Commentary

Commentary: Paul Kozakiewicz

Exploitation of the People

The actions of one city department head are further fraying the nerves of westside residents already battered by almost two years of the COVID-19 pandemic; people who are just trying to shop, get to medical appointments, get their kids to school and visit friends and loved ones.

Phil Ginsburg, the general manager of the SF Recreation and Park Department, closed the Upper Great Highway (UGH) on April 28, 2020, and a portion of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and the eastern end of John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park to allow San Franciscans more space to recreate while our restaurants and almost everything else were closed. He has exclusive responsibility for the decision per the City Charter. (The UGH was made a part of Golden Gate Park in 1870.) 

Ginsburg has been working closely with two city non-profit organizations, the SF Bicycle Coalition and Walk SF, to develop and implement a strategy to ban cars on JFK Drive and the UGH during the pandemic. Plans are being made to make the bans permanent after the pandemic ends. 

The Bicycle Coalition and Walk SF get city funding every year through the SF Municipal Transit Agency’s budget (Muni). The two organizations have sole-source contracts, meaning no one else can bid for the City’s business. 

Upper Great Highway Debacle

There has been very little discussion of the Upper Great Highway with the SF Recreation and Park Commissioners, who set policy and have oversight of the Rec. and Park Department. The commissioners have either been kept in the dark about the deleterious effects for westside residents or they are indifferent to the problems their department is causing. (The commissioners are familiar with the JFK Drive closure, however, as they are often bombarded at public meetings with public comments calling for the roadway to remain closed in an obviously concerted effort.) 

At the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020, Ginsburg shut down the UGH seven days a week. 

On Aug. 5, 2021, as the City was starting to reopen, SF Mayor London Breed, with the support of supervisors Connie Chan and Gordon Mar, announced a “compromise” reopening of the roadway from Monday morning to Friday at noon. 

According to a confidential source directly involved in discussions about the UGH, the reason the roadway was closed at noon on Friday was because Ginsburg couldn’t get anyone from Rec. and Park to lock the gate after that time. 

Frustration for westside residents has been brewing, with a small group of bicyclists blocking traffic on the UGH during Thursday night commutes and the recent addition of food trucks on the highway on weekends. 

Because of the continuing park road closures, a group of Sunset residents formed the Open the Great Highway Alliance to raise money to hire an attorney. On Dec. 15, 2021, the organization, on behalf of six plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court claiming Ginsburg overstepped his authority.  They are demanding the UGH, parts of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and the closed portion of JFK Drive be fully reopened. 

Banning Vehicles in 

Golden Gate Park 

The closure of the eastern end of JFK Drive is a hardship for families, seniors and people with disabilities who want to get to the de Young Museum, Academy of Sciences, Conservatory of Flowers and other park attractions. Attendance at the de Young and Academy of Sciences is about half of what it was pre-pandemic.

During the evening, the Conservatory of Flowers’ Winter Lights and nearby “neon trees” exhibits are on display. These are wonderful exhibits, but with JFK Drive dark and mostly empty of people, it is a situation the police warn against – an “un-activated space” that is off-limits to thousands of San Franciscans.

The Rec. and Park Department is working in tandem with the SF Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) to explore a permanent closure of JFK Drive. On Sept. 22, 2021, the departments issued a joint press release.

“Public feedback is critical to determining the post-pandemic future of JFK Drive and we are eager to hear your thoughts and experiences,” Ginsburg said. “Golden Gate Park belongs to everyone, so neither safety nor access can be an afterthought.” 

On the SF Rec. and Park Department’s website, “diversity” is touted as one of the great virtues of the current JFK Drive road closure. 

I urge westside residents to visit JFK Drive to see how much diversity is on display. You won’t see many seniors, people with disabilities or people of color. 

The closure of JFK Drive led SF Supervisor Shaman Walton to chime in, saying it was a “racist” plan that discriminates against African and Latinx Americans, who have few options to get to the park, except by driving. 

Rec. and Park claims, due to the closure of JFK Drive, that bus service has been improved to accommodate people of color.

“Transit service on the 44 O’Shaughnessy Muni line, which travels through the Music Concourse and serves the Bayview and Excelsior neighborhoods, was made faster and more efficient.” 

According to Rec. and Park, attendance on JFK Drive has increased during the pandemic, saying: “Nearly seven million people walked, biked and rolled on car-free JFK Drive, a 36 percent increase over pre-pandemic usage.” 

If the information was posted in November, that’s about 400,000 people a month using the roadway, or about 13,000 per day.

I have requested information from Rec. and Park concerning the department’s development and implementation of studies and polls and to identify those who conducted the independent and unbiased research. There was no response as of press time.   

Fortunately for San Franciscans, Ginsburg and the parks commission do not make a final decision on closing park roads. Once an end to the pandemic is declared, a vote by the SF Board of Supervisors and approval by the mayor would be required to change the City Charter. Or, a ballot measure could be put forth so city voters could once again decide the contentious issue.  

