Are free Golden Gate Park events fading away?

Metallica and other bands rocked Outside Lands, and the fans who paid $220 for a three-day pass.
Tim Daw

San Francisco's countercultural community was built at least partly through free concerts and gatherings in Golden Gate Park, including the legendary Human Be-In and Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane concerts in the late-'60s. But these days, as corporations starve local government but seize public spaces, grassroots groups and populist performances are being forced out of the park.

Events without expensive tickets and corporate sponsorships (such as this month's Outside Lands) or endowments from dead billionaires (Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, coming up in early October) just can't afford the rising fees charged by the Recreation and Parks Department, a reality that is quietly ending an important San Francisco tradition and legacy.

A few weeks ago, organizers of the Power to the Peaceful Festival – a free concert featuring Michael Franti and Spearhead and other big acts, which drew tens of thousands of people to the meadow formerly known as Speedway annually for more than a decade – announced that it was canceling next month's event because of onerous fees.

“The only way to have produced the festival this year would have been to turn it into a ticketed event,” organizers wrote in their July 31 announcement. RPD officials were going to charge the event $77,000 in permit fees this year, dealing it a death blow after also forcing the cancellation of last year's event by instituting a strict 40,000 attendee cap, which was nearly impossible to enforce for a free event.

If we accept the neoliberal perspective that has taken hold of San Francisco – which sees government's role as facilitating whatever corporations want to do and hoping they share some of their profits, or at least create some good jobs – it makes sense. After all, the cash-strapped RPD made $1.7 million in profit-sharing off Outside Lands this year, up from $1.4 million last year.

The same logic has caused RPD, under the mercenary leadership of Director Phil Ginsburg, to rent out its recreation centers to the highest bidders and fire the recreation directors that used to treat them as public resources, and to let the private City Fields Foundation cover many parks in artificial turf. Again, through a strictly economic lens, it makes a certain amount of sense.

“As the steward of our parks, the Department works with event organizers to host diverse events in our parks, it is our shared responsibility to make sure the City and the event organizers have plans and resources in place to care for our park land and ensure public safety. The Department is always ready to work with all event organizers to modify their event planning for safe and successful events,” RPD spokesperson Connie Chan told us.

Power to the Peaceful – ironically, an event celebrating the plight of ordinary people against powerful political and economic interests around the world – just didn't have the resources to meet the standard, so out they go. Same thing with the venerable Anarchist Book Faire, which was also forced from the park by rising fees this year after 17 years in the park's County Fair Building.

Again, there's a note of irony to this exodus, with city officials suddenly deciding the anarchists could no longer police themselves and needed to pay for four Park Police officers to watch over a festival that has been without violent incident throughout its history, unless you count a speaker getting pied last year (which the self-sufficient anarchists easily dealt with on their own).

“We had put this thing on for 17 years and there were no problems until this new guy came,” Joey Cain of Bound Together Bookstore, which puts on a free event whose fees have steadily risen to almost $14,000. “We've had to increase our rates every year, and we were starting to lose some vendors.”

On top of that, city officials had also cracked down on free offerings that surrounded the free event, banning Food Not Bombs from serving free meals to visitors and people from setting up information tables outside the main event.

So now the event, coming up in March, will be held at the Armory. Cain admitted that rent on the building they used in Golden Gate Park was still fairly cheap compared to similar sized venues around town, “as it should be, being owned by the city.”

But when city departments like RPD become dependent on corporate contributions, public spaces become commodified, and we begin to lose access to the last places in town where our creator endowed us with the right to assemble freely and pursue our happiness: our public parks.


Vote NO on the park bond, don't give these privatizers one more cent.

Posted by marcos on Aug. 24, 2012 @ 6:09 pm

I visit San Francisco about every other Summer for a weeks vacation. Your dear city and what it represents to many of us are very special indeed. This trend disturbs me. I stand with you all concerning this.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 25, 2012 @ 7:57 am

Great piece. Privatizaton of public spaces has really gotten out of hand.

