Mayflower Street: A Bernal Heights Open Space

April 17 & 25, 2008, a Thursday and a Friday

by Jerry F. Schimmel

In years past I've hiked up and down Bernal Hill exploring staircases and paths which are plenty and varied. One of these thoroughfares is Mayflower Street, so designated by the city and map makers though never improved. I picked April 17 and 25 to hike it both down and up because the two days were nice and the street would be at its best depending on what one thinks about undeveloped land in riotous disarray. Personally I like my landscapes random and undisciplined, wild if you like, so my infrequent Mayflower Street sojourns always appeal to my adventurous side. If you are the Better Homes and Gardens type and prefer things combed and curried like the landscapes in Seacliff or Forest Hill, an hour on Mayflower Street will mostly be a disappointment except for two notable garden efforts. But more about those shortly.

The street starts at the top of Nevada Street in the west and ends on Holladay Street downhill in the east next to the 101 Freeway. It is not paved except at the intersections with Carver, Bradford, Peralta, and Franconia streets and the stepwalk and concrete driveway between Franconia and Holladay streets. Mayflower street will no doubt stay as it is unless more gardeners like Julian Wyler and his Bradford Street neighbors emerge to tame its irregularities.

Nevada to Carver

From the top of Nevada Street to Carver Street there is actually a single-lane dirt road providing a doubtful shortcut access from Chapman and Nevada streets to Bernal Heights Boulevard (left up Nevada, right on Mayflower, and left on Carver). Low-slung passenger vehicles usually bottom out on the eccentric surface so high-axle vehicles are recommended.

I once saw a driver zoom along the dirt road going west at thirty miles an hour, make the left turn at Nevada, and speeding up, go down a five percent grade for the short block, his front wheels off the ground at one point. Apparently his brakes and shock absorbers were good because he made it in one piece, though I don't know what would have happened if a car had been coming the other way. Nevada Street at that point is also unimproved and barely permits the passage of two vehicles. The city does not maintain either road nor is the dirt road acknowledged by the city as part of Mayflower Street.

The top house on Nevada Street, No. 49, used to be owned by Henry and Eleanor Funk and their three kids, now grown up and moved away. Both Henry and Eleanor are a few years gone. Henry planted a fir of some kind on the uphill side, which hides a hand-lettered sign behind its lowest branches: Slow: Stop for Pedestrians. He also put in a small maple tree and succulents to keep the slope from falling into the Mayflower/Nevada intersection. You can see the wood and iron pipe bollards he put in next to the front porch to keep drivers like the above from smashing into the side of his house. The building is barely a yard from the dirt pavement.

Past the Funk house on the uphill side are new stairs leading to Bernal Heights Boulevard, part of a combined city/community effort to make the neighborhood more amenable. The city has planted the area with natives, which will no doubt thrive in a matter of months. Farther along is Angie Snead's house at 68 Rosencranz. Beyond Angie's are more new stairs leading down from the road to the top of the Rosencranz pavement, a street just one block long. Past the stairs is an empty city lot with a couple of medium-size evergreens. Presently the site holds a lot of construction debris and plain household trash, a favorite dumping site for those unwilling to pay for Sunset Scavenger service or make the drive to Beatty Avenue. Past that on the right is 56 Carver Street and on the left more fallow city land partly covered with lots of wild grass and escaped exotics which occasionally flower. Then you're on Carver Street.

Carver to Bradford

From Carver to Bradford on Mayflower is about 150 feet, street to street. From Carver to halfway, the ground is bare and in places soaked with oil. For years this section of Mayflower functioned as a storage area for empty trailers, machinery, SUVs, and RVs in a variety of conditions from new to rusted and immobile. A late resident of 57 Carver Street ran an off-the-books auto shop out of his garage then, and in the doing informally annexed this half of the block. Repeated efforts by surrounding residents to get rid of the hulks usually came to nothing. Police citations were issued off and on through several changes of Ingleside District captain although no vehicles were ever taken away that I know of - for reasons unknown to mere mortals.

Past the informal vehicle compound and lamp post is Julian Wyler's remarkable landscaping effort covering the rest of the block. For a time Julian didn't leave a marked pathway for pedestrians, but I and a few others chided him on the need for one because we were walking all over his plants while exerting our inalienable right to tramp around on undeveloped city property. His poppies were in full riot this spring.

