Examiner Op-Ed: Keep Coit Tower, public parks open to all

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Keep Coit Tower, public parks open to all

October 31, 2014

by Ruth Gottstein

Recently my granddaughter forwarded me a YouTube video -- I am 92 years old, but yes, I watch YouTube -- of neighborhood kids being bullied off the Mission District Playground by a group of adults. Seeing that video, I was as upset as she was -- but sadly I was not completely surprised.

The adults who handled the situation so poorly by trying to intimidate the kids rather than sharing with them certainly deserve some of the blame. But the real problem is that the current leaders of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department have been pushing very hard in recent years to commercialize and monetize our public spaces and parks. It's time for that to end.

I have watched this happen first-hand at Coit Tower 80 years ago, where my father, Bernard Zakheim, painted me into his beautiful New Deal mural there called "Library." Three years ago I was quite appalled to discover that the state of Coit Tower and its murals was extremely poor, with lead paint peeling from the ceiling, many of the murals gouged by carelessness or covered in water damage, and nobody really in charge there at all. What other art museum of importance would be treated this way, especially one that brings in over a million dollars a year in revenue from visitors riding the elevator to the top, as Coit Tower does?

That's why I gladly participated in the successful citizen campaign to put a measure before San Francisco voters to preserve Coit Tower by prioritizing the funding generated there for its upkeep and strictly limiting commercial activity and private events at Coit Tower. I was so thrilled that voters citywide said "Yes" to this measure and made it city law in June of 2012. Subsequently, Coit Tower was comprehensively rehabilitated and the murals thoroughly restored, and since it reopened to the world this spring it has looked better than ever.

Unfortunately, the Recreation and Park Department has stubbornly continued to divert 90 percent of the elevator revenue generated at Coit Tower away from it to other purposes. This has left the person who was newly hired to run the elevator and gift shop on The City's behalf in a very difficult state where he finds himself losing money while doing a good job. But, instead of fixing this by spending the Coit Tower elevator revenue to upkeep the tower as the voters mandated, the Recreation and Park Department instead is proposing to construct a concession stand building outside to sell more things and make more money.

As members of the family of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, whose generous bequest originally built Coit Tower, wrote in a letter recently: "If Coit Tower is generating more than enough money right now from elevator fees to pay the people the city has hired to run Coit Tower to continue doing a quality job to operate and maintain it, isn't that exactly what the voters of San Francisco said should be done, before squeezing Coit Tower to generate money for other purposes?"

I wholeheartedly agree and would add that the Coit Tower murals were also entirely free to the city of San Francisco, funded entirely by federal taxpayer funds through New Deal programs.

Coit Tower has not even had a private concession there selling souvenirs for most of its life, since it was simply created at Lillie's direction in her will "to beautify the city I have always loved." Given the will of the voters to preserve Coit Tower and keep it from becoming privatized or over-commercialized, I would hope that the Recreation and Park Department, the supervisors and the mayor will get together and find a wiser way to protect this national treasure instead of over-commercializing it.

Similarly, rather than exclude San Francisco children and families from public parks that were paid for with public funds to allow people of all ages to recreate and play, I hope the Recreation and Park Department will find better ways to manage our parks than trying to monetize them.

Hopefully the next YouTube video I receive from my granddaughter will be of happy kids at play in a park or people enjoying Coit Tower and its magnificent murals, as I hope they will be able to do for at least another 80 years.

Ruth Gottstein is the daughter of Coit Tower artist Bernard Zakheim and the publisher of "Coit Tower San Francisco: Its History and Art."

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