The Rush of History
San Francisco is always at its best in late September and early October. This year is no exception. While I’ve been riding up and down the hills and going about my daily life, history is rushing along, as it is wont to do. There are the big stories of the Iraq quagmire, the Plamegate scandal that may bring down some bigshots (or may lead to absolutely nothing) and the extreme corruption of the federal government, the Pakistani quake, Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Stan and Wilma (this isn’t a Flintstones rerun, that’s for sure!), not to mention the deep rumbling historic shifts going on in Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, and the Andean countries too. AIDS in Africa, avian flu in Asia, slums and starvation growing in lockstep with the concentration of wealth and power in urban enclaves”¦ History is moving quickly and it’s impossible to keep one’s head wrapped around it all. But all those global stories are matched by interesting, sometimes tragic, but truly historic changes being wrought right here in San Francisco.
Kudos to the often shallow SF Bay Guardian for their special report this past week. They published a series of articles on the condo boom, the transformation of Bayview-Hunters Point and increasing exodus/eviction of the Black community, the abysmal state of SF Housing Authority properties, the steady rise of the Chinese population in the southeast and western neighborhoods, and the role of the 3rd Street Light Rail in fueling and reinforcing a not-terribly-hidden agenda of reshaping the population of San Francisco. The inexorable increase in wealth and a predictable rightward shift in political values is one of the obvious outcomes. We can also imagine a more habitable and eco-friendly San Francisco bayshore over the coming decades too. But who will get to live there? Who will work there? What will they do? What should be done there” that is, what kind of activity do we WANT to promote? What work is needed by we who already live here?
All these questions come up directly or obliquely in the Guardian articles. Underscoring a basic poverty of political institutions, though, to address these social outcomes we are left with lobbying the Planning Commission, the Supervisors, the Mayor, but only in response to very powerful dynamics that have already been unleashed.
Obviously it’s not impossible to derail the elite plans that were hatched years ago in corporate suites. Luckily our local history is full of inspiring examples: the freeway revolt(s) of the late 1950s-early 1960s that saved the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park, the Marina Green, Polk Gulch, the Valencia/Guerrero corridor and many of today’s most pleasant and convivial neighborhoods from massive elevated freeways; the wild fights over SOMA redevelopment that gave us today’s Yerba Buena Gardens and the thousands of units of senior housing that surround it instead of a 70,000 seat football stadium and dozens of highrise office buildings; the anti-redevelopment organizing in the Mission District that kept the whole neighborhood from being bulldozed for upscale, dense housing and office development (which in turn set the stage for the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition and allied struggles against the dot-com boom more recently)”¦ and so on. Today’s San Francisco still faces the unrelenting pressure of landowners and their political allies who dream of subsidized profits at the public’s expense (as the BG correctly notes, the planned densification of the southeast neighborhoods along the new light rail line will generate enormous costs for parks, police, fire, and greater water and power capacities, all to be paid by the public).
But we who live here, if we’re even aware of the scope of these radical agendas, have very little ability to shape the decisions that we ultimately try our best to reverse, but always after they are well underway. A case in point is the just-approved Mid-Market Redevelopment Zone, covering 5th to 10th streets along Market and parts of Mission. The Redevelopment Commission oversaw a public process that engaged hundreds of citizens in planning meetings over the past five years or more. I went to some meetings briefly in the 2000-01 period when we were in the midst of our big fight over the Grant Building. But what became apparent to me after only a couple of meetings, and was confirmed by several of my allies who doggedly attended the meetings for much longer than my impatience would allow me to, is that the lawyers and property owners who had a financial stake in the process (and were usually getting paid to be at the meetings, unlike the rest of us) would have the ultimate say over the shape of the plan. Moreover, the Redevelopment Agency’s well-documented role in dismembering intact communities with the specious label of “blight” makes them particularly unsuited to being trusted to carry out any kind of democratic agenda. Not to mention that once an area is designated a redevelopment zone, the Agency is practically free to do anything it wants to with little further public oversight.
