Alcatraz’s gardens are flourishing, against all odds

Here’s how a desolate rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay became a tourist hotspot—and horticultural haven.

By Jordan Kushins
Published 22 Oct 2020, 23:26 BST
Alcatraz Island—once an uninhabited outcrop, later a military base and a high-security prison—has been home to ...

Alcatraz Island—once an uninhabited outcrop, later a military base and a high-security prison—has been home to carefully tended gardens for more than a hundred years.

Photograph by Allard Schager, Alamy Stock Photo

On a gigantic rock in the San Francisco Bay, purple dahlias sway in full bloom against a sapphire sky. Their presence is a paradox: What, exactly, are they doing on Alcatraz?

Apart from a few scattered grasses, there’s no vegetation native to this island. “The Rock” is exactly that—an imposing, inhospitable bluff of exposed sandstone a mile and a half from San Francisco’s shore. Sunny days are glorious, but the elements here are fickle and unforgiving: Winds whip at astonishing speeds, and fog often envelops the island so completely that it vanishes from view.

Its isolation is infamous. Home to one of the world’s most notorious penitentiaries, it’s known as a place where life was punished, not propagated. And yet, for nearly 150 years, roses have bloomed and ivy has spread across the site’s 22 acres.

Alcatraz served as a military prison beginning in the 1860s, but it gained infamy as a maximum security penitentiary under the Federal Bureau of Prisons from 1934 until 1963. Although the cold waters and strong currents discouraged escape, more than a dozen (unsuccessful) attempts were made.

Photograph by by Paul Rovere, Getty Images

The four acres of gardens that thrive on the island today are part of a unique, site-specific ecosystem, carefully cultivated by a succession of residents and visitors who’ve left their mark on this once desolate space. On an afternoon here, tourists can dig deeper and unearth a singular history: one that spans confinement and liberation, beauty and despair, and—above all else—survival. Welcome to the gardens of Alcatraz.

An infamous island

Alcatraz has a long, complex history: A bare rock became a military bastion, a notorious prison, an abandoned oddity, and a site of groundbreaking protest. Even once it came under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service in 1972, the Rock’s future wasn’t set in stone.

When it opened for visitors in 1973, the response was overwhelming; it became the most popular tourist attraction in the Bay Area by a long shot, with 50,000 visitors in the first year alone. Today, nearly 1.4 million people a year board a ferry at San Francisco’s Pier 33, cross the Bay, and step off onto the island’s sole dock—in the same spot since the mid-1800s—to explore.

The cell house is undoubtedly the main draw. This is the place to see where Al Capone and Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud were held, where escape attempts were devised and executed—the stuff of lore and continued speculation. But even the Rock is not remote enough to elude a global pandemic. While the island itself is currently open, the indoor cell house is not. A new self-guided audio tour, however, offers a chance to wander the grounds surrounding the concrete structures, and experience an Alcatraz full of colour and fragrance.

Many of the geraniums, cordylines, and aeoniums that line the paved pathway from the dock were originally planted by military families a century ago or more. There are dahlias and poppies, sweet peas and nasturtiums. As a buoy bell clangs in the near distance, visitors are free to wander around at their own pace (masked and socially distanced, of course).

“Our project is a rehabilitation of a historic landscape,” says Shelagh Fritz, who’s been involved in the Alcatraz Gardens program since 2006, later becoming program manager—the first (and so far only) person to hold that position. She’s had her work cut out for her: After the prison closed and the island was largely abandoned in the 1960s, the gardens grew feral. The 1970s brought National Park Service rangers, many of whom had backgrounds as naturalists. But their work on the gardens mostly amounted to some minor pruning and labelling plants with plastic plaques, says historian and author John Martini, who has researched Alcatraz since he was a park ranger there starting in 1974.

During a renovation of the agave trail in the early 1990s, the plants were temporarily stored in the Old Industries Building, where military prisoners and (later) Alcatraz federal prisoners worked in the industrial shops. The agave trail restoration was part of an ambitious reimagining by venerable landscape architect Lawrence Halprin in the late 1980s—one of the few elements from the plan that was actually realized.

Photograph by Jolene Babyak

Landscape plans came and went. In 2003, the Garden Conservancy, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and the National Park Service formed a partnership to restore the grounds to glory. Volunteers spent two years cutting back the garden’s overgrown remains; in the process, they discovered a range of “survivor” plants that had adapted to the environment. Many of these same volunteers are still involved with the program.

