Open water

Pub date April 17, 2007


For the casual stroller, a walk under the 101 interchange at César Chávez is none too inviting. Trucks and cars zoom off the freeway and onto the street all day long, bringing noise and exhaust with them. An atmosphere of abandonment and neglect allows crime to fester.

And if you dare to walk far enough under the highway, you might notice that water often floods the lowest point of the underpass.

That’s not rain collecting; it’s water seeping into the streets from the paved-over Islais Creek, which runs through Glen Park to the eastern neighborhoods and ultimately channels into the bay.

It’s just one of a network of creeks that flow through San Francisco, invisible urban treasures that have long since been filled in or paved over. The city has been burying the creeks since the 1906 earthquake. Back then the Board of Supervisors voted to fill the marshy lands near Islais with debris from the fires.

Standing under the overpass, Bonnie Ora Sherk, artist and founder of the urban planning nonprofit Life Frames, reaches for some leaves poking through a chain-link fence that separates the path from mostly empty islands of space. I can barely hear her through the ongoing traffic din when she says, "I haven’t been here in so long…. See those roses? We planted those."

Sherk dreams of allowing some of the water in the area to emerge from its underground culvert and fill a pond surrounded by beautiful riparian plantings such as willow trees.

With the Planning Department putting the finishing touches on its eastern neighborhoods plan and the Mayor’s Office launching its Better Streets program — which will put $20 million toward improving streets, sidewalks, and unused spaces — it’s a good time to talk about daylighting Islais Creek.

Sherk wants only a small piece of the underground stream brought back to life, but in theory San Francisco could open up much bigger stretches, allowing water to flow through neighborhoods and parks between its source in Glen Canyon Park and its outflow.

Sherk has been turning forsaken lots and concrete jungles into thriving natural areas that provide educational opportunities for children since she started the Crossroads Community art collective, also known as the Farm, under the freeway in 1974. With a colony of artists, she turned the void into a crossroad for the Bayview, Bernal Heights, and Mission District communities. During her six years at the collective, she led children from the neighborhoods in planting and gardening, built a barn for chickens and goats, and curated art shows.

Check out the photos on a Living Library Web site (, and you’ll see how that area flourished during Sherk’s days as the collective’s executive director. Back then a landscape of native plants grew under the overpass. Now fences enclose these scraps of dead space to keep homeless people from setting up encampments in them.

When Sherk learned from old maps that the area was built over a watershed of intersecting creeks that feed into Islais, she tried to convince the city to uncover some of the creek water that flows under an open space next to the Farm, what is now Potrero del Sol Park.

The city built the park as she suggested but separated it from the artist community by a fence. Her idea to expose the creek wasn’t adapted either. A concrete-bottom pond fed by Hetch Hetchy water was installed instead. Soon it will be transformed into a skateboarding area, which Sherk thinks is better than constantly piping in precious reservoir water.

But she hasn’t given up on the idea of daylighting Islais at the interchange. She envisions diverting the off-ramps a bit to make way for the pond at the center of the underpass. From there César Chávez would be resculpted into a curving road, forcing traffic to slow down. Poplars could line the street, and educational artwork could be added to the mix. The fences would come down under the freeway, and the area once again would be replanted. It would be a nice place to drive and walk. Perhaps the crime and litter would disappear.

According to Sherk, the idea of an urban environment needs a paradigm shift from the days of factory-school settings. To her, it’s not just a matter of beautification or convenience. "Why do one thing when you can do 10 things simultaneously?" she asks — meaning a pond isn’t just a pool of water, it’s part of a place where nature intersects with industry, technology, and our everyday culture and where we can look at all of those elements, as she often says, "through the lens of time." *