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The View From Outside Outside Lands

Posted: Aug 14, 2012

On a wooded hillside removed by two fences from the stage, onlookers gathered to listen to Tom Morello perform at the Outside Lands music festival this Sunday. Below, guards mounted on horseback and police on motorcycles patrolled Kennedy Drive.

Tom Morello’s set was rivaled by a show of a different kind. The blow of a whistle and the clap of galloping horse hooves announced a chase was on. A group of young adults had tried to hop the fence, attempting to sneak into the festival. Caught in the act by the mounted guards they were sent back into the woods, to rejoin company with the eclectic group of joggers, homeless people, bikers and other onlookers, who had gathered to listen and dance to the show free of charge.

The two parallel chain-link fences surrounded several of the largest fields in Golden Gate Park. To cross one had to traverse the empty space that lay in between the two fences, becoming an easy target for the mounted guards. The setup resembled a border between hostile nations, complete with a demilitarized zone.

We were the nation of working students, the unemployed and freelance reporters. On the other side of the fence, 65,000 attendants paid between $55-210 per-day to attend the sold-out festival, which featured Stevie Wonder, Metallica and Neil Young.

Moving between sets was a hike. Instead of cutting through the field, those on the outside had to walk around the perimeter, sometimes several miles between stages. Trekking to the Lands End stage to see Franz Ferdinand and Regina Spektor perform took nearly 45 minutes. There were plenty of stumps to sit on with a view, albeit impeded by several large trees. I sat in the woods with friends eating peaches and baguette with cheese and hummus, while listening to the music.

While free of the crowds and high prices, from outside the festival it felt as though the fence around the park turned a public space into private property. Indoor attractions such as the De Young Museum and the Academy of Sciences charge entrance fees, but the fields in Golden Gate Park are perceived to be open to the public, available for impromptu picnics and soccer games. Other concerts in the park, including Michael Franti’s Power to the Peaceful festival and the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, have not charged admission.

In a time of tight budgets, however, government officials are increasingly looking for public spaces to pull their own weight.

In San Francisco, events such as Outside Lands help defray park costs. Between 2006-2010 revenues from rents, concessions and charges for services in San Francisco parks have increased by over thirty percent to nearly $45 million per year, according to figures provided by the city Controller’s Office.Outside Lands is the highest grossing event within the city park system and this year's festival is expected to net around $1.4 million in rent payments and revenue sharing. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, since 2008 Another Planet Entertainment, which sponsors Outside Lands, has donated more than four million dollars to the city and generates more than $60 million in sales revenue spent in San Francisco. 

This privatization of public space is a pattern that is occurring in our state parks as well. Last May, Governor Brown announced $22 million in cuts to the state park system. Dozens of community organizations stepped in to save the parks and collected donations and sponsorships to preserve all but one of the parks slated for closure. However, their efforts will mean higher fees and more events being held in state parks to pay for maintenance costs and ranger salaries no longer covered by the State.

Outside the festival, onlookers had VIP seats to view this privatization in action.

Not wanting to be held back by the fence, the spectators frequently turned to strategies for sneaking in. The fence was lower on the north side than on the south and to the west fewer guards roamed the perimeter, some said.

One large group had organized a flash mob to overwhelm the mounted guards, and asked others to join in. I imagined the scene, horses galloping as people dashed to make it inside and catch a glimpse of Stevie Wonder.

I for one was happy to be outside Outside Lands, with plenty of space to sit and talk, trees to climb and a backpack full of fruit and chocolate.

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