Bradford to Peralta

Another notable garden effort lies on the east side of Bradford Street directly across from Julian's, the result of a long-standing commitment by two Bradford Street women known only as Graciela and Lisa. A pathway lies at the right of the garden, the entrance to which the women keep barricaded for good reason. About halfway down the block the garden's mulched path ends in wild oats, pigweed, escaped exotics, and treacherous footing. Immediately into the grass lies a dangerous, long-ago excavated drop-off camouflaged by grass, a large scotch broom plant, and shrubbery. The precipice is easy to miss in the thicket, and anyone foolish enough to come this way must pay close attention or risk a fall. To reach Peralta Street by this route, you have to thread carefully through the brush to a point on the northeast edge where you can slide on your backside or scramble down on all fours to the pavement.

To the right of the mulch is a sparse collection of plants including a juniper-like flowering shrub, jade plants, and numerous small exotics. To their right is a larger blackberry patch, past which on the south side there is a slightly easier path next to the house on the southwest corner. As on the north side of Mayflower, hikers can encounter a dropoff before it is seen and easily step off the edge into nothing.

From the Peralta pavement looking back and up, there is an eight-to-ten-foot drop in the center of the lot into a space where locals park their cars facing the slope. The cliff face is somewhat held in place by a few neighbor-installed retaining planks holding back a collection of juniper-like shrubs, geraniums, jade plants, and daisies. Its wild aspect and the dangerous trails should make pedestrians think hard about returning this way. A short walk north on Peralta to Eugenia and Alabama streets, then around the corner to Bernal Heights Boulevard, is much safer.

Peralta to Franconia

The Peralta to Franconia section of Mayflower is probably the most densely overgrown part of the street. At the parking area on the east side of Franconia there are a few neighbor-installed retaining boards close to the pavement which hold back a mass of untended flowering plants garnished by two wine barrel planters for succulents. A small garden has been put in next to the house at 651. From the little garden the vegetation down the hill is a dense riot of mixed plants for nearly a third of the block. No footpath can be seen nor any sort of track on the upper south side. Like the Bradford to Peralta section, the dense patch is probably from several abandoned gardens.

Passage down from Peralta to ground level is obtained by a set of irregular concrete stairs on the north side next to 645 Peralta which end just short of mid-block. Past 645 an infrequently used track jogs right around an old kumquat tree and left of a tall, dollar-leaf variety of eucalyptus. The path is partially filled with daisies, bulb plants, wild radish, fennel, grass, nettles, pigweed, nasturtiums, and sundry exotics. Sturdy pants are vital to traverse the nettle patch. Just before the eucalyptus on the right is a large area of healthy ice plant surrounded by daisies, fennel, and yet more nasturtiums. Under the kumquat I found a quaint private clearing with a crudely erected pile of concrete blocks and a concrete ornament reminiscent of a shrine, someone's summer outdoor private space. But the nettles continue after that, more than ever ready to puncture the unwary thigh.

The path veers over to the south side of Mayflower through yet more escaped exotics to where concrete steps next to 500 Franconia lead down to the Franconia pavement. The owner of 500 keeps watch dogs so expect a lot of noise if you go this way. Any other way is impassible because of the vegetation.

From the kumquat down to the Franconia pavement is a collection of tall trees - a eucalyptus variety, a fir and two large pine trees which lean over a city built retaining wall and sidewalk at Franconia. The large trees are surrounded by a thick ground cover and all save the eucalyptus are gradually being smothered by english ivy. There are occasional dog leavings near the path so pedestrians have to step lively.

Franconia to Holladay

On the east side of Franconia, a city-built wood stepwalk meanders pleasantly down to the concreted driveway of 350 Holladay, and from there to Holladay Street and its freeway overlook of Highway 101, barred to pedestrians by a chain-link fence. The concrete driveway covers the whole width of Mayflower, giving the pseudo-appearance of a small public square. While neighbors seem to keep the vegetation next to the stairs trimmed, the wood railings and stairway are seriously dilapidated. The railings especially are unreliable, and stair users are warned not to put any weight on them. In places the railing has dry rotted to the extent that pieces are falling off. The stairs were constructed in the 1990s.

Read more by Jerry Schimmel.