Keeping San Francisco's Botanical Garden Free

Bubbling Beneath the Surface

"Public" Meeting at SF County Hall of Flowers

Last night, April 6, 2009, I experienced something inspiring, and even euphoric, in a city-sponsored meeting to present possible changes to San Francisco’s Botanical Garden & Arboretum in Golden Gate Park. The bottom line of the two suit-wearing bureaucrats from the Parks & Recreation administration was their proposal to follow nearly all of the other similar botanical gardens across the U.S. and impose a fee, of $5, for what has been free since it was created nearly 70 years ago. Their PowerPoint had a slide with a table that showed the botanical garden in Miami at the high end of the scale with a $20 admission fee and they made a huge point that the Brooklyn Botanical Garden had recently raised its fee to $8 after struggles had failed to keep it free back in 1996.

The bureaucrats spun the desperate need for a fee within the overall city budget deficit, along with the scientific, academic, and security needs of maintaining a “world class” collection of exotic plants and trees. While the latter might be true, for people – like me – the garden is a dog-free place for enjoying a natural respite from urban life. It’s actually a beautiful, romantic spot famous for first dates (and being San Francisco, for boys and girls, boys and boys, and girls and girls) as well as family outings and picnics. It’s where I often go with a book to relax on the grass to sit and read. Or when it’s sunny and I have guests from out of town, where we put out a blanket and sip wine or beer and enjoy the weather framed by the beauty of the abundant plant life.

The meeting was in a hall of the county fairgrounds building that also hosts the annual SF Anarchist Book Fair, along with a myriad of community events that occur regularly. The building actually borders the botanical garden. The room was filled to overflowing, with all seats full and at least 20% of the 250+ in attendance standing or sitting on the floor. The suits began with a PowerPoint about policy wonky budget details that finished with new budget with the proposed fee increase. Although there were only a few, meek disruptions, they finished the presentation and got to the public comments portion of the event.

They began by choosing people randomly from the audience. The first speaker commented by saying he would like to see a limitless budget to make the garden the best it could be. He went on at length about how the city does have the money to keep it free, but it’s just a matter of priorities and they will only charge us an entrance fee if we let them get away with it. But then he hit a sore spot with some people: he said in the “post-Bush era we’ve still gotta remain vigilant against privatization” and before he could finish, was interrupted by a woman sitting right in front of him. She said he was “spouting nonsense” and shouldn’t be allowed to go on. To which people demanded that we let him finish. But he was pretty much demoralized by the interruption and sat down. The interrupting woman was called next and was very emotional. She was emphatic that she’s a homeowner, living within a couple blocks of the park, and she mentioned supporting all the museums (art and natural history), in the nearby Music Concourse park complex, with hundreds of dollars worth of annual family memberships. Then, somewhat incoherently, she said her family couldn’t afford one more fee and stated her opposition to the plan. The next speakers continued with similar themes and some said that fees shouldn’t apply to city residents but only to tourists, while others responded that that would only allow the garden to become another banal San Francisco tourist attraction that residents would merely have the “privilege” of attending for free. But the overriding consensus was that budget problems or not, it just wasn’t in the spirit of the park’s creators to have a financial barrier limiting everyone’s free enjoyment of the park’s natural beauty.

Golden Gate Park was begun in 1868 and was a miraculous success at converting barren, treeless and plant-less, windswept sand dunes bordering the Pacific into the verdant paradise it is today. Marxist geographer Richard Walker has a story in one of his books about giving a tour of the 1,017 acre park to a European visitor. Walking through the redwood and Monterey cypress groves, his guest commented something to the effect “Wow, it must have been gorgeous when all of California looked like this.” Walker laughed and had to explain that the whole park was manmade and nowhere in California ever looked like this. The botanical garden began with the philanthropic gift of a ruling class family, along with WPA labor, that started construction in 1940. At 55 acres, it’s just 5% of the park, but is one of the best maintained sections of an otherwise well maintained park. Since its origins, debates have raged between those who advocate the park as an undisturbed natural refuge for working class citizens vs. ruling class civic leaders who want to fill it with monuments to their benevolence and egos.

