Volume 42 Number 33

Poesia

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› paulr@sfbg.com

Since my Italian is limited to a few cuss words plus "prego," I was not able to follow the ins and outs of the Italian film being shown, Foreign Cinema–style, on the rear wall of Poesia, a lovely restaurant opened by Francesco D’Ippolito in March in one of the Castro’s most haunted locales. The movie looked like a close relation of The Dick Van Dyke Show, to judge by the costuming and black-and-white cinematography, and it lacked both sound and subtitles — not necessarily a huge loss for Anglophone diners who prefer to keep their attention trained on their dinners and on one another, instead of on the movie’s progress and whether or not the actors are swearing in Italian.

The movies at Foreign Cinema generally include subtitles and are not limited to Italian provenance. In these respects, Poesia is a not-quite-direct descendant of that highly successful, highly atmospheric Mission District restaurant. Nonetheless, the new place’s ancestry is plain. It’s also welcome, and I speak as someone who resists the multimedia antics that make too many restaurants too stimuutf8g to be pleasant these days. Poesia’s second-story digs, across the street from the venerable Midnight Sun, have recently been home to Ararat and La Mooné, a pair of worthy ventures that seemed to get lost in the Castro shuffle. This can happen when people can’t easily find you. A staircase is a slim sidewalk presence for any restaurant. So, sweeten the deal with a movie! Screen it, and they will come.

And if they come hungry, all the better. Poesia’s food is rich in friendly elegance and would be worth seeking out even without a cinematic enticement. It also reminds us that classic Italian cooking doesn’t (on the one hand) need tinkering with but (on the other) does accept flourishes, even California-style ones, without losing its essential honesty. I particularly liked the glasslike slivers of flash-fried green garlic that served as a bed for a trio of arancini ($6), risotto fritters aromatic with a stuffing of smoked mozzarella cheese. Once the arancini were gone, it was as if we’d been transported to the scene of an auto break-in, with shards of translucent green all over the place. The arancini themselves were sensually, addictively creamy, though short-lived. But we found ourselves nibbling at the green garlic as a satisfying coda.

Fennel root (finocchio) has been a player in Roman Jewish cooking for two millennia, and it clearly matters to Poesia’s kitchen too, at least at this time of year, the crest of the season of roots. The bulbs turned up quartered, breaded, and lightly fried ($7) as an appetizer — a kind of frito misto without the misto — and, shredded, in a salad ($7.50) tossed with arugula leaves and mandarin-orange sections and dressed with a blood-orange vinaigrette. Fennel root is often mentioned as an interesting substitution for celery, but these two dishes, whether considered separately or juxtaposed, suggest that it’s far more than a stand-in for a simple staple.

If not finocchio, then radicchio — the claret and white chicory leaves with the bitter edge — which turned up as a bed for a sophisticated seafood salad ($14). The seafood consisted of peeled shrimp, sea scallops, squid, clams, and mussels, simmered in a marinara sauce and laid atop the radicchio, whose leaves had been softened and made less sharp by braising. And since finocchio and radicchio need not be mutually exclusive, the plate (a long and narrow rectangle like a sushi platter) was finished with a salad of intertwined carrot and fennel-root ribbons at the far end.

Veal is among the most ethically problematic of meats — the calves it’s obtained from are largely a consequence of the none-too-pretty dairy industry (only pregnant cows lactate) — but it’s also mild-flavored and sublimely tender and buttery if handled with care. At Poesia the sautéed medallions ($19) were bathed in a pizziaola sauce, a puree of tomatoes charged with garlic, oregano, and hot pepper, and dotted with halves of pitted black olives. The rest of the dish was finished simply, with quarters of roasted new potato and heap of sautéed broccoli rabe, dark green and glistening.

Desserts, like the savory courses, are variations on classic themes. Tiramisù is beyond cliché now, but Poesia’s version ($7) uses Grand Marnier, for a hint of oranginess, and it doesn’t have the typical tiramisù’s sloppy-lasagne-square look but instead resembles a striped lampshade. Cannoli ($7) is more conventional in appearance — a flute of crisped pastry — and is filled with chocolate chip–studded whipped cream, while an honor guard of strawberry slices stand at attention to one side.

