Black Rock Arts Foundation, the San Francisco public art nonprofit that grew out of Burning Man, has enjoyed a successful and symbiotic partnership with the Newsom administration, placing well-received temporary artwork in Hayes Green, Civic Center Plaza, and the Embarcadero.
So when BRAF, the Neighborhood Parks Council, the city's Department of the Environment, and several community groups decided several months ago to collaborate on a trio of new temporary art pieces, most people involved thought they were headed for another kumbaya moment. Then one of the projects hit a small but vocal pocket of resistance.
A group of artists from the Finch Mob and Rebar collectives are now at work on the Panhandle band shell, a performance space for nonamplified acoustic music and other performances that is made from the hoods of 75 midsize sedans. The idea is to promote the recycling and reuse of materials while creating a community gathering spot for arts appreciation.
Most neighborhood groups in the area like the project, and 147 individuals have written letters of support, versus the 17 letters that have taken issue with the project's potential to draw crowds and create noise, litter, graffiti, congestion, and a hangout for homeless people.
But the opposition has been amplified by members of the Panhandle Residents Organization Stanyan Fulton (PROSF), which runs one of the most active listservs in the city, championing causes ranging from government sunshine to neighborhood concerns. The group, with support from Sup. Ross Mirkarimi's staff, has delayed the project's approval and thus placed its future in jeopardy (installation was scheduled to begin next month).
"My main concern would be that this is a very narrow strip of land that is bordered by homes on both sides," said neighbor Maureen Murphy, who has complained about the project to the city and online through the PROSF. "My fear is that there is going to be amplification and more people and litter."
The debate was scheduled to be heard by the Rec and Park Commission on April 19 but was postponed to May 3 because of the controversy. Nonetheless, Newsom showed up at the last hearing to offer his support.
"Rare do I come in front of committee, but I wanted to underscore ... the partnership we've had with Black Rock Arts Foundation. It's been a very successful one and one I want to encourage this commission to reinforce," Newsom told the commission. "I think the opportunity exists for us ... to take advantage of these partnerships and really bring to the forefront in people's minds more temporary public art."
Rachel Weidinger, who is handling the project for BRAF, said the organizers have been very sensitive to public input, neighborhood concerns, environmental issues, and the impacts of the project, at one point changing sites to one with better drainage. And she's been actively telling opponents that the project won't allow amplified music or large gatherings (those of 25 or more will require a special permit). But she said that there's little they can do about those who simply don't want people to gather in the park.
"We are trying to activate park space with temporary artwork," she said. "Guilty as charged."
Yet any activated public space - whether a street closed for a fair or a march, a park turned into a concert space, or a vacant storefront turned into a nightclub - is bound to generate a few critics. The question for San Francisco now is how to balance NIMBY desires and bureaucratic needs with a broader concern for facilitating fun in the big city.
"Some people have the idea that events and nightlife are an evil to be restricted," Wiener said. But his resolution is intended as "a cultural statement about what kind of city we want to live in." *
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