Volume 43 Number 04

Not unlike crack

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FIFA SOCCER 09

(Electronic Arts; Nintendo DS, PlayStation 2 and 3, Sony PSP, Windows Vista/XP, Xbox 360)

GAMER In the midst of all this excruciatingly important election business, I strive only to be a better-terrified, proverbially neo-American Joe, asking you, "O citizen, has there ever been a more convenient time to wed distraction — by an awesome bit of footy on the Xbox 360?"

Frayed knot. FIFA Soccer 09 complaints first: most of the situation-specific expressions used for play-by-play and color commentary are fucking irritating and/or redundant to the point of sounding just plain stupid, as in, "a great defensive tackle" or "defensive clear," when we know these maneuvers to be exclusively defensive by definition.

The occasional "goalie blowout" is a definite frustration as well. About once a game, your keeper will choose to ignore a cross that should be cursorily disrupted, either that or decide to come off his line without warning at exactly the wrong time. As for field play, the usual FIFA suspects: errant touches caused by the directional proximity of two or more passing targets, animations that force players to decelerate unnaturally, jive-ass one-on-one moves that remain woefully ineffective. ("Homemade cuts" are still the way to go if you’re trying to beat a defender with the dribble.)

Much applause: this year’s version plays heavy in comparison to a somewhat papery FIFA 08. The ball is weightier; the scale, appreciably larger. And while retaining its 08 intellect, 09 does well to beef up the player models and bring the default camera angle closer to the pitch. Inertia, momentum, and gravity are better woven into the feel of the game: jostle for good position only to time your jump poorly and whiff on your header. The "Create a Player" feature is nuanced and can get you pretty damn close to a reasonable Con McJain likeness if that’s what you’re into, freak.

For you Xbox Live fiends, they’ve set up some decent interactive modes, including an unwieldy but super-fun 10 vs. 10 online welter that devolves right quickly into "Kill That Cow." But you know, son, this is America, and we play how we plumb well please.

Still looking pretty hairy, isn’t it, Joe? Narrower, this chance, than it had ought to be.

Ritual de lo non-habitual

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› a&eletters@sfbg.com

REVIEW Since rituals necessitate a community of believers, presenting one for an audience in a theater runs the risk of becoming a mere item of cultural consumption. Yet, on Oct. 16, master drummer-vocalist-dancer Dohee Lee went beyond expectations. Her oddly named Flux succeeded best in its most ritualistic elements — the moments when it called up soul-wrenching memory, pain, and reconciliation.

The title refers to the ever-changing aspects of all creation. That’s a cliché and doesn’t tell us much about the nature of this, at times, powerful work of dance theater created by the Korean-born Lee and a slew of excellent collaborators. Foremost among them are the musicians of Asian Improv Arts: Francis Wong; Tatsu Aoki, who also created one of Flux‘s films; Jason Lewis; and Jonathan Chen. They are master performers. And as a result of their efforts — along with Lee’s — Flux‘s seamless unity of dance and music made for an exceedingly rare experience. The only other dancer besides Lee was the very capable Sherwood Chen. Relegated for the most part to subsidiary roles, he was, however, underused.

Using the I-Ching as a shaping device and philosophical tool, Lee divided the evocative Flux into nine sections, helpfully explained in the program insert. The work started on a dreamy note and moved through historical sequences to the climactic dramatization focusing on the memory of Lee’s grandmother. The piece wound down to a peaceful, even joyously embracing close with the traditional passing of the Banyayoungsun, the ship that connects the living with ancestors.

Deann Borshay Liem’s excellent appropriations of historic Korean films included sepia-colored portraits of ordinary men and women in addition to haunting sequences of refugees, corpses, and iconic symbols. Combined with Aoki’s more abstract images — water, fire, wind, a ravine — which set the context for the individual sections, Flux captured the experiences of a specific people while placing them in a universal context of human experience. Less effectively, the program notes to the "Fire=Trade" sequence seemed a little naïve in the way it commemorated only the unequal trade treaties "between the US and Korea from 1850 to the present." It’s not as if Asian nations and European powers were entirely innocent when it came to Korea’s woes.