As a regular user of the park, I never did wholly appreciate even demi-god Warren Hellman's fencing off of wide swaths of the public greenery so that vendors could monopolize food access in the park.

Some of my fondest memories of the park are of seeing totally free and non-commercial concerts you mention, and attending such quirky events as the Anarchist Book Fair, and I resent the neo-liberal character of recent changes in park operations.

For myself, Speedway Meadow remains Speedway Meadow.

Posted by lillipublicans on Aug. 25, 2012 @ 8:01 am

The park is a natural oasis which is profoundly harmed by these "free concerts"
How would you like thousands of people parking on your street and basically peeing on your lawn?
I say no concerts at all. Leave the real outside lands families in peace.

Posted by Greg on Aug. 25, 2012 @ 9:04 am

Newsflash - you don't own the park and when "outside lands" families moved there they did so knowing they were living on an area bordering public space. If you don't like it then you can move.

Posted by Troll II on Aug. 25, 2012 @ 9:40 am

Actually the park is not natural...if you want to leave the park alone, in a natural state, you'd be walking amongst tiny shrubs and sand dunes...

Posted by GuestRickroll on Aug. 27, 2012 @ 7:38 am

Actually GG Park is natural (except not for long at Beach Chalet where a million lbs of tiny toxic tire particles will replace natural grass there thanks to all the supes except Olague) if "natural" is defined as "of nature."

It is true that John McLaren and others greatly changed what was there before - generally lifeless sand dunes - and filled it with much more life, more plant and tree life, more birds, more squirrels, etc - but all that is natural or "of nature."

If humans were to no longer care for it and leave the area and leave it as it is (except for the travesty of the soon-to-be plastic dead soccer fields - cast a vote against any supe that voted for that which would be every supe except Olague), then who knows what would become of it. I don't see why it would go back to what it was since "the game has been reset" to different conditions and trying to predict something as chaotic as nature seems like a prediction doomed to fail.

As for Steven's post, thank you Steven. I totally agree with everything you've written. The real problem is the City of SF has given kingly powers to whoever is the Rec & Park General Manager (currently Phil Ginsberg).

There's a GG Park Master Plan that is supposed to be followed by all R&P GMs but as Ginsberg showed with the plasticization of 10 acres of GG Park at the Beach Chalet soccer fields - something that blatantly and massively violated the GGP Master Plan - that MP can be ignored and there are no consequences.

The supes are a joke, as are the Planning Comm and R&P Comm when it comes to ensuring the GGP Master Plan is followed. In reality, there is no GGP MP since it can be ignored when big money - like Don Fisher's City Fields Foundation - wants it to be ignored.

What is needed is for the voters to pass LAWS about what can and can not happen in GG Park so that the frauds known as the SF supervisors, the R&P GM, the R&P Commission, & the Planning Commission can not do whatever they want to OUR park.

Most of the supes come from somewhere else - get in the political good graces of some powerful political machine and all of a sudden become very powerful supervisors - and thus have no emotional tie to GG Park. This was shown in the Beach Chalet soccer fields battle. Ginsberg desperately wanted that thing passed by the subservient supes (including "progressives" like Mar, Campos, etc) and NOT PUT BEFORE THE VOTERS because the a good % of the voters DO HAVE EMOTIONAL TIES to GG Park and there's a very good chance they would not have allowed 10 acres of GGP to be changed from grass to artificial turf.

That battle showed what jokes most of those on the present bd of supes are (since all of them - except Olague - ignored the GGP Master Plan and acted as Phil Ginsberg's little bitches).

Like I said the only solution is to make it ILLEGAL to do what Ginsberg and his little bitches (the supes) did to GG Park by putting something on the ballot and having the people of SF show some allegiance to GG Park.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 27, 2012 @ 7:51 pm

Golden Gate Park was once nothing but dunes and low scrubby bushes - no trees or grass or anything else. The current environment is not "natural" as it it's almost entirely non-native species like eucalyptus and grasses from South Africa.

Isn't it time you moved on from the soccer field issue? You're obsessed, it's pathetic.