“[We] pick and choose plants based on what would have been available back then. We do have some photographs, but those are just a snapshot of time; there’s a lot of blanks,” says Fritz.

More than a decade of rehabilitation was recently put on hold by the pandemic and San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order. In March, Alcatraz closed to the public, and also to Fritz and the other on-site workers. On May 4, after 51 days—the longest absence since 2003—staff were allowed back. Some plants didn’t make it; some went wild. Weeds spread. The nurturing process began anew, as it has done for more than 150 years.

Historic roots

Before the gardens, there were birds. Like all land, the island—an untamed place where seabirds went to nest—was considered sacred by the region’s Ramaytush Ohlone tribe. But when Spanish colonisers arrived in the late 1700s, the local Native American population that wasn’t assimilated was largely wiped out from disease and exploitation, and little knowledge remains of their exact relationship to the uninhabited outcrop.

After San Francisco emerged as a gold rush boomtown in the mid-1800s, the U.S. government began work on an island fortress to protect the nearly £1.6 billion in gold flowing freely through the Bay Area (modern equivalent: roughly £47 billion). In 1859, the first soldiers arrived to man the cannons, bringing their families with them to live in the newly erected brick buildings. As the infrastructure expanded, women began to transform the barren landscape on a more intimate scale.

This 1869 image—made by pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge—shows families sitting atop water cisterns in the gardens. “Almost as soon as people got out there … they put their hand to softening [the landscape],” says John Martini, who has researched the island since he worked as a park ranger starting in 1974.

Photograph by Eadweard Muybridge

“Almost as soon as people got out there … they put their hand to softening [the landscape],” says Martini. “It was a very human thing to do, trying to make [it] habitable.”

One of the first references to Alcatraz’s gardens came from an 1867 letter by the wife of a U.S. Army lieutenant stationed on the island. “Everything grew luxuriantly, although it was so cold all the month of August that people wore furs,” she wrote. “Outside in the garden the fuchsias climbed over the top of a high fence. The scarlet geraniums almost as tall as one’s head were loaded with blossoms. The pinks were the finest I had ever seen.”

A break from prison

Alcatraz was doing double duty as a minimum-security military prison. When the island’s brick buildings were deemed obsolete, incarcerated men were the ones who took on the labour of destroying and rebuilding. They chipped away at the sandstone, permanently shaping the terrain that held them captive. Soon, their labour included landscaping.

“The military was being pressured by San Francisco to ‘beautify’ the island, so residents could look out and see something green,” says Fritz. In 1924, a massive donation of hundreds of pounds of seeds from the California Spring Blossom and Wild Flower Association brought even more colour to the terrain with nasturtiums, poppies, and other blooms. “The [south] side that faced the city was just rocky cliffs at the time. They planted Persian carpet flowers to beautify and stabilise the slopes, and that’s also when the larger cypress and eucalyptus trees came in,” Fritz says.

In this 1962 photo, people view Alcatraz through telescopes after a June escape attempt later made famous by a Clint Eastwood movie. In a complex plot involving bent bars and dummy heads, three men broke out and attempted to make landfall in a raft. They’re officially listed as missing, presumed drowned.

Photograph by Joe Rosenthal, San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Images/Getty Images

For many incarcerated men, the opportunity to garden offered satisfaction both personal—given the restorative benefits of this tactile, open-air task—and professional. “The military prison actually had a vocational training program for gardening, so [incarcerated men] could learn a trade,” Fritz says. This is one of the earliest examples of horticultural therapy for incarcerated people, a practice that has gained momentum as a means to reduce recidivism, and is currently implemented in programs from California’s San Quentin to New York’s Rikers Island.

In 1934, the island opened as a maximum-security penitentiary under the ownership of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. This period marks the beginning of the iconic Rock of pop culture lore and Hollywood fame—a dangerous destination for difficult men, and an isolated place that captured imaginations around the globe.

It was a bleak existence within the prison walls. Outside, however, the grounds continued to grow. An enterprising warden’s secretary named Fred Reichel—a relatively new gardener himself in 1934—spearheaded efforts to allow incarcerated men to tend to and expand the gardens. Not long after his tenure began, he sent a note to the California Horticultural Society about his progress.

“At first the authorities were fearful of allowing any ‘resident’ loose on the island, even though under the custody of a gun tower officer. Finally, after much heckling on my part, someone was assigned to the west lawn,” Reichel wrote. “I found him not too terrifying and certainly no mastermind. For one thing he was amazed to find that plants ‘were like that’ when I explained to him the mysteries of hybridization, starting with an easy-to-manage subject—gladiolus.”

