Tom McAlister has sold kites out of his truck at the Berkeley Marina for more than three decades.
“Most of us spend our days, our work lives and play lives, looking at the horizon or looking down at our work,” he said. “Kites force us to look up, both physiologically and metaphorically.”
It’s McAlister’s deeply held belief in the value of kiting that led him to found the beloved Berkeley Kite Festival, which ran from 1986 until 2019, always on the last weekend of July. During its prime, the festival drew in crowds of more than 30,000 with its expert sport kite demonstrations, spectacular floating creatures and performances by the Berkeley Kite Wranglers and Kite Team of Japan.
In 2020 and 2021, the festival was put on pause due to the pandemic. This year the festival won’t happen due to a different reason.
McAlister said new special event fees — approved by the city three years ago to help offset the debt crisis facing the Berkeley Marina — will more than double his total cost of hosting the festival.
While McAlister was able to use César Chávez Park for just a few thousand dollars in 2019 (including $1,000 for a special event permit), the new fees mean he would need to pay about $45,000 to offset what the city says is the cost of providing firefighters, parking attendants, custodial staff and other services for a two-day festival attended by tens of thousands.
“While it was a great event for the community, we just can’t afford to subsidize it,” said Berkeley parks director Scott Ferris.
In addition to fees paid to the city, McAlister also paid out about $35,000 each year for festival costs like renting portable toilets, garbage and staffing. Sponsors had helped him cover his expenses in the past, but he said he was always running on slim margins and there were years where his mobile kite shop, Highline Kites, took a loss on the festival.
In the end, he said, the added city event fees were simply “too much for the event to bear.”
Ferris said with the Marina Fund in debt by over $1 million this year, the city can no longer “afford to subsidize private special events” like the kite festival or the annual Fourth of July event, which was also canceled this year and may not return.
Big events “stress Waterfront infrastructure,” including “parks, streets, parking lots, pathways, and restrooms,” and are “impactful on baseline services performed by Waterfront staff,” according to the 2019 city report on the marina fee increases.
The last time the kite festival was held, Ferris said, the city’s costs added up to about $105,000. The city looked at event fees charged by San Francisco and Oakland in creating the new permit fee structure, he said.
For McAlister, it’s a bitter end to a festival that’s been a central part of his life since his mid-20s.
“A lot of my identity was tied up in the kite festival,” McAlister says. “If you talk to high fliers from around the country, and even around the world, it has a reputation as one of the finest urban-type festivals. We’re proud of it, and it’s sad to see it go away.”
McAlister has taken the suspension of the festival as a personal failure. He said he sees no way of reviving it unless the permit fees are lowered, but he’s staying hopeful.
Festival was a way to give back
It was a labor of love, and a way for McAlister to share his passion for kites with the world.
The Kite Wranglers’ awe-inspiring group of massive octopus kites, which bob through the sky in unison, were always a highlight, but his favorite part was the free kites, a festival mainstay.
In 2019, Highline Kites gave out 2,400 kite kits over the festival weekend. “Anybody could come,” he remembered. “When you’re 5 years old, and you could build something with your own two hands that actually flew, and join a world that’s reserved for birds and insects and technologists … it’s kind of miraculous.” He said he hopes the experience gave children the “confidence to do bigger and better things.”
Raised in Southern California, McAlister has long been enraptured by flight, a trait he inherited from his stepfather. As a student at UC Berkeley, he majored in psychology with the intention of becoming an educator. But a six-year, post-graduation apprenticeship for an antique carousel animal restorer inspired him to follow his passion and, at 25, to start his kite shop, Highline Kites.
He started the festival his first year in business — after just three weeks of planning.
“I thought, ‘Well if I’m going to ask this community to give me money to make my living by selling kites, then I have to give something to the community,’” he said.
The festival was a “graduate-level course in event management,” he joked, and it took him 20 years to master. A team of 100 volunteers kept things running smoothly. And as the festival grew, so did his daughter, Sarah, who started as a volunteer and later became an instrumental part of the team. She graduated from college this spring, McAlister said proudly, adding that he believes the skills she’s picked from years of working at the kite festival will continue to “serve her well…whatever she does.”
No end to Berkeley’s love of kites
On the final weekend of July last year, several kite lovers and nostalgic families gathered at César Chávez Park to fly kites, perhaps out of habit or a desire to keep the tradition alive.
It wasn’t the same as before: Notably absent were the free kite-making station, the food trucks, the massive spinning windsock and the kite that would miraculously rain candy on a flock of giddy children. Plus, there were far fewer people.
But it certainly had people looking up, including longtime festival-goer and Berkeley resident Jennifer Bates, 63. She had taken her son, Matthew, to the festival almost every year, starting from when he was in elementary school until high school, when it became less cool to go out with your parents, though he continued to go with his friends.
“I don’t want to have nostalgia for the kite festival,” Bates said. “I want there to be a festival! I think the city should go back to the table and pay a little bit or something.”
And if you head down to César Chávez Park on the last weekend of July this year, you might just catch a small (unofficial) glimpse of what used to be one of the largest kite festivals in the country. No promises, though.
Update, Aug. 3 After this story was published, Mayor Jesse Arreguín wrote on social media that he hoped City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley would reduce the fees for the kite festival.
At its March 8 meeting, the City Council approved the creation of a process to reduce or waive park event fees “for free and permitted outdoor theater, arts events, and other events as appropriate based on objective consideration of their benefits to the public welfare, including but not limited to educational content, non-profit status, and means.”
Asked whether fees would be reduced for the kite festival, city spokesperson Matthai Chakko said no process for deciding which groups would get fee reductions or waivers has yet been established. “It was added to the queue of other referrals and it is expected to be developed over the course of the coming year,” he wrote in an email Monday.
The March council direction to create a fee waiver process came after a complaint from the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a group of countercultural guerilla theater performers who’ve held no-cost shows in Berkeley parks for over 60 years.
When the troupe looked at resuming post-pandemic performances this summer in Cedar Rose, Live Oak and Willard parks, they found that the cost of permits had approximately tripled from 2019 — from roughly $3,000 for the six-performance season to $9,000, plus an increased deposit. (The troupe wasn’t asked to pay the city anything until 1999.)
The troupe ended up deciding to hold its summer performance series as usual this year (the last two shows are at Willard Park this weekend). Five councilmembers kicked in $1,400 from their discretionary budgets and the troupe learned last week that it had been chosen for a $6,700 grant from the Civic Arts Commission.
But the troupe’s future in Berkeley remains uncertain.
“If they go back to old fees, we’d be OK, but anything short of that, we’re thinking about going old school — doing agit prop theater and just showing up in a park,” board member and Berkeley resident Alexis Adorador said.
Berkeleyside Managing Editor Zac Farber contributed reporting to this story.