A Tale of Two San Franciscos

Beach Chalet soccer fields

Beach Chalet soccer fields

By Joel P. Engardio

It looks like the swampy soccer field riddled with gopher holes in Golden Gate Park will finally get fixed. But it will remain a battleground for San Francisco’s soul.

Tech newcomers versus retirees. Parents versus no kids. Sports players versus bird watchers. The rough, grassy area behind the Beach Chalet polarized them all. While everyone talked about a soccer field, the real debate was over identity. Is San Francisco a city of apps or should it be preserved in amber?

For soccer moms and dads, the new field provided more than just safer playing conditions. It represented something family-friendly to cling to while the city drives families away with a lack of neighborhood schools and middle class housing.

For preservationists, the fight to stop the sports complex was more than a disdain for artificial turf, spectator stands and nighttime lights. It was a fear that their city is unrecognizable from development. The old, grass field reminded them of what was.

“I identify more with a bucolic city of the past than a city that’s the driving fiscal engine of the future,” says George Wooding, 57, who bought a Westside home two decades ago that has tripled in value. “I’m glad I moved here when I did. I wish San Francisco could stay the same.”

George’s son Mark Wooding, 24, says his dad is a “hypocrite” for leading the charge against the new soccer field. Mark was a soccer star at Lowell High School and still plays competitively. George cheered at every game before he was outcast by the soccer community for holding anti-turf meetings in his dining room.

A coalition of interests came to George’s table. Some wanted to make sure predatory birds had enough critters to eat in a natural grass field. Some cared about keeping the sky dark for stargazing. Others saw a gateway for blocking more menacing developments on the downtown waterfront.

George says the field is where he taught Mark to fly a kite and kick a ball, and he wants that for his grandchildren. But Mark says he won’t raise a family in San Francisco if the city doesn’t care enough about kids to build a better field.

When George says seeing nature is as important as playing sports, Mark reminds him Golden Gate Park was originally full of sand dunes.

“My dad is the best in the world, but he can be a hypocrite and push people’s buttons,” Mark says. “This wasn’t about soccer or nature. This was about fighting City Hall. My dad and his friends think things should be a certain way, and they feel stepped on and neglected by city politics. They just saw this as an issue they could use to get some power and respect.”

George admits he feels a “sense of powerlessness” over the commercialization of the city, especially the parks, with developers and venture capitalists calling the shots. “Regular people still have the right to speak at City Hall,” he says, “but not the right to be listened to by anyone.”

Mark is a graphic designer enjoying the tech boom in a very different San Francisco from the city he grew up in and his dad holds onto.

“When I come home from the bars, I don’t call a cab. I use the Lyft app and a car with a big, pink mustache shows up,” Mark says. “One side of San Francisco is all about the next big app. The other side is old school and doesn’t understand. I show my dad facebook and twitter, but things are moving fast. The soccer field represents change, and they’re afraid of it.”

Also published in the San Francisco Chronicle May 27, 2013