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

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On Being Away

Candlestick Park is gone, but we're still here!

Candlestick Park is gone, but we’re still here!

Took a good long break from the blog… partly I was writing other things, including the piece on “When Punk Mattered” I just posted before this. Partly I just wasn’t in the mood, and partly I’ve been quite preoccupied with our housing situation and also I began teaching a graduate seminar at USF this fall, so that took some effort to prepare for as well…

Come out and join us this Saturday for a sidewalk party!

Come out and join us this Saturday for a sidewalk party!

The good news: we are eviction-proof after a long summer of twists and turns that culminated in the successful closing of escrow on September 10. The Pigeon Palace is ours! For the next few years we’ll be renting from the San Francisco Community Land Trust, but in a few years we’ll go through a conversion process and come out the other end as a fully formed low-income housing cooperative and have a high degree of self-control and self-management over the building and our fates. Meanwhile, all around us San Francisco continues to undergo a staggering wave of displacement and disruption… the prognosis in just a few years is that we’ll be a weird pocket on Folsom Street in a thoroughly gentrified neighborhood. Imagine a co-op in Greenwich Village—that’s more or less where we’re headed now, irrespective of this small victory. That said, we’re mighty glad to have a safe and stable home from which we can continue to do all the work we’ve been doing all these years, whether radical history, anti-police violence organizing, queer dance and performance, AIDS activism, culinary interventions, or coming soon, support for other tenants to do what we’ve managed to do here.

I also spend a weird amount of time walking these days. My time is my major asset, and I use it well. My path crisscrosses the city’s hills and far-flung stairways and neighborhoods. Also just got back from a nice weekend in Lake Tahoe, a place I only barely passed by in the past, but this time enjoyed for a couple of days, hiking up to Lake Marlette above Tahoe, and circumnavigating much of the Lake during my visit. Between my urban treks and that Tahoe jaunt, I took a ton of photos. Here are a few more to finish off this brief howdy-doo to any readers who may still be waiting for me to get it together… Not sure about near-term regular posting, but I’ll keep this going one way or another. If you’re interested in anything in particular that you look forward to from me, drop me a line and let me know!


Off the end of the fishing pier at Candlestick Point State Recreation Area,  the only urban park in the California State Park system.

Off the end of the fishing pier at Candlestick Point State Recreation Area, the only urban park in the California State Park system.

Everyone went crazy for the Blood Moon the other night... seen here above 25th Street around the corner from home.

Everyone went crazy for the Blood Moon the other night… seen here above 25th Street around the corner from home.

The rest of the images are from Lake Tahoe this past weekend... here seen from the trail to Lake Marlette.

The rest of the images are from Lake Tahoe this past weekend… here seen from the trail to Lake Marlette.

I caught the moon over the western hills along the beach at South Lake Tahoe, rather sad in its depleted state after 3  years of drought.

I caught the moon over the western hills along the beach at South Lake Tahoe, rather sad in its depleted state after 3 years of drought.

Same view from a balcony at our hotel, at sunset that night.

Same view from a balcony at our hotel, at sunset that night.

Wild clouds full of water, full of hope! It did rain one night while we were up in the mountains, but apparently not a drop in our bone-dry area.

Wild clouds full of water, full of hope! It did rain one night while we were up in the mountains, but apparently not a drop in our bone-dry area.


When Punk Mattered: At the Dawn of the Neoliberal City

Originally published in “Boom: The Journal of California”

Punk rock, hip-hop, reggae/dub and world music burst forth simultaneously and marked the receding waves of worldwide revolt that, in 1968, appeared on the verge of “changing the world.” They were an enunciation of failure and a denunciation of surrender… They carried forward a militance and internationalist spirit into the next phase of musical and political contestation, while exposing jagged rifts left by unsuccessful struggle.

—Mat Callahan, The Trouble with Music
The Mutants, with Sue White, Fritz Fox, Sally Webster, in 1982. Photo: © Jeanne Hansen, 2015

The Mutants, with Sue White, Fritz Fox, Sally Webster, in 1982. Photo: © Jeanne Hansen, 2015

We didn’t know it at the time. The revolution we thought was on the horizon was not going to overthrow capitalism or usher in an era of solidarity and mutual aid. On the contrary, the word “revolution” in the mid-to-late 1970s held a much darker potential. By the time Reagan got elected in 1980, the process of reasserting the power of capital over a recalcitrant and rebellious American working class was well underway. The “revolution” we would experience in the 1980s produced a massive U-turn, a return to the savage dog-eat-dog, everybody-for-herself, go-go capitalism that first emerged in the late nineteenth century. With several decades of hindsight, we can see now that we were at the dawn of the neoliberal city in those bleak days that for some of us felt so full of potential.

