By Amber Guetebier
San Francisco is a city of secrets. Hidden tunnels and bricked-up passageways, sunken ships and rebuilt palaces. With our backfilled downtown, railcar tracks that lead into empty parking lots, and stairways that sneak you from one neighborhood to another, we are the Winchester Mystery House of urban areas.
One of the secrets is right beneath your nose, and you’ve likely passed it at least once. Maybe you’ve walked your dog there. Or gone to play tennis at one of the hidden-gem tennis courts that locals like to keep all to themselves. Maybe, like me, you’ve cut through Buena Vista Park from Haight Street, zigzagging your way down toward Market on your morning commute-with-a-view, all blissfully ignorant that you were in the presence of hundreds of headstones.
I’d probably walked through this park a dozen or more times before I heard the rumor that its gutters and retaining walls were built with cemetery headstones. A friend who lived near the Randall Museum met me there for a guided walk one foggy June afternoon a number of years ago. With even a quick glance, you’ll see that the gutters sport marble pavers, sometimes in exquisite alternating patterns of black and white, other sections octagon or unmistakably footstone-shaped. It’s no rumor.
No, Buena Vista Park was not once a cemetery – although I’m sure more than one person’s ashes have been scattered and the occasional family pet has been interred here (you know who you are). Most records, including the brief description of Buena Vista Park on the SF Rec and Parks webpage, say that the headstones came from the nearby Lone Mountain Cemetery (sometimes called the Laurel Hill Cemetery), which stood between Geary and California, Parker and Presidio Avenues. This cemetery was officially closed in 1941, with most of the remains relocated shortly thereafter. The Masonic Cemetery, which stood between Turk and Fulton and Parker and Masonic Streets, was closed and relocated a bit earlier in the mid-1930s. Buena Vista Park was standing long before this, having been established in 1867, so it is possible that the headstone decorum was from either of these nearby cemeteries. Placed by the WPA program back in the late 1930s, the stones are said to be broken headstones and markers from unclaimed graves.
While not widely advertised, many long-time residents of San Francisco know that there were nearly two dozen cemeteries within our city limits. Of those, only three officially remain: The SF National Cemetery, the Pet Cemetery in the Presidio, and the cemetery on the grounds at Mission Dolores. (The Columbarium, though not technically a cemetery, is also within city limits.) The relocation of the cemeteries and reinterment of some 200,000 bodies is part of a shady past that, like the rough and tumble Barbary Coast, gives this city some of its freakiest foundational bones.
We do know that relocation of the cemeteries was spawned by two factors: property value and neglect. Our little nearly 7-by-7-squared city was giving up a lot of valuable real estate with the sleeping gardens. In addition to this obvious conundrum, many of the cemeteries, such as the Lone Mountain, Masonic, and Lincoln Park Cemeteries had fallen to neglect. The mass exodus after the gold rush, the relocation of families to more suburban settings (like the Sunset and Daly City), and the Great Depression were all contributing factors to the graveyards themselves falling into disrepair and being heavily vandalized (read: looted). Or, at least that was the argument given by the city supes when they tried three times to get the voters to approve relocation. Finally, in 1937 an official law went into effect (in spite of the vote). All graveyards within the confines of the city would be moved to Colma.
Today, there are hints of these boneyards in our daily landscape. And inevitable retrofitting scares up many a coffin, headstone, or human bone. Buena Vista Park actually supports some of the most obvious evidence of this grave past. The gutters, retaining walls, and storm drains throughout the park show their marbled splendor to anyone who cares to notice.
I’m not going to tell you exactly where to look. Part of the fun is discovering these secrets on your own. Look down in the gutters, look around at the walls. Each time I pass through this park I find a new marker, one with writing. Or, I go in circles trying to find that one I saw last time that said “DIED.” This is the bewitching part of a lost history: the ongoing attempt to find it again.