Volume 41 Number 41
July 11 – July 17, 2007
Is Portugal the most isolated country in Europe? It’s certainly competitive. It is the sidekick land of the Iberian peninsula, itself a geographical curiosity barely connected to the rest of the continent by a mountainous isthmus. Iberia’s big bruiser is Spain, of course, and the Iberian siblings are strikingly similar in language, history, and of course, cuisine. But whereas Spain looks both outward to the Atlantic and inward to the Mediterranean basin, much of which it ruled not so long ago, Portugal looks on the Atlantic only. In this sense it resembles its northerly, lonely-island kin, Ireland and Iceland but it differs from them too, in having a long and global maritime tradition that over the centuries has brought to the home country all manner of exotic influences, many of them culinary.
LaSalette is, to my knowledge, the only spiffy Portuguese restaurant in the Bay Area. (The menu describes chef Manuel Azevedo’s cooking as "cozinha nova Portuguesa." Try saying that fast, three times.) Although I wonder why there aren’t more such places, given the obvious symmetries of climate and topography between Iberia and northern California, I am glad we have this one at least. When I stepped into the restaurant recently, I flashed for a moment on Babette’s, which in the 1990s occupied a similar space perhaps the same space? near the rear of a building on Sonoma’s verdant town square. "No, not the same space," one of my companions said. "It just looks the same." Later I referred the controversy to my friend Google, which returned information suggesting that Babette’s space is not LaSalette’s. So: touché! I did eat one of the best cheeseburgers of my life at Babette’s, long ago, and RIP.
LaSalette’s space is lovely, a patio and cool tiled room at the end of a lazy walkway in the Mercado building. The interior has a certain Zuniness, a handsome functional look with ceramic tiles whose images of happy fish remind us that the Portuguese have long been a seafaring people. Chief among these is the salt cod the Portuguese call bacalhau but much of the cod came from the New World, especially the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland.
Another New World import is the chile pepper, which the Portuguese turn into a spicy sauce called piri-piri and use as a marinade, often for chicken. Boneless breasts so marinated and grilled turn up at the heart of a tasty sandwich ($10.75) that can be made even tastier by the addition of avocado or bacon slices or both ($1.25 each). The perfect fries on the side also seemed to have been enhanced by a dusting of pepper, which gave just a whisper of heat through the oily crunch.
Piri-piri was also listed as a participant in the unusual and marvelous sardine pâté, one of the tapaslike arrays of small plates ($13.95 for three items) that are good enough to make the main courses of a meal seem like afterthoughts. But I did not detect its smoldering presence in the pâté. Mostly I was aware of a pleasant, creamy brininess. A little sharper were the vinegar-bathed boquerones, white anchovies from Spain. And even whiter than those was the queijo fresco, a disk of soft farmers cheese topped with a single pearl of tomato confit, like a bit of salmon roe. Best of all was the linguica, the garlicky sausage, still sizzling from the grill and cut into not-quite-separated coins.
If Portuguese cuisine has a signature other than bacalhau, it is probably caldo verde ($7.75), the soup that thinks it’s a plate of meat and potatoes. LaSalette’s version consists mostly of beef broth, and color (green, of course) is provided by a puree of collard greens. The potatoes are pureed too, to thicken the liquid. No bowl of restaurant soup would be complete without accents, and here these include rounds of linguica, a scattering of skinned potato chunks, and, over the top, a few squirts of extra-virgin olive oil, whose own green sheen makes a subtle contrast to the soup’s opaque silkiness.
While I can accept the rationale for a tuna melt it is an energetic way of disguising canned tuna’s mediocrity I am not sure it applies to crab, even out-of-season crab. Nonetheless, the restaurant offers a crab melt ($12.95), really a kind of faintly too-sweet crab salad topped by meltings of cheddar cheese. Crab is so naturally sweet that it doesn’t need mixing with commercially prepared mayonnaise. In a related, industrial vein, an accompanying side dish of grilled yellow corn ($3.95), served off the cob, was mushy and sweet in a way that did not convince. And in the middle of corn season, no less.
Not all sweetness is a sin, of course, and meantime I am in awe of any kitchen that can make something appealing out of figs, which are also in season. Although figs have their partisans, I am not one of them. To me they are the eggplants of the fruit kingdom: seedy, mealy, and generally difficult to deal with. So I was especially impressed by LaSalette’s fig cake ($6.95), a formidable wedge of vanilla ice cream studded with walnuts and cosseted top and bottom by a mild, moist gâteau with bits of fig in it and a faintly figgy flavor but not too much! One may never learn to love the fig in isolation, but one can accept it in small, well-costumed roles in ensemble performances.*
Breakfast: Wed.Sun., 8:3011:30 a.m. Brunch: Sun., 11:45 a.m.3 p.m. Lunch: Mon.Fri., 11:45 a.m.2:30 p.m.; Sat., 11:45 a.m.4 p.m. Dinner: Mon.Sat., 59 p.m.; Sun., 39 p.m.
452 First St. E., suite H, Sonoma
Beer and wine
Pleasant noise level
CHEAP EATS Call came at 10 at night. I remember where I was. I was sitting at my new desk, deciding between not doing this thing I needed to do, not doing that thing I needed to do, or just going to bed and not being able to sleep because I had so many things to do. It was the perfect time for the phone to ring.
EARL BUTTER I got paid! I have pork! I have rum!
ME I’ll be right there.
Used to be I needed a constant, flowy fix of Third Things or Plan C’s, as I call them to save me from the paralysis of This vs. That. Now I find myself frantically scratching for Plans D, E, and F. It’s alphabet soup in here, swirling, steaming, ready to blow.
[Enter pork, stage left.]
I’m rooming, temporarily, with Sockywonk in Noe Valley. So I opened her freezer door and said to Houdini, "There’s pork. See you later."
Her head is in there too, between some beans and a Popsicle. Mountain Sam is going to bury it (the head) in his yard, then he’s going to dig up the bones and make Houdini-head art. As testament to her greatness, Sockywonk is thrilled to have my famous chicken in her freezer. I didn’t show her the head.
"There’s pork," I called to Socky. "Wanna come?"
"No thanks," she said. We’d just had dinner. She was in the tub.
Earl Butter said I eat like a caveman.
"Cavewoman," I said.
We were sitting around an aluminum bucket, me, him, and Jolly Boy, surrounded by dirty dishes, wadded aluminum foil, and half-empty glasses, listening to Jolly Boy’s songs. They’d been drinking since morning and had recorded 11 of them.
"It took me three weeks to record 11 songs," I said, "and then I accidentally deleted them."
"That’s why we paid a professional," Jolly Boy explained.
"You went into a studio?" It never ceases to amaze me, the things you can do with a real job.
"There’s a new kind of reverb," Earl Butter said.
It did sound good. "How do you get it?" I asked.
"You ‘shoot the room,’ " he said. Neither of them knew what that meant.
Walking back to Wonk’s through the Mission at 1:30 in the morning, I felt good for the first time in days. And some people won’t even eat pork! Vegetarians. Orthodoxical Jews. Sockywonk. If anyone would have seen me on the sidewalks that night, and some people did, they would have thought: there goes the chicken farmer.
But they should have seen me three nights earlier at my shack in the woods, picking up and putting down the ax, trying to sing "St. Louis Blues" and only gurgling. Hating myself and hating the world because I couldn’t do it for a change. I’d been crying and trying since sunset, strike one, strike two, and now the stars were on the edges of their seats, watching, waiting, and wondering.
Good thing I’m a good two-strike hitter, I thought. Then I thought: that’s little comfort to the chicken you’re trying to kill. Then I thought: what am I thinking? I never even get to two strikes. I swing at the first pitch I see, and ground out.
Twice I’d had Houdini stretched on the stump, and twice she’d broken free, unscratched. The third time wasn’t close. She freaked. Strike three. I let her back in her home and went into mine, deflated and ashamed. Not that I was missing. I couldn’t even swing.
It was 10 that night too when the phone rang. Mountain Sam. "Chicken Farmer!" he said.
"No. I need a new name," I said. I cried. I managed, in pieces, to explain myself. I wasn’t a chicken farmer. Surprise! And yet: this chicken. To be dealt with. My subletter was moving in next day and had no idea (until now) how close he came to being a chicken farmer.
What friends are for: the Mountain not only there-there’d me, he tickled his tired brain, pulled real hard on the precious hairs of his beard, and said, "Maybe sleep? Maybe in the morning?"
It was just the thing. I set my alarm for 5:30. It would be just light enough for me to sort of see, and not light enough for her. Didn’t get to sleep until 2:30, which was probably for the best, because basically I was walking in my sleep when I did what I did. Which took the breath out of me, but nothing more.
It’s a different, dreamier reverb at dawn than at dusk. *
I recently broke up with my girlfriend (I’m a woman). Everything had started out peachy and remained so until about a month and a half before the breakup. It seemed that our growing emotional intimacy triggered her childhood issues (neglect, abuse, you name it … followed by addiction; she’s now thankfully in recovery), and she started pushing me away, then moved on to heavy criticism and blaming. As an abuse survivor myself, I know the signs and can empathize, but I feel that I’ve worked through most of my issues with intimacy, whereas she is, in her own words, "scared of loving." Anyway, our sex life suffered greatly. I felt that I was giving a lot and not receiving much. I tried talking with her about all this, but she insisted that I was the one at fault for everything. Finally, drained and heartbroken, I left her. Since then, she’s apologized and told me that she’s working on changing her patterns (through therapy, support groups, etc.). And she wants a second chance.
I feel relieved to be out of a tense and draining relationship, but I also miss the good stuff we had (hot sex most of the time and friendship, if not emotional intimacy). I know I can get over this and find love (though right now sex is first on my agenda) with someone else. That said, could her willingness to heal (and treat me with respect) make it worth taking another stab at it? Also, if the sex and friendship worked for us but not the relationship, what are the odds that we could be lovers but not partners (we’re both nonmonogamous)?
One from Column A …
Oh, eek, I’m a little scared of your ex, to tell you the truth. I’ll probably get in trouble for this but she immediately put me in mind of stories a friend of mine tells of working at an extremely PC community nonprofit and the way interns and other untested newbies would respond to a request that they do some oh, I dunno, I think they call it work? with a trembling lip and a defiant stance and a declaration that "I find that really triggering." "Oh, I’ll trigger you, all right," my friend would think, but of course you can’t say that sort of thing to that sort of person, you can only try to gently redirect them, like toddlers or puppies, if you don’t want to be accused of being abusive and hierarchical and tool of the patriarchical and end up having to endure lengthy sessions with a mediator wearing chunky ethnic jewelry and many complicated but unstructured garments woven from colorful twigs and berries.
