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A secret community of gardeners in Portola tends to the land

Kanwalroop Kaur Singh
The cottage by the University Mound Reservoir, where the reservoir gardeners work

Most reviews on Yelp are of restaurants. But there’s one that’s a little bit different. It begins like this.


Parched. Google Maps suggested there would be water: which in fact is true. It's just a few feet down.



In 2014, entrepreneur Jason Bennett posted that review of University Mound Reservoir in the Portola neighborhood of San Francisco. Bennett was on a mission to explore the City’s hidden pockets and corners. So he hopped on the bus, grabbed a sandwich, and walked up to the reservoir, imagining a sunny afternoon relaxing by some shimmery water.


"Looking at Google Maps, it’s a body of water, so it looks like you could chill out by the side of two manmade lakes," Bennett recounts. But when he went to the reservoir, what he found instead was a large flat slab of cement. So he ended his review with this:


A heads up to my fellow Yelpers who think spending the afternoon relaxing by water is a good idea. It is. Just not here.


"You know when you get to your final destination you’re like, 'Oh I hope this is kind of worth it.' And it was just a paved-over cistern," said Bennett in a recent interview. A paved-over cistern. No body of water to speak of, or chill out by. That’s not just disappointing. It also doesn’t make sense. A reservoir has to have water. So, where is it"


The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the SFPUC, is in charge of the reservoir. They treat and monitor the water in a facility a few feet under the cement lid that covers the reservoir. You can hear the water there, but you can’t see it.


There’s more to the reservoir though, than water that doesn’t meet the eye. There’s the grounds, the gardens, the gardeners...and the guerilla gardeners.  


Paul Ito, Buildings and Grounds Superintendent at the SFPUC, leads the crew of city gardeners who maintain the street-side gardens around the reservoir. They whack weeds, blow leaves, trim trees, pick up garbage, and plant. A lot. Not just at the University Mound, but at all 10 reservoirs in San Francisco. And sometimes, so called “guerilla” gardeners surprise them with help.


"They come in the middle of the night and garden our little patches of land," says Ito.


"Some older lady plants it, the whole row of alyssum. This time of year, you prune it back and it comes back. This here with the white flowers," says Jeff Geddes, one of the reservoir gardeners in Ito’s crew.


The gardeners allow the older lady's white flowers, but they don’t just allow anyone to plant on the land. They take their jobs seriously, growing California native plants in order to save water and preserve the natural landscape.

"We have to maintain the integrity of the land," says Ito. "We’re just stewards...it’s taken many generations through the years."  

Ito and his crew stand below a towering cypress tree on a street corner near the reservoir. Like them, it too has watched over the land for generations.

"It’s a beautiful tree. It’s huge, it’s established, it’s been here a long time," says Geddes.

In 2006, when the SFPUC was planning a retrofit of the reservoir, there was a possibility that the cypress tree could be cut down. So they held a community open house to hear what the neighbors had to say about it. Many wanted it to stay.  

During the retrofit, bulldozers were being rolled over the land. So steel plates were fitted around the roots of the cypress tree, allowing them to breathe, to keep the tree alive.

"You look over here from anywhere in the neighborhood and you see that tree," says Suzanne Gautier, a spokesperson for the SFPUC. People have grown up with it, their grandkids have grown up with it. They’re going to keep growing up with it."

Down the street from the old cypress tree is the gardening crew’s headquarters. Gardeners are dispatched from here to all the reservoirs in San Francisco. But this isn't just a typical tool shed. The gardeners describe it as a historic, 1920's, quaint, cozy, home away from home — that's sort of out of place.

It's a Victorian-style yellow cottage with a white picket fence. Built in the 1880's by the Spring Valley Water Company, the cottage was originally a private residence for employees responsible for taking care of the reservoir. Back then, water was considered private property. Today, water has been declared a human right by the United Nations. And the cottage is now a public space — where neighbors can speak up at community meetings about saving trees. And where gardeners can store the tools they need to tend to the land.

Ito opens and closes the drawers in the cottage kitchen. "This has now got office supplies in it, but it could have been someone’s fork and knife drawer for all I know. Seeds in this one. Your working gardener’s garage," he says.

It’s a strange place, where the gardeners work. This quaint, cozy, historic cottage from a past century, next to a reservoir that looks like a chunk of cement dropped on earth. Or, in Yelp reviewer Jason Bennett’s words, "a paved-over cistern."

In his review, Bennett gave the reservoir four out of five stars. Even though he never found the water he was looking for, he says he found something even better.  

"It’s stories like this that remind me how cool San Francisco can be. Because there’s just these little charming stories everywhere that stand in contrast to gentrification, eviction, monoculture, all that type of stuff. I wouldn't trade it for anything else."