Denied! Jimmy’s Old Car Picnic event in jeopardy

In these tough economic times, even 20 plus years of tradition doesn’t hold much weight with the city’s Recreation & Parks Department.

In a letter earlier this month, the organizer for Jimmy’s Old Car Picnic was notified that their permit for 2010 was denied. The event is one of San Francisco’s longest running and most beloved classic car shows, where hundreds of owners and enthusiasts gather in Golden Gate Park’s Speedway Meadow to share their cars and raise money for the developmentally disabled.

In the letter, the Rec & Park outlined these reasons for the denial:

1. We believe that a grass field is not an appropriate venue for a car show and as a matter of policy this Department is not going to permit Car Shows on our grass areas going forward.

2. We are limiting the number of events in the fall that have an impact on our meadows to allow a minimum of 3 weeks between major events. We must choose between a number of different events. In deciding which events to allow, we are looking at a number of factors including

3. Cultural and recreational benefits to the city and residents

4. Economic benefit to the department

In an ironic twist, Jimmy’s Car Picnic was started by a former Rec & Park Dept. gardener, Jimmy O’Keefe, in 1988. The 35-year veteran of GGP told the Examiner, “You think I don’t know how to take care of lawn? They don’t have a leg to stand on.” Besides, what’s the difference between a couple hundred cars sitting idly on the grass for one day and thousands of Outside Lands concertgoers tromping on it for three days straight?

As for whether the event has cultural and recreational benefits… Come on, who are they kidding? According to Jimmy’s Picnic website, the event has raised thousands for a charity that assists the developmentally disabled. There are no vendors at the picnic, just regular folks out showing off their classic cars and hot rods, and grilling on their barbecues. Alcohol is not even sold, and you won’t hear music except what’s coming from old car radios.

As a San Francisco native, I’ve attended Jimmy’s picnic several times. My best friend’s father showed his classic cars there for many years. It’s a wonderful event where the local community, and nearby Bay Area enthusiasts can come to enjoy the park, great cars and help raise money for a worthy cause. “For 21 years, you bring a hamburger, you bring your ’44 coupe — and now these people have wrecked it,” O’Keefe told the Examiner.

The only reason for denial we really need to focus on is #4. Yup, the money. As the Examiner points out, there are two very different permit prices for events in Golden Gate Park. They charge $250 for a picnic permit when there are 400+ people, which is likely what Jimmy’s Old Car Picnic has been paying all these years.

But for a “special event” permit, the Rec & Parks Dept. charges $18,000 for Speedway Meadow. Even with the 50% discount that non-profits get, it would still be a $9,000 hit to the event’s fundraising efforts. My guess is they wouldn’t even break even.

Jimmy’s Old Car Picnic is also bumping up too close to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, which draws thousands of concertgoers to the park a week earlier. But for that festival, the department rakes in multiple special event fees for the park venues that the festival uses. It’s $50,000 a day just to use the Polo Fields.

While I understand that the department doesn’t have enough money, it’s unconscionable that they would deny a long-running event like Jimmy’s Old Car Picnic that is appropriate for all ages, helps raise money for charity, and has minimal to no effect on the park grounds and surrounding environment. It’s exactly these kinds of events that neighbors would like to see more of, not the gargantuan, noisy concerts that run almost every weekend in the late summer.

To help ensure that Jimmy’s Old Car Picnic continues, sign the online petition. Jimmy O’Keefe and other supporters of the event will attend the SF Rec & Park Dept. Commission hearing on February 18 (1pm, City Hall, Room 216) where they’ll plead their case.

A full petition of signatures and letters of support from the community can go a long way. If you’re so inclined, send a letter of support before the hearing. Full details and suggested language on Jimmy’s website.

Sarah B.


  1. Thanks for this article! At some point city hall needs to get the message they can’t just jack everyone for money to cover the mis- management aka $$$ shortage. This is not a high security high impact event with the problems that many of the events have, such as the neighbors complaints, arrests etc. In tougher times the show is needed even more as a free family alternative to the $100 + events the park seems to want to encourage.SHAME on the city. Please write a letter, go to the hearing!

  2. This is a very well-written piece. It illustrates the state of San Francisco in 2010: getting rid of an event that developed organically and grew over the years in favor of large, high-dollar events. Did you know that in 2006 the Board of Supervisors gave Jimmy’s Old Car Picnic a proclamation celebrating the picnic as a “fun and family-friendly event” for “the benefit of children with adaptive disabilities.” It is true. Did you know that Rec and Park was a co-sponsor of the picnic until a few years ago? Also true.

    This picnic (1) is free to spectators (2) appeals to young and old (3) has never damaged the park and (4) has raised tens of thousands of dollars for charity. Car culture is such a large part of 20th Century American culture. I have gone to this picnic with my kids and with my parents. Three generations, looking at the cars, talking about the past, learning about each other, meeting new friends, seeing old friends… What is that worth? Why can’t this tradition continue?

    I do not say get rid of big events in the Park. And I understand that the city needs revenue, and these big events provide it. But I am saying that a family-friendly event, which generates substantial sums for charity, and was started by a Rec and Park gardener for God’s sake should not be forced out!

    I encourage everyone to sign the petition, and write to the BOS, the mayor, and to Rec and Park to get this thing turned around pronto.

