The sequestration knife is double-edged. The Navy announced that it has grounded the Blue Angels, the PR program that began in 1946 and costs around $20 million a year. These military aerobatics have been the cornerstone of San Francisco's annual Fleet Week, streaking overhead while local dignitaries greet warships parading through the Golden Gate. But let's take this hit as an opportunity to reclaim this single-minded paean to the US Navy and make it a broader celebration of all the bay's bounties.
The current incarnation of Fleet Week began in 1981 under then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein. But the Navy's presence in the Bay Area is now a ghost of what it was before the 1990s, when base closures affected thousands of Navy-dependent jobs and facilities. Add to that the fact that the Navy has a checkered history of racism (witness the World War II disaster in the East Bay town of Port Chicago), LGBT intolerance, and a poor environmental track record, and Fleet Week begins to make little sense.
Fleet Week boosters tout the economic benefits of this popular event. But sponsorship by the City of San Francisco and the Navy League doesn't even begin to cover the millions of tax dollars incurred by the Navy, the Coast Guard, and other public agencies to maintain the event. The Blue Angels performances alone cost an estimated $98,000 for Fleet Week.
In 1993, Fleet Week promoters announced that the event would "redefine itself" to become the "San Francisco Bay Area Fest, a more broadly based celebration of the sea without the exclusive emphasis on the Navy." To date this hasn't happened. But the loss of the Blue Angels might be our chance. Such an event could encompass all of those that use and enjoy the bay — longshore workers, recreational sailors, fishermen and -women, windsurfers, and others.
The Blue Angels, in fact, have toured two West Coast cities for markedly different events over the years. Seattle's Seafair has featured the Angels — as well as hydroplane races, pirate parades, marathons, fishing fleet parades, dragon boat races, and numerous community events. In contrast, Fleet Week is purely a homage to the Navy. That focus ignores the many other watermen and women of this magnificent region that deserve a broader celebration. The time couldn't be better to reexamine and redefine Fleet Week. Please join the many groups that are working to convert this event and return the bay to the people.