Islais Creek History

Established: 1988
Location: Third St. & Cesar Chavez Blvd.
Bus: #15 to Berry Street
Contact: Julia Viera (415) 826-5669
The five-story high copra crane that unloaded dried coconut meat at Islais Creek's copra dock from 1947 to 1974. Rescued as a San Francisco landmark, it will tower over the new promenade planned for Islais Creek Park. Photo: Greg Gaar

"Where in the world is Islais Creek?" was the question most often asked 12 years ago when the Friends of Islais Creek started to create a small, green park by the Third Street draw bridge. The Ohlone Indians would have known. They harvested mussels, clams, and shrimp on its shores long before the Europeans arrived in 1769. The creek appeared on Mexican maps in 1834, named for Los Islais (is-lay-is), a hollyleaf cherry and favorite Indian food. On today's map it is the gateway to (the former) Butchertown, the Bayview and Hunters Point.

In the 1850s Islais Creek provided fresh water to Franciscan friars from Mission Dolores and irrigated the produce that Portuguese, Italian, and Irish vegetable farmers grew in the Bayview district. The Gold Rush marked the start of the creek's decline when hordes of forty-niners swarmed out of the city and settled into the makeshift housing on the water's edge. In 1870, the slaughterhouses of Butchertown came in, and Islais Creek, red with blood and offal, reeking of garbage, sewage, and unfit for any use, was diverted to a culvert and its contents sent out to the Bay.

Until the 1950s, the waterway was an open sewer, known colloquially as "S____ Creek." Things changed in the 1970s with construction of a water treatment plant nearby and the clearing out of Buchertown's auto-wrecking yards. They changed even more when new houses were built on Stony Hill and Julia Viera moved into one in 1984. Her hilltop view of the channel's desolate mile of trash-bordered water moved her to action. An energetic environmentalist, she organized Friends of Islais Creek, a gutsy, visionary neighborhood group committed to creating a waterfront park and restoring the creek. Their crusade for the little park by the drawbridge was launched in 1988 with a $50,000 grant from the State Department of Water Resources and the participation of the Bayview community, the SF Conservation Corps, Milestones (a half-way house for parolees) and Horace Mann Middle School. Learning that four public agencies were planning major construction projects, none aware of the others, Friends brought together a task force from MUNI, the Department of Public Works, the Public Utilities Commission, the Port of San Francisco, and CalTrans.

It was the beginning of the Friends' unique and spectacularly successful modus operandi. Knowing that infrastructure and industry are necessary in San Francisco, "we agree to the sewer projects, repair facilities, and retrofits and seek mitigation funds to create public access, recreation facilities, and open space where it is sorely needed," Viera explains. "We operate with grants, mitigation funds from major public infrastructure projects, and private donations." Friends keep in touch via a newsletter and meet only once a year. "This way our hard core volunteer group and team of dedicated professionals know that every minute they give of their time goes directly into the projects at hand," she says, adding that Friends of the Urban Forest, San Francisco Beautiful, the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, and the Neighborhood Parks Council are among the Friends' non-profit sponsors.

Last fall, the opening day festival attracted hundreds of people to Islais Creek Channel to discover the surprising new waterscape and enjoy the displays, musicians, interactive murals and sports events. The new small boat dock and sand slide for launching outrigger racing canoes so pleased the Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Club that they are moving their home port to the new park. Visitors strolled the broad, million-dollar promenade which is to be joined by a second one, now on the drawing board. It features the towering copra crane that used to unload dried coconut meat at the Creek's copra dock. The crane has been preserved as a labor landmark through a coalition involving the Friends, labor organizations, government agencies, architects and engineers. Funded by the MUNI repair facility to be built adjacent to the creek, the promenade will also include a museum dedicated to waterfront labor history. "Ideas like this keep Friends on the job," Viera observes, adding that "we never know what the next one will be, but when it comes up, we'll be negotiating for mitigation funds, writing grants, and grinding out permits again."

Jeanne Alexander, Neighborhood Parks Council