Posted by Troll II on Aug. 27, 2012 @ 8:09 pm

No actually your the one who is an uninformed idiot. The who issue of the soccer fields - replacing the grass with artificial turf with a 5 year life span that cannot be recycled is a huge concern. The toxic turf will harm wildlife and end up in the ocean. Not to mention the removal of trees, the effect of those giant stadium lights - which are harmful to life cycle of plants and animal and the new parking lot - which means more air pollution.

One of the great things about San Francisco has always been it's ability to develop as a city while creating harmony with nature, a huge accomplishment for a port city.

And why are you an idiot really? I'll tell you why because the city has been trying to keep this deal under wraps for the past 2 years, unless you live in the area or pay really close attention you probably didn't know this until recently. So we'll I'll have to forgive you that count.

Golden Gate Park was meant to be a place shared by all cultures, having paid events like Outside Lands where tickets are $95 per day creates social-economic cultural divide. Many of the people that come to this event disrespect the park because they feel entitled because they paid.

I'm all for sharing the park for free events for ALL people.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 11, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

supervisors who passed the rubber tire dump on the west end of the park.

For one, I just don't think it is right to base your vote on a single issue, but furthermore, the problem may stem from the people who elect those representatives.

Look, you might have the smartest and best supervisor in your district, but if that supe is getting loads of lobbying pressure from your neighbors -- whether righteous or horribly misguided as the soccer field idiocy -- there is a certain practical need for those representatives to represent their constituency and not simply what they think is right.

I don't want to spend much more time making excuses for Avalos and Campos, because I do feel strongly about your concerns. It's just that Olague might have voted the opposite way if she wasn't in District 5, which -- we may assume -- was quite heavily biased to support the vote she cast.

Yes, the park *is* a natural place as was John McClaren intent -- and may I suggest silly trolls can sometimes be allowed to blather on stupidly without us always needing to take notice? -- and we need to redouble our efforts at keeping it that way.

The "wreck'n'park" department shouldn't have ever been merged together because of this very situation: the two departments had naturally antagonistic motives and the situation now is that those who most value the park's ability to give us relief from the built world are being sold out.

Much of the natural quality of GG Park was destroyed during the mayorship of Willie Brown, when his "war on homelessness" (i.e.: war on the homeless) necessitated wholesale removal of shrubbery and trees.

Granted, some of the cause for the sudden change in just a few years stemmed from great numbers of trees reaching the end of their lifespans all at the same time -- well, at least that's a credible story I've heard -- but it was notable that the potential to go within the park and find oneself out of sight -- and earshot -- of the city world became greatly diminished due to this deforestation.

This soccer field is a continuation of damage which has been ongoing.

Posted by lillipublicans on Aug. 27, 2012 @ 8:35 pm

What must it be like to be able to count the laying of artificial grounds in an entirely man made park as one of the greatest crises existing today? There is a lot of sh*t going on in the world right now. You might want to get out and experience some of it instead of playing the role of provincial SF harpy

Posted by Greg on Aug. 27, 2012 @ 8:55 pm

We invite you to gather in Golden Gate Park September 14th to 16th to transform space and create community.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 25, 2012 @ 9:50 am

We invite you to gather in Golden Gate Park September 14th to 16th to transform space and create community.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 25, 2012 @ 9:53 am

Who: A San Francisco based organizing collective known as Space TranSFormers invites the public to the Human Be In 2012.

What: We invite you to gather in Golden Gate Park September 14th to 16th to transform space and create community.

Where: 780 Frederick Street, Golden Gate Park

When: Friday, Sept. 14th at 3 p.m.

How: You are invited to teach a workshop, facilitate a discussion, share a skill, play music, make art, cook a meal, or simply be. E-mail to offer and schedule activities and events. Go to our Schedule Page for a description of next steps.

Why: Defend our green spaces! Hayes Valley Farm, the Free Farm, and Kezar Gardens are all facing eviction. Save Golden Gate Park!

-Space TranSFormers

Posted by Human Be In on Aug. 25, 2012 @ 1:44 pm

That's what's going on here Jones- wake up. Doesn't Ginsburg make more than the governor and doesn't the department have a mid six figure "spokesperson??"