Over the years, city voters have rejected three ballot measures calling for a change to the City Charter to close JFK Drive. City residents realize limiting access to the park’s cultural institutions is not just; they realize you shouldn’t have to walk or ride a bike to enjoy the park; and they know when they are being manipulated. 

Ginsburg needs to fully reopen the park roadways as they were before the pandemic struck, and to respect the process by which change is created. He also needs to direct his department to be transparent and honest in its dealings with city residents. 

For Ginsburg and his allies to exploit the people of the City of San Francisco during a pandemic to further their vision of a car-free utopia on the UGH and in Golden Gate Park is indefensible.

Paul Kozakiewicz is an editor, and the former publisher, of the Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon newspapers. 

14 replies »

  1. Rubbish. Every word of it. Pandering to The Entitled and their camp spoiled followers. The author knows full well there are thousands upon thousands of people of all ages and incomes and ethnic groups advocating for a PERMANENTLY car free JFK Drive and Great Walkway. The Bicycle Coalition is a convenient target for the howling mob of The Entitled. The author is just tossing raw meat to those who feel it is their birthright to drive anywhere anytime. It is not. Actually both JFK Drive and The Great Walkway are much safer for the elderly and disabled. These venues are now car free and these folks don’t fear being killed by The Entitled

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    • Just a gentle reminder that not everybody is in good health and able to ride bicycles everywhere. That does not make them “entitled” or “camp spoiled”. For some, cars mean accessibility. Right now, if JFK Drive is “safer” for the elderly and disabled, it’s because they have less access to be on it. Closing JFK Drive to people with cars also limits its access to people who come from across the city to enjoy the park, especially people with health issues and young children, who cannot bicycle or easily take 3 buses to get across the city. And, although if it’s auto-free, “those folks” won’t fear being killed cars, they will, and do fear being hit by bicyclists – some of who do not slow down or stop for pedestrians who are in their way. Making a permanently car free JKF Drive is not the “us” vs “them” issue you are making it out to be.

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    • Tell that to all the physically disable folks and those on oxygen who cannot partake in the use of these without vehicles to get them there. And do not callously state from ignorance they can use wheel chairs, you do not know who has what. Bottom line is this, both Great Highway and JFK Drive were designed first and foremost as roads to be used by, wait for it…VEHICLES!!!!! Do not give me this garbage more space is needed for people because of the pandemic. People have sidewalks, the avenues AND the actual Golden Gate Park itself. Keep JFK closed on weekends for the recreation but it needs to be used during the week for its primary purpose, to allow vehicles to transverse it. Same goes for Great Highway, only that needs to stay open every day. There is no viable alternative currently for this major traffic artery.

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  2. This city doesn’t listen to the taxpayers. The elected representatives don’t care about the majority of their constituents. This is a sure sign of pay-to-play type corruption. Which means democracy is failing us. At least until the next election when we can vote out Mar and Chan. But, in the meantime havoc is being wrought.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The city may not listen but the courts might, especially to the causes of actions made by the plaintiffs. They claimed discrimination and the courts may have agreed.

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  3. Great commentary. Thank you so much. Ginsburg can’t find people to close the gates at 5 pm on Friday but they can find people to open them to allow food trucks on non-car days (ie weekends and Friday afternoon)? Yeah. Right. The pay to play background interconnections between SF Park and Rec, SF Park Alliance, the SF Bicycle Coalition and WalkSF should be exposed.

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  4. It is very odd that the noon closure is based on Ginsburg not being able to find anyone to close it later in the day, when the logical option is to be consistent and leave it open to 6 a.m. on Saturday morning. In her declaration that opened the Highway Monday through Friday, Mayor Breed said that one of the reasons she was doing it so that parents could get their children safely to school and home as schools were reopening for the Fall. What she should have said is “you can get your kids safely to school five days a week, and safely home four days a week. We will pull the rug out from under you at noon on Fridays, so wishing you the best of luck getting the kids home safely during the demonstrably worst day and time of the week for traffic woes.” If Phil Ginsburg’s desk is where the buck stops, he needs to screw up his courage and admit it was a mistake, and correct it.

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  5. I agree with Mr. Kozakiewicz’s commentary and thank him for it. He joins a long line of SF residents waiting for Mr. Ginsburg’s response to timely produce public records; he’s currently under investigation by the Sunshine Task Force for exactly this.

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  6. Paul is right, of course, because he lives in a real world and not in some fairy tale where people are magically transported from one place to another through a fifth dimension, smelling flowers and observing a pristine, unspoiled scenery along the way.

    Or maybe we should close all highways and turn them into parks. Imagine how much freedom to walk and bike around we will all have, all those selfish drivers be damned. Let them rot in traffic and pollute the air on side roads and city streets.

