Mission Playground Shows it’s Time for a Change at Rec and Park

The videotaped confrontation at Mission Playground between a bunch of young tech workers and Latino youth has lit up the City. It seems like the vast majority of us — from progressive activists to moderate urbanists to nerdy redditors to cranky Internet commenters — all agree: this is a vivid embodiment of how new wealth is literally displacing long-time residents.

And while we think the tech workers embarrassed themselves in the way they handled the situation, we think they were unnecessarily set-up to make fools of themselves by one of City Hall’s worst policies: Phil Ginsburg, the General Manager of the Rec and Park Department, wants the parks to pay for themselves. Here’s the TL;DR version of our plan to fix the mess at Rec and Park:

  1. Rec and Park needs to restore free play every evening at Mission Playground.
  2. Mayor Ed Lee needs to fire Rec and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg.
  3. The City needs to review and undo the past five years of privatization.
  4. The City need to create new parks in low-income neighborhoods instead of allowing wealthy donors to pick new park locations.

Rec and Park’s Pay-to-Play History

Since Phil Ginsburg took over in 2009, he has pushed to charge for access to parks and rec centers that used to be free to the public. Here are a few of the low lights:

  • The Mission Playground history is becoming well known: It was originally a concrete field that was always home to unreserved, pickup soccer. But in 2012 when the City Fields Foundation paid to put in artificial turf, Rec and Park began allowing reservations, despite protests from the community. For awhile, the “SF Pickup Soccer” app had dibs on Tuesday and Thursday nights. They allowed people to pay $5 to reserve a spot to play “pickup” soccer. The original, overwhelmingly Latino, player who didn’t have the app or didn’t want to pay $5 for a sanitized pickup game were displaced to go play on the concrete “field” at the nearby park at Folsom and 21st. But as some point the “SF Pickup Soccer” folks realized their style of play was an insult to the culture of Mission Playground and dropped it. They now say it should be reverted back to full-time pickup soccer.
  • The Eureka Valley Rec Center used to be a safe place for queer homeless youth to hang out. Now it’s a place where you can pay for Latin dance and Zumbatomics lessons. When activists from Queer Economic Equality Now protested, Ginsburg said, “We do not support unstructured, unsupervised use of the space. If queer youth want to participate in activities,“we have karate, hip-hop dance, spoken word, Latin dance, Zumbatomics.”
  • The Gene Friend Rec Center used to have a free after-school program run by United Playaz for youth in the Tenderloin and SOMA. But in 2009 they were kicked out so Rec and Park could charge for a similar program that was only open to youth ages 6 to 12. Sorry Tenderloin teenagers, go play on the streets or something. What’s the worst that could happen? Eleven organizations formed the SOMA United Coalition to oppose this change. Rec and Park ignored them.
  • At Victoria Manalo Draves Park, the SOMA Youth Collaborative (including United Playaz and Westbay) has organized an informal youth baseball league. Rec and Park didn’t take them seriously until they got a grant to “activate” the park as a baseball diamond. And now Rec and Park says they need to make way for a permitted soccer and tech kickball leagues. Sound familiar?
  • At the Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park, you used to be able to stroll in and out at your leisure and enjoy the gardens. Now non-residents have to pay $7 and residents have to show ID. Do you have an ID with a non-SF address? Tough luck. That’ll be $7 please. It used to be open to the public. Now it’s locked up behind turnstiles. The next step will be to charge residents. And then reduce the public hours so the Botanical Garden Society can have more private events. Once again, the community organized to protest this change, and Rec and Park ignored them.

We could go on, but you get the idea. What happened at Mission Playground isn’t an isolated incident.

Misuse of the Open Space Acquisition Fund

Every year the City sets aside money to buy new open space. The Park Code says the top priority for these new parks should be in “high needs” neighborhoods where low-income residents lack good access to parks. But with Ginsburg in charge, the fund has bought two new parks: the Francisco Reservoir in Russian Hill (just a few blocks form Aquatic Park) and the Noe Valley Town Hall.

Are Russian Hill and Noe Valley “high needs” areas?? No. But Ginsburg went around the Park Code to create his own policy that emphasizing purchasing open space that can “leverage outside funding” to supplement the Open Space Acquisition Fund. Both of those parks jumped to the front of the line because wealthy neighbors pledged to raise money for the projects. It’s great to see people contributing to help these parks. But these tax dollars are supposed to be used to buy open in space in low income neighborhoods!

So how do we fix Rec and Park?

  1. Rec and Park needs to restore free play every evening at Mission Playground. While we understand that there’s a huge demand for reservable soccer fields in the City, the City needs to respect the tradition of Mission Playground. It should be a home for free and open pickup soccer. Period.
  2. Mayor Ed Lee needs to fire Rec and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg. This battle over privatization of the parks has been going on for years. Instead of trying to work with his critics, Ginsburg tries to marginalize and dismiss us. He’s one of the most divisive figures in the City. We were so pissed about his policies that we opposed the 2012 parks bond to send a message that we don’t trust Ginsburg’s Rec and Park. The only way we’ll ever be able to unite the City to support big ideas to improve our parks is with new leadership that will work with everyone.
  3. The City needs to review and undo the past five years of privatization. An independent auditor (maybe the City Controller or Budget Analyst) needs to review all of the changes in usage policies for all of the City’s parks and rec centers since Ginsburg took over in 2009. Then we need to come up with a plan to restore the amount of free, public access we used to have. In addition to Mission Playground, the City Fields Foundation has installed artificial turf at seven other fields in the City. How have those usage policies changed? During the great recession, Rec and Park slashed the number of staff for rec centers. How many of them have been rehired in the new boom? If all that will cost more money, let’s come up with a plan to pay for it (maybe a parks assessment district, a parcel tax, etc.) that doesn’t involve selling out our public space!
  4. The City need to create new parks in low-income neighborhoods instead of allowing wealthy donors to pick new park locations. The Park Code is clear that the top priority for the Open Space Acquisition Fund is create new open space in “high needs” areas. Rec and Park’s policy that prioritizes potential parks that have private financial backing needs to be scraped.

Skyrocketing rents in the City have everybody on edge. It’s hard enough for working class folks to just hang on to a place to live in San Francisco. Rec and Park needs to drop their pay-to-play policies that are pushing people out of our parks and rec centers.

Donate Find an Event

Paid for by the San Francisco League of Pissed Off Voters. Financial disclosures available at sfethics.org.


get updates