I can’t really answer your last two questions, of course, because even if I had actual statistics to give you ("Blah percent of couples attempting friendship with benefits following a breakup ends up throwing kitchen implements at each other within six weeks, while only bleh percent of couples attempting friendship without benefits throws plates …") they would still just be statistics: interesting to read, but more descriptive than predictive.
Just going by the fairly small amount of info I’ve got, I have to admit I’m doing a little preemptive cringing and ducking myself. Things just sound a little too fresh and volatile to go trying any tricks as death-defying as getting back together but not really, which is a pretty dangerous stunt no matter where in a relationship’s history one attempts it. So while I won’t lay odds or place bets, I’m happy to make a wild prediction based on nothing more than having a good head for these things: attempting to reassemble your former relationship minus what are arguably the most important elements (emotional intimacy, not to mention luv) is doomed to failure. Before you know it you will be "triggering" her again, this time quite possibly on purpose (I was tempted to add "and with a real trigger this time," but it wouldn’t be tasteful). I think you’d do best to look elsewhere for sex and attempt friendship, cautiously if at all, with your ex. If you’re meant to be together (by which I don’t mean "fated," but merely "suited," in case you were wondering) you will find yourselves shifting back in that direction when you’re ready. It’s nice and all that she’s "willing to heal," not to mention treat you with respect, but frankly, all you have is her word on that. She hasn’t actually done either one so far, has she? And also frankly, you sound neither so hard up nor so desperately pining for her as so make it worth the probable unpleasantness. Exes are in some way the easy choice you don’t have to go out and meet anyone, which for some of us anyway can be a powerful draw, but on the other hand you don’t get anything better than what you already had and gave away, and usually with good reason.
I just wouldn’t.
Andrea is home with the kids and going stir-crazy. Write her a letter! Ask her a question! Send her your tedious e-mail forwards! On second thought, don’t do that. Just ask her a question.
SUPER EGO I’m not one to get jealous when people I know get famous. Never. As Shakespeare once wrote, "You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying … in sweat." Alas, I’m flat broke and haven’t perspired a drop since I gave up Dexatrim in ’03. But my pores are flawless, like tiny alien baby mouths. So I can only grin demurely while my Page Six homeys flash their hairless beavers from rehab. Shakespeare again: "If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you."
Hooray, especially, for Kiki and Herb, the blowsy, boozy, tune-slinging duo who exploded into Broadway history last year with their Tony-nominated extravaganza Kiki and Herb: Alive on Broadway. (They narrowly lost in the Best Theatrical Event category to a multipuppet tearjerker about a ventriloquist.) Tipsy yet full-throated chanteuse Kiki (Justin Bond) and her nimble-fingered pianist Herb (Kenny Mellman) are local club kids made good, proving that a lot of talent and a steady Scotch diet can launch a drag queen and her "gay Jew ‘tard" accompanist into the big leagues. Lemme tell ya, you haven’t heard the Wu-Tang Clan or the Cure until you’ve heard these two dust ’em up onstage.
Now, as part of their Year of Magical Drinking Tour, Kiki and Herb are bringing their big show to the American Conservatory Theater. Posh! I leaped on the opportunity to dish with them long-distance from their New York City home base.
SFBG I can barely recall, back in the blurred mid-’90s, both of you appearing at the legendary Josie’s Juice Joint and Cabaret in the Castro. But I was on a lot of crystal then and probably shouldn’t have been in the light booth …
HERB We were recently watching old videos of us and stumbled upon one of a show we did at Josie’s called Not Without My Napalm. This was preKiki and Herb Justin led me in on a leash, and I was wearing lederhosen! Jesus, we were young. Gay Pride of that year, we were booked at Cafe du Nord and knew we were going to be exhausted. Justin had been doing Kiki at parties, so we decided we’d just perform our material as Kiki and Herb. We got a standing ovation. We began performing every weekend at Eichelberger’s, across from Theater Artaud, and it all developed there.
KIKI The funny thing about us performing at the gorgeous ACT is that when I lived in San Francisco I never got to go there. For one, I couldn’t afford it, and then the ’89 earthquake knocked the whole thing down! So our show will be the first one I’ve ever seen there.
SFBG And now you’re Broadway luminaries. What are some of the things you miss about San Francisco and the life you led before the slavering tumult of paparazzi overtook you?
HERB San Francisco burritos. And Cafe Flore. And the Hole in the Wall. I remember spending a Thanksgiving there, and they had a suckling pig on the pool table. At some point an older leather daddy ripped the ear off and just started gnawing on it. That’s what I miss.
KIKI I miss my friends there terribly the creative excitement and community. I can’t wait to get back, and I hope all you queens can forgive a drunk who can’t remember anyone’s name.
SFBG I wept when the dummy won the Tony. Yet both of you seemed so gracious when the camera zoomed in on you immediately after the award was announced. What were your thoughts at that moment?
KIKI I told myself beforehand, "Whatever happens, just look happy to be there." So my thought right then was "Hold face." But being there was so amazing, I just left my body through the whole thing.
HERB My thoughts were that we really needed to get out of there and get a drink! Which we did!
SFBG What’s next?
KIKI After this tour, we’re off to perform at the Sydney Opera House for three weeks. Then a Christmas concert at Carnegie Hall, and then we’ll be putting on a show in Shepherd’s Bush, London, called this is so stupid, but it makes me hysterical Kiki and Herb Put the Yule Log in Shepherd’s Bush. Next year I’m doing a Carpenters tribute but without any anorexia jokes.
HERB My other show, At Least It’s Pink, which I wrote the music and lyrics to, will be getting an off-Broadway run this fall. Also, my friend Neal Medlyn and I are going to resurrect our show Kenny Mellman Plus Neal Medlyn Equals R. Kelly. Busy, busy …
BONUS KIKI Join immortal club kids Javier Natureboy and DJ Junkyard and the gang from ’90s rock ‘n’ roll queer club Litterbox for a special Kiki and Herb look-alike contest, judged by Justin Bond himself, at the fab new monthly Glitterbox on July 20. It’s a reunion, baby! Go to www.myspace.com/glitterboxtheparty for the low lowdown. *
KIKI AND HERB: ALIVE FROM BROADWAY
July 1829 (previews Fri/13Tues/17), $20$60
See Web site for times
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary, SF
TECHSPLOITATION There is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying truck commercials. Enjoying truck commercials can even be a politically innocent act it does not signify that you secretly lust after fossil fuels. Plus, there’s a payoff to admitting that such pleasures can be had guilt free: you can enjoy watching Michael Bay’s latest sci-fi actionfest, Transformers, on its own terms. If you’re one of the people who helped the flick earn more than $100 million during its opening week, you may not need my help. For those still fighting the urge to cheer for shiny trucks, I offer a few arguments to persuade you.
The first, most obvious case in favor of this movie is that it just looks neat. There are giant robots that turn into, among other things, SUVs, tanks, fighter planes, scorpion things, race cars, and yes, trucks with flames painted on the sides. It shouldn’t be too surprising that computer-generated imagery is the perfect tool for demonstrating how cars morph into robots. Haven’t you always wished that one day your boring old Prius would twist itself into a gigantic alien robot from the planet Cybertron?
Ah, Cybertron. This brings me to my next argument, which is that Transformers is one of those rare action movies about incredibly silly things that take those silly things dead seriously. No doubt you are as heartily sick of knee-jerk irony as the next chump who shelled out cash to see Ghostrider (OK, so I liked Ghostrider, but you know what I mean). There are no great actors in Transformers showing us how distanced they are from the trashy source material by "acting" à la Nicolas Cage. In Transformers, characters discussing the robots refer to them, with straight faces, as Optimus Prime and Megatron. The good guys are Autobots and the bad guys are Deceptacons. They are all trying to find a giant, unexplained box called the All Spark. Nobody raises an eyebrow at the total goofiness of this scenario. The film’s straightforwardness is downright refreshing.
Like other kid-friendly action films, Transformers is low on bloodshed and high on "Wow, that’s cool!" Even the film’s worst bad guy, a government secret agent played with snarky relish by John Turturro, never kills anybody. Instead of murderous mayhem, the movie offers us rampaging teenage hormones, packing the dialogue with cute but groanworthy double entendres about asses and dicks and humping. Not since E.T. has a movie aimed at tweens been this honest about how kids really talk: there’s a lot of creative cursing, and main character Sam (Shia LaBeouf) spends the entire flick trying to snog his hot pal Mikaela (Megan Fox). Thank you, Michael Bay, for removing rampant death from the action-movie genre and replacing it with dumb masturbation jokes.
What truly surprised me about the movie was that Bay did a fairly good job updating the concept for the 2000s. The film’s plot hinges on something Sam is selling on eBay, and there are a few good jokes about how the Autobots learned English on the Web (surprisingly, this does not mean that they yell "LOL" or "OMG" all the time). I was deeply amused when the evil Deceptacons hunt Sam down via his eBay listing, ambush him, then grab him in their giant metal fists so they can scream in his face, "Are you user LadiesMan217?"
Another way Bay updates the Transformers premise is by connecting the Deceptacons with the Middle East. The film has this sort of murky, inexplicable opening sequence that takes place in what we’re told is "Qatar, Middle East," where good US soldiers encounter mean, scorpion-shaped Deceptacons who smash the crap out of them. The Middle Eastern ‘bots look bizarrely like improvised explosive devices come to life; made of scrap metal and old tires, they hide in the sand and strike at unwary troops who are trying to be nice to the native folks. This is possibly the only part of Transformers in which Bay attempts to grasp feebly at political relevance and make something other than a zoomy truck commercial. Of course, he fails miserably. If you want to enjoy this flick without guilt, you will have to ignore the whole Middle East issue. Of course, one could say the same thing about living in the United States. Maybe Bay has succeeded in pulling off some social commentary after all: welcome to the United States ignore the Middle East stuff, but stay for the masturbation jokes and cool special effects. *
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd whose battle cry is "All hail Megatron!"
With the furor over her erratic driving incident still lingering and a primary challenge from Assemblymember Mark Leno starting to get nasty, state senator Carole Migden is now wading into another potentially pungent political pool.
This time around, the battle involves the state’s laws governing coastal land use, the Port of San Francisco’s revenue needs, and the competing interests of folks who live along, work near, or simply like to relax and recreate along the city’s bayside waterfront.
Migden’s Senate Bill 815 would make three major changes to the ancient and arcane laws that govern the use of the state’s tidelands. It would allow the port to rent out 11 seawall-protected properties, currently used for surface parking lots, for development over 75 years, after which they would return to the public trust.
It would also permit the port to sell off "paper streets" lots that serve as view corridors, public rights-of-way, and connections between the city and its waterfront, including portions of Texas, Custer, Ingalls, and Davidson streets developed with warehouses, as well as the recently closed Hunters Point Power Plant.
