This won’t be another playground for the rich

October 21, 2014

Jeffrey Boyette explains how the video of a soccer field dispute that went viral on the Internet sparked a successful challenge to city policies aiding privatization.

IN A matter of weeks, a YouTube video titled "Mission Playground Is Not For Sale" sparked outrage over gentrification in San Francisco, a protest over privatization of public parks, and a quick reversal of city policy--all thanks to the determination of a handful of young soccer players.

In the video, a group of white male adults, later identified as employees of the tech companies Dropbox and Airbnb, attempt to kick several youth of color off a soccer field in the heart of the Mission District, a historic Latino working-class neighborhood facing intense gentrification. When the youth resisted the bullying and insisted the two groups play together in a typical pick-up soccer format that has been tradition at the park for years, the now infamous "tech bros" respond with arrogance. One can be heard in the video sneering: "Who cares about the neighborhood?"

For many Bay Area residents, the video presented a familiar picture of entitled tech workers. In fact, the video itself doesn't capture the full level of disrespect endured by the young soccer players, who were later cussed out by the adults. Fifteen-year-old Hugo Vargas told a rally of supporters that he was also kicked in the back by Conor Welch, an Airbnb employee with the ironic job title of "Community Support Lead."

The "tech bros" show off their paid-for permit to use a Mission soccer field

As shameful as the behavior of Welch and his friends was, the crux of the matter at Mission Playground is the failure of city government, particularly the Recreation and Park Department (DRP), to prioritize local residents over private interests.

City Parks Run for Revenue

DRP General Manager Phil Ginsburg has made every effort to turn public parks into revenue-producing enterprises by greatly increasing the number of big-ticket private events during which parks are fenced off to the general public--and by initiating new fees at certain public facilities, such as soccer fields.

Mayor Ed Lee is quite supportive of this strategy. Lee's 2012 DRP budget proposal stated:

In order to increase its financial sustainability in the face of ongoing General Fund reductions, the Recreation and Park Department continues to focus on maximizing its earned revenue. Its efforts include capitalizing on the value of the department's property and concessions by entering into new leases and developing new park amenities, pursuing philanthropy, and searching for sponsorships and development opportunities.

One such "development opportunity" involves public playing fields. Ginsburg has turned over renovation and maintenance of fields across the city, including the Mission Playground soccer pitch, to the private non-profit City Fields Foundation. This form of "public-private partnership" is little more than a public-to-private giveaway, with a philanthropic veil.

Ginsburg himself sits on the board of City Fields, along with its founders and heirs of the Gap clothing empire Bill, Bob and John Fisher. Bill and Bob currently sit on Gap's board of directors, while John is a board member of several charter school foundations, including the KIPP Foundation, which has worked to undermine public schools across the country.

Before 2012, there was no grass at Mission Playground, only concrete, but it was one of the most popular spots for pick-up soccer in the city. City Fields oversaw a $7.5 million renovation of Mission Playground, including a new artificial turf soccer field.

When the renovation was completed, players returned to find that the field was now subject to a pay-to-play reservation system every Tuesday and Thursday from 7-9 p.m., during which regulars who have been playing pick-up soccer every evening for years were forced to step aside for players with paid permits.

DRP commissioners have defended the pay-to-play system by claiming that 96 percent of field time is still free and open. But the field is reserved for use by after-school leagues before 7 p.m., and, of course, before that, most youth are in school. Adding insult to injury, City Fields ignored bilingual signage requirements in the city charter and posted signs describing hours and rules in English only, despite the dominant presence of Spanish speakers in the Mission.

Despite City Fields' stated goal of ensuring that "every child has a place to play ball," it has managed to achieve the exact opposite: more restricted and less culturally inclusive playing fields.

Outrage Leads to Protest

Before the confrontation that was captured on video, these particular youth had been getting kicked off the field by permit holders for several weeks until they decided to act. They agreed that on one particular Thursday night, they would refuse to give up the field. Though they had not planned to film their act of resistance, a friend of one of the players happened to show up and record the incident on his cell phone.

When the video was released on YouTube two months later, it was quickly picked up in the blogosphere, appearing first in Uptown Almanac, then Vallywag, then 48 Hills and eventually hitting the local mainstream press.

By that time, the video had already gone viral, with countless viewers disturbed by its glaring portrayal of gentrification in San Francisco. As this article was being written, the video had over 550,000 views. Appearing just prior to Columbus Day, the incident evoked comparisons to colonization and current forms of dispossession, particularly evictions, which take place at epidemic levels in San Francisco.

The anger over the video quickly turned into organization. Members of the Latino Democratic Club connected with the youth and called a protest at a DRP public hearing. Once department commissioners got word that 900 people had signed up to attend the protest on Facebook, they called for a meeting with the youth to address their concerns.

