The Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council's (HANC) Recycling Center has fought for the past decade to stay in its tiny corner of Golden Gate Park, behind Kezar stadium, and it may be days from closing. It’s been served with eviction notices from the city and weathered political tirades from politicians on pulpits, and most recently, saw its eviction appeal denied by California’s Supreme Court.
The recycling center, which has been in operation since 1974, wouldn’t be the only loss to the Haight either. Both a community garden and San Francisco native plant nursery are on the site, under the umbrella name of Kezar Gardens. After an eviction for the recycling center, all three would go.
So in what may be their last days, the Guardian decided to take a look at who is a part of the recycling center’s community. What keeps them coming back - even in the face of eviction?
While the final eviction date is nebulous, the reasons for it are not: as the Haight gentrified, more and more neighbors complained about the site’s surrounding homeless population, the noise the recycling center makes, and every other NIMBY complaint in the book.
Contrary to the usual complaints of the recycling center and gardens attracting numerous homeless people, the people detailed in the stories below reflect a diverse community. And there were far more stories that we didn’t include: the busy head of a nonprofit who gardens to keep his sanity, or the two brothers who bring in their recyclables every week as a way for their parents to teach them responsibility. And they’re not the only people who depend on the recycling center and gardens.
“One of the problems [with evicting HANC] is that the small businesses in the area depend on the service of the center,” Sup. Christina Olague, who representing the area, told us. “We don’t want to see it relocated out of the area.”
Olague said that although ideas for a mobile recycling center or a relocation have been batted around, nothing is concrete yet. The Mayor’s Office, the Recreations and Parks Department, and HANC were all going to have more meetings and try to come to a solution that would benefit all sides, she said.
The recycling center and gardens aren’t going down without their supporters making a clamor. They developed a feature documentary about their struggles, titled 780 Frederick. Directed by Soumyaa Kapil Behrens, the film will play at the San Francisco International Film Festivals “Doc Fest” on Nov. 11.
Until then, here’s a glimpse at some of the people who make up the community at the HANC Recycling Center and Kezar Gardens.
Greg Gaar, Native Plant Nursery Caretaker
Longtime groundskeeper and recycling guru Greg Gaar will soon be out of a job, only a year after single-handedly starting a native plant nursery in the Haight Ashbury that serves more than 100 people.
Gaar is the caretaker of the Kezar Garden nursery. He raises Dune Tansy, Beach Sagewort, Coast Buckwheat and Bush Monkey – all plants originally born and bred from the dunes of old San Francisco.
"I do it because I worship nature, to me that’s god," Gaar said. He spoke of the plants reverently.
The native plants aren’t as bombastically colorful as the rest of Golden Gate Park, he said, which Gaar calls “European pleasure gardens,” but they’re hearty and durable, like Gaar himself.
Gaar has a weathered face from years of working in the open air, and he grinned large as he talked about his plants. His grey beard comes down a few inches, giving him the look of a spry Santa Claus. Gaar has a history of embracing the counterculture, much like the Haight itself. In 1977, he made his first foray into activism.
At the time, wealthy developers in the city wanted to develop buildings and houses on Tank Hill, one of the few remaining lands of San Francisco with native growth. "Two percent of the city right now has native plants," he said. It’s a travesty to him, but he did his part to prevent it.
Gaar led the charge against the redevelopers by putting up posters and flyers, and fighting them tooth and nail for the land through old fashioned San Francisco rallying.
In the end, the counterculture activists won, and the city of San Francisco bought the land back from the developers, keeping it for the public trust. The long-ago battle over Tank Hill was a victory, but the fight for the Haight Ashbury Recycling Center may already be lost.
Gaar has deep ties to the recycling center. Among his friends are two ravens, Bobbie and Regina, who recognize Gaar since the first time he fed them 16 years ago. Occasionally, he says, they'll accompany him on his rounds around the park. The ravens aren't the only friends he's made through the recycling center.
They have many patrons looking to make a few bucks off of cans and bottles, many of which are poverty-struck or homeless. Gaar darkened as he spoke of them, because over the years he has lost many friends he’s made through work. The recycling center is a community, and those that are lost are often memorialized in the garden that Gaar grew with his own hands.
