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San Francisco’s Portola neighborhood just got a 16-foot gothic gate. See where it leads

Artist Angie Matt stands for a portrait in San Francisco on Wednesday. Artists and the Portola Neighborhood Association took over a section of Caltrans-owned land adjacent to Highway 101 and converted it into an artwork-filled greenway. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

While San Francisco is in the throes of a debate about sidewalk planters and their perceived hostility toward our unhoused neighbors, one residential neighborhood is doubling down on community gardens intended for everyone’s enjoyment—crowned by a Gothic metal gate constructed from hammers, gears and garden tools.

The Portola District, just south of Bernal Heights, is hemmed in by freeways on two sides, severing it a bit from the city’s urban fabric. The building of U.S. 101, in particular, required demolishing a number of houses and reducing a dozen streets to dead ends. Memories run long in the historically working-class neighborhood—San Francisco’s “Garden District,” as the sign at the San Bruno Avenue on-ramp proclaims—and when the opportunity to reclaim a strip of derelict Caltrans land along the freeway embankment came up, the community rallied to right a historic wrong.

Artists Maggie Weis, left, Angie Matt, center, and Alex Hobbs sit for a portrait near the Freeway Greenway in the Portola District on Wednesday. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Architect Angie Matt is among a group of co-directors of what’s become known as the Freeway Greenway, a multiblock space filled with redwood saplings, art and the half-buried chassis of a 1969 Dodge Coronet, all along a north-south path paralleling San Bruno, the Portola’s main drag.

“Portola” is pronounced “POOR-ta-luh,” by the way—unlike the street or the music festival, both of which are “poor-TOH-luh.”

Matt had her first look inside the future greenspace more than four years ago but didn’t start work in earnest until the pandemic. She wound down her architectural practice earlier this year, and since then, she and her crew have pretty much been working every day, clearing debris, propagating cuttings and commissioning art. Wire cages known as “gabions” hold the sloping earth in place, some studded with vintage license plates for extra support. Aruba may be a Caribbean paradise, but its stamped, black-and-white plate is on the plain side—although it does read “One Happy Island.”

Parts of the Freeway Greenway absorbed existing rear patios, redeveloping and integrating them into the scheme. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard
A table and chairs can be seen at the end of Burrows Street, just off San Bruno Avenue in the Portola, with the gate behind it. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Forming a kind of subcommittee of the Portola Neighborhood Association, Matt and her fellow co-directors gradually grew in clout until they got on the city’s radar. Now, they have a partnership with the Department of Public Works, which has helped to clear trash and waste, as well as a mural, Mother Nature and Her Gardners, by Charles Dabo, who lives nearby. Matt is especially glad of their progress, because when most people think about the things that typically go up next to the freeway, they imagine an encampment.

“I've had grown men cry. One guy poked his head in. He goes, ‘I don't know who you are or what this is. But you're restoring my faith in the Lord,’” she said. “I was like, ‘Dude, you just paid me for, like, five years.’” 

A fence covered in birdhouses is just one part of the art-filled greenway. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard
While it looks European, the gate also resembles a church in Old Town, Chicago. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

The focal point is the faintly spooky 18-foot gate at the end of Burrows Street that was constructed by artist Dana Albany, who specializes in large-scale installations. Adorned with knives, faucets, hammer peens, glass rosettes and antique garden tools, it could grace the altar of a cult of mechanical pagans—a portal to the Portola. It also resembles a church in Chicago near where Alex Hobbs, one of the project's co-directors, grew up. The more you look at it, the more you find.

“It’s a treasure chest,” Albany said, adding that her favorite component was the journey that people go on when they approach it and find the greenway. 

Dana Albany's 18-foot gate is awe-inspiring no matter how you look at it. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

The gate took six months to complete, partly because it was supposed to be shorter. Its welded-on trowels and shovels echo the neighborhood’s agricultural past, of which the decayed greenhouses on Woolsey Street are all that remain. (Their potential revival is another community-driven project.)

Dana Albany's gate is welded together from hardware and garden tools. The more you look, the more you find. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard
This tiger was part of a young muralist's first project. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard
A 1969 Coronet lies half-buried near the U.S. 101 embankment at the Freeway Greenway. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

The greenway project was a tough sell for some neighbors whose houses butt up against the parcel. 

“Initially, they were scared, going, ‘Oh, there's going to be others here, and we don't want that,’” Matt said. “They were scared about security issues. But we're here every day, so we are the security.” 

The Freeway Greenway is a bit shaggy yet, with plenty of spiderwebs and a maintenance shack at one end. When a wheelchair-friendly ramp and handrails are in place, Matt will move on to the next phase, extending it to Mansell Avenue, at the next freeway exit to the south. There, the greenway can connect with an existing median that climbs to McLaren Park, the city’s second-biggest park, which may soon have fewer cars along its main route.

What was only recently a long, narrow plot of weeds and garbage is now a hotbed of teamwork and elbow grease. 

“The first Saturday of every month is an open house-slash-volunteer day,” Matt said. “We are here, rain or shine—and we get a solid group. I mean, it all started with, like, three of us.”

This composite image shows artwork sculpted by Dana Albany and a detail from her 18-foot metal gate. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Astrid Kane can be reached at