In 1946, after three and a half years spent fighting in the segregated US Army on the Pacific front of World War II, Nelson Peery returned to a home front marked by joblessness, mob violence, lynchings, police tyranny, and red-baiting hysteria. Discussing the homecoming of black veterans such as himself in his new memoir, Black Radical, he says, “We had become conscious defending other people’s freedom.”
Black Radical is the sequel to Peery’s first memoir, Black Fire, which takes us from Peery’s childhood during the Great Depression to the wartime experiences that lead to his expanding racial consciousness. Black Radical focuses on Peery’s time in the Communist Party, which he joins soon after his return to Minnesota. Shortly thereafter, Peery’s father, an American Legion stalwart, chooses patriotism over paternity and declares to the state legislature, “I have seen my seven sons swallowed in the bloody maw of Communism.” This “good Negro” pose is exactly what Peery has vowed to struggle against, although he is equally skeptical of black nationalism, embracing instead a Marxist analysis that sees the overarching system as the problem, not just white racists and their deluded allies.
Peery’s dedication to the Communist Party, which he likens to his commitment to his army division during the war, is sometimes stunning when juxtaposed to the organization’s systemic racism. And while he is forthright about his ethical struggles and political development, there is a staginess to much of the dialogue that transforms plot turns into vehicles for Peery’s soul-searching. But the book is also filled with anecdotes that lend emotional depth to Peery’s revolutionary rhetoric, such as when a white librarian hands him a copy of Karl Marx’s The German Ideology, though such a gesture could lead to her immediate dismissal. Or when Peery hosts legendary blues singer Leadbelly at his Minneapolis home and the singer ends up entertaining a crowd of 200 revelers that includes the visiting Dean of Canterbury.
Black Radical concludes in the LA neighborhood of Watts, where Peery attempts to do organizing work as relentless police harassment of poor black residents leads to the Watts uprising of 1965. Peery visits a supermarket where customers are piling their shopping carts high and then wheeling everything past smiling clerks. One woman tells Peery, “You can take whatever you want. They ain’t chargin’ today.” While the riots are eventually suppressed by 24,000 law enforcement thugs, this moment still illuminates the possibilities for the self-determination Peery invokes.
BLACK RADICAL: THE EDUCATION OF AN AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY
By Nelson Peery
Sept. 20, 7 p.m., free
City Lights Bookstore
261 Columbus, SF
(415) 362-8193, www.citylights.com
Volume 41 Number 51
September 19 – September 25, 2007
Curtis Aaron leaves his house at 9 a.m. and drives to work as a recreation center director for the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. He tries to leave enough time for the trip; he’s expected on the job at noon.
Aaron lives in Stockton. He moved there with his wife and two kids three years ago because “there was no way I could buy a place in San Francisco, not even close.” His commute takes three hours one way when traffic is bad. He drives by himself in a Honda Accord and spends $400 a month on gas.
Peter works for the city as a programmer and lives in Suisun City, where he moved to buy a house and start a family. Born and raised in San Francisco, he is now single again, with grown-up children and a commute that takes a little more than an hour on a good day.
“I’d love to move back. I love city life, but I want to be a homeowner, and I can’t afford that in the city,” Peter, who asked us not to use his last name, explained. “I work two blocks from where I grew up and my mom’s place, which she sold 20 years ago. Her house is nothing fancy, but it’s going for $1.2 million. There’s no way in hell I could buy that.”
Aaron and Peter aren’t paupers; they have good, unionized city jobs. They’re people who by any normal standard would be considered middle-class — except that they simply can’t afford to live in the city where they work. So they drive long distances every day, burning fossil fuels and wasting thousands of productive hours each year.
Their stories are hardly unique or new; they represent part of the core of the city’s most pressing problem: a lack of affordable housing.
Just about everyone on all sides of the political debate agrees that people like Aaron and Peter ought to be able to live in San Francisco. Keeping people who work here close to their jobs is good for the environment, good for the community, and good for the workers.
“A lack of affordable housing is one of the city’s greatest challenges,” Mayor Gavin Newsom acknowledged in his 2007–08 draft budget.
The mayor’s answer — which at times has the support of environmentalists — is in part to allow private developers to build dense, high-rise condominiums, sold at whatever price the market will bear, with a small percentage set aside for people who are slightly less well-off.
The idea is that downtown housing will appeal to people who work in town, keeping them out of their cars and fighting sprawl. And it assumes that if enough market-rate housing is built, eventually the price will come down. In the meantime, demanding that developers make somewhere around 15 percent of their units available at below-market rates should help people like Aaron and Peter — as well as the people who make far less money, who can never buy even a moderately priced unit, and who are being displaced from this city at an alarming rate. And a modest amount of public money, combined with existing state and federal funding, will make affordable housing available to people at all income levels.
But the facts are clear: this strategy isn’t working — and it never will. If San Francisco has any hope of remaining a city with economic diversity, a city that has artists and writers and families and blue-collar workers and young people and students and so many of those who have made this one of the world’s great cities, we need to completely change how we approach the housing issue.
HOMELESS OR $100,000
The housing plans coming out of the Mayor’s Office right now are aimed primarily at two populations: the homeless people who have lost all of their discretionary income due to Newsom’s Care Not Cash initiative, and people earning in the neighborhood of $100,000 a year who can’t afford to buy homes. For some time now, the mayor has been diverting affordable-housing money to cover the unfunded costs of making Care Not Cash functional; at least that money is going to the truly needy.
Now Newsom’s housing director, Matt Franklin, is talking about what he recently told the Planning Commission is a “gaping hole” in the city’s housing market: condominiums that would allow people on the higher end of middle income to become homeowners.
At a hearing Sept. 17, Doug Shoemaker of the Mayor’s Office of Housing told a Board of Supervisors committee that the mayor wants to see more condos in the $400,000 to $600,000 range — which, according to figures presented by Service Employees International Union Local 1021, would be out of the reach of, say, a bus driver, a teacher, or a licensed vocational nurse.
Newsom has put $43 million in affordable-housing money into subsidies for new home buyers in the past year. The Planning Department is looking at the eastern neighborhoods as ground zero for a huge new boom in condos for people who, in government parlance, make between 120 and 150 percent of the region’s median income (which is about $90,000 a year for a family of four).
In total, the eastern neighborhoods proposal would allow about 7,500 to 10,000 new housing units to be added over the next 20 years. Downtown residential development at Rincon Hill and the Transbay Terminal is expected to add 10,000 units to the housing mix, and several thousand more units are planned for Visitacion Valley.
The way (somewhat) affordable housing will be built in the eastern part of town, the theory goes, is by creating incentives to get developers to build lower-cost housing. That means, for example, allowing increases in density — changing zoning codes to let buildings go higher, for example, or eliminating parking requirements to allow more units to be crammed into an available lot. The more units a developer can build on a piece of land, the theory goes, the cheaper those units can be.
But there’s absolutely no empirical evidence that this has ever worked or will ever work, and here’s why: the San Francisco housing market is unlike any other market for anything, anywhere. Demand is essentially insatiable, so there’s no competitive pressure to hold prices down.
“There’s this naive notion that if you reduce costs to the market-rate developers, you’ll reduce the costs of the unit,” Calvin Welch, an affordable-housing activist with more than three decades of experience in housing politics, told the Guardian. “But where has that ever happened?”
In other words, there’s nothing to keep those new condos at rates that even unionized city employees — much less service-industry workers, nonprofit employees, and those living on much lower incomes — can afford.
In the meantime, there’s very little discussion of the impact of increasing density in the nation’s second-densest city. Building housing for tens of thousands of new people means spending hundreds of millions of dollars on parks, recreation centers, schools, police stations, fire stations, and Muni lines for the new neighborhoods — and that’s not even on the Planning Department’s radar. Who’s going to pay for all that? Nothing — nothing — in what the mayor and the planners are discussing in development fees will come close to generating the kind of cash it will take to make the newly dense areas livable.
“The solution we are striving for has not been achieved,” said Chris Durazo, chair of the South of Market Community Action Network, an organizing group. “Should we be looking at the cost to developers to build affordable housing or the cost to the neighborhood to be healthy? We’re looking at the cumulative impacts of policy, ballot measures, and planning and saying it doesn’t add up.”
In fact, Shoemaker testified before the supervisors’ committee that the city is $1.14 billion short of the cash it needs to build the level of affordable housing and community amenities in the eastern neighborhoods that are necessary to meet the city’s own goals.
This is, to put it mildly, a gigantic problem.
THE REST OF US
Very little of what is on the mayor’s drawing board is rental housing — and even less is housing available for people whose incomes are well below the regional median, people who earn less than $60,000 a year. That’s a large percentage of San Franciscans.
The situation is dire. Last year the Mayor’s Office of Community Development reported that 16 percent of renters spend more than half of their income on housing costs. And a recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition notes that a minimum-wage earner would have to work 120 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, to afford the $1,551 rent on a two-bedroom apartment if they spent the recommended 30 percent of their income on housing.
Ted Gullickson of the San Francisco Tenants Union told us that Ellis Act evictions have decreased in the wake of 2006 Board of Supervisors legislation that bars landlords from converting their property from rentals to condos if they evict senior or disabled tenants.
But the condo market is so profitable that landlords are now offering to buy out their tenants — and are taking affordable, rent-controlled housing off the market at the rate of a couple of hundred units a month.
City studies also confirm that white San Franciscans earn more than twice as much as their Latino and African American counterparts. So it’s hardly surprising that the Bayview–Hunters Point African American community is worried that it will be displaced by the city’s massive redevelopment plan for that area. These fears were reinforced last year, when Lennar Corp., which is developing 1,500 new units at Hunters Point Shipyard, announced it will only build for-sale condos at the site rather than promised rental units. Very few African American residents of Bayview–Hunters Point will ever be able to buy those condos.
Tony Kelly of the Potrero Hill Boosters believes the industrial-zoned land in that area is the city’s last chance to address its affordable-housing crisis. “It’s the biggest single rezoning that the city has ever tried to do. It’s a really huge thing. But it’s also where a lot of development pressure is being put on the city, because the first sale on this land, once it’s rezoned, will be the most profitable.”
Land use attorney Sue Hestor sees the eastern neighborhoods as a test of San Francisco’s real political soul.
“There is no way it can meet housing goals unless a large chunk of land goes for affordable housing, or we’ll export all of our low-income workers,” Hestor said. “We’re not talking about people on welfare, but hotel workers, the tourist industry, even newspaper reporters.
“Is it environmentally sound to export all your workforce so that they face commute patterns that take up to three and four hours a day, then turn around and sell condos to people who commute to San Jose and Santa Clara?”
A THREE-POINT PLAN
It’s time to rethink — completely rethink — the way San Francisco addresses the housing crisis. That involves challenging some basic assumptions that have driven housing policy for years — and in some quarters of town, it’s starting to happen.
There are three elements of a new housing strategy emerging, not all from the same people or organizations. It’s still a bit amorphous, but in community meetings, public hearings, blog postings, and private discussions, a program is starting to take shape that might actually alter the political landscape and make it possible for people who aren’t millionaires to rent apartments and even buy homes in this town.
Some of these ideas are ours; most of them come from community leaders. We’ll do our best to give credit where it’s due, but there are dozens of activists who have been participating in these discussions, and what follows is an amalgam, a three-point plan for a new housing policy in San Francisco.
1. Preserve what we have. This is nothing new or terribly radical, but it’s a cornerstone of any effective policy. As Welch points out repeatedly, in a housing crisis the cheapest and most valuable affordable housing is the stuff that already exists.