During the meeting, DRP quickly caved to the group's primary demand to end the pay-to-play permitting system for Mission Playground. Not satisfied, the youth pushed for more and convinced officials to open the field on Sunday evenings, when it had traditionally been closed.

Of course, the youth knew they were just scratching the surface of the bigger issues at stake. They returned to City Hall the following morning with around 300 protesters for the planned demonstration. After rallying outside, the protesters flooded the scheduled DRP meeting and filled a public comment period with hours of testimony. Longstanding residents told story after story of losing park access throughout the city, of neighborhoods rapidly transformed through gentrification, and of evictions tearing communities apart.

Speakers decried the city's practice of privatizing public parks and its failure to get tech companies to pay their fair share. Members of the Latino Democratic Club raised several specific demands, including bilingual signage at all parks and full-time staff for Mission Playground.

Repeatedly comments returned to the importance of parks and free public space as a safe and supportive environment for youth. Two of the youth referenced Mission Beacon, an after-school youth program that lost funding this past summer. "You guys are kicking out all of the Mission...[You] kicked out Mission Beacon and now what's next, the park?" asked 13-year-old Nathan Garcia.

For many youth, the park represents far more than a place to play soccer. As Hugo Vargas said at the hearing:

It was unfair for those people to just kick us off our home, our community. They've been there for what, months? We've been here for years. These guys are my family. I go home thinking: What if I lose the park? I lose my family. I lose my home.

The determination of Garcia, Vargas and the other youth involved helped win a quick victory against the pay-to-play system at Mission Playground, but they hope this isn't the end of the story. Many other parks still operate with the same permitting system, and the broader issues of inequality, gentrification and privatization are still at play.

Privatization Is Not the Answer

Though the "tech bros" who descended on Mission Playground are not representative of the entire tech industry, their behavior is all too symbolic of the arrogance and entitlement demonstrated by their employers. Airbnb, a website where people can list accommodations for rent or book them for themselves, is a good example, as As Erin McElroy pointed out on 48 Hills:

Airbnb as a company has dragged its feet in paying hotel back taxes and in addressing the amount of evictions that participation in the sharing economy precipitates, and instead engages in "Fair to Share" propaganda. Yet the sharing economy here seems reticent to share...

[I]t is ironic that [Welch] holds a permit proving his right to "share" the park, when Airbnb hosts have notoriously evaded obtaining the necessary permits to "share" their homes, second homes and so on.

Less than a week before the video's release, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors effectively legalized Airbnb's practice of turning residential units into full-time tourist hotels, a decision that will further decrease available rental stock and worsen the city's housing crisis. Even more shocking, the supervisors decided against collecting $28 million in back taxes that the $10 billion company owes the city.

In a city that consistently coddles the tech industry, it's no wonder that some tech workers expect the same royal treatment from city residents.

Over the past several decades, local governments have endured a steady decline in revenues, especially since the Great Recession. Rather than respond with a progressive tax system that would draw more from the wealthiest residents, while keeping social services alive, San Francisco has chosen to dissolve city services while making every effort to court booming companies like Twitter, Airbnb and Uber. As the city becomes more dependent on tax revenue from big tech companies, it increasingly favors policies that support high profits margins over policies that support healthy and equitable communities.

Similarly the dearth of public funds is fueling the drive towards privatization, and not just in the parks. Mayor Ed Lee has embarked on an effort to privatize 75 percent of public housing in San Francisco. Already, renovation of public housing through private developers has displaced some residents, despite promises that residents could return after renovation.

If this pattern continues, it will be particularly harmful to the dwindling African American population in San Francisco, which makes up a disproportionate number of public housing residents. The plan is also likely to eliminate hundreds of union jobs as current building staff is turned over and replaced with nonunion, low-wage workers.

All while the city faces the fastest growing income inequality of any in the U.S. and an ongoing crisis of affordable housing. More privatization will only make matters worse.

Pro-business policies are, of course, not a new phenomenon in San Francisco. For decades, nearly all major development programs and policies have looked first to the needs of developers and the city's wealthiest business leaders. Where the city has opted to enact or enforce policies that benefit the working poor, it has only been in response to pressure from activists and community organizations.

Today, San Francisco is seeing these same patterns play out in the context of a historic tech boom in a post-Great Recession America. Ed Lee and Phil Ginsburg are the latest faces in a long line of business-friendly political elites.

Nathan Garcia, Hugo Vargas and the other youth who stood up for a free Mission Playground, on the other hand, are the latest faces of resistance to gentrification and displacement. The more their leadership can rise above the bankrupt policies of Lee and Ginsburg--not to mention the arrogance of certain "tech bros"--the brighter the future of San Francisco will be.

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