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What Can NYC Learn from San Francisco's Last Wild Creeks?

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Islais Creek, one of the last remaining aboveground creeks in San Francisco, maintains a balance between wildlife and human activity. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger compares San Francisco's Islais Creek to New York City's aboveground creek systems.

From howling packs of coyotes to thieving copper pirates, Islais Creek is one of San Francisco's last wild waterways. Flowing through an increasingly gentrified city, where the focus is more often on $4 toast and Google bus protests, this historic stream offers up a refreshingly untamed landscape. Though it travels just five miles from its headwaters in Glen Canyon to its mouth in the San Francisco Bay, and is bisected by a three mile underground segment, Islais Creek provides critical support to two radically different natural environments, both of which are currently undergoing extensive renovations. It also illustrates several approaches to urban planning that are unfamiliar to most New York City waterways.

While New York has several extensive aboveground creek systems, including HookLemonFlushingNewtown and Coney Island, "there are only two remaining free flowing creeks in San Francisco, Islais Creek and Lobos Creek in the Presidio," according to Lisa Wayne, who manages 32 different natural areas for San Francisco's Recreation and Park Department. "There used to be creeks throughout San Francisco, but most of them are underground now." As such, Islais Creek plays a vital role in sustaining the city's diverse wildlife, serving as a homebase to a staggering array of plants and animals, despite the sometimes destructive activities of humans along its banks.

On Islais Creek's upper reaches, it resembles the bucolic headwaters of Staten Island's Lemon Creek: its source is obscured by overgrown brambles and its clear waters trickle through a wooded landscape, past backyards and under picturesque bridges. For one mile, Islais Creek meanders through the urban wilderness of Glen Canyon, one of the crown jewels in San Francisco's park system, where rock climbers, hikers, and cross-country runners share a winding series of scenic trails with strolling families and weed-smoking teenagers. A multiyear renovation of the park's trail system is now nearing completion, including new staircases and bridges, all designed with an eye towards preventing erosion and creating a more sustainable network of paths.

Even while under construction, the canyon is a charming, rugged oasis in the heart of the city, its steep hills of Franciscan chert dotted with homes on stilts overlooking Islais Creek. "The creek is the lifeblood of that canyon," said Lisa Wayne. "We recognize that there is some innate human desire to be near water. It's something that really hits the core emotionally for humans." Finding a proper balance between man and wildlife in this 70-acre canyon is also one of the Parks Department's mandates. Alongside human visitors, the area is home to Great Horned Owls, chorus frogs, ringneck snakes, native bumblebees, and 30 species of butterflies, including Painted Ladies, West Coast Ladies, and Checkered-skippers. Coyotes are also a part of that balance, with six or seven living in the canyon at any time. Unlike New York, which has recently been evicting coyotes from Manhattan, San Francisco has allowed their return. "The coyotes, within the last decade or so, have come back into the city. They were here, then they were entirely eliminated, and now they have come back," said Lisa Wayne. "So far, there's been pretty good coexistence."

Islais Creek leaves Glen Canyon in an underground culvert and reemerges three miles away in a drastically different landscape, more akin to the Newtown Creek, New York City's toxic Superfund site. Just one mile long, the Islais Creek Channel is a massively polluted, man-made industrial inlet, where a clear trickle of creek water is quickly swallowed up by the brackish, murky waters of the San Francisco Bay. Surrounded by decaying docks and city infrastructure, this section of the creek, like Newtown Creek, is also home to a boat club, Kayaks Unlimited, which launches out past homeless shanties, active barges, and abandoned industry.

A kayak trip on the Islais Creek Channel with Mark Morey and Curt Sanford, two members of the boat club, quickly reveals a level of neglect comparable to only the most polluted canals in New York, including homeless people living inside the freeways at the creek's end, burned and sunken boats from the "metal pirates" who have nicknamed this area "copper cove," pilings eroded down to toothpicks, and huge combined overflow pipes all along the channel's length. "The sewage just pours out of these things after it rains," said Morey, who has extensively explored along the waterfront here, paddling under collapsing piers and past empty buildings. "We've really seen the underbelly of the creek."

The Islais Creek Channel has long been known as "Shit Creek" by locals, having suffered through an extensive history of sewage dumps, oil spills, and everyday pollution caused by various city agencies. It is still suffering from official neglect, though some attempts have been made in recent years to dress up its ragged shores. On the Islais Creek Promenade, a concrete path near a bus depot along its northern shore, homeless tents and shacks share space with a huge steel sculpture by Nobuho Nagasawa, which was dedicated in 2013. Further down the creek, the Port of San Francisco's crumbling, unused grain terminals were painted over in 2014 by a huge commissioned mural called Bayview Rise, visible from miles away. The scale of these public art projects rivals anything installed along New York's waterfront, yet these projects do little to address the urban decay surrounding them.

