Shit Creek (Blog Post #1)

“Islais Creek was fed, in part, by a stream that flowed down from the hills by way of what is today Alemany Boulevard. It was in this creek that we boys would catch pollywogs and bring them home, much to the consternation of our mothers. Mothers failed to find the creatures to be an adornment to their households. Today that stream is a busy highway carrying a heavy stream of automotive traffic.”

– Excerpt from Frank R. Quinn’s 1984 memoir, Growing Up in the Mission

Islais Creek sits at the mouth of the Bernal Heights watershed in San Francisco, California. The 3rd St. bridge closes off the creek from the channel at the east end, while the tall, meandering lanes of the 280 and all of its speeding cars create an ominous, impenetrable barrier at the west end.

The landscape surrounding the creek is a somber mix of over-grown weeds, litter, and industrial stuctures, including concrete blocks, rusted steel beams, and wooden posts protruding from the water. Just beyond the raised banks on the northern end of the creek, rows of empty cars, vans, and tour buses stand at attention, waiting patiently until called upon by a small collection of auto and tourist companies that help keep San Francisco’s commuters in constant movement. The southern end of the creek is similarly serene with a series of low-profile, garage-front and warehouse businesses, a scene altogether quite different from the hustle and bustle of the waterfront and Mission areas mere blocks away.

Islais Creek
Islais Creek, as seen from the park.

To most of the residents of San Francisco, Islais Creek is largely unknown. Its location, reputation for attracting skaters and homeless individuals, and industrial surroundings make it a less-than-popular destination spot. The natural and physical form of the creek, just like its history, meanders in and out of visibility, largely due to the whim of city planners who have made decisions with people and profit first, nature second. Most of Islais Creek remains hidden underground, built over by years of urban development.

The water (and the history) underneath

Looking at the creek today, it is difficult to imagine that it was once the primary source of the city’s water. In San Francisco’s early years, 85% of all drinking water came from Islais Creek. The creek used to be about four miles in length, stretching from the Bay all the way to the Pacific Ocean. But the creek underwent dramatic changes during the 20th century as San Francisco transformed into an urban mecca. From 1870 to the early 1900s, the area around Islais Creek was flanked by slaughterhouses and dubbed “Butchertown.” Though increasing health hazards spurred regulation, and the construction of modern meat-packing factories forced most of the slaughterhouses to shut down, Islais Creek remained an open sewage. During this time, Islais Creek earned the moniker “Shit Creek.” The condition and size of the creek worsened after the 1906 earthquake, reduced 80% to what it is today, when city officials decided to clear the city of debris by dumping it all into the creek. What was once a source of life had become a sewer, and then a burial ground.

Islais Creek
Islais Creek
The cover and input for Islais Creek from a historical gazetteer.

We often take for granted how fragile and powerful the Earth’s water can be, especially when it flows in ways counter to our desires. The hidden portions of Islais Creek creep back into consciousness when they permeate spaces occupied by humans. Islais Creek would often flood the Balboa High cafeteria, which has since been rebuilt. It floods the Alemany Housing Project from time to time. In these instances, the water of Islais Creek challenges its exile, forcing citizens and city planners to recognize its presence. Flooding has a philosophical undercurrent to it. It occurs because water accumulates too quickly in places where it was once contained. We confine water to the prisons of our urban structures, and yet we are the ones punished when it escapes. In some ways, the consequences of urban development and its broader effects on climate change are modern society’s Frankenstein.

Climate change, our Frankenstein

Many have refered to climate change as society’s modern-day “Frankenstein” (Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker). Like Frankenstein, climate change was made by and is continually scorned by us, the human race. Climate change is easy to ignore, when everything is going fine. But increasing severe weather patterns, the flooding of high school cafeterias and housing projects, these events expose the careless way in which humans, in their widespread geographic locales, collectively contribute to climate change.

One of the ways to mitigate climate change is to address potential improvements in the urban-water nexus, the geographic areas in which nature and humans meet. In San Francisco, Islais Creek is one of many sites where this is occurring. In recent years, there have been various efforts by different groups to bring attention to the role of this important waterway. These efforts “daylight” Islais Creek.

Daylighting Islais Creek

The process of daylighting, according to AmericanRivers.org, “involves uncovering some or all of the previously covered river, stream, or stormwater drainage. Although most stream daylighting involves restoring a stream to a more natural state, other forms include architectural and cultural restoration.”

Islais Creek
A recovered tower from a crane with an “Islais” inscribed metal fish, created by Todd Martinez and Robin Chiang.

Ironically, more of the “uncovering” of Islais Creek is happening through these latter forms of restoration. Julia Viera gathered her neighbors and formed “Friends of Islais Creek” in the 1980’s and convinced the Port of San Francisco to put off destroying the infamous Copra Crane until a park could be built along the creek. A statue and marquee commemorating Islais were erected when the 3rd St. bridge was put in place. Another sculpture by artist Cliff Garten was erected earlier this year. A group hoping to save the Copra Crane danced upon it in 1999, but the crane was ultimately dismantled and removed, supposedly undergoing restoration.

Why is this creek so important? Why does it need to be restored? My intent with these blog posts is to explore these questions, but I want to go beyond just trying to “daylight” the historical importance of Islais Creek. I hope to use these posts as an opportunity to engage the people of San Francisco with its aquatic infrastructure, its history, and the complexity of the urban-water nexus that continually forces us to evaluate our role in climate change. Within this, I also hope to challenge other geographers and practitioners of geographic information science/systems to more actively participate in sharing our geographic expertise and information with the public. In these next blog posts, I introduce the community and business efforts to revive the creek in physical and cultural ways (as well as my own journey in meeting and working with the creek), and I situate Islais Creek and San Francisco within the global context of urban resilience.

Written on November 4, 2018