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GOLDEN GATE PARK

THE HISTORY OF THE SATURDAY CLOSURE OF KENNEDY DRIVE

David G. Miles Jr.                                                                                                       April, 2000

San Francisco's Golden Gate Park is one of the City's most treasured resources. It is 1017 acres of beautiful green oasis that is surrounded by an ever-growing urban jungle. The park has a very rich, well-documented history going back 130 years. Then and now photos show a park carved out of a no mans' land as a great city grows up around it.

In 1894, the Midwinter International Exposition was held in the park, giving us what is now the Japanese Tea Garden and the M.H. de Young Museum. In 1906, the earthquake and fire turned the park into a temporary haven for approximately 200,000 people left homeless by the disaster. By 1967, as the hippies were flocking to the Haight Ashbury in the Summer of Love, Main Drive in Golden Gate Park was changed to John F. Kennedy Drive. Kennedy Drive has been closed to automobile traffic every Sunday since Sunday, April 2, 1967.

Supervisor Jack Morrison initially suggested the idea of a road closure, based on the successful closures in New York's Central Park in 1966. The proposal was to test the road closure concept and to return the Music Concourse to its former status as a pedestrian mall. For nearly 15 hours on Sunday, January 22, 1967, the Music Concourse was closed to cars. It was considered a big success.

In February of 1967, SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association) brought in Thomas Hoving, the New York City Parks Commissioner who closed Central Park to cars, for a discussion called "Parks For People." John Hirten, SPUR Executive Director, considered Hoving's ideas and attitudes to be very relevant to San Francisco and it's needs. Over 1000 people attended the meeting including S.F. Mayor John Shelley, Senator Gene McAteer, members of the Board of Supervisors and other officials. Once SPUR became involved, things simply fell in place. This was the hippie era. People were becoming more aware of the cars effect on the environment. On March 9th, 1967, the Recreation and Parks Commission voted to enact the road closure on a trial basis with no recorded opposition.

The first Sunday closure began with a small ceremony on Sunday, April 2nd, 1967. It was called the "People's Day In The Park", and the name of the main road was dedicated to John F. Kennedy. Mayor Shelley, Recreation and Parks Commission President Stendell, Undersecretary to the Navy Paul Fay Jr. and about 25 others presented a tribute to the late President. During the speeches, Mayor Shelly joyfully stated that he was "returning the park to the people and taking it away from the mechanical monsters that has overcome us in the last 60 years."

The Sunday closure of Kennedy Drive to automobile traffic has proven to be the most successful program of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department. Thousands of San Franciscans and others from throughout the Bay Area and beyond flock to the park on Sundays when there are no cars. The closed roads become a safe recreational paradise for runners, walkers, skaters, cyclists and others who are looking to escape the pressures of the fast paced city lifestyle and enjoy themselves in a lush, green sylvan environment. The Sunday closure has proven to be been so popular that many people are calling to close Kennedy Drive to autos all weekend long.

The idea of closing a portion of John F. Kennedy Drive to traffic on Saturdays is not a new one. A letter dated Sept. 12, 1967 from Elvin C. Stendell, S.F. Recreation and Parks Commission President to Mayor John F. Shelley states: "The closing of Golden Gate Park to automobile traffic on Sundays has been favorably received and it is hoped that other sections (of the park) will be closed in the future. In addition, the possibility of closing the park on Saturdays is being studied."

There was no significant movement towards Saturday closure of Kennedy Drive in the 60's and 70's. The Sunday closure did not see really big numbers of park users until about 1977. This is when the first skate vendor trucks began to line up along Fulton St. The summer of 1979 saw estimates of 15,000 to 20,000 skaters using Golden Gate Park on Sundays. There were over thirty skate vendor trucks that rented skates alongside the park border, each truck containing between 200 and 500 pairs of skates. Add in the thousands cyclists, walkers, tourists and other park users and it is plain to see that the Sunday experience in Golden Gate Park needed to be expanded to include the entire weekend.

Working through the system can be a slow process. The first real attempt to get the Saturday closure began in 1982. David Miles and a group of skaters from the Golden Gate Park Skate Patrol had been working for three years with the Recreation and Parks Dept. under Peter Ashe, then Asst. Rec and Parks Superintendent, as volunteers to help keep order and respond to injuries during the Sunday closure. Miles began organizing the skaters and started circulating a petition. The petition stated: "In signing this petition, you are indicating that you are in favor of closing John F. Kennedy Drive to traffic on Saturdays and also on Mondays when a holiday falls on that day".

6,000 signatures were collected. The skaters worked with Deborah Learner, the Park Planner, for three years hashing out the issues. Finally on July 18, 1985, the Recreation and Parks Commission passed the Golden Gate Park Transportation Management Plan. This did not grant Saturday closure of Kennedy Drive, but it did allow for closure of the roadway on seven Monday holidays per year. It also provided for the Saturday closure of Middle Drive between Crossover Drive and Metson Road.

