The death of fun

The death of fun

With booze bans, noise crackdowns, excessive permit fees, and suburban-style sensibilities, San Francisco officials are threatening to kill the party spirit

By Amanda Witherell

What’s happening to all the fun?

That’s what Anthony Jacobs wants to understand. He’s standing in the damp grass of Sharon Meadow at the eastern end of Golden Gate Park, not far from his home on 17th Avenue. A soccer ball beside his foot and long, black dreads cascading down his back, he reminisces about the two-day multicultural festival “Reggae in the Park,” which used to take place there.

“Man, I wish someone would bring that back. It’s a shame. All my friends miss it,” he says. The two-day benefit for Global Exchange and its promoter, Events West, left town in 2004, with $62,000 in overdue fees owed to the city. Increases in fines and permits, a more restrictive sound policy, and harsher penalties from the city’s Recreation and Park Department make it unlikely reggae will return.

“People really liked that event,” Jacobs laments, adding that it was a beautiful thing to see different races and people from all over the Bay Area together in one place. “It’s the cultured events that keep the spirit of San Francisco going. Not too many events like that anymore.”

San Francisco, long famed for its freedom of expression and encouragement of art and entertainment, is no longer making a line item for fun in the budget. Rec and Park is upping fees from the Carousel to the Civic Center. The Port Commission will be voting for similar special-events fee increases for the city’s waterfront on May 23. The San Francisco Police Department, facing a $1.5 million budget shortfall, wants to charge more for its services. Events that have become annual traditions for San Francisco SF Pride, Carnaval, Comedy Day, the How Weird Street Faire, the Haight Ashbury Street Fair, the North Beach Festival are having a hard time putting on the show this year. Some even say they’re ready to call it quits.

The crackdown driven by everything from NIMBYism to fiscal austerity measures by city officials has been below most people’s radar, either at the administrative level or before small commissions. But they’re starting to add up to a serious assault on fun in San Francisco.

A thousand cuts

The San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission unanimously voted March 16 for a stricter amplified-sound policy for Sharon Meadow. Known locally as Hippie Hill, the Golden Gate Park Greenway has a rich history of live music, but Rec and Park officials hoped the new policy would elicit some silence from Martin MacIntyre, a retired dentist and Cole Valley resident who has advocated for the right to quiet in his home, two-thirds of a mile from the park. The action is the result of eight years of complaints from MacIntyre and a cadre of neighbors who “hate the boom-boom-boom,” $30,000 in sound research funded by taxpayers, and the scrapping of two previous agreements.

Events organizers from around the city rallied to speak against altering policy at a commission meeting that took place just weeks before the festival season. Organizers said they were not given adequate notification of the meeting and weren’t asked what it would be like to turn down the volume, radically change their stage sets, and pay more for the right to make noise. And the word that echoed round the room was “precedent.”

Complications for the 2006 festival season have spread like a virus. The North Beach Festival and North Beach Jazz Festival were denied permission to sell alcohol in Washington Square Park in back-to-back decisions by the Rec and Park Commission’s Operations Committee. A week before the How Weird Street Faire, organizers received a surprise bill from the police for almost triple last year’s total. Mercenary Productions experienced a jump from $10,000 to $17,500 for the rental of Piers 30/32 for a free concert and fireworks show and spent three days less than last year on the site. The Haight Ashbury Street Fair almost got corralled into a beer garden. Burning Man’s Fire Arts Festival is looking at a bill from San Francisco with two unexpected zeroes at the end of it. And last weekend’s Bay to Breakers race which has always been more about partying than running was hit with a crackdown on alcohol.

Most professional promoters tell the Guardian that gradual fee increases and standard sound policies are de rigueur, especially for large venues at the outskirts of a town, where noise is regulated to protect the suburbs and ticket prices can climb into the triple digits. But in a city that has historically made financial allowances to promote a good time, that gave birth to street fairs as community-building events, that has traditionally assisted the citizens who do the hard work of putting them on, there is a new reality setting in.

Suddenly, nobody in officialdom seems to want to fight for our right to party. Taken individually, each situation amounts to little more than a hindrance or the loss of something a sector of the city loved. All together, they sound like the end of fun.

Mommy, what are festivals for?

Debi Durst started Comedy Day in 1981, after the Jonestown massacre and the assassinations of Sup. Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. “Everyone was so depressed,” she remembers. “We thought, We’re comedians, what can we do?” What began as a small gathering of friends at its peak hosted more than 50,000 laughing San Franciscans. These days it’s waned to a couple thousand devoted fans who gather in Sharon Meadow.

