Sunday, March 13, 2011

The only campground in San Francisco

The Rob Hill campground is a nice place. It was reopened last year after $4 million worth of construction. Restrooms, helpful-looking outbuildings, water view, food lockers and garbage cans that are armored to keep out the skunks. Even art exhibits. It's on the highest hill in the Presidio of San Francisco. It has four group camp sites housing 30 people each.

Staying there is not a simple matter. You may be allowed to camp at Rob Hill for up to five nights -- no more -- if you apply for reservations in advance and pay $100 per night per site

If you've been to the Golden Gate Bridge, you may remember how the approach highway from the south passes through a parklike former military base. That's the Presidio. On its decommissioning in the 1990s (remember the Peace Dividend?) it was naturally one of the most wanted real estate plums. Gorbachev got a piece of it. George Lucas got a big chunk for Industrial Light and Magic. At least one local college has used some of the old military housing as dorm space. For a while homeless-rights groups were campaigning to house poor families in a 466-unit complex of Wherry-type military apartments -- there were protests about it -- but the buildings were in good condition with hardwood floors and drop-dead views of the Golden Gate over Baker Beach, so you can guess what became of that idea.

I'm almost sure the same apartments are the ones offered at this rental site, run by the ubiquitous John Stewart Company, for a minimum of $2,015 per month.

Rob Hill is south and uphill from the Wherry housing, in a part of the Presidio complex where it doesn't occur to most visitors to go. As I said, it's nice. (Here's one account of someone's pleasant overnight there last fall.) But it's not for casual use by passers-by. The bathroom doors are locked with keypads.

As the application form explains, the campground has rules. Boy, does it have rules: no alcohol, drugs, smoking, gambling (!), pets other than trained assistance animals, fireworks, "amplified music or generators," RVs, trailers, making noise between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., collecting firewood, or feeding animals. (Not clear if you can feed your trained assistance animal but I bet they'd make an exception.) Above all, they're clear about "No Temporary Residence."
"Your Campsite Assignment is only a temporary grant of use of the Campground, which is revocable by the Trust at any time. You accept this assignment for purposes of overnight camping and associated recreational activities only. The Campground is not offered by the Trust for any residential purposes whatsoever, and you accept use of the Campground with the express understanding that you will not claim the Campground or any portion thereof as a residence or use the Campground or any portion thereof for residential purposes either temporary or permanent."
Good grief, what an effort to distance this very pretty spot from the need for space for people to live. My spouse imagines the mgmt. saying, "Can you imagine if everyone came and camped here? We can't have people camping here or no one could come here and camp."

Absurd, ironic, yes, and at the same time preserving something valuable. Maybe it does take all those rules (though one wonders) to maintain a sense of safety and isolation and wilderness outdoors in the middle of a big busy town -- what my aforementioned spouse calls "curated nature."

And Rob Hill is not about making money. One of its major purposes is a public-spirited effort, the Camping At the Presidio Program -- "We provide children and youth who traditionally have not visited national parks with meaningful overnight camping experiences." One local blog post even claims the campground is "mostly for urban youth. Mostly."

That's lovely. Seriously, Camping at the Presidio is a lovely idea.

But it was sad to lose those Wherry apartments to market rate. A dozen years later, it's still sad.

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