Mary Brown Has Died But She Lives On in All of Us

Mary Brown... about to say.... "Well, no..."

Mary Brown… about to say…. “Well, no…”

My good friend Mary Brown died about ten days ago. Yesterday, Saturday December 19, 2015, there was a stirring memorial for her, attended by well over 200 of her friends and family, all inspirations to her while she lived. But as the grief poured out and the memories piled up, the charming and hilarious anecdotes, the horrible sense of loss, and the powerful presence she had in her absence, the overwhelming inspiration she gave us all was the lasting impression for me. Over the years she had developed her own sensibilities, her own unique ways of thinking about and engaging with the world around her. Her work, from the push to establish the bike lanes on Valencia Street and help begin the still overdue transformation of San Francisco’s urban space, to her graduate thesis on the how automobility and congestion were imposed by motordom on the Mission, to her recent work to uncover the surprising diversity in the ticky-tack architecture of the Sunset district, all embodied and modeled a deeply observant and perpetually curious relationship to San Francisco, the Bay Area, and California.

In February at the PPIE100 opening at the Palace of Fine Arts: LisaRuth Elliott, Mary Brown, Elizabeth Creely, and yours truly.

In February at the PPIE100 opening at the Palace of Fine Arts: LisaRuth Elliott, Mary Brown, Elizabeth Creely, and yours truly.

I didn’t share the personal intimacies that so many memorialists did yesterday, especially her many housemates in the 22nd Street co-op. But the quirky, messy, prickly, funny, spontaneous, goofy, wonderful Mary that I have known since the mid-1990s was only confirmed and augmented by their stories. I was supposed to open the second part of the memorial of open-mic tributes, but after the lengthy ceremony and ensuing potluck, it seemed inappropriate to go back to microphone-and-audience, and anyway, we were hosting our big annual Posada party at home, scheduled long before this sad event became necessary. So I didn’t get to speak to the assembled mourners, but what I was prepared to talk about is this:

I didn’t live with Mary or even spend that much time alone with her over the years. What we shared more than anything was a mutual love of the City, an enthusiasm for exploration and meandering, for the dérive, the serendipitous, the historic mysteries embedded in the landscape—often in plain view. We both worked directly and indirectly to bring about a reinhabitation of the urban environment. We also shared a prickly contrarian sensibility that brooked no spiritual mumbo-jumbo, that took in the world through an assiduously secular lens that nevertheless could appreciate the wonder of life, the astonishing capacity of humans to connect with each other and the world around them. Mary was always a pillar of empathy and curiosity, far more capable of occupying an open-minded space of welcoming conviviality than most people I’ve ever met. At the same time she had little patience for trivialities, for niceties, for the blather that fills up way too much of our lives.

Beyond the specifics of her many accomplishments, her many friendships, and her infectious pleasure in living, I think Mary’s biggest contribution, one that is far from over, was her ability to model and share a new way of seeing the world around us. Perhaps she didn’t invent it, but as part of a wider stream of people who have been engaged in reconnecting us to place, to landscape, to the built environment, to the historic social movements that shaped our world, Mary Brown will always be with us because she helped change how we think. Never one to browbeat or lecture she still managed to convey a deeper way of seeing our world that once experienced, simultaneously humanized and naturalized each one of us. By sharing with us a utopian impulse that lacked the demanding perfectionism implied by the idea of utopia, her contribution to our changing epistemology is inestimable for those of us lucky enough to have been her friend and to have accompanied her on her perambulations across our fair town.

Mary Brown, you suffered way too much in your life, but now that it’s over it pales compared to the joy you took in the everyday pleasures right in front of us. On a StoryCorps interview with her from last June when Laura Lent asks her if she has any advice for the rest of us contemplating the unimaginable idea of a world without her, she laughs and assures us she has “lots of advice—for everyone!”… and her first, most urgent suggestion is to quit your job!

Life is far too short. When I turned 45, almost 14 years ago now, I felt that weight of mortality, how fleeting our time is on earth. To lose Mary at only 46 years of age, a life that endured four cancers over 20 years, is to know that most of us have not lived to our fullest, have not drunk nearly deeply enough of the joys and pleasures that are all around us. Mary, more than most people, showed us how to do it, and on her way out, took the time to wag her finger once more in her gently insistent way. “Do what matters! Don’t wait til later! Get on with it!” And so we should.

Mary and Adriana during the walk to Bayview Hill on February 6, 2010

Mary and Adriana during the walk to Bayview Hill on February 6, 2010

On Bayview Hill Feb. 6 2010.

On Bayview Hill Feb. 6 2010.

On the stairs at 20th and Sanchez, Feb. 5 2006 birthday walk...

On the stairs at 20th and Sanchez, Feb. 5 2006 birthday walk…

Riding along the Carquinez Straits in summer 2014.

Riding along the Carquinez Straits in summer 2014.

another view of Carquinez straits ride

another view of Carquinez straits ride

Continue reading Mary Brown Has Died But She Lives On in All of Us

Forget Affordability: In Defense of Cheap Rent!

Sidewalk Party October 10, 2015, celebrating the successful purchase of the Pigeon Palace by the San Francisco Community Land Trust (closed Sept. 10, 2015).

Sidewalk Party October 10, 2015, celebrating the successful purchase of the Pigeon Palace by the San Francisco Community Land Trust (closed Sept. 10, 2015).

