San Francisco is blessed with an abundance of meadows, but what it really needs is a new generation of civic-minded philanthropists with deep roots in The City’s history and politics.
This point was brought home with some crystal clarity this past week when the Board of Supervisors unanimously set in motion a plan to rename Speedway Meadow in Golden Gate Park in honor of Warren Hellman, best known to most as the man who spends millions to bring the free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival to The City each fall, but to leaders is seen as the charitable go-to guy to fix everything from poorly performing schools to pension fund madness.
This long-overdue gesture of thanks is a nice nod to a great yet humble man, yet it also reminds us that a century of civic philanthropy is reaching an inevitable conclusion as some of the richest titans of industry succumb to the advances of age. Hellman is nearly the last of a line that stretches from The Haas family to the late Richard Goldman to Gap founder Don Fisher, men who not only gave of their wealth, but gave back to the city that they loved.
Hellman is ailing now so I can’t provide you with what would have certainly been a Groucho Marx-like zinger about his sudden fame. He generally avoids the spotlight as much as his actions often thrust him into it, but he is no doubt amused that the political winds that buffeted him for years in town have now eased to the point where not a single individual has come forth to dare try and deny him the honor.
Hellman was the guy who helped save the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences from leaving Golden Gate Park by leading the campaign to build an underground parking garage to benefit both and skirt the anti-car groups that would have happily traded the gifted cultural institutions for skateboarding space. He was vilified in the process — the lefty San Francisco Bay Guardian referred to his project as “Hellman’s Hole” — the same publication that years later offered up a flattering portrait of his unfailing civic duty, even going so far as to not mention that he was a former Republican.
As a general rule, I’m not in favor of renaming streets and alleys and parks for some personal cause or unknown champion, and have fought back such misguided efforts to rename Market Street in honor of Harvey Milk, who has enough libraries, schools and plazas carrying his banner to start his own brand.
There will be no such misgivings in the case with Hellman, who thisweek will watch the Recreation and Park Commission rename the long, grassy meadow in his honor with the same speed that horse carriages used to run through Golden Gate Park at the turn of the century (hence the name.)
Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who spearheaded the renaming effort, did his best to synthesize Hellman’s contributions in a resolution, noting that the Lowell High School graduate chose to “stay in the fight through many of San Francisco’s most difficult and enduring challenges,” including creating a business alliance to help public schools and most recently brought together nearly all of The City’s public unions to reach a remarkable deal in which they agreed to cut their own health and pension benefits.
“Warren Hellman’s contributions, not just to the park but to The City, dwarf every other person’s in my lifetime,” Elsbernd said, noting that every other supervisor asked to be named as a co-sponsor.
I would be hard-pressed to list all of Hellman’s gifts to The City over the years — whether being the force behind the San Francisco Foundation, a major benefactor to the arts, or just through the greatness of his own investment company which at various times has bought or remade both Nasdaq and NASCAR.
His legacy will be his commitment to making a great city greater. Will there be another generation of people willing to give where they live? The new tech millionaires will hopefully see this as a useful application.
There are just not enough banjo-playing, Bible-studying, joke-cracking eccentrics in the world. We can be happy that Hellman put his money where his meadow now is.