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Urban farming, 19th century style


Chinese vegetable garden in Cow Hollow, c. 1880s.

I grew up in San Francisco, in a neighborhood called Cow Hollow. I was always curious about what the name meant. I remember asking my parents about it. They said it was because cows used to graze there, a long time ago.

I grew up there during the dot-com boom of the 90s, and we had a lot of Internet types moving in. Since there’s never enough street parking in San Francisco, they used to park their SUVs on the sidewalk right in front of our house. They’d get ticketed for it but they were making so much money that they didn’t care, like that was the price of parking. They’d have barbecues on the sidewalk, get tanked on tequila, try to snatch our skateboards. It used to drive us crazy.

It was back then that I asked my parents about the name of the neighborhood. I tried to picture the cows, tried to make it work in my head, but I just couldn’t see it. I decided my parents were wrong. I figured Cow Hollow was probably one of those quaint countrified names a real estate agent had come up with to sell houses to dot-commers.

But it turns out, as with many things, my parents were right. There used to be a ton of cows in Cow Hollow.

In 1849, when the Gold Rush brought hordes of gold speculators to San Francisco and rapidly transformed the small Mexican village into a major city, Cow Hollow was a valley irrigated by several creeks, with a large freshwater pond. It was an ideal place to graze cattle. The first dairy sprung up in 1861, and more soon followed. On land now occupied by cupcake shops, clothing boutiques, and sports bars, there existed hundreds and hundreds of cows, supplying milk to the growing population of San Francisco. The city needed it, because no large agricultural region yet existed: San Francisco developed so rapidly, most food was imported rather than grown in California.

That soon changed. By 1890, there were roughly 800 cows roaming the area. And cows weren’t the only thing in Cow Hollow. The Chinese kept large vegetable gardens in the area. They would peddle the vegetables on the street, or sell them to local cooks. By the late 19th century, tanneries, slaughterhouses, and sausage factories had moved into the area, generating sewage.

The conditions at the dairies deteriorated, and a series of articles appeared in local papers about sick cows and contaminated milk. In 1891, the Board of Health banished the cows. By then, the area had become more fashionable, and wealthier San Franciscans had built ornate Victorian homes. Once the dairies and the gardens left, the area became entirely residential.