economy, 'technology', public space, San Francisco past and present, class, books

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Revolutionaries Who Fall Short

From a trail on the Marin Headlands looking back towards San Francisco from under an amazing oak tree...

From a trail on the Marin Headlands looking back towards San Francisco from under an amazing oak tree…

It’s been a summer of reading (and walking, see photos!) for me, and now that autumn is here and the usual schedule of Shaping San Francisco Tours and Talks is starting, along with teaching weekly at the Art Institute, my time is shrinking. I still have a lot of time compared to most people so I’m not complaining (and I’m still reading a lot, but less). Anyway, this blog post is less of my writing and more from one of the books I read, which is a must-read for anyone still harboring fantasies that Fidel Castro is a great revolutionary.

I say this knowing that many people, even a fair number of friends, are ardent defenders of Castro, of the Cuban Revolution (which they unfortunately conflate), and the many movements that have claimed Castro as an inspiration or icon for their own efforts at “national liberation” (whether Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, or the FMLN in El Salvador or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua). I am not attacking the people in these various places, not in Cuba or anywhere else, since it’s the rank and file activists who ultimately are the most betrayed by authoritarian party structures created by the various left-wing organizations in the name of revolution. Frequently, starting with Cuba, the argument is made that the United States directly or indirectly has forced these movements to become rigid top-down hierarchies, to center their organizations on a military logic, and to slavishly copy the worst of the old Soviet Union or Chinese Communist Party which in practical terms meant the brutal repression of all liberatory currents not under their tight control (in addition to the more obvious reactionary social groups that also exist in these countries).

Gerbode Valley from just north of the Golden Gate...

Gerbode Valley from just north of the Golden Gate…

I also read a longer book called The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón by Claudio Lomnitz, which is a beautifully composed look at the forgotten role of the Partido Liberal Mexicana (PLM) from 1906 to the eventual revolution overthrowing decades-long dictator Porfirio Díaz, with a detailed account of how its original leading role was marginalized by other leaders and groups in Mexico in part because the PLM leaders chose to stay in Los Angeles to carry on their publishing beyond the reach of the Mexican authorities. Lomnitz does a great job of capturing the cross-border ferment between the U.S. and Mexico, where the revolutionaries grouped together in the PLM organized and published their journal Regeneración. Moving around in the U.S. the Mexican revolutionaries worked closely with a growing group of U.S. radicals, including Wobblies and famed Los Angeles attorney and socialist Job Harriman. Ricardo Flores Magón was the chief theoretician of the self-proclaimed Junta, along with his brother Enrique Flores Magón. Antonio I. Villarreal, Librado Rivera, and Lázaro Gutiérrez de Lara, but others played important roles too, notably various American radicals such as William Owen, Elizabeth Trowbridge and John Kenneth Turner (author of the 1907 blockbuster Barbarous Mexico which in classic muckraking journalism exposed widespread slavery in the Yucatan and Oaxaca). More »

California Water and the Lack Thereof

North of Sutter Buttes the area is filled with almond orchards, which though very parched seem to be doing ok.

North of Sutter Buttes the area is filled with almond orchards, which though very parched seem to be doing ok.

I’m relatively new to the enormous body of work covering the history, politics, and geography of water in California. Given the severe drought gripping most of the state (great 8-second animation here), and the oft-repeated cliché that water is the oil of the 21st century, it seems like a good time to start paying closer attention! I decided, after some research, to go and have a look, taking the opportunity that most of us fog-bound San Franciscans do to escape to the searing heat of the Central Valley at least once during the cool, windy summer we get here on the coast (though to be honest, this year has been relatively warm and sunny until the last few days). Adriana and I borrowed a car and rode along levees from the mouth of the Sacramento River at the edge of the once-enormous Delta, all the way to Sacramento (only pausing there to visit “Old Sacramento” which I had somehow never done), and then back on to the levees north toward our first night’s destination of Marysville at the conjunction of the Feather and Yuba Rivers.

Here's a view of the Delta I took from a plane in September 2013.

Here’s a view of the Delta I took from a plane in September 2013.

We went to Rio Vista on our first stop, crossing onto Sherman Island at bottom left of image on the Antioch bridge before crossing the Sacramento River into Rio Vista.

We went to Rio Vista on our first stop, crossing onto Sherman Island at bottom left of image on the Antioch bridge before crossing the Sacramento River into Rio Vista.