As a performer, Lee is a wonder of versatility and strength. In "Water," she commenced the refugee’s journey by stepping gingerly into the sea, her feet floating and blindly attempting to find firmer ground — her only guide a fan-shaped wooden rattle. In "Thunder," she played a battery of Korean drums with an increasingly furious intensity as we stared at those all-too-familiar images of terrorized faces and rows of bodies, victims of war. In the somewhat prolonged finale, a bouncy, almost jazz-like freedom propelled Lee into a rollicking celebration of hope.

Lee’s duets and the choreography for Chen, in contrast, looked uncertain. They spoke of what may be inexperience choreographing for other dancers. Yet as a soloist, Lee is outstanding. The "Mountain" section was an astounding tour de force that started on a rather low-key interchange between a child and her grandmother, then swelled into something approaching the demonic. The program notes explained that the old woman was recalling her experience during the Korean War, and that the style evokes Korean opera.

The moment was as dramatically powerful as anything in Puccini — and those vocalists don’t dance. Though performed in Korean and therefore verbally unintelligible to many in the audience, the trajectory of this tale of pain and fury was crystal clear. Bent over and dragging a drum behind her, Lee gradually straightened and then whipped herself into shamanistic ecstasy. In the end, standing on her drum, she returned to her guise as a fragile human being. It was the closest thing to a ritual that you are likely to see onstage. *

Budgin’

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› kimberly@sfbg.com

SONIC REDUCER Why so glum, Chun? Well, for starters, the economy is sucking about as hard as an insecure groupie attacking her/his fave-rave rocker head-case, and the stock market is making me more nauseated than the time I mixed deep-fried Twinkies and the Giant Dipper roller-coaster ride at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Oh, sure, we’re all gonna die giggling with sheer, unrepentant delight when the Barack Star pulls it off come Nov. 4. But in the very lean meantime, we gotta scrimp ‘n’ scrape to find the joy.

So why not mix good times and sound — arf! — financial advice from those adventurers in fabulously gritty lo-fi sonics and rock ‘n’ roll derring-do at Budget Rock Seven music fest?

Yes, I may be high. Ask rockers — oft dismissed as guitar-collecting, ramen-chawing spendthrifts lacking in fiscal acumen — for budget suggestions? Don’t you know that the sweaty, loud ‘n’ danceable rawk gathering has little or nada to do with tightened (white, skinny) belts during tough times — having plucked its name from a Mummies long-player, not its accountants? Sho’ ’nuff, impecunious stuff. Nevertheless, if a truly depressing nu-depression-style bottoming-out occurs — B-Rock or no — it can’t hurt to look to grassroots rabble-rousers for tangibles on living it up on little scrill.

"I have nothing to offer but bad tips," Darin Raffaelli — ex-Supercharger member and now in Budget Rock bands the Baci Galoopis and supa-group Mersey Wifebeaters — apologizes in a recent e-mail. "Go to the taco truck and don’t be afraid to get face meat if they run out of the standard meats. Don’t be a deadbeat weefie and carry your own load. Doesn’t matter how big your carriage is — just fill it to the tarp with whatever you can and the goodhearted folk will make sure you get by. Don’t get tattoos, and take care of your feet.

"Hope that helps."

It’s like pouring loose change, slugs, and paper clips into those supermarket counters: every little bit helps. Brian Girgus, who drums for rising Mantles-spinoff proj Personal and the Pizzas, has more low-dough advice: "Sneak a flask of whiskey in. Drink during Happy Hour. Make your pizzas at home. Roll out the dough really thin to make the pizza seem bigger. Buy used vinyl at the thrift stores."

"Budget? I’m not an expert on that. I’m up to my ears," opines festival co-founder and co-organizer Chris Owen by phone. He’s got more important things on his mind, like convincing Budget Rock performer Roy Head — renowned as "the white James Brown" for his crazy-agile dance moves, and his 1965 hit, "Treat Her Right" — to record "Just Head" by the Nervous Eaters and "Teenage Head" by the Flamin’ Groovies for his Hook or Crook Records. The dynamic Head — who Owen says is still amazing (The 67-year-old "is like Iggy Pop in the way he puts himself out there") — just might play those tunes live, if we’re lucky, when he performs here for the first time since the ’60s.

