During last year’s San Francisco Rose Society Annual Mother’s Day Show, I was delighted to see one of my neighbors, a local parks’ activist, in attendance. We chatted for a while, and during our conversation she asked me if I was aware of an old, derelict greenhouse compound in our neighborhood, the Portola, which was used for probably around 40-50 years, to grow roses commercially. It had been a while since I’d visited that area of the Portola, and just assumed that all of the greenhouses had been demolished and the land converted to housing. However, this compound is still there, and, amazingly, roses still grow and bloom.
I then decided to visit the greenhouses on my own, and subsequently invited a colleague from the Rose Society to join me in surveying the area. The compound, of about 12-15 separate greenhouses, is located on a city block, and, unfortunately is terribly neglected. All of the windows and doors are boarded, and many of the glass ceiling tiles have fallen through and shattered. It’s difficult to see inside; however, roses flourish amidst a sea of weeds and other plants.
At one point, I was in contact with a local environmental/community farming, non-profit called San Francisco Greenhouses. Their web address is sfgreenhouses.org. They have been attempting to “rescue” the roses inside and claimed that they were delighted to learn of our group. Upon further research, I discovered that the land has remained in the family trust, divided up between cousins and siblings, heirs of the original owner. The land where the greenhouses are was settled by immigrant Italian farmers who migrated to the area around 1880. In fact, the majority of Italian immigrants in San Francisco lived in this neighborhood and Bayview Hunters Point, many of whom bought land and built greenhouses for commercial flower growing. During the 1940s, the Portola generated the current equivalent of half a billion dollars in annual commercial flower sales. Eventually, however, various trade regulations opened up the commercial flower business to worldwide competition, and the local growers couldn’t compete.
I attempted to contact one of the family members, but learned that the family is quite reclusive and do not want to discuss the disposition of the property. How the sfgreenhouse folks managed to get into the greenhouses is still a mystery to me. There is a contractor involved in this story, as well, who has an historical relationship with the family. That contractor has the right of first refusal, which means that if the family should decide to sell or use the property for whatever reason, the contractor essentially has veto power.
At a point in the past, discussions at SFRS board meetings revolved around finding a new meeting location, or start-up opportunities for an SFRS Learning Center. The greenhouses would provide some type of launching pad to develop that concept. However, at this point, there have been very few discussions. Maybe that will change over time.