Volume 41 Number 27

April 4 – 11, 2007

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Unanswered questions


› sarah@sfbg.com

Bayview–Hunters Point resident Espanola Jackson says her phone rang off the hook after the San Francisco Chronicle printed her photo — but none of her concerns — under the headline "Residents Like Plan to Revitalize Area." It was part of the newspaper’s extensive coverage of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s plan to rebuild the community around a football stadium.

"People called to say, ‘You need to sue the Chronicle,’ " Jackson told the Guardian. Newsom wants to entrust Florida-based developer Lennar Corp. with cleaning up the five highly contaminated Hunters Point Shipyard parcels. Jackson finds this plan worrisome because, as the Guardian recently revealed ("The Corporation That Ate San Francisco," 3/14/07), Lennar was cited multiple times last year for failing to monitor and control dust and asbestos at Parcel A, the first and only piece of the shipyard that the Navy has released to the city as ready for development. Lennar is also being sued by three employees for allegations of racially charged whistle-blower retaliation in connection with the problems on Parcel A (see "Dust Still Settling," 3/28/07).

Beyond her problems with Lennar, Jackson worries that Newsom’s plan doesn’t account for climate change or the true cost of shipyard cleanup.

"Because of global warming, that entire area is going to be underwater," Jackson said. "And if Michael Cohen [of the Mayor’s Office of Base Reuse] and the rest of them are really interested in cleaning up the area, they should send a resolution to the Board of Supervisors requesting that Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, and Nancy Pelosi appropriate $5 billion, which is what it will really take to clean up the shipyard."

Jackson was also frustrated that neither the Hunters Point Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board, which is composed of local residents, tenants, and environmental and community groups, nor the regulators overseeing the cleanup have been consulted by the mayor in his haste to try to keep the 49ers in town by quickly building a new stadium.

Jackson, who bought a home in the Bayview 34 years ago, said residents want a thorough cleanup, not a rush job. That was what city residents said in November 2000 when they overwhelmingly approved Proposition P, demanding that no transfer of property take place "until the entire Shipyard is cleaned to residential standards."

"It’s a landfill, and it needs to be removed," Jackson said.

Yet Lennar, which won the contract to redevelop the shipyard, is in a worsening financial position to deal with unexpected challenges at the site. The company’s profits plummeted more than 70 percent in the first quarter of 2007 because of the slumping housing market. Jackson doesn’t believe the cleanup will cost $300 million, a figured touted by Cohen, but she questions where the cleanup money will come from.

"Only white folks will be able to afford the 8,900 housing units that Lennar is proposing to build near the stadium," Jackson said.

The Chronicle‘s overwhelmingly positive coverage of the mayor’s shipyard plan came shortly after Lennar Urban president Kofi Bonner wrote to the Board of Supervisors and the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency claiming that articles in the Guardian and the Chronicle about Lennar’s asbestos and dust problems at the shipyard and the lawsuit by employees "are full of errors, inaccuracies and misinformation."

Asked what errors Bonner was referring to, Lennar spokesperson Sam Singer told the Guardian, "My main complaint is with the lawsuit, which contains numerous false allegations, and with the Chronicle‘s article, which called these employees ‘executives.’ " Lennar has not requested any corrections of Guardian articles.

Asked about the lawsuit’s claim that Bonner sat by and allowed the alleged discrimination to happen, Singer told us, "Kofi is one of the leading African American executives in the nation." Neither Bonner nor Lennar vice president Paul Menaker, who are both named in the whistle-blower suit, returned the Guardian‘s calls as of press time.

Attorney Angela Alioto, who represents the three African American Lennar employees suing the company, told the Guardian that Singer’s defense of Bonner is "racist."

"Just because Kofi is African American means he couldn’t discriminate?" Alioto asked.

Equally disturbing is the Mayor’s Office’s reliance on Lennar for accurate information about the developer’s performance at the shipyard. When the Guardian contacted Newsom press secretary Nathan Ballard for comment about Lennar, he wrote to the Guardian, "You might want to give Sam Singer a call. He’s the spokesperson for Lennar and can really answer questions about that stuff … accurately."

After making it clear that we wanted Newsom’s perspective, not Lennar’s, Ballard wrote that the Mayor’s Office is "confident the systems we have in place will protect human health," an answer that dodges our question about the violations that happened over a six-month period in 2006.

Insisting that Lennar will not be asked to take over the cleanup, Ballard claimed that "if the city pursues an ‘early transfer’ with the Navy, a specialized environmental remediation firm, not Lennar, would finish certain elements of the cleanup. And the city will have extensive oversight over any such work."

Ballard refused to comment on the suit brought against Lennar by three of its employees but went into detail about the Restoration Advisory Board, which he said was "created by the Navy to advise the Navy."

"The city created its own Citizens Advisory Board independent of the Navy for local input from the Bayview community," Ballard claimed.