Owen says there was an attempt to move Budget Rock back to San Francisco — where it first laid down a beachhead at Thee Parkside — but, as we laugh, "the city wasn’t having it!" With assists from Bobbyteen Tina Lucchesi, Guardian staffer Dulcinea Gonzalez, and others, Owen threw the bash together again at the Stork Club. "Sometimes it’s worth it to just have a blowout in a smaller place," he explains. "At a smaller place, they’re happy to have you. I can’t imagine anyone drinking more than the people who go to these things!"

Budget planning? I got my BR grandma-panties in a bunch to catch In the Red combo the Lamps, Bare Wires, Nodzzz, Thee Makeout Party, the Pets, Hunx and his Punx, Ray Loney and the Phantom Movers, Sir Lord Von Raven, Hypsterz, Christmas Island, and Russell Quan’s 50th Birthday Party. As for Owen, he’s especially psyched about Human Eye (a Clone Defects variant that rarely plays Bayside), Haunted George, Seattle band Head (I see a theme emerging), and Personal and the Pizzas ("A MySpace band that suddenly became a real band — basically they wrote two of the catchiest songs I’ve ever heard"), as well as the Top Dog-sponsored hot-dog-eating contest and the pancake breakfast aided and abetted by ex-Parkside honcho Sean O’Connor’s Batter Blaster invention.

"When I first announced the lineup people were, like, ‘Who the fuck are these bands?’" Owens says of the eclectic nature of this year’s festival. "There are a whole lot more bands that are more difficult — more influenced by New Zealand pop music and not necessary garage rock and punk."

But seriously, back to budgets? "I would say, don’t take any advice I’d give you — that’s the best advice," Owen says. "But with this thing: $5 beer and cheap food, 34 bands in four days. That’s pretty good. If you’re trying to maximize your dollar, that’s less than a dollar a band." *

BUDGET ROCK SEVEN

Preview with Lover! and Nobunny

Wed/22, 5:30–8 p.m., free

Eagle Tavern

398 12th St., SF

Festival runs Thurs/23-Sun/26, various times, $10–<\d>$30

Stork Club

2330 Telegraph, Oakl.

www.myspace.com/budgetrock

SIDEBAR

HEAD OUT

THE USAISAMONSTER

Maybe after Barack Obama wins, the Load combo can change its name to THE USAISINRECOVERY. Fri/24, 9:30 p.m., $8. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk St., SF. www.hemlocktavern.com

BRIDGE SCHOOL BENEFIT

Whoa, Nellie: Band of Horses is the latest add to the benefit helmed by Neil Young and family. Sat/25, 5p.m., and Sun/26, 2 p.m., $39.50–$150. Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View. www.livenation.com

AGAINST ME!

Do the Florida punks have a persecution complex? Mon/27, 8 p.m., $22.50. Grand Ballroom, Regency Center, Van Ness and Sutter, SF. www.goldenvoice.com *

Ane Brun

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Fall is San Francisco’s most gothic and recognizable season. In contrast to our drab winter skies, unpredictable spring showers, summer microclimates, and endless foggy afternoons, autumn arrives in a snap, with crisp air, long shadows, and dramatic full moons. Stockholm-based Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun’s introspective music is perfect for fall: she thoroughly explores uneasy moods on her aptly named fifth full-length, Changing of the Seasons (Cheap Lullaby).

The album’s hushed title track includes gently picked acoustic guitar work and a spacious arrangement where Brun muses about the moment when one contemplates leaving a lover for someone else. "It’s hard to be safe," she sings, "difficult to be happy." Tension and uncertainty is ever-present in Brun’s writing. She excels at exposing love’s contradictions and disappointments with a delicate emotional perception that, despite all the heartbreak, doesn’t wallow in self-pity.

Whatever her poetic narratives are about, Brun sounds fantastic singing them. She’s a rare talent who wields an arresting falsetto that’s both classic and modern. She’s been compared to Dolly Parton, Carole King, and Nico as well as Björk, Adele, and K.D. Lang. Excellent phrasing and austere lyrics invite the listener to contemplate, debate, and empathize with her subjects and material, which is often intimately autobiographical. Listening to Brun’s work, it’s tough not to feel like a guilty eavesdropper sneaking a look in a friend’s diary while house-sitting. Not that Brun would mind.