Put on by volunteers, Comedy Day is funded by private donations and San Francisco Grants for the Arts, and event promoters pay approximately $70,000 for usage fees, alcohol permits, insurance, barricades, and security. Every year it’s a struggle to come up with enough money. “Last year it took eight months to pay the Porta Potti guy,” Durst says.

“We’re in a fundraising hell,” says Comedy Day board secretary Barry Katzmann. He posed the essential dilemma: “Should I give to cancer or should I give to comedy?” Katzmann personally kicks in about $1,000 every year to pay for miscellaneous odds and ends. Sound is shifty, and weather can alter propagation, creating a spike in “noise” that could amount to thousands of dollars in fines. Comedy Day can’t afford a cloud that might carry laughter into Cole Valley.

“It seems like they’re trying to drive small events out of the city,” Durst says, noting that the event comes up about $10,000 short every year and a hike in permit fees is a deathblow. “We’ll become one of those bland, gray cities, devoid of culture.”

It’s already tough enough to put on a good time. The city mandates full cost recovery, meaning it charges for everything and covers nothing, unless the event has a specific nonprofit status or falls under the strict Street Fair Ordinance, which caps costs for city services at $5,000. While a festival can delegate certain tasks to volunteers and staff, badges and nightsticks still need to be on hand, and a cop working overtime from regular duty runs $75 an hour. Last year’s LoveParade hired 40 police officers at a cost of $35,000.

How is it possible to put on an event and not charge admission? Alcohol. It attracts the crowds, it draws the corporate sponsors, it pays for the musicians and the street closures and the Porta Pottis. And it can be the best part of a warm summer day in a city greenway, listening to free live music with your friends.

The 23rd Amendment has been around for a while, but this legal libation still has a bad rep with behind-the-curtains neighbors and overworked cops. “You ought to come down on a Friday night, between 1 and 3, and see what alcohol does to a crowd on Broadway,” Central Station captain James Dudley told the Guardian.

For Dudley and other captains around the city, beer gardens have become the de facto solution for controlling a large crowd with a minimum of staff. A beer garden that sounds like a fun, nurturing place to have a drink.

“It’s a pen of people, jammed together drinking beer,” says Robbie Kowal of the North Beach Jazz Festival. “We’ve looked at the option, and it would be completely unfeasible for us.” For the past 12 years, the jazz festival had minibars near the free music, and Washington Square Park was like a typical restaurant that allows anyone to enter as long as he or she behaves. The promoters employ professional bartenders, monitor underage drinking with private security, and have never had any problems or incidents with the police.

“Beer gardens drive families apart,” Kowal says. “They keep people from the music and represent a loss of revenue.”

Dan Hirsch of OnBoard Entertainment promotes “Alice Now and Zen” in Sharon Meadow and “Summerthing” in Speedway Meadow. Both concerts draw similar crowds of about 10,000, but the beer garden at “Summerthing” generates only a 10th of the alcohol sales of “Alice Now and Zen,” which gates the entire meadow and uses a wristband system for the drinkers.

Many people suspect that alcohol sales fill the pockets of professional promoters. In actuality, every $6 Solo cup of Sierra purchased at an event benefits a nonprofit organization. According to California’s Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control, only a certified 501(c)(3) can be granted a one-day permit to sell alcohol. Many outdoor events are nonprofits, so the money they make off beer and wine pays for the fun. Commercial events select a 501(c)(3) to benefit from alcohol sales. For the jazz festival it’s Conservation Value. The North Beach Festival employs homeless from North Beach Citizens. How Weird gives to World Peace through Technology. Reggae in the Park used to give to Global Exchange.

SF Pride is the biggest event in the city and the largest annual LGBT celebration in the nation, drawing exactly what the city should want: revenue and a positive reputation. Executive director Lindsey Jones estimates the one-day parade brings $100 million to the city and $8 million in tax revenue. Pride works with more than 50 local 501(c)(3)s from the LGBT and AIDS community to operate its beverage concessions. More than $150,000 a year, and $1 million to date, goes to local groups. “If we did not have beverage operations, we’d be hard-pressed to find another way to continue our grant-giving program,” Jones says.

Pride’s greatest source of income is corporate and cash sponsorships, yet “it’s a myth that these events are rolling in dough,” she says. Like other organizers, she’s fiercely devoted to the event remaining free and accessible for anyone to attend, but the margins are small: “These are very high-risk propositions. If the temperature dips 5 to 10 degrees, it amounts to a 10 percent decrease in beverage sales, and we go in the red.”

