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Great Explorations: Cayuga Playground

Great Explorations: Cayuga Playground
Photos: Laura Thompson/Hoodline
By Laura Thompson - Published on August 05, 2016.

Quite possibly San Francisco’s most unusual park, the Outer Mission enclave of Cayuga Playground is guarded by an army of hand-carved wooden figures, silently defending a treasured neighborhood space. The story of these sculptures is an inspiring tale of how one man’s devotion transformed a neglected park.

The entry gate to Cayuga Playground, designed by Bay Area artist Eric Powell.

The park is located where Cayuga and Naglee avenues meet, just a few blocks from the city's southern border. A beautifully sculpted iron gate welcomes visitors through the park entrance; inside is a clubhouse, its green roof blooming and its rentable rooms buzzing with the festivities of a 4-year-old’s birthday celebration.

Spilling out from the clubhouse, children jump, climb, and swing at the playground while their parents look on. A tennis court and a basketball court are nearby.

Cayuga Playground.

A dense “forest” separates the playground from a large open meadow—the perfect place for a game of hide-and-seek. There's so much to do in this park, you might not notice the elevated BART tracks looming over one side, until a train thunders by. 

A wooden sculpture keeps watch over the park.

As you venture deeper into the 3.8-acre park, you’ll begin to see more of the colorful wooden figurines—over 100 of them—scattered throughout the paths, peeking out from every conceivable space between bushes and trees. Angels, mermaids, knights, wizards and trolls, creatures of all shapes and sizes, and mythical figures form a magical cast of characters.

Figurines line the paths of Cayuga Playground.

The park wasn't always so enchanting. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, it first opened to the public in April 1951 and was renovated in 1982. But by 1986, when city gardener Demetrio Braceros was assigned to the park, it had fallen into significant disrepair. Gang activity was frequent, and residents didn’t feel safe visiting their own neighborhood park. 

Opening of Cayuga Park in 1951. | Photo: Courtesy of the San Francisco History Center

Shortly after Demetrio, known as "Demi," started working at the park, a storm toppled two trees, setting the stage for his carvings. In his 22 years as park gardener at Cayuga, Demi dutifully tended to the landscape as he created over 370 folk art sculptures. His dedication to the park inspired the community and made this a welcoming place.

The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department significantly renovated Cayuga Playground in 2013, building a new clubhouse and playground, resurfacing the tennis and basketball courts and expanding the park. Demi's creations were cleaned and refurbished, and some were put into storage.

One of the carved wooden sculptures in Cayuga Park.

Cayuga Creek, the southernmost tributary of Islais Creek, runs under the park as it snakes its way towards the bay. In the past, the park was plagued with flooding and saturation during the rainy season. The park's renovation included an elaborate stormwater collection system, which was creatively integrated into the design. As you walk along the pathways, you’ll notice narrow channels that help funnel water off the site, native plant landscaping, and a water collection basin. The large meadow serves to capture runoff from the park’s edges.

So far, no Pokémon species have been captured here, but visiting Cayuga Playground to see this merry band of carvings is worth the trip.

Getting there: The primary entrance to the park is at Cayuga Avenue, where it terminates near the junction of Naglee Avenue. Take BART to the Balboa Park station and follow Geneva Avenue downhill to Cayuga Avenue, or take the Muni M-Ocean View to San Jose Avenue and Farallones Street, cross the pedestrian bridge over Highway 280, and ramp down to the Alemany Avenue park entrance. The 14, 14R and 14X Muni buses stop at Mission and Naglee Avenue, three blocks from the park. Parking is available on the street. The park is wheelchair-accessible and has public restrooms.