Today, the Presidio is a mix of public space and private enterprise. Its 1,491 acres are home to 11 miles of hiking trails; 14 miles of cycling routes; a National Cemetery (one of the few cemeteries within city limits); and eucalyptus, cypress and pine-tree groves. Spread among it all are former Army barracks, airplane hangars and officers’ quarters that house both nonprofit and commercial businesses. In 2005, producer and director George Lucas relocated his Letterman Digital Arts Center — the creative school for visual effects and film technology (and home to an outdoor Yoda fountain that’s a magnet for Star Wars geeks) — here, and it resides on a 23-acre specially built campus. Diane Marie Disney helped open a museum dedicated to the life achievements of her dad, Walt, the man behind the mouse, within three of the park’s historic structures in 2009. And eateries such as the swanky Presidio Social Club, serving comfort cuisine like meatloaf and mac and cheese alongside stiff martinis, have been bustling. A 22-room boutique hotel (called The Inn at the Presidio, it’s the park’s first) even opened within park boundaries earlier this year. The Presidio’s a treasure to be sure, and Crissy Field is its satchel of gold.
Converting a former waste site into a pristine beach with coastal dunes, restored wetlands and a mile-long promenade was no easy task, especially with 87,000 tons of hazardous materials to remove. But if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that San Franciscans are — and have always been — a scrappy bunch, pulling off great feats with ease and a bit of bravado (just look at the 2010 World Series champion San Francisco Giants). When Europeans first arrived in 1849, spurred by the prospect of gold, the San Francisco peninsula was an open land of bush-covered peaks, meandering creeks and Native American settlements. Within a year, its population had ballooned from 1,000 to 25,000, and with it came a sea of narrow streets lined with raucous saloons butting up against brothels and boardinghouses. No longer was San Francisco a backwater town; it was now the largest city on the West Coast.
Probably the person who best embodies San Francisco’s do-it-yourself spirit is Joshua Abraham Norton, who was born in England and later emigrated to the city to amass his fortune like so many others. But rather than pan for gold, Norton invested in Peruvian rice. A famine had cut off shipments from China, California’s main supplier of rice at the time, and the entrepreneurial Norton figured he could corner the market by signing away $25,000 of his inheritance in exchange for 200,000 pounds of rice from Peru, ready and waiting for distribution in the local harbor. Unfortunately, a new shipment of superior Peruvian rice arrived in San Francisco the very next day and others quickly followed. Norton’s ship, figuratively speaking, sank, and the once-popular businessman slipped out of the city in disgrace.