How else to pay for these high salaries and gold-plated benefits other than large, high-ticketed events. All these giant public salaries SFBG supports have consequences and this is one of them..

Posted by Guest on Aug. 26, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

To be specific, the Municipal Executives Association (MEA) has the City by the gonads as it is responsible for administering political corruption. The MEA has the goods on the municipal lawbreakers and as such gets to write its own ticket on compensation. Aiding and abetting this corrupt extraction operation is the Municipal Attorneys Association (MAA) which writes the legal rationale for theft.

Combined with the public "safety" unions, these four entities are the cost drivers for excessive public compensation. The deals cut to the political operators such as Ginsburg are icing on the cake. Greg Suhr is the poster cop for these excesses.

Not one more cent to this government until it breaks the cycle of corruption, until it breaks the MAA and MEA as unions and breaks their stranglehold over the public sector and reduces compensation to the public "safety" unions to that which corresponds to the level of services they provide.

In no way do the SFPD and SFFD provide a billion dollars per year in public services to San Franciscans.

Posted by marcos on Aug. 27, 2012 @ 7:56 am

blah blah blah. do something

Posted by Guest on Aug. 27, 2012 @ 7:00 pm

when their free stuff is taken away.

Posted by Chromefields on Aug. 28, 2012 @ 6:25 am

Right, we pay taxes to fund parks and then corrupt government turns around and denies us access to that for which we all pay.

Posted by marcos on Aug. 28, 2012 @ 7:27 am

And I prefer to pay to see a show in the park. Keeps the riff-raff out.

Posted by Chromefields on Aug. 28, 2012 @ 7:40 am

Free events are what give community culture and all inclusive opportunity to share with each other. riff raff ? Sounds like class warfare lingo. The human be in sounds promising but can they reinvent it to be a ecology center instead of an acid fest like the original be in? I think the recipe is right so far with the rich farming community backing it has. It seems to be green and the proper intentions are there.

Posted by sphynxkitten on Aug. 29, 2012 @ 10:59 pm

Considering all the *legal* drugs being pushed on the American populace by the big pharma and government; and how prevalent truly evil drugs like heroin still are despite nominal illegality -- might have something to do with the "War on Terror" -- it is *well*-*past* time to reconsider the ban on LSD and other psychedelics because of the proven beneficial effects of these substances.

Posted by lillipublicans on Aug. 30, 2012 @ 6:57 am

the event was becoming too large. it's hard to cap a free show at 40k people. passing a bucket around for donations didn't seem very effective, and almost certainly franti, who meant well, was losing dough each year.

he didn't have a show in 2011, and it seems he could have gone through the paper work to make 2012 a paid event. except for the early years, larry harvey always charged for burning man, now the fees are bigger than ever and escalating, yet 'hip' people still go. franti and harvey have similar concepts, stemming from 1980s and 1990s mentality, yet franti wants to keep his show free, akin to hippie sentiment. franti blew it. paid show is better than no show.

what happened to the hoopla about district 10 being the "new san francisco" with open space and sunshine? that area continues to be a wasteland with the shipyard and candlestick point withering away. kfog tried kaboom there, and since has never held another kaboom, but at least proved that you can have a show there. organizers need to leave ggpark and look at other areas.

Posted by joey_boy on Aug. 30, 2012 @ 10:09 am


Posted by aron pieman kay on Sep. 07, 2012 @ 8:43 pm

First of all, the Anarchist Book Fair was not cancelled in 2012. It was a very informative event and there were no problems whatsoever. Hopefully, it will be held in the same location next year. If not, another location will suffice.

I have attended the PTTP every year for the past 6 years, except for 2011 and 2012 (cancelled). Please make it a paid event but affordable for people. My suggestion is in the 20 dollar range. I dont go for the music really but for all the tables they set up with food, clothes, and political information. Not to mention the drum circles and all the goofiness. This is San Francisco after all. Dont cancell this event in the future. Something can be worked out.

Posted by Sapho on Sep. 16, 2012 @ 7:04 am