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I attended a unique event in Istanbul, Turkey from October 11-14, 2013, called “Giftival,” a neologism combining gift and festival.

The front door of our building for Gifival, on Istiklal in Istanbul, Turkey.

The front door of our building for Gifival, on Istiklal in Istanbul, Turkey.

Typical scene on Istiklal in Istanbul, Turkey...

Typical scene on Istiklal in Istanbul, Turkey…

The choking morning on the same street... the only time vehicles are on there.

The choking morning on the same street… the only time vehicles are on there.

The event brought together people who are focusing on gift economy and gift culture as part of their core work in the world, arriving from an abundance and security perspective. Attendees came from far and wide: seven or eight from India, a half dozen from the U.S., various individuals from Nigeria, Brazil, Iran, Palestine, Jordan, Mexico, England, Canada, Czech Republic, Holland, France, a Swiss-German family living on a commune in Portugal, an Australian living at Findhorn in Scotland, and another 8-10 from various parts of Turkey. Pretty evenly divided between men and women, and we spanned the ages with two children ages 1 and 2 to a few older than 65. It was a very interesting bunch! Folks from a local timebank called Zumbara were instrumental in calling for and hosting Giftival, and their hospitality and generosity will be remembered by all of us. We were housed in nearby hostels and hotels, and fed delicious homemade meals for lunch and dinner every day.There were about 35 attendees at any given moment, though we had an open session on the Sunday afternoon when another 40-50 locals came in and joined us in a series of breakouts and then group discussion, followed by a potluck dinner.

incredibly beautiful sky over Holland during flight to Turkey...

incredibly beautiful sky over Holland during flight to Turkey…

Our meeting place was in an old 19th century building on the main pedestrian boulevard called Istiklal, so we were four floors above the constant hum of thousands of passing pedestrians and a funny repetitive accordion riff that appeared regularly during the afternoons, providing an extra soundtrack for our thoughts and discussions. Going there in the mornings we had to weave between dozens of delivery and garbage trucks, the air choking with their exhaust, but by the time we’d leave during the afternoon or in the evening, the street was back to being a throbbing public promenade. Side streets and alleys too are full of people on foot, and all the restaurants and bars are crowded with people of all types, making this part of Istanbul a super magnetic urban space. After we closed down on Monday evening, we were treated to a boat ride from the Golden Horn out into the Bosphorus, northward towards the Black Sea, and then back to the Istanbul shore, coursing the dark waters between Europe and Asia under starlit skies on a cool but pleasant evening. For us visitors, the environment was enchanting.

We were in the top floor of this building.

We were in the top floor of this building.

The view from our fourth floor window overlooking the Bosphorus...

The view from our fourth floor window overlooking Istiklal and the Bosphorus…

For the locals who called us together, the intensity of the recent events around Gezi Park was still quite fresh, and their compelling descriptions during our first morning together quickly penetrated any jet lag or uncertain distance we may have held. To hear about tens of thousands bringing food in a 15-minute period to a kilometers-long “table” spread down the middle of Istiklal (where major multinational brand stores and boutiques predominate) touched us all and produced a palpable excitement, even several months later. Combined with the other stories of amazing events, unexpected serendipities, spontaneous solidarities, and more, we could feel in the room the “eros effect” that had been so present during those summer days, and was still lending its long tailing residue to our gathering in a surprising but delightful way. At one point during the protests the government told mothers to go and get their children from Gezi to save them from attack, and instead the mothers by the thousands converged on Gezi with food and confronted the police themselves…. some of our friends here said they never ate better than during those heady days. In fact, they even talked about falling in love with everyone in the streets. More »

Hightailing (and Highlining) it through History in New York

Taking off in the fog and suddenly there was the city!

Taking off in the fog and suddenly there was the city!

Just finished a whirlwind visit to New York City where I saw old friends and popped in to visit four separate historical museums. I got extremely lucky with the weather: sunny and high 70s with a nice breeze the whole time I was in town. It was a bit of an odd trip, scheduled at the last minute to send Adriana off to her month at Blue Mountain Center (where I’ve been myself twice previously—an incredible experience of generosity and support for writers) and to prevent losing about 30,000 about-to-expire miles on one of the frequent flyer programs I’m enrolled in.