And if new city regulations cracking down on booze and hiking fees continue to flourish, some of San Francisco’s most popular and defining events may struggle to survive.

Who cares if a festival dies?

Danny Cao loves playing jazz outside. “Especially when you’re playing in bars all the time,” he says. The 35-year-old trumpet player manages a modest living playing as many as five nights a week in the DU UY Quintet and another popular seven-piece band, Vinyl. When he was growing up, free festivals were the only place he ever heard live music. “As a kid, I didn’t have a lot of money,” he says. “I didn’t go to the ballet, or the symphony, or the opera. My grandma took me to the Stern Grove Festival.”

Years later, he’s seen Stern Grove from the other side. “Vinyl opened for Tower of Power,” he remembers. “Willie Brown introduced us. There was this old couple, at least 70, maybe 80. You could tell they’d been going there for years. All I could think about was my grandma and how cool it was to be on that stage. That’s my most fun gig ever.”

He plays in all kinds of venues, all over the country, and commends the North Beach Jazz Festival for being able to pay its musicians well and maintain a tradition of free music, accessible to everyone. “Someone mentioned you could do a free festival without alcohol,” he said of the public comment at the last Rec and Park Operations Committee meeting. “I don’t know if the musicians would get paid.”

Putting on a special event in the city used to take a certain savvy negotiating with multiple city departments for various permission slips. It shows a level of commitment to fairs and festivals that San Francisco now has the Interdepartmental Staff Committee on Traffic and Transportation and the Entertainment Commission. Both organizations bring reps from various city departments together for a one-stop shop for fun.

ISCOTT deals with street closures and traffic nightmares. The Entertainment Commission is responsible for permitting all special events in the city, except the ones that occur on parklands. When the commission was formed in 1999, Rec and Park elected to hang on to its power to permit. The department seems to like wielding the right to say no.

“I’m a mother now,” Rec and Park commissioner Meagan Levitan told the crowd at the April 5 Operations Committee meeting. “It does change a park when alcohol is there. I do not believe we should serve alcohol in the park.” Park Code Section 4.10, which disallows the consumption of alcohol in several city parks, was legislated to give the cops a reason to round up drunk, homeless people. But the code has routinely been waived by Rec and Park for special events without fanfare or question.

This year, on the North Beach Festival’s permit for use of Washington Square Park, the following recommendation was added by Operations director Dennis Kern, who joined the city of San Francisco last August, and general manager Yomi Agunbiade, who came on board in 2004: “There has been growing concern from the neighboring community regarding alcohol sales and consumption on park property during this festival as it necessarily denies the use of significant portions of the park to those under 21 years of age.”

To support the “growing concern,” Kern cites accumulated letters, complaints, and petitions. “We’re picking up on a change of public perception,” he told the Guardian. “Particularly in that neighborhood.”

However, among the 13 letters Rec and Park has received concerning North Beach Festival’s 2006 permit, 10 were in support of the festival from various business owners and residents. The only three in opposition hailed from the desks of the presidents of Telegraph Hill Dwellers, Friends of Washington Square, and the North Beach Merchants Association, and they cited issues of degradation and improper use of the park.

Sandy Lee, of Rec and Park’s permit office, says it’s common to get a few complaints every time a street is closed or an amp is plugged in. “We take every complaint seriously,” she says, “but when it’s established organizations, then Rec and Park starts to have a growing concern.”

Apparently that tumor of concern doesn’t have to grow very large before it goes under the knife. Numbers don’t lie. Among the petitions for and against the North Beach Festival, supporters have 173 more signatures than opponents. At the past three Rec and Park meetings, public support has consistently split two to one in favor of the festivals.

When asked by the Guardian, Kern expressed amazement at how the numbers broke down. “Really?” He said he hadn’t noticed that, despite his attendance at the meetings. “I thought it was pretty evenly split, with a pretty good turnout against. That’s my informal reaction to it.”

And what about the 75,000 people who enjoy the two-day affair? Shouldn’t they be considered proxy votes in favor of fun?

A festival is born

Every second Thursday of the month, Sean Boyle and his friends and their neighbors and their neighbors’ friends and anyone else who may have heard gather in Dolores Park to watch a movie. It’s usually a cult classic for the twentysomething set: Better off Dead, The Princess Bride, Airplane. Around 250 people usually show up.