In San Francisco, we danced ourselves into a frenzy to the deafening punk rock of the Avengers, the Dils, the Mutants, the Dead Kennedys, and dozens of other bands, including touring British bands like The Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks, Stiff Little Fingers, Gang of Four, and many more. The music—brash, anthemic, compelling, and urgent—was the soundtrack of our time, a time we thought would finally banish the daily banality of pointless work and hollow consumerism, ubiquitous corruption, and imperial hubris that was at the heart of the tottering United States. The shows were in strange lost corners of San Francisco, the Deaf Club on the second floor of a Valencia Street building near Sixteenth; the Temple Beautiful, a huge abandoned Synagogue on Geary just west of Fillmore, next door to Jim Jones’s People’s Temple; Valencia Tool & Die, in a basement under Valencia near Twenty-first; the Mabuhay Gardens (Fab Mab), a Philippine eatery tucked among the strip clubs on Broadway in North Beach; 330 Grove Street, a fabled home to radical left and black political groups. But the epic sounds of revolt, the declarations of refusal, the hilarious ridiculing of the powerful and rich, the pointed satire of the emerging technosphere, turned out to be more of a last anguished demand to seize the moment between the lost utopias of the 1960s and early 1970s and the capitalist triumphalism that dominated the rest of the century.

Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables_cover_9781623565008Michael Stewart Foley gives us a particular window on that musical revolt in his very enjoyable Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables about the Dead Kennedys’ first album of the same name—Foley’s contribution to Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series of “books about albums.” Having their album as the spine of his narrative arc, Foley necessarily puts the Dead Kennedys at the center of the era. I loved the Dead Kennedys and saw them many times between 1978 and 1981, but I remember them rather differently than his account has it. They were part of a much larger and strongly politicized culture that flourished in San Francisco during that mostly forgotten interregnum between what we might call the “long sixties” and the Reagan restoration. The punk/new wave scene was a very visible and dynamic element, but radical politics were percolating in many forms and places alongside the punk music scene. Copying machines were finally becoming cheap and accessible, and many people began putting their collages, screeds, and cartoons on the poles and walls of San Francisco. Underground radio gained new life on local college stations KUSF and KALX, providing vital airtime for obscure bands from near and far. DJs like George Epileptic filled three hours every weekday morning with the biting satire and the angry sounds of dozens of new bands basically saying “Fuck you” to mainstream America. Meanwhile, the antinuclear Abalone Alliance was mobilizing thousands to block PG&E’s plans to build a nuclear power plant on the coast at Diablo Canyon; Nicaraguan revolutionaries and Iranian students crisscrossed the Bay Area urging support for the overthrow of the US-sponsored dictators in their respective countries; tenants were organizing for rent control in the wake of the violent eviction of the I-Hotel in 1977; and strikes at local oil refineries, trucking operations, insurance offices, and restaurant chains dovetailed with a national coal miners’ strike. President Jimmy Carter moved steadily rightward throughout his presidency, and being a former Navy nuclear engineer, in fact, rather than the “peanut farmer” of his mythology, he was increasingly seen, at least in our circles, as a deeply reactionary tool of the military-industrial complex. For many of us, the prospect of Carter losing to Reagan was inconceivable, the country having slid so far right under his regime that there was no way it could go further—add this to a long list of our badly off-the-mark prognostications! One local street theater group took the name “Reagan for Shah” to dramatize the absurdity of his campaign.

Reading Foley’s Dead Kennedys book brought me back into those first years of my life in San Francisco. It’s hard to imagine now.


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Notes From Technotopia: On The Cruelty Of Indifference

This is a guest post from the incomparable Guillermo Gomez-Peña, which I’m delighted to post here.

An anti-gentrification philosophical tantrum
by Guillermo Gómez-Peña, 2015

(In his most recent philosophical tantrum, performance artist and poet Gómez-Peña reflects on the dangers of the ultimate “creative city,” and what it means to become a foreigner in his own neighborhood, waiting for the much touted eviction notice.)

Artist credit: John Cristicello

Artist credit: John Cristicello

Dear Ex-local artist, writer, activist, bohemian, street eccentric, and/or protector of difference…

Imagine a city, your city and your former “hip” neighborhood, being handed over by greedy politicians and re/developers to the crème de la crème of the tech industry. This includes the 7 most powerful tech companies in the world. I don’t need to list them: their names have become verbs in lingua franca; their sandbox is the city you used to call your own.

Their Faustian iDeal involves radically transforming your city within a few years into an unprecedented “creative city,” a bohemian theme park for the young techies and “hipsters” who constitute their Darwinian work force. It comes with dormitories, food courts with catchy theme bars and entertainment centers. Sounds like science fiction, que no?

Imagine that during the reconstruction process, the rent – your rent – increases by two or three hundred percent overnight. The artists and the working class at large can no longer pay it. You are being forced to leave, at best to a nearby city, at worst back to your original hometown. The more intimate history you have with the old city, the more painful it is to accept this displacement. You have no choice.

