A few nights ago, I woke around 2am for no particular reason. I didn't turn to a book to read myself back to sleep. Rather, I lay in my bed with Reggie the cat tucked into my armpit and enjoyed the quiet of my neighborhood. I live in a dense city, 7 miles by 7 miles horseshoed by saltwater. Lots of people live in this thumbnail of land. But, as I lay the other night in my big bed in my sweet house in my quiet neighborhood, I heard a familiar open space sound. The coyotes began to yip and squeal. I've found the wild here.
This district of the city is far to the southeastern edge, and therefore, experiences some of the best weather. In the summertime, when I drive from my house to work on the western edge of the city, I leave a blue and bright sky in the morning, roll over a few hills, then dive into the persistent gray. In the afternoons, I return to the sun.
Because of the good weather, this district used to be where nursery families raised plants and especially flowers for the downtown florists. Old dilapidated greenhouses lean against each other down the hill from me. The glass walls have mostly caved in, though a few roses still reach up through their frames. Blackberry vines climb over and around the old steam furnace and storerooms. Four peach trees mark the edges of the fenced off property, and this summer, they were loaded with fruit that no one could access except the birds and raccoons. This 2 1/2 acre parcel is the last remaining agriculturally zoned property in the city, and its future is up in the air. One group trying to purchase it aims to maximize on its zoning and turn it into an instructional urban farm.
My neighbors are among the best I've ever had. A neighborhood cop lives on the north side of me in the house in which he grew up and raised his own children. He's crawled up on my roof to check for leaks and his son has helped carry furniture upstairs. We've walked our dogs together in our nearby park. On the south side of me, an older woman, also a gardener, frequently sits on her back deck in the afternoon sun, enjoying a beer. When I can, I sit on my back deck too, and we talk about gardens and life over our shared fence while we both look out over our yards. Last week, just after I arrived home one day, a neighbor from across the street whom I had not yet met rang my doorbell. She came over to tell me that I had left the garage door open the other day, and she had watched to make sure no one snooped in my garage until she got so anxious she came over and figured out how to close it from the inside, running out without tripping its sensor.
My house is at the top of one of the hills in the district. From the top of my backyard, I can look straight out to an unencumbered view of downtown and the Bay Bridge. A few blocks away sprawls McLaren Park, a rangy, shaggy-haired park criss-crossed with trails. On weekends, families hold barbecues in the picnic areas, and corners of the otherwise peaceful park bump with music and spicy meats on the grill, so many flavors of sound and scent. In the park, the poppies are beginning to bloom already, and more wildflower waves are on their way. Dribbling now from a spigot, but until a couple decades ago—according to my neighbor—trickling right out from the side of the hill, a natural spring feeds what becomes Yosemite Creek.
Last year, the city officially designated my neighborhood San Francisco's Garden District. This neighborhood of agricultural history, neighbors that talk to each other and watch out for each other, coyotes, and real back yards is unique in this city. The Garden District isn't just the identity of Portola's past. Portola, like every good gardener, plants with anticipation of the seasons ahead. The Portola District blossoms and will fruit, again and again.