Place residence

SF John Steinbeck’s Secret Place Would Have Loved It

When we were kids in San Francisco, my brother Frank and I thought the city was full of adventure just over the hill. So we were going to explore the eastern slope of Potrero Hill, where there was a wonderland full of railroads, timber merchants, dumps, iron foundries, factories, dirt, noise and smoke, full of life and hard work. There was a shipyard at the northern end and Butchertown was the southern border. The eastern border was San Francisco Bay, always full of ships.

It was industrial San Francisco, a great place for the neighborhood kids to explore. Dangerous too, as industry is dangerous. “Get out of here, kids,” the guard shouted. “Go home. Or I call the cops.

Now, of course, almost all of that is gone. But not quite. So last week, I started exploring again. It’s only 15-20 minutes from downtown on the KT Muni trolley, south past the baseball park, south on Third Street via Mission Bay and past Chase Center to the 23rd Street stop. I walked east on 24th Street, across the bay to Warm Water Cove, which has to be San Francisco’s most hidden waterfront park.

The entrance is hard to see, obscured by stored utility equipment and a construction area, but the park directly behind it is a flash of green amid industrial gray. Warm Water Cove Park is as small as a gem, only 2 acres in all. It has picnic tables and benches and dozens of trees. In winter and spring, the grass is green and there are yellow wildflowers. Best of all, it faces San Francisco’s Blue Bay.

Back then when we kids were roaming the area, the little creek was a dump. The hot water that gave the place its name came from a sewer outlet. The locals had a name for it: Toxic Beach. It was also a place where people threw old tires, and at low tide you can still see them. The place was cleaned up a few years ago and had an underground reputation for graffiti art and punk rock shows.

There really is no unknown place in San Francisco, and sometimes there are secret concerts at Warm Water Cove. You have to know.

I had the place pretty much to myself the last two times I’ve been there. There were two geese, four feral cats and another human the other sunny afternoon. The man left before I could talk to him.

The view was impressive: pieces of the past scattered around the edge of the bay – broken bricks, remnants of an old wharf, a staircase that led nowhere, a stop sign at the end of a dirt road. There are container cranes and warehouses around the park. The main landmark is a 300-foot tall smokestack from an enclosed power plant.

There were seven freighters anchored in the bay, which was blue and calm as glass. At the end of the day, the setting sun illuminates Alameda and Oakland and Hayward just across the bay.

Warm Water Cove Park is part of a developing chain of bayside parks called the Blue Greenway that runs along the southern waterfront. Soon they will change the whole face of the city’s waterfront.

But not quite yet. The area is still part of a border and home to people like Teag McCormick, who lives in a dented Toyota not far from Warm Water Cove. It’s a good place, he said, a peaceful place. Nobody bothers him.

“Where am I going to live?” he said. He answered his own question. “Sometimes I live in Minnesota, where I have friends and where I can work. I do masonry work. Sometimes I stay with friends in town, and sometimes I go camping in parks. I move.

“You know,” he said, “I’m originally from San Franciscan and my family has lived in California since 1826. That’s right, 1826.”

He has a literary bent and has spoken of Californian writers including Frank Norris and John Steinbeck. They had a sense of the country, he says.

“Take this place,” he said. “Steinbeck would have loved this place, the stage, the life, the people. The women who feed the cats here every day. The guy who spends the night, the people who stay. Steinbeck stuff. Maybe I’ll write it myself. I’ll call it “The Cats of Warm Water Cove”. What do you think?”

He better hurry. Construction crews are at work just a block or two from the car where McCormick lives and talks Steinbeck country. The construction is part of the Power Station project, which will transform 29 acres of former industrial land – 2,600 new housing units, 1.8 million square feet of retail space, a 250-room bayside hotel, even a new waterfront park. The city moves south. When the power plant is finished in five or six years, places like Warm Water Cove will no longer be a backwater.

They will be the backyard of a new San Francisco.

Carl Nolte’s column airs on Sundays. Email: [email protected]