Cities sprawl and drag their inhabitants into the ticky tacky world of suburbia. The core decays and banality ensues. Then prices draw the young and restless back to the core and a new cycle of gentrification begins. A familiar tale but not the one told by this astounding film. Rebels is about the creation of vast stretches of preserved shoreline, meadows, fields, and hills in the land to the north of San Francisco, Marin County, and around the perimeter of San Francisco itself. Many now come to the city and marvel at the splendor of the Presidio and Crissy Field with its spectacular views of the bay and the Golden Gate bridge from ground level. They come and revel in the beauty of Mt. Tamalpais to the north and the vast stretches of farms and untouched lands surrounding Tamales Bay. Few realize that this was not the result of enlightened politicians acting to serve the common good but of an intrepid band of ordinary citizens who, over more than 20 years, fought corporations, developers and politicians to save what would have otherwise turned into vast stretches of houses, hotels, conference centers and shopping malls.
Nancy Kelly’s film lets the surviving rebels tell their own story but accompanies it with a treasure trove of archival footage, including Richard Nixon being convinced that there’s more political gain in backing conservation than opposing it. One of the biggest battles was with ranchers near Tomales Bay who feared government regulation and meddling if their land were turned into a park, not the mention the loss of a way of life. They favored development that would at least let them cash out at a handsome price. But a brilliant maneuver saved the day: incorporate the ranches into the area to be preserved but allow the ranchers to continue to use the land for agricultural purposes. By also forestalling the rise of concessions and hotels, attractions and stores at the periphery of the preserved land, the rebels were able to maintain the fundamentally rural quality of the area and allow farmer, ranchers and visitors to coexist successfully.
A second major challenge was a proposal for the huge city of Marincello, right in the thick of Marin County and just north of the Golden Gate Bridge where breath taking hills and valleys great the modern visitor. Such a development carried such an aura of inevitiablity in the pro-growth, pro-development oriented 1960s that the corporate giant Gulf + Western bought a major stake in the project. The rebels went to work, arousing wide spread support from the residents of Marin and from key politicians. After several years G + W threw in the towel and offered to sell the land to the nature conservancy that had been formed for just that sort of purpose. A similar tale unfolded in the city where citizen leaders fought to establish a string of parks from beaches and former forts along miles of ocean and bay frontage. With great political support from key figures, they succeeded.
Rebels with a Cause offers a great model of citizen activism. These rebels clearly relied on vital political allies who took serious risks to back a movement that opposed growth, new businesses and jobs, rural development, and heigthened economic prospertiy at a time when such notions were a virtual mantra for many. Nancy Kelly captures this effort with clarity and passion. It stands as a greta model for those who are now rebels in the making.