The Mid-Market plan goes now to the Board of Supervisors where it will most likely get kicked back to the Agency to be recalibrated. The absurd emphasis on market-rate condominiums and one-for-one parking in the most transit-rich corridor in the city, ensures they will have to start over. But the developers and their lawyers knew that when they crafted such a blatantly unhealthy and self-serving plan. It’s like haggling in a marketplace, starting out with the least acceptable offer you can possibly make in order to set the boundaries of the bargaining. If you are so inclined, it’s a good time to let your Supervisor know that this plan should be rejected outright and if not killed off forever (the best option) it should be sent back for radical reconceptualization.
Finally, this kind of reactive process is deeply flawed. Instead of being able to come together in some kind of daily, common process of determining the shape of our lives (which would fundamentally include what we do as work, how we share the available wealth and resources, how the ecological health of the city could be enhanced, etc.), we’re always expected to “participate” by going to commission meetings that are clearly dominated by monied interests. There we are supposed to make ourselves heard, usually as isolated individuals who have managed to sneak away from our jobs or our families, or our normal lives. What a bad set-up! The system is broken in terms of real democracy or real community planning because that’s what works for those with the capital.
Overthrowing the land-use processes in this town will take more than a new mayor or a new majority on the Board of Supervisors. It would really take a basic reconfiguration of how we shape our everyday lives, including most fundamentally our economic lives. But we never talk about that, except to complain about finding a job, or how shitty our existing job is, or dreaming about going back to school to get trained for a new job”¦ Never do we discuss broadly the aggregate division of labor: why do we as a society do what we do? Why don’t we do the things that are obviously going un-done? Why don’t we ever even talk about it?
(A hopeful sign, though clearly far from having broken with the narrow logic of trade unionism, is the emergence of the Sutter Strikers’ Blog–thanks to Annalee Newitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) (!that’s your history quiz for today!) for writing about it at the Bay Guardian–Can we begin the discussion of useless vs. useful work together via blogs? So far the Strikeblog is interesting because it gives us news of what’s happening on their picket lines, but the blog is being run by the union not by independent rank and file strikers…)
Lastly, in a related but different item, is the surprising emergence of the proposal to provide free Wi-Fi to San Francisco. Mayor Newsom floated this publicly and is already getting a lot of credit for it. OK, he’s a guy who is already running for president and trying to shape his current achievements to look good on a resume in 20-30 years, so it will look like he was ahead of the curve back in a different moment in history. But the idea of a citywide free WiFi has already been around for several years thanks to Ralf Muehlen and SFLAN. I noticed that SFLAN has entered the current fray with their own proposal to put antennas all over the city to provide free connectivity. Somehow it seems unlikely that Newsom and his committee will choose a project that is associated with the movement to contest intellectual property and major cable and ISPs over one of the numerous big-name corporate bidders (Google is everyone’s prediction to win the battle to turn San Francisco into a showcase for a citywide free internet).
I use the internet a lot, and I support in principle the notion that the internet should be a public utility, preferably provided freely by and for the public. Thus I prefer SFLAN over any corporate plans. But I also want to direct our attention to the unforeseen results of such a shift, even if I want it to happen and expect to benefit from it both financially (lower or eliminated monthly bills) and politically (no more threat of Comcast or SBC pulling the plug on access to political and social information they disapprove of). A lot is being made of the “˜digital divide’ and how Newsom’s progressive demand for free access for all San Franciscans will help bridge that. Maybe. But it would also make it likely that even more people would spend even more time on-line. And the kind of information gathering an entity like Google can do even while protecting individual privacy (it’s questionable if they really do) is staggering. What do they do with all that aggregate data on who looks at what and when? Marketing anyone? Marketing EVERYone? Marketing every one of us with narrowcasting specific ads? It’s already happening on gmail and if they get to use a city like SF as a testing ground for all their front-edge fantasies of info-harvesting and manipulation, sheesh! And what of the remnants of human communities? Will we have to ban people on laptops at every event like we have to insist on no cell phones now? Will softball leagues and gardening clubs, e.g., suffer diminishing participation? Will cafes all turn into offices full of wannabe authors and playwrights? How tightly will we all get integrated into a life that I personally have already more or less adapted to? Is that really desirable? And what are the other questions about the unexpected outcomes we might expect from universal access and an even denser web of radio waves criss-crossing our bodies and brains all day every day? How will our social lives be altered by our willing participation in this suddenly even more available virtual life?