In the early 1970s, Ruth Asawa, Ann-Marie Thielen, and other artists and community activists organized the San Francisco Art Commission. One of its goals was to promote community gardening in San Francisco, with an emphasis on bringing gardening to public school children.
In March of 1975 the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), a federal program, granted 20 gardening jobs to the Commission. Those first 20 employees established on-going programs in 25 schools, five housing projects and many day care centers and community gardens, including the Fort Mason Garden. Two CETA workers, Vicky Doubleday and Patrick Houck, were directly responsible for founding the Fort Mason Community Garden.
Also in the early 1970s, Galileo High School moved many of its classes into empty barracks in Fort Mason. While looking for space for a community garden in the Marina District, Ms. Doubleday met Ray Pons, who maintained the grounds at Galileo. He suggested that a school/community garden be established in Fort Mason.
At about that time, Congress enacted legislation establishing the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) as part of the National Parks system. The GGNRA stretched from Fisherman's Wharf across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marin Headlands and Point Reyes National Seashore, and included Fort Mason. The management of the Fort was transferred from the Department of Defense to the Department of the Interior. In 1975, with the help of the new Superintendent of the GGNRA and Nate Schafler, a teacher at Galileo, the Fort Mason Community Garden became a reality.
The original Fort Mason Garden ran in a north/south direction from Bay and Octavia Streets to four palm trees which are still in the Great Meadow. In addition to student plots, there were 30 original members from the community.
According to Ms. Doubleday, the original garden was a "poet's garden", a "culinary exchange", and a budding "populist arboretum." Most of the members were of French, Italian, German or Asian descent and most were excellent cooks. Much of the conversation among the members had to do with different ways to prepare the fruits and vegetables that were grown in the garden. The gardeners maintained cold frames for starting seedlings, kept rabbits for fresh meat, and composted with the ample rabbit manure.
The garden quickly gained attention in the community and developed a long waiting list. Then, as the GGNRA began to develop a master plan for Fort Mason, the new GGNRA Superintendent decided that the garden would be moved and be made smaller. The Superintendent was not enthusiastic about "a little pile of dirt" and proposed that the garden be relocated to the foot of Laguna Street, opposite the Safeway.
The gardeners didn't like this location because it was exposed to traffic, car fumes and noise. They asked to be moved to the present location of the garden, behind the Administration Building. At first they were turned down because the master plan involved maintaining the Fort's historical sites dating back to the Civil War. The gardeners’ proposed site was deemed too important historically to be used for "just a garden". However, further research revealed that the proposed site was the location of the original post garden. What could be more historic than restoring the original garden? So, the Community Garden was allowed to move to its present site. The move allowed the Garden to expand to its present size of 125 plots.
In 1976 the garden applied for and received a Bicentennial Grant of about $1,200. When ground-breaking for the transformation of the Fort into a park was begun in March of 1979, these funds were used to help the gardeners move and expand. The grant stipulated that the garden must establish a Board of Directors and develop by-Laws. Since then, the garden has been self-supporting and managed by its own members.
Original article written by Alexandra Dixon, 1988
Modified by Victoria Christiansen, 1999/2008, and by Cathy Dodd, 2016
1892 Map of Fort Mason. Click to enlarge. The blue arrow shows the location of the Post Garden.