A Street of Wood and Blossoms

Welcome to another #SanFranciscoSunday! Today I want to talk about the Filbert Street Steps and Grace Marchant.

San Francisco is chock full of step streets: that is, public byways and roads which are, in fact, staircases. There are many of them in San Francisco, and in fact I’ve taken more than one walking tour focused solely on step streets. Many of the streets naturally have homes and addresses on them, but only one has a parking meter and one of the largest public gardens in town.

Before we talk about the Filbert Street Steps or the gardens, however, let’s talk about an amazing woman named Grace Marchant.

Grace Merchant was born and raised in South Dakota in 1886. I started to type “rural South Dakota,” but I don’t think there was much of any other kind of South Dakota to be found at the time. She married a farmer, had a daughter by him, and by 1912 decided farm life was boring as could be. She packed up her daughter Valetta, bought train fare, and moved to California to seek adventure.

Almost immediately, she got into show business working for Mack Sennett. Sennett’s name isn’t terribly familiar to us today, but his creations are: he founded Keystone Studios, built the first totally enclosed soundstage and filming studio, and invented countless film tropes we still celebrate. Probably half the films of the last century (and more) somehow make use of his ideas. I’m not kidding. He invented hitting someone in the face with a pie for laughs. He invented car chases.

Sennett had actually been born Michael Sinnott, but changed his name on getting to Hollywood himself. He advised Grace Merchant to do so as well and shortly thereafter she became Grace Marchant, with two A’s.

Marchant became one of Sennett’s “Bathing Beauties,” but she also became one of Hollywood’s early stuntwomen. Marchant’s specialty? Diving from ocean liners. She did stunts other than that, but that’s the one that absolutely floored me.

Grace pushed Valetta to get into show business as well, and she did–though they were ever at odds about it. Valetta became a dancer and a chorus line singer, and eventually the theater troupes and Vaudeville shows she performed with moved to San Francisco. Grace, by then working as the seamstress for her daughter’s dance troupe, moved with them.

Grace and Valetta spent World War II working together, building “Liberty Ships” (a variety of tanker) in Sausalito, just the other side of the Golden Gate. But by 1949, Grace was 63 and had moved to Napier Lane and the Filbert Steps, just around the corner from her daughter and son-in-law.

The Filbert Steps had, at that point, been an open-air garbage dump for decades. I don’t mean there was a little trash. I mean people dumped big stuff by simply tossing it down from above. Grace moved in and discovered the steps running through her neighborhood covered in old tires, abandoned furniture, entire stoves, even houses. At the time very few structures on Telegraph Hill had been built or removed according to code or using permits (a practice Grace’s son-in-law called “bootleg architecture,” in which Grace herself was an enthusiastic participant), and entire cottages had, on being demolished, simply been pushed over onto other, lower parts of the face of Telegraph Hill.

Grace began the work for which she’s most known now by clearing a little patch of ground and planting Soleirolia soleirolii, aka “baby’s tears,” a hearty little plant that doesn’t need much to survive.

How did she clear the garbage? She carried it to a different spot on the cliffs of Telegraph Hill and threw it over the side there.

From 1949 to 1982, Grace Marchant devoted her life to turning every available inch of the Filbert Street Steps into a public garden. If that meant she cleared and gardened property technically belonging to others, well, so be it.

In 1979, three decades into her work, Grace took on an apprentice: Gary Kray, who first met Marchant in the 1950’s when he explored the city on his own as a child. Kray moved into the cottage next to Grace’s, learned everything she could teach him, and promised her he would carry on her work. Grace Marchant died in 1982 at age 96, having spent 33 years transforming the Filbert Steps from a garbage dump into a throng of flowers, bushes, trees, and art.

Gary Kray kept his word to Grace Marchant. He tended the garden for 33 years also, passing from the world of the living in 2012. But he, too, had trained others, and those others now run Friends of the Garden, which maintains the Grace Marchant Garden on the Filbert Steps to this day.

Real estate in San Francisco is not a game for the soft at heart, and the gardens were threatened more than once by the dangers of development. That Grace so often gardened on others’ land did not exactly amount to a legal argument in the gardens’ favor. But the public came together and rescued the land, raising funds, buying it back from developers, and getting conservation easements to protect it in perpetuity. These days the Filbert Steps are maintained by Friends of the Garden and the Trust for Public Land.

There’s a scene in the upcoming SHUT THE GATES OF MERCY, the third book in SERVANT/SOVEREIGN (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0881J5BBZ), in which Etta Place climbs the Filbert Steps to travel from Levi’s Plaza, right there by the docks at the base of Telegraph Hill, all the way to Coit Tower at the top. But she stops in Grace Marchant Garden to look around at how much that space has changed. The Filbert Steps embody so much of what I love about San Francisco: a people who don’t particularly play by the rules when the rules get in the way of something better, and a place once reviled turned into something better by the people who see a way to love it.

Grace Marchant’s story is more than those gardens–her film career, her “bootleg architecture” as she, her daughter, and her daughter’s husband bought tiny tenements on the face of Telegraph Hill two at a time in order to knock down the walls between them, add fireplaces, and turn them around as better homes than they had started, her New Deal politics, her outspoken disparaging of conservative politics–but I think the gardens represent a good bit of who she was. Her daughter’s husband frequently joked that if he ever wrote a memoir it would be titled, “Me, My Wife, and my Goddamn Mother-in-Law.” But that goddamned mother-in-law saw a garden where a garbage dump lay, and that daughter and that son-in-law helped her with it. (And, in fact, did the same thing on their own step street just a stone’s throw away.)

I’ve climbed the Filbert Steps from bottom to top. One of my closest friends in the world and I climbed it to go to Coit Tower a few years ago. We figured it would be “an experience.” I had run a half-marathon along the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean the day before and my legs were shot. But walking through the Grace Marchant Garden was a restorative experience. By the time I got to the top I felt better than I had in days. Again, it’s not Coit Tower, and it’s not the Embarcadero, but the Filbert Steps connect the two and Grace Marchant is the person who made the journey worth it.

Much credit to the incredible FoundSF, particularly its pages on Greenwich Steps, Filbert Steps & Grace Marchant Gardens, and Gary Kray, Tender of the Grace Marchant Gardens.

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