Every time a landlord or real estate speculator tries to make a fast buck by evicting a tenant from a rent-controlled apartment and turning that apartment into a tenancy in common or a condo, the city’s affordable-housing stock diminishes. And it’s far cheaper to look for ways to prevent that eviction and that conversion than it is to build a new affordable-rental apartment to replace the one the city has lost.
The Tenants Union has been talking about this for years. Quintin Mecke, a community organizer who is running for mayor, is making it a key part of his platform: More city-funded eviction defense. More restrictions on what landlords can do with buildings emptied under the Ellis Act. And ultimately, a statewide strategy to get that law — which allows landlords to clear a building of tenants, then sell it as condos — repealed.
Preserving existing housing also means fighting the kind of displacement that happens when high-end condos are squeezed into low-income neighborhoods (which is happening more and more in the Mission, for example, with the recent approval of a market-rate project at 3400 César Chávez).
And — equally important — it means preserving land.
Part of the battle over the eastern neighborhoods is a struggle for limited parcels of undeveloped or underdeveloped real estate. The market-rate developers have their eyes (and in many cases, their claws) on dozens of sites — and every time one of them is turned over for million-dollar condos, it’s lost as a possible place to construct affordable housing (or to preserve blue-collar jobs).
“Areas that have been bombarded by condos are already lost — their industrial buildings and land are already gone,” Oscar Grande of People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights told us.
So when activists (and some members of the Board of Supervisors) talk about slowing down or even stopping the construction of new market-rate housing in the eastern neighborhoods area, it’s not just about preventing the displacement of industry and blue-collar jobs; it’s also about saving existing, very limited, and very valuable space for future affordable housing.
And that means putting much of the eastern neighborhoods land off limits to market-rate housing of any kind.
The city can’t exactly use zoning laws to mandate low rents and low housing prices. But it can place such high demands on developers — for example, a requirement that any new market-rate housing include 50 percent very-low-income affordable units — that the builders of the million-dollar condos will walk away and leave the land for the kind of housing the city actually needs.
2. Find a new, reliable, consistent way to fund affordable housing. Just about everyone, including Newsom, supports the notion of inclusionary housing — that is, requiring developers to make a certain number of units available at lower-than-market rates. In San Francisco right now, that typically runs at around 15 percent, depending on the size of the project; some activists have argued that the number ought to go higher, up to 20 or even 25 percent.
But while inclusionary housing laws are a good thing as far as they go, there’s a fundamental flaw in the theory: if San Francisco is funding affordable housing by taking a small cut of what market-rate developers are building, the end result will be a city where the very rich far outnumber everyone else. Remember, if 15 percent of the units in a new luxury condo tower are going at something resembling an affordable rate, that means 85 percent aren’t — and ultimately, that leads to a population that’s 85 percent millionaire.
The other problem is how you measure and define affordable. That’s typically based on a percentage of the area’s median income — and since San Francisco is lumped in with San Mateo and Marin counties for income statistics, the median is pretty high. For a family of four in San Francisco today, city planning figures show, the median income is close to $90,000 a year.
And since many of these below-market-rate projects are priced to be affordable to people making 80 to 100 percent of the median income, the typical city employee or service-industry worker is left out.
In fact, much of the below-market-rate housing built as part of these projects isn’t exactly affordable to the San Franciscans most desperately in need of housing. Of 1,088 below-market-rate units built in the past few years in the city, Planning Department figures show, just 169 were available to people whose incomes were below half of the median (that is, below $45,000 a year for a family of four or $30,000 a year for a single person).
“A unit can be below market rate and still not affordable to 99 percent of San Franciscans,” Welch noted.
This approach clearly isn’t working.
So activists have been meeting during the past few months to hammer out a different approach, a way to sever affordable-housing funding from the construction of market-rate housing — and to ensure that there’s enough money in the pot to make an actual difference.
It’s a big number. “If we have a billion dollars for affordable housing over the next 15 years, we have a fighting chance,” Sup. Chris Daly told us. “But that’s the kind of money we have to talk about to make any real impact.”
In theory, the mayor and the supervisors can just allocate money from the General Fund for housing — but under Newsom, it’s not happening. In fact, the mayor cut $30 million of affordable-housing money this year.
The centerpiece of what Daly, cosponsoring Sup. Tom Ammiano, and the housing activists are talking about is a charter amendment that would earmark a portion of the city’s annual property-tax collections — somewhere around $30 million — for affordable housing. Most of that would go for what’s known as low- and very-low-income housing — units affordable to people who earn less than half of the median income. The measure would also require that current housing expenditures not be cut — to “lock in everything we’re doing now,” as Daly put it — so that that city would have a baseline of perhaps $60 million a year.
Since the federal government makes matching funds available for many affordable-housing projects, that money could be leveraged into more than $1 billion.
Of course, setting aside $30 million for affordable housing means less money for other city programs, so activists are also looking at ways to pay for it. One obvious option is to rewrite the city’s business-tax laws, replacing some or all of the current payroll tax money with a tax on gross receipts. That tax would exempt all companies with less than $2 million a year in revenue — the vast majority of the small businesses in town — and would be skewed to tax the bigger businesses at a higher rate.
Daly’s measure is likely headed for the November 2008 ballot.
The other funding option that’s being discussed in some circles — including the Mayor’s Office of Housing — is complicated but makes a tremendous amount of sense. Redevelopment agencies now have the legal right to sell revenue bonds and to collect income based on so-called tax increments — that is, the increased property-tax collections that come from a newly developed area. With a modest change in state law, the city should be able to do that too — to in effect capture the increased property taxes from new development in, say, the Mission and use that money entirely to build affordable housing in the neighborhood.
That, again, is a big pot of cash — potentially tens of millions of dollars a year. Assemblymember Mark Leno (D–San Francisco) told us he’s been researching the issue and is prepared to author state legislation if necessary to give the city the right to use tax-increment financing anywhere in town. “With a steady revenue stream, you can issue revenue bonds and get housing money up front,” he said.
That’s something redevelopment agencies can do, and it’s a powerful tool: revenue bonds don’t have to go to the voters and are an easy way to raise money for big projects — like an ambitious affordable-housing development program.
Somewhere, between all of these different approaches, the city needs to find a regular, steady source for a large sum of money to build housing for people who currently work in San Francisco. If we want a healthy, diverse, functioning city, it’s not a choice any more; it’s a mandate.
3. A Proposition M for housing. One of the most interesting and far-reaching ideas we’ve heard in the past year comes from Marc Salomon, a Green Party activist and policy wonk who has done extensive research into the local housing market. It may be the key to the city’s future.
In March, Salomon did something that the Planning Department should have done years ago: he took a list of all of the housing developments that had opened in the South of Market area in the past 10 years and compared it to the Department of Elections’ master voter files for 2002 and 2006. His conclusion: fully two-thirds of the people moving into the new housing were from out of town. The numbers, he said, “indicate that the city is pursuing the exact opposite priorities and policies of what the Housing Element of the General Plan calls for in planning for new residential construction.”
That confirms what we found more than a year earlier when we knocked on doors and interviewed residents of the new condo complexes (“A Streetcar Named Displacement,” 10/19/05). The people for whom San Francisco is building housing are overwhelmingly young, rich, white commuters who work in Silicon Valley. Or they’re older, rich empty nesters who are moving back to the city from the suburbs. They aren’t people who work in San Francisco, and they certainly aren’t representative of the diversity of the city’s population and workforce.
Welch calls it “socially psychotic” planning.
Twenty-five years ago, the city was doing equally psychotic planning for commercial development, allowing the construction of millions of square feet of high-rise office space that was overburdening city services, costing taxpayers a fortune, creating congestion, driving up residential rents, and turning downtown streets into dark corridors. Progressives put a measure on the November 1986 ballot — Proposition M — that turned the high-rise boom on its head: from then on, developers had to prove that their buildings would meet a real need in the city. It also set a strict cap on new development and forced project sponsors to compete in a “beauty contest” — and only the projects that offered something worthwhile to San Francisco could be approved.
That, Salomon argues, is exactly how the city needs to approach housing in 2007.
He’s been circuutf8g a proposal that would set clear priority policies for new housing. It starts with a finding that is entirely consistent with economic reality: “Housing prices [in San Francisco] cannot be lowered by expanding the supply of market-rate housing.”
It continues, “San Francisco values must guide housing policy. The vast majority of housing produced must be affordable to the vast majority of current residents. New housing must be economically compatible with the neighborhood. The most needy — homeless, very low income people, disabled people, people with AIDS, seniors, and families — must be prioritized in housing production. … [and] market-rate housing can be produced only as the required number of affordable units are produced.”
The proposal would limit the height of all new housing to about six stories and would “encourage limited-equity, permanently affordable homeownership opportunities.”
Salomon suggests that San Francisco limit the amount of new market-rate housing to 250,000 square feet a year — probably about 200 to 400 units — and that the developers “must produce aggressive, competitive community benefit packages that must be used by the Planning Commission as a beauty contest, with mandatory approval by the Board of Supervisors.” (You can read his entire proposal at www.sfbg.com/newpropm.doc.)
There are all kinds of details that need to be worked out, but at base this is a brilliant idea; it could be combined with the new financing plans to shift the production of housing away from the very rich and toward a mix that will preserve San Francisco as a city of artists, writers, working-class people, creative thinkers, and refugees from narrow-minded communities all over, people who want to live and work and make friends and make art and raise families and be part of a community that has always been one of a kind, a rare place in the world.
There is still a way to save San Francisco — but we’re running out of time. And we can’t afford to pursue moderate, incremental plans. This city needs a massive new effort to change the way housing is built, rented, and sold — and we have to start now, today.* To see what the Planning Department has in the pipeline, visit www.sfgov.org/site/planning_index.asp?id=58508. To see what is planned for the eastern neighborhoods, check out www.sfgov.org/site/planning_index.asp?id=67762.
Allow me to postulate a few axioms that will help define the way we think about housing in San Francisco and put our cover story this week in context. Some of these laws are easily provable with existing data; the others, I admit, are loaded with political values. So be it.
Axiom number one: There are already too many rich people in San Francisco.
Socioeconomic diversity is essential to a healthy urban environment. Cities of the very rich (and typically, the very poor) are not good places to live; they become tourist destinations where a fake veneer of urbanism is pasted over a place with no real soul.
San Francisco is rapidly heading down that path and the first and by far most important reason is the cost of housing.
Axiom number two: Private for-profit developers can never build us out of this housing crisis.
The housing market in San Francisco does not behave according to any of the rational rules you learn in Economics 101. This is an international city, a place with a global housing constituency. Demand for high-end condos in San Francisco is, for all practical purposes, unlimited and insatiable. You could build 50,000, 100,000 high-rise apartments, and the prices still wouldn’t come down to a level that would be affordable for most working-class San Franciscans.
Axiom number three: Any sane housing policy has to start with the acceptance of axiom number two.
Building more market-rate housing does nothing, nothing, nothing for the current crisis. There is no lack of housing options for the very rich in this town. The problem is housing for everyone else.
Axiom number four: When you have an irrational market for a basic necessity, the only way to make that market function is with strict regulation and aggressive government intervention.
Axiom number five: Increased density is not a positive environmental policy unless axiom number four is operative.
Building high-rises in which the housing is priced out of range of the people who actually work in San Francisco and doesn’t offer the size and affordability the local workforce needs does nothing to fight sprawl or build community. It just creates tall rich ghettos. (See axiom number one.)