The restaurant’s layout remains unchanged from earlier incarnations. There is a bar in a cozy corner, but you can’t watch the movie if you’re sitting at it: bad angle. The dining-room windows still offer a commanding view of a festive block of 18th Street, although the windows’ bareness is disconcerting. People peeking out from on high at passersby prefer a bit of cover, some curtains or drapes or even miniblinds. I speak from some personal experience on this point. Window treatments also relieve starkness, as experienced from inside. But it’s early, and perhaps D’Ippolito will get to such matters at some point.

He’s a busy man, though, working the dining room, supervising the service staff, and offering customers the occasional tutorial in conversational Italian or Italian film history. I tried out a few of my swear words, and they met with nods of approval, even if we both knew we weren’t dealing in poetry.

POESIA

Dinner: nightly, 5:30–11 p.m.

4072 18th St., SF

(415) 252-9325

www.poesiasf.com

Full bar

AE/MC/V

Noise under control

Not wheelchair accessible

Focus on the future

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PREVIEW San Francisco Ballet just finished its 75th season with a buzz-creating festival of world premieres. But SFB hasn’t gone dormant. This week the focus shifts to the next generation of dancers: San Francisco Ballet School students who hope to take on the daunting task of defying gravity and having their bodies express the contents of their souls.

At the SFB School’s Student Showcase at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the audience can experience the stages of a dancer’s progress. From the smallest kids doing their precisely placed tendus and still-stiff port de bras to the graduates, seven years later, who are ready to compete with professionals, you can see dancers blossom and begin to be themselves. You’ll also notice that boys tend to develop later and that girls still dominate the field. The program features the American premiere of John Neumeier’s 1986 Yondering, danced to Stephen C. Foster songs. The advanced students perform Helgi Tomasson’s 1996 Simple Symphony, which he specifically choreographed for the SFB School.

But SFB isn’t the only school holding its end-of-the-year recital. The School of the Arts, a magnet school of the San Francisco Unified School District, presents its budding young dancers in Unfolding Light, which introduces dances by student and professional choreographers, including Brittany Brown Ceres, Juan Pazmino, Gregory Dawson, and Enrico Labayen. A few of these teenage artists wowed the audience when they performed during the Izzies dance awards at the end of April.

SAN FRANCISCO BALLET SCHOOL STUDENT SHOWCASE Wed/14, 8 p.m.; Thurs/15–Fri/16, 7:30 p.m. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF. $32. (415) 865-2000, www.ybca.org

SCHOOL OF THE ARTS’ UNFOLDING LIGHT Fri/16–Sat/17, 8 p.m.; Sun/18, 2 p.m. Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center, Marina and Buchanan, SF. $18–$20. (415) 345-7575

Funkonnection 5

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PREVIEW A few months ago, I came across the popular blog Stuff White People Like, and loved it. Finally, there was a piece of online real estate dedicated to dissecting the bizarre interests of white people. I grew up amid the city’s "we’re so liberal!" facade that included Mumia rallies downtown, peace festivals in Golden Gate Park, and rainbow flags in the Castro District. But every facet of this liberal oasis was laced with the irony of a skyrocketing housing market, a growing black exodus, and a media that spoke of poor folks only in terms of symptoms of neglect — drugs, violence, and hopelessness. To come across a blog that explicitly pokes fun at the ironies of white privilege was, like, hella tight. Then I found out it was authored by a white comedian based in Los Angeles who recently inked a book deal with Random House, purportedly for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now, I’m all for getting paid, but I’m also pretty sure that some version of Stuff Black People Like has been a part of the American fabric since day one. Yet the makers of cultural icons pre-fad status often don’t get recognized. Funk music and fried chicken also can be included in that category. So for better or worse, Mighty is hosting Funkonnection 5, a night of funk music, dress-up, and free fried chicken.

FUNKONNECTION 5 With Fort Knox 5, Thunderball, Mat the Alien, and Vinyl Ritchie. Fri/16, 10 p.m., $15. Mighty, 119 Utah, SF. (415) 626-7001, www.mighty119.com

Allen Oldies Band

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PREVIEW The Allen Oldies Band delivers a reckless tornado of classic hits, a retro dance party of Sham-tastic proportions. But don’t make the mistake of considering this Austin, Texas, ensemble a mere cover band. The Oldies have amassed a cult following built on the strength of a talented group of classic session players, sprinkled with a heavy dose of punk-pit sensibility. They have punctuated the beginning of South by Southwest in their hometown with an infamous 9:30 a.m. breakfast shindig replete with French maids serving jalapeño pancakes. They will play literally anywhere — but they will not play just anything. From "Wooly Bully" to "It’s Not Unusual," the Oldies are resolute in their mission to bring the dance tunes of yesteryear to your doorstep.

