It’s a #SanFranciscoSunday, something I want to periodically do to talk about locations in my urban fantasy series SERVANT/SOVEREIGN!
Today: THE FIST!
What we call Corona Heights Park today was, in the 19th century, known rather plainly as Rocky Hill. At its peak were a quarry and an associated factory turning out tidy bricks made from the abundant Franciscan chert at the hill’s peak. When I talk in THROUGH THE DOORS OF OBLIVION about bricks firing like cannonballs from the sides of buildings during the 1906 earthquake, I’m talking about bricks made in that factory. The city built itself using what it dug out of the earth, and eventually the earth decided to take itself back.
The chert of Corona Heights is a terra cotta colored sedimentary rock chock full of the dead: untold masses of microorganisms living in the rich mud at the bottom of what was then deep water. Now, the chert the earth made from them has been thrust into the air like a clenched hand raised over the city of San Francisco, and thus one of its original monickers: The Fist.
Corona Heights is visible from almost everywhere in San Francisco, and from the brick-red outcropping at its top one has a near-360-degree panoramic view of the entirety of San Francisco and the Bay. By the 1920’s the factory had shut down and the quarry gone silent, and a woman named Josephine Randall–who had a fascinating life in her own right and majorly shaped the character of the city–oversaw the city buying all of Corona Heights for $27,000 in order to turn it into public space. As a result of her efforts, these days the park features tennis courts, a dog park, a museum, a mile of rough trail, and a shockingly undeveloped area in the middle of one of the most modified cityscapes in the world.
The first time I went to San Francisco I arrived exhausted and famished, having navigated SFO, BART, and the streets and sidewalks of the Castro on my own as a first-time visitor. When I got to my hosts’ home, they asked if I wanted to go for a hike to see one of the best views in the city and I, punch-drunk with enthusiasm for a new place, said hells YES I wanted to do exactly that.
With the night shading towards late, we walked out, up to States Street, and around the southern flank of Corona Heights. We made our way along paths and sidewalks in total darkness, up some rough wooden steps with no handrail, and turned a corner onto a bright red mound at the park’s peak: The Fist itself. We turned around to take in the view and I gasped aloud: beneath us lay the entirety of San Francisco, a city-sized satin cloth covered in tiny diamonds of light. I could take in everything from the Bay to the Twin Peaks and barely turn my head. It was gorgeous, more beautiful than I know how to describe, and I fell in love with San Francisco on the spot.
To get back to my hosts’ home we took the other side of the hill, walking down about a mile down a rough path of gravel, dirt, grass, and more rough-hewn steps, passing within waving distance of that museum, named for Josephine Randall herself. I spent the entire descent convinced I was going to fall off the side and die on my first night in San Francisco. 😀
There’s a scene in THROUGH THE DOORS OF OBLIVION in which Iria finds Emperor Norton seated on that outcropping, taking in that same view. It’s where they tell His Majesty how the magic works, and a little of who they are and why San Francisco means something to them. It’s where Norton and Iria both realize they could be comrades rather than mere summoner and summoned. I loved writing that scene for many reasons, but high on the list was the opportunity it gave me to recall one of my favorite places in the world. Corona Heights Park is not the most famous landmark in San Francisco. It’s not the Embarcadero, or Golden Gate Bridge, or Golden Gate Park or a cable car or Twin Peaks bar or the Palace of Fine Arts. But it’s what I think of when I think of that city, and it’s going to be one of the first places I go the next time I go back.