The public cost of music festivals: The trouble with Middle Harbor Shoreline Park

Jessica Khauv/Staff

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Middle Harbor Shoreline Park sits in a grassy corner of the Port of Oakland. To the west, blurry silhouettes of San Francisco’s skyline hang in the distance, glimmering once in a while behind the waves of fog and dust that wash past. On every other side, the park is bordered by dozens of colorful cargo boxes that separate the park from West Oakland. Rows of giant cranes stand at attention around the waterfront, poised to load the cargo onto massive container ships. They begin to blend in with dusty blue sky more and more the farther they are from the eye.

While the park now exists in a realm other than the world of heavy industry that surrounds it, this hasn’t always been the case. For most of the 20th century, the land that the park sits on was a naval supply base. It wasn’t until 2004, after years of redevelopment, that the area became Oakland’s first public beach. Since the site’s makeover, it has become a hub of public leisure and environmental restoration activity, inviting anyone in the community to take a seaside walk or have a picnic next to the bay.

Now, just more than a decade after the park’s reinvention, its role in the East Bay community is once again shifting. In early May, Goldenvoice hosted its inaugural Blurry Vision Fest at the park. Just days later, Noise Pop announced that it would be moving the next edition of its annual Treasure Island Music Festival to the venue. While these are far from the first commercial music events held at the park, which boasts of its amphitheater among its primary amenities, they are far larger in scale than earlier festivals and pose greater environmental hazards.

The movement of these massive, private commercial events into a space that is marked for public consumption is alarming. Whereas the park had once been open to anyone who came to visit, now, on the festival days — which are becoming more and more common — it is open only to those lucky few who are able to pay for wristbands.

It’s a tricky situation, to say the least. While the space is still entirely publicly owned, access to it is increasingly commodified. Yet it is not, by any means, a private space. To continue to refer to Middle Harbor Shoreline Park as a purely public space when it is increasingly closed to the public is not only misleading, but it is also damaging to the idea of public space in general. It is worrying to consider the idea that the most that we can expect from a space that claims to be public is that it is mostly open to anyone most of the time.

Another problem that these festivals pose, of course, is their consequential litter and pollution. It’s easy to do the math: Hundreds of festivalgoers, plus a host of vendors dishing out all things disposable, equals a whole lot of trash. Factoring in the fact that there may be far fewer trash bins than needed and virtually no place to recycle, as was the case at Blurry Vision, it’s almost guaranteed that this trash will end up where it’s not supposed to be.

While this problem is common enough, it seems especially glaring when it crops up at a venue that is insistent upon defining itself through its habitat restoration work. While the pollution produced by music festival crowds seems to pose an increasing concern for the park, there is nothing in the park’s public documentation that suggests that any new measures are being conceptualized or implemented to guard against the environmental degradation.

Rather than outwardly address the fact that it is rapidly changing, the park and all of its governing bodies seem content with acting as if this new festival-driven arc in the park’s history simply does not exist. While the park’s website may mention its amphitheater, it makes no mention of the increasing use of the park for festivals organized by major promoters. The website also makes grand claims of the park’s gestures toward environmental stewardship and commitment to preserving public space. But what might once have been considered bold moves toward environmental consciousness now seem only out-of-date and poorly conceived, given the park’s new life.

At this point, the increased use of Middle Harbor Shoreline Park as a popular concert and festival venue appears an inevitability. As more and more successful — and, not to mention, highly Instagrammable — shows with superstar headliners take over the park, it becomes less likely that Middle Harbor will ever fall back in line with its stated mission of being Oakland’s first public beach. It’s almost laughable to think that the park will remain a major environmental restoration site.

This is nothing short of a tragedy. A loss of public space and a deepened degradation of the environment is a loss for everyone. We must learn from Middle Harbor that it is essential to more specifically and narrowly define what it means for a space to be truly public and environmentally friendly and to fight for these spaces to remain accessible.

Contact Sannidhi Shukla at [email protected].