Last, Migden’s bill would allow the transfer of the 36-acre, federally owned Jobs Corps parcel on Treasure Island to local control as part of an exchange of public trust and nontrust lands on Treasure and Yerba Buena islands.
Port special project manager Brad Benson told the Guardian that the local agency worked with the California State Lands Commission for two years on ways to help increase the port’s revenue-generating capabilities, and this bill was the result.
"We cc’d the neighborhood organizations on the amendments that we sent to Migden’s office on June 12, and we invited further discussion," Benson said of the proposal, which is intended to help cover the port’s estimated $1.4 billion cost for seismic retrofits and restorations, hazardous-material remediation, storm-water management, and improved waterfront access by relaxing the land-use restriction of the 1969 Burton Act.
The Burton Act gave the port control of San Francisco’s waterfront from Fisherman’s Wharf to Candlestick Point, including 39 historic finger piers between Fisherman’s Wharf and China Basin. But it also limited the port to leasing seawall lots for street purposes such as surface parking while giving it the financial responsibility of maintaining and restoring the historical waterfront.
Today just about everybody agrees that surface parking is a horrible use of the seawall lots with the possible exception of the Giants, who want to retain 2,000 spaces on the 14-acre lot they lease next to Mission Creek. But in recent weeks disagreement has broken out over last-minute amendments that were added to Migden’s bill June 20 to impose height limits on four seawall lots in the Northeastern Waterfront Historic District and remove a fifth lot entirely.
Those amendments were added following input from neighborhood groups like the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, the Barbary Coast Neighborhood Association, and the Friends of the Golden Gate, a 1,400-member nonprofit whose stated goal is "to preserve open recreational space for the citizens of San Francisco."
In a June 20 letter to Migden, Telegraph Hill Dwellers president Vedica Puri argued for height limits on the basis of a "visual and historic connection between the waterfront and Telegraph Hill" created by "higher structures closer to the base of Telegraph Hill and lower buildings near the Embarcadero." Noting that three of the disputed lots are currently zoned for heights of 40 feet, with the fourth lot, closer to Telegraph Hill, zoned for 65 feet, Puri argued for respecting local height limits in place as of January.
Meanwhile, the Barbary Coast Neighborhood Association, the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, and the Friends of the Golden Gate asked that lot 351, which abuts the Golden Gate Tennis and Swim Club, be excluded from the deal.
"There is an ongoing struggle in the Barbary Coast neighborhood over an outsize condominium project usually known as the 8 Washington Project," Jonathan Middlebrook of the association’s Waterfront Action Group warned.
Friends of the Golden Gate chair Lee Radner, in a June 29 letter to Loni Hancock, chair of the Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee, argued for keeping lot 351 under the public trust because it "abuts the open recreational space, along the Embarcadero, Washington, and Drumm streets."
"Lot 351, if removed from the public trust," Radner wrote, "will give a developer the option to build high-rise, exclusive, and costly condominiums that would spill over into the recreational space and change the open view corridors to Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower forever, limit the light and views of many neighbors, and impact the traffic on an already congested Embarcadero."
But two local planning and land-use groups argue that Migden’s amended legislation would wrest control of height restrictions from the local planning process and benefit a well-heeled few at the expense of everyone else.
Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, said he believes height limits and urban design should be decided at the local level. "The problem with stipuutf8g a 40-foot height limit is that you end up getting squashed retail space, creating a pokey, unpleasant atmosphere," said Radulovich, who’d rather see the lots taken out of the bill than included with those provisions. "To my mind the question is: how do builders create a great street? And what building controls help achieve that goal? We wanted to make these lots more walkable, bikeable, and accessible to contribute to the overall public good with the maximum opportunity for local control. The latest amendments tip the balance towards state interference, and that’s inappropriate."
Tim Colen of the Housing Action Coalition accuses the neighborhood associations of "not wanting any height increases or other uses to the extent that it might threaten their view." Colen said developer Simon Snellgrove of Pacific Waterfront Partners is interested in lot 351, which lies across from the Ferry Building, to create high-end condos, mixed-use residential units, and 34 below-market-rate units.
He acknowledges that the Golden Gate Tennis and Swim Club would lose three tennis courts under the legislation. "But this is a chance for 34 families to get housing and be able to stay in San Francisco," Colen said. "The Golden Gate Tennis and Swim Club is a really sweet facility, but it ain’t public recreation. Migden’s bill benefits some very well-heeled people when the interests of many are at stake."
Migden’s bill, which cleared the Senate but must return for final approval because of the amendments, is set to work its way through the Assembly by August. Benson said continued negotiations would be a good thing. "We appreciate Senator Migden’s work, but we believe height limits are a locals-only matter to be decided by the Board of Supervisors and the mayor."
But the Barbary Coast Neighborhood Association’s Diana Taylor said her group "spent hours getting the community informed, telling the port what we wanted, until eventually we came up with a bottom line, what our compromises were…. That’s where senator Carole Migden developed amendments, and this was the first time that we came to a coordinated agreement. But now we find out that the port isn’t happy with some of the amendments. What we’d like to see is a more clear-cut strategy to bring the port and the communities together. We’re adversaries right now, but we shouldn’t be."
With the port set to have a public discussion July 31 about lot 337 (the Giants’ parking lot next to Mission Creek), Jennifer Clary of San Francisco Tomorrow notes that Mission Creek is home to 60 species of birds. As she said, "Isn’t habitat preservation and restoration part of urban development? Is it really a choice between people and birds? Is that the decision?"<\!s>*
Early in Rescue Dawn, Werner Herzog’s narrative retooling of his 1997 doc Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a group of pilots aboard an aircraft carrier watches an instructional reel on jungle survival. They’re young and cocky, and since this is 1966, the Vietnam War still seems entirely impossible. Naturally, they heckle the hell out of the film lending a certain amount of irony, as one of them, German-born but proudly American Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), is about to crash-land directly in a situation that would daunt even the toughest solider. But as Herzog is careful to show, it’s not Dengler’s fire-building skills that save his neck; it’s his unbreakable spirit. Rescue Dawn is probably the most uplifting movie ever to feature a scene with its lead character munching down a bowl of maggots and worms.
It’s also the only film in recent memory to feature a comic-book movie hero doing same, though among the recent crop, Bale (Batman Begins) is perhaps the least likely to be identified with his biggest-budget character. His gift for physical transformation serves Rescue Dawn well; the film was shot in reverse to better highlight the extreme dieting efforts of Bale and costars Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies, who play Dengler’s long-suffering fellow POWs.
When Dengler enters their world, he’s been through some serious shit (like being dragged behind a cow by his ankles), but he has more hope than all of the others combined. His plan to "scram" immediately begins to form, though his comrades find his confidence insane. "The jungle is the prison," explains Gene (Davies), a seriously unbalanced walking skeleton who fetishizes an old food wrapper and believes that release is imminent. Far more broken is Duane (Zahn), whose weary eyes brighten only when the starving men discuss the contents of their fantasy refrigerators: "a 35-pound turkey and raspberry pie with crust thick as a steak."
If Rescue Dawn is Herzog’s most accessible fiction film to date, with its big-name stars, English script, and dialogue like "The man who will frighten me hasn’t been born yet," its transcendental tone assures it’s hardly a typical war movie. (It is, however, deeply patriotic, evidenced by the fact that MGM screened it for American troops in Iraq on the Fourth of July.) The prolific director, whose earlier narrative works include Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), both starring Klaus Kinski, has lately made his mark in documentaries, with 2005’s Grizzly Man being his most mainstream film prior to Rescue Dawn. Herzog’s films are diverse, but they tend to reflect his fascination with human beings who engage in extreme behavior. In Dengler’s case explored more matter-of-factly in Little Dieter, more existentially in Rescue Dawn his proactive outlook was predicated on his life experiences (including a tough childhood in post<\d>World War II Germany, where food shortages forced him to eat wallpaper) as well as a deeply rooted temerity that left no room for hesitation or doubt. He knew he would survive, and he did survive. (Dengler, who eventually settled in Marin County, died in 2001.)
Like Grizzly Man, Rescue Dawn is also about nature at its most extreme, with a jungle that’s every bit as deadly as an angry bear. Even if you haven’t seen Little Dieter, Rescue Dawn‘s title pretty much lets you know that Dengler makes it out alive, climbing aboard a rescue copter and exchanging his slithery last meal in the wild for the comfort food of civilization (in this case, a Butterfinger). But Herzog never plays it safe. Even with its Hollywood sheen, Rescue Dawn conveys palpable danger. At times it’s physically exhausting to watch, with uncomfortably realistic scenes of torture and the sight of emaciated men sure, they’re actors, but those prominent ribs are real arguing over handfuls of rice.<\!s>*
Opens Fri/13 in Bay Area theaters
See Movie Clock at www.sfbg.com
OPINION Last week the Board of Supervisors received a proposed charter amendment that takes a misguided stab at the much-needed reform of the Municipal Transit Agency, which oversees Muni. In undertaking reforms we all agree are needed for the MTA to better serve our city, the supervisors should consider the Hippocratic oath required of doctors: “First, do no harm.”
Our union, Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents almost a thousand MTA workers, has enormous respect for the bill’s sponsor, board president Aaron Peskin. We know that Peskin strongly supports workers’ rights and has always stood for openness, transparency, and accountability in government. This initiative, however, undermines everything that he and his board colleagues stand for, and we urge progressives to oppose it.
Most important, the initiative is profoundly undemocratic and would transfer oversight from an elected body to an appointed one. An MTA that no longer had to answer to our elected representatives would be a less accountable and less transparent board.
Downgrading elected oversight into appointive power resting in the hands of one person — the mayor — is not reform but a political power grab. Commissioners would be well aware that they might not be reappointed if they voted too independently of the mayor’s preferences.
The initiative would present additional risks for the abuse of power in local government by allowing MTA to approve its own contracts. This is a dangerous conflict of interest that would create more opportunities for problems, not reform.
The amendment furthermore would undermine workplace protections by increasing the number of nonunion workers from the current 1.5 percent to a whopping 10 percent. Working people would serve at the pleasure of an unelected board and lose their right to collective bargaining. Seven years ago many members of the Board of Supervisors and progressives strongly opposed a nonunion special assistant position in Mayor Willie Brown’s office. The board converted this position to a civil service job because of the perception of patronage and corruption. The current charter amendment exhumes that political cadaver while hiding behind the fig leaf of flexibility — which in this case is a code word for the power to fire people without just cause or due process, or for political expediency.
On one point we agree with this charter amendment: it’s true that the MTA needs more money to serve our residents the way it should, and this amendment would take $26 million from the General Fund and transfer it to the MTA budget. But we do not believe we should be raiding the General Fund without carefully considering the possible impact.
