Mission Playground formally reopened to ceremony and community love two Saturdays ago, but one San Francisco Recreation and Park Department policy is drawing criticism: allowing individuals to rent out the park’s public soccer field on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.
Since its renovation, Mission Playground has become “as beautiful of a small urban park as I could imagine,” said Phil Ginsburg, the parks department’s general manager, at the reopening ceremony.
Where asphalt once stood is now a green soccer field with synthetic turf. The park formally reopened after glowing speeches by Ginsburg and Supervisor Scott Wiener, who both stressed the importance of parks and green spaces for community well-being.
But some say that promises of community inclusion are honored more in words than action. A group of mainly Spanish-speaking soccer players who have assembled at the park since before its restoration can’t play there for free on Tuesday evenings when the parks department rents the field to San Francisco Pickup Soccer, an organization that charges players between $5 and $10 per person to play in a game.
“SF Pickup Soccer is an organizer which has contracted with us to utilize the site on Tuesdays from 7 to 9 p.m. to encourage the community to get involved and play soccer,” says Connie Chan, deputy policy director for the parks department. SF Pickup Soccer uses a mobile app to let users sign up in advance to play soccer on available fields. “It is an experiment with new mobile app technology,” says Chan.
Before the renovation, she says, soccer games were not permitted, as the area “was simply a concert ground not suitable for play.”
Despite this, people played.
“People played hard,” says Jaime Elias, a 32-year-old civil engineer and Mission Playground fanatic who has a petition going to end the practice of renting out the soccer field. Teams typically played almost every night of the week.
“Do you see all those people over there?” asks Elias on a foggy Thursday evening at the playground. “They’ve been playing here for like 10 years.” He gestures to a short man on the field, “Jorge, for example, has been playing here for 25 years.”
Back when Elias began playing soccer at Mission Playground, the area around Valencia and 19th streets was still “divided in colors.” The area was Sureño turf, and dangerous. Before the restoration, soccer at Mission Playground followed a system: seven versus seven. If you came without a team, you found one at the field. Winners kept playing until the end of the night, and losers had to exit.
“For some of these guys, their whole family’s in Mexico,” says Elias. He suggests that for many players, soccer with friends is their main emotional and social support.
When Elias first came to San Francisco, he was amazed at the quality of the sport. “I was like, ‘Wow!’ This is like New York street basketball,” he recalls.
Back then at Mission Playground, the soccer area was a field in name only. The ground was asphalt. If a player fell, he would hurt himself badly. Elias says people came out anyway, in part because there wasn’t an abundance of green soccer fields in San Francisco, and in part because Mission Playground is where the best players were.
When the park reopened some three months ago, Elias says there was more interest in it because “They made it beautiful.” And that’s when people began to exercise their right to rent out the soccer field on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.
A few weeks ago, Elias says, he came out to play soccer on a Tuesday night and saw a man with an iPad signing people up to use the field. Elias thought the man was charging commission for use of the field, but he was actually a representative from SF Pickup Soccer. When the man asked Elias to pay $7, he left the field, frustrated and confused.
Chan says that on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings, the soccer field has open play hours from 6:30 to 10 p.m. On Thursday nights, when the field is also available for hourly rental, often no request is submitted. And although Elias’s petition has garnered 50 signatures, he admits he’s not extremely optimistic that District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener will respond positively to it, and that other projects have taken priority in his life.
Wiener says that he hasn’t received Elias’s petition. When asked for comment, Wiener said, “I think that Rec and Park has struck a good balance” between open play hours and renting the field. “My understanding is that for a good part of the week the soccer field just has open play,” he said.
On Tuesdays, when SF Pickup Soccer rents the space and charges people to join teams, Elias says his friends typically do what he did: leave. They opt to go to Jose Coronado Playground, at 21st and Folsom, which Elias describes as “malísima,” or terrible.
Jose Coronado Playground resembles the old, unimproved Mission Playground in some ways. But Elias says his friends have few options now except to move their game there. “These guys can’t afford to pay to play soccer,” he says.