Since I’m off to Berlin at the end of October for a “History From Below” conference of DIY historians, I thought I should do some extra research in New York in preparation for that confab. I’ll talk about what I saw in the order I did them in, starting with the City Museum of New York’s exhibit on “Activist New York,” then the Museum of the Chinese in America in Chinatown, then the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side, and finally the recently opened Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space in the East Village.

Like San Francisco, there's a frenzy of building in New York too, the global city saga...

Like San Francisco, there’s a frenzy of building in New York too, the global city saga…

With all the work I’ve been doing over the years with Shaping San Francisco and our archive at, I have thought a lot about how to present historical information. But I can’t honestly say I’ve settled on any particular formula that feels like it always works. Sometimes I want great depth and complexity, other times a photo essay tells the story best, and then there are times when an oral history clip, either video or audio, can really bring a story to life. Other times such clips can be weirdly trivial and uninteresting, so there’s not a sure-fire way to approach these things.

Similarly, there’s been a discussion about a Museum of the City of San Francisco going on for years now. The project as it is so far constituted is controlled by the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society (though I’ve heard rumors that they may be breaking it apart again after some five or maybe even 10 years of not succeeding as a shotgun marriage) and is projected to open someday at the Old Mint at 5th and Mission. But the SFMHS has not been able to advance the project beyond the drawing board and some elaborate but unrealized plans drawn up by well-paid consultants. Having seen the plans going back some years now, I was never very excited about what they were going to do, and definitely wondered about how well it would work, how likely it would be to engage and provoke people to think historically, or might it not be just another cable-car-and-sourdough-bread-on-the-Golden-Gate-Bridge disneyfied history?

Meanwhile, Richard Everett and Amy Hosa at the San Francisco National Maritime Museum have created a marvelous mini-museum of San Francisco history, called “The Waterfront” (free and open to the public at the Visitor Center in the corner of the Argonaut Hotel at Jefferson and Hyde), which does a fine job of telling the central story of San Francisco’s rise and development along its waterfront, which encompasses a great deal of the City’s basic economic and social history as a result. I actually wonder why we need another history museum, even though I can imagine many more historical threads to unwind in other narratives. In any case, my skepticism notwithstanding, I often find museums flat and dull and pointless, if not actively reinforcing the worst clichés and falsehoods that tend to pass for history in our amnesiac society. That I found “The Waterfront” so engaging and well-informed, informative and smart, saved the idea of museums for me, to some extent.


yeah, I admit it...

yeah, I admit it…

So in New York I went out looking at these four different institutions to see what I would learn from them, both in terms of the histories they’re presenting, but also how they’re presenting them, how they’re engaging in basic historiography. A good friend told me about the “Activist New York” exhibit after he visited it a month ago and I went hoping to find it inspiring. But something about it went flat for me soon after I started wandering through it. It’s all in one big room, divided into more than a half dozen alcoves. In each there are artifacts, huge photos on the walls, displays highlighting characters who participated in the movements being documented, and small kiosks in the middle of the floor where you can connect to current organizations still campaigning on similar issues. There was a section on women’s rights and suffrage, a section on the proletarian literature movement of the 1930s, the labor movement through the years, the gay and lesbian and transgender movement, the bicycling movement of the past few decades, the urban and architectural preservation movement (with a focus on fighting Robert Moses in NYC), and of course the Civil Rights movement and its connection to the original abolitionists; there was even a display on the “Conservative Party of New York” and its so-called activism.  More »

Life in a Neoliberal Crockpot

These red arrows only capture some of the construction frenzy underway now in San Francisco.

These red arrows only capture some of the construction frenzy underway now in San Francisco.

San Francisco is nearly at full boil. Rampant eviction and displacement, combined with a nearly unprecedented frenzy of new construction, and a wild west of new restaurants, boutiques, and other establishments opening and closing like a spinning top, is changing the face of the city so rapidly that it’s becoming unrecognizable even to those of us who have lived here for decades. Hardly a day passes without news of another friend losing their home to a new buyer who is determined to evict either using “owner move-in” or the state “Ellis Act” which allows owners to leave the rental business and clear their buildings.

My last friends in the Haight evicted last month.

My last friends in the Haight evicted last month.