Axiom number six: This city is running out of time.
There are virtually zero affordable apartments in this city for the people who make up the heart of San Francisco. We’re doing ecological damage by driving them out of town (and forcing them to drive back, in cars). We’re doing social damage by shattering communities (through evictions and displacement). And all we’re offering is modest tidbits of real planning (a few slightly more affordable units here and there for every 100 we give to the rich).
My conclusion, as we lay out in this week’s cover story, is that San Francisco has to turn its planning and housing policy upside down, to start treating housing as a necessity (as we’re doing with health care) and not something to be played with by speculators on the financial markets (look how well that worked with subprime mortgages) or an amenity for Silicon Valley commuters who would rather have a playground here than live closer to work.
Instead of zoning for developers, the city needs to do something really bold and say: This is the housing we want, the only housing we want and then find a way to build it, with or without the private sector. As the axiom slingers say, quod erat demonstrandum.*
EDITORIAL Big buildings are all the rage in San Francisco these days, and even the environmentalists often go along.
As many as 23 new complexes of 250 units or more, soaring from five or six stories to more than 1,000 feet, are on the drawing board, working their way through the city planning system, and more are almost certainly on their way. And yet there’s very little of the sort of outcry that we saw in the 1980s, when skyscrapers were turning downtown San Francisco into a wall of glass and steel cut by deep, dark, crowded canyons of streets.
This time around the high-rises aren’t, for the most part, office buildings. They’re condominiums housing. And if you ask many of the major urban environmental groups, what you’ll hear is that density more housing packed into existing urban areas is good. Density fights sprawl. Housing near workplaces encourages walking and biking. Housing along transit corridors encourages people to get out of their cars. Urban density is the future: tightly packed cities full of people who don’t commute in private cars are our only hope to fight sprawl, congestion, and global warming. It’s called the new urbanism, and in San Francisco it goes like this: the only way to handle the influx of jobs and population growth is to build another 60,000 or so housing units, on every bit of available land.
But there’s a fundamental flaw in that argument.
Leave aside for the moment the fact that San Francisco is already the second-densest city in the United States. Leave aside the fact that density will come back to haunt us unless San Francisco is capable of creating real neighborhoods, with parks and open spaces, schools, new bus lines, police stations, and all of the other public goods that provide safety and quality of life and that there’s nothing in any current planning document that shows how the massive, massive price tag for that sort of infrastructure will ever be paid. In a state where property taxes are strictly limited and civic infrastructure is already way overwhelmed and drastically underfunded, it would take extraordinary development fees on every new housing unit just to catch up, much less move ahead.
But let’s just suppose we could eliminate that problem. Would this sort of density be a good thing? No not if the housing that gets built is mostly sold at prices set by the open market.
The density argument has to go beyond environmental theory and planning policy because the issue in San Francisco isn’t how tall the buildings are or whether they’re along transit corridors. It’s about who gets to live there. And programs that offer some so-called inclusionary units, which mandate that 15 percent of the new housing be a little cheaper than the rest, aren’t going to cut it.
The facts are clear: the new housing that’s been built in San Francisco over the past 10 years the downtown-centered, environmentally sound, dense housing hasn’t helped eliminate commutes or fight global warming. The exact opposite has been happening: the people moving into these expensive, mostly small (and therefore non-family-friendly) units are world travelers who want a perch in San Francisco, retired empty nesters who aren’t going to work anyway, or reverse commuters who work in the tech industry in Silicon Valley. In many cases these new condos are creating more car trips: people who work out of town are buying them and people who work in San Francisco are so badly priced out of the market that they’re moving farther and farther away.
We showed this two years ago when we went door-to-door in the new buildings to see who lived there and where they worked. Marc Salomon, a green policy wonk, has done a persuasive study using voter registration data that comes to a similar conclusion (see "Our Three-Point Plan to Save San Francisco," page 16). People who work in this city have to leave town to find housing they can afford; a lot of people who are moving into new housing here don’t work in town. It’s environmental psychosis.
There’s only one way to change that the environmentalists and the housing activists and the progressive policy makers have to acknowledge an incontrovertible fact: sound environmental policy in an urban setting like San Francisco has to start with sound social and economic policy, and in San Francisco that means abandoning developer-driven housing and starting over. It means testing all new projects not on the basis of how close they are to jobs or bus lines or how many cars they will allow underneath or what their density is, but on the basis of how much the housing will cost and who will be able to rent or buy it.
And by those standards, none of the new high-rise buildings in the planning pipeline is even close to a good idea.
In this week’s cover story we describe an alternative approach to housing policy. It’s a three-part program, and the first two elements preserving existing rental housing and finding a new funding mechanism for affordable-housing construction are either already on the progressive agenda or rapidly moving forward. The third element is something new but it deserves serious discussion.
It’s the idea, first put forward by Salomon, of adopting a comprehensive, citywide housing policy that would resemble the 1986 ballot measure known as Proposition M. Prop. M was designed to limit the impact of runaway commercial office development, and it set specific priority policies for all new projects, including the preservation of neighborhood character. It also strictly limited the amount of new office space that could be built in any one year and mandated that developers compete for the right to build. The projects that best suited the city’s needs (not the developers’ needs) would get the go-ahead; the others wouldn’t make the cut.
Imagine how that would work for housing. Say the voters passed a measure that limited new for-profit, market-rate housing to 500 units per year. The developers who wanted to win that lottery would have to come to the table with good offers plenty of affordable set-asides, green buildings, structures that weren’t out of synch with the area, money for parks, schools, and other neighborhood services…. What could possibly be wrong with that?
San Francisco needs a cap on new housing for the rich and a mandate that all housing meet community needs. A well-crafted Prop. M<\d>style ballot measure might energize the neighborhoods, force elected officials to talk seriously about housing … and save San Francisco. That ought to be on everyone’s agenda.*
GREEN CITY Lately, I’ve been reacquainting myself with the sticky herbal side of green. How I turned over a new leaf after having sworn off the bud so long ago might have something to do with my recent enthrallment with Weeds, Showtime’s suburban family drama about a pot-dealing mama of two, which I keep watching and rewatching on DVD.
Consequently, the opening theme, Malvina Reynolds’s "Little Boxes," has gotten more stuck in my head than my Planet Unicorn ringtone or Amy Winehouse’s ubiquitous tribute to inebriation, "Rehab." For those who aren’t intimately familiar with Reynolds’s terse 1962 folk ditty, it begins like this: "Little boxes on the hillside Little boxes made of ticky-tacky/ Little boxes on the hillside/ Little boxes all the same."
The sing-songy, childlike tune looped through my head as I made my way around a model prefab home now sitting across the street from City Hall in the Civic Center Plaza. Builders plopped down the 800-square-foot structure in just a day, in time for West Coast Green, an expo for green residential building being held this week at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Designed for ExtremeHome (www.xhllc.com), a year-old company in Oroville, and constructed mostly in a factory, the one-bedroom house costs a mere $199 per square foot, and that’s with all the fancy fixings like a stereo system and rosewood floors.
The home was dubbed the mkLotus house by its designer, Michelle Kaufman Designs. The exterior is smart and sleek, with double-paned, floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding the living room and sustainably grown red balau wood and slabs of fly-ash concrete siding the back half. It certainly looked attractive enough, but as someone who spends my spare time scouring Craigslist in search of people’s one-of-a-kind heirlooms to furnish my apartment, the place seemed a little too IKEA for me.
Nevertheless, prefabricated housing is all the rage these days. Who can beat the price and the prospect of actually having a finished home within months of approving a design? A number of panels on the trend took up large chunks of time at Dwell magazine’s "Dwell on Design" conference Sept. 14 to 16.
According to XtremeHome CEO Tim Schmidt, without all the extras, an mkLotus could cost as little as $64,000, and he can have one good to go in less than six months. It’s all very practical. Everything is energy efficient, from the interior LED lighting to the structurally integrated Styrofoam panels that make up the walls of this one- to two-person abode, to the cross-ventilation design. Varnishes use as few toxins and as little formaldehyde as possible, and the shower tile is made from a soothing green recycled glass. Energy Star, Build It Green, and the Forest Stewardship Council have all given Schmidt’s models high marks.
It’s said that Reynolds, a San Franciscoborn folksinger, wrote "Little Boxes" about Daly City, though many associate it with Levittown, N.Y., on Long Island, the first planned community of mass-produced housing in the United States, started by the Levitt and Sons construction firm in 1947. Either way, it’s clear that Reynolds, on the cusp of ’60s cultural rebellion, was criticizing ’50s suburban monoculture and the conformity it elicited from its little box dwellers. Anyone growing up in a subdivision can relate.
And yet many lefty locals have taken umbrage at the song’s apparent elitism. "What’s wrong with affordable housing?" sniped one critic in a recent Sfist.com posting, drawing the connection between the song and our south-facing neighbor.
When considering how prefab will catch on in San Francisco, where everyone is encouraged to march to his or her own beat, one wonders if ’60s-era individualism will make way for Ikea-style pragmatism. These days it’s just too darn expensive to be one of a kind. On the other hand, one wonders how San Franciscans can go for prefab when there isn’t any open land anyway.*
WEST COAST GREEN
Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
99 Grove, SF
OPINION Having considered San Francisco something of a utopian American city (certainly compared with others), I assumed the only reason city officials were on the verge of allowing perfect little Valencia Street to be turned into Emeryville West was that they were simply unaware of what a handful of developers and a few folks in the Planning Department were cooking up.
All they needed was to hear from the neighbors, some responsible concerned adults, to call their attention to this under-the-radar remaking of our beloved Mission. Giant, five-story luxury condo blocks would be so obviously wrong for Valencia, so against the will of the vast majority of the citizens who live here, and so clearly in violation the intent of the law we passed to protect our neighborhoods that they would simply say, "Holy cow, thank you!" and stop it.
No. See, it doesn’t work that way.
Proposition M (the law passed by San Franciscans in the 1980s to protect the way our city looks and feels from just such neighborhood-crushing development) is not treated as law or as a defining statement by San Franciscans about how they want their city developed. Rather, it is ignored.
After months of work and research, countless meetings, and coordinating the support of hundreds of concerned neighbors into one large group, we waited more than 20 hours to speak for three minutes in front of the Planning Commission about just one of these giant condo projects, at 700 Valencia.
When we finally got our three minutes (at 11:45 p.m.!), two commissioners were literally asleep. The gavel swung. Approved.
It was like the people of San Francisco never showed up.
Like Prop. M never passed.
Like the Mission didn’t exist as a real neighborhood.
The feeling was like "OK, I’ve finally done something more than vote to actually make this city I’ve lived in and loved for so many years a better place. I’ve joined up with other idealistic San Franciscans, mostly wonderful neighbors I’d never even met before, who worked far more valiantly than I on this process. And it doesn’t matter."
The law, and the people of San Francisco and the Mission, are all simply impediments, nuisances, to developers making their money, the planning commissioners getting home to bed, and the people with degrees at the Planning Department who believe, incredibly, that they should personally get to change and remake ("plan") this historic, world-famously beautiful city.
It’s happening as you read this. The middle-finger building going up obscenely in front of the Bay Bridge is just the beginning. The destruction of Valencia Street may soon be an afterthought.
I’m suddenly very skeptical about the future livability of the neighborhood I’ve proudly been part of for more than 20 years. But it may not be too late to save yours.
Call, write, and visit your supervisors! Remind them that Prop. M is still the voice of the people.*
Dan Hoyle is a Valencia Street activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Bonita Palmer has worked at the embattled St. Luke’s Hospital on the southwest corner of César Chávez and Valencia for 17 years.
