In what might be a perfect storm of San Francisco headbutting: Deadheads and neighborhood groups are ready to square off against a non-profit organization and the Rec and Parks Department over the naming rights to the wildly underused Jerry Garcia Amphitheater. Brace yourselves.
The 43-year-old amphitheater sits near the peak of McLaren Park and hosted a measly four events last year. One of those events was the annual Jerry Day festival that has been held there annually ever since the venue was consecrated in the name of the late Grateful Dead bandleader in 2005 — ten years after his death.
According to the Rec and Parks Department, the 2,000-seat open-air venue is too small for major acts yet too expensive*to rent out for small groups. As far as parks go, McLaren doesn't have the sex appeal of Dolores Park, the sprawling meadows of Golden Gate Park or the acoustics of Stern Grove. But, it does have some nice views and a pretty swell (but aging) amphitheater in the woods.
Enter Los Angeles-based Levitt Pavilions, a nonprofit group that has the lofty goal of "transforming America's cities through music" by putting on free concerts at outdoor amphitheaters. They currently have six venues across the country: two down south in L.A. and Pasadena, plus others in smaller cities in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas.
Levitt generally provides about $400,000 for renovations through public-private partnerships with the cities they work in. In the case of the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, that means replacing the wood-and-concrete seats with lawn seating that has a more "neighborhood vibe" and throwing as many as 50 free evening concerts in McLaren Park. In exchange for renovating the amphitheater, helping to fund operations and bringing in talent, the group would rename the venue as the "Levitt Pavilion San Francisco at Jerry Garcia Meadow" — which is admittedly a terrible name for a music venue. A spokeswoman for the nonprofit said the name, "is not about vanity, but more about what the name represents." (What it represents is a cohesive brand of small-to-midsize music venues across the country.)
On the other hand, Stefan Gosiewski, spokesman for the group leading the charge to stop this relatively innocuous out-of-town interest from changing the name, claims the JGA is something of a historic landmark. Jerry grew up nearby in the Excelsior and the neighborhood takes a certain measure of pride in that. Changing the name again would only alienate the neighborhood — and not just the Deadheads apparently. A Save JGA petition on Change.org asks the Rec and Park Department to "not allow any changes or alternatives to the name of this hidden treasure," and already has over 1,800 signatures.
Gosiewski believes the community can do the same thing Levitt does, but in typical reactionary neighbor style, none of them thought to do it until an outsider threatened/offered to do it for them. Likewise, noted über-hippie Wavy Gravy (who couldn't remember whether he had been at the naming ceremony or not) wondered to Chuck Nevius, "couldn't Park and Rec find another place?"
As for the Rec and Parks Department, director Phil Ginsburg told the Save JGA folks to watch their speed. As he quipped to the Chronicle: "This is a long, strange trip that actually hasn't started yet. The Levitt Foundation has merely presented an opportunity to upgrade the amphitheater. McLaren Park neighbors and advocates will decide whether to approve it."