Each summer for more than five decades, the North Beach Festival has drawn large throngs of celebrants enjoying the neighborhood’s attractions, atmosphere and cultural significance. But a recent decision to ban alcohol at Washington Square Park, a centerpiece of the free event, is causing concern among event organizers and some business owners — and raising the specter of payback politics.
The event, scheduled for June 17-18, features plenty of live music, arts and crafts booths and food. Organized by the North Beach Chamber of Commerce, the festival is popular with most local businesses because it boosts the neighborhood’s already impressive foot traffic, leading to increased revenue for restaurants, saloons and shops. In addition, the sale of beer and wine in a closed-off Washington Square Park, as well as two other beer gardens where alcohol has not been banned, pays for about one-fourth of the $250,000 annual tab for the festival.
Complaints of excessive drinking and rowdiness, lodged by the politically connected Telegraph Hill Dwellers neighborhood group and some merchants, led the Recreation and Park Commission to nix alcohol sales in Washington Square. That decision will reduce revenue from the festival, likely forcing a scaled-back event in the future that would please some neighbors but disappoint many others, not to mention the 75,000 or so people who attend the festival each year.
While it’s understandable that some neighbors would not relish the inconvenience of a major civic event in their front yards, the fact is that North Beach is a thriving, bustling urban neighborhood that even on its quietest days is filled with visitors to its hundreds of business establishments.
As with most things in San Francisco, politics may be lurking under the surface. The Telegraph Hill Dwellers and Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, a former president of the group, clashed with longtime North Beach Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Marsha Garland, who runs the festival, over a local developer’s plan to build housing units on a North Beach parcel. Peskin and the Dwellers group favored a public park at the site instead, which led to the developer running for supervisor against Peskin, with Garland’s backing.
The recent interference by the Dwellers in the chamber’s festival planning is thought by many to be linked to that three-year-old disagreement, and a classic case of San Francisco political payback.
Police have long been concerned about excessive rowdiness in the saloon-saturated North Beach on weekends, and in fact are mounting an overall crackdown. But squelching an important revenue-producing aspect of a popular festival over what appears to be bad blood seems petty. North Beach neighbors rightly should work with police to address year-round rowdiness problems, but let the festival flourish for two days a year.