Before a packed room of union organizers and religious leaders Sept. 12 at St. Mary’s Cathedral near Japantown, she gave a brief speech about her experiences at the beloved but financially troubled hospital.
"St. Luke’s has been struggling to stay afloat for many years," Palmer told the audience. "Under managed care, reimbursements are down, the numbers of uninsured patients are up, and the growing gap between income and cost of care stresses the health of working people."
Money woes at St. Luke’s are no secret. Its parent company, California Pacific Medical Center, an otherwise lucrative group of San Francisco hospitals owned by Sacramento’s Sutter Health, describes the losses at St. Luke’s as anywhere from $20 million to $30 million annually.
Patient advocates and unions representing St. Luke’s workers have long feared closure of the hospital and its badly needed acute-care services, which thousands of residents the city’s poorest among them, living nearby in the SoMa, Mission, and BayviewHunters Point neighborhoods often visit when they can’t get expensive medical treatment elsewhere.
The hospital continually faces cuts executed by the CPMC, from its downgraded neonatal nursery to the subacute unit, where, Palmer says, patients who require nonemergency but highly specialized care from professionals are being turned away. "Sutter scrapped its plan for a much-needed upgrade to our emergency room even as we continue to receive the overflow of patients from" San Francisco General Hospital, she said.
Staffers learned most recently that outpatient physical therapy, which had already been trimmed, will be done away with completely, while the hospital’s 36-bed inpatient psychiatric unit and outpatient clinic have already been closed. A woman in the audience confessed afterward that she was nearly brought to tears by Palmer’s tale.
The decisions only worsened Sutter’s reputation across Northern California for dwelling on its bottom line and further enraged the United Healthcare WorkersWest union, which represents thousands of Sutter workers and with which the company has regularly battled for a decade.
St. Luke’s contains one of the most active emergency rooms in the city, and aside from General Hospital a mile or so away on Potrero Avenue, it serves more patients benefiting from Medi-Cal and Sutter’s version of charity care services than just about any other facility.
The CPMC, which fully merged with St. Luke’s in January, promises the hospital will be a part of the company’s future. But the CPMC also comes closer every day to beginning construction of a new $1.7 billion hospital on Cathedral Hill, closer to the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. And critics worry that CPMC’s new bid proves not only where its priorities are but also that once-independent St. Luke’s opened in 1871 by an Episcopal minister will suffer death by a thousand cuts.
Sup. Tom Ammiano, who’s closely observed the fate of St. Luke’s for years, says the CPMC is slowly amputating one of the few hospitals left in the southern portion of San Francisco while paying lip service to nonprofit health outreach.
"They lie without guile," he said. "Waterboarding would be more enjoyable than dealing with these people."
Sutter initially took over St. Luke’s in 2001 as part of a settlement agreement after the hospital sued Sutter in 1999, alleging state antitrust violations in Sutter’s brokering of an exclusive contract with the Bay Area’s largest network of doctors. St. Luke’s officials claimed the contract stripped wealthier patients away from the hospital, which hurt its bottom line.
The settlement required Sutter to bankroll St. Luke’s with a series of subsidies and included a promise of up to $20 million for needed retrofit work that doesn’t appear to have been done while allowing the hospital to remain somewhat independent. The terms expired last year, and St. Luke’s has since been completely folded into the family of San Francisco hospitals known as the CPMC, which includes the Davies Campus, nestled between the Castro neighborhood and the Lower Haight, the Pacific Campus on Buchanan Street, and the California Campus in the opulent Pacific Heights area.
While St. Luke’s can’t complete a fiscal-year cycle without coming up short of cash, the CPMC as a subsidiary of Sutter Health earns tens of millions of dollars in net income annually, much of which is sent to Sutter’s home office in Sacramento. In 2003, for instance, the CPMC transferred $118 million in net income the money remaining after expenses are covered, which any other business would call profit out of the city. Other ailing Sutter-owned hospitals around the state receive inflows of money from Sacramento, such as a Santa Rosa medical center that got $16 million in 2003, according to documents Sutter must provide to the state.
"In good times, affiliates share a portion of their revenue in excess of their expenses to help strengthen the network through this shared balance-sheet approach," Sutter spokesperson Karen Garner told us. "And in times of need, our affiliates can count on the network to help ensure that those services can continue to be available to their local communities."
But Sutter has announced that it plans to close part of the money-losing Sutter Medical Center of Santa Rosa, which faces high seismic retrofit costs, fueling concerns that something similar will happen at St. Luke’s. Sutter also last year moved to sever ties with Marin General Hospital and wash its hands of a costly needed retrofit there. An acute-care facility in San Leandro that loses money may soon be closed as well, as locals there learned just this month when a Sutter employee leaked the news to the San Leandro Times.
"CPMC plans to stop serving unprofitable areas, ignoring their obligation to the community," Helen York Jones, a union steward of CPMC employees, said at a July rally outside St. Luke’s. "How can they be entrusted with a large share of the area’s health care system?"
For a supposedly nonprofit chain of hospitals, Sutter Health is very profitable, having one of its best years in 2006. Its net income from operations amounted to more than $500 million, an increase of 33 percent from the previous year, which its execs attributed to the company’s outsize investments. Sutter controls more than two dozen medical centers throughout California and one located in Hawaii.
The company’s mammoth $2 billion investment portfolio brought the company $159 million in returns last year. Sutter’s CPMC subsidiary also benefited from more than $50 million in local, state, and federal tax breaks during 2005, according to figures maintained by the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
Meanwhile, Sutter has announced plans to spend $1.1 billion fully replacing facilities in Sacramento and San Mateo. In fact, the company broke records in June when it acquired state-backed bond financing of $958 million which essentially amounts to a low-interest, tax-free loan which it intends to use for seismic retrofit projects at several of its hospitals across the state.
But according to state records, the company doesn’t intend to use any of the loan money for retrofitting the St. Luke’s campus, part of which the state has concluded poses "a significant risk of collapse and a danger to the public after a strong earthquake," according to state structural ratings. State law gives hospitals until 2013 to meet strict seismic standards or shut down.
"Sutter wants to use money to fuel their corporate expenses in markets that are making money or have the potential to make money," Sal Roselli, president of the United Healthcare Workers<\d>West, said.
Roselli believes the CPMC wants to close the emergency room at St. Luke’s and more or less turn the hospital into a clinic, perhaps once the Cathedral Hill location is completed; Sutter, he said, promises to maintain community services during its hospital takeovers but often backslides on those promises within months.
CPMC spokesperson Kevin McCormack doesn’t outright deny the possibility that St. Luke’s will someday see vastly fewer ER patients.
"St. Luke’s is still going to be a vital part of anything we do in terms of providing health care in San Francisco," McCormack said. "We intend to strengthen its role not just to keep it going, but to make it better. Because right now what happens is that a lot of people don’t have access to preventative care, so they end up using the emergency room when they have a problem with, say, diabetes or asthma."
But Ammiano remains skeptical.
"If we allow this to happen and if we can’t find alternatives," he said of the cuts at St. Luke’s, "it’s really going to not just tear a hole in the fabric of that neighborhood but also the whole southeast section."
TECHSPLOITATION Government-funded satellite systems and sensor networks are supposed to be spook stuff, technologies for surveillance and social control. They’re the "electric eyes" that follow us and turn our private lives into sitcoms for bored intelligence agents, right? Wrong. They may be spooky, but satellite and sensor networks are some of the most powerful tools for studying the way humans are impacting climate change. They allow scientists to create maps showing how land use affects climate, as well as how chemical emissions are linked to rainfall, water levels, temperature fluctuations, and ozone depletion.
And now, according to a distressing report last week from the US Climate Change Science Program, the government is cutting funds to the tools that climate researchers need most. In this report, researchers write that the National Polar-Orbiting Environmental Satellite System has been severely downsized, "eliminating several key climate instruments," while rollout on four new systems for measuring atmospheric changes has been delayed or cancelled. At the same time, the government has failed to maintain observatories on the ground devoted to climate change and is scaling back on an ocean climate sensor system called the Tropical Atmosphere Ocean buoy array.
Parts of the CCSP’s report are essentially a plea for more sensor networks. We need good data from these networks to create realistic models of global climate change, the researchers say. But more important, scientists need that data to figure out the best ways for people to intervene and make the future greener. That’s why we need sensor networks sampling the air from high above the Arctic and across the ocean, proving that cutting back on carbon emissions can lower temperatures or prevent hurricanes from forming. We need good satellite maps showing exactly how urban developments are destroying local forests.
For these reasons, the report emphasizes that the biggest problem faced by the CCSP is an inability to implement policies for change. CCSP researchers are frustrated that the data they’ve compiled rarely make it into policy recommendations to the government. And only $30 million of the CCSP’s $1.7 billion dollar budget is allocated to programs that investigate the impact of environmental changes on human beings.
Just as news of this report was breaking, New York environmental group Blacksmith Institute released a list of the 10 most polluted places on Earth. Created by the group’s technical advisory board, and based entirely on how much impact the pollution has on local human populations, the list is topped by regions in the industrializing world: Sumjayit, an industrial manufacturing city in Azerbaijan; Linfen and Tianying, coal and lead mining towns in China; and Sukinda and Vapi, chemical mining and manufacturing areas in India. Also included are similar areas in Russia and Peru.
People in the regions highlighted by the Blacksmith Institute are getting cancer and lung disease, as well as passing birth defects on to their children. If we want to prevent the entire world from becoming like Sumjayit and indeed, to prevent people in Sumjayit from suffering the worst side effects of industrialization we need the very kinds of data that CCSP scientists worry we can no longer get. As climate sensor networks decay, and green satellites die, so too does the hope that we can build a better climate model, a sane climate model based on how changing social behaviors.
So if you think that having one less satellite in the sky is a good idea, think again. And if you think that the only thing a sensor network can do is invade privacy, think again about that too. As ever, the problem isn’t with technology; it’s with who controls it.*
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who wants to put toxic emissions under surveillance.
It’s a thin, seemingly innocuous letter. The Social Security Administration mails it when names and Social Security numbers don’t match on an employee’s I-9 form. The intent is to make sure workers receive their benefits.
But unions and immigrants have long charged that unscrupulous employers use SSA "no match" letters to harass undocumented workers and squelch union organizing efforts. Now, after a failed immigration debate in Congress, the George W. Bush administration wants to pass a regulation that would explicitly turn the letter into an immigration enforcement tool.
Activists fear this could result in massive firings and retaliation against workers organizing with unions. Employers complain it could lead to an economic slump in industries dependent on undocumented labor. A temporary injunction granted by a San Francisco judge is the only thing holding back letters across the country; it ends Oct. 1.
Bay Area activists have been national leaders at the intersection of immigrant rights and labor movements. They are now shaping national policy on this new regulation in the courts and promise wide-scale street action and workplace walkouts if it goes into effect.
A look at past and present related Bay Area organizing may shed light on the future of the national issue.
BAY AREA ORGANIZING
US companies file hundreds of millions of W-2 forms with the SSA every year. The SSA uses them to calculate how much it owes workers at retirement. When the name and the Social Security number do not match, the SSA sends a "no match" letter to the employee to clear up the discrepancy. The letters are also sent to employers who have more than 10 employees with no match. These letters have nothing to do with immigration law, and employers are not required to take any adverse action against these employees.
