John McLaren, the fabled master gardener who crafted one of the world’s great urban parks out of sand, held such sway in San Francisco that he personally kept The City from merging the recreation and park departments for decades, fearing that two divisions often at odds with each other would become one huge, unmanageable bureaucracy.
And 63 years after his death. McLaren is looking more and more like a prescient genius.
The agency that once spent nearly $10 million to rebuild a swimming pool, can’t plant or maintain a decent soccer pitch and has a field reservation system circa 1920 has recently decided to tackle an issue rarely on view in San Francisco — morality.
In a sudden outburst of prudish behavior, the Recreation and Park Commission recently voted to ban alcohol sales at the wildly popular North Beach Festival in Washington Square Park and is poised to do the same for that event’s musical counterpart — the North Beach Jazz Festival — later this month.
The sour notes come at the behest of a small band of well-heeled and politically connected homeowners and neighborhood merchants who sold the commission a bill of goods about park access and rowdy behavior from the festival attendees. They portrayed the summer festivals as an annual gathering of a “crowd of yahoos” who come to hear “someone else’s version of jazz.”
Now since I do attend the events each year, I can say that the bands may not be the second coming of Duke Ellington — but the complaints aren’t really about the music or the alleged alcohol-induced actions. It’s the idea that the historic grass-filled square — which to some of the saber-rattlers has now been elevated to a fountain at Lourdes — is mostly lost as a neighborhood park for all of four days a year.
“Alcohol is not the enemy here,” said longtime North Beach resident Christine Imfeld, who spoke in favor of allowing beer and wine sales at a recreation committee hearing this week. “This is about a power struggle — or more of a power trip.”
From the testimony of those trying to stamp out booze at the festivals, you would have thought this was Salt Lake City, not Sin City. And there is some rich irony that the beginning of the new intolerance movement would spring up in the center of The City’s laid-back, anything-goes bohemian capital, where jazz and berets and beatniks once captured the country’s imagination.
Now it’s just catching flak, and the attention of recreation officials who have decided to boldly go where previous park overseers would never dare. And if the alcohol sales ban really does kill the festivals — as some of the promoters of the events have claimed — then the department officials in charge of green spaces should rightfully be red-faced about their ill-advised rush to judgment.
“When did Prohibition end?” North Beach neighborhood activist Lynn Jefferson asked. “When a lobbying group tries to make a park its own under the guise of access, it’s time for elected officials to stand up.”
That’s not going to happen anytime soon. Recreation Commissioner Meagan Levitan said the panel “must be consistent and fair in the application of this law and this policy.” So by banning alcohol sales at one park festival, it must do so for the others. The only saving grace in the new tipsy-free policy endorsed by park officials is that they can’t extend it to the summer street festivals — since they have no jurisdiction over them.
But the whole ginned-up charade shows that ifany not-in-my-backyard group can get the ear of a few public officials, they can remove fun-filled traditions from the local landscape. And they won’t have to rely on the facts to convince them. Out of the nearly 80,000 people who attended the two North Beach festivals last year, there was a whopping total of four arrests. You’ll find more rowdy behavior at a Giants-Dodgers game.
“If you can’t smoke in the park, you shouldn’t be able to sell alcohol in the park,” one of the speakers said at the hearing. And it’s that kind of hazy logic that sparks poor public policy — for which The City is increasingly known.
McLaren, the patron saint of city parks, would have hated the idea of a bandstand or a tent in one of the town’s green spaces — he detested statues and stadiums and all things non-organic in areas filled with grass and flowers and trees.
But alcohol? Just try and take his whisky away and you would have had one diminutive, angry and scary Scot in your face — determined to plant you.