She isn’t afraid to sound vulnerable, barely holding on to her emotional composure on songs like "The Fall," in which she croons, "We were wrong, to stay this long / Let me go, let me fall to the ground." Like other numbers on Seasons, the track is laced with tasteful string accompaniment, arranged by Denmark’s Malene Bay-Landin and New York City’s Nico Muhly.

Although the "strings and sad singing" motifs conjure Nick Drake in his Bryter Layter (Island, 1970) period, Seasons also showcases inventive, percussive numbers like "The Puzzle" and "The Treehouse Song," which gallop, swing, and accentuate Brun’s cadence. "Armour"’s heavenly harmonics could support a scene from the 2001 French movie Amelie.

At the wonderfully cozy Café Du Nord, listeners will have an excellent chance to hang on Brun’s graceful notes, which trapeze playfully through compositions like "My Star" and "Linger with Pleasure." One hopes she’ll touch on selections from 2004’s masterful A Temporary Dive (DetErMine/V2), a putf8um seller in Scandinavia, and with drummer and vocal accompaniment in tow, Brun will usher us effortlessly into autumn’s dark, hopeful moments.

ANE BRUN

With Tobias Froberg

Tues/28, 8 p.m. $12

Café Du Nord

2170 Market, SF

(415) 861-5016

www.cafedunord.com

Cosmic backlash

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> johnny@sfbg.com

Everyone agrees that disco is alive and proliferating. But is it devolving from au courant status into something that deserves the 21st century version of a stadium vinyl bonfire? Genres are vague in the realm of electronic music, and disco has become almost as ubiquitous and generic an overarching tag as techno. The neo-disco banner now stretches from the Fire Island revivalism of Hercules and Love Affair, and Escort to the cosmic expeditions of Lindstrom and his disciples. Clearly, it must be made of something synthetic.

Between the flaming diva pageantry of Hercules and the heterosexual prog geekery of Hans-Peter, one finds the languid romantic intellectualism of Morgan Geist. In recent interviews, Geist questions contemporary disco’s existence, though his rarity compilation Unclassics (Environ, 2004) and his work with Metro Area have played a major role in its formation. Yet technically speaking, he’s right. His new Double Night Time (Environ) kicks off with "Detroit," where instead of disco, the North American home of techno is evoked. Still, austerity aside, "Detroit" is a techno track as much as it’s a disco track, meaning not very. It is new romantic: an effete little brother of butch post-punk and femme disco, with a Motor City radio DJ heart that belongs to Mike Halloran as much as the Electrifying Mojo.

The late avant-disco pioneer Arthur Russell is often invoked in relation to Geist, but Double Night Time is cooler and more reserved. Guest vocalist Kelley Polar doesn’t croon with the mannered zeal that defines his own 2008 venture away from Metro Area, I Need You to Hold on While the Sky Is Falling (Environ). In fact, he’s hard to differentiate from the album’s other mannered vocalist, Jeremy Greenspan of the Junior Boys. While Russell’s music is cerebral, his tenor never seems detached. In contrast, when Greenspan declares that he wants to cry during "Most of All," it comes across as a come-on. That doesn’t mean it isn’t seductive, though, and Geist’s chiming sound reaches a chilly peak on the low-key yet bravura relationship post-op "Ruthless City."

Lindstrom’s first proper solo album — after a compilation, and a full-length collaboration with Prins Thomas — is a different neo-disco creature. Whereas Geist presents nine pop-inflected compositions in less than 50 minutes, Where You Go I Go Too (Smalltown Supersound) stretches three tracks to nearly an hour. Where exactly does Lindstrom go on the 29-minute title track? To my ears, he disappears into a Tangerine Dream and reemerges as Cerrone: a whirligig melody that echoes the motif of Cerrone’s 1978 disco classic "Supernature" adds whimsy to wave upon wave of arpeggio. But what do I know? One local music shop detractor has compared Lindstrom’s latest to the sounds of Paul Lekakis, the actor-model-vocalist who brought the world "Boom Boom (Let’s Go Back to My Room)."