This is a charter amendment and cannot be easily undone. If it turns out to be a disaster, as we believe it will, San Francisco will find itself in a very dire situation without a timely remedy.
SEIU Local 1021 strongly opposes this charter amendment unless it undergoes major revisions. Sup. Jake McGoldrick’s competing initiative, by contrast, offers us a path that is much more democratic, promotes accountability and transparency in government, and protects the rights of working families. We agree that reform is needed, but if passed, Peskin’s initiative will create many more problems than it purports to solve. *
Damita Davis-Howard and Robert Haaland
Damita Davis-Howard is president of SEIU Local 1021; Robert Haaland is San Francisco political coordinator for the union.
Technology induces unrealistic leaps of optimism, and so it was that usually reliable New York Times film critic A.O. Scott recently imagined a future in which "you will be able to watch whatever you want whenever you want." Drawing back a hair, Scott admitted that "there are still hundreds more titles awaiting transfer to digital media." The reality is a good deal grimmer, with thousands of titles lost or languishing in various states of disrepair and such estimates do not take into account the colossal numbers of nonfeatures, everything from promo spots to pornography.
This year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents two programs emphasizing some of the bygone era’s lost treasures. "More Amazing Tales from the Archives" (Sun/15, 10:30 a.m., free) is an education in itself, with representatives from the UCLA Film and Television Archive and Rochester, N.Y.’s George Eastman House demonstrating preservation techniques and spoils. This year’s program features films restored from 28mm (even the formatting is archaic!) and rare ephemera (Clara Bow fragments, San Francisco newsreels, something called Mushroom Growing). Parisian collector Serge Bromberg looks to be packing a lot of heat in his artfully arranged "Retour de Flamme" program (Sun/15, 12:45 p.m., $13) of early French cinema: trick films, travelogues, skin flicks, Josephine Baker, a "strange music-hall performance from 1907, with a dancing pig," and other confectionary surprises along the way.
Audiences at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival will be treated to several strong roles for leading women Lois Wilson’s heartbreaking humble pie as Miss Lulu Bett (1921), Louise Brooks’s gender-bending hobo in 1928’s Beggars of Life but now as then, there can be only one Nazimova. The Russian-born enchantress (who dropped her first name, Alla) stars in 1921’s Camille, a version of Alexandre Dumas fils’s novel set in swinging Paris and a perfect vehicle for her insanely overwrought performance style (it would have to be: beyond her stirring salary, the actress had final say on the film’s director and script). It seems a cruel joke that the better-known version of Camille is the 1936 rendering with Greta Garbo, since, in the reductive annals of film history, it was Garbo who displaced Nazimova as the reigning ice-queen, only-one-name-necessary androgynous European beauty. That said, those who associate the silents with musty hokum are in for a surprise when this Camille splays across the screen, a vintage blast of Hollywood Babylon tangled up in Nazimova’s nest of black curls.
A little history might be helpful here, and besides, it’s too fun not to recount. Born Mariam Edez Adelaida Leventon to a brawling family of Russian Jews, Nazimova fled for the arts and notoriety early, taking up the violin and, when that didn’t work, joining Konstantin Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre. A couple of love affairs and one fruitless marriage later, the actress embarked for New York to perform Henrik Ibsen with Pavel Orlenev, a personal friend of Anton Chekhov and Maksim Gorky. From here she went to Hollywood, where she was presented with her unusual paychecks and creative control (whenever a gentleman tries to kiss her Marguerite in Camille, Nazimova sniffs, "Not until you put a jewel in my hand"), eventually producing her own films (including 1923’s notorious Salomé) and establishing residence at 8080 Sunset Blvd., a sprawling compound that came to be called the Garden of Allah and played frequent host to both icons and outrage. A typically delicious Nazimova story: the actress hired art director Natacha Rambova to design Camille‘s sets, and the two may or may not have had a love affair before Rambova married Nazimova’s costar, fishy Rudolph Valentino.
And that’s not even touching Nazimova’s lavender marriage with Charles Bryant or, weirdest of all, her being Nancy Reagan’s godmother. If Nazimova’s personal life seems spun or at least exaggerated, it was all at the service of her queenish persona something on prime display in Camille, thanks in no small part to Rambova’s logic-defying art deco set designs. The many arches and frills that appoint bedrooms and ballrooms accentuate Nazimova’s sinewy bends, beaky sneers, and bomber swoons.
Susan Sontag begins the inquiry in her seminal "Notes on ‘Camp’ " essay with a useful criterion for considering Nazimova’s flamboyant performance: "Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization." The tragedy of this Camille has nothing to do with Dumas’ plotting but instead lies in the decline that inevitably accompanies pure camp’s straining seriousness. In Camille, Nazimova’s wilting is foreshadowed in Valentino’s naturalistic glide, the unaffected air that purportedly prompted D.W. Griffith to wonder, "Is this fellow really acting or is he so perfectly the type that he does not need to act?" Nazimova was all aura, without a trace of naturalism; regardless of the actress’s personal tumbles, this image would have been impossible to sustain with the coming of sound. In the end, it seems, she was simply too big for real life. *
SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL
Fri/13Sun/15, most programs $13$15
429 Castro, SF
Even if you haven’t heard Lordi’s music, you’ve heard of Lordi or at least seen their picture. After they won the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest, a distinction that approximates winning American Idol, the Finnish group became a media sensation. Who can resist a band that performs songs like "Hard Rock Hallelujah" with copious pyrotechnics while dressed in head-to-toe monster outfits? Nobody in Finland, where Lordi’s members are national heroes. Besides musical fame, the band has a postage stamp, a "rocktaurant" (on the menu: chili-sautéed reindeer), and its signature Lordi Cola.
Back in March, on what was to be the eve of a Slim’s gig, I spoke to bass player Ox the Hellbull (the band’s other members, who never publicly appear out of character, are lead monster Mr. Lordi, mummy guitarist Amen-Ra, vampire keyboardist Awa, and alien drummer Kita). Soon after, Lordi’s club tour was scrapped in favor of a main-stage slot at Ozzfest. The band’s latest album, The Arockalypse (The End), is a jubilant celebration of fist-pumping rawk that wouldn’t have been out of place on Headbangers Ball. Like you’d expect anything less from rock ‘n’ roll monsters.
Initially, Ox said, folks didn’t know what to make of their act. "People thought we were like crazy Satan worshipers or something, but we’re not," he explained before noting that Lordi is heavily influenced by KISS, Alice Cooper, and "my personal favorite, Mötley Crüe."
In fact, the Crüe is the reason for Ox’s bass-playing ambitions. As a kid, "I saw a picture of Mötley Crüe in the paper, and I hadn’t heard them yet," the 31-year-old remembered. "But I decided that this was the coolest band in the world. Then I bought the album, and it was the coolest band. And I decided this is what I want to do: I want to play rock."
However, band mastermind Mr. Lordi who makes all of the band’s monstrous apparel is the reason for the Ox. "At the first rehearsal we had, Mr. Lordi looked at me and said, ‘You look like a raging bull when you play.’ "
Inside the costume "it’s hot as hell. I start sweating when I put the mask on," Ox said, adding that he’s not bothered by the fact that the group is so defined by its theatrical image. "There are all kinds of fans. Some like the music first. Some like the outfits. It doesn’t matter really."
And, being a wiseass, I had to ask: what are the signs of the Arockalypse? Ox laughed. "Everyone’s gonna turn into monsters!"
July 19, noon, free (sold out) Shoreline Amphitheatre 1 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View (650) 967-3000
GREEN CITY Atop Bernal Heights, winds speed at 25 mph, enough to prematurely slam doors, disperse heat, and power Todd Pelman’s Roscoe Street house with 100 watts of electricity at any given moment.
The 34-year-old engineer has pioneered the city’s first permitted microwind project, a six-foot-tall cylindrical turbine that currently sits on his roof and sends juice into the energy grid, offsetting some of his dependence on Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Now his company, Blue Green Pacific, is working to put the turbines on the market in the next year.
"It’s aesthetically not going to be disruptive in an urban environment," Pelman told the Guardian, referring to the generator, which resembles the double helix of a DNA strand when it spins.
It is microprojects like this that could help support the Community Choice Aggregation program passed by the Board of Supervisors last month, which aims to have the city partner with its residents to generate a greener power portfolio over the next 10 years.
Bernal Heights Sup. Tom Ammiano, who codrafted a plan for CCA with Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, considers Pelman’s project a grassroots step away from PG&E, which he regards as a "wolf in sheep’s clothing."
"When people see how fruitful and utilitarian this is, we’ll wind up calling the shots," Ammiano told us. He amended the planning code for Bernal Heights to permit structures to reach more than 30 feet high, thus allowing the current and future use of wind turbines in his district.
Pelman’s turbine will generate between 300 and 600 kilowatt hours of energy per year, or about 10 percent of a typical home’s energy needs, he told us. His vertical-axis turbine is a natural propeller system that spins on its axis a contrast from the windmill-style horizontal-axis turbines characteristic of rural areas. It’s made of steel, aluminum, and plastic and contains no sharp blades that might endanger birds.
Urban wind, though plentiful, has not been widely used, mostly due to aesthetics and the space constraints of turbines, according to Johanna Partin, the Renewable Energy Program manager of the San Francisco Department of the Environment.
"The micro and small urban wind market is still in the early stages of development," Partin said, pointing out that Chicago, the notorious Windy City, only recently started a residential permitting process.
Pelman’s turbine became the first in the city to receive a residential permit for use last Oct. 5 after numerous bureaucratic back-and-forths with the Planning Department.
His rooftop turbine captures wind energy coming from the coast and going east and sends it to an inverter in his garage that converts it to usable energy, which then travels into an electrical panel.
"Think of the turbine as the heart of the system and the inverter as the brain of the system," Pelman said.
While Pelman’s turbine may catch people’s eyes, he claims it does not do the same to birds. "It coexists very peacefully with the pigeons and the hawks," he said, mentioning a couple of Bernal Heights’ bird species.
He is working with the Audubon Society to make sure he can live up to his assertion. Due to the turbine’s opaque appearance, no birds have attempted to fly through and meet their doom a problem frequently noted with the large, horizontal-axis turbines at the Altamont Pass Wind Farm.
A one-turbine system will cost around $5,000, though Pelman estimates that rebates will reduce the price by $1,500. It’s an "emotional purchase," he said, that will at least partially satisfy a green conscience.
Chris Beaudoin, one of Pelman’s first customers, decided to make wind energy his green cause. His Castro home of 20 years located on what he calls "consistently windy" Kite Hill is one of the 10 sites where Blue Green Pacific will initiate beta testing in the next six to 12 months.
