Are free Golden Gate Park events fading away?

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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.