He also maintained that the "Navy is and will always remain legally responsible for paying for the cleanup. Over the last three to four years, we have secured more cleanup money for the shipyard than any other closed Navy base in the county. We intend to have those robust funding levels continue."

This was also one of the most toxic bases in the country, which is why the conversion effort has been difficult. Plaintiff Guy McIntyre also alleges it is complicated because of chicanery. Before being demoted, McIntyre said he told his bosses there were "severe discrepancies in the invoicing submitted by Gordon Ball," which has a $20 million construction contract with Lennar.

"Specifically, while Gordon Ball stated that over $1 million was going to a certain minority-owned subcontractor, only a small fraction of that money was actually going to the subcontractor," the lawsuit contends.

We have been trying to review those public records, so far without success. James Fields, contract compliance supervisor for the Redevelopment Agency, told us that Gordon Ball subcontracted with several minority business enterprises, including Michael Spencer Masonry, Oliver Transbay, Remediation Services, Bayview Hunters Point Trucking, and Gordon Ball’s joint-venture partner, Yerba Buena.

Fields said, "I have been advised that the project manager usually presides over the collection of the data but that they are out of the country. Because the project is substantially completed, we will ask the prime contractor, which is Ball, and the minority business enterprises and the women business enterprises under Ball to show us how much they were paid, then compare the sets of records."

In other words, there are still more unanswered questions about Lennar and its subcontractors. *

From Iraq and back


› amanda@sfbg.com

Omar Fekeiki sits alertly at a café table on the terrace of International House, his dorm at UC Berkeley. His straight posture belies his relative ease. It’s the only sign that he may not be entirely at home.

Like any other 28-year-old graduate student, he’s wearing jeans — not the pressed slacks necessary for a meeting with Iraqi officials. His hands are resting on his knees, rather than poised with a pen and a reporter’s notepad, scribbling Arabic words from an informed source. His smooth, tan face, with just a hint of unshorn shadow, is turned up toward a mild afternoon sun, not away from the heat of a Baghdad noon. The dark stubble on his head is no longer covered by a helmet. His slim chest is free to breathe without the pressure of a flak jacket. His heart may or may not be racing, but it’s definitely beating.

It’s difficult to believe that the quiet cell phone on the table in front of him once rang regularly with field reports of car bombings, kidnappings, and execution-style shootings. It’s unsettling to think it could ring now, that something irrevocable could be happening at home, 7,500 miles away, as he sits in this idle sunshine.

What does Fekeiki find unbelievable? That he’s in the United States, that he’s finally on his way toward a real life, studying journalism at one of the best universities in the world.

"It was not even a dream," he told the Guardian with the careful pronunciation that can sound like a proclamation often heard in the voices of nonnative English speakers. "It’s something beyond a dream. It was such an impossible thing to do. Now I flash back memories of when I spent hours on the phone with my best friend. We would say, ‘Could you imagine if we could go to the States and find work and live there?’ I always think about this and say, ‘Wow, I’m lucky.’ "

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at least 3.9 million Iraqis have fled their homes since the US invasion. Half are displaced within their country, and the other two million have crossed borders, with 700,000 in nearby Jordan, 100,000 in Egypt, and 60,000 finding a sort of solace in Sweden.

By contrast, in four years only 692 Iraqis have been resettled in the United States. Despite the danger at home and a flood of applications, the State Department routinely denies Iraqi visa applications, apparently believing Iraqis need to stay home to rebuild their tattered country. Of the record 591,000 student visas given last year, only 112 went to Iraqis, an increase from 46 in 2005.

"I waited months," said Fekeiki, who thinks his affiliation as a special correspondent with the Washington Post is what got him the necessary piece of paper in the nick of time.

But his status here is temporary, and even though a civil war rages in the streets of his hometown and no US, UN, or Iraqi politician has yet to forcefully present a viable solution to the quagmire, he has no plans to apply for citizenship.

"Every Iraqi I know in the States now doesn’t want to go back. I don’t blame them," he said. But staying here is not for him. And that’s the other unbelievable thing about Fekeiki: he can’t wait to return to Baghdad.

"I belong in Iraq."


Fekeiki says he’s always been lucky, and April 2003 was no exception. The day after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government, Fekeiki was hoping to track down a BBC reporter at the Palestine Hotel who might lend him a phone to make a "we’re alive" call to his uncle in London. He noticed a Washington Post reporter struggling to interview a civilian and stopped to lend a hand. The reporter was impressed with Fekeiki’s translation and suggested he go to the paper’s offices and see about a job.

He did and was temporarily hired by bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran, but after a week he was let go. The Post had enough translators. "He was pretty young, just out of school," Chandrasekaran told the Guardian. The Post did, however, make a point of noting the directions to the young man’s house in case it ever needed him. In a matter of days the paper was knocking on his door.