LisaRuth suffering the indignity of an "owner move-in" and her displacement....

LisaRuth suffering the indignity of an “owner move-in” and her displacement….

Curiously, thousands of apartments are estimated to be lying empty in San Francisco, held as investments by distant speculators. Thousands more lay unused by the elite who maintain empty apartments in so-called “global cities” spanning the world, pied-a-terre’s for the 1% who drop in once and a while for fun or business. Many more homes have been informally converted into temporary tourist dwellings via the latest dotcom scourge AirBnB, and similar predatory neoliberal business models masquerading as “the sharing economy.”

San Francisco progressives, once known as the Left, but today a bit too compromised and confused to earn consistently even that tepid moniker, are a paper tiger, unable to contest or even slow down the onslaught ripping the fabric of the city. The long-term demise of organized labor, holding on for dear life among city workers, transit workers, and some hotels and the building trades, is an important part of the shrinking of social opposition, but it goes a lot further than that.  In the first dotcom boom-and-bust in 1999-2000 a spirited movement emerged, centered in the Mission District and with activist pressure showing up in most parts of town, but an equivalent effort at contestation has simply not appeared this time around. Protests echoing the decade-ago efforts have not drawn the numbers or the attention in 2013; the fact that gentrification has proceeded stealthily and steadily all these years has already radically altered the demographics of the city. Thousands of wealthy people are now living in new condominiums in the South of Market, downtown, Mission Bay, the Haight-Ashbury, the Fillmore, and the Mission District. Thousands of old Victorians have been bought and removed from the rental market, now owned by the burgeoning population of well-paid lawyers, financial analysts, medical and biotech workers, and of course the much-blamed tech workers of the social media empires.

karl book 2258_regTrying to make sense of the trajectory from the much-heralded Left Coast City of the past to the increasingly brutal neoliberal cauldron of today is difficult, but two new books published this year offer complementary analyses that help start the introspection. Karl Beitel’s Local Protest, Global Movements: Capital, Community, and State in San Francisco (Temple University Press, Philadephia: 2013) and Jason Henderson’s Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco (Univ of Massachusetts Press, Boston: 2013) both set out to analyze the state of progressive politics, albeit from different points of focus (I should say that I consider each of these authors my friend, too). street fight 9781613762608Beitel hails from a more traditionally left perspective, and he’s trying to reconcile the history of mass movements and political parties with an eco-Marxist perspective in his focus on housing politics in San Francisco from the 1970s to the mid-2000s. Henderson is a critical geographer teaching at SF State and his book focuses in on the transportation realm, identifying three ideological poles (conservative, neoliberal, and progressive) that have confronted and compromised with each other to create the stalemate we face daily, leaving everyone dissatisfied whether motorist, bus rider, bicyclist, or pedestrian.

Both of these slim volumes provide great histories: Beitel highlights the early history of resistance to redevelopment and highrises and how that led to the inadequate-but-better-than-nothing rent control that passed in 1979 (and we still have now, strengthened in subsequent years by savvy ballot-box efforts led by the SF Tenants Union). In a later chapter he recounts the rise of the Mission Anti-displacement Coalition (MAC) and its relationship to the Willie Brown era of unrestrained for-profit building during the first dot-com boom (which really is still ongoing, we now know). Henderson usefully tells the story of the original Freeway Revolt in the 1950s-60s and shows how the coalition that stopped the road builders then was as much conservative as progressive. In a later chapter he gives a great history of the 2nd Freeway Revolt of the 1990s that took place in the wake of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the opportunity it presented to tear down the Embarcadero and Central freeways. He shows how progressive activists came to accept neoliberal arguments about profitable real estate opportunities as a way to forge an alliance against the conservatives who insisted the city government bolster and expand automobility by repairing the damaged freeways.

These two books, which often parallel each other in interesting ways, also demonstrate one of the problems they’re describing: the isolation of local-issue campaigns from one another. They also both demonstrate the problem of academic theses, that the focus must always be narrowed to an acceptable topic at the expense of a more comprehensive and complex approach. The book market in general is in trouble, and broad analytical works are growing harder to find. Publishers, even academic ones, seem to prefer the easily categorized topical treatments—in this way political writings mirror the separations that political movements keep reproducing, at least in the U.S. More »

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