Originally, the park was known simply as Hill Park, established by San Francisco’s Committee on Outside Lands as the space to pioneer the city park system. The land was filled with squatters at the time, whom the committee paid almost $90,000 in order to take over the hill. It wasn’t until 1894 that the park was renamed Buena Vista Park and renovated with lush plant life, expanding its collection of native oaks and toyon trees to include eucalyptus, cypress, pine, and Australian tea trees.
Bound by Haight Street in the north and Buena Vista Avenue to the east and west, Buena Vista Park established its home in what would eventually become a thriving center for counterculture; in the meantime, it was a hub for community gatherings. For days after the 1906 earthquake, locals congregated at the park’s hilltop to watch fires around the city. A few years later, residents of the surrounding neighborhoods started a committee to renovate the park and nearby roads; they succeeded in establishing new stairways, paths and tennis courts in 1913, allowing the park to be rebuilt after the earthquake’s devastation.
Two decades later the park faced the potential of detrimental erosion, so the Works Progress Administration built a retaining wall and gutters for the park. The materials used for these construction projects were broken headstones recycled from Laurel Hill Cemetery. Today, upon inspecting the park’s drainage ditches, visitors can still find some of the memorial inscriptions from headstones that were placed face up.
Unfortunately, by 1950, the park wasn’t doing quite so well. Supervisor Chester MacPhee claimed the park was “unused, unsightly and required a policeman there at all times,” and he proposed to sell parts of the park. Multiple neighborhood improvement associations fought the proposal and postponed it indefinitely, and made efforts to fundraise for park improvements that had little success. Soon, though, the counterculture movement would take over to make its own mark on the park’s history.
In 1967, the Summer of Love swept through the city, taking over the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. An estimated 100,000 followers of the hippie countercultural movement converged on the neighborhood, taking over the park along the way. Filled with shady trees and deep bushes, the park was an ideal place to conceal the drug use and casual sex associated with the hippie movement. Local residents were overwhelmed by the insurgence of strangers, and the park fell into disrepair until the late 70s when $200,000 were allocated to renovate the park’s paths and erosion control systems. The early 80s marked a cultural turbulence for the park similar to that of the 60s, as Buena Vista developed a reputation as a hub for gay sex and violence after a murdered woman’s body was found inside the park.
After several tumultuous decades, the San Francisco Recreation and Park District developed a $2 million plan to turn the space into an accessible and family-friendly park. Over the next few years, the hill’s peak evolved from a parking lot to a grassy viewpoint, the tennis court and irrigation systems were renovated, and the playground was rebuilt. Local neighborhood associations fought for continued improvements, establishing an annual tree planting, work parties for garbage clean up, monthly workdays to improve the park’s gardening and maintenance, improved lighting and new landscape designs.
Today, Buena Vista is San Francisco’s third largest park. A large peace symbol made of flower paintings decorates the northeast staircase, reminding visitors of the park’s boisterous history. The name buena vista translates from Spanish to mean “good view,” an apt description for the hill’s peak. Sweeping views of the city can be seen from several lookouts throughout the park, most notably what has become known as “the window,” an open space between tree branches that overlooks Golden Gate Park, the Pacific Ocean, and even the cliffs over Drake’s Bay.
By Courtney Holcomb