Initially, Fekeiki continued working as a translator but quickly graduated to fixer, a sort of guide to the Post journalists — scouting out stories, digging up contacts, arranging transportation and interviews. Within weeks he was the bureau’s office manager, overseeing a busy newsroom of 42 American and Iraqi journalists who were all older than him and vastly more experienced.

Chandrasekaran says one thing he always told his Post colleagues was to listen to the Iraqi staff. "They have a better sense of when something is going bad. I empowered people like Omar to put their foot down, to say no."

That empowerment, coupled with the important tasks of monitoring news wires and Iraqi and American television stations, dispatching staff to daily disasters, and maintaining order in the office, suited Fekeiki. He rose to the challenge and fell in love with his job. Pretty soon he was contributing to stories, then writing his own and, to his surprise, really enjoying the work.

Raised by a family of journalists and writers, Fekeiki never thought he’d be one. His father, a former politician and vocal critic of Hussein, had lived the nomadic life of an exile as a punishment for his writing. Fekeiki grew up with wiretapped phones, regular house searches, and a father with his neck in a threatened noose. He was taught that if you wrote what the government approved, you’d be wasting your time. If you didn’t, you’d be killed.

The motives have changed, but the risk remains. Life was always dicey. Fekeiki was raised with the fear that he would "disappear" if he weren’t carrying the proper card identifying him as a student, not a soldier. Censorship was part of life.

"If you repeat what we say in this house, you will get killed," he was told by his parents. "Imagine saying that to a five-year-old?" he asks. "I had to live with fear all the time."

He could never slip — it would put his family in grave risk. But now, taking up the family tradition and being a journalist in his native country is almost like asking to die.


Targeted violence toward news gatherers is on the rise everywhere, and 2006 was the deadliest year for journalists since 1994, mostly because of Iraq. Though statistics vary depending on the definition of journalist, Reporters Without Borders says 155 journalists and media staff have been killed during the four years of Iraq War coverage. The Committee to Protect Journalists, which investigates every claim and only counts confirmed deaths of credentialed reporters, puts the figure at 97. Both counts already lap the Vietnam War’s 20-year tally of 66, and both organizations say the fallen are overwhelmingly Iraqi.

"I’m hard-pressed to think of a more dangerous profession in the world today than being an Iraqi journalist in Iraq," said Chandrasekaran, who was bureau chief there for 18 months and has covered past conflicts in Afghanistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. "By spring of 2004 it was too dangerous for Western reporters out in the street."

So journalists came to depend even more on the Iraqis, who were about the only ones able to do on-the-ground reporting after anti-American sentiments and violence took hold.

"You cannot stand in a Baghdad street and do a piece for camera," Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told us. "An Iraqi journalist can blend in with the local population. They’re the only ones that can literally move around…. I think the only good news is we’re getting any news at all."

Iraqis are the only bridge for any respectable news organization attempting to gain access to what’s going on, but alliances with Americans paint clear targets on their backs. "One of the things that distinguishes this war from others is that most journalists are not being caught in cross fire. They are being murdered," Mahoney said. Murders account for about two-thirds of the Iraqi journalist deaths, and without those reporters, he said, the American public "doesn’t have all the information it should have at their fingertips to make informed decisions."

One wonders if the military and the administration do either. Camille Evans, an Army intelligence sergeant, said during a March 20, 2007, panel of Iraq war veterans at the Commonwealth Club, "For most of our intelligence, we did use CNN."

Though affiliations with Americans put all Iraqi journalists in peril, other risks lie along the sectarian divides. If they work for an independent Iraqi newspaper attempting unbiased journalism, they’re just as bad as Americans. If they spin for one side, they’re targeted by the other. In short, the only agreement between Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias could be their shared attitude toward journalists: work for us or you’re dead.

There were many times Fekeiki believed he would die — when he was covering the November 2004 assault in Fallujah as mortars hummed over his tent, or when he was kidnapped by Mahdi Army fighters who told him, "You will disappear behind the sun," before he managed to escape into a passing ambulance. And then there were the straight-up death threats.

"I was threatened three times," he told us. "The first time, my bureau chief was Karl Vick, and he said, ‘We’ll fly you out to any place you want. We’ll take care of you,’ and I said no. He said, ‘We have to do something. We can’t risk your life.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll go embed with the Marines in Fallujah, to cover the assault.’ "

Fekeiki saw this as a way to disappear from his neighborhood for a little while but still be involved at the Post and give the paper something he thought it needed — an Iraqi to cover the Iraqi side of the story. "They didn’t have one. The Iraqis in our office didn’t want to do it."

Fekeiki didn’t tell a soul about the second death threat, a letter on his doorstep. "I didn’t want them to fly me out of Iraq. I wanted to stay. I knew that if I told the Post, they would ask me to leave, give me another job somewhere else. I didn’t want that."