Allen Hill dreamed up this raucous, plaid-blazer-clad army of fun. Hill is a bit of a musical raconteur, a de facto spokesperson for the retro Austin scene who fronts his own combo with feverish enthusiasm and wisecracks. Wearing a tuxedo and tennis shoes, Hill rushes from one end of the stage to the other, employing a tongue-in-cheek goofiness with the group and the audience, recalling Louis Prima at his best. Always looking to spread the message of party rock, the Oldies are no strangers to either the wedding or corporate event circuit — please book three months in advance — and have played backing ensemble to the likes of Chuck Berry and Archie Bell. Lest their paying gigs sound too staid, the Oldies have the indie cred of a live WMFU album, Live and Delirious (Freedom, 2006). While their trips outside the Lone Star State are not as frequent as their fans would like, they are finally set to grace our fair city with a dose of hyperactive twistin’ tunes.

ALLEN OLDIES BAND With the Barbary Coasters. Fri/16, 9:30 p.m., $6.
Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. (415) 923-0923, www.hemlocktavern.com

Bad war, good film

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REVIEW Okay, here’s another Iraq War fictive feature people won’t go see, although this may be the first one where it would be a real shame (as opposed to the many very good documentaries everyone ought to have seen). It delivers sweeping, multicharacter, wide-canvas drama à la 2006’s Babel within a docudrama style that’s as convincing and effective as Brian DePalma’s thematically overlapping 2007 Redacted was — let’s put this delicately — phony, crass, and just plain shitty. A mix of professional and first-time actors (including actual Iraq vet and ex-Marine Elliot Ruiz as the platoon leader) play more disparate elements in post-Saddam society and the US military than we’re used to seeing. They converge on a reenactment of the November 2005 events in which an IED bombing of a Marine convoy triggered indiscriminate, retaliatory, home-invasion killings of two dozen local residents, including myriad women and children. (One point made is that many citizens get identified as insurgents simply because real ones have threatened families with death if they squeal.) There’s a long, ominous buildup in which we’re introduced to lives that will soon be traumatically shaken up — and then bleep hits the fan. Battle for Haditha is like a realpolitik version of a 1970s disaster movie, sans soap operatics, Charlton Heston, or idle pleasure in the spectacle of order collapsing. It’s tense, immediate, and vivid (if not quite so potently) in the way 2006’s United 93 was. A rare dramatic film from veteran documentarian Nick Broomfield, this film’s final outcry of grief, vengeance, and injustice is a terrifying illustration of how badly we’ve bungled — by creating new terrorists in attempting to eradicate established ones.

BATTLE FOR HADITHA opens Fri/16 at the Roxie. See Rep Clock for showtimes.

“Held Rectangles”

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REVIEW In Lawrence Weiner’s 1968 piece, A 36" X 36" REMOVAL TO THE LATHING OR SUPPORT WALL OF PLASTER OR WALL-BOARD FROM A WALL, the title functions as a set of instructions for a physical action that must be performed to complete the work. Like a number of Weiner’s other pieces in the same vein, the result varies based on where the piece is installed and/or executed, making for a work of art that is difficult to re-create identically. For these reasons, Weiner’s art seems to defy substantive definition. Since the artist does not seem to favor a specific environment in which to create the work, the piece becomes transient and ephemeral unless permanently installed — and even in this case, it co-exists simultaneously with other iterations elsewhere.

While the piece by Weiner currently on view in the small exhibit "Held Rectangles" at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum does not include a physically executed element, aside from the typographical installation of the words A RECTANGULAR REMOVAL FROM A XEROXED GRAPH SHEET IN PROPORTION TO THE OVERALL DIMENSIONS OF THE SHEET (1977), the construction of a geometric form is implied. Not only does the Weiner text allude to an act, it is based on a subjective set of parameters that, like A 36" x 36" REMOVAL, resist redundancy. In spite of his succinct instructions and regularized typeface, the phrase describes an abstract shape that is never defined but rather assumed.

