San Francisco supervisor Ahsha Safaí walked up the ramp to the Jerry Garcia amphitheater, delighted to feel his leather brogues stick a little to the cool pavement underfoot.

This newly widened walkway, paved the day before, will soon be populated with food trucks and vendor tents, after the free John McLaren Park concert hall reopens after a $ 1.5 million upgrade. For now, this is just a new infrastructure, widening and leveling a dirt road that presents an aggravating angle, and making it accessible to concert loads, vehicles for disabled people and very large trucks of restoration.

But this is only the start of an upgrade to the 50-year-old site that will expand and lower its seats and improve entry points in hopes of making the little hillside bowl a regional attraction in the sunny southeast corner of the city.

The opening day, with a ribbon cutting and a performance by Shakespeare, will be September 18, although there are no vendors and food trucks at this time in the interests of COVID security. 19. It will pass and Safaí sees the glory coming for the underused place.

“I would love to see a larger lineup similar to the one they have at Stern Grove,” Safaí said. Its goal is to turn the annual hit of Jerry Day, which celebrates the birthday of the late Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia each August, into a seasonal program of productions.

“Jerry Day has been a phenomenal success for the community,” said Safaí, who represents District 11, which includes the Excelsior and Crocker-Amazon neighborhoods on the west side of McLaren Park. “We want to build on it. “

Supervisor Ahsha Safaí (left) and Linda Litehiser of Friends of the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater visit the improved McLaren Park site. Safaí said he would like to see him become more like Stern Grove.

Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

It will take more than building upgrades to bring it up to the standard of Stern Grove, the busy outdoor site that saw its 84th season cut short last month by major flooding from a broken water pipe. When it reopens next summer, the Grove will continue with a capacity of 10,000 seats on grassy terraces and picnic tables, and financial support from the Goldman family, heir to the Levi Straus fortune. Its entrance is on 19th Avenue, the main thoroughfare of the Sunset District.

The Jerry Garcia amphitheater, by comparison, has 750 seats on 16 rows of wooden benches, as well as seats on earth berms that can jam up to 2,000. To get there, you have to meander in the streets of the district of the district of Portola to the east or of the Excelsior to the west.

“You can’t drive by and say ‘oh, there’s a gig,’ said Linda Stark Litehiser, founder of an encore group called Friends of the Amp. , you can’t find it. “

Orienteering experience is helpful, as any approach requires a land hike.

The Greek-style structure is a government-sponsored Brutalist piece of architecture, which Friends affectionately describe as “East Germany after WWII,” Litehiser said. The unifying fabric is made up of aggregates mixed with cement, and the backdrop for the scene is made up of concrete pillars that appear to come from the surplus of an irrigation canal. It takes a unique type of individual to love this humble setting, and Litehiser is one of them.

“It’s my happiness,” she said, after stopping to admire the cool paving. “When you want to define a hidden gem, this is it. “

The Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in San Francisco's McLaren Park is undergoing infrastructure upgrades in hopes of attracting larger productions.

The Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in San Francisco’s McLaren Park is undergoing infrastructure upgrades in hopes of attracting larger productions.

Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

In 2000, the hidden gem received its first renovation with a toilet. But there he was sitting, empty and lonely until a group called FACE – for the friends and lawyers of Crocker Amazon and the Excelsior – decided to activate it on behalf of Garcia, who had grown up in the Excelsior and attended Monroe Elementary School, Denman Middle School and Balboa High School.

The first Jerry Day in the park, held in August 2003, drew perhaps 75 people. “It wasn’t an overnight success,” Litehiser said. But the Deadheads will eventually find their tribe, and a year later the crowd has doubled. He grew exponentially until he reached his capacity and stayed there.

FACE led to Friends of the Amp, and since 2014, it has produced a series of six weekend shows under the “Saturday in the Park” logo. Litehiser found it sad to see performers waiting in a damp air raid shelter in a green hall below the stage, and vendors waiting for their tents to collapse on the sloping hill.

“It was very random. You’ve reinvented the wheel every time you put on a show, ”Litehiser said. “It wasn’t going to work for professional productions.”

The first company to take advantage of the renovated Green Room will be the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, which will feature Episode 4, the 75-minute grand finale of “Pericles,” in a low-key opening with required masks from the audience.

“I’ve been to Shakespeare concerts my whole life,” he joked, clearly mixing his genres to indicate his mind was turning from plays to music – and in particular to Noise Pop, which produced a festival of music and art in San Francisco since 1993. In 2019, he was recruited by Safaí to put on a series of two shows on Saturday in the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater. Momentum has been lost during the two-year lockdown of COVID-19, but Safaí said he already has funding to bring Noise Pop back in 2022.

Although funding to increase capacity is still a year or more away, some mature trees have been removed from the hill to provide additional seating on the stumps.

“We will never be Stern Grove,” Safaí admitted. “But if we could do six or eight bigger concerts a year, that would really make this place special and put it on the map. “

Sam Whiting is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @SamWhitingSF

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