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History History Everywhere!

It's no wonder so many of our romanticized utopian fantasies involve canals and bicycles... Amsterdam is in our dreams whether or not we've ever visited!

It’s no wonder so many of our romanticized utopian fantasies involve canals and bicycles… Amsterdam is in our dreams whether or not we’ve ever visited!

Ubiquitous Dutch cargo bikes, mostly used to schlep kids around...

Ubiquitous Dutch cargo bikes, mostly used to schlep kids around…

We arrived in Amsterdam to start this journey, a driving trip around France for myself, Adriana and my parents, but we start here so Adriana and I could present at the “Unofficial Histories” conference held at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. We arrived a couple of days before the conference, which gave us a chance to overcome our jet lag, and also to do some walking around town, and obligatory museum visits.

One of the many gorgeous 17th century paintings documenting the enormously self-satisfied new bourgeois at the heart of the early Dutch imperialism...

One of the many gorgeous 17th century paintings documenting the enormously self-satisfied new bourgeois at the heart of the early Dutch imperialism…

We started with the Rijksmuseum, one of the world’s great collections. Having just read Russell Shorto’s excellent history of Amsterdam (“A History of the World’s Most Liberal City”), I loved doing an intensive visit of the 2nd floor’s presentation of the Dutch masters of the 16th and 17th centuries, Rembrandt and many others I’ve never heard of. But the images of the new bourgeoisie, the Dutch investors who invented the multinational corporation, who invested in the ships that opened trade with Indonesia, Africa, South America, and even established New York, are remarkable. Combined with landscapes and daily life scenes from that long-ago pre-modern era, the recording of history through these paintings is itself historically fascinating. I felt I was intensively visiting with the newly emergent/triumphant bourgeoisie of Amsterdam’s Golden Era in the early 17th century. The painters of the era brilliantly capture the self-satisfaction and confidence of the newly wealthy. There were even paintings of some of the colonial outposts in “Batavia” (Java in Indonesia), or Recife in Brazil, which do nothing to explain the attitudes of the colonists, or the deep roots of the ethnic tensions that are now percolating throughout the former imperial centers in Europe. Still, amazing to see the forts and trading posts in places that were the beginnings of today’s far-flung networks of global trade.

A pre-urbanized, pre-industrialized Holland, painted in the 1600s.

A pre-urbanized, pre-industrialized Holland, painted in the 1600s.

Later I went over to the Amsterdam Museum to see how it presents the history of this storied city. I got a good (better) sense of the original delta/wetlands and the system of pilings on which everything sits. The evolution of the town is well-presented in the main museum; in one area a large map of the 16th century city has a series of buttons that can be pressed to bring up further images and explanations of the buildings and social activities in each area of town. The city declined during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but as the Industrial Revolution took off, Amsterdam managed to recover from its earlier loss of empire—though the city’s comfort and prosperity cannot be separated from its centuries-long exploitation of colonies in Indonesia, South America, and Africa.

Prior to entering the full museum though, visitors are shunted into an upstairs exhibit called “Amsterdam DNA” where you are prompted to use a QR code on your museum pamphlet’s back cover as a trigger for various multimedia presentations. I found the whole DNA exhibit terrible, oversimplified, and annoying. In one spot you are invited to climb on a freight bike and a video in front of you plays to show you what it was like to cycle in 1940s Amsterdam. When you ring the bell you flip the video to a contemporary view of the same streetscape. Sorry to say it was hiccup-y and kept stalling. And when it did work, it was so brief as to be meaningless. The one-room DNA exhibit tries to tell the whole history of the city in about 45 minutes, motivated by the staff’s realization that most people weren’t making it through the whole museum. So they created this gimmicky, shallow, and technology-reliant summary as a quick alternative to a more thoughtful and thorough visit to the whole museum.

A better use of technology in the main Amsterdam city museum. Each button pops up close-up images and a brief explanation.

A better use of technology in the main Amsterdam city museum. Each button pops up close-up images and a brief explanation.

What it looks like when you select something.

What it looks like when you select something.

I did both the DNA and the rest of the museum, and I was pretty tired by the time I finally got to the end of the chronological presentation. The fascinating story of the Provos in 1965-66 finally appeared in the last room, though I’d seen a number of crusty white bicycles in the courtyard and in a couple of spots around town, with links via QR code to an app that provides a self-guided, multimedia walking tour of Amsterdam following the locations that became famous as a result of the Provo movement. More »

Pigeon Palace Protest May 5 video

Ten minutes from our May 5 Demonstration in front of the building during the last open house before offers went in… some words from Carin McKay, Kirk Read, and Chris Carlsson, all tenants, and a short postscript from Mokai… video by Nick Kasimatis … many thanks!

One Trap or Another

The Pigeon Palace, 2840-2848 Folsom in San Francisco, with a lively demo during the final open house on May 6, 2015.

The Pigeon Palace, 2840-2848 Folsom in San Francisco, with a lively demo during the final open house on May 6, 2015.

As you can see from the previous entry, we are up against it here at the Pigeon Palace, my home since 2004. In fact, the tidal wave of speculation and displacement crashing over the Mission District right now seems to be accelerating, perhaps due to the common sense feeling that this bubble is about to pop. Housing prices, whether rents or mortgages, have soared to simply absurd heights, far removed from any comparable rise in what people earn. One possible buyer of our building has the intent to refurbish the two empty units and rent them for $6,000 each, assuming they can stuff four tech workers in each apartment at $1,500 per person… it’s disgusting, it’s insane, but as all admit, at this point they probably can get it.