But under the new Department of Homeland Security regulation, no-match letters may be seen as evidence that an employer knowingly employed an undocumented worker. The letters would include a leaflet from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement informing employers that they must fire workers who cannot resolve no matches with the SSA or reverify their work authorization within 93 days. If the companies do not, they may be subject to fines or criminal charges.
The rule was drafted more than a year ago but was not announced by Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff until Aug 10. "The magnet that brings most economic migrants into this country is work," he explained. "And if we have worksite enforcement directed at illegal employment, we strike at that magnet."
Brooke Anderson, an organizer with the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, told the Guardian that this is an unlikely scenario. Workers will not leave the country; they will simply be forced into underground economies, rotate through different jobs, and become even more vulnerable.
Anderson was among a delegation of more than 30 labor, faith, and community leaders that presented a letter Aug. 30 at the regional SSA office in Richmond. The letter outlined their concerns and asked that the SSA send out no-match letters only to employees, not employers.
"DHS is using an incomplete, hodgepodge system intended to ensure our economic security to implement a regressive immigration policy that Bush failed to pass in Congress," Anderson told us. "The SSA as an agency should have a spine and say no to DHS and no to the Bush administration."
If the ICE inserts do go out with no-match letters, she predicts walkouts and massive street actions.
The regulation is also being challenged in a lawsuit filed by the Central Labor Council of Alameda County. The AFL-CIO, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the San Francisco Central Labor Council have joined it. The plaintiffs claim that because the SSA’s database is full of errors, many citizens and legal immigrants could end up losing their jobs. They also argue that the DHS has exceeded its authority by seeking to use the SSA to enforce immigration laws.
US District Judge Maxine Chesney in San Francisco granted a nationwide temporary restraining order Aug. 31, blocking the SSA from sending letters with ICE inserts. The order is in effect until Oct. 1, when another federal judge here, Charles Breyer, will decide whether to grant another injunction.
"DHS is trying to create a huge terror, to give the illusion that they are doing something," Bill Sokol, a lawyer with Weinberg, Roger, and Rosenfeld, the firm representing the Central Labor Council of Alameda County, told us. "Workers are afraid, but we must dial down people’s fear and terror under our new gestapo."
He said the law will have little impact if employers understand it and do not abuse it. If employers overreact, however, the result could be disastrous. Sokol said employers are already firing employees immediately after receiving the letters.
Unions and immigrant workers across the country have charged that no-match letters have been used to stifle workers’ rights since the SSA began sending them to employers in 1994. Activists in the Bay Area have played a key role in resisting these efforts, setting national precedents upholding worker rights.
When a San Francisco Travelodge fired workers after they began organizing with a union in 1999, allegedly due to Social Security no matches, the terminated employees took it to court. The next year they won an arbitrator’s decision that the firing, based solely on no-match letters, was a violation of their union contract.
Local community pressure on the SSA also resulted in the inclusion of cautionary text in the letter. The no-match letter now states that employers "should not use this letter to take any adverse action against an employee…. Doing so could, in fact, violate state or federal law and subject you to legal consequences."
Activists at Oakland’s Labor Immigrant Organizers Network wrote a resolution in 1999 asking the AFL-CIO to renounce its support of the employer-sanctions provisions of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, the federal law that for the first time made it illegal for an undocumented worker to hold a job. Their agitation is credited in part for a resolution the AFL-CIO passed in 2000 calling for the repeal of sanctions and for a legalization program for undocumented workers.
The letters remained a potent tool for antiunion activity. A 2003 survey by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that 25 percent of workers listed in no-match letters reported that their employers fired them in retaliation for complaining about inadequate worksite conditions. More than one in five workers reported that their employer fired them in retaliation for union activity.
San Francisco opposed the DHS no-match regulation when it was proposed last year. An August 2006 resolution by the Board of Supervisors said it may lead to employers "using it as a device to fire, intimidate, harass, or underpay employees." It promised that the city would defy the regulation if it received a no-match letter for a city employee.
The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the US Chamber of Commerce also came out against the regulation.
But some employers embraced the proposed regulation. Uniform manufacturer Cintas fired hundreds of employees across the country, allegedly responding to the proposed guidelines after receiving no-match letters during a union organizing drive. Organizers said the company targeted employees involved in the union and jumped the gun on new regulations.
The Woodfin Suite Hotel in Emeryville fired 21 housekeepers in December 2006, also allegedly due to no-match letters. The workers claim the Woodfin retaliated against them for organizing with the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, a labor-affiliated think tank, to enforce the living-wage law (see "Calling in the Feds," 6/13/07).
A yearlong campaign targeting the Woodfin has brought the issue to a national audience.
Organizers say the regulations are far less strict than the news media has portrayed them, adding to an atmosphere of hysteria and fear among employers and workers. Francisco Ugarte, a lawyer with the Oakland firm of Leonard Carder, held up several San Francisco Chronicle articles at a Sept. 13 workshop for union organizers as examples of media inaccuracies.
An employer is not required to fire an employee after 90 days, as news accounts have stated. The employer has 90 days to fix discrepancies, and the worker has three days after that to fill out another I-9 form with a new Social Security number. If it appears credible, employers must accept the new I-9, Ugarte said.
The ICE insert in the SSA letter will terrify employers, he predicted, but the rule does not create any new information sharing between the SSA and other governmental agencies. The SSA is actually prohibited by law from sharing private data with any other governmental agencies.
There are also no automatic fines assessed to employers, as news accounts have implied. ICE will only levy fines if it raids employers and finds that they did not address no-match discrepancies. It is unlikely that the DHS will be able to enforce the regulations; in announcing them, Chertoff said the agency would rely largely on self-policing.
Even if this is the case, organizers fear that the DHS’s no-match regulation will provide employers with another tool to squelch immigrant workers’ rights. Comprehensive immigration reform is still needed to reconcile employers’ demands for workers, immigrants’ needs for employment, and US immigration policy.*
My wife and I are the proud parents of an eight-month-old boy. While I was prepared for the postpartum lull in the bedroom, I was not at all prepared for the combination of sex and nursing.
My wife has gotten really into attachment parenting and co-sleeping and it took me a while to get comfortable with having sex with the baby in the bed, but, generally, my appreciation for the rare opportunity always ends up outweighing any discomfort. However, the last two times we’ve had sex, he has awakened in the middle of things, and rather than stopping, my wife has just put him to her breast and said to go ahead with things on my end. I’m really not comfortable sharing my wife with my son in this way. And frankly, no matter how much she moans and sighs, I just don’t think she can be that into it when her attention is divided like that!
When I’ve brought up my concerns, she accuses me of not having our son’s best interests at heart and points me to all of the attachment parenting literature about how not responding to his needs will hurt his neurological and emotional development. I don’t want to hurt my son, but I also don’t want to sleep with a vending machine. You’re a mom now am I being a jerk?
Married to the Lunch Lady
My first response to your letter (after the admittedly rude cackling noise I made on reaching the part where she gaily calls out, "Carry on!" as though she hadn’t just grabbed the child and held him out in front of her as a human shield against any further attempted intimacies on your part) was sorrow that it was unprintable. You are not, after all, a sad, snaggy guy being slowly pushed out of the marital bed when the little one said, "Roll over!" You are a (female) online bud of mine who wrote this letter as an exercise following a discussion of what makes for good column fodder, and I bless you for it! It’s a great letter, fictional or not, and hey, lookit, I don’t even have to correct your spelling. So let’s just act as if, shall we?
Your wife has not so much adopted attachment parenting as she has, I wager, been assimilated by the Übermamas, a leaderless cult whose hive mind is headquartered at the MotheringDotCommune Internet forums. It is fashionable in that milieu not only to parent children to within an inch of their lives but to view husbands the way a lady mantis might describe her views on marriage and partnership, if asked: good for one job only, and that easily performed without thought or decision-making privileges or, indeed, a head. Dude, you must reclaim your head and put a stop to this if not for yourself, then for your son! What sort of model of manhood is this for him?
Actually, he’ll be fine. It’s you I worry about. You must know that attachment parenting does not even require that you adopt what is optimistically known as the "family bed" (often, in practice, a "Mommy and baby while Daddy sleeps on the couch" bed), let alone the abomination that is "Oh, carry on, don’t mind him stuck on my tit here." All shock and revulsion at the actual act aside (about which more in a minute), you must realize that "go ahead with things on my end" means that there’s nothing going on on her end. I’m sure there are readers who will spaz out over the child abuse aspect, but I assure you there is none. This isn’t about sexualizing the child; it’s about desexualizing you. You will soon find yourself consigned to, at best, the couch or, at worst, someone else’s couch. If nobody’s ready to have the baby sleep in his own room yet (I am not a huge fan of banishing baby, myself) then get a side sleeper or a dresser drawer or something and let him snooze away peacefully in there while you and your wife snuggle or sleep or do other things starting with s. Speaking of which, this is serious.
Now, as for what your wife may be feeling, I confess to oversimplifying in an earlier column when I denied that suckling could ever feel anything like, well, sucking. Of course it can. Not only are the sensations superficially similar (although I don’t advise partners to do the weird rhythmic press-and-swallow thing while making a fishy-mouth face, not sexy), we have only so many physiological responses available to us. Nursing can feel good, and it releases the same hormones that sex, or rather having had sex, does. I’d even venture to say that the release of good feelings (mostly hormonal-emotional, but to some extent physical as well) is adaptive, evolutionarily speaking. Then I’d say that that’s all very well but we have evolved pretty far and we can keep these things separate and I heartily encourage us to do so. More later.
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.
CHEAP EATS We sat on a rock wall with our legs dangling over the lake. I didn’t have shoes on. Ducks came around, geese flew low over the water, the lights across the way twinkled, and buildings slowly disappeared as we ate that salad.
It was a pretty famous salad, with halved cherry tomatoes and chunked up cheese in it. Unlike a lot of salads, this one had been in a feature story in the Guardian, even before it happened. Not that it was a main player in the story, but it was there: educational, artistic, and conceptual. "A dude wants to make me a salad."
I believe that was the sentence.
The subject of the sentence, the dude, if you will, was an artist and an educator, so the object of the sentence, the salad, was destined to be artistic and educational. The indirect object, your chicken farmer truly, beneficiary of famous salads and author of sentences both famous and idiotic, was charmed by the suggestion.
Seduced, I believe, was the word that I used. You could look it up.
I’m almost perpetually confused, except when I’m sitting in the bathtub with a chicken leg or pork sandwich. When I’m eating in general, I am often not confused, come to think of it, even if it’s at a restaurant or friend’s house or lake.
One of the many things I love to eat is leafy greens. The way some people look forward to dessert, I look forward to my salad. In fact, I prefer to eat it at the end of a meal, and if it’s a good one, with colorful, crunchy goodies in it and lots of vinegar, I can eat and eat and nothing can stop me except the bottom of the bowl. I am known for this. At dinner parties, when it comes to clearing the table, my friends will, with the same automaticness with which they wrap meat and put it in the refrigerator, hand me the salad serving bowl with a fork in it. I am considered a part of the cleaning process.
The artist who articulated this particularly famous salad for me said, while he was making it, at the lake, "Do you know why I’m making you this salad?"
My bare feet were a couple feet above the water and I was looking down at my toes, at the color of them, which is called Raspberry Rush. It was a pretty color against the green gray depths of Lake Merritt. He was slicing tomatoes into a stainless steel bowl. The bowl was in between us on the wall. No, I didn’t know exactly why he was making me this salad. I just knew that I liked the idea of it.
"Because you said in your column," he said, "that you weren’t getting salad."
