Low-riders, Model A and T cars, powered bar stools and fire engines: just a few of the old cars that rolled through Golden Gate Park for Jimmy’s Old Car Picnic every year. It all began with one man, San Francisco native Jimmy O’Keefe, his car and a hot dog.
O’Keefe began the Jimmy’s Old Car Picnic tradition in 1988 to celebrate his birthday, funding the first few gatherings himself. The event grew from there, but posthumously ended in 2013 after a 25-year run.
In 2010, the O’Keefe family and a group of pro-bono lawyers encountered extra steps and costs for maintaining the event due to changes within the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department’s (RPD) event approval system. The RPD was concerned about the impact that the cars had on the historic Speedway Meadow’s grass and trees.
As the event grew, so did enthusiasm for old cars; people would line up overnight and sleep in their cars at the entrance. O’Keefe liked to arrive early and see the cars roll in.
“The area is foggy in the morning,” O’Keefe said. He would show up in his classic “woody wagon.”
“It’s a rapture feeling, that’s the feeling I got. You get to hear them ‘wa-wa-wa-wa,’” O’Keefe said. The budget for the RPD changed drastically over the past decade as it encountered budget cuts from the city’s General Fund, and as part of the change, permit fees for special events increased to fund RPD. Although there was a 50 percent discount for non-profits, the final event price tag of nearly $20,000 was too high for the O’Keefe family to continue to fight for the event.
The owners of the old cars paid $40 per vehicle to raise money for charity by the end to negate permit costs and keep the event free for guests. Budget balancing principles for the RPD ensure that the ability to pay should never prevent participation in park usage, while striving to enhance opportunities to support the department.
O’Keefe never saw the event as a way to raise money for the RPD though.
“This is a family thing,” O’Keefe said. “Not a money making thing for Parks and Recreation.” When O’Keefe began charging for the event, profits went directly to the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House and Pomeroy Recreation and Rehabilitation Center. For O’Keefe, the event was all about cars and helping the developmentally disabled.
“I’m not giving up on cars,” O’Keefe said. “I’m walking away without being forced out.”
The O’Keefe family posted an announcement in April that there would be no 26th Jimmy’s Old Car Picnic, and one regular attendee was moved to start an online petition to keep the event alive.
Jared Conley, who has lived in the Richmond and Sunset districts for nearly 40 years, went to the picnic at least a dozen times. While the O’Keefe family has stepped down, Conley described the situation as an appropriate entry to open discussion about changes for public accessibility to the parks of San Francisco.
“Real change comes from action,” said Conley.
“Right now the City is dead set that if anyone wants to have a local gathering in the City, they have to pay for it.”
Conley and O’Keefe share an opinion that removing the financial feasibility of events such as Jimmy’s Old Car Picnic will remove San Francisco’s blue collar worker roots.
O’Keefe used to give hot dogs to hot rodders at Jumbo’s Drive-In at a time when people would race on the Great Highway.
“The picnic brought my generation back to me,” O’Keefe said. “There were 40 baby boomers on the block. These cars are American pride; they all mix; they don’t care.”
Conley started the petition to see if initiative would come from other people, and has not yet opened discussion with the Recreation and Park Department or city supervisors.
“If the City isn’t looking out for your interest then it isn’t right,” Conley said. The loss of the picnic for Conley is a loss of a community.
“Everyone kind of knows each other,” Conley said. “You want to get a chance to know your neighbors and see people who used to live here and had to leave to other parts of the Bay Area.”v “It’s bigger than the car show, we’re trying to preserve as much local history and flavor as possible. It’s important, otherwise we lose in this City exactly what’s unique about it. Change is understandable, it’s a port city. This was a way to preserve what makes this City unique,” he said.