While you hang on by a thread waiting for the eviction notice, every day you continue to lose old friends and colleagues you might never see again. They were less lucky than you and got evicted earlier. Heartbroken and exhausted, you spend a large part of your civic time attending anti-gentrification demonstrations and collaborating with other artists and activists in anti-eviction actions and techno-artivist projects, but still it only gets worse by the day. The number of dramatic eviction cases increases constantly and both the diminished politicized citizenry and the progressive media begin to experience compassion fatigue.

As your community rapidly shrinks, so does your sense of belonging to a city that no longer seems to like you. You begin to feel like a foreigner and internal exile: freaky Alice in techno-Wonderlandia; the Alien Caterpillar who inhaled. Unless you own your home and studio, as a renter, your hours “here” are numbered and you carry this feeling of imminent orphanhood like a very tight and stylish noose around your neck. After all, you perceive yourself as a dandy.

Artist credit: John Cristicello

Artist credit: John Cristicello

Imagine that all the classic and familiar places in your hood including funky, decades-old Latino restaurants and immigrant bars full of memories and ghosts, barber & specialty shops, bohemian sex clubs, experimental art galleries, indie theaters and bookstores –yes, shops where bound books are sold, — the emotional spaces which have been your main source of inspiration, creativity and community — are also forced to close because the pinche greedy landlord tripled the rent overnight or some millionaire bought the building or the entire block to rent out micro-units to airbnb. And all the new laws and acts protect him. Your imagination becomes a painful exercise in forced tolerance and providential acceptance.

In a few months, these wonderful places that for decades provided the city with a strong cultural identity are destroyed and reopened as (get ready) homogeneous “live/work/play” spaces, “micro-condominium” buildings and tech plazas in the works. Coño! The new city begins to look like a generic global metropolis imagined by Italo Calvino. To make the lives of the transient work force somewhat pleasant, hundreds of similar smart cafes, trendoid restaurants, overpriced “eateries” and “celebrity bars” open up in each neighborhood. Even the last standing old-school dive bars are being “discovered” (a euphemism for taken over) by the transplants via their Yelp or Foursquare mobile app.

But you, no matter how long you lived here or how much you have paid in rent – even if it is enough to own your hipster remodeled Victorian upper unit – You are not welcome.

You hit the streets again: What you used to call an average priced dinner is way above your price range now. Your sacred $4 night cocktail, now served by an aloof “celebrity bartender,” costs $15 and your daily jugos and licuados, now called “cold pressed gluten-free organic cleansing juices,” go for $12 in a “recyclable sustainable” bottle. But don’t worry: Remember that this is just a perverse exercise of radical imagination, or rather, a psychomagic challenge to deliver your daily dose of survival humor.

Imagine that your own building, a legendary (ex) artist building is now just another revolving airb&b miniunit for zombie techies who make well over $200 grand a year, but behave not unlike obnoxious teenage frat boys. If you are the only one of 3 Mexican tenants left, when you open the front door for a new neighbor, they either perceive you as the building’s janitor or report you to the manager as a “suspicious character.” And yes, in Technotopia: your new identity is that of “suspicious character.”

The nightmare unfolds: Full of Maseratis, Ferraris, Porsches and Mercedes Benzes, the private parking lot is now protected with barbed wire fences and a digital display keypad encoded by microchips; and so are the “vintage bike” racks and trash containers. Video surveillance cameras are omnipresent. The new management wishes to keep the homeless, the day laborers and the “scary” young “people of color” at a distance…that is, before the cops get them. They are unpleasant memories of the old city of sin and compassion; kids from former distasteful and economically disadvantaged, at-risk neighborhoods.

The newly empowered cops drive around the hood looking for (criminal) “difference.” The homeless and the “gang bangers” aren’t the only ones being removed from the streets to make them safe for the new cadre. With them go the poets, the performance artists, the experimental musicians, the frail transvestites, the politicized sex workers, the gallant mariachis, the cool low-riders, the urban primitives, the angry punks, the defiant radical feminists and the very activists who used to protect us all from the greedy landlords and politicians who conceived of this macabre project.

It’s the latest American version of ethnic and cultural cleansing. It’s invisible to the newcomers, and highly visible to those of us who knew the old city. The press labels it “the post-gentrification era.”

“Prehistory is only 7 years old and nostalgia is pure style, a bad selfie of a fictional memory.”—Anonymous tweet.

There are suspicious fires happening constantly, in apartment buildings and homes inhabited by mostly Latino and black working class families. And you cannot help but to wonder if landlords and redevelopers are setting these fires? “Is there a secret garden of violence in the heart of techno-bohemian paradise?”-Anonymous tweet.

You also begin to wonder, who are these random people and newly evasive neighbors taking over your neighborhood? Metaphysically speaking, where did they really come from? And how long will they stay? Are they merely browsing in the mythological backyard of Technotopia? Will they return to the suburbs when the Chicano intifada begins? More »

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