On Hatchback’s Colours of the Sun (Lo Recordings), San Francisco’s Sam Grawe steers clear of any Lekakis-isms, though arpeggio for arpeggio, there’s a definite Lindstrom-on-ludes feel to the penultimate track, "White Diamond." Hatchback drives right up to the exact spot — a couch at the edge of a dancefloor? — where disco slips off the term cosmic disco. Grawe knows krautrock and cosmiche music inside out, but like his pal Daniel Judd of Sorcerer, he’s at his best crafting soundtracks for cheesy movies that don’t exist but should. "Closer to Forever" is exquisite, and "Jetlag" is a slab of montage funk that could make Harold Faltermeyer jealous and even get David Hasselhoff to stop eating burgers off the floor.

If neo-disco and its cosmic substrata are courting a backlash the size of Paul Lekakis’ glutes, it’s because of an onslaught of opportunistic comps with "space" or "disco" in their titles. Especially when placed in close proximity to one another, those words — along with "Balearic" — are surefire groan inducers. Yet there are always a few exceptions to the rule. One is Cosmic Disco?! Cosmic Rock!!! (Eskimo), a mix co-created by the man who invented cosmic disco, Italian DJ Daniele Baldelli. While it doesn’t approach the euphoria of Baldelli’s 2007 Baia degli Angeli mixes, its strictly ’80s sources — further proof that neo-disco is new romantic — include some eccentric pleasures, especially "Ulster Defense," perhaps the world’s first and only pro-IRA dancefloor anthem.

Likewise, Alexis Le Tan and Jess’ Space Oddities (Permanent Vacation) transcends a generic title through a combo of irreverence and dedication that’s as rare as any of the European library grooves it rediscovers. The bloodless boogie of a track titled "Cloning" is hypnotic. Better still is "Black Safari," an electronic answer to Moondog’s jungle-sound freakout "Big Cat." If a 1977 disco track can cast its net wide enough to capture Moondog and roaring elephants and growling tigers, then surely a 2008 neo-disco track can find a sense of humor within its vast cosmic — or retro-homo — space. In fact, that’s exactly what 21st century disco will require to escape the hipster equivalent of a stadium bonfire. *

Wildildlife by numbers

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Whether we’re talking about the volatile US economy or the amount of CD-R releases Wildildlife has produced to date, the base-10 numeral system is a useless reference point.

"Three or four, five or six — let’s call it ‘medium-four.’ Or ‘five-esque.’" This is the disc count consensus from the Seattle group, whose membership is definitely three: Andy Crane on bass guitar, Matthew J. Rogers on guitar, and Willy Nilz on the drums. All provide vocals, and their collective tune was chortle-laden as they chatted via speakerphone from their tour van, parked on Bainbridge Island, Wash., a short ferry ride from Seattle, before the opening show of their present West Coast tour with Mammatus.

It would be frivolous to assign integers to Wildildlife’s whacked variety of superjams: their psychedelic weird-metal gets mad heavy, but they kick terrific pop hooks when, you know, they feel like it. "We’re super poppy — it’s almost lame," one exclaims before another threatens that they’re "gonna drop it like Kid Rock!" Eh. That frighteningly high-pitched live vocal effect they often use isn’t that pop. Pop or not, the heaviness has gelled into something that has allowed Wildildlife to survive two radical geographic relocations: from Boston to San Francisco, and, earlier this year, to Seattle. Originally named Wildlife before a group called the Wildlife sent them a threatening letter about it, the band started after the three had been jamming together as college students in Boston. Although more restrained at that time, they now dish out a spaced acid-sludge that only medium-four years of epic practice sessions could have wrought.

What brought them to SF in September 2006? "It was a three-way commitment — ‘you guys all want to move?’ We pointed it out on a map and headed there. Sorta like Coming to America,” is the answer.

Crane describes their one-time dream of starting a pancake van in Dolores Park with Nilz’s family recipe. What kind of cakes?

"Cornmeal pancakes."

"Weed pancakes."