I’ve been giving myself a crash course during the summer, in preparation for teaching a new class at the SF Art Institute called “Dredge.” One of the unusual finds I made was the Dutra Museum of Dredging in Rio Vista, at the edge of the Montezuma Hills, a old geologic formation that forces the Sacramento River around it south in its path through the Delta to the Bay. The folks behind the museum are an old family-run California dredging company, and they’ve published a beautiful book “The Tule Breakers,” which is an exhaustive history of their industry, and includes a general overview of the terrain and conditions in which their business has been conducted.

One of the rusting dredges on the grounds of the Dutra Museum of Dredging in Rio Vista.

One of the rusting dredges on the grounds of the Dutra Museum of Dredging in Rio Vista.

In this 1930 image from "The Tule Breakers" you can see the dredges working to excavate sand and mining debris (still flowing down from the Gold Rush days)  from the channel of the Sacramento River.

In this 1930 image from “The Tule Breakers” you can see the dredges working to excavate sand and mining debris (still flowing down from the Gold Rush days) from the channel of the Sacramento River.

I also read Battling the Inland Sea by Robert Kelley, a fascinating account of the politics of water and rivers in California in the 19th century. Kelley goes through the saga chronologically to show how the Democrats who dominated state politics after the Civil War were the standard-bearers of laissez-faire individualism. They were opposed by the Republicans, who carried on the politics of the defunct Whig Party in favor of a more centralizing and coordinating role for government. In a nutshell, the two parties in the 19th century held reversed positions compared to today. The Republicans were the party in favor of publicly funded infrastructure which would improve conditions broadly for “everyone.” Read in a more class conscious way, we would say they were the party of Capital in its broadest interests, while the Democrats tended to defend the interests of individual property owners against encroachment by the state, seeing the individual owners as the logical descendants of a Jeffersonian agrarian democracy and the state as beholden to the interests of the monied interests and large corporations that were emerging in the late 19th century. The Democrats were also more brazenly the party of white supremacy, although it must be admitted that racist ideology was the norm across the political spectrum until well into the 20th century.

The domination of laissez-faire inspired localism led to a decades-long failure to assess California’s hydrological reality in systemic terms. Instead of looking at the interlocking river system as a whole, and seeing the entire Sacramento Valley (the northern part of the Central Valley) as an integrated watershed draining a dozen rivers eventually into the Delta and Bay, each individual farmer and landowner was encouraged to take individual responsibility for building levees to protect their property. This led to a kind of “arms race” as one would build levees to a certain height, forcing the landowner across the river to build a bit higher, that would in turn force the original owner to build his even higher, and so on. It was exacerbated by the fact that county lines often ran down the middle of rivers (e.g. the split between Marysville in Yuba County and across the Feather River sat Yuba City in Sutter County), so property owners would also have different local governments from which to seek legal remedy or support. The first legal entities formed in California beyond the elected legislature and local governments were “reclamation districts” who gained the right to tax property and even seize it under eminent domain if needed to execute plans for water channeling and farmland protection. These entities were dominated by land speculators who often used their political power, not surprisingly, to direct Reclamation Districts to projects benefiting their landholdings.

The first leg of our road trip on the levees (going from lower left to upper right). The two circles are Rio Vista at left, and Locke at upper right.

The first leg of our road trip on the levees (going from lower left to upper right). The two circles are Rio Vista at left, and Locke at upper right.

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Space and Time in Summer 2014

Starr King open space with Bernal Heights in distance behind... one of the gorgeous walks I've been on lately.

Starr King open space with Bernal Heights in distance behind… one of the gorgeous walks I’ve been on lately.

It’s the middle of July and I have to admit that I’ve let this blog slide considerably from earlier times. I don’t know if anyone is still out there waiting for my writing, but I’m guessing not too many. On the other hand, I’ve had some robot out there try to log on to my account here over 7,500 times in the past five days! I assume that when the Central American child immigrant scandal blew up, some right-wing lunatic got exercised over my most recent blog post about the border. I don’t know who has a robot that just rotates through 16 brand new IPs every hour or so, trying to log on, and I don’t know if this is supposed to be a Denial of Service Attack, or what. A subset of the 101st Fighting Keyboardists I guess (those ardent patriotic intellectuals who fill the comments sections of seemingly every website that has one!)