  3. “in 2006 the Board of Supervisors gave Jimmy’s Old Car Picnic a proclamation…Rec and Park was a co-sponsor of the picnic until a few years ago”. Wow, the hypocrisy thickens. Thanks for the info, Rusty.

    Sarah B.

  4. Bad move on the part of the City. Boooooooooo!
    Not only is this a fun event, it gives families a chance to come out and enjoy or learn some history about one of america’s greatest treasures, the automobile, especially historic ones! And for charity to boot! And it’s free to visit!
    As far as parking on the grass goes, Pebble Beach does it every year for their concourse, why can’t we? It’s ok for one day, not to mention it’s a man-made park maintained by the tax payers.
    This city is getting more and more conservative. I enjoy living in the Outer Richmond and especially like our GG Park and attending ALL of the events. If you don’t like the sounds ( or what some people refer to as “noise”) of people enjoying themselves in our urban park, you may want to consider living in suburbia.

  5. Great article, thank you. In the above article states the reasons for the denial of the permit. The Rec and Park department also states they have pictures of Speedway Meadow showing improper disposal of charcoal and marks on the lawn. I saw the Park Police officer taking those pictures around the close of the picnic last year. The Park Police officer walked the length of the meadow before she found something out of order to take a picture. The picture taking was done around dusk. Jimmy and his crew had not had a chance to clean up. The next day at the first light Jimmy was at the Meadow making sure there was a proper clean up. Garbage and trash were properly disposed of in the cans and dumpster. The marks on the lawn were taken care by Jimmy. No marks were left visible. As a side note, as Jimmy was cleaning the meadow a homeless man jumped into his 1959 truck and took off! Thanks to the quick response of the SFPD the truck was recovered in the Sunset district. Please let us keep the picnic in Speadway Meadow. Please let Denis Kern of the Rec and Park Department know we want the picnic in Speadway Meadow. Please attend the Rec and Park Commission meeting on Feb 18th at 2pm, City Hall. The more people who can show up the moreinflience we have. Hopefully they don’t postpone our appeal!! Thank you all

  6. Hi Julie – Best of luck at the hearing next week. Please keep us posted. I see you have almost 1,000 signatures on the petition which is great.

    I think the track record of the event speaks for itself – a little stray charcoal and a crotchety parks officer should not derail the years of success and fun that the picnic has brought to the park.

    Hopefully the Commission will come to their senses and realize what a short-sighted decision they made.

    Sarah B.

  7. I really hope the community comes together to support this event. Now is the time to send an email to your supervisor and the mayor, as well as Rec & Park.

    And come to the Park Commission hearing Thursday, February 18 in City Hall! They have changed the meeting time to 4 p.m….

  8. Thanks, Rusty for the meeting time update. I changed it in the post. Good luck!

    Sarah B.

  9. Yikes! The agenda for the Commission meeting came out today, and they changed the time to 1 p.m. Jimmy’s Old Car Picnic appeal is Item 11, and, mercifully, is ahead of the presentation of the Rec & Park budget (Item 15).

    Come out and support the Picnic!

  10. There is no more appropriate venue for the Picnic than the meadows of Golden Gate Park. A picnic in a parking lot or on a closed street is not a picnic. The proposed alternate locations have severe problems — like no bathrooms, no BBQ facilities, and inadequate parking for spectators. Some are very close to busy roadways which present a danger to the many children who attend the event and are allowed to run and play and explore on the safety of the meadow, and some of the proposed alternates simply don’t have the capacity for more than 20-25% of the number of cars that normally attend the Picnic. About half the regular attendees walk to the Picnic from their homes in the Richmond and Sunset Districts and from the Haight District — moving the event from the Park will mean that most of these people, who have attended the Picnic annually for many years, wll simply be unable to attend again. The suggested alternate sites all separate the picnic area from the area where the old cars would be parked, which creates difficulty for those with physical disabilities or who have difficulty walking long distances due to age or infirmity who want to both enjoy the picnic and check out the cars. The existing and traditional site does not require closing any roads and there is more than ample parking within a few minutes’ walk. It has bathroom and BBQ facilities, is safe for children, and is accessible for the disabled.

    Golden Gate Park was created in order to be used and enjoyed by the residents of San Francisco and their guests. John McLaren (1846-1943), known as the “Father of Golden Gate Park” and one of the Park’s first superintendants, before he would agree to undertake the job of superintendant, famously required that “There will be no ‘Keep off the Grass’ signs.” It is true that use of a park by members of the public will cause a certain amount of wear and tear, and that some maintenance will occasionally be required. But a park is not a preservation area. A park is there to be used and enjoyed by members of the public. The job of the supervisors is not to protect the park against any damage that might occur (they might as well just rope off all the meadows and require people to walk only on marked trails and not allow them to walk on grassy areas or near trees), but to manage the park so the public can enjoy it, understanding that this means there will be more maintenance than if no one were allowed in the park.

    There are no studies showing that the once-a-year parking of cars on the meadow causes any compaction issue at all. Even the few people who were at the hearing who expressed concern about the Picnic possibly having an adverse effect on plants limited their concern to driving over and parking on tree roots, and agreed that the turf is resiliant and is not endangered by the Picnic. There aren’t very many trees in Speedway Meadow, and careful planning can easily avoid exposing tree roots to potential damage.

    Jimmy’s Old Car Picnic, a home-grown, organic San Francisco tradition, started by a Golden Gate Park gardener, should be allowed to continue in its traditional location!

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