This truck never came to fruition, but the combo quickly came to feel at home alongside such newfound, freaky rock brethren as the New Thrill Parade, Tulsa, and Shellshag. They recorded their 2007 debut, Six (Crucial Blast), shortly after their arrival, laying down tracks as long as 18 minutes in the process. One number, "Kross," has a slowly strummed guitar and vocal passage that gives way to delicate Steve Hackett-reminiscent trilling (circa Lamb Lies Down on Broadway [Atco, 1974]) before the metal hammer smacks down again, while "Tungsten Steel/Epilogue," with that scary effect-ed vocal leading the way, is hot as that doorknob that Joe Pesci grabs in Home Alone.

The closest you’ll get to a precedent for the Wildildlife sound is Atlanta, Ga. band Harvey Milk, which the group opened for on HM’s first West Coast dates earlier this year — an experience Wildildlife were especially excited about in a year that, despite the move, has been pretty damned productive. They’ve produced a CD-R out of a WFMU live set recorded earlier this year, and a new EP, Peas Feast, will soon be released by Crucial Blast on 12-inch, along with a dropcard for a new EP, The Drongalet Demos. Their songs have been shorter lately, but to no detriment: tracks like Peas Feast‘s "Shining Son" beckon circle pits unlike any before it. Plans are also afoot for an old EP re-ish and a remix 12-inch.

Why is their album called Six if whole numbers don’t suit them? "It’s spelled in letters," they point out. There are also seven songs on there, alas — if inexactitude reaps such brutal greatness as that of Wildildlife, may we never file taxes again.

WILDILDLIFE

With Mammatus and Three Leafs

Sat/25, 9:30 p.m., $8

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk, SF

(415) 923-0923

www.hemlocktavern.com

Take your time

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› a&eletters@sfbg.com

In this age of instant gratification, it feels excruciating to wait six minutes for something. In the case of the Notwist, fans had to content themselves with waiting six years. It’s been that long since the German quartet were ready to unleash more of the cottony, mellow glitch-pop that put them on the map. Their new album, The Devil, You + Me (Domino), is the result of just over half a decade of ships passing in the night, two years of recording, and one very concerted effort to get every last wisp of romantic longing down for posterity.

So, Guns N’ Roses aside, who the hell takes this long to make a record? I caught up with keyboardist Martin Gretschmann on the eve of the Notwist’s North American appearance in Toronto. Before I could politely ask if they were big fans of say, MMORPG gaming, Gretschmann explained that it’s enthusiasm for side projects that caused the big delay. Along with founding brothers Markus and Micha Acher, Gretschmann and new drummer Andi Haber are the most overextended musicians around, contributing to roughly five other bands, most notably 13 and God and Lali Puna.

"That’s why it took quite a few years for us to make a new record," he mused. "All the bands make records and do touring, and then it took around two years to record the new album, and before you wake up, it’s six years."

What inevitably brings these very busy gentlemen back together is the lure of the Notwist’s essence: a politely sputtering amalgam of samples, love songs, and bits of string section to tie it together. The band spent the last 20 years and six albums evolving from post-hardcore punk (their 1990 debut Notwist EP [Subway]) to indie trip-hop jazz (1998’s Shrink [Zero Hour]) to their current state of introspective electronic perfection.

Where 2002’s critically acclaimed Neon Golden (Domino) was a beautiful bouquet of freshly cut schizophrenia — a banjo leads off one song, barely there keyboards pepper another, lyrics have noticeable emotional range — The Devil, You + Me hovers like a question mark over the listener, asking "Why not?" in a steady stream of cloudy grey guitar chords and hiccups of static. Gretschmann explained: "Neon Golden is like a collection of songs. This one is rather stream of consciousness — more homogenic in a way."

Those semiconscious recurring themes of isolation and introspection are never more present than in their video for "Boneless," a downtrodden skateboarder’s reverie shot in Valparaiso, Chile. Gretschmann reveals their inspiration for the clip was none other than infamous cult-hero Donnie Darko. "The lyrics deal with growing up in a little town and always feeling different," he said. "You just feel like an alien somehow."

"Boneless" displays typical Notwist ingenuity: a deceptively bouncy piano loop that succumbs to Markus Acher’s lonely, searching vocals. The song is light and airy, borne aloft by a trace of tambourines and pop chords, but the effect is one of unmistakable fragility, of thoughts almost too sad to think.

On their new song, "Gravity," there are lyrics like, "I see the planets spinning faster / or is my body too slow?" The last six years have brought great changes for Notwist. Gretