December 2013

Potrero Hill Community Garden Founder Recovering from Surgery

Keith Burbank

Gardeners and friends are rallying around Maria Duran, one of the Potrero Hill Community Garden’s founding members. Duran is recovering at Peninsula Del Rey – a Daly City senior living community that offers medical assistance – after suffering a sudden stroke, followed by surgery to remove a brain tumor. At 82 years old, Duran is eager to be turning soil and tending vegetables again.

“It's wonderful therapy,” Duran said of gardening. “I miss it to no end. I can't wait to get back.” Every time she sees something sprout, “it's like a miracle,” she said. And she enjoys helping younger gardeners. “When you give people advice, you feel important,” she said.

Recovered from garbage-covered Recreation and Parks Department land in the 1970s, the Potrero Hill Community Garden, located at San Bruno Avenue and 20th Street, has grown to numerous plots tended by about 60 gardeners. The gardeners use only organic methods, and are rewarded with fresh vegetables and grand City views. According to local lore, the Goat Lady of Potrero Hill, Mrs. Estelle West, once grazed her herd on the same patch.

“Knowing she needs to get back to her garden is something that continues to inspire her to work hard, rehab and get better,” said Joyce Book, a neighbor and friend of Duran. “She is very much like [the late] Babette [Drefke]; strong-willed and a survivor of a brain [tumor] and many other ailments.” Duran survived another brain tumor about ten years ago.

“I've always thought Maria was a very strong person,” echoed Hill resident Marianne Horine, who has known Duran for about 20 years. Horine recalled that Duran escaped from her native country, East Germany, during the Cold War. Horine understands how hard life must have been in East Germany because she traveled to the Communist country, going through security checkpoints the Soviets patrolled with machine guns. Duran escaped over an electrified barbed wire fence in 1950, after waiting more than a month for a time when it was switched off.

“She really gets her strength and joy from gardening,” Horine said. “This is one thing that really helps her.”

“I feel like I am in heaven…” when gardening, Duran confirmed.

Besides gardening, Duran has spent a lifetime working. “I never was out of work,” she recalled. At one time she earned twenty-five cents an hour laboring at an A&W Drive-in restaurant in Kansas. For 30 years she waited tables, and for 38 years she worked in a psychiatric hospital. At one point she had three jobs.

And add sweat equity to the mortgage she paid on the first Potrero Hill home she purchased in 1966 on San Bruno Avenue. She bought the home “as is.” “I love challenges,” she said. The house had been condemned by the City and County of San Francisco, Duran recalled, as was the home next door that she bought in 1980. “They were in horrifying shape,” she said. It took her 14 years to refurbish the first home, which she paid off in 20 years. The second took eight years to put right. Duran keeps the yards in top condition, according to Horine.

Duran has the biggest plot at the community garden. Everything she touches grows, Horine said, adding that “She has become a great contributor to the garden.”

Duran credited her upbringing for spurring her to start the Potrero Hill Community Garden. In Germany “we use every little lot,” she said.

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