Construction is now underway for the Bayview Gateway Park Project, which will create a new green space near the south side of the creek, and improvements are planned for Tulare Park, a tiny waterfront space north of the creek which is currently used as a homeless campground. Perhaps more importantly, however, the Golden Gate Audubon society has been working for over a decade to clean tons of debris out of the Pier 94 "backlands" at the mouth of the Islais Creek Channel, striving to create a tidal wetlands and salt marsh in this desolate landscape. Native plants and a honey bee colony are now growing roots here, and the channel has become home to a wider variety of wildlife. Seals are a common sight in the creek, while Brown Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants, Greater Yellow-legs, and Red-tailed Hawks hunt for sustenance in its waters. "You go down there and it's so industrial, and it has a totally different feel than Islais Creek," said Lisa Wayne, "but it's the same water flowing through it all."

The main headwaters of Islais Creek are hidden behind a dense thicket of blackberry brambles south of Portola Drive, but a branch of the creek bubbles out from underneath a Pacific Wax Myrtle tree on the eastern hills of Glen Canyon, creating this pool.

As the creek flows down through the canyon, it crosses underneath several footpaths and narrow bridges. This bridge was built as part of the recent trail upgrades, which are almost 85 percent complete, according to Lisa Wayne.

Several teenage hangouts are hidden in the undergrowth along the northern section of Islais Creek, where the trail system passes by the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, a public high school.

Further south, a boardwalk cuts through a marshy wetlands area. "There is a lot of diversity of habitats in that relatively small park area," said Lisa Wayne. "In addition to the creek you have the grasslands, where it's not uncommon to see Red-tailed Hawks and other raptors, and lots of rodents like voles and moles that can become the food for the raptors."

The creek and its trails are overlooked by homes built high into the hills around Glen Canyon. "One of the impacts of the development around the canyon itself is that runoff and storm water was put into storm drains and taken away from the creek," said Wayne.

Today, the creek has lost a significant percent of its flow. "There are historic photos of Islais Creek with boats on it. So there was enough water that you could fish and you could take a small boat on that section of the creek in Glen Canyon."

In 2008 San Francisco voted in a forward-thinking $117 million parks bond, which has helped to fund the trails system renovation in Glen Canyon, as well as improvements throughout the city's parks and waterfront.

The renovations in Glen Park have rebuilt staircases, added bridges, and increased accessibility. Detailed updates on the process are regularly provided online.

The hills above the creek are used by rock climbers and hikers, drawn to the large outcroppings of Franciscan chert rock, which are found throughout San Francisco. The creek itself is named after the native Islay Cherry Tree, according to Paul Furman, one of the owners of the Bay Natives plant store, which keeps the tree in stock.

Glen Canyon was once home to a dairy and a dynamite factory, but its wilderness is now considered one of San Francisco's "Significant Natural Resource Areas."

At the opposite end of Islais Creek, a thin trickle of water flows out from underneath Rankin Street, splashing out into the broad Islais Creek Channel.

Fishermen ply the waters here near collapsing piers, despite warnings posted by the city limiting adult intake to two meals of fish per month because of chemical pollution.

The head of Islais Creek Inlet abuts several freeway overpasses, which are accessed with ladders by those living inside. The shallow waters here are also littered with scrap metal and sunken boats left by local scrappers. "There's this incredible group of metal thieves that have their own boats," said Mark Morey. "We call them the metal pirates."

A footpath leads from the freeway to Nobuho Nagasawa's installation "Ship Shape Shifting Time"—a sculpture located adjacent to a Municipal Railway Maintenance Facility. A homeless camp is located on the path under the sculpture.

Further east, the Islais Creek Promenade is a popular destination for skaters and campers, and is built above several huge storm overflow pipes.

On the opposite shore, Islais Landing park includes a pier intended as a boat launch, alongside a pair of submerged sewage pipes from a nearby treatment plant. Unfortunately, the boat launch is unusable for the nearby boat club. "The turn is too sharp to bring a kayak down," said boat club member Curt Sanford. "It's a multi-million dollar launch you can't use. We have never used it."

In Tulare Park, which will be part of San Francisco's Blue Greenway, work has yet to begin on a planned renovation. This tiny park is situated between two active bridges, and is also used as a campsite, with mattresses in the bushes.

The old grain silos of the Port of San Francisco are now covered by a large mural, which is illuminated at night. The piers nearby are unstable and crumbling into the creek.

Under the piers are floating pilings and an elaborate, hidden graffiti installation. "The water here is clean, because it's coming and going with the tides," said Curt Sanford.

At the mouth of the Islais Creek Channel, the Pier 94 tidal salt marsh is still a work in progress but is already luring back shorebirds and waterfowl. All along the San Francisco Bay, similar shorefront parks and open spaces are being completed, as the city rethinks its relationship to the water.
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