Break from Past Proposed for Alcatraz

Proposition asks whether the city should try to acquire Alcatraz from fed gov't.

Feb. 5, 2008 -- In San Francisco, the golden city that once helped make "peace and love" a national mantra, it has come to this — asking voters to scrap the infamous prison on Alcatraz Island to pave the way for an international peace center.

When San Franciscans go to the polls today, they will find, amid ballot questions about presidential nominees and school-funding formulas, Proposition C. It asks whether the city should try to acquire the fabled island from the federal government.

If the answer is yes, out would go the notorious prison that once housed Al Capone. In its place one day could rise the peace center, perhaps a statue of St. Francis and a spiritual healing space the proposition's sponsor calls a "harmonium."

Da Vid, the measure's chief backer, says the proposed peace center is a logical extension of San Francisco's progressive history. "The choice is simple," he says. "Do we want an old decaying prison to continue to be a significant landmark for the city of San Francisco or do we want to create something new that's a reflection of a new emerging paradigm of more progressive ideas and values?"

Others, however, see the idea as, well, wacky, and a reinforcement of the bayside city's reputation as a haven for iconoclasts and oddballs.

"These are weirdos who want to destroy San Francisco," says Leo Lacayo, spokesman for the San Francisco Republican Party. "Even the Democrats think this is weird."

The 22-acre Alcatraz, less than 2 miles from the mainland, had the first lighthouse on the West Coast and is replete with Civil War history.

It also played a pivotal role in the struggle by Native Americans for their civil rights when a group took over the island in 1969 and occupied it for 19 months, says Rich Weideman, spokesman for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which includes the island.

Alcatraz is best known, however, as the site of the desolate federal prison that opened in 1934 and once housed Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly and Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz," and others.

The prison was closed in 1963. Today, with 1.4 million visitors a year, it is second only to San Francisco's cable cars as the city's most popular paid visitor attraction, Weideman says. "It's just such an iconic symbol in America," Weideman says. "People don't realize what a place in our society that Alcatraz " holds.

Over the years, there have been various suggestions for the island, including building a casino or opening a new prison., Alcatraz is a national historic landmark and part of a national park, designations that make it difficult to alter.

"In order for Alcatraz to be taken out of the National Park Service it would take an act of Congress," Weideman says.

Vid acknowledges that the proposition is a trial balloon to determine whether potential changes to the island are worth pursuing.

"The spiritual, psychological and economic benefits of this project are immeasurably positive," he says. "Whether people can align with that, that's the challenge. … No grass-roots support, no deal."

Vid says that while it takes 10,350 verifiable signatures to get a proposition on the ballot, he and supporters gathered 18,000.

Lacayo doubts the measure will pass — to put it mildly. "If it does," he adds, "it means insanity prevails, and the inmates have taken over the asylum one more time."

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