He had dreams of using this opportunity at the Post to eventually start a newspaper in Iraq and, if that went well, perhaps a career in politics. First he would need the hard currency of an American education. Reluctant to leave his family, Fekeiki bargained with himself and decided he would only apply to UC Berkeley, where some of his Post friends had attended journalism school. If he didn’t get in, he would stay in Iraq.

The final death threat came June 15, 2006. "A car chased me from the office to my house," he recalls. Flooring the gas pedal of his Opal, he managed to get away.

By then he’d received his acceptance letter to Berkeley and had a scholarship fund started by Post owner Don Graham and continued by his colleagues at the paper. All he needed was a student visa, but the risks were mounting. "I was supposed to leave early August. I thought, why would I risk two months? Let’s just leave now," he said. He hid in the Post office for four days until he could catch a flight to Amman, Jordan, where he waited two more weeks for his ticket to the States.


Just three months after he left Iraq for Berkeley, he received a phone call from his aunt, telling him that a recent raid of an insurgent house had turned up a "to kill" list for assassins. Fekeiki’s name was near the top.

It’s incomprehensible to many that he’d want to be back in Baghdad, but to a seasoned war correspondent, it’s not entirely unbelievable. Chris Hedges spent 15 years as a foreign bureau chief for the New York Times covering conflicts around the world and is the author of the 2002 book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. He describes the typical war reporter as an "adrenaline junkie," hooked on a certain kind of bravado. "They’re people who don’t have a good capacity to remember their own fear," he told the Guardian.

"The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living," Hedges wrote in the introduction to his book.

"I never felt safe, but I always felt productive," Fekeiki said. "If I wanted productive or safe, I chose productive. I never thought about being safe or not. That’s why I was the only Iraqi in the Washington Post to embed with the military and Marines, because the others feared for their lives. I did fear for my life. I just didn’t let it stop me. If I fear for my life, I shouldn’t be a journalist in Iraq."

In one sense the war was a blessing for Fekeiki. Before the war began in 2003, he says, "I didn’t have a future."

Although he had a college degree in English language and literature from Al-Turath University College, he was denied admission to grad school at Baghdad University. "He doesn’t meet the security requirements," Fekeiki quotes wryly from the code language of the blacklist, for his family doesn’t play nice with Hussein’s.

Fekeiki supported the American invasion, and once the war began he had no intention of leaving. After Hussein’s regime was eradicated, he knew that smart young people with local knowledge and solid English skills would be in high demand from American businesses, reconstruction contractors, and government workers.

"My last thought was to leave Iraq after the invasion, because here’s a country that needs to be rebuilt. We’ll have all the foreign companies working in Iraq. I’ll use the language I studied for four years, English, and I’ll have the best job in Iraq," he recalled.

And eventually, he did. Offers came in from the New York Times for double his Post salary and from Fox News for triple, but he admired the ethics of the Post, which made a point of encouraging its Iraqi writers and crediting their work, so he stuck with that paper.

Fekeiki found more than money and a ticket out of the crippled country. He found his calling. His enthusiasm for his job at the Post sounds like that of a classic American workaholic.

"I miss my office," he said, remembering his desk at the center of the newsroom. "I called it the throne. I spent at least 14 hours a day there, for two years, nonstop. Not one single day off. After two years, in theory, I had a chance to take a day off every week. I spent it in the office, not working but in the office with people."

"My only motivation now is that desk," he says. He hopes to return to it after school. "I’m going to help journalists in Iraq and the future of Iraq."

Without this thought, he says, "I don’t think I’d be able to endure what I’m going through now. It’s just dull. The boredom is hard. In Baghdad I had fun not knowing what was going to happen every day. Here, I wake up, go to school, reply to e-mails on my blog, go to dinner, go to sleep. That’s not a life. That’s retirement."

He feels guilty that his life is now so easy when his family and friends are still threatened back home.

"Being safe terrifies me. I can’t get used to it."


For Fekeiki, staying abreast of the violence is like keeping in touch with reality, though here in the States he has to turn to fiction to find his fix.

The Situation, a film about an American journalist covering the war in Iraq, recently screened at the Lumiere Theatre in San Francisco. One of the first dramas about the war, it opens with a scene of two young Iraqis being thrown off a bridge in Samarra by US troops. One of them drowns, causing a stir in the province.

"That actually happened," Fekeiki says. Throughout the film, his eyes rarely left the screen, except for fleeting moments to scribble a few notes on a pad and near the end to wipe away a couple tears. Though the characters are fictional, the plot is very real, centering on misguided US intelligence, the schism between Iraqis and Americans, and the overall futility of war.

"Wow," he said, getting up from his seat as the last credit rolled and the screen went completely black. "I could identify with every aspect of that movie."

The violence doesn’t bother him as much as it reminds him of where he’s come from, where his family is, and what his friends are doing. "I want to still feel connected," he says.

