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Supes Support Renaming Golden Gate Park Landmark for Warren Hellman

Warren Hellman
Warren Hellman

Warren Hellman
Courtesy photo
Warren Hellman
Courtesy photo

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to support a resolution renaming Speedway Meadow in Golden Gate Park after Warren Hellman, the San Francisco financier.

Hellman Meadow will be the field's new name if the Recreation and Park Commission approves the change.

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who sponsored the resolution, said Hellman has long been a supporter of Golden Gate Park and some of its most successful events.

Since 2001, Hellman has bankrolled the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, which has become a fixture on the Bay Area’s cultural calendar, with attendance of more than 600,000 in 2011. (Hellman is chairman of The Bay Citizen, but plays no role in its editorial operation.)

The resolution, which runs three pages, recounts decades of Hellman's public service. It describes the bluegrass festival as "a free party for a few hundred thousand of his closest friends" that "brings the musical low down to his high brow hometown, featuring world-class musicians playing for several 'summer' October days in the greatest park in the world."

Recreation and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg called Hellman "a beloved civic leader and a great park champion."

“Through philanthropy and song he has given hundreds of thousands a magical connection to Golden Gate Park's beauty and joy," Ginsburg said. "It is a blessing to honor him.”

Hellman, 77, has been hospitalized recently for a treatable form of leukemia.

In recent years, Hellman has backed bond initiatives in support of Golden Gate Park. A decade ago, he threw his weight behind a controversial effort to build an underground garage in the Musical Concourse. According to Elsbernd, that initiative prevented the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum from moving to another location with more parking.

Hellman is known to take morning jogs through the park and hold picnics there with his family.

"I am absolutely blown away by this gesture," Hellman said in a statement. “Golden Gate Park is home to some of the best (and worst) moments of my life: family picnics with my wife, kids and grandkids, morning runs, over a decade of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, and of course the longest eight years of my life building the underground garage. There are no words and my fingers couldn't pluck a tune to express my gratitude. My only hope is that others experience the joy and happiness I've found standing, singing, plunking and listening in this beautiful meadow. Thank you."

Hellman’s public endeavors — from backing the controversial parking garage to spearheading the campaign for Proposition C, a pension reform initiative voters approved in November — have sometimes attracted criticism.

The same could not be said for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which is free to the public and is funded by Hellman at a cost of millions of dollars each year. As the event has grown, fans from across the world have flocked to Speedway Meadow every October to see performances by artists such Lyle Lovett, Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson. 

“We talked about different spots, but Speedway Meadow made sense,” said Elsbernd. “Bluegrass has gotten a lot bigger, but center stage, the heart and soul, has always been right there.”

Over the years, local media have characterized the family-friendly affair as a civic phenomenon permeated by goodwill.

On the first day of this year’s festival, the banjo-playing billionaire clambered onstage.

"Are we ready to become the Republic of Speedway Meadow?" the Oakland Tribune quoted Hellman saying.

The Board of Supervisors will vote on a resolution recommending the name change to the Recreation and Park Commission next week. The commission will then vote on whether to adopt the change.

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