As a flight attendant whose job has opened his eyes to locations where governments are stepping up to the plate in renewable-resource use, Beaudoin realized that "we can either bitch about [the lack of renewable resources] or politically agitate for it."
Beaudoin takes the ominous signs of global warming as a reason to act fast in every plausible way that he can. As he told us, "I think the main motivation is that we have to be ready for what’s going on down the road." *
Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to email@example.com.
The Toxic Avenger pawing ferociously at his slime-dipped guitar while an army of redneck zombies feasts on a moshing drove of punk rockers now that’s a cool visual. Maybe Giuseppe Andrews Cabin Fever star and an independent filmmaker who’s had a number of his movies distributed through Troma Entertainment can keep Toxie and his flesh-eating pals in mind for his next music video for Chicago prog poppers Oh My God. With one director’s credit for the quartet already under his belt, Andrews recently added a second by helming the video for the title track off the band’s fifth full-length, Fools Want Noise (Split Red). Andrews’s vision for the song might not be a gore-packed freakfest typical of the Troma catalog, but there’s no denying the oddball humor and sicko charm exhibited within his art. As the video opens, a grizzly, bronze-tanned old-timer dressed in a thong shimmies in place to vocalist Billy O’Neill’s rabid whine and snapping fingers. "Two eyes swimming in a sea of fat / A liver drowning in a vodka vat / You want more of that / Do you want more of that? / Well the TV is on and the radio is on cuz nobody can make a choice / Fools want noise," O’Neill proclaims between random shots of a lip-synching cheeseburger puppet and trailer trash conga-dancing around a swimming pool. Just as the song erupts, Andrews clad in a bathrobe and flaunting a set of horse-size wax choppers pops up onscreen and slams his body around a living room.
From his Chicago apartment, OMG synthesizer player Ig said he was a bit puzzled by the video’s kooky imagery on initial viewing but has since warmed up to it. Andrews’s actors, he explained, are "the mostly elderly people who live in his Ventura trailer park, where he lives along with his dad. He chooses to live in this trailer park and to use his fellow residents as actors many of whom are exdrug addicts, Vietnam vets, etcetera.
"Basically, he makes John Waters’s films look like Disney movies."
But enough about Andrews. Playing a mash of disco, glam, and hard rock, OMG has garnered plenty of fans of its own through its flamboyant live shows and relentless tour schedule since forming in 1999. Uniting bustling organ, bassy grooves, and Bish’s propulsive drumbeats with a heap of distortion, the group sounds like the musical spawn of Robert Fripp and Gary Richrath, that guy from REO Speedwagon. Somehow work in a jealous Bob Mould, and the result is Fools Want Noise, a guitar-laden punk onslaught ripe with devil-horned salutes and tempos jacked up by adrenalin.
The album also finds the combo joined by friend and Darediablo guitarist Jake Garcia. Though all of OMG’s previous endeavors were accomplished without the use of guitar, Ig said, the three didn’t have a "prior plan to get punky or guitary. We just jumped at the chance to record with Jake." Then again, the added guitar really shouldn’t be a shock to fans it just adds to OMG’s ever-teetering dynamic.
"I have an organ sound that’s very distinctive, and no matter how pliable Billy’s voice is, he’s still such a Billy," Ig said. "Bish too has a drum sound style I could pick out of a lineup.
"And somehow, once Billy’s background, mine, and Bish’s get poured into a beaker, the result consistently is the unique chemical called Oh My God." *
OH MY GOD
With the Faceless Werewolves
Thurs/12, 9:30 p.m., $5
1131 Polk, SF
In the midst of hyphy’s ups and downs, Warner Bros./Reprise will finally drop the new Federation album, It’s Whateva, on Aug. 14. The group’s second major-label disc, after The Album (Virgin, 2003), which helped inaugurate the hyphy movement, It’s Whateva was originally slated for release last fall, until difficulties arose with its lead single, "Stunna Shades at Night." Based on Corey Hart’s ’80s hit "Sunglasses at Night," "Stunna Shades" was building a big buzz when the group learned the Canadian rocker refused to clear the sample.
"He felt like he wrote the song when he was young, and it meant a lot to him," producer and nonperforming Federation member Rick Rock says from Sacramento. Nonetheless, "Stunna Shades" "took off and was big promotion. But we never got a chance to really work it. To me that was a number one hit."
The delay caused by the "Stunna Shades" difficulties recalls the experience of Mistah FAB with his "Ghostbusters" remake, "Ghost Ride It." Though FAB had clearance to use the Ray Parker Jr. theme song, Columbia Pictures forced MTV and other outlets to stop playing "Ghost Ride It" ‘s buzz-building video due to its inclusion of the Ghostbusters logo. The lack of TV support convinced Atlanta to delay FAB’s disc.
Still, these two examples raise one major problem in the presentation of hyphy to a national audience. Remakes of goofy songs, "Ghost Ride It" and "Stunna Shades" rely on a novelty factor uncharacteristic of their genre. The best hyphy tunes have been startling originals, like FAB’s "Super Sic Wit It" and the Federation’s "Hyphy," and the former two tracks’ reliance on attention-getting pop culture reference points has only compounded the difficulty of breaking the Bay nationwide.
In any case, Rock worked on the album again, looking for a new single "that could be as big as ‘Stunna Shades.’ " Yet the group only accidentally stumbled onto one: "College Girl," an extended campus-themed meditation on "to give brain," rap slang for a blow job.
"We had the song, but then another dude had a similar song," Rock recalls. "I didn’t want it to come out after him, so I leaked it to radio. Then Warner Bros. started chasing it." The success of the single prompted Warner Bros. to schedule It’s Whateva for June, though it’s since been pushed back twice.
"It’s not a great time in the music industry, so I’m sure Warner is being real careful with the release," an unfazed Rock points out. "We need the right song, the right video to get it to come across."
While Rock will continue to add and drop tracks until the last minute, the rough version of It’s Whateva I heard is astounding enough as a hip-hop album. While it begins in a recognizably hyphy vein with tracks like "College Girl" and the 2006 single "18 Dummy," the recording soon veers into uncharted terrain that looks well beyond present trends in the Bay.
Heavy metal rave-up "Black Roses," with live drums courtesy of Blink-182’s Travis Barker, is one of the best realizations of a rock-rap fusion to date. The far-out groove on "I Met Yew" proves perfect for a cameo by Snoop Dogg, the only big-name rapper here besides E-40. The majority of the disc leaves hyphy behind in favor of a level of experimentation that recalls the golden age of hip-hop. Even in its present state, It’s Whateva displays a level of originality and all-out weirdness that fully justifies Rock’s statement that he’s "got a lot to show these youngsters about putting an album together."
"People want to know what’s next," Rock insists. "If you keep doing hyphy, people will say, ‘Oh, they’re still doing that hyphy shit.’ So I gotta do something different. I gotta put paint where it ain’t."
"Hyphy is here to stay because hyphy was created in the streets and the streets will be here forever."
E-40 in an e-mail, June 28
Send a 911 to the 415 and 510: does hyphy have a pulse? Several articles in recent months have suggested the answer is no. A May 13 San Jose Mercury News article, "What Happened to Hyphy?" by Marian Liu, for example, insists that a year ago, "the Bay Area seemed poised to become the center of the hip-hop universe," when, we are told, the genre "was ubiquitous at clubs, on the streets and on local radio stations." Now hyphy is "listless, with even local popularity beginning to dissipate."
This account of the rise and fall of hyphy is exaggerated to the point of fiction. Bay Area hip-hop has, of course, been cracking for at least two and a half years, following a long post-Tupac period of commercial decline now referred to as "the drought." But while the amount of local spins Bay Area music received increased, hyphy was never anything like ubiquitous on the radio. The small number of major-label signings never threatened to displace any presumed center of hip-hop’s stubbornly regional universe nor does such an image convey what’s been at stake in the Bay’s struggle for recognition.
According to the Arbitron radio ratings system, San Francisco is the fourth-largest market in the country, after New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. This figure includes Oakland but not Sacramento or San Jose, which are classed as separate markets but are considered by everyone from the rappers to the media and the listeners as part of the Bay Area in terms of hip-hop regions. All Bay Area artists want is to be treated like other rappers in similar areas of the country. Rappers from smaller markets like Houston (number six), Atlanta (number nine), Miami (number 12), and even St. Louis (number 20) routinely receive local airplay, major-label deals, and national exposure.
Only the Bay is denied such opportunities. While the publicity of E-40’s 2005 signing with BME/Warner Bros. scored hyphy coverage in national media like USA Today and secured the Bay its own episode of MTV’s region-oriented rap show, My Block, the music hasn’t had a chance to blow up. With the exception of E-40 whose gold-selling 2006 album My Ghetto Report Card (BME/Warner Bros.) ensured a Warner Bros. release of his upcoming The Ball Street Journal no Bay Area hip-hop artist has been permitted to drop a big-label full-length in the past two years. Albums by the Pack on Jive, Mistah FAB on Atlantic, Clyde Carson on Capitol, and the Federation on Warner Bros./Reprise have all experienced frustrating delays, fostering the notion that hyphy is foundering. But not everyone agrees with this impression.
DEAD OR ALIVE?
"How can hyphy be dead when the key players are still there?" 19-year-old producer extraordinaire and Sick Wid It Records president Droop-E asks. It’s a good question, for if the short history of the hyphy movement has proved anything, it’s that there’s no lack of hot Bay Area acts, from vets like Keak Da Sneak to new artists such as FAB to rappers who came up during the drought and didn’t get to shine, like Eddi Projex (formerly of Hittaz on Tha Payroll) and Big Rich (once of Fully Loaded). Carson, the Jacka, Beeda Weeda, J-Stalin, the Federation, Turf Talk, Kaz Kyzah, San Quinn, Messy Marv: the list of major-label-level talent only begins here, and the extent to which any of the above identify as hyphy hardly matters, inasmuch as for the rest of the country, hyphy stands for Bay Area hip-hop.
Many of these rappers predate hyphy, and while the word definitely has musical signification it’s a fast, club-oriented sound inspired by crunk but transformed by electronica and techno flourishes its most important function has been as a marketing tool to direct national attention back to the Bay. To write off hyphy as a passé trend is, in this sense, to write off the region, leaving the Bay back where it started.
Further complicating any so-called postmortem analysis of hyphy is the fact that the term also refers to the Bay Area culture of disaffected hood youths known for white Ts, dreadlocks, and ghost riding. "Hyphy is part of the street," Droop-E affirms, noting that the culture emerged before the name was attached or the music drew attention to it. The merging of this culture and a particular hip-hop sound in a single term is what makes hyphy so potent a concept, functioning in a manner akin to the word psychedelic in the late ’60s. This union between a lifestyle and an aesthetic is the chief justification for considering hyphy a movement, however vaguely articulated.
"The hyphy movement reflects what’s going on in the streets," Federation producer and national hitmaker Rick Rock says. "That will never die, as far as that goes. The kids are going to be hyphy. But the music you don’t have to say ‘hyphy’ to do a hyphy song. If people are saying ‘go dumb’ on 10 different songs on the radio, then you’re shooting yourself in the foot."
Traxamillion another architect of the hyphy sound and producer of Keak’s local number one hit "Super Hyphy" agrees the music could be "losing its edge due to oversaturation of the same topics: scrapers, purp, pillz, shake ya dreads, and stunna shades," underscoring the tension between hyphy and a region whose rappers pride themselves on originality. Yet if hyphy’s lyrics often suffer from an overreliance on now-established slang, the limitations of its subject matter hardly seem greater than that of mainstream rap; the high-fashion emphasis of East Coast rap is infinitely more tedious.
In any case, Rock’s response has been to reinvigorate hyphy through the innovative impulse that led to its current form. "That hyphy sound I blueprinted, I don’t have to stay with it," Rock says. "Hopefully people will gravitate toward the new music, and that’ll be the new hyphy."
NEW SICK SOUNDS
Rock is leading the way with the Federation’s thrice-delayed It’s Whateva finally to be released by Warner Bros. on Aug. 14 (see sidebar) and his production on "I Got Chips," the guitar-driven first single off Turf Talk’s West Coast Vaccine (Sick Wid It), released in June. One of the year’s most anticipated Bay full-lengths, Vaccine more than fulfills its buzz. Besides the excellence of its composition as an album, it displays Turf Talk’s tremendous artistic growth in the number of flows he adds to his characteristic bark, from a whisper to a lazy drawl to a hyperactive bellow.
While Droop-E confirms that several major labels expressed interest in Vaccine, ultimately none pulled the trigger. Yet deals of various sorts keep trickling in, most recently for Keak, whose camp confirms his recent signing to national independent Koch. Tha Mekanix production squad is negotiating a rerelease of J-Stalin’s On Behalf of the Streets (Zoo Ent., 2006) through one of the biggest independent distributors in the States, Select-O-Hits. And more major-label ice has begun to thaw, as the Team member Carson reports that Capitol is leaning toward a mid-October release of his solo debut, Theatre Music.
"It’s going to be real good for the Bay," Carson says of his ambitious project, originally conceived as one continuous track, à la Prince’s Lovesexy (Warner Bros., 1988), though Capitol has nixed this risky idea. Yet Carson insists the album "will still be one body of music." Cobranded by the Game’s Black Wall Street Records and boasting appearances by the multiputf8um rapper, Theatre Music finds Carson busting over big-time beatmakers like Scott Storch and Wyclef Jean, and it’s hard to imagine Capitol squandering such resources.
SO HARD ON THE FUNKY RADIO
Another symptom of hyphy’s alleged demise, offered in the Merc and elsewhere, is its lack of current radio play. Yet if there’s been no recent hit on the level of Keak’s "Super Hyphy," it’s because KMEL and other hip-hop stations have withdrawn support for local music.
"The radio play on the hyphy movement has definitely slowed down," Traxamillion says. "They play a few Bay joints here and there, but overall I feel a lot of the radio play is coming to a halt."
Mistah FAB, for example, has a pair of new singles, "Goin’ Crazy," highlighting Too $hort and D4L of "Laffy Taffy" fame, and "Race 4 Ya Pink Slips," with Keak and Spice 1. But you’ll never hear these on KMEL, as the station has stopped playing FAB.
"It’s the politics of radio," says FAB, who claims that since he accepted his Friday-night radio gig at KYLD, he’s been subject to an unofficial ban at KMEL, courtesy of musical director Big Von Johnson though both stations belong to Clear Channel. "As an artist, I find this hard to accept," FAB confesses. "As a businessman, I realize why." Nonetheless, FAB was surprised that ending his radio show had no effect on the ban.
"It hurts the movement," he says, and he’s right. His 2005 radio hit "Super Sic Wit It" was one of the catalysts of hyphy, bringing other local music in its wake. "If we can’t get the support here at home, how can we expect to break nationwide?"
FAB has a point: local rap needs radio to generate sales, which in turn generate label deals. At press time, Johnson hadn’t respond to several requests seeking his side of the story, yet the Arbitron ratings speak for themselves.
In summer 2006, when it was playing hyphy, KMEL was the number two station in the market, after KGO-AM talk radio. That winter, when it began slacking off, KMEL finished at number seven, tied with KYLD. (Spring ratings aren’t yet posted.) This is difficult to reconcile with the claim that hyphy’s popularity has dissipated. Yet while hyphy and by extension, Bay Area rap may never break nationally if KMEL doesn’t support it, even fewer people will tune in to KMEL if the station doesn’t play it.
Nearly every Bay Area rapper I’ve met seeks what Messy Marv once called "that major label shine." Yet the lack of hyphy-era major-label-deal flash or rather follow-through thus far may stem more from the general decline of the corporate music system than from the strength or weakness of local hip-hop. Fewer major-label albums are being released now compared with earlier periods of pop, and those imprints are generally taking fewer chances and are often unable to move fast enough for rap. Radio, moreover, has lost at least a portion of its audience to Internet alternatives like MySpace and YouTube, both of which FAB credits with mitigating the impact of absent radio play. Given the fact that a popular independent artist can potentially make more money at the price of much glory, perhaps than many bigger names, it’s hard not to wonder if the major labels do hip-hop more harm than good. It’s something to consider as we wait to see if the Federation’s new album, whateva its final form, keeps hyphy’s momentum alive.*
Part two in a Guardian series The read part one, click here.
The San Francisco Ethics Commission is at an important crossroads, facing decisions that could have a profound impact on the city’s political culture: should every violation be treated equally or should this agency focus on the most flagrant efforts to corrupt the political system?
The traditionally anemic agency that regulates campaign spending is just now starting to get the staff and resources it needs to fulfill its mandate. But its aggressive investigation of grassroots treasurer Carolyn Knee (see “The Ethics of Ethics,” 7/4/07) — which concluded July 9 with her being fined just $267 — is raising questions about its focus and mission.
“For the first time in our history, we’re having growing pains,” Ethics Commission executive director John St. Croix told the Guardian, noting that the agency’s 16 staffers (slated to increase to 19 next year) are double what he started with three years ago.
Reformers like Joe Lynn — a former Ethics staffer and later a commissioner — say the commission should do more to help small, all-volunteer campaigns negotiate the Byzantine campaign finance rules, be more forgiving when such campaigns make mistakes, and focus on more significant violations by campaigns that seek to deceive voters and swing elections.
“The traditional thinking is there’s no exception to the law, and that’s been my traditional thinking too,” Lynn said. “But it doesn’t cut the mustard when you see a Carolyn Knee say, ‘I’m not going to do that again.'<\!s>”
At Knee’s June 11 hearing, Doug Comstock — who often does political consulting for small organizations — urged commissioners to reevaluate their mission. “Why are you here?” he asked them. “You’re not here to pick on the little guys.”
Yet St. Croix told us, “That’s not really the way the law is written. Everybody is supposed to be treated the same…. The notion that the Ethics Commission was only created to nail the big guns is not correct.”
That said, St. Croix agrees that regulators should be tougher on willful violators and those who have lots of experience and familiarity with the rules they’re breaking. And he said they do that. But it’s the grassroots campaigns that tend to have the most violations.
“It’s frustrating because the people who make the most mistakes are the ones with the least experience,” St. Croix said, noting that the commission can’t simply ignore violations.
A MATTER OF PRIORITIES
But critics of the commission say the problem is one of priorities. Even if there were problems with Knee’s campaign, there was no reason the commission should have launched such an in-depth and expensive investigation four years after the fact. That decision was recently criticized in a resolution approved by the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee, which argued that the approach discourages citizens from getting politically involved.
“[The] San Francisco Ethics Commission spends an inordinate amount of its meager resources in pursuing petty violations allegedly committed by grassroots campaigns; this disproportionate enforcement against grassroots campaigns is directly contrary to the goal of the Campaign Finance Reform Ordinance,” one “whereas” from the resolution read.
The resolution’s principal sponsor, Robert Haaland, is intimately familiar with the problem. When he ran for supervisor in District 5 two years ago, his treasurer had a doctorate from Stanford and still struggled to understand and comply with the law. But they made a good-faith effort, he said, and shouldn’t be targeted by Ethics.
“It’s sort of like the IRS going after the little guy,” Haaland told us. “The commissioners need to set the direction of the commission for where they’re spending their time and resources.”
Eileen Hansen is perhaps the only member of the five-person commission to really embrace the idea that its mission is to help citizen activists comply with the law and to go after well-funded professionals who seek to skirt it. To do otherwise is to harm San Francisco’s unique grassroots political system.
“It’s true, the law is the law,” Hansen told us. “But I do think the Ethics Commission needs to grapple with how to apply the law in a fair manner.”
Is it fair to apply the same standard to Knee and to the treasurer of the campaign on the other side of the public power measure she was pushing, veteran campaign attorney Jim Sutton, whose failure to report late contributions from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. later triggered a $240,000 fine by Ethics and the California Fair Political Practices Commission, while those contributions might have tipped the outcome of the election?
Sutton gets hired by most of the big-money campaigns in town, such as Mayor Gavin Newsom’s, and has a history of skirting the law, including a recent case of allegedly laundered public funds at City College; coordination of deceptive independent expenditures against Supervisors Chris Daly, Gerardo Sandoval, and Jake McGoldrick; District Attorney Kamala Harris’s violation of her spending-cap pledge in 2003; and an apparent attempt to launder inaugural-committee funds to pay Newsom’s outstanding campaign debts (see “Newsom’s Funny Money,” 2/11/04). Yet the practice of the commission is to ignore that history and treat Sutton, who did not return calls seeking comment, the same as everyone else.
“We all admire and want grassroots organizations to do what they need to do,” Commissioner Emi Gusukuma said. But, she said, “the laws are there for a reason…. We’re supposed to enforce and interpret the law. The law should only apply to big money? The law has to apply to everybody. We can’t pick or choose.”
David Looman, a campaign consultant and treasurer involved in dozens of past elections, put it wryly. “Some people talk as though the grassroots campaigns shouldn’t have to obey the law,” he said of some activists he’s worked for who consider themselves the good guys. He said he reminds them, “This is the act that you helped pass, and now you gotta abide by it.”
“But there ought to be some kind of business sense here. Most regulatory agencies have offenses which they regard as de minimis,” Looman said, meaning “you get a nasty letter that says, ‘Don’t make a habit of it,’ and when you do make a habit of it, stricter penalties come into play.”
His experience with the commission has led him to believe there’s no sense of priorities when it comes to what Ethics pursues. Many of the small campaign committees Looman represents have been audited to what he feels is a ridiculous extent.