By contrast, John C. Fernie’s Held Rectangles Series (c. 1970) begins with a physical object, recognized as a frame, examined through its 360-degree rotation and documented in a series of eight photographic screen prints. Unlike Weiner’s open instructions for a shape, Held Rectangles Series is defined, though the content it frames is not. In this case, the frame, like the shape in Weiner’s piece, becomes a study of a cultural signifier, its historical implications disturbed by its placement within the context of conceptual art.

HELD RECTANGLES Through Aug. 3. Wed.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Berkeley Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft, Berk. $4–$8 (free first Thurs.). (510) 642-0808, www.bampfa.berkeley.edu

Big and getting Gigantour

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› a&eletters@sfbg.com

In a few days, a legion of heavy metal maniacs will throng the Event Center at San Jose State University for the third annual Gigantour. Created by Megadeth frontperson Dave Mustaine, the package consists of bands he has handpicked for their ability to deliver high-energy live sets to arena-size crowds. In addition to the venerable thrashers in Megadeth, the tour has included a number of the biggest names in both modern and classic metal such as Lamb of God, Anthrax, Overkill, and Opeth.

The 2008 incarnation of Gigantour has tapped Bay Area greats High on Fire, who seem to be playing in front of bigger audiences with each passing week, and given the youthful Arizonans in Job for a Cowboy their first taste of the big time. While American metal is robustly represented, Mustaine has also called on two European bands that are legendary in their own countries. Subsumed by the banner of Megadeth, Sweden’s In Flames and Finland’s Children of Bodom are holding down the kind of opening slots that have become unfamiliar to them, promoting new albums to each other’s fans and trying to reach that ever-elusive next echelon of success.

In Flames guitarist Jesper Strömblad sounded weary but enthusiastic when reached by phone from Worcester, Mass., where he was preparing to play the first day of the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival, which included the entire Gigantour lineup on its initial night. The group was honored to join the outing, he said, adding, "Megadeth is one of my personal favorite bands."

In Flames was formed by Strömblad in 1990 in Gothenburg, Sweden, a university town that during the ’90s hosted a profusion of melodic death metal, honed into a form so distinctive that it became known as the "Gothenburg sound." Typified by carefully composed neoclassical guitar harmonies, the style was popularized by bands such as At the Gates, Dark Tranquillity, and Soilwork (from nearby Helsingborg), but it reached a creative peak on In Flames’ 1996 full-length, The Jester Race (Nuclear Blast).

In Flames’ new A Sense of Purpose (Koch) hasn’t lost the searing dual leads that define the group, and as Strömblad was right to point out, "You can hear a song from today’s In Flames, or an old song — you can hear it’s us." Creatively, however, the band has been caught in a downward spiral since 2002’s Reroute to Remain (Nuclear Blast), which introduced clean singing, slower tempos, and hollow electronic textures into the band’s repertoire. As Strömblad explained, "playing fast is not necessarily aggressive, or heavy. What we want to put in the music is big dynamics." Those musical contrasts are present, but accompanied by stark differences in quality between the outfit’s modern and classic material.

While In Flames has evolved, Finnish outfit Children of Bodom has mostly stuck to its guns, churning out adrenaline-fueled speed-metal full of catchy neoclassical shredding on the keyboard and guitar. Founded in 1993 in Helsinki, the band takes its name from Lake Bodom, a small body of water in the city’s suburbs that was host to the country’s most infamous triple murder, which claimed the lives of three teenagers on a camping trip in 1960.

The group’s frontperson, Alexi Laiho, is a veritable guitar hero, in addition to being an unrepentant party animal. Finally reached by phone in Baltimore after an initial hangover-thwarted attempt, he insisted that Children of Bodom’s daunting technicality was a natural outgrowth of his songwriting, rather than an attempt to show off. The band’s greatest strength is clear when Laiho and keyboardist Janne Wirman chase each other up and down the scales, and Children of Bodom, at its best, sounds like a demented, amplified string quartet. No surprise, then, when Laiho mentioned the artist the combo listened to for inspiration when recording its groundbreaking early albums: "Mozart."