In Berkeley he doesn’t. The first semester of basic reporting, de rigueur for all journalism students, was difficult for Fekeiki. He found the Bay Area beat more terrifying than Baghdad. "Some people think reporting in a war zone is difficult, but I did it, and I know how to do it," he says.

"In Iraq everything you think about is a story. Here you have to squeeze your mind to find a story that interests the readers. That’s really challenging. I don’t know the place. It’s not my culture. I don’t know the background. I need a fixer," he says, laughing.

He was as lost working on a story about Merrill Lynch as an American reporter might have been covering the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra. "At 7 a.m. I get an assignment to go write about Merrill Lynch in San Francisco. What’s Merrill Lynch?"

Lydia Chavez, Fekeiki’s professor for basic reporting, said she usually pushes her students to cover stories they wouldn’t normally choose. But she told us, "Someone like Omar, I was trying to find something that would be comfortable because everything is so foreign."

His turning point came when he covered a psychic fair in Berkeley. "He came back with something I never would have expected," she said.

"They didn’t want me to write anything," Fekeiki said of the psychics he encountered at the fair. "They wouldn’t let me interview the people there who came to heal their aura. So I was, like, ‘OK, can I heal my aura and take notes?’ They said, ‘Yes, why not?’ So I did it, and it turned into a personal piece."

The amazing part of the story is what the healer saw about him even though he hadn’t told her his name, let alone that he was from Baghdad. "The woman just shocked me with her information about me. She started to talk about how my family is in danger and how I am terrified about being in a place I don’t think I belong to and have to compete with other people. It was amazing," he says, still somewhat aghast.

"She couldn’t heal my aura, though. She said I have conflicting thoughts: ‘You’re very protective of your thoughts, and you’re confused, and it’s messed up.’ Which is true."


Fekeiki has the cockiness of youth and the undaunted faith of a survivor but also a certain attitude toward life he doesn’t always see in his fellow Iraqis. "I tell people I will live to be 94. And I will," he says, believing that all it takes to succeed is to say that you will.

He states his ambitions solidly: to be the charming dictator of his own newspaper, to rise through the ranks of parliamentary politics, to one day rule the country as a prime minister. To stay in this country, to be "nothing" in Berkeley, is just not satisfying enough.

"I’m Iraqi," he says. "I just want to feel that I’m spending my time doing something to benefit my country. If everyone leaves Iraq, we’ll not have an Iraq on the map in the future. I don’t want that to happen."

The newspaper he hopes to own and manage will be fiercely independent and printed daily in Arabic, Kurdish, and English. It will be called Al Arrasid (The Observer), after the publication his family used to run, which folded in 1991 for lack of subscribers. Beyond bringing the truth to the people of Baghdad and penning editorials from his secular point of view, he’s looking forward to being in power once again.

"I can’t wait to have my own newspaper," he said. "I can’t wait to sit behind my desk and tell people what to do."

Yet he has a strong sense of morality. Fekeiki said his personal mantra is a proverb his father often told him: "Harami latseer min el sultan latkhaf…. Don’t be a thief. You will fear no judge."

He says these words have always made his life easy and kept his choices simple. Chavez says she saw the same spirit in him when he passed the bulk of the credit to his cowriter, David Gelles, for a story about jihad videos on YouTube that they contributed to the front page of the New York Times, a near-impossible feat for a first-year journalism student.

"It’s so rare to see someone that generous, that honest," said Chavez, who actively worries about him returning to Iraq.

Berkeley’s curriculum demands a summer internship in the field, and Fekeiki pressed the Post to put him back at the Baghdad bureau this June. He planned to report without telling his family he’d returned to the country, so they would be safe. However, the hands of American bureaucracy are holding him here. His one-entry visa status means if he leaves the United States, he can’t come back without restarting the application process. On top of that, the United States is only accepting the newest Iraqi passports, the G series. They’re so new that most Iraqi embassies aren’t even making them, and Fekeiki doesn’t have one.

"It’s frustrating," he says. Besides being unable to report from home this summer, if something were to happen to his family, he wouldn’t be able to respond beyond a phone call or an e-mail. "My father is 77 years old. I don’t know when he’s going to farewell us. And if it happens, I can’t go and be with my family. It’s not fair," he says. Instead, he’ll be spending the summer break in Washington, DC, reporting for the Post‘s metro desk.

"I’m very glad for the visa problems," Chavez said. "It really scares me. I couldn’t convince him to stay at all."

What would keep him in the States? "If going back to Iraq is not going to help me get my newspaper started, I’m not going to do it," he says. What might not make his paper succeed? "People wouldn’t buy it. They just bomb the place where it’s published. The government turns against me." He knows he could speak his mind outside Iraq, but the whole point is to do it in Iraq, and he feels very strongly that solutions will only come from within, that his country needs people like him.

"The toughest moments I have to deal with," he says, pausing, "are when I think maybe I’m not going back." *

Hook, line, and Lypsinka


LIP SERVICE "Why are gay men fascinated with Joan Crawford?" John Epperson, a.k.a. Lypsinka, asks contemplatively over the phone from New York. "One reason I’m drawn to her is because of her face, which is so graphic — beautiful and scary and ridiculous at the same time. It became even more so in the 1950s, and then in the ’60s and the ’70s, it softened somehow."

All alone in a hallowed spot somewhere above great female impersonators from the past who lack a feminist consciousness and contemporary drag queens who don’t know how to act, one finds Lypsinka, the role of a lifetime for Epperson, who translates cinematic gestures to the stage like no other performer. Lypsinka’s new show, The Passion of the Crawford, portrays the great movie star through a different avenue than that used by most post–Mommie Dearest drag queens. The show’s source material is Joan Crawford Live at Town Hall, an onstage interview with Crawford late in her career. "When I moved to New York in 1978," Epperson says, "I remember that across the street from Radio City Music Hall there was a whole window in the Sam Goody store promoting the vinyl recording of Live at Town Hall. It had this multiple Andy Warhol–like image of her, and of course I had to have it."

The Crawford captured on Town Hall is more than a little tipsy. A recent bootleg CD reissue has fun with her awkward asides about planes flying through thunderheads and her many portentous declarations, ending with a remix that splices her comments for maximum comedy: "I wish I were Duke Wayne, really. Barbara Stanwyck feels the same way." Considering Lypsinka’s incredible offstage talent for editing dialogue, it’s safe to assume that The Passion of the Crawford won’t play things straight either.

But in sticking to a thorough portrait of Crawford rather than using dialogue from dozens of movies to form the ultimate movie megadiva, The Passion of the Crawford marks a departure for the peerless Lypsinka, whose visits to San Francisco’s Josie’s Cabaret and Juice Joint in the ’90s might be the last peaks of an era when there was art instead of just commerce in the Castro. This show returns for its second run at the downtown cabaret mainstay the Plush Room, which is fitting since Epperson mentions the celebrated cabaret return of 75-year-old Marilyn Maye as one recent inspiration.

There’s a fun irony to a phone chat with Epperson, the real voice behind the lip-synching star of some of the most hilarious phone call scenes ever staged, and by the end of our interview, we’re as tipsy as Crawford at Town Hall. But in this case, we’re drunk on camp, whether discussing Pauline Kael’s rave review of Brian de Palma’s The Fury ("She totally got it," Epperson says), an After Dark review of Little Edie Bouvier Beale’s post–Grey Gardens cabaret show ("Did it talk about the eye patch she wore over her eye with the flower attached to it?" he asks), or the many splendors of Dario Argento’s Suspiria ("I love it when Joan Bennett says, ‘We’ve got to kill that bitch of an American girl,’ " he declares, doing a perfect Bennett impression). Of course, a mention of Suspiria-era Bennett can only lead to her Dark Shadows costar Grayson Hall. I tell Epperson that I have a biography about Hall titled A Hard Act to Follow. "A hard actress to follow," he retorts.

During a recent Washington, DC, engagement of The Passion of the Crawford, Epperson used his time offstage to dig through the Library of Congress’s film collection and see movies such as 1971’s Pretty Maids All in a Row, directed by Roger Vadim and starring Rock Hudson and Angie Dickinson. "Roddy McDowell and Keenan Wynne are also in it," Epperson says. "And an actress called Joy Bang. Have you ever heard of Joy Bang?

"What else can I tell you?" (Johnny Ray Huston)


Through April 22

Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; $42.50–$47.50

Plush Room

940 Sutter, SF



For a Q&A with John Epperson, a.k.a. Lypsinka, go to www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision.

Oh yes she did


AMERICA’S NEXT TOP TRANNY Why would Felicia Fellatio, a 6’7″ drag queen from Trashville, USA, get up at 5 a.m. on March 20 and wing it down to the Serramonte Center in Daly City to audition for America’s Next Top Model? Well, why wouldn’t she? In six-inch fuck-me pumps and a belt whose giant buckle spelled “ORAL” in diamonds, even. Glittery! We hit her up at her Dumpster that morning, cheered her on as she desperately Bioré-stripped her cleavage and puffy-penned her eyebrows (no time for a tuck), then hitched with her down 280, tossing back the Peet’s and Chivas.

Oh, how they make those poor, hopeful creatures suffer! First, Felicia had to stand outside Mervyns for two hours in the freezing drizzle with about 200 sticklike beauties, weathering the intrusive queries of passing senior mall walkers. Mervyns! Really. Luckily, she had warm company in adorable fellow aspirants such as Jamilee “Can you see my butt in this dress? Good!” Mills and Tyra look-alike — therefore doomed — Chelsea, a sexual-violence social worker who decried recent Western Addition gentrification as “cultural genocide.” Tell it to Twiggy, sweetie.

