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The City That Would Be King 

To maintain its natural position atop the local political food chain, San Francisco must be benevolent, as well as strong

Wednesday, Sep 29 2004
Mufasa's ghost: Simba, you have forgotten me.

Simba: No. How could I?

Mufasa's ghost: You have forgotten who you are and so have forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become. You must take your place in the Circle of Life.

Simba: How can I go back? I'm not who I used to be.

Mufasa's ghost: Remember who you are. You are my son and the one true king. Remember ....

San Francisco is a city that knows how to throw its weight around. We built our scuzzy jail in San Bruno, our smoggy and loud airport in San Mateo County, and our dams and water facilities in a half-dozen counties far, far from here. We truck our solid waste to distant landfills and produce oceans of pollution for the wind to blow to Fresno.

Thus it should be. San Francisco is California's Lion King. Though we may mete out the aforementioned burdens, like a wise ruler we also provide our subjects with moral and political leadership, jobs, and a host of amusement attractions.

This -- to cite the work of Broadway tunesmiths Tim Rice and Elton John -- is the Circle of Life:

Nants ingonyama bagithi baba [There comes a lion]

Sithi uhhmm ingonyama [Oh yes, it's a lion]

Siyo Nqoba [We're going to conquer]1

When the Circle functions properly, lions frolic with their gazelle and bunny friends, attacking and devouring one of them every so often in a just, conscientious way, only to resume play once dinner's done.

Lately, though, this natural Circle, in which San Francisco lords over its neighbors, and they revere us in return, appears compromised. A series of little-known breakdowns points to potential Circle-wide weakness, which, if left unchecked, could ultimately compromise our city's dominion.

If we don't repair the Circle soon, we risk becoming, rather than eating, lunch.

The Circle of Life is unraveling in three ways in the San Francisco savanna, otherwise known as the city parks system.

In city-owned Sharp Park, located in the San Mateo County town of Pacifica, San Francisco has for 10 years given the brushoff to county officials who have repeatedly asked us to clean up an abandoned shooting range that is now a lead-contaminated toxic waste site.

San Francisco has also ignored requests to help kill mosquitoes on Sharp Park's ample marshlands, San Mateo County's greatest source of these potentially West Nile virus-bearing creatures.

Within San Francisco, meanwhile, we've compromised the Circle of Life by letting Marin County commuters turn the eastern half of Golden Gate Park, one of the greatest landscaped green areas in the world, into an automobile-choked hazard for two hours every morning and afternoon. San Francisco supervisors voted to halt this menace last year with a measure that would have put parking meters in these outsider-threatened areas. But in a clear sign of weakness of the Lion King's will, the city allowed a series of editorials by the largely commuter-produced San Francisco Chronicle to beat back the parking meter proposal.

As the tale of the Lion King shows us, when the Circle of Life breaks down, the savanna becomes a brutish and bereft place. So it is in San Francisco that San Mateo County offers us veiled threats of lawsuits; Marin County motorists make it deadly for our children to play in the park; and the Hearst media corporation of New York successfully keeps things this way.

To restore the natural order, San Francisco must ponder the words of the wise Lion King Mufasa.

Mufasa: Oh, there's more to being king than getting your way all the time.

Simba: There's more?

Mufasa: Simba, everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.

Simba: But Dad, don't we eat the antelope?

Mufasa: Yes Simba. But let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass, and so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.

For someone who ought to consider himself a subject of San Francisco, San Mateo County Environmental Health Director Dean Peterson uses unusually forward language.

"The challenge here is that we've been -- San Mateo County has been -- generously polite. But at the end of the day, this is a San Francisco facility, and San Francisco did create the environmental mess," says Peterson, referring to toxic lead deposits in Sharp Park.

Until 1882, Sharp Park was the estate of wealthy San Francisco lawyer George Sharp. His widow donated it to two San Francisco parks commissioners, and now it's one of the more peculiar parcels in S.F.'s menagerie of parklands. It consists of some beachfront, a golf course, some marshland, an archery range, and a fenced-off abandoned rifle range, which the S.F. Recreation and Park Department shut down in 1988 because neighbors were finding spent bullets in their yards.

Not long after, San Mateo County began asking San Francisco to clean up the 36 years' worth of expired slugs that may be leaching lead, arsenic, and antimony into the groundwater at the former range. In return, San Francisco parks officials, for more than a decade, shined San Mateo health bureaucrats on. The San Mateo bureaucrats have become progressively angrier.

"It's got to be cleaned up. It's in an environmentally sensitive area. We've got creeks and wetlands nearby. At some point, we have to tackle getting the lead from the old shots out of there," says Peterson. "It really is at a toxic level. In children, at an earlier age, it can inhibit the development of the brain. If the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department does not come in and clean this site up, we would be dealing with a public health risk."

About The Author

Matt Smith


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