Q&A: A parks director with 880,000 bosses

Name: Phil Ginsburg
Age: 46
City: San Francisco
Position: General manager, S.F. Recreation and Parks Deptartment

Phil Ginsburg

J.: Where are you from originally? What brought you to the Bay Area?

Phil Ginsburg: I grew up outside of Philadelphia, and I went to Dartmouth College. Then I came here to go to Hastings for law school.

J.: Did you always want to work in government? You worked in the City Attorney’s office, headed the Department of Human Resources, and were Mayor Gavin Newsom’s chief of staff before taking this position in 2009.

PG: I’ve always had a bent toward the public sector. After law school I worked at a law firm for a number of years representing labor unions … and after that I’ve pretty much worked in government for my entire career. When I left the mayor’s office, I found [this job], which is really a perfect match of my government administration background with a mission I love — helping San Francisco families thrive by helping them to enjoy open space in the city.

J.: San Francisco is such an expensive city to live in — so many people move elsewhere in the Bay Area when they decide it’s time for kids. How does that affect your work?

PG: That’s actually the underlying motivation for my approach to the job. It is really tough to raise a family in San Francisco, but a lot of families are doing it. We want to keep families here, and we want to be more welcoming to families who do want to live here. My approach is as someone raising a family here, who desperately relies on the parks and recreation space here. I’m out every weekend, shlepping my kids from the soccer field to the softball diamond to the playground. And we have a strong partnership with our public school system; we’re public school parents and I think our kids have done extraordinarily well.

J.: What’s your everyday work like? What are the complaints or issues you deal with the most?

PG: Well, we have an extraordinary urban park system. In 2012 it was recognized as the best urban park system in the country by the Trust for Public Land. But San Francisco also has incredible density, which means open spaces become really important … especially with the city’s rich history of activism.

So, we steward 12 percent of the city’s land, with a $135 million budget for 22 parks. At the highest levels, I’m very much involved in significant planning and economic development issues. But at the same time, I also have the joy of being involved in conversations about gophers, broken swing sets, dogs, soccer Saturday rainouts. I like to say we have 880,000 bosses — that’s the number of people living in San Francisco.

J.: How closely does it resemble the nuttiness that goes on in the offices of the NBC comedy “Parks and Recreation”?

PG: You know, it’s funny. It’s often said that “NYPD Blue” or “CSI,” etc., are nothing like real police work. And “ER” is nothing like a real hospital. To be honest — “Parks and Recreation” is exactly like my job.

J.: You have some close ties with the Jewish community here, right?

PG: Absolutely. I’ve served on AIPAC’s board, the JCRC’s board, Congregation Sherith Israel’s board. I went on the JCRC trip to Israel in 2008. I’m not on [the congregation board] any longer, but we’re members. My daughter just had her bat mitzvah there.

I’m also really proud of the [Rec and Park] department’s partnerships with the Jewish community, whether it’s Tu B’Shevat tree planting events, partnering with the Israeli Consulate on events — we brought the Israeli basketball team to the Chinatown rec center. I love when we can help communities bridge cultural divides. Also, a lot of our biggest park philanthropists, like Warren Hellman, have come from the Jewish community. There’s a lot of tikkun olam, a lot of honoring and stewarding the land with a focus on social justice.

Another Jewish point of pride: In “Blue Jasmine,” the recent Woody Allen movie, there’s a scene where the kids are wearing SF Rec and Park T-shirts. So that was a big moment for a Jewish parks director.

J.: Your favorite spots for Jewish food in the city?

PG: House of Bagels is our regular spot — the whitefish is excellent. But my favorite might be Wise Sons, who catered our daughter’s bat mitzvah.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.