About a year ago, Boyle was inspired by a childhood memory of sitting outside slapping mosquitoes and sharing giant trash bags of popcorn with his neighbors while watching a movie projected on the wall of the local school. “I’m trying to achieve something that’s local and community based,” Boyle says. “Other events try to attract as many people as possible.” He, on the other hand, is trying to connect as many people as possible. “I think there’s a lot of power when a neighborhood gets together.”

Boyle represents the next generation of small events in the city. He owns all the equipment and passes a hat to break even. Everything he does is by the book and legally permitted, though he was reluctant to reveal how much he pays to use the park. When told that the proposed increase for a nonprofit organization to use Dolores would be $6,000, he’s stunned. Citing the small crowd and minimal hours during which they use the park, he says, “For my event, that makes no sense whatsoever.”

There’s never enough for a city budget. Yet according to the nine-month budget status report for fiscal year 2005-06, Rec and Park has generated $480,000 in revenues and is underbudget another half a million, resulting in a windfall of nearly a million dollars. That surplus does not go back to the General Fund, according to Severin Campbell of the Budget Analyst’s Office; it stays with the department.

Kern declined to comment on why fees needed to be raised when numbers were up and said that the General Audit Report, released this past January by the Budget Analyst’s Office and damning many aspects of Rec and Park operations, recommended they simplify the fee schedule and raise fees to deal with deferred maintenance and funding of capital projects. “I’m trying to balance two competing goals for park venues,” Kern said when asked how fee increases might affect the city. “Put on events in beautiful parklands and protect those lands for everyone to use.”

Squeaky wheels

Concerned citizens with surplus time and serious drive can mount letter-writing campaigns, make phone calls, and rally masses for meetings. It’s how neighborhood organizations, coalitions, and even an individual citizen can affect legislation in a city. Events organizers are schooled in promotion as well.

“We know how to make posters,” John Wood of LoveParade jokes. The power of numbers has been the only immediate life raft for the Outdoor Events Coalition, whose membership and recognition is daily increasing as more fairs and festivals tangle with the city over permits and fees.

The coalition, formed much in the style of the San Francisco Late Night Coalition, has gathered monthly ever since the fateful Sharon Meadow Sound Policy. Collectively, its members represent years of experience in what it takes to put on a festival in the city. The veterans act like elders to the newer visionaries. They swap ideas for where to get barricades and sound people. They strategize ways to talk to city officials and how to stay on top of policy changes that come without warning. When one of them comes under attack, they pull the wagon train in tight and focus on survival. So far, they’ve managed to stave off fun-killing fees for How Weird and rally numbers to speak at Rec and Park meetings. Wood says he’s actually spending too much time fighting fires instead of finding funding for his festival.

Schools are letting out, vacation time is beckoning, and the days are growing longer, asking to be filled with fun things to do. The coalition just wants to make it through the season and has turned to higher powers. “We’re asking the city to have a ‘cooling-off period’ this summer,” Wood says after a meeting with Mike Farrah of the Mayor’s Office. “And for departments to back off on all these radical changes and policies.”

They’re shopping the request around the Board of Supervisors and hoping for something like a moratorium on changes until the winter, when everyone has more time for constructive dialogue and collaborative decision-making.

It may be working. The last Rec and Park Operations Committee meeting where fee increases were to be proposed was canceled at the 11th hour. “We need more time to examine the impacts of any sudden changes,” Rose Dennis from Rec and Park’s public affairs office told us.

What does a healthy city sound like? Chirping birds and honking traffic, hands clapping and Dumpsters crashing, street cleaning and streets clogged with people talking and shouting, singing and laughing, a constant blend of pleasure and pain and the faint strains of music playing.

Even if everyone has a different idea of what a city needs and how its public property should be used, even if one’s concept of pleasure is another’s pain, who can argue against free fun? “This is a very expensive place to live,” says Jones of Pride. “If San Francisco becomes a sanitized place to live, in addition to unaffordable, I wouldn’t want to live here.”

She hopes her festival will continue to be free, but the removal of a large line item in the budget like alcohol could mean having to charge at the gate. She stresses the continuing need for constructive dialogue and creative thinking to solve these problems, as well as tolerance among the citizenry. “If you live in a densely populated urban area, there are things that come with that. The staging area for Carnaval is on my street, on a Sunday, my only day off,” she says with an ironic smile. “I like to sleep in. But it’s, like, 8 a.m., and I wake up to the sound of drums. It literally raises me out of bed. I get up, put on my shoes, go outside … and there are floats and kids in costumes and neighbors sitting out it’s delightful. And even if it weren’t delightful, it’s only once a year.”

Originally published May 23, 2006 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

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