After slogging it through the exhausting line and dutifully saying, “Next up on the CW: The King of Queens!” into a waiting camera, the girls were corralled, 50 at a time, into a private office with no windows. No one blinked twice about Felicia. Gotta love the new generation: even the ogling homeboys passing by in their souped-up Sentras offered catcalls of encouragement.

Inside the office the girls were asked to step forward and give their name, age, height, and weight. Sadly, although they knew their weight to the ounce, many couldn’t recall their height — even though this was an early question on the 15-page application. (Other questions: Have you ever had a restraining order issued against you? Have you ever been to a nude beach? How do you deal with anger?) Three slick LA model-picker types — sorry, no Miss Jay, ladies — silently, nerve-wrackingly conferred and asked eight girls to stay for semifinals. The rest were left somewhat wrecked.

“Even though I had no chance in hell, I feel like a sledgehammer hit me,” Felicia sighed. “Fuck modeling. Let’s get McDonald’s.” (Marke B.)


Truth about the eastern neighborhoods


EDITORIAL The next battle for San Francisco’s future will be fought in significant part in what the Planning Department calls the eastern neighborhoods — South of Market, the central waterfront, the Mission District, Potrero Hill, and Showplace Square. That’s where planners want to see some 29,000 new housing units built, along with offices and laboratories for the emerging biotech industry that’s projected to grow on the outskirts of the UCSF Mission Bay campus.

On March 28 the Planning Department released the final draft of a socioeconomic impact study of the area, which, with 1,500 acres of potentially developable land, is one of San Francisco’s last frontiers.

For a $50,000 report, the study doesn’t really say much. It puts an overall rosy glow on a zoning plan that will lead to widespread displacement of blue-collar jobs and dramatically increased gentrification. And it fails to answer what ought to be the fundamental questions of anything calling itself a socioeconomic study.

But within the 197-page document are some stunning facts that ought to give neighborhood activists (and the San Francisco supervisors) reason to doubt the entire rezoning package.

On one level it’s hard to blame Linda Hausrath, the Oakland economist who did the study: the premise was flawed from the start. The study considers only two possibilities — either the eastern neighborhoods will be left with no new zoning at all or the Planning Department’s zoning proposal will be implemented. Her conclusion, not surprisingly, is that the official city plan offers a lot of benefits. That’s hard to argue: the current zoning for the area is a mess, and much of the most desirable land is wide open for all sorts of undesirable uses.

But there are many, many ways to look at the future of the eastern neighborhoods beyond what the Planning Department has offered. Neighborhood activists in Potrero Hill have their own alternatives; so do the folks in the Mission and South of Market. There are a lot of ways to conceive of this giant piece of urban land — and many of them start and end with different priorities than those of the Planning Department.

Two key issues dominate the report — housing and employment in what’s known as production, distribution, and repair, or PDR, facilities. PDR jobs are among the final remaining types of employment in San Francisco that pay a decent wage and don’t require a college degree. The city had 95,000 of these as of 2000 (the most recent data that the study looks at), and 32,000 of them were in the eastern neighborhoods.

Almost everyone agrees that PDR jobs are a crucial part of the city’s economic mix and that without them a significant segment of the city’s population will be displaced. "There are two ways to drive people out of San Francisco," housing activist Calvin Welch says. "You can eliminate their housing or eliminate their jobs."

The city’s rezoning plan seeks to protect some PDR uses in a few parts of the eastern neighborhoods. But many of the areas where the warehouses, light industrial outfits, and similar businesses operate will be zoned to allow market-rate housing — and that will be the end of the blue-collar jobs.

When you build market-rate housing in industrial areas, the industry is forced out. That’s already been proved in San Francisco; just remember what happened in South of Market during the dot-com and live-work boom. When wealthy people move into homes near PDR businesses, they immediately start to complain: those businesses are often loud; trucks arrive at all hours of the day and night. City officials get pestered by angry new homeowners — and at the same time, the price of real estate goes up. The PDR businesses are shut down or bought out — and replaced with more luxury condos.

Thousands of PDR jobs have disappeared since the 2000 census, the result of the dot-com boom. And even the Hausrath report acknowledges that 4,000 more PDR jobs will be lost from the eastern neighborhoods under the city’s plan. That’s more than would be lost without any rezoning at all.

The vast majority — more than 70 percent, the report shows — of people who work in PDR jobs in San Francisco also live in San Francisco. Many are immigrants and people of color. A significant percentage live in Bayview–Hunters Point, where the unemployment rate among African Americans is a civic disgrace. What will happen to those workers? What will happen to their families? Where will they go when the jobs disappear? There’s nothing in the report that addresses these questions — although they reflect one of the most important socioeconomic impacts of the looming changes in the region.

Then there’s affordable housing.

