my feet kick at nothing as I soak in the urban landscape speeding by; on each trip down I do my best not to smack into the tree. I guess that right before my last forward motion ends I could let go and be catapulted forward, but my inner wimp and lack of health insurance nix that plan. I’m breathless, I’m shaky, I have a huge smile on my face. I found an easy adrenaline thrill and am giggling like a school kid. A school kid ... I almost forgot what that was like.

Mission accomplished.

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Want to unwind during your daily downtown grind? Scoot over to the Yerba Buena Gardens Children’s Playground, behind the Moscone Center between Third and Fourth streets. A visit to Salt House on Mission between First and Second streets before or after can’t hurt. Aquatic players are urged to dive into the Hamilton Recreation Center pool. Consult the schedule or call (415) 292-2008 to verify when the waterslides are available for use. Admission for adults is $5. Once you’ve dried off, hike up to Seward Street (it’s off of Douglass, between 19 th and 20 th streets) for the city’s best slide. Bringing your own waxed or otherwise treated cardboard recommended. For the big thrill, leap into the unknown – or just the air above the Mission – at Billy Goat Hill Park. Nothing but faith required. 

Images courtesy of Blue Ruin.

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Published on November 18, 2010, 2010

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