Over the last month, a high-stakes power struggle has quietly been waged at San Francisco’s City Hall, and the fight predictably centers on … lasers?
The tussle has focused on a light installation slated for the middle of this month at Coit Tower. The players include San Francisco’s second-most powerful elected official, a cagey Recreation and Park Department and a nonprofit executive who occasionally wears neckerchiefs and speaks aspirationally about the power of light in these dark times.
Who among these players is acting in good faith is a question that, for the time being, remains unanswered.
Ben Davis, the founder of Illuminate, a nonprofit known for the Bay Bridge Lights and other art installations, has spent the better part of this year preparing a series of laser light displays as part of a program called “Summer of Awe.”
“Light finds its higher purpose in dark times, and this is a great antidote—the whole Summer of Awe—to the 'doom loop' stories that have been dominating the media,” Davis said. “It’s kind of the most organic and beautiful way to reflect, in an authentic way, the power and majesty of San Francisco.”
Most recently, Davis and his team created the 12-beam rainbow that shot out of the Ferry Building over Pride weekend, carrying on from a similar installation in 2022. Another laser display is scheduled to go live at Sutro Tower on the Fourth of July and run five days to celebrate the landmark’s 50th anniversary.
But the project causing strife and consternation at City Hall is known as “The Candle,” a light installation that will shoot lasers directly up out of Coit Tower from July 14-16 to celebrate the Telegraph Hill landmark’s 90th anniversary.
Davis said his group raises private donations to create its light installations and other programs—although the city has approved more than $1.4 million in grants for Illuminate in recent years—and he received federal permission for all of the aforementioned projects. However, the Rec and Park Department has yet to sign off on final approval for Coit Tower.
Aaron Peskin, the president of the Board of Supervisors, whose district includes all of the North Beach neighborhood, is not exactly a fan of the project—or its organizer, for that matter. And Davis suspects the supervisor is leaning on Rec and Parks to hold off on granting final approval.
Rec and Parks officials issued a somewhat confusing statement late Friday, saying they were still reviewing the Coit Tower project’s permit after “they had received concerns about how the lights at Coit Tower would impact nearby residents and neighbors.” Peskin said he has played no role in the laser “hullabaloo” and hadn’t heard of any residents’ concerns, but Rec and Parks officials on Friday said they had briefed Peskin’s office.
“I’m not exactly sure what this is all about, other than I keep getting text messages from Ben Davis and his brother saying, ‘You need to authorize this,’” Peskin said. “But there's nothing for me to authorize, so I don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.”
Peskin wields considerable power as board president, and he is frequently accused of exacting revenge on departments and political opponents that dismay him. But with respect to lasers, it’s true he does not hold authority over the Rec and Park Department in granting final approval on such projects.
“Personally, I’m not enamored with the idea, but it doesn’t really matter what I think because it’s not under my jurisdiction,” Peskin said. “Look, I wasn’t a big fan of the Ferris wheel in the middle of Golden Gate Park, but they went ahead and did it. They didn’t care what I thought.”
In a second interview, Davis sounded pleased to hear Peskin is not actively opposing the project, even if he was dubious about the sincerity of the supervisor’s statements.
“All of San Francisco seems committed right now to helping the city rebound, and we’ve had nothing but a warm response,” Davis said. “It is good news to hear that Aaron Peskin is not standing in the way of this vision for San Francisco.”
If the lights do take flight at Coit Tower, Peskin seems unlikely to attend the show.
“Of all the shit going on in my life,” he said, “this is not on the list.”
Josh Koehn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org