Park users considered this to be a big victory in the long campaign for Saturday closure of Kennedy Drive. It took two more years to begin implementation of the road closures. Finally, when the first holiday closure came on Monday, May 25, 1987, the Recreation and Parks Department dropped the ball. THEY FORGOT TO CLOSE THE PARK!!!!!

This would be the only time this would happen as this goof up reached the desk of the most read columnist in San Francisco - Herb Caen. This is what he wrote on Friday, May 29, 1987:

IN ONE EAR:

Another one for the who's-in-charge-around-here dept: Golden Gate Park was supposed to have been closed to auto traffic last Monday, Memorial Day, but it wasn't, thereby discommoding several organizations that had made long range plans. Why wasn't it closed? "We just plain forgot," explains a Wreck Park person.

By 1990, Rollerbladers began rolling through the park, dramatically raising the numbers of park users on Sundays. Skateboarders and BMX bike riders added themselves to the mix of the park use community. The interest in Saturday closure again became a big topic of discussion, but to a broader audience. The Golden Gate Park Skate Patrol, which now had been serving the public in Golden Gate Park for 11 years, began another petition drive for Saturday closure of Kennedy Drive. On April 5, 1990, the Parks and Planning Committee of the Recreation and Parks Department had this as item 1 on their agenda:

GOLDEN GATE PARK / ROAD CLOSURES

Consideration of request from the Golden Gate Park Skate Patrol to close John F. Kennedy Drive to traffic from Kezar Drive to Transverse Drive in Golden Gate Park on Saturdays, Monday holidays and to extend the time the park is closed for one hour, opening the park to traffic at 6:00 P.M. instead of 5:00 P.M. during Daylight Savings Time.

The holidays had already been approved. Unfortunately, the Saturday closure was not granted, however, the extra hour of closure on Sundays and holidays was approved. Even though the idea of Saturday closure was extremely popular and building in support, the Recreation and Parks Commission would not vote it in. This was mainly due to the pressure put forth by the park institutions like the de Young Museum and the Academy of Science. They maintained that the Sunday closure of Kennedy Drive has hurt their attendance. They wanted cars to be able to drive into the park freely to attend their shows and attractions.

At some point around 1991, the Academy and the de Young convinced the Recreation and Parks Commission to remove the auto ban in the Music Concourse. This marked the first regression in the road closure policies. Cars were allowed to enter the Music Concourse loop from King Drive, but not allowed to cross Kennedy Drive. Ironically, the Concourse area was the first area in the park to be closed to auto traffic. It was done in January of 1967 as a trial to see what problems would occur in closing the roads in the park.

By 1994, the cycling community began taking the lead in the efforts for Saturday closure. Jungle John Poschman is a cyclist/activist who shared the same dream of others who wanted to see the park closed on Saturdays. Jungle John activated a growing number of more experienced and determined activists. With the support of the ever-growing park community, another drive for Saturday closure began steamrolling, only to hit a brick wall of opposition, mainly from the park institutions. Again they cited their need for cars to have easy access to the Academy and the deYoung. The park institutions felt so strongly against the proposed road closures that rumblings of repealing the Sunday closure could be heard in McLaren Lodge. No Saturday closure policies were adopted.

1997 marks the latest effort to achieve what had now become been a 30 year dream. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition became the voice of thousands of Bay Area cyclists. They have fought to improve conditions for cyclists and represent their interests in the political arena. Paul Dorn headed the SFBC's "Golden Gate Park Task Force". They began a solid, well organized petition campaign that brought in even more experienced, politically savvy volunteers such as Jennifer Clary of S.F. Tomorrow and Jane Morrison, wife of Supervisor Jack Morrison, the man who first championed the vision of a car free Golden Gate Park. Along with an even larger community of park users, Dorn and his crew gathered over 11,000 signatures. Their efforts received the best "Quality of Life Crusade" award from the SF Bay Guardian’s "Best of the Bay" issue in 1997

Unfortunately, like each and every other attempt to get what seems to most like an inevitable situation, this valiant effort crashed against the desired of the park institutions to use Golden Gate Park as a parking lot.

Now we have reached the new millennium. The call for Saturday closure of Kennedy Drive is stronger than ever. 33 years after the first Sunday closure in Golden Gate Park, the forces that have been gathering and growing together over the years are preparing to mount what may prove to be the final battle in the Saturday closure war. Skaters and cyclists, runners and walkers, tourists and natives, the disabled and elderly, boys and girls and families unite. The question of Saturday Closure in Golden Gate Park will now be presented to the highest authority in the land - you the people.

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