In the San Francisco Chronicle, columnist C. W. Nevius frequently calls out the nursery as a "last ditch effort" on the part of the recycling center to stave off closure and legitimize its own existence. In reality, the nursery was brainstormed years before the controversy through Gaar's inspiration.
Though Nevius may not agree with the ethos Gaar has brought to the recycling center, the city of San Francisco must trust him. The Recreation and Parks Department has offered him a job planting native plants around Golden Gate Park, which is Gaar is welcome to after the recycling center closes. But taking care of native plants is more than a job to Gaar, it’s a calling.
“Isn’t it amazing that we exist on one of the sole planets we know of that supports life?” Gaar said with wide eyes. He sees his job as preserving the natural order, working to keep alive the plants that were part of the city before the first arrival of the spaniards.
Gaar, much like his plants, is part of a shrinking population of the city: the San Francisco native. When the recycling center closes, he'll be able to spread native plants across Golden Gate Park, another rebel cause in a life of green activism.
Kristy Zeng, loyal daughter
Kristy Zeng, 30, talked about everything she does for her family in a matter of fact tone, as if none of it took effort, patience or loyalty.
As she talked, Zeng unloaded over six trash cans worth of recyclables into colored bins. At home, she has two young girls waiting for her, ages three and one, she said. The money she gets from the recyclables is small, but necessary – not for herself, but for her mother.
“My mom’s primary job is this one,” she said. Zeng’s mother is 62 and speaks no English. In the eight years she’s been in San Francisco since immigrating from China, she hasn’t been able to find a job.
“People look at her and say she’s too old,” Zeng said. “She’s too near retirement age.”
So Zeng’s mother hauls cans in her shopping cart every day to earn her keep. She’s one of the folks you can spot around town foraging in bins outside people’s homes, collecting recyclables from picnic-goers in parks, and asking for empties from local bars. The money she earns is just enough to pay for her food.
Even between her husband’s two jobs, Zeng said her family doesn’t have quite enough to fully support her mother. The recyclable collecting is vital income, Zeng said. She and her extended family all live in the Sunset and Outer Richmond, though she wishes they could find a place big enough to live together.
The Haight Ashbury Recycling Center is just close enough to make the chore worth the trip. Zeng was surprised to hear that the center was near closure.
“I would have to find a job,” she said. She usually watches her infant and toddler while her husband is at work. “Mom can’t babysit them, her back isn’t so good. It’s too hard.”
It’s not so bad though, she said, because at 30 years old, Zeng is still young and can handle the extra work. But if the recycling center closed, Zeng and her mom would both have to find a new way to make ends meet.
Steven and Brian Guan learn responsibility
At about five feet tall, wearing an oversized ball-cap and dwarfed by the man-sized jacket he wore, Brian Guan, 12, definitely stood out at the Haight Ashbury Recycling Center. All around him, grisly old men hauled bins full of cans and bottles – but he didn’t pay them any mind.
Brian had his older brother Steven Guan, 14, to look out for him. Together they hauled in four bags worth of recyclables in plastic bags, walking straight to the empty bins as if it were a routine they’d done a dozen times before.
Which, of course, they had.
“I’ve been doing this for at least a year,” Steven said. Though he looks totally comfortable, the chore definitely introduced him to a different crowd than he’s used to.
The recycling center’s clientele of homeless folks, and people generally older than 14, don’t really bother him, he said. “It’s kinda weird, but it’s no big deal.” Besides, he said, he’s happy to help out his family, who spend a lot of time working.
“My mom works in a hotel, and she collects the cans and stuff there.” His dad does the same.
Their mom is a maid, and dad is a bellhop, working in separate hotels downtown. Steven didn’t know if the money they collect each week was vital for his family’s income, but he does know that the haul isn’t very much.
“It’s usually only like $10,” he said.
So was it even worth the trip? Steven said that if he wasn’t helping out his parents by bringing in recyclables, he’d probably be “at home doing nothing.” A Washington High School student, he doesn’t play on any sports teams and isn’t in any clubs. He spends the majority of his time helping out his family.
The way he figures it, he said, the chore is meant to teach him responsibility.
It looks like it worked.
Dennis Horsluy, a principled man
A lot of the patrons haul cans and bottles to the Haight Ashbury Recycling Center out of need: to feed themselves, clothe themselves, and live. Dennis Horsluy, 44, does not count himself as one of those people.