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  7. Is it possible that the injunction worked? There are no food trucks on the Great Highway today. I was just there and took photographs of what appears to be a light use on the Great Highway today. Some strange behavior and a tent on the beach are noted, but the food trucks were missing from the area around the Lincoln intersection and as far as I could see from a few blocks south.

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  8. Although I generally support road closures during the pandemic and limiting automobile access gradually over time to encourage alternative forms of transportation like bikes and scooters, I find the closure of MLK Drive between Sunset Boulevard and Chain of Lakes to be particularly infuriating since the Great Highway closures force Outer Richmond residents like myself to use Sunset Boulevard and Chain of Lakes instead. The closure of this short stretch of MLK requires northbound drivers to exit Sunset at Irving, head west on Lincoln and then north on Chain of Lakes, which is invariably backed up at peak hours. If those few hundred yards of roadway were reopened it would save drivers from cursing Park & Rec an extra time every time they deal with it and improve the flow of traffic through the area. Unlike Great Highway and JFK, it is not a particularly beautiful area and I rarely see anyone walking in the roadway there.

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  9. Be kind, say hello, ride slow, and enjoy shared spaces. These are some of the slogans on new signs in the Golden Gate Park to encourage us be more caring towards one another. During a stressful pandemic it’s wonderful that our San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department is doing so much to help keep residents and visitors safe and healthy, while also helping biodiversity and the environment. Therefore I’m very sorry to see this neighborhood newsletter disparaging Phil Ginsburg and his department despite all of the incredible hard work they do every single day. The disgruntled commentator in the piece “Exploitation of the People” challenges west side residents to find diversity on JFK Drive, I do regularly! There are people of all ages, races, and ranges of mobility utilizing the car-free space together safely. (I see this on the Great Highway as well.) I wish I could include pictures to demonstrate some of the people I saw enjoying a beautiful day on car-free JFK Drive today. People were walking (some with dogs, strollers, wheelchair and canes), others were jogging, roller skating, scooting, skateboarding, and biking. It was especially fun to see children learning to ride on tricycles and training wheel bikes without cars to contend with. I also saw the free Golden Gate Park shuttle transporting people around, along with plenty of cars driving where they are permitted to visit the playgrounds, band shell, baseball field, botanical gardens, Japanese Tea Garden, Stowe Lake, De Young Museum, Academy of Sciences, soccer fields, windmill garden etc. etc. On my bike excursion to the park today I also witnessed an organized Hot Chocolate 5K/15K race, a Zumba in the park class, swing dancing, smiles, laughter, frisbee, yoga, soccer, baseball, martial arts, tai chi, paddle boats, surrey bikes, bird watching, reading, badminton, picnics, and other joyful gatherings all over the park! It’s so wonderful to see happy people enjoying the park, exercising and interacting with one another safely outside. We have one of the most spectacular array of parks in the world, thanks to our dedicated SF Recreation and Parks staff led by Phil Ginsburg. Even if you’ve never visited a park before, you’re still benefiting from their work because the plants they help maintain purify the air, release oxygen, take in carbon dioxide and cool our climate. I understand people are frustrated about changing their driving habits, but driving less helps to reduce accidents, traffic, micro aggressions, and most importantly, it helps our environment by reducing carbon dioxide emissions, one of the main causes for climate change. It’s important to do everything in our power to find solutions to reduce climate change, which is accelerating at an alarming rate. There are many benefits to having several car-free roads in our beautiful city, encouraging alternative modes of transportation, and providing safe spaces for outdoor activities. If you are one of the many thousands of people that enjoy the car-free roads, or even if you’re just concerned about the environment, please let the Recreation and Parks Department and your supervisor know that you support keeping these roadways car-free. And thank you to Assembly member Phil Ting for all of his excellent work legislating to help curb plastic pollution, this is also a critical issue, and I appreciated reading about his work in the newsletter.

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  10. Am I the only one who finds unacceptable the excuse provided for closing the Great Highway at Noon on Fridays? Then Ginsburg or Breed need to step up and arrive there on Friday evenings and lock it up, or even better as another poster pointed out, leave open all Friday night and lock at 6AM Saturday Morning. That is actually the smartest solution for the Mayor’s “compromise”. Sorry folks, but line staff do not write and dictate policies and how the City (or businesses) are run. You tell them what their responsibilities are and if they refuse they are fired for cause. Leave it San Francisco to further complicate what is a very simple and straightforward solution to a self-made problem that should not have happened in the first place.

    People, the Great Highway and MLK and JFK drives have always been first and foremost to carry traffic. Vehicular traffic.

    Good grief! I pray I see in my lifetime the more centrist, conservative and common sense silent majority rise up and elect officials who will actually fix the broken bureaucracy driven by all these progressive policies and the need to one up each other by moving even further left just to get elected.

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