It should be common knowledge that you can most likely buy Alaska with the money you would need to purchase half a block of land in San Francisco. Land prices in SF often exceed six digits, so for the average prospector it’s a green-light dream—reach for it and get your prize, or reach for it and get seizures. Nevertheless, last year two chums and I (being the horrific idiots that we are) truly thought we could acquire a piece of unused property and turn it into a sort of suburban arcadia as a gracious act of community service. In other words, get an empty lot and turn it into an urban garden.
What a great plan, right? We had ambitions to be like the Friends of the Urban Forest , but with more delusions, less cherry blossoms, and no Board of Directors or funding of any sort. I thought the whole process would go like this:
1. Get some land.
2. Do some stuff to it.
Our goal to improve the green infrastructure of the area and grow some sunflowers and organic strawberries for the neighborhood kids was so awesome. Land use in the Sunset is usually limited to building identical, attached squat houses, so I thought we could be creative and add a bit of color and diversity to our foggy, sleepy neighborhood. We wanted to start small, and so we set our sights on a particular empty lot in the Outer Sunset—a plot of land inhabited by dead grass and soda cans, big enough to build three houses on.
Located beside 1825 25th Avenue on Noriega Street, this sorry site has been empty for over thirty years and still is today. It looks like this:
Look at it. It’s big and beige, festering with weeds and speckled with trash. The embodiment of abandoned lots everywhere. Except that it isn’t abandoned. Quite the opposite, actually.
This ugly, neglected, fenced-off waste of 4,813 square feet is attached to the property of 1825 Noriega Street, a three story house divided into flats. The house is currently the residence of several families, but the owner is adamant about ignoring the empty ground next to the house. According to District 4 supervisor Katy Tang, she and her team have been “trying to contact the owner for years and trying to convince him to do something with the space,” but have not been able to move forward.
The lot’s price tag has drunk a dozen bottles of Sprite and crystal meth, that’s how high it is. It’s well over a million. A team of three clueless teenagers could never hope to gather that much money.
What a crying shame. Look at all the potential glorious things this unloved patch of grass could be:
Silliness aside, this is a problem so supremely ridiculous, I wonder how it’s even still legal in San Francisco. Land space in this city is precious, which is why it costs so much. Yet, private owners can buy a plot of land and leave it there to become overgrown with weeds and collect graffiti over the years, and nobody can touch it. Sort of like an intentional stain on the neighborhood. I feel like there should be a law to confiscate empty property if it’s been neglected for a certain amount of years. Having a five million dollar lot sitting on a city block corner for thirty-plus years because the owner can’t be bothered to do anything to it is unspeakably stupid, especially in a city as restricted in land area as San Francisco.
I suppose property owners would argue that having the city confiscate neglected private property is unjust and Communist. They would argue that private property should be protected, and if I want to buy a city block full of houses and leave every single one empty for fifty years and not do anything to them at all, then so be it.
What I’d like to see is a change to how property that has been neglected like this can be dealt with in this city. I believe it’s incredibly important to protect private properties, but when owners leave a spot unattended for twenty to thirty years, and it’s affecting the environment negatively (i.e. being a litter-filled waste of space in an otherwise perfectly functioning neighborhood), I think that’s when people should step in and say that’s not right.
Words and images by Serina Fang