The building last sold for $12,000 in 1946, and now it will sell for close to $3 million. But there’s no reason for it, only the “professional” commitment to “maximizing asset values” by the lawyers and social workers who are running the show. They could easily meet their responsibilities to care for our landlady for the rest of her life AND live up to her lifelong practice of keeping her building affordable by accepting the original offer of $2 million by the San Francisco Community Land Trust. But they opened it to everyone and this past Thursday accepted the current high bid of $2.5 million. Now the price has to be certified in probate court (even though our landlady is still alive), after which an open bidding process will ensue. The Land Trust is still in the running, but it’s not looking good.

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A lot of sincere people—activists and observers—attribute the crazy cost of housing to the insatiable greed of landlords, speculators, and bankers. No doubt some of those characters are personally greedy. But greed is an insufficient explanation for this broad structural reorganization of profit-making, where each of us is tightly bound to make a monthly contribution to balance sheets and bank accounts that steadily enrich a rarified elite who are already incomprehensibly wealthy. Pro-business propaganda emanating from every media frame all problems in terms of individuals and undermine shared understandings of shared predicaments. In our neoliberal world, all problems are solved by individual striving and success, not by shared community action or changing government policy. Getting rich, buying property, and joining the lucky winners who have ridden the surge of housing values, has a powerful hold on the imaginations of many people. There are few other paths available to the average person to move up and out of their station in life. But using one’s home as an “investment strategy” has proven to be an unreliable path to riches, and instead has led to millions of foreclosures and evictions and ever-more expensive housing.

A black bloc supporter of the Pigeon Palace!

A black bloc supporter of the Pigeon Palace!

"Economic Cleansing" needs a lot more attention these days!

“Economic Cleansing” needs a lot more attention these days!

Countless others have been denied access to the fake comfort of home ownership by racial discrimination or their lack of credit or resources. Others who once thought they were on the housing wealth elevator found out that they had simply agreed to be bound by unpayable debts. Whether self-described as “middle class” or working class, a growing majority of the population in San Francisco (and everywhere really) are finding their hold on housing and material comfort growing less solid, more tenuous. Fear of falling into poverty, even falling into the streets, stalks everyone from fast-food workers to school teachers, office workers to waiters. Artists, musicians, and writers, once the heart and soul of San Francisco’s culture, are finding it difficult to even hold on to the distant shores of the East Bay.

Gallingly, those of us who still have reasonable rents and enjoy rent control find ourselves being scolded for having “unfairly” low rents! Amazing. Thanks to our longevity, good fortune at finding landlords who weren’t bent on gouging their tenants, and rent control, we pay prices that are still commensurate with our income. As my landlady said to me when she rented me this apartment in 2004 for $875, “I know I could get $1,500 (she could’ve gotten $2,500 easily), but I don’t want to choke anybody.” She was old-school San Francisco, owning her property for decades and never imagining her apartment building as a cash machine. It was once considered normal to pay no more than 30% of one’s income for housing, and preferably less. Nowadays it is all too common to pay 50-75% of income for housing.

Other tenants, especially those recently arrived in San Francisco and who face well over $1,000 per person rental rates, too often accept that there is something rational and fair about these unsustainable prices. Sure, some tech workers enjoying high wages trickling out of the torrent of venture capital pouring into countless app developers, or the advertising revenues that Google and Facebook’s ubiquitous portals command, can pay these rents for now. But when the current tech bubble pops and the money stops, which can’t happen soon enough for long-time residents, they’ll be decamping from the Bay Area and those rents ought to return to a level that people who earn less than $100,000/year might be able to afford.

Pigeon Palace supporters join the larger Mission to take City Hall on May 8, 2015.

Pigeon Palace supporters join the larger Mission to take City Hall on May 8, 2015.

Carin McKay and Chris Carlsson giving a rap about the Pigeon Palace at the City Hall protest May 8, 2015.

Carin McKay and Chris Carlsson giving a rap about the Pigeon Palace at the City Hall protest May 8, 2015. Photo by Steve Rhodes.

"Affordable Housing Forever!"

“Affordable Housing Forever!” Photo by Steve Rhodes.

The banking crisis of 2008 was not solved, it was simply rolled over and kicked down the road. Evidently there is not enough profit being produced to support the fragile pyramid of promises built by banks on obscure financial manipulations they call “investments.” Debt both feeds and chokes an economy based on fear and coercion imposed by banks, insurance companies and other financial giants. Fueled by interest-free government loans, banks, investment companies, and millionaire speculators push housing prices ever higher while snapping up thousands of foreclosed properties. Banks have always been the real owners of the heavily mortgaged houses “homeowners” live in. Now large corporations and millionaires own a big percentage of the country’s rental housing as well.

Whether you pay your mortgage or your rent, the monthly hit is ever larger. With every passing month we send more and more of our wealth to the already rich. They’ve gamed the system; they act with impunity. Banks are organized crime backed up by the government. Housing is the spigot that finances everything. Whether you work steadily or precariously you are bound to pay for housing month after month. However income is derived, most of it is siphoned off into the banking and real estate industries while desperation and poverty keep growing. More »

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