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How do Golden Gate Park’s music festivals affect those who call it home?

Wednesday, Sep 30 2015
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When an estimated 750,000 people flood Golden Gate Park for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass this weekend, they'll share the space with the park's residents.

Over 252 people live in Golden Gate Park, according to the city's most-recent homeless count. On most nights, around 100 "fly-by-nighters" — a term that the chronically homeless use for short-term campers — can be found in the park.

The rest of the park's inhabitants live there full-time.

"This is our way of life. This is a safe community," says Janelle Peck, a native San Franciscan who says she has been living in the park since she was 14 years old. "I don't see it as a way of life without a lot of stuff. We have so much out here."

Behind her, two grocery carts brimming with glass and plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and other recyclables quantify how "much" there is. Peck, 38, drags the carts up a dusty hill and stashes them in a clearing just off of Middle Drive West. Next to the carts are a bicycle with a trailer hitched to the back, a taut REI internal frame backpack, and her two Labradors, Junior and King.

Events like Hardly Strictly Bluegrass mean an opportunity to make a little extra cash for Peck and her partner, "Lumpy." With recycling as their primary source of income, the garbage strewn across the fields after music festivals increases their weekly revenue dramatically.

On average, the duo collects $60 worth of recyclables every week, a haul they carefully stretch out over the days in order to get by. Their take skyrockets during Hardly Strictly, Bay to Breakers, and Outside Lands.

But the most significant increase in income for Peck and her fellow park residents comes from employment, she says. Since 2013, she has picked up set-up, break-down, and catering jobs at the festivals.

Peck says her neighbors look forward to the tremendous influx of people into the otherwise quiet west side of the park during Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Bay to Breakers. Though the money goes a long way, for Peck, it's an opportunity to dispel what she senses is the public's opinion of their homeless neighbors.

"People have some kind of stereotype they hold to people who live in the park: drug addled, crazy," she says. "It's not true."

"I shy away from the public most of the time because I want to respect people's space and I want them to respect mine. But when everyone comes out here, we get treated like human beings, the community really widens."

An Old Man's Park

Cane is dressed from balaklava to boots in black all-weather garb. He takes long, careful steps across Hellman Hollow from his tent to the restrooms, clutching a worn-down walking stick — his namesake — that's splintering at the bottom. He speaks with a slow, deliberate drawl that makes each word he says ring wise.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Cane have occupied the same part of Golden Gate Park for 15 years now. For three days each year, Cane and his dog, Honey, wade through a crowd of festival-goers and welcome them into the park they call home.

Cane, who has only missed one festival since he and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass both moved into Speedway Meadow, fancies himself as an ambassador for the park. He keeps in contact with park staff — cooperation rare among the park's residents — and points out maintenance issues, overgrowth, and general concerns.

Outside Lands works a little differently, says Cane, whose tent is tucked in the bush that lines Hellman Hollow.

"It's like a police state with all the fences," he says. "[The police] have people move elsewhere, to different parts of the park. Sometimes you never know what people are thinking."

Coexisting with the people who live in the park fits in with Hardly Strictly's ethos.

Since its beginnings in 2001, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass has been free — free admission and free of any advertising or sponsorship, thanks to its billionaire bluegrass-loving founder Warren Hellman. Hellman's heirs thus far have continued the mission of the festival to be entirely free, communal, and non-commercial.

"We're completely free and open to the public," wrote Chris Oldaker, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass's communications officer. "We don't fence off the park or restrict access, so there's no need to bother or displace anyone. Everyone is welcome, so it's not like we're kicking people out."

"It's a good thing," says Cane as he stares out at a crowd gathered in Hellman Hollow on a blistering Labor Day weekend, unaware that their slosh ball games could land a fly ball on the patch of grass that serves as his doorstep. "People are well behaved, for the most part. The line up is more diverse every year and every year we get to meet more of the community. Yeah, it's a real good thing."


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About The Author

Kyle DaSilva

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