As a resident of San Francisco’s latest Community Land Trust property—the Pigeon Palace—I am enjoying the new peace of mind that comes from knowing that I will never be evicted from my home. I’ve been happily surprised to feel a subtle shift in my experience of daily life–I hadn’t realized how much I was preparing to leave until I was certain that I wouldn’t be forced out.

Over the past weeks I’ve enjoyed a number of very San Franciscan moments, from the annual SOMARTS opening party of the Day of the Dead altars, our own sidewalk celebration party, to bumping into a stream of friends while on my daily walks across the City. I’ve realized that we’re still here and we don’t have to leave. I’m here for the long haul, and with it comes both possibilities and responsibilities. I’m readier than ever to dig in and make this place truly ours.

Our building has had cheap rents and it is precisely these cheap rents that gave the tenants the safe and stable foundation that allowed us all to contribute so much to San Francisco’s cultural and political life for the past several decades. A low cost of housing is an essential foundation for  a full life.

These days, everyone is bombarded by the hype to “do what you love,” and supposedly if you stick to it, the money will follow. Actually, probably not. Most of us have to get the proverbial “day job,” selling a money-making skill to someone willing to buy it. If we’re lucky we make enough money in few enough hours to leave us time to do what we really care about in our “free” time.

In my early 20s I realized that I wasn’t interested in following the normal paths that this society lays out before one. I wasn’t interested in a “career” and making money held no interest for me. I saw myself as a revolutionary and wanted to participate in creating a new way to live, not just for me as an individual, but a full-blown reorganization of everyday life itself. Even then I knew my revolutionary aspirations would probably not be met, so though I’ve continued to pursue that agenda in my own unique way, I also vowed to make sure that I lived the highest quality life I could manage. The key to that was to hold down my regular costs (transit, housing, food, communications, etc.) so that I would have less pressure to “slave away for the man!” In other words, I was way too busy to have a job! The best way I could carry out my self-directed activities (which have always kept me quite busy) was to bicycle instead of owning a car, to eat local and fresh from farmer’s markets and coop stores instead of eating out, and most crucially, to find and hold on to the lowest cost housing I could manage. Not having to make many thousands of dollars every month to be able to pass a large portion over to a landlord or bank gave me something far better than money; I have time, time that is not for sale. “Free” time is unmeasurable “wealth.” Cooperation, mutual aid, solidarity, and imagination all flourish in the absence of economic coercion. Happily, this dovetailed perfectly with my evolving sense of what a revolution might consist of.

Most people haven’t made the same choices that I have, and for many, it is nearly impossible to do so. My parents weren’t wealthy when I left home at age 17, but by the time I was in my 30s they were fairly affluent, and always ready and willing to back me up if I needed it. (I never really needed that backup, but having it available is clearly a big deal.) My chosen path to avoid economic coercion at all costs has given me a lot of freedom, and led to a lot of creative output over the years. But most people are trapped in poverty, or if they are “middle class” (as most people tend to think of themselves) the ball-and-chain of car ownership, the almost inevitable accumulation of student debt, and during the past twenty years radically rising housing costs, have entrapped most people in one type of debt or another. Burgeoning homelessness puts relentless pressure on those “lucky” enough to have an abode. Pay your rent, pay your mortgage, or else. After steadily rising housing costs in the last quarter of the 20th century, the 21st century saw an unprecedented transformation. Housing costs for renters and buyers alike skyrocketed in major cities across the planet, outracing stagnant incomes and becoming a primary conduit for transferring wealth from the majority of working people into the hands of a tiny financial elite.

Every apartment that is still rent-controlled, where long-term tenants pay less than $1000 per month per person (and sometimes much less!), has become a front line in the current battlefield of class war. Our fight to save our homes in the Pigeon Palace represents a victorious skirmish, and temporary reprieve for us, but so far, it is not going to be a working solution for many people.

VictoryParty10619The Pigeon Palace Story

At 83 our former landlady, who gave each of us very cheap rents because she didn’t believe in “choking people,” has been warehoused in a nursing home and denied any right of return to her home. A serious hoarder who was starting to lose her short-term memory and her mobility, but remained lucid and fiercely committed to her independence, she was declared incompetent by a judge and then relocated against her will by a court-appointed Conservator.

To save our homes we established a low-income, nonprofit housing co-op called Pigeon Palace, Inc. The San Francisco Community Land Trust (SFCLT), our political and economic partner (and benefactor) purchased the building in early September 2015 with loans from a private bank, the Mayor’s Office of Housing, and private investors including the tenants and our friends. With this purchase, we have taken the building off the market forever. But it came at a steep price that has saddled this effort with nearly $4 million in debt, a reality that casts a pall over our project and makes this a dubious model for widespread adoption or replication.

How did we manage to do this? The Pigeon Palace tenants joined with the San Francisco Community Land Trust (SFCLT) to “save” our building from the speculative real estate vultures that were hungrily circling our century-old 6-unit Victorian on Folsom Street in the heart of the Mission. The SFCLT won a probate auction, outlasting and outbidding one of the worst serial evictors in town. The Pigeon Palace was purchased at the height of the market for an absurdly high price. Our story, while inspiring on the face of it, sadly represents many of the worst contradictions that dominate the politics of housing not just in San Francisco but in every desirable city in the world.

Continue reading Forget Affordability: In Defense of Cheap Rent!

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.