I’ve been PWOB, Present Without Blogging! Life is full and busy. I take a lot of walks, I’m scurrying about town giving walking and bike tours quite often, and we’ve been pushing our big summer fundraising drive (the 3% solution) for Shaping San Francisco which has gone surprisingly well. That has led me to spending a lot of hours adding new material to the archive at, including over 200 new early 20th century photos from a private collector. I also confess that I am crazy for World Cup soccer and still a big baseball fan too, so there’s been way too many hours watching sports as well. I also read Dave Zirin’s excellent “Brazil’s Dance with the Devil” (Haymarket Books) which gives an excellent brief history of Brazil, the role of soccer in the country, but more importantly, a no-holds-barred exposé on the role of “celebration capitalism” in using spectacles like the World Cup and Olympics (the latter coming to Rio in 2016) to impose a neoliberal reorganization of urban space. It all benefits existing wealth at the expense of the rest of the population of course, and it’s quite analogous to the “shock doctrine” described by Naomi Klein, though in this case using the spectacle of mass sports to displace and destroy existing networks of life and community.

I read a lot, though not nearly as many hours as I think I should, more books lately but still there’s a steady deluge of magazines arriving in the mail every week. Read that grim piece “The End of Retirement” in the latest Harper’s yesterday, portraying all these over 65 folks too poor to stop working, living in RVs and driving from Amazon warehouse to state park to convention, doing short bursts of temporary (often exhausting) work. I also read Nathan Heller’s “California Screaming” in the July 7 & 14 New Yorker. Much too even-handed for my taste, treating the vicious and often personal tide of displacement and eviction as an unavoidable feature of living in a free society. Glad some friends got recognized and even quoted (Erin McElroy, Tiny, Tommi Avicolla Mecca, even Gabriel Metcalf!), but the author has that galling upper middle class know it all approach that flattens everything out. He insists the “culture war” is overstated, and that “the values that each side espouse can sound strikingly similar.” What I liked about Heller’s piece comes towards the very end. After detailing the various political objections the rich and the techies have against the dysfunctionality of local government, after having shown how dissatisfied activists are with the skewed priorities of local government (which seem to many of us to be focused on taking care of the rich and techies!), he ruminates on the problems of representative public life, but conflates public life with the broken institutions and empty rituals of consultation and deliberation. He argues:

“The West Coast radicalism of the twentieth century arose from the revelation that, in moments of extreme frustration or injustice, power could be claimed and wrongs could be corrected by exiting the system. What started with the dropout hippies and the direct-action campaigns of the sixties reverberates both in the protests of tech’s critics and in the work-arounds, hacks, and philanthropic deliverances of tech itself. The privatized mechanisms of San Francisco politics, with its warring stories of personal good will and subjective transcendence, are the fruits of that heroic nonconformism carried forward. The two groups may not share objectives, yet they’re joined by an escape from public political process that has intensified into local doctrine. The truly radical move in the Bay Area would be to return to the messy business of public debate.

“This would be tricky because public process is antithetical to tech culture. It is not fast. It is unruly and can be dispiriting. There are many people involved, with disparate ideas, and most big decisions are put to public vote—which means more people and ideas. This is the hell of regulatory blockades and referenda and open meetings to which crazy people come to read bizarre complaints off rumpled notebook paper. It is why those hoping for big, swift change leave government, and why people who worry about weak responses stand before buses. Getting anything done through public process requires convincing many, many individuals of the rightness of your dream. And it demands that you do that over and over, against a tide of disagreement, settling for half measures rather than no measures. The terms of public process are not personal or romantic but objective; it is language that could have been drawn up, literally, by committee.”

And then he slides back into middle class complacency, asserting that we have to work to stay “on the same page” and that the deeper political culture will survive the onslaught of “direct action devotees”—that the money will dry up when the Fed stops handing out billions to banks every month and “a company town will move toward becoming, once more, just a town.” Ugh. This trite neoliberal pabulum is hard to take given how profoundly San Francisco’s neighborhoods are being class-cleansed (at least formerly diverse neighborhoods like the Fillmore, the Mission, and South of Market).

On the other hand I think he’s hit the mark when he talks about the break down in public politics. Not precisely in the way he imagines it though. It’s not just that it’s so much work to get lots of individuals to agree with your views, it’s the system is wholly owned and operated by monied interests. The opportunity to comment on or offer critical amendment to public policy is mostly a charade of public hearings that only the most hardy or mentally delusional can bear to attend (or believe are sincere). But it’s also true that we saw the Occupy assemblies hijacked regularly by people who were mentally impaired in various ways. San Francisco has a particularly high percentage of psychotic people living on its streets, and plenty of them are lucid enough to want to occasionally participate in political life—as they should! Who is not troubled sometimes to the edge of sanity by this mad world, after all? More »

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