Farming, Park Parking and Empty Promises

Victory_garden_w_city_hall_aug_08_3695.jpgThe Potemkin Victory Garden during Slow Food Nation, August 2008.

Gavin Newsom is running for President, er um, I mean Governor (you gotta take these things one step at a time). Maybe he’ll make it, maybe something will wreck his chances. It’s an interesting drama from the point of view of recent American history, as he follows in the footsteps of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and has surrounded himself with a retinue of advertising professionals… you know, those people who do nothing useful for society but are extremely well-paid to craft lies and deceptions and help the powerful stay on top. Newsom is a vacuous politician with no rudder or internal gyroscope grounded in any values other than what will get him on to the next stop of his political ambition. His advertisers (do they advise? I think they just advertise) are shrewd enough to keep associating the Newsom Brand with the innovative thinking and practices that are practically boiling out of political sight in San Francisco. But we cannot and should not think of him as an ally since his track record is demonstrably empty when it comes to doing what he says.

Newsom got a bunch of local press last week when he announced that he was directing his department heads to examine their city-owned surplus real estate holdings for the potential to kick-start a serious effort at locally grown urban agriculture. As a person who has—even here—promoted the idea of “One Lane for Food” I am of course glad to see the idea of urban agriculture gaining traction. But having Gavin Newsom using the idea as the buzz-of-the-week in his gubernatorial campaign is simply aggravating.

alemany_farm_midsummer_09_0012.jpgAlemany Farm below Bernal Heights, June 2009

San Francisco has a flourishing urban horticulture amidst over 100 community gardens. The Alemany Farm just south of Bernal Heights is a 4.5-acre productive farm, run largely by volunteers who have brought it into production after it almost collapsed a few years ago. Elsewhere, the SF Glean group are out picking plums and loquats and anything else they can find in front yards, sidewalk medians, and even some backyards and public lands. Another similar effort called Produce to the People is dedicated to getting the food already growing in the city to the hungry people who can best use it.

plum_tree_peralta_and_franconia_0038.jpgFlourishing plum tree at Mullen and Franconia on Bernal Heights.

Did Newsom think to salute these efforts or offer city support for them? Is he proposing to use City resources to support the dozens of community gardens and thousands of gardeners, who are the obvious backbone of any move towards urban agriculture? Did he even throw his support behind the Victory Gardens program launched a year ago with much fanfare during the Slow Food Nation gathering? You all know the pathetic answers…

loquat_9901.jpgHeavily laden loquat tree on south side of Bernal Heights, June 2009.

There are a lot of examples of Newsom’s vacuity and hypocrisy, but one that he's not even that directly responsible for leaped out at me last Friday. I was going to the Inner Sunset to lunch with a friend, and took a detour through the Golden Gate Park Concourse. Those of you who have been around for a while will remember the intense fight that erupted over the rebuilding of the DeYoung Museum and the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, especially with regard to building a parking garage under the concourse. After much ado, including a hotly contested election, a number of lawsuits, and then the construction of the garage with entrances inside the park violating the original proposition, it’s all finished now. The main promise of the garage proponents is that it would allow the Concourse to become a pedestrian oasis, with space for walking, cycling, and no parking or cars, which would be kept below ground.

Newsom wasn’t personally involved much in that original fight. He came to the Board of Supervisors from the Pacific Heights district where the monied interests who backed him had been the financiers of the campaign for a garage. Those same interests promised that the underground garage, with its entrance directly to the museums, would preclude the necessity of having cars driving through the Concourse. Once built though, there was a road put back to the front door of both museums, at the behest of the museums and their wealthy benefactors, so people could get “dropped off” at the door.

from_tower_straight_south_0320.jpgThe so-called pedestrian oasis, ringed by busily trafficked roads.

As these photos illustrate, this has proven to be a lie. Granted, it’s a small issue in the scheme of things, but it’s a perfect example of the kind of politics and baiting-and-switching that brought us Gavin Newsom in the first place. Today there are signs at either end of the Concourse saying it’s closed to through traffic, and that only drop-offs are allowed (why they can’t loop through the underground garage to drop off passengers has never been explained). But on Friday, first around 1, and then later when I took these photos around 3 pm, there was a steady flow of private cars streaming through the park, not making drop-offs, but just using it as a shortcut between the Inner Sunset and JFK Drive, just like they always have! Add the many taxis and the 44 Muni line that runs through, and the promised pedestrian oasis is a joke. As Park Ranger Rodriguez told me, it’s always like this, and as much as she tries to block cars from driving in the bike lane, she’s given up worrying about enforcing the “no through traffic” rule.

8_cars_head_on_w_ranger_rodriguez_in_road_0319.jpgCars drive through against the "no through traffic" signs. Park Ranger Rodriguez stands in road trying to keep traffic moving.

It’s aggravating, but twice so when you consider all the blather about a crisis in city finances. Why not set up some officers at either end of the Concourse and generate a few tens of thousands of dollars per day on scofflaw motorists driving through? Why were they trying to charge entrance fees to the Arboretum (thankfully abandoned now) when there’s a huge revenue source in enforcing existing promises and rules a few yards away? Gavin Newsom doesn’t want to ruffle the feathers of all his wealthy benefactors, who for all their tolerance of green rhetoric (good marketing after all), can’t bear the idea of not being able to drive wherever they want, whenever they want, including right to the front door of their museums, past promises be damned.

5_cars_from_rear_w_ranger_rodriguez_0345.jpgAre there museums here? Who knew? And where was that pedestrian oasis?
Newsom has been terrible on getting cars out of the park, as his long opposition to Healthy Saturdays demonstrated. He is even waffling over the question of placing parking meters around the eastern end of the park to generate revenue from drivers. We’re glad he’s signed off on the Sunday Streets program, of course, but it’s all marketing with this guy. So let’s take the credit for the burgeoning culture of public life and celebration that we’ve created ourselves, and make sure the politicians who try to wrap themselves in a green hue have to answer for their hypocrisy. By all means, take stock of public lands that can be converted to urban agriculture! But the transformation of San Francisco is well underway, no thanks to lagging politicians whose allegiance remains to those who own this society’s wealth (and pay for their campaigns), and then issue empty proclamations rather than putting the city’s resources behind existing citizen efforts.