SI Vault
Donald Dale Jackson
August 25, 1975
Now that the Park Service has opened up vast and dramatic spaces rimming the city, San Franciscans can take flight and have a wingding time in a 34,000-acre paradise
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August 25, 1975

Gateway To Heaven

Now that the Park Service has opened up vast and dramatic spaces rimming the city, San Franciscans can take flight and have a wingding time in a 34,000-acre paradise

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Assistant interior Secretary Reed, whose job includes prying the Park Service's annual appropriations out of Congress, worries that the cost of urban parks will drain too much money away from the Yellowstones and Glaciers. "Let's face it," he says, "the cost of an urban recreation area by any standard of measurement—for trash collecting, lifeguards, policemen, everything—is close to 10 times as much as the cost of a Yellowstone, simply because so many more people use it. But how are you going to deny money to New York and San Francisco?

"I thought we could hold it down to the two parks, Gateway and Golden Gate, and have perhaps 10 years to show what we could do. But it's now apparent that any mayor with budget trouble is going to say we need the Federal Government to run the city beach. I think our urban parks are almost too successful—they're so attractive, they're so bloody good that everyone wants one, the Park Service gives off such a sense of happiness. The question is, whose role is it? Where do we stop? We have to find another way to protect land besides the National Park Service." One short-term solution he suggests is to set up a separate financing account for urban parks so the old-line parks won't suffer. In the long run Reed believes "we'll have to learn how to run landscape planning in this country without ownership rights."

But the most radical change accompanying urban parks is the notion that people deserve a say in shaping the park. GGNRA staff members have appeared at more than a hundred meetings of citizens' groups throughout the Bay Area, introducing the park with a slide show and soliciting suggestions. "We're just listening," says Jack Wheat, "in effect saying, 'O.K. we have a park here now. How do you think it should be run and what should it do for people?' This hasn't been done before in the Park Service."

"I think the public will make better decisions than the Park Service can," says Whalen. A 15-member citizens' panel was established to advise the Golden Gate park managers on policy, with the requirement that three members be from minority groups. Whalen and the citizens' panel recently held a hearing to consider the establishment of a performing arts center at Fort Mason, the onetime Army port of embarkation that serves as park headquarters. The panel listened courteously as an exotic assortment of actors, musicians, artists and others stood up to make their pitch for a piece of the federal action. At last a barefoot, open-faced girl, identifying herself as the "Princess of Argisle," interrupted to read a poem she had composed. "I hear the bureaucratic lullaby," she read. "...Give us the space to plant our tree, the tree of com-mu-ni-ty."

Whalen, who had apparently dealt with royalty before, reacted instantly. "Princess, I thought that was very nice," he said, "and I'd like to have a copy of your poem." The princess beamed and, of course, presented a copy.

Most of the public's ideas so far have run heavily to improved transportation, restoration of fallen landmarks and special facilities for the aged. The majority of Alcatraz visitors want the prison tours to continue; others have proposed an Indian museum, a bird sanctuary and a picnic area for the island. One disenchanted tourist wrote that, "Except for the prison, it makes a good rock."

"We're not going to accept all or even most of the public's suggestions," says Assistant Secretary Reed, "but we expect to get a lot of ideas we wouldn't think of ourselves and also some semblance of a consensus on what people see as the park's future."

Schoolchildren are also invited to contribute suggestions. A fourth-grader named Nathan Van Leer proposed that the buildings at Fort Mason be razed and replaced by a permanent circus. "Then people could go there instead of to school," he wrote. "It's no fun with no circus in the city."

Nathan, old man, you could be wrong. San Francisco possesses everything necessary for civilized contentment: good Chinese restaurants, terrific ice cream, beautiful vistas from every other hill, long-legged girls and an atmosphere of easygoing grace. Now it has all that and a 34,000-acre playground, too. Let Detroit have the circus.

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