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Brown Joins Push to Retake, Restore Golden Gate Park

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anne MacKenzie thought she had seen it all in six years as a beat cop in Golden Gate Park: drunks, drug addicts, the lost and the befuddled camping in what 19th-century designers envisioned as a sylvan retreat from urban woes.

But nothing topped the tableau she came across one recent afternoon at the children’s playground. A knot of children had abandoned the jungle gyms and swings to stare in amazement at a homeless man who was using a park barbecue to roast a raccoon.

“It was half-charred, but we could see it was a raccoon,” MacKenzie said. “He said he was cremating it.”

Wildlife roasts are admittedly a rare occurrence in Golden Gate Park. But years of municipal neglect, the wear and tear of millions of visitors, and the abuse inflicted by an army of squatters have taken a heavy toll on one of the nation’s finest urban parks.

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Police officers and gardeners say that the number of squatters rose steadily in the past year, to an estimated high of 200 last summer. The city has blamed the squatters for starting fires, uprooting plants, strewing garbage across verdant meadows and discarding used hypodermic needles on lawns and playgrounds.

Alarmed by the park’s decline, a coalition of neighborhood groups, park advocates and well-heeled business leaders are demanding that the city take drastic action to save it. They have found a powerful ally in Mayor Willie Brown.

The mayor outraged homeless advocates last month by ordering police to crack down on the park’s illegal squatters. Brown threatened to use helicopters equipped with infrared devices to search out squatters at night. He promised to fire lazy gardeners and shake up the Parks and Recreation Department.

In the past three weeks, officers have rousted homeless people who have lived in the park for years. Police have confiscated belongings and dismantled homeless camps.

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“The mayor is very much aware that the entire park system has been in a slow but inexorable state of decline for the last 10 or 15 years,” said Kandace Bender, a spokeswoman for the mayor. “He’s making an enormous effort now to turn that around.”

Homeless advocates say the mayor is overreacting.

“This is a bandwagon that people have jumped on,” said Judy Appel, a lawyer who works with the homeless. “It is criminalizing the homeless for being poor. The bottom line for me is that these people have no place to go.”

Brown’s moves are viewed as risky in a city where there are far more homeless people than shelters and where it has long been considered politically correct to let homeless people sleep in the parks.

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Campaigning against then-mayor Frank Jordan in 1995, Brown savaged Jordan for cracking down on the homeless. Under Jordan, police officers wrote tens of thousands of citations to the homeless, driving them from downtown San Francisco into the suburbs.

Brown still says it is no crime to be poor and homeless. But he also says he has no plans to back down in his efforts to move squatters out of the parks.

At a news conference in November, the mayor insisted there are plenty of shelters and substance-abuse programs available for the homeless who choose to take advantage of them, a claim homeless advocates dispute.

Park supporters say the mayor’s interest has come at a crucial moment.

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For years, “a whole bunch of people, like me, weren’t paying any attention to our parks,” said Lew Butler, an attorney and environmentalist who recently became chairman of the San Francisco Partnership for Parks. “Now we are determined to crank up the pressure and create a real sense that something has to be done and done in a hell of a hurry.”

The partnership is a newly formed nonprofit organization founded by business leaders and philanthropists. The group hired consultants to help develop a plan to repair all the city’s parks, starting with Golden Gate. Butler says his group will make recommendations by spring.

“We’ve had some of the nation’s outstanding parks people come to San Francisco and look at our parks and they say: ‘Just do it. Fix them. You are sitting on a gold mine here,’ ” Butler said.

To many of the about 11 million to 15 million annual visitors, Golden Gate Park still seems an idyllic blend of Victorian playground and rustic retreat.

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At 1,017 acres, the park is larger than New York City’s Central Park and the largest fully irrigated park in the United States. Stretching from the ocean on its heavily forested west end into the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood on its east end, the park’s main section is 3 1/2 miles long and a half-mile wide. It costs the city nearly $10 million annually to operate.

In 1886, the park was nothing but wind-whipped sand dunes on the outskirts of the city. From the desolation, engineer William Hammond Hall conjured a genteel, English-style landscape created by planting 150,000 shrubs, trees and flowering bushes and hauling tons of dirt from miles away.

Today, the park’s meandering dirt paths, laid out under a canopy of towering Monterey pines, wind around duck-filled lakes, grassy meadows and flowering dells of rhododendrons and roses.

Visitors can boat; see a buffalo herd; ride a turn-of-the-century carousel; practice fly-fishing in casting ponds; ride horses; golf; examine rare plants in the arboretum and botanical garden; tour art and natural science museums; lawn bowl or sip tea in the Japanese Tea Garden.

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But visitors also might have to step over sleeping vagrants, pick their way around shopping carts crammed with the possessions of the dispossessed, or maneuver through groups of panhandlers to get to the attractions.