"I said that?" I said. (I have since looked it up. I said it. I said, "I don’t mind always minding the grill, but what happens is that by the time I eat there isn’t any salad.")
"This salad is a kind of an art project," he explained, tossing the salad with a very good, very vinegary dressing he had premade at home, and serving it on real plates that he pulled out of his backpack, like the rest of the picnic. There was bread, salami, olives, and something good to drink. "Taking literate people literally," he said.
I’m a literate person, but I’m also a chicken farmer. My eyes went automatically to the horizon, wanting ducks and geese and finding instead an airplane. Landing lights blinking and the sunset blasting off of it, this was pretty too.
How wonderful! I say I’m not getting salad … someone makes me a salad! And how appropriate that the gesture turns out to be an artistic one, since so many of my own gestures are plot driven.
In other words, my friend, an artist, is turning his life itself into art, even while I turn mine into journalism. Life decisions, like where to go when, and who with, may be informed by considerations like it will make good copy. Or in his case, perhaps, it will look nice to look at. And perhaps, because he’s an educator as well, it will mean something.
Meanwhile, inside our rib cages, real hearts slosh with real red blood. Inside our big hard heads real electrical connections get made, synapses fire, or don’t, and chemistry happens. Or not. More important, for our purposes, we have stomachs where everything goes that we swallow, such as gut check! salad … words … pride.
I am not getting kissed.*
A venerable bit of wisdom from the Greek sage Heraclitus teaches that you can never step in the same river twice, for neither you nor the ceaselessly flowing river remains the same. Your odds are better at restaurants, which also change, though not quite ceaselessly. (I am extrapoutf8g from Heraclitus here; if the man ever made remarks about restaurants, posterity has forgotten them.) Crowds come and go, of course but decor and menu can remain little changed for months or even years. In a restless culture, such stability can seem boring or even slightly sinister, a dawdling on the way to some new and improved destiny. Yet there are those of us who like our points of reference.
Destino, which opened a little more than seven years ago in a boxy storefront space previously occupied by a pretty good restaurant called Dame and just a few steps from an ugly freeway overpass, has now donned the mantle of "bistro." Also, the overpass is gone demolished a few years ago per the edict of some ballot initiative. I would describe both of these developments as improvements, though Destino was always a bistro, really and is still serving "nuevo Latino" food while the demise of the overpass failed to produce the expected utopian decline in auto traffic, which now whizzes in every direction at ground level. Let the walker beware.
Once safely inside Destino, the walker will find the restaurant’s look barely altered from its early days. The color scheme is still golden-ruddy, with shades of copper and umber on textured walls, one of which continues to be hung with three large, ornately framed mirrors. The keepers of the bar just inside the front door are young and rakishly handsome; apart from their black garb, they’re scarcely distinguishable from the clientele, whose clothes are tepidly polychromatic in that rich-hipster way, with plenty of untucked, close-fitting shirts in pale blues and grays and many, many fancified versions of those Italian bicycle shoes. Would someone please turn the page? How about a designer version of ski boots, in two-tone Italian calfskin?
Chef-owner James Schenk’s latest menu includes a prix fixe offering, three courses (with a couple of choices at each stage) for $31.95. Not a bad deal. The bill of fare also emphasizes tapas these days, perhaps in part because smaller, shareable dishes are more consistent with the social style of the young, who (I would guess) prefer less hierarchy at the table as elsewhere. The prix fixe, by contrast, is hierarchy embodied, and, as I am a flinty-eyed hierarchist, I regularly submit to its charms.
Item one: a chile relleno, though not the usual kind, batter-fried and slathered in melted cheese. Here the presentation was more subtle; the pepper, a crisp poblano, was charred and skinned, then filled with Niman Ranch ground sirloin, sauced with a creamy chipotle salsa, piped on top with crème fraîche, and plated in sections, for easier eating. Across the way, the ceviche hound was tucking into a martini glass filled with Asian-inflected ceviche: the Destino Chino ($12.50), a medley of yellowtail tuna and tiger prawns glistening with lemongrass oil and wearing a pleasantly assertive perfume of ginger. The hound could have had ceviche but not the Destino Chino within the confines of the prix fixe; a larger issue was that the fixed menu’s main courses didn’t appeal.
They all appealed to me, on the other hand, and I was particularly glad to find a lighter entrant among them: a pastel of quinoa the couscouslike grain of the ancient Inca tossed with Peruvian artichoke hearts and topped with a crisscrossing of romesco salsa, a rouille look-alike. The dish, served in an earthenware crock, could easily have been passed off to the inattentive as some kind of couscous casserole.
Soon after we were seated, the hound could be seen briefly flirting with the prix fixe because, in the dim light, our failing eyes had misread "Duart" (as in Loch Duart, farmer of salmon) as "duck." When not snapping up ceviche, the ceviche hound is a duck hound. But, on a squinting review, we discovered our error and were chastened. The evening’s poultry choice turned out to be chicken, in the form of aji gallina ($18): shredded flesh bathed in a creamy sauce of aji amarillo (a kind of chili pepper) and served with home-style yucca fries. The chicken was lovely; the fries slightly less so. They were crisp but underseasoned and mealy inside, and I wondered if they wouldn’t have been better if they’d been cut to a slimmer profile.
The gold standard for Peruvian cooking in this city seems to be, by my informal but emphatic tally, Mochica. Destino is good; its aji de gallina is delicious but Mochica serves a mean aji de gallina too, and unseating Mochica from is perch of preeminence is going to be a wicked project for somebody. Pretenders to the throne might do some of their strategic pondering over Destino’s excellent churros y chocolate ($7) a trio of ridged, torpedo-shaped, cinnamon-scented beignets suitable for dipping into a demitasse full of warm chocolate sauce though those with long memories might respond to the suspiro, a dulce de leche treat that’s been on the menu for years. Hip 30-year-olds in tight shirts have to be concerned about their figures, of course (irrespective of sex), but Destino’s desserts aren’t especially fattening, and anyway you can always walk it off, taking care to look both ways all ways always.*
Brunch: Sun., 11 a.m.2 p.m. Dinner: Mon.Thurs. and Sun., 510 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 511 p.m.
1815 Market, SF
SUPER EGO Bad gay hair is back! From Chris Crocker’s "Leave Britney Alone!" bilevel blond bob apocalypse to Perez Hilton’s ever-changing lamebow of neon locks (bitch looks as though the Planet Unicorn creatures from YouTube exploded on her giant head), the homo hair horrors of the past are rising like silk-shirted, Daisy Duked zombies, tearing through a screen near you. Pull up a Rent-a-Center white vinyl sectional and dig into a plate of fried wig. These are the Famous Gays of Our Moment. This is our culture. So fuck your stinkin’ herbal Fructis plaster me with Queen Helene, suck me into Manic Panic, pump me up like L’Oreal. I wanna be fa-mousse.
Speaking of Planet Unicorn: I went to Oakland. This column’s become San Franciscocentric (not to mention gayer than a third grade playground), and I almost feel guilty. There’s a Bay full of hot boys out there! So, over Labor Day weekend, me and Hunky Beau saddled up the ol’ BART which, in a windfall for stoned revelers, was running 24 hours a day and high-tailed it to Bench and Bar, Oakland’s premier queer downtown dance palace for lusty Latinos.
There we found a proud brown Urban Cowboy wonderland. Saturdays play host to La Bota Loca, an overflowing evening for lithesome vaqueros in white Stetsons and kicky Tony Lamas hopping to regional Mexican hits and line-dancing to the Spanish version of "Achy Breaky Heart" ("Mi Pobre Corazón"). I recently bemoaned the lack of queer club nights where I could polka my pixie boots off to norteño and banda music. This is where I finally got a joyous earful of Sinaloense, Duranguense, and "Hey, what’d he say?" I’ve got to learn española.
The 3 a.m. BART ride home was a party. Hazy hyphy kids, tattooed punk nymphs, cowboy-hatted queens, and various future rehabbers piled on to cause unique havoc on the SF streets. Unfortunately, the car with the portable DJ setup was packed we’d have to squeeze in next to the drunken Cal rugby team, stripping off their shirts and challenging one another to wrestling matches. Hurriedly we acquiesced.
MUCHO MACHO MALMÖ Much like the "Gabbo is coming!" ads on The Simpsons, a mysterious, gaudy poster has been plastered about the city, causing much flurry and flutter. On it, a slick-mulleted playboy with an Angelina-forearm-thin mustache is flanked by two busty blonds in spandex strips. Giant text screams "Günther LIVE!!!" Who? What? Why?
"Is this some kind of joke?" Hunky Beau asked aloud when he first saw it. But really, isn’t that the cry of a dance floor generation?
In the tradition of, er, Fischer Spooner and Junior Senior, Günther traffics in the kind of poker-faced genius ambiguity that kicks your ass on the dance floor while shoving your tongue far enough into your cheek to block your bowels. (Although maybe that’s the coke.) Günther’s first huge release, "The Ding Dong Song," rides an infectious beat so stereotypically generic techno that it comes out the other side of awful, emerging into brilliance. It’s about his dick. He calls his dick his "tra la la." His press release describes it as a "gangling manhood." I e-mailed him immediately.
"My massage is love," he wrote back from Malmö, Sweden, where he resides. "I start my day off surrounded by Sunshine Girls" his writhing lesbotronic backup vocalists "have a champagne breakfast, and spread my massage of champagne, love, sex, glamour, and respect! I have always lived my own glamorous, sexy life of fun!!!" Who could argue? Other bouncy songs and videos of head-scratching wonder include "Teeny Weeny String Bikini," "Tutti Frutti Summerlove," and, yes, "Christmas Song." Sweeede …
SEWN UP Fashion Week is more over than irony, but you still need a look. Hit up Thread, an underground fashion blast featuring a plethora of killer local togs, no-host bar grog, and something about lots of great DJs that ends in og. Best part: discounts! OK!*
LA BOTA LOCA
Saturdays, 9 p.m.2 a.m., $20
Bench and Bar
2111 Franklin, Oakl.
GÜNTHER AND THE SUNSHINE GIRLS
Sat/22, 10 p.m., $30
525 Harrison, SF
Sat/22, noon6 p.m., $10
Fort Mason Center
Marina at Laguna, SF
1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Christian Mungiu, Romania, 2007). This Romanian debut feature possesses a nonjudgmental flow reminiscent of a Dardenne brothers film as it follows two women who negotiate for an illegal abortion during the final days of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Communist regime. You’ll be holding your breath as the characters dash from one nightmare to the next. There’s a reason this movie won the Palme d’Or at the 60th Cannes Film Festival.
2. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, France, 2007). As a rambling red balloon affectionately takes to Simon, a seven-year-old boy in Paris, his single mother played to perfection by Juliette Binoche does her best to care for her child, deal with flaky tenants, and continue her professional career as a puppeteer. Don’t be intimidated by Hou Hsaio-Hsien’s reputation; his latest movie is accessible, as is the 1956 French film that it is based on. This tiny, chaotic journey can help you deal with the frantic contemporary world.
3. Cassandra’s Dream (Woody Allen, UK, 2007). Warning: the new Woody Allen movie is not a comedy. Set in the UK, this minimasterpiece pairs Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell as middle-class brothers, both of whom want a better financial lifestyle. As the pair close in on their dreams, their moral codes begin to loosen. The acting is extraordinary (Farrell finds finesse), and Vilmos Zsigmond’s camerawork encloses the characters in a strikingly gloomy world immensely heightened by Philip Glass’s original score. Many critics are dismissing this dark drama as a comedic misfire. But like Allen’s 2005 UK production Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream isn’t courting laughs; these films dig into some disturbing human dilemmas at a time when there’s not much of a reason to laugh.
4. Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, US, 2007). For the follow-up to 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach creates another bittersweet coming-of-age exposé of a dysfunctional family. Both Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh contribute some of their best work as sisters who compete with more than support each other. Also, Jack Black is wonderful as a schlub whom Leigh is set to marry, and newcomer Zane Pais is as awkward as a young teenager should be in the role of Leigh’s son. But it’s the sincere and audacious writing that gives Margot at the Wedding its powerful kick.
5. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, Canada, 2007). Behold a personal journey through Guy Maddin’s childhood and hometown done by way of archival footage, personal home movies, narration (by Maddin himself!), and reenactments starring his cinematic mother, Ann Savage (the unforgettable leading dame of the 1945 film noir Detour). It’s hilariously self-depreciating and utterly universal can this man do no wrong?
6. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Netherlands, 2007). Carlos Reygadas updates Carl Theodor Dreyer. If that gets your beard in a bunch, then you’re gonna be in heaven for two and a half hours.
If you can end your Toronto International Film Festival experience with a movie that climaxes in a 10-minute fistfight (roofs collapse, cinder blocks are smashed, tables become splinters, ankle bones snap like twigs, and vengeance is won … but at what price?), that qualifies as a joyous note in my book. And fortunately, it’s my book we’re talking about specifically, my TIFF screening list, which by the end of my festival stint was completely mangled by incoherent scribblings and intricate schemes involving cinematic scheduling and basic human needs (chief among them sleep, which was often totally disregarded).
There’s a fine art to festivalgoing. I’m not sure I’ve mastered it yet. But I managed to see 26 (and a half) movies, probably missing some that I should have seen and certainly digesting a few disappointments. Another critic could spend a week in Toronto and see none of the films that I saw; my tastes run toward horror, documentaries, Hollywood and accessible indie stuff by directors I admire, and Hong Kong cinema (like the ankle buster mentioned above, the Donnie Yen<\d>starring Flash Point). Plus, you gotta work in at least a few totally random selections otherwise, what’s the point of being surrounded by cinema 24-7?
The big bananas in the horror bunch were Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears, the long-awaited conclusion to his witch-happy Three Mothers trilogy, and George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, hyped as the legendary zombie king’s return to no-frills filmmaking. I also followed my thrill-sniffing snout to Spanish newcomer Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage and the French Frontier(s), directed by Xavier Gens (whose Hollywood debut, video game<\d>based Hitman, is currently trailered on Death Sentence). I’m a huge fan of Argento’s gialli and flashy, trashy, blood-soaked horror epics and while I’m aware of the argument that he hasn’t made a great film since 1985’s Phenomena, Mother of Tears offers vintage pleasures galore. You want a coherent story and subtle acting? Look elsewhere (perhaps to the ghostly, Guillermo del Toro<\d>produced fable The Orphanage). Argento’s tale starts with a cursed urn and snowballs into mad hysteria, grabbing a gold-toothed witch, Argento ex (and Mother star Asia Argento’s real-life mother) Daria Nicolodi, a creepy monkey, and exorcist Udo Kier en route to a church-burningly ridiculous conclusion. In other words, I loved it.
I wasn’t as sold on Frontier(s), a well-made but derivative Texas Chainsaw Massacre descendent that squanders its interesting Paris riots context. And it’s my sad duty to report that Diary of the Dead is hardly essential Romero. Glowing reviews published elsewhere baffle me. Diary works an of-the-moment theme of kids subverting the mainstream media via user-controlled Internet sites post<\d>undead apocalypse, the only source of truth for the masses. But it becomes caught up in Making a Statement, and its narrative device camera-wielding film student obsessively documents the undead uprising is completely irritating. Sorry, but I’ll take the flawed-but-fun Land of the Dead any day.
Enfolded into my documentary diet were several music-themed entries, including Heavy Metal in Baghdad and Joy Division, and the doclike narratives Control and I’m Not There. We all know things are bad in Iraq, but Heavy Metal puts them on a regular-dude level that CNN reports don’t often facilitate. Metal outfit Acrassicauda love Slayer and Metallica, and they (and their fans) just wanna rock. At the start of the film (exec-produced by Spike Jonze and codirected by Suroosh Alvi, the cofounder of Vice magazine, and Eddy Moretti), the musicians claim they aren’t a political band. Attitudes change, thanks to Scud missiles (which destroy their practice space and all of their instruments), pressure from a culture that frowns on long hair and headbanging, and a post<\d>Saddam Hussein environment of extreme danger (machine-gun fire is just part of the street noise). Less contemporary but no less absorbing is Joy Division, Grant Gee’s reverent and artful look at Manchester’s pioneering post-punkers. Lead singer Ian Curtis is the focus of Control, a black-and-white wonder by music-video vet Anton Corbijn that focuses mostly on the troubled Curtis’s rocky personal life. Meanwhile, Todd Haynes creatively interprets the music biopic as he’s done before with Superstar and Velvet Goldmine with I’m Not There, a freewheeling (yet carefully calibrated) look at Bob Dylan. An array of famous folks the stunning Cate Blanchett among them portrays an array of Dylanesque characters. Though I could feel the movie being deliberately arty at times, it worked for me. And I’m not even a huge Dylan fan.
I’m running out of space, and I haven’t even gotten to three of my favorite TIFF films, so I’ll just lump ’em in here. Son of Rambow got mad props at Sundance, and with good reason; you’d have to be completely heartless to not love this tale of two British boys who bond over the one thing they have in common: First Blood. You know you’re gonna see No Country for Old Men anyway, because seeing the new Coen brothers movie well, that’s a no-brainer. Lucky for you, it’s their best film in years. If Oscar don’t bite, there’s no hope for Oscar. I know the gold guy will totally ignore Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely, and that’s OK. I doubt the multiplex crowd will go for its sweetly bizarre tale of celebrity impersonators (Michael Jackson and Marilyn Monroe specifically, but other faux familiar faces, including Abe Lincoln and Buckwheat, make appearances) and that’s not even mentioning Werner Herzog or the skydiving nuns. Amid all the witches, zombies, and actual movie stars, it was my favorite TIFF film.*
Despite their Rasta affiliation, dub jams, and dread heads, Bad Brains are perhaps the greatest hardcore band of all time black, white, or indifferent. Make a top three list in your head. You can quibble about the order, and you can shuffle bands in and out, but you know damned well that the Brains have to anchor the whole thing. Insert Black Flag or Minor Threat, and you realize the debt that both bands owe H.R., Dr. Know, Earl Hudson, and Darryl Jenifer.
The group officially started in Washington, D.C., in 1979, though its members had been playing together for two years without vocalist H.R. as jazz fusionprogressive act Mind Power. Which shows why Bad Brains are so monolithic in hardcore: a band with lesser musical chops couldn’t play at such finger-blistering, heart-palpitating speeds and make it sound so good. The reggae jams follow logically as necessary restoratives after the full-force pummeling the body takes from classic blasts like "Banned in DC" and "Pay to Cum."
The band’s first, 1982 ROIR cassette-only release, with the iconic lightning bolt striking the Capitol dome on the cover, is still my all-time favorite. It has a purity that just can’t be touched, even by the revamped, rerecorded version with Ric Ocasek at the helm, Rock for Light (Caroline, 1983), or by 1986’s classic I Against I (SST). It is indeed a bolt from above pure white light, pure energy, a shock to the system of both the individual listener and punk rock in general. As the Ramones, whose "Bad Brain" the band takes its name from, once said, "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment." I listen to "Attitude" on my headphones before I get on the gate for a big bike race; like grabbing a live high-voltage line, it cleans the mind.
How does the new, Beastie Boy Adam Yauchproduced Build a Nation (Megaforce/Osciloscope) stack up? First, it’s a damned good Bad Brains record: Jenifer’s bass rumbles like a herd of disturbed elephants through the whole thing, perhaps a little high in the mix, but so satisfying. As musicians, Bad Brains haven’t dropped the beat over the years, transitioning seamlessly from their early-era blitzkriegs to the moshable tempos of Quickness (Caroline, 1989) in songs like "Pure Love" and "Send You No Flowers." Second, and most important, who gives a fuck how or if it stacks up? Bad Brains are back, playing two shows at Slim’s.
The other night, I was standing in front of Cafe du Nord, talking to a slightly loopy but pleasant woman about the lotto ticket in her pocket, the winnings from which she was already actively planning how to spend. Seems she’d watched the self-help DVD The Secret and was convinced that if she just visualized it, it’d come true. "It’s the law of attraction," she said in a slight Southern drawl.
"Also known by the philosophers in Bad Brains as ‘PMA,’" I replied, referring to the "positive mental attitude" of my favorite prerace headphone jam. "They may have that PMA, but so far as I know, no one in Bad Brains has ever won the fuckin’ lottery."
"Oh, but you’re wrong," my new friend said emphatically. "You’re so wrong." She told me about seeing Bad Brains at the 9:30 Club in D.C. in her youth. "They did win the lottery they’re the fucking Bad Brains. They change people’s lives."*
With Whole Wheat Bread (Sun/23) and Black President (Mon/24)
Sun/23Mon/24, 8 p.m., $25
333 11th St., SF
When Jake Mann ponders his recent move from Davis to San Francisco, he puts it in terms of a song. "Left behind the right things I know / How does this one go?" Mann muses on "Beat the Drum," as though making your way in a new scene were like playing a tune whose chords you haven’t quite learned. That SF has scenes at all was part of Mann’s concern. "People are specific about their genres here," he notes. "I’ve always felt spread across a lot of sounds."
This is borne out on Mann’s new LP, Daytime Ghost (Crossbill). Made with a backing three-piece band, it’s low-watt singer-songwriter rock that’s almost shoegazily bothered by texture. The first thought thanks to the skuzzy guitar and dirty-weekend vocals of "Flames at My Feet" goes to some less vain Marc Bolan: all the seamy T.Rex aesthetics without the bad intent. But a more accurate ancestor may be the Neil Young of 1975’s Zuma (Reprise). Mann lists the album as a recent "obsession," and its meld of fractured melodies and grimy guitars is an obvious influence on Daytime. "Take You for a Ride" plays like unraveling country rock, its broad American horizons "Those big skies won’t betray us," Mann hopes as ominous as Young’s had become.
Mann built Daytime over the past couple of years after the breakup of his Davis group the Zim-Zims, and it shows the marks of protracted writing. Evidently, the artist hasn’t quite decided his feelings on laptop beats, which pop up sporadically, though the sublime "Our 1st Assumptions Were Correct" shows he can corral them. Still, the disc sticks together, largely because those guitars have an almost tactile presence we’ve always got a toehold. Mann knows this is the promise his live show has to keep. With a second guitar added and carte blanche given to vocal improvs, he claims they’re "getting most of it across."
Sept. 30, 9 p.m., $6
1131 Polk, SF
LOCAL LIVE The first triumph of the night was simply that no one lost an eye. The Hemlock Tavern stage isn’t much more than a low corner deck, and the Old-Fashioned Way work a swooning fiddle into their akimbo art pop, which meant that whenever Marie MacBain launched an arpeggio, her bow looked like a weapon.
Such are the risks of bringing bits of a philharmonic onto the barroom circuit, an increasingly popular move blame Montreal that’s rarely handled with the charm of this six-piece. You won’t find bespectacled frontman Chris Wu miming Win Butler. Onstage he’s a picture of basso profundo calm, a seated yogi growling an indie rocker’s version of eightfold-path prescriptions: "Tea early morning, Earl Grey / And coffee all day / Tecate all night / Or just something with bite."