“It’s pocket change,” Horsluy said. But despite the cost, he’s going to get every red penny back from the government that he’s owed through the California Redemption Value charges on cans and bottles. “It’s just the right thing to do.”
Horsluy said that Sunset Scavenger, now known as Recology, has a stranglehold on San Francisco’s recycling and trash.
“If you leave your recyclables on the curb, it’s like taxation without representation,” he said. You pay for it whether you want to or not. In his own version of “sticking it to the man,” Horsluy makes sure his recycling dollars get back into his hands.
Horsluy is a displaced auto-worker who has only just recently found work again. “I made plenty, and now I make nothing,” he said.
A family man, he has a daughter at Lowell High School, and a son at Stuart Hall High School. He thinks San Francisco has problems much weightier than closing the recycling center, such as the school lottery system that almost had him sending his kids far across town for school.
Horsluy wasn’t surprised that some of the Haight locals had managed to finally oust the recycling center, considering they’ve been complaining for years about how it attracts many of the local homeless population to the area. “I’m sure it’s a problem for the neighbors with their million-dollar homes,” he said.
But the homeless were a problem long before the Haight Ashbury Recycling Center, Horsluy said. San Francisco has a history of generosity, and so it draws more of the needy. Horsluy will be fine without the recycling center, he said, but the more poverty stricken patrons of the center may not be.
“They’re just trying to survive.”
Chris Dye, gardening his troubles away
Some people drink to forget. Chris Dye, 44, does something similar --- he gardens to forget.
While watering the plot of greens he calls his own, Dye spun a yarn that sounded like a San Francisco version of a country song. His ex-wife bleeds his paychecks dry, and he had to leave his dream job at the National Parks Service to make ends meet in Information Technology, a job he pictures as the last place he’d like to be.
He regained a bit of peace in his ordeals through a hardcore passion for San Francisco native plants. “I found a rare kind of phacelia clinging to life in the cement at City College,” Dye said. “You know, down by the art building? When I saw it, I sketched it.”
A day later though it was gone, he said. He fell silent in what was almost a reverent moment for the rare native plant he spotted. Dye is on a personal mission to revive native San Franciscan plants.
The Kezar Gardens give Dye a chance to grow for himself all the interesting native plants he’s interested in. Inspired by the native plant nursery’s caretaker, Greg Gaar, he rattles off all the near-extinct species he’s been able to see and raise. “For me, it’s a personal experiment to figure all this out.”
It’s not all about leafy activism though. Sometimes, it’s just about a good meal. Dye snapped off a leaf and crushed it with his fingers. “This is Hummingbird Sage,” he said, holding it up to his nose for a sniff. “Mix this into a little olive oil, and rub it all over your pot roast, or whatever. It’s fucking amazing.”
Lael and Genevieve Dasgupta
Four-year-old Genevieve marched around the table by the garden, watching as a woman carves a pumpkin for Halloween.
Genevieve and her mother, Lael Dasgupta, recycle there in the Haight once a week, as part of Dasgupta’s hope to get her to learn at a young age about eco-responsibility. They don’t use one of the garden plots in the community garden, because they have a communal backyard at home. They do use some of Greg Gaar’s native plants in their garden, for decoration.
Dasgupta has mostly practical reasons for recycling. “It brings us about $40 to $50 a week... That’s a lot of money,” Dasgupta said.
But despite the location of several other recycling centers in the city, why does Dasgupta bring Genevieve here?
“Dirt, dirt dirt,” she said. “Its just good for her to play in the dirt, and build a healthy immune system. The other recycling centers aren’t as charming.”
Dasgupta said that if Kezar Gardens and the Haight Ashbury Recycling Center were to close, she wouldn’t relish taking her daughter out to the Bayview recycling center. She’s been there, and didn’t enjoy the experience. It’s easy to see that the two are comfortable at Kezar Gardens. Folks around the gardens all seem to know Genevieve, who marches around the place without fear.
The woman who was carving the pumpkins handed one to Genevieve for her to play with. The young girl promptly set to the pumpkin with a marker, making what could be either a set of incomprehensible squiggly lines, or the Milky Way galaxy, depending on your perspective.