In one case, he told us, he took over the management of the Bernal Heights Democratic Club and discovered that it hadn’t been filing certain documents for years. He ended up paying $10,000 out of his own pocket to cover Ethics fines just because his name was now on the dotted line.
“Yes, the Bernal Heights Democratic Club was in complete violation of the law. They deserved to pay a penalty, but it was so far out of proportion. It was two times our yearly income. I think that’s inappropriate,” Looman told us.
THE GRASSROOTS CULTURE
Some say the whole idea of local campaign reform is to nurture an important and unique aspect of San Francisco: its vibrant and diverse grassroots political culture. “For every two committees in LA, there are three in San Francisco,” Lynn said, adding that it used to be a more extreme, two-to-one ratio. Larger cities often have more professionals involved, he said. “San Francisco has a unique political culture, very heavy on the grass roots.”
Yet the Ethics Commission doesn’t see protection of the little person as part of its mission.
“The fundamental problem with Ethics is it is not staffed by people who have been advocates for good government reforms,” Lynn said. “The Ethics Commission needs to come to grips with the fact that they’re tampering with the grassroots political culture of San Francisco.”
Lynn would like the commission to direct some resources toward hiring assistants to staff the office during the two or three weeks prior to Election Day, a crew that would help prevent violations and inoculate campaigns against being fined for errors that do occur.
“If you looked at the money that the Ethics Commission is spending going after citizen filers and reallocated it toward a staff of clerks, the cost to the city would be minimal,” Lynn said, estimating it at about $100,000.
Calling it the “H&R Block Unit,” Lynn thinks a staff of 10 to 15 clerks could be trained to assist small campaigns, individuals, and first-time filers who would come in and be walked through the complex paperwork.
St. Croix said such services are available now to inexperienced treasurers and those who ask for help — although not nearly as extensive as Lynn envisions — and he’d like to expand them in the future. But he said there are legal and practical complications to giving campaigns formal advice in letters that they might later use in their defense.
“I think it’s a lofty goal to educate people,” commission chair Susan Harriman told us. “We have staff with the sole job to keep people educated.” She said she’s attended meetings at which outreach occurred between the commission and community, but only as an observer. She thinks it’s the job of the staff to take an active community role, although St. Croix said that’s a resource issue.
Commissioner Emi Gusukuma thinks the appointed commissioners should be more involved. “I would be happy to be part of that team,” she said of joining any Ethics community outreach. “Going to clubs — I would definitely be willing to do that.” She noted that she and her fellow commissioners are all very busy, but she still thinks the educational aspect of their role is important.
Hansen also noted that a commission filled with relatively new appointees needs to hear more about the real-world impacts of its policies. “The public can educate the commissioners, and right now the commissioners are not educated on these issues,” Hansen said.
She and other reformers would like to see St. Croix facilitate a discussion of what the commission’s enforcement history has been and where the focus should be going forward.
“The perception is all we ever do is go after the small guys, but I don’t know if that’s really true,” Gusukuma said. She’s pushing staff to do more research into past enforcement actions “so we can tell the staff … not who to prosecute but what kinds of cases are important. We haven’t been able to get that analysis yet.”
Lynn said another key component in the education campaign would be to televise Ethics Commission hearings, which would help people become more engaged with the agency’s work. Commissioners Hansen and Gusukuma agreed, endorsing the proposal in this year’s budget cycle and winning the support of Sup. Chris Daly before he was ousted as chair of the Budget and Finance Committee, after which the expenditure (estimated at about $30,000 per year) was removed from the budget.
Harriman is opposed to televising hearings and thinks the money should be spent elsewhere. “I don’t think it’s a good idea. I think interested people who are interested in items on the agenda will appear. I think it’s a waste of city funds to televise something.”
Lynn said that attitude is the problem.
“The Ethics Commission doesn’t want to be televised, which is the reason to televise them,” he said. “They don’t want it because they’re trained that they are quasi-judicial and you don’t have cameras in courtrooms. Right now Ethics is invisible. The only way it can build a constituency is if it’s visible.”
Bob Planthold, another former commissioner, agreed. “Ethics doesn’t make friends,” he said. “It doesn’t have a constituency of positive advocates, and you need that at City Hall to get money and resources.”<\!s>*
EDITORIAL Of all the cities in the United States, San Francisco ought to be most aware of the perils of privatization. Much of the city burned down in 1906 in part because the private Spring Valley Water Co. hadn’t kept up its lines and thus was unable to provide enough water for firefighting. A few years later, in one of the greatest privatization scandals in American history, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. stole what was supposed to be the city’s publicly owned electricity, costing the local coffers untold hundreds of millions over the past 80 years.
This is a city that votes 80 percent Democratic and has always opposed the Ronald ReaganGeorge H.W. BushGeorge W. Bush agenda. A large part of the local economy depends on public employment (the city, the state, the federal government, and the University of California are by far the largest employers in town, dwarfing any of the biggest private-sector companies).
And yet Mayor Gavin Newsom, who likes to say he’s a progressive, is pushing an astonishing package of privatization measures that would shift public property, resources, and infrastructure into the hands of for-profit businesses. He’s talking about privatizing the golf courses, some city parks, and even Camp Mather. He’s promoting a tidal-energy deal that would give PG&E control of the power generated in a public waterway. He hasn’t lifted a finger to stop the ongoing PG&ERaker Act scandal. And he’s determined to hand over a key part of the city’s future infrastructure to Google and EarthLink (see Editor’s Notes, p. 1).
This nonsense has to stop.
It’s hard to fight privatization battle by battle. Every single effort is a tough campaign in itself; the companies that want to make money off San Francisco’s public assets typically have plenty of cash to throw around. They’re slick and sophisticated, hire good lobbyists, and generally get excellent press from the local dailies. And it works: even board president Aaron Peskin, who generally knows better, is now talking about accepting the private wi-fi deal.
So what this city needs is a unified, organized campaign against privatization.
When Reagan arrived in the White House in 1981, the single biggest item on the agenda of his political backers was an attack on the public sector. The way the right-wingers saw it, government took money from the rich and gave it to the less well-off. Government regulated business activity, costing major corporations a lot of money. Government "the beast," they called it had to be beaten back, demonized, and starved.
So the Reaganites used their top-rate public relations machine to make the public sector appear riddled with waste and fraud. They cut taxes, ran up record (for the time) deficits, and forced Congress to eliminate a lot of social programs. More and more of what the government once did was turned over to the private sector the way the radical right liked it.
That political agenda still rules Washington, D.C., where even a fair amount of the war in Iraq has been privatized, turned over to contractors who are making huge profits while Iraqi and American kids die.
The attack on government has worked so well that even a very modest plan by Bill Clinton to create a national health care system was killed by the insurance industry.
But privatization doesn’t work. Private-sector companies and even nonprofits don’t have to comply with open-records laws and can spend money (including taxpayers’) with only limited accountability. Most private companies are about making money first and serving the public second; that means when private operators take over public services, the prices go up, worker pay goes down (and unions are often booted out), and the quality of the delivery tanks. Look at the real estate development nightmare that has become the privatized Presidio. Look at the disgrace and disaster that the privatized Edison School brought to the San Francisco Unified School District. Look at the glitzy café and the pricey parking lot that have replaced good animal care at the privatized San Francisco Zoo. Look at what has happened around the world when Bechtel Corp. has taken over public water systems rates have gone up so high that some people can’t afford this basic life necessity.
Look what’s happened to the American health system. Look what’s happened in Iraq.
Government isn’t perfect, and the public sector has lot of management, efficiency, and accountability issues. But at least the public has some hope of correcting those problems. San Francisco ought to be a place where a major movement to take back the public sector is born and thrives.
Almost everyone in town ought to have an interest. Labor, obviously, opposes privatization. So should neighborhood advocates (who care about public parks and open space), environmentalists (because the entire notion of environmentalism depends on a healthy public sector), progressive community groups, and politicians. Even more conservative groups like the cops and firefighters ought to see the need to prevent their jobs from being outsourced to a private vendor.
A campaign against privatization could link wi-fi, PG&E, tidal power, and the golf courses. The campaign could force anyone running for office to address a no-privatization pledge. It could appear any time one of these rotten schemes pops up in town and send a message that San Francisco doesn’t accept the economic agenda of the radical right.
Who’s going to call the first meeting? 2
I don’t think anyone except Gavin Newsom’s inner circle and the folks who run Google and EarthLink really likes the mayor’s wi-fi contract, but it now appears at least possible that the Board of Supervisors will approve some version of it.
Board president Aaron Peskin wants the service improved a bit and is demanding some written guarantees that it will actually work the way it’s supposed to. Some opponents of the deal are arguing that it ought to be treated as a franchise, not a simple contract, and they want more legal hurdles. The serious techies say it’s the wrong technology anyway and will be outmoded and worthless in just a few years.
But there’s something bigger going on here.
A high-speed broadband system for San Francisco isn’t a hot dog stand and boat-rental shop in Golden Gate Park. It isn’t a restaurant lease on port property. It isn’t the naming rights for Candlestick Park or a permit to operate a taxicab or deliver cable TV.
Those are contracts and franchises. This is a piece of municipal infrastructure; it’s more like the roads that cars and Muni buses use to carry people around town or the pipes that bring water to our houses or the public schools that educate our kids or the emergency communications system that takes the call when we dial 911.
This is part of the city’s future, part of its economic development, part of how its citizens will participate in the political debate, part of how we will all learn and think and talk to each other. This is the new public square, the new commons.
Why in the world would we want to give it to a private company?
I don’t care if EarthLink and Google are offering 300 kilobauds per second of download time or 500 or 1,000. I don’t care if they promise to give free laptops to anyone who can stand on their head and shout "search engine." I don’t care if they promise to paint every light pole in the city green. They are private outfits set up to make a profit for investors. They have no business owning what will soon be the city’s primary communication system.
San Francisco has kept private operators from controlling its drinking water. This water is considered a basic part of life, and it’s available at low cost: San Franciscans pay less than one one-thousandth the price of bottled water for the stuff that comes out of the tap, and it’s almost certainly better. Same with roads and bridges, police and fire protection, and basic education (although that’s still a struggle).
I don’t get why broadband is any different.
I don’t think this would ever have been an issue 50 years ago. The generation that survived the Depression (with massive public-sector investment and ownership) and World War II (with huge excess-profits taxes on big corporations) and built things like the interstate highway system and the University of California didn’t see government as evil and inherently dysfunctional. The public paid to invest in public services.
It was Ronald Reagan and his ilk who took a generation disillusioned by Vietnam and Watergate and turned it against the public sector (see "Needed: A Campaign Against Privatization," page 5). Now we’ve even got a privatized war (and look how well that’s going).