According to the city’s reports and projections, two-thirds of all the new housing that is built in the city ought to be available below the market rate. That’s because none of the people who are now being driven from San Francisco by high housing costs — families, small-business people working-class renters, people on fixed incomes — can possibly afford market-rate units. In fact, as we reported last week ("The Big Housing Lie," 3/28/07), the new housing that’s being built in San Francisco does very little to help current residents, which is why more than 65 percent of the people who are buying those units are coming here from out of town.

San Francisco is one of the world’s great cities, but it isn’t very big — 49 square miles — and most of the land is already developed. The 1,500 developable acres in the eastern neighborhoods are among the last bits of land that can be used for affordable housing. And in fact, that’s where 60 percent of the below-market housing built in the city in the past few years has been located.

But every market-rate project that’s built — and there are a lot of them on the drawing board — takes away a potential affordable housing site and thus makes it less possible for the city to come close to meeting its goals. The Hausrath report completely ignores that fact.

Overall, the report — which reflects the sensibilities of the Planning Department — accepts the premise that the best use of much of the eastern neighborhoods is for high-end condos. Building that housing, the report notes, "would provide a relief valve" to offset pressures on the market for existing housing.

But that’s directly at odds with the available facts. The San Francisco housing market has never fit in with a traditional supply-and-demand model, and today it’s totally out of whack. Market-rate housing in this city has come to resemble freeways and prisons: the more you build, the more demand it creates — and the construction boom does nothing to alleviate the original problem.

The new condos in San Francisco are being snapped up by real estate speculators, wealthy empty nesters, very rich people (and companies) who want local pieds-à-terre, and highly paid tech workers who have jobs on the Peninsula. Meanwhile, families are fleeing the city in droves. The African American community is being decimated. Artists, writers, musicians, unconventional thinkers — the people who are the heart of San Francisco life and culture — can’t stay in a town that offers no place for them to live. Is this really how we want to use the 1,500 precious acres of the eastern neighborhoods?

The Hausrath study was largely a waste of money, which is too bad, because the issue facing the planning commissioners, the mayor, and the supervisors is profound. The city planners need to go back to the drawing board and come up with a rezoning plan that makes affordable housing and the retention of PDR jobs a priority, gives million-dollar condos a very limited role, and prevents the power of a truly perverse market from further destroying some of the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. *

Editor’s Notes


› tredmond@sfbg.com

The latest count of homeless people in San Francisco is in, and already the bureaucrats and the news media are misquoting it to make their political points.

"Most of San Francisco’s Homeless from Other Areas," the headline on KCBS.com read. "City Attracts Homeless for More Than One Reason," the San Francisco Chronicle concluded. "Homeless folks tend to migrate to San Francisco," Trent Rhorer, the head of the city’s Human Services Agency, told the Chron. "In a sense, we’re swimming upstream here."

Well, what the survey actually showed is that the number of homeless people increased slightly this year, to 6,377. That’s a pretty bogus number, since it’s hard to count the city’s entire homeless population in one night with a bunch of volunteers who don’t even interview most of the people they count. They also don’t count people who are living in cars (it’s often hard to find them), and they don’t count people who are crashing on somebody’s floor or couch, or multiple families crammed into single rooms, or a lot of others who technically don’t have a home in San Francisco.

But it’s a number that scares the mayor a bit, because it suggests that his much-vaunted program to deal with homeless people, Care Not Cash, isn’t making huge inroads. So it’s easy (even though the city hardly gives out any cash anymore, and services are stretched thin, and compassion is harder and harder to find) for Gavin Newsom’s staff to say that it’s impossible to really solve the problem because so many new homeless people keep flocking to this city.

In fact, that’s what a follow-up survey of some of the homeless people suggested: about 31 percent of them said they had come here from somewhere else.

A bit of reality here: more than 31 percent of the people who work at the Guardian came here from somewhere else. This is a city of immigrants. It’s a place where people come to reinvent themselves, where people who are down on their luck and can’t handle the stress of being different in a white-bread community arrive in search of a better life. It’s hardly surprising that a lot of the homeless people are also relatively new arrivals.

But what’s far more staggering to me is that 69 percent of the people who are homeless aren’t recent arrivals. These are folks who have either lived on the streets of San Francisco for quite some time — or lived here in some sort of tolerable condition and recently become homeless.

Rhorer’s got it backward: the trouble isn’t that some people who lost their homes in another part of the country decided they’d have a better shot in San Francisco. It’s that so many San Franciscans have become homeless.

And I think I can hazard a guess as to why.

Let’s face it: housing costs in this city drive people onto the streets. The tenant activists like to say that eviction is the number one preventable cause of homelessness, and I agree. We can complain about San Francisco being a homeless magnet (which will probably never change), or we can recognize that public policy (too easy evictions, too little affordable housing) is the root cause of a lot of the homelessness that begins right here at home. *