This photo (ca. 1962) shows an unknown officer overlooking the terrace garden, often tended by prisoners. In the background are three apartment buildings for families residing on Alcatraz—including that of Jolene Babyak, who lived here when her father was a superintendent and then again, years later, when he was the associate warden.

Photograph by William “Bill” Long, Jr, Courtesy Jolene Babyak

During its 29 years as a federal penitentiary, Alcatraz imprisoned more than 1,500 people. An oft-cited, anonymous quote—“break the rules and you go to prison, break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz”—describes its almost immediate notoriety.

Photograph by Mauricio Bustamante, VISUM/Getty Images

Some men who served time here passed the small swath of gardens to get their work orders. Others had no recollections of there being any gardens on the island at all. But Reichel nurtured the botanic tendencies of a few.

Eliot Michener, a counterfeiter transferred to Alcatraz after an escape attempt at another prison, had no previous gardening experience when he arrived in 1941. But he studied seed catalogs and soon became one of the go-to garden guys.

“The guards would buy you some seeds if they got permission, and it’d be alright to give you a package of scabiosa [butterfly blue] or dahlia bulbs. And in return, why, you’d cut them big bouquets of flowers to take home for parties. Pretty good leeway,” he told park rangers in an oral history interview during a visit to the island in the mid-1970s. “No one to bother you as long as you behave.”

Michener walked an uneasy line between the freedom of the garden and the restriction of his circumstances, but his connection with the land was transformative. After his release, Michener and Richard Franseen, another incarcerated gardener, put crime behind them and went to work on a farm in Wisconsin.

Jolene Babyak was seven years old when she arrived on Alcatraz in 1954, daughter of the assistant warden and part of the sixty-odd staff families who made the Rock their home. Apart from the time a man passed her a handball through a fence, she had no real contact with those imprisoned there. But her world, like theirs, was marked by concrete.

“There were little teeny patches of grass, but as I understood it the kids weren’t allowed to play there because we would have killed [it],” she says. She remembers being allotted a small plot of land for a children’s contest to see who could get their garden to flourish, but “the major gardening on the island was happening in areas that we never were allowed to see.”

The federal penitentiary was closed in 1963. Without the careful oversight of the men who tended to them, the gardens were left to go wild.

Grounds for a revolution

Dr. LaNada War Jack of the Shoshone Bannock tribes has long been familiar with Alcatraz. Her great-grandfather, Tahmonmah (War Jack), was captured by U.S. cavalry and nearly imprisoned on the island for attempting to return families to their homelands during the Bannock War of 1878. Alcatraz has housed imprisoned Native Americans multiple times throughout its history.

War Jack herself moved from Idaho to California in 1967 “on government relocation,” she says, affected by assimilationist policies intended “to take away our religion, our ceremonies, our language, our identity.”

The first Native student enrolled at University of California Berkeley, War Jack became one of the student leaders of the 1969 “Indians of All Tribes” occupation of Alcatraz against government-sanctioned genocide and broken treaties. Resources on the abandoned island were scarce. The hundred-some protesters who ebbed and flowed over the subsequent 19 months received food and supplies via “people from the mainland,” she says.

“It was pretty well empty. I didn’t even see any gardens,” says War Jack. “We set up a tipi and planted an evergreen tree for our time on the island; had prayers, and a little ceremony.”

The occupation lasted a fraught 19 months, until the last remaining protestors were forcibly removed by armed federal marshals in 1971. The demonstration raised global awareness about the injustices inflicted on Native Americans, and though some government policies were changed, today’s ongoing protests are proof that tensions, and injustices, remain.

When touring the gardens of Alcatraz, it would be easy to overlook the island’s shadowed history—the decades of incarceration, the struggle for rights still not won. But each chapter of its past is reflected in the gardens, too—from Michener’s terraces to the manicured beds established by military wives. Today’s Alcatraz is an amalgamation. The remnants of these disparate histories and more have grown together among brick ruins and brutal sandstone, unearthed and preserved by Fritz and her crew of volunteers.

In a time of quarantine and isolation, Alcatraz offers fresh air, cool breezes, and—improbably—a sense of escape.

Jordan Kushins is a writer, illustrator, and maker based in beautiful San Francisco; she has swum from Alcatraz to the city’s shore three times.

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