Crowded around their sage leader, the rest of the OFW, who formed in 2005 and will release their first 7-inch this fall, give off the ease of a family band, though no member remotely resembles another. They’re Dickensian orphans, then, who’ve gathered to put on a minstrel show and who’ve had to find a sound to fit their strange batch of instruments. The two red-blooded guitars and the drum kit give the songs a sturdy rock core when the band wishes it. But there are also, at points, a Paul McCartneystyle toy bass, an accordion, a triangle, a wailing keyboard, and a melodica, which pile into a haunted and seductive sort of antipop, mournful and klezmerish on a track like "Robot on Fire" but boppy, harmonic, and needing a restroom on "Take Your Fluids." The latter was a live highlight, thanks to bassist Heather Logsdon’s soft and shy la la las, while "Zeitgeist" was goofy and quotidian but sweeter for it: "I threw on my clothes clumsily / And I kissed you on the head at 1:30 / Out the door and crushed by night / My hoodie reeked of beer and your Lucky Strikes."
THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY Thurs/20, 9 p.m., $8. Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell, SF. (415) 861-2011, www.rickshawstop.com
Today’s homeland traveler must run a gauntlet of tribulation, beginning with the holy sacraments of shoe doffing and toothpaste Ziplocking and continuing to flight delays and $10 for an airborne box of chicken salad, but at the end of all the woe and insult is the comfort of knowing that there’s more where that came from, generally in the form of superfluous starch.
I noticed, in the course of several days spent recently in the heart of the heart of the country, that a broad no-legume policy seemed to be both unstated and strictly observed. Restaurants high and low didn’t offer so much as a lentil or chickpea, and as for breakfast at Denny’s or Perkins, where I went each morning with my squad of elders, you could have potatoes with your bread, or bread with your potatoes, you could have eggs a thousand different ways in pastry! with cheese! and cinnamon buns and oceans of weak coffee, and after all that you knew better than to think about glycemic indexes or your blood sugar level. Oatmeal? Consult the small print at the bottom of the laminated page.
At a nice Italian restaurant in St. Paul, Minn., I clicked my heels together three times and waited for Garrison Keillor to come through the door from his redoubt on nearby Summit Avenue. He did not; was this because he too is distressed at the lack of legumes in Lake Wobegon and its environs? Or was he at Perkins, chomping his way through mountainous platefuls of hash browns and bread?
Minnesota’s Twin Cities are hardly unsophisticated. St. Paul, in fact, has a Jewish deli, Cecil’s, that’s at least the match of any such place I knew in Chicago and far better than any deli here. But Jewish delis, no matter how wondrous their rye breads, aren’t known as hotbeds of legume culture, and if a good Italian restaurant doesn’t even have a white-bean soup or salad on the menu, what hope is there?
Does this matter? Yes. Legumes whether white or black or cranberry beans, lentils, or chickpeas are among nature’s near-perfect foods. They’re tasty, healthy, and flexible; they make good main dishes and side dishes, and they work in soup and as beds for other things. If you’re on your way to Lake Wobegon, don’t leave home without them.
Sol Niger ("Black sun" in Latin) sounds like a contradiction. Not that choreographertheater maven Keith Hennessy is uncomfortable with oppositional thinking. But if you’ve ever experienced the gray-on-gray blanket that a solar eclipse throws over the world, you’ll understand the appropriateness of the title of Hennessy’s most recent work.
With a Bay Area premiere run kicking off Sept. 20, Sol Niger Hennessy’s MA project at UC Davis was partially developed in France, where it was described as his "search for an American identity." Here it is presented as addressing "shifting definitions of war, torture, terror and justice." Hennessy shrugs off the difference in perspectives. French cultural institutions have sponsored several of his works, and he is used to the public there seeing him primarily in terms of national identity. In fact, the distinctions between the stateside and French observations just prove that the nature of the light shining on a object determines our perception of it, which is exactly one of Hennessy’s points.
Hennessy believes that the events since Sept. 11, 2001, define his generation much the way AIDS or World War II did earlier ones. In Sol Niger he examines the shadowy nature of our awareness of what’s going on. A key figure, borrowed from Japanese theater, is a kurogo (black-clad man), who manipulates the lights from the stage, invisible yet all-powerful in determining what we see. "I wanted to look less [at] what we do know about Iraq than what we half-know about, let’s say, Abu Ghraib, about our foreign policy," he says. "Is it really about oil and the oligarchies? These are the issues I want to bring to light."
One reason Hennessy chose to perform at Project Artaud Theater is because of the venue’s high ceilings, necessary for the aerial work that he continues to explore. He was first drawn to trapeze work because of a fascination with risk and danger and the ideas it provokes on dealing with fear. Still, Sol Niger is a departure for him. "There is a lot more choreographed dancing here than I have had in a long time. Some of it is quite beautiful," he says. "Also, I am taking a much less head-on approach." Like an alchemist, he works with symbols, metaphors, and abstractions away from the glare of certainty but determined to shed light on what the shadows reveal.
Thurs/20Sun/23 and Sept. 2629, 8 p.m., $25
Project Artaud Theater
540 Florida, SF
The word musical normally connotes light fare. But in its latest Broadway reincarnation, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street lends, in addition to bravura performances, a bracingly morbid bite to American Conservatory Theater’s new season.
Of course, that doesn’t stop Sweeney from delivering vigorous entertainment. Director-designer John Doyle’s attractively reconceived, Tony Awardwinning revival of the groundbreaking Stephen Sondheim musical serves up a theatrical feast from, yes, soup to nuts. And it does so with a cost-effective ingenuity that would no doubt impress the economizing bakercannibal maker Mrs. Lovett (played with inviting brio by Broadway vet Judy Kaye).
Kicking off a national tour in San Francisco, the show’s impressive cast members, drawn overwhelmingly from the 2006 Broadway run, not only act and sing beautifully but also (in what has become a trademark of Doyle’s work in the UK and on Broadway) play all of the instruments themselves. Using brilliantly pared-down orchestrations by Sarah Travis (who also collected a Tony for her effort), Doyle and his cast render Sondheim’s exquisite score an even more integral part of the drama.
To "attend the tale of Sweeney Todd," the drama follows a disturbed barber formerly known as Barker (a memorable David Hess), who returns to Victorian London after 15 years’ penal servitude in Australia on trumped-up charges engineered by Judge Turpin (Keith Buterbaugh), who fancied the barber’s beautiful young wife, subsequently raped her, and now keeps Barker’s daughter, Johanna (Lauren Molina), as his ward. Seeking a room to rent under his new name, Sweeney Todd, the barber finds a garrulous but incompetent pie seller named Mrs. Lovett and befriends her after she breaks the news that his wife committed suicide in the wake of Judge Turpin’s conquest and (clearly smitten as well as sympathetic toward the anguished Sweeney) agrees to help him seek revenge.
Meanwhile, Anthony Hope (Benjamin Magnuson), a young man returning to London at the same time as Sweeney but in the optimistic mood reflected by his name, meets and falls in love with Johanna, only to become the rival of the judge, who has determined to marry her himself. With motives nearly as straight as his razor (the revenge plot soon spirals out of control, taking in all of the inhabitants of his detested London), Sweeney dispatches his victims with a single flourish across their throats a gesture that in Doyle’s production invariably evokes a single piping wail of woodwind as the lights go red over Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop (done up with deftly augmented plank-board modesty in his striking scenic design), and the victim, after an expressionless pause, dons the blood-streaked apron symbolizing his or her quick passage from palpitating body to lifeless flesh. That’s flesh that the enterprising Mrs. Lovett eagerly bakes into her publicly traded treats, to great repute and profit. (Adding a further Grand Guignol touch, Mrs. Lovett simultaneously occupies herself downstage at such moments in slowly draining blood from a bucket; the attendant noise, as the liquid hits the pan, produces a choice chill in the bone.)
Musically, those opening lines calling the audience to "attend" use a terse melody and a staccato rhythm that wind their way throughout Sondheim’s complex and beguiling score and devilishly clever lyrics. Along the way come passages that, under the circumstances, take one by surprise with their easy, slightly ribald charm (as in Mrs. Lovett’s good-natured confession, "The Worst Pies in London") or their breathtaking gentleness and grace (as in Anthony’s love song, "Johanna," later snatched up by his rival, who lends its lilt a sinister echo).
Hess’s turn in the title role, as the broken husband and father turned cracked serial killer, projects an imposing, warily sympathetic combination of the addled, the fierce, and the weary. Sweeney is at once a towering and a stooped presence, with a somber masculine charisma that commands our undivided attention whenever he’s onstage. That is, except when he shares the spotlight with Kaye’s lovably insouciant (if that word can be used for a woman who bakes people into pies) Mrs. Lovett. Then Sweeney and the audience have together found an ideal match.
It’s all over much too soon, but it leaves a memorable aftertaste that keeps on giving. Which just goes to show what really makes a great piece of musical theater. A great story? A great composer? The answer is both more general and more particular: it’s people!*
Extended through Oct. 14, $22$82
See stage listings for schedule
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary, SF
70MM MANIA With everyone vulnerable to psychic Taser attacks through e-mail and cell phones, you don’t have to peek over shoulders to be a space vampire today. Is there any doubt that space vampirism is running rampant?
The answer, my friends and fellow Criswell worshippers, is no. This makes the sheer lack of space vampire movies downright shocking. Leave it to Midnites for Maniacs programmer Jesse Hawthorne Ficks to confront the problem by reviving one of the greatest space vampire movies ever, Tobe Hooper’s 1985 Lifeforce. Now you can ponder space vampirism in its full, bodacious 70mm splendor, as primarily embodied by naked alien Mathilda May, who brought anarchic madness to London almost 20 years before 28 Days Later.
Lifeforce was coproduced by the Cannon Group, a name that along with fellow producer Golan-Globus is an absolute guarantee of mind-boggling visions. In addition to the ever-naked (except when wearing a trash bag) May, Lifeforce features Halley’s Comet, a space vampire nun, a screaming Steve Railsback (is there any other kind?), and an overblown score by Henry Mancini, who has wandered a long way from "Moon River." It also includes copious homoeroticism, especially when Patrick Stewart, chrome domed even back then, is possessed by May’s wily feminine spirit. Could Lifeforce have been crazier? It seems impossible. And yet: Klaus Kinski was originally supposed to play one of the film’s mad scientists. (It goes without saying that the scientist is mad.)
Within the It! The Terror from beyond Spacederived upper echelon of the space vampire canon, Lifeforce rivals Curtis Harrington’s 1966 Queen of Blood. In place of a naked May, Harrington’s movie offers a green-skinned alien vampire (the amazing Florence Marly) wrapped in an extratight bodysuit and sporting a hairdo that has been described as a "testy beehive" and a "turnip" by online reviewers and compared to Mister Softee ice cream by me. (Mario Bava’s 1965 Planet of the Vampires is more of an antecedent to Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien.) As for Lifeforce’s futurist twist on body snatching, it does live on in at least one 21st-century movie, 2001’s Kairo (a.k.a. Pulse), by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a director who also qualifies as probably the biggest fan on the planet of Hooper’s 1990 Spontaneous Combustion.
MIDNITES FOR MANIACS IN 70MM
Fri/21, 7 p.m. (Ghostbusters) and 9 p.m. (Lifeforce); double feature, $6$9
429 Castro, SF