BY LARS RUSSELL
A San Francisco Resident from 2007 to 2010, Lars stumbled upon the greenhouses and spent months researching city archives and local libraries, talking to neighbors, civic officials and parks & garden advocates before publishing "Glass Houses" at beatvalley.net in 2010. In this excerpt Lars delves into the history of San Francisco's Garden District.
On March 16, 1921, five brothers bought the parcel of land then known as Block 43, University Mound Survey.
The five brothers, Ernesto, Vittorio, GioBatta, Andrea and Giovanni Garibaldi, were recent immigrants from Chiavari, Italy, a coastal farming community not far from Genoa. More than 20,000 Italians had arrived in San Francisco between 1880 and 1920. Most were farmers. 90 percent of farming Italians settled in the southeastern districts, one third of these in southern Bayview and another 45 percent in Portola — or as it was then known, University Mound.
Butchertown, just downhill and east of University Mound, was ripe with slaughterhouses and meat packers. On hot days it stunk,” said Franco Mancini. “Rotten meat—and melted bones from making buttons. Hearts of cows and tails and feet chopped off and brought to the dump. The stink was unbelievable. Too strong for even the flowers to cut,” Mancini said. “There ain’t a rose in the city that can overcome a rotting carcass.”
Hot meat winds, steep hills and its distance from downtown had isolated University Mound and kept the area mostly undeveloped countryside until the 1920s, but the land proved ideal for growers.
On Block 43 the Garibaldis drove timbers deep into the soil to erect a wood framework of whitewashed glass conservatories that housed roses and carnations. The brothers drew water from artesian wells below the earth and took advantage of the district’s near year-round sunshine to build University Mound Nursery into a successful flower business.
At first growers sold the cut flowers on street corners downtown. “One market sprang up around Lotta’s Fountain [at Kearny and Market],” writes Amy Stewart in Flower Confidential, “because growers liked easy access to water.” Intense competition led the Italians to incorporate the SF Flower Growers Association in 1923.
In total, 19 separate nurseries went into operation in Portola in the 1920s, most with their own unique crop. Gemignani, Ferrari, Winant, Restani. Begonias, orchids, azaleas, lilies. The hills ceded their emptiness to rising greenhouses and fields of stock marigolds.
The Garibaldi brothers married, had children, and the children joined their workforce. Franco Mancini, who also spent his childhood in the nurseries, working for Restani, recalls riding a truck through darkness to the bustle of the flower market floor at 4 a.m.
Flower jobs brought workers and residents to the area, lined dirt lanes with growers’ and their employees’ houses. “You’d think they were coming out of a popcorn maker,” Mancini said. Shipyard workers followed. Soon the area was a real neighborhood, no longer a territory.
CHECK HERE NEXT WEEK FOR MORE ON THE HISTORY AND FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS OF UNIVERSITY MOUND NURSERY. TO VIEW THE FULL VERSION OF GLASS HOUSES, PLEASE VISIT BEATVALLEY.NET
Photography by Henry Dombey