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Communities, old and new

May 21, 1979 was the White Night Riot in San Francisco, the one-night insurrection that erupted after Dan White got a light sentence for murdering Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. It was an important night in my life, and now I’m doing a book design for Kevin Mullen’s new collection of police stories; turns out it was an important night for him too. It was dubbed “Mullen’s Retreat” when he ordered the enraged police to withdraw from Castro and 18th in the early morning hours of May 22, a remarkable decision in retrospect. It wrecked his police career and led him to become a local historian after nearly three decades in the SFPD… the basic humanity of some police is an important fissure that radicals too often overlook in their understandable rush to condemn those who carry out the violence of the state… a topic for further rumination in the future. Anyway, happy birthdays on this May 21 too, to ex-mother-in-law Julie and old friend Glenn B…

Today the Bike Kitchen (at 19th and Florida in the Mission Market) celebrated its 2nd anniversary with a wild party featuring the Cyclecide gang and their zany pedal-powered ferris wheel and spinning four-seat ride, plus countless amazing chopper bikes, homemade marvels, and all the other remarkable creative output of the local bike scenesters… I’m slowly working on my new book, and one of the chapters will be on the “underground bike scene” and this was a quintessential moment in its continuing evolution. This subculture, rarely overtly political and certainly not today (really Cyclecide is never political, preferring the closeted subversion of ‘fun’), is nevertheless an important manifestation of larger dynamic that I think goes on all the time in our lives. People take their time and their technological know-how OUT of the market, out of any kind of buying-and-selling dynamic, and share it freely and cooperatively. In so doing, an authentic community is forged, something that is slowly emerging from the already collapsing status quo. These zany bicyclists are comprised of people who just enjoy hanging out together, building and experimenting with bicycles, welding, pedal motion, etc. Some of them may be political in various ways, but the community discovering itself in the free space created around bicycles and experimenting with bike technology is fraught with political meaning and potential regardless of the self-consciousness of its participants.

Crucially, in an era characterized by massive atomization and social breakdown, in which communities at work or in neighborhoods have been dislocated and displaced in one of the most thoroughgoing capitalist restructurings of daily life in modern history, we can now see ordinary folks (in this case, mostly pretty young) beginning to reassemble themselves in new ways, on new bases. Who are these people? Well, in a basic sense they are the working class. They all have to work to live, and though many survive through a variety of marginal gigs in the service sector, increasingly their experience is a normal and unavoidable one, economically speaking. But generally they don’t identify with their jobs as anything but temporary stops on their way to something else. Instead, their sense of selves, their engagement with the pleasure of living, the place they find community and connections, is precisely NOT at work or in the apartment next door, but rather through these curious new communities. (I’m posting a mini-gallery at the bottom of this.)

Another kind of community shaped the event I attended this evening. The Precita Eyes Mural Project had its annual awards dinner and celebration at the Precita Valley Community Center, a small, venerable old hall that has been serving the micro-neighborhood between the Mission and Bernal Heights since 1922. In this very same center, Susan Cervantes and her family and friends founded the now well-known Precita Eyes Mural Project 15 years ago. Mona was given an award for her amazing Church Street mural (“Market Street Railway Mural” officially) and I got to tag along.

It was a sweet event, and I want to credit Cervantes and her family for so convincingly bringing so many people together in a real spirit of (ugh) community. It was a beautifully diverse crowd, equal parts Mission latino, African-American and white, all ages from quite elderly to infants. Unlike the youthful, self-selecting subculture of the bicyclists (who do attract people outside of just white and young, but not as much) the public mural subculture has systematically cultivated people from all ethnicities, classes and ages and the fruit was borne at this dinner party. In a way, it felt like the community one experiences at your child’s school… in fact, due to some less articulate speakers and the high tolerance shown by the supportive audience, it REALLY felt like that a few times. But the emotions were palpable as people spoke to the power of doing murals, of involving children, of connecting to the community and enhancing its sense of self through public art, and so on.

I suppose I liked it because I live here and I knew enough of the folks in the room to feel a part of the community. But I couldn’t help but feel too that this is why people sometimes find San Francisco painfully provincial. We’re very self-satisfied and self-referential too often, and the kind of easy adulation that we tend to bestow upon our works mostly underscores how far we are from the aesthetic, artistic, and intellectual challenges that are common currency in world capitals from NYC to London to Milan to Paris (not to mention Mumbai, Djakarta, Johannesburg, Sao Paulo or Shanghai!)… not that I could list those challenges off the top of my head. I just know there is a lot more rigorous work out there, and that people aren’t so easily satisfied. The last artist of the evening, Sante Huckaby, obliquely made this point when he lectured the kids in the audience about the fact that mural painting is real work, not just fun, and that they should take it seriously and really study and learn to paint and do the work well.

It’s an interesting dilemma for people attracted to public art and popular participatory processes. How do you bring in new people, reinforce their positive contributions, but still strive for a more rigorous and critical engagement? Is the art created by total amateurs and first-time daubers really worthy, or should we demand more? Especially if it’s going to be on public walls for years to come, shouldn’t we want the most interesting, most talented painters to have first rights? Doesn’t a fetish for participation actually interfere with good art? What about a more thoroughgoing process that creates a series of steps that people can go through before they are encouraged to paint public murals? I think that’s what they’ve tried to create at Precita Eyes, a kind of popular educational system for public mural painting. A lot of the murals that have come from the people around Precita Eyes are beautiful and well-liked. But they’ve also, perhaps inadvertantly, reinforced a certain leftish school of bombastic, primary color-dominated iconic murals that have perhaps run their course, aesthetically as well as politically? I suppose we’ll see in the coming years what kinds of new styles and meanings are communicated on our local walls” plus we’ll see what comes from elsewhere. At least there’s a local community engaged in this form of expression.

Here’s a small gallery of photos from the Bike Kitchen today:

Ferris wheel and four-seat whirligig, both pedal-powered.

Jay Broemmel’s amazing Golden Gate Bridge bike.

The Chopper Cabra, scariest fire-spitting bike I’ve ever seen!

People riding around on their odd assortment of homemade bikes.

Here’s a classic chopper, forktastic!

The “Huffy Toss”

2 comments to Communities, old and new

  • alex

    i have made a chopper at home and i am wondering if i can put a pic of it on the net if you think i could put it on your site could you please send me information on how i could do it
    yours hopefully
    Alex F

  • thanx for the updates on all the activities chris… found yer blog recently & am looking forward to checking out yer book (s)…

    i was deeply digging yer take on the city i love & live in but seem to never have time to experience fully…

    i of course know Jercho & the cyclecisders, Ms. Cervantes & the Precita Mural folks etc…

    but damn if i wasn’t shucking & jiving in far off Mountain View via Cal Train for the corporate overloads on a sunny Saturday on a damn Temp gig…

    all so I can pay the rent in SF… theorhetically so i can enjoy the events that you were actually act…

    hmmm… i hope carnaval is a blast, and whatever else ya dig up this weekend, maybe the parties at the new balazo? keep me vicariously tipped to the scene as i believe i’ll be working a magazine marketing event in a mall some where on the peninsula… yikes

    stop by for a beer sometime at Sadie’s on Sunday eves and i’ll take care of ye…

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