City residents nostalgically recall the park’s glory days, likening it to a once-lovely friend gone to pot in old age.

“Much of the park is managed as window-dressing,” said Greg Gaar, a Haight-Ashbury resident who has spent years amassing thousands of old photographs of it. “If you step back from the flower beds along the roadways, you see homeless camps, a lot of litter, and ivy climbing over everything.”

The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake so badly cracked the walls and foundations of the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum of Fine Arts that its exterior walls are supported by unsightly beams. A storm that blew 100-mph gusts of wind through the park two years ago knocked down 1,000 trees and so badly damaged the elegant Conservatory of Flowers that it has been closed ever since.

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Vandalism, storms and earthquakes have damaged most bathrooms so badly that they are closed. Lakes are thick with algae. Statuary is disintegrating. A deadly virus is threatening to kill off the park’s thousands of pine trees, and many of the remaining trees are dying of old age.

But the park is not merely creaky with old age or overgrown from neglect, its advocates say. It also is under assault from some of those who use it.

Some of the park’s squatters are Vietnam veterans with psychiatric problems. Others are teenage drifters drawn to the park’s east entrance, fronting on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of 1960s fame. The teenagers hang out in large groups all day and sleep together in the park at night.

Gardeners say that in at least a few instances, generations of families have made their homes in the park, some burrowing deep inside thick shrubbery and building shelters furnished with mattresses and sofas. One denizen built a brick fireplace in his “living room"--a makeshift shelter on the edge of the Shakespeare Garden. He lived there until last spring.

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Sometimes, gardeners and squatters develop friendly relations. A gardener who identified himself only as Jim said he got to know a homeless alcoholic named Helen. At one time, Jim said, Helen, her mother and Helen’s children all lived in the park.

“Then the kids were taken away from Helen, and her mother died and now Helen got a room somewhere downtown,” Jim recalled. “Helen never caused any trouble.”

But gardeners and police officers say some of the squatters have trampled bushes, hacked the branches off exotic species and harassed, even assaulted, gardeners.

“You plant trees and you have to figure that 60% of them will get stolen,” said Dan McKenna, forester for the Parks and Recreation Department. “We’re barely keeping our head above water.”

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Even some of the homeless concede that things have gotten out of hand.

“I notice a lot of disrespectfulness toward people,” said Dana, 27, as he rolled up his blankets on the edge of the Children’s Playground on a recent morning after spending a chilly night in the park. “I was raised to respect your elders. But some of these people don’t listen to nothing.”

Dana blamed the few who damage the park for getting long-time residents, including him, thrown out.

“They found my site a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “I had it for a year. Came back the other day and all my stuff was gone, just hauled away.”

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Now, Dana said, he sleeps in a different spot each night to elude the police. He said he doesn’t know where his girlfriend has gone. “She lived here 14 years,” he said.

“I like it out here. I have a thing against the government. I do things because I want to do them. I don’t want to stay in one of those shelters.”

A few dozen feet from Dana, Douglas Lochowski-Haney hovered anxiously beside Zofia, his carrot-topped toddler, as she explored the Children’s Playground. He said he brings his daughter here five days a week.

“But I watch her closely,” Lochowski-Haney said. “A month ago, Zofia was playing with another child, and that child’s nanny found a hypodermic syringe. It was scary.”

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Isabel Wade, a park advocate who has been trying to get the city to focus on its parks for two decades, said she hears such stories every day. Wade said she is hopeful now that City Hall is listening.

“We have put together a broad coalition of over 100 organizations and individuals, civic and community leaders to look at how we can come up with a sustainable parks system for the next century,” said Wade, a leader of the Neighborhood Parks Council, a nonprofit park advocacy group.

Worried that the sudden interest in repairing the parks “may just be the political flavor of the month,” Wade said she and other park supporters are determined to keep the heat on Brown.

“We are working very hard to make sure our mayor understands that this is a powerful political issue for him--that he will potentially lose big time if he doesn’t address the need, but he can win big time if he sees what a powerful community asset the system is,” she said.

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Wade, Butler and other park advocates say that the city will have to form a partnership with community groups and private businesses to raise the tens of millions of dollars they believe is needed to restore the parks and maintain them.

A draft master plan for Golden Gate Park that the city has been working on for years proposes a special tax to fund all the city’s parks. But such a tax would require a citywide election, and voters defeated a bond measure last year that would have funded the renovation of the De Young and the construction of an underground parking garage for the museum.

The city also has pledged to search for state and federal grants and donations from individuals and corporations. What’s most important, park advocates say, is that a sense of urgency has been created.

“The perception of desperation can be a fantastic springboard for change,” said William Getty, a city Parks and Recreation commissioner.

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