The supervisors should get beyond the wi-fi deal’s little details and think about what it really means. This is San Francisco. We know better.<\!s>*
EDITORIAL The 2000 law that made it easier for schools and college districts to sell bonds for capital improvements requires every agency raising money this way to create a citizens’ oversight committee to monitor spending. It also mandates regular audits.
But it’s a bit unclear what the audit requirement actually means and as G.W. Schulz reports on page 15, that’s allowed some outfits, including San Francisco’s Community College District, to get away with spending hundreds of millions of dollars without proper accountability.
Some lawyers argue that school districts need only undergo perfunctory financial audits. Others say the law mandates detailed performance audits. This sounds like a minor point, but it’s not: financial audits only look at what was spent. Performance audits look at how and why and whether the money was spent in accordance with what the voters were promised.
The City College administration is only now, reluctantly, agreeing to a performance audit, something that should have been done five years ago. The school’s lawyers say bond money can be freely shuffled from project to project, at any time, and there’s no need for regular performance audits.
There’s a simple way to clear this up: Attorney General Jerry Brown needs to issue an opinion on the intent of the law. And if he won’t do that or comes down on the side of unaccountable government, then the state Legislature needs to pass a bill mandating performance audits and requiring that bond proceeds actually go where the voters were told they would.
Part two in a Guardian series
Click here for part one
David Duer is proud of the volunteer work he’s done with the West Contra Costa Unified School District. He graduated from the area’s school system, as did his kids.
So despite what was sure to be a burdensome responsibility with no pay, Duer, a development director for the UC Berkeley Library, accepted the chance to serve on a committee formed under a state mandate to monitor how the district spent $850 million in bond money authorized by voters in three elections since 2000.
"There are schools all over the district that have been renovated," Duer beams today.
The committee initially proposed meeting every quarter but soon realized that wouldn’t be nearly enough to do the job right and chose to meet monthly instead. Since 2003 it has received full-blown management audits of the school system’s performance every year, with biannual updates from independent professionals not beholden to district bureaucrats.
The story of San Francisco’s Community College District could not be more different.
The oversight committee that’s charged with monitoring $560 million in bond spending has never seen an expansive performance audit, just basic financial reports that show community college officials here seem to be obeying their most fundamental fiduciary duties. The panel meets three times a year for more than an hour and a half each time, and for three years it didn’t even report to the public on City College’s handling of the money, which it’s required to do annually by the state’s Education Code.
The community college committee is hardly made of Rotary volunteers and bored retirees: the list includes San Francisco treasurer José Cisneros and former San Francisco Chronicle publisher Steve Falk, now head of the local Chamber of Commerce.
But even members say the panel has fallen down on the job and that City College officials are freely shifting around the taxpayers’ cash with little or no accountability.
The mostly decipherable performance reports that West Contra Costa citizens receive, though lengthy, track all of that district’s bond expenditures and give the area’s oversight committee of taxpayers a vivid portrait of how well the school system and its administrators are managing hundreds of millions of dollars in building improvements. Any wonkish jargon in the reports that might mystify the committee is translated in "frank" terms by the outside inspectors, Duer says, without interference from school officials.
If a contractor were to double-bill the district or demand too much in change orders after promising completion within a set price range, Duer and his colleagues would know about it, and they could make suggestions on how to fix it. If the district was doing a stellar job, that would be clear too.
"I don’t see these performance audits as punitive," Duer said. "I see them as a confirmation that the process and systems in place are working."
MORE MONEY PROBLEMS
The Guardian reported last week ("The City College Shell Game," 7/4/07) that City College’s bond projects are running an astounding $225 million over budget. As a result, school officials have returned to the Board of Trustees five times in recent years to request that a total of $130 million be reallocated from one project to another to cover the overruns, leaving some projects promised to voters with little or no funding at all. We reported on a number of examples last week, but there are plenty more:
•<\!s> The construction of a new Mission campus was supposed to begin in 2002 but didn’t get under way until well into 2005. The project is now $30 million over budget, an increase of 50 percent, and the school recently requested another $6 million diversion from other bond projects. City College originally planned to build the campus where a shuttered theater currently stands on Mission Street but later moved the site to avoid a showdown with preservationists.
•<\!s> Since 1997, City College has asked voters for a total of $61 million to renovate and remodel existing buildings and meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. In November 2005 it asked voters for $35 million to perform such work, but just weeks after the election, $20 million of the money was reallocated to a planned Chinatown<\d>North Beach campus that’s now running $50 million over budget, an increase of 60 percent. That project’s ever-changing design has been heatedly challenged by everyone from the Chronicle‘s editorial board to Sup. Aaron Peskin to state senator Leland Yee.
•<\!s> Two projects for which voters authorized a combined $71 million won’t see the light of day unless the college returns to the ballot a fourth time, which school officials have discussed. The projects a biotech learning center and a one-stop administrative shop for new students have been drained of $42 million to save the Mission campus and an overdue Performing Arts Center, which will cost $75 million more than expected, an increase of 152 percent.
HUNTING AND PECKING
All of this irks Mara Kopp, who was appointed to City College’s oversight committee in late 2005 as a representative of the San Francisco Taxpayers Association. She’s complained openly that the school long ago should have hired auditors for the kind of far-reaching work West Contra Costa gets.
"If we received ongoing management reports, then we’d have something of substance," Kopp said. "We wouldn’t have to hunt and peck in a kind of naive, elementary way."
She is all but alone in her criticism, however, save for a small group of allies including former committee member John Rizzo and Milton Marks, one of the few voices on the independently elected Board of Trustees willing to apply tough scrutiny to Chancellor Phil Day’s office at board meetings. Green Party pol Rizzo recently became a trustee after closely beating longtime incumbent Johnnie Carter in the November 2006 board race.
Day has long argued that the school’s attorneys don’t believe such audits are required under Proposition 39, a 2000 state ballot measure that lowered the threshold for passing local school bonds. Prop. 39 required the formation of local citizens’ bond oversight committees.
Marks has questioned the strength of City College’s oversight committee and the lack of performance audits since at least 2005, but not until earlier this year were he and Rizzo able to force a resolution demanding the inspections, and now Day claims to welcome a management review. The school will bid out its first audit soon.
"The bottom line is, a performance audit as opposed to a financial audit would determine whether or not funds are being expended in the most efficient, effective, and economical manner instead of just adding up these funds and saying, ‘Here’s how much we expended and for what,’<\!s>" said Harvey Rose, a respected local auditor who’s reviewed city agencies and analyzed San Francisco’s annual budget for 35 years.
West Contra Costa concluded that Prop. 39 does require extensive managements audits. The committee even decided to include a $150 million bond election in 2000 in the scope of its work, although that wasn’t required, to ensure all the money was still being spent efficiently.
Duer said it doesn’t matter to him what the letter of the law requires. "It was always assumed with our work that this is something we had to have," he said.
The Los Angeles Community College District made the same assumption. Other districts statewide, however, appear to have interpreted Prop. 39 the same way City College has. And the Attorney General’s Office has never issued an opinion clarifying the matter.
Meanwhile, City College officials blame the millions of dollars in outsize project costs on inflation, a globally increased demand for steel and concrete, and slow-moving state regulators who must approve architectural designs.
"I understand both the college as well as the community would like to see us complete every single project we’ve proposed," Vice Chancellor Peter Goldstein told us recently. "We absolutely share that desire. The reality of cost increases has forced us to go back and look at our resources and reallocate in order to keep major projects going forward."
But Kopp and company argue that much earlier performance inspections would have revealed to the oversight committee and trustees where the increase in expenses came from with absolute certainty. That way, no one would have to rely exclusively on the glitzy project presentations made by Day and Goldstein that are often little more than slide shows with quotes from prominent business journals decrying the rising cost of construction materials. Trustee Marks has moaned repeatedly at board meetings that he doesn’t feel informed enough to vote on major reallocations, and his constant questions haven’t always made him popular.
"I think there’s this feeling that the board should not be adversarial," Marks said. "But I think by the nature of how things are set up, we have to be…. We have to look out for the best interests of the public at large."
Not everything’s rosy in West Contra Costa, of course. Anton Jungherr, a former San Francisco Unified School District official, sat on the West Contra Costa oversight committee for four years and fumed in an interview that the district didn’t take seriously the committee’s regular recommendations. He wants to form a statewide association of oversight committees to arm citizens with the information they need to track bond expenditures.
"There are legitimate reasons for change orders, but you have to analyze them and understand what the reasons are and then take the appropriate oversight action," Jungherr said.
But cost overruns in West Contra Costa still pale when compared with those at City College. Jungherr said that district has experienced about $100 million in unexpected costs on $850 million in projects undertaken since 2000, substantially less than what City College faces despite hundreds of millions of dollars more in bond projects.
Kopp still hopes City College’s oversight committee will build more muscle.
"If they were to show us documents they used themselves in monitoring all these things, that could substitute as long as the information was relevant and honest," Kopp said. "But it’s really been quite shallow all along."<\!s>*
How shocking, shocking to learn that frozen seafood being imported from China is so likely to be tainted with pathogens, antibiotics, and even (according to the fastidious New York Times) "filth" that our very own Food and Drug Administration felt obliged to issue an alert about it at the end of last month. Globalization, we have long been assured mainly by shills for transnational corporations is a great blessing, a means of producing the most goods at the lowest cost per some sterile and one-dimensional rule of economic efficiency. It’s the gospel according to Wal-Mart, and it certainly does seem to be producing a great flood of goods, if not great goods. And it probably is a great blessing for the shareholders and executives of transnational corporations.
But there is a central fallacy to the case for globalization, and it is this: that we can reap the benefits of a global economy while keeping its problems quarantined overseas. Let the Chinese use child labor and foul their environment! We are safe here, in our low-prices-always bubble. Except, as we learn from the parable of the dirty frozen fish, we’re not. In a shrinking world, benefits and burdens alike tend to be distributed worldwide, and there are reasons many of them unsavory that articles produced in poorer countries (for consumption in rich ones) tend to cost less. Lower prices aren’t magic, and the fact that we are encouraged not to notice the connection between low prices and the methods that yield them tells us that the connection is important. If we saw and understood the connection, we might well act differently. We might stop to consider that the true cost of some item isn’t necessarily reflected in its retail price and that more expensive items are sometimes worth the money.
You don’t get something for nothing, and if that’s the offer, then it’s time to start poking around. There’s almost certainly a catch, and the catch is seldom in our interest.
In my recent piece about Emily Luchetti and Stars (Without Reservations, 6/20/07), I slightly misconstrued the restaurant’s life span. In fact, Stars did survive for a few years into the new millennium but under new ownership. Founder Jeremiah Tower sold out well before the year 2000.