Children of Bodom’s new Blooddrunk (Spinefarm) certainly cites the ax-master’s love of booze and is a more memorable effort than 2005’s Are You Dead Yet? (Spinefarm). The solos are as incendiary as ever, and the band’s embrace of progressive-rock tendencies has yet to blunt the Vivaldi-style virtuosity of its songs.

Speaking with two bands that have ascended to the metal mountaintop and gotten a look at the downward slope on the other side, it seemed important to ask if this new period of prosperity, exemplified by Gigantour, had a catch. After all, metal has fallen on hard times before, even when it seemed poised to conquer the world for good.

Surprisingly, Strömblad and Laiho provided nearly identical answers. "You always see different styles [of metal]," said the In Flames guitarist. "The genre of metal will always be popular. The different styles can grow big for a while and then go away." Laiho concurred: "Because the metal scene is so big and wide, and has different categories, it’s never going to implode on itself. It’s always going to be evolving." As long as people in Sweden, Finland, and America are willing to forge the next In Flames or Children of Bodom, these two six-string titans will be proven right.

GIGANTOUR

With Megadeth, In Flames, Children of Bodom, Job for a Cowboy, and High on Fire
Mon/19, 5:30 p.m., $37.50

San Jose State University, Event Center Arena

290 S. Seventh St., San Jose

www.ticketmaster.com

The Bike Issue: Behind the pack

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Also in this issue:

>>10 things Bay Area cyclists should know

>>Don’t Stop: Bike lessons from Idaho

› steve@sfbg.com

There’s a strange dichotomy facing bicycling in San Francisco, and it’s spelled out in the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s "2007 Citywide Bicycle Counts Report," which features a cover photo of Mayor Gavin Newsom and me pedaling up Market Street together on Bike to Work Day two years ago.

That photo, its context, and the information contained in the report tell the story of a city that at one time set the pace for facilitating bicycling as a viable alternative to the automobile. But that city has been passed up since then by cities such as Chicago, New York, Washington DC, Seattle, and Portland, Ore.

San Francisco still has a higher per-capita rate of bicycle use than any major city in the United States, and that number has been steadily rising in recent years, even as construction of new bike facilities has stalled. The report’s survey found a 15 percent increase since the first official bicycle count was conducted in 2006.

"This increase is especially significant when viewed in light of the injunction against the City’s Bicycle Plan. This injunction has stopped the City from installing any new bicycle facilities since June 2006. Despite a lack of improvement or additions to the City’s bicycle route network, cycling use in San Francisco appears to be increasing," the report read.

It’ll take at least another year for city officials to wrap up the environmental studies on the 56 proposed bike projects and get Judge Peter Busch to lift the injunction (see "Stationary biking," 5/16/07). But it’s still an open question whether San Francisco’s three-year hiatus will be followed by the rapid installation of new bike lanes and other facilities.

City officials express confidence, and there are some hopeful signs. Newsom has been focused on environmental initiatives, the MTA has beefed up its bike staff from six full-time slots to nine, advocacy groups like San Francisco Bicycle Coalition are at the peak of their numbers and influence, and all involved say promoting bicycling is a cheap, effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and traffic congestion.

"I’d be very surprised if, within six months after the injunction being lifted, we don’t see a record number of bike lanes striped," said MTA spokesperson Judson True.

Yet there are still political barriers to overcome in a city where cars are the dominant transportation option — and the first barrier is Mayor Newsom. He has yet to show a willingness to back his green rhetoric with policies that actually take space from cars, which many of the bike lane projects will entail.

"I think we have seen this mayor talk big on some environmental problems, but I’ve been disappointed that on transportation, that thinking hasn’t been turned into action yet," said SFBC executive director Leah Shahum, whom Newsom appointed to the MTA board but then removed earlier this year before her term expired, a sign of the complex and largely adversarial relationship between the mayor and bicyclists.

Newsom has been able to avoid tough decisions on bikes and cars for the past two years because of the injunction and the wait for Muni and traffic congestion studies, which are being released throughout 2008. But that’s about to change with the court’s ban on new bike projects slated to end next year. So will Newsom, who may be running for governor at the time, be willing to make controversial decisions that back up all his green talk? It’s an open question.

The common denominator in all the cities that have pedaled past San Francisco in recent years is that they’ve had strong mayors who have embraced cycling and partnered with bike advocates to change the rules of the road, often contracting them to work directly on projects.

"We’re poised for it, but will we act on it?" Shahum said of the potential for a bike boom in San Francisco. "It’s going to be a real test next summer and I think the mayor’s role is crucial."

THE GREEN BUG


Like many big city mayors, Newsom has become enamored of all things green at the same time that he’s trying to manage an overtaxed transportation system. He is pushing for Muni improvements and has voiced support for congestion pricing initiatives that could make driving a car more expensive.

"This trend of big city mayors focused on transportation to deal with environmental problems is spreading, and I think Newsom has caught that bug," Shahum said.

SFBC and other groups have been meeting regularly with Wade Crowfoot, the mayor’s new director of climate change initiatives, to push the bike plan work forward, create an aggressive implementation strategy, and craft new initiatives like the recently unveiled "Healthways" proposal to close down the Embarcadero to cars on summer Sunday mornings, an idea borrowed from Bogotá, Colombia.

It’s a sea change from that ride I took with Newsom two years ago, three days after he vetoed Healthy Saturdays, which would have created another day of car-free roads in Golden Gate Park. He labeled the bike advocates as "divisive," and told me his veto decision was influenced by "people in the neighborhoods who just came out in force in ways that, frankly, I didn’t expect."

Those feelings, held by the half of San Franciscans who use a car as their primary mode of transportation, haven’t gone away. Newsom’s advisers and the MTA staffers working on the Bike Plan acknowledge the political challenges in completing the bike network, which advocates say is an important prerequisite for convincing more people that cycling is a safe, attractive option.

I asked Oliver Gajda, who is leading the MTA’s bike team, whether the 56 projects he’s now working on would be queued up and ready to build once the injunction is lifted. While the technical work will be done, he said that most projects still will require lots of community meetings and negotiations.

"Some of the projects will take a couple years of work with the community, and some will take less," Gajda said. "When you discuss the potential of removing lanes or parking spots, there are lots of different interests in San Francisco that have concerns."

That’s where the rubber meets the road. Yes, everyone wants to see more cycling in San Francisco — Newsom two years ago even set the goal of 10 percent of all vehicle trips being made by bicycle by 2010, a goal that nobody interviewed for this article thinks the city will meet — but is the city willing to take space from cars?

"The public priorities are already correct, but we need political leadership to implement those priorities even when there’s opposition," said Dave Snyder, transportation policy director with the San Francisco Planning Urban Research Association.

Crowfoot said Newsom is committed to creating better alternatives to the automobile.

"The mayor is fully supportive of expanding the bike network and that will involve tradeoffs," Crowfoot said, acknowledging that some projects involve losing lanes or parking spaces to close the bike network’s most dangerous gaps. "To the extent that the bike network continues to be a patchwork, people won’t get on bikes."

But the mayor also has been fully supportive of the Transit Effectiveness Project’s proposal to reform Muni, even though he recently suggested opposition to proposed parking fine increases might mean that some TEP proposals need to be scaled back.

Skeptics also note that Newsom removed Shahum from the MTA and has appointed no one else with connections to the bicycling community since then, even though that body has sweeping new authority under last year’s Proposition A to implement the bike plan and make decisions about which transportation modes get priority and funding.

"I’m pushing for that, and we’ll see what happens," Crowfoot said of his efforts to get a complete bike network going during the Newsom administration’s reign, acknowledging that, "the proof is in the pudding."

ZERO-SUM GAME


San Francisco’s strong bicycle advocacy culture, the creation of lots of new bike lanes between 2000 and 2004, and innovations like Critical Mass and the sharrow (a painted arrow on the road indicating where bikes should safely ride) made this city a leader in the bicycling movement.

Yet it is only in the last few years, when San Franciscans have been sidelined by the injunction, that the movement really gained mainstream political acceptance and begun to make inroads into the dominant car culture of the United States, slowly and belatedly following the lead of European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

"Interest in bike-friendly policies is surging, along with the growing number of adults who are riding more. Moreover, the movers and shakers of the biking scene are often smart, always passionate, and they believe strongly in what they are doing. Even when such groups are in the minority, they often enjoy significant political success, and they should never be discounted," J. Harry Wray, a political science professor from DePaul University in Chicago, argues in his new book Pedal Power: The Quiet Rise of the Bicycle in American Public Life (Paradigm, 2008).

Jeffrey Miller, executive director of Thunderhead Alliance, a national umbrella organization supporting regional bicycle advocacy groups, told us he’s pleased with the movement’s progress in recent years.

"There’s been an awakening by the decision-makers in both government and businesses that bicycling and walking can solve a lot of the environmental problems we’re facing," Miller said.

He cited Portland, Ore., Chicago, Seattle, Washington DC, and New York as the cities leading the way in prioritizing bicycling and creating systems that encourage the use of bikes, and said he was sad to see the setbacks in San Francisco.

"But advocates in each of those cities will say there’s so much more work to be done," Miller said.

Most of that work centers on changing how drivers and planners think about cities, and especially with those who see the competition for space as a zero-sum game. Miller noted that it’s good for motorists when more people are encouraged to opt for alternate forms of transportation.

"If you just get 10 to 20 percent of the drivers to use those other modes, it frees the freeways up for cars as well," Miller said. "I don’t see why we go out of our way to favor cars over every other form of transportation."

Like many advocates, he said a strong and consistently supportive mayor is crucial to change the priorities in cities.

"We have an executive leader in Mayor Daley who believes strongly that the bicycle is a big part of the solution to our environmental problems," said Rob Sadowsky, director of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation.

"We have an incredible partnership with the city," he said, noting that the organization often works directly on city contracts to create more bicycle facilities, something that happens in other bike-friendly cities like Portland and New York. But it doesn’t happen much in San Francisco.

"There’s a real sense that we’ve turned a critical corner and things that we’re been fighting for, for years now, are in sight," said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives in New York. "In the last year, there have been some significant policy advances."

Like Mayor Daley in Chicago, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has become a vocal advocate of green transportation alternatives and has been willing to stand firm against displaced drivers.

"Anything you give to cyclists is basically taken away from automobiles," White said, adding that New York officials "have not shied away from taking parking away, or even a lane on Ninth Avenue. And that shows how serious they are."

The problem isn’t just San Francisco’s, but California’s as well. It is the state’s decades-old California Environmental Quality Act that was used to stall the Bike Plan and make bike projects so cumbersome. Sadowsky said bike projects in Chicago are relatively easy to implement, with little in the way of hearings or environmental studies needed.

Oregon laws also helped make Portland a national leader, with a requirement that all new road construction include bike lanes, paid for with state funds. Yet here in the small, 49-mile square that is San Francisco, with ideal weather and a deeply ingrained bike community, many say the city could be on the verge of regaining its leadership role in the bicycle policy.

A poll conducted in November 2007 by David Binder Research found that 5 percent of residents use a bicycle as their main mode of transportation, and that 16 percent of San Franciscans ride a bike at least once a week. Even more encouraging is the fact that most reasons cited for not biking — not enough bike lanes or parking, bad roads, feeling threatened by cars — are all things that can be addressed by smart bike policies.

"If it’s going to happen anywhere, it’s going to happen in San Francisco — as far as making more bicycling a reality," Gajda told us. "I really feel like we’re poised after the injunction to take it to the next level."

GET INVOLVED

The SFMTA has a series of upcoming workshops on the city’s Bike Plan and network:

Central Neighborhoods May 21, 6–7:30 p.m., SoMa Recreation Center Auditorium, 270 Sixth St.

Southeastern Neighborhoods May 22, 6–7:30 p.m., Bayview Anna E. Warden Branch Library, 5075 Third St.

Western Neighborhoods June 3, 6–7:30 p.m., Sunset Recreation Center Auditorium, 2201 Lawton.

Northern Neighborhoods June 4, 6–7:30 p.m., Golden Gate Valley Branch Library, 1801 Green.

BIKE TO WORK DAY, MAY 15

Biking is easier and more fun than many people realize, so Bike to Work Day is the perfect excuse to try it on for size. There will be energizer stations all over town for goodies and encouragement, and lots of fellow cyclists on the road for moral support, including group rides leaving 11 different neighborhoods at 7:30 a.m. After work, swing by the SFBC’s Bike Away from Work party from 6–10 p.m. at the Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell St. For more details, visit http://www.sfbike.org/