The initial PowerPoint had taken about 30 minutes and about 30 minutes into the public comments section, which went on for another hour, I was called to speak. On my lap was the excellent book Death in the Haymarket, by James Green, that I’d just been reading. Right before the meeting I had gotten to the part about the spirited agitation for the International Working People’s Association by firebrands like Albert Parsons and August Spies. These accounts are so moving and the depression of 1883 seems so similar to what we’re experiencing now that I decided that what the Botanical Garden meeting needed was less reason and more fire, especially alluding to history and some victories that might prove an inspiration. The Park & Rec bureaucrats had vaguely mentioned “sharing the pain,” as had a couple of the more moderate commentators from the audience. So I began by speaking to the bureaucrats, saying “In all due respect, this really isn’t about you. So if you excuse me I’ll talk to everyone else here.” I turned around and faced the entire audience from my position near the front of the seats. I launched into the idea of sharing the pain and said that on the level of all of society in this country “it is simply not true.” “So,” I suggested, “let’s just dispel with this notion right now” and alluded to its irrelevance because of the AIG and Wall Street bailouts. I could hear not only grunts of approval, but people outright agreeing just like in a religious revival meeting. This egged me on further. I then said what we needed to do was to use this meeting to organize ourselves against this “theft.” I scanned the room and nearly every eye I met was in complete agreement. I said that in San Francisco we have some history to draw on and went on to mention the “Freeway Revolt.” Begun in 1955, by 1959 it had forced the city government to outright reject 7 of 10 proposed freeways. It continued to force the city to reject future ones in ensuing years. Due to this San Francisco is an anomaly among major U.S. cities because it is the only city to have lost freeway miles since 1990. The Freeway Revolt was a rejection of the commodity-logic of the automobile, even if protesters against it might not have entirely grasped it theoretically, they did act on subjective feelings rejecting it – and they did so collectively.

So after mentioning the Freeway Revolt, to which I received even more verbal affirmation, I reminded people that it would have dissected the park in several places and would have completely replaced the park’s Panhandle. The crowd was definitely older and as I later found out, many of the graying seniors were veterans of the Freeway Revolt. I felt this rush of being caught up in a now-totally receptive audience, so I finished my short rant by saying “As the first brother who spoke first referred to, this is plain and simple privatization. If we let them take it away, we’ll never get it back.” I’d intended to go on, but I got such a rousing applause that I simply sat down and felt how the crowd’s anger and energy had become palpable. It was incredible.

The next speaker was an older woman who talked of the “thieves” in our society and how the fee for the Botanical Garden was another theft. The level of intensity of speeches was raised, as was the anger. Another elderly woman who’d long been a volunteer in the Botanical Garden talked about it as further “commoditization” of society, which was received with cheers. Others said that with all the layoffs, working people couldn’t afford to take their kids to the garden at 5 bucks for each person. The bureaucrats tried to ameliorate this criticism by saying that kids under a certain age would be free, but they just sounded more absurd the more they tried to rationalize things against this tide of criticism.

It continued on and was overwhelmingly, comment after comment, condemning of the walling off a community resource with a price tag. One of my friends spoke up and called it the “enclosing of the commons” to more applause and shouts of approval. The bureaucrats, having been made redundant tried to scoot us out of the meeting hall, but after it ended we mixed and exchanged contact information for another hour until they were finally able to get everyone to leave the hall. I’ve never shook so many eager hands and felt like I’ve finally met trusted comrades from my own neighborhood (I live directly across the street from the park on the north side’s Richmond District). The first speaker who mentioned privatization was a transplanted New Yorker and at the end I found him standing in a circle of a half dozen talking about Marx. Not everyone there was a radical, but the radical implications of what we might be able to do in opposing the commodification of our park seems full of pregnant possibilities.

A critique of value and the real domination of capital can be made to working class people, but perhaps not explicitly at first. And who are these “thieves,” that everyone recognizes, but our enemies in the ruling class? Perhaps the veil is being lifted by this crisis and people are once again able to openly acknowledge the class-divided nature of the society we live in. And what is “privatization” and “commodification” of all aspects of our lives but the value form reigning supreme? Working class people might not be able to express this abstractly, but know it – and reject it – when they see and experience it concretely.

For a World Beyond the Value-Form,

Ed Dillon




I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Guardhouse was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Guardhouse were shut,
And "Thou shalt pay" writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore;

And I saw it was filled with walls,
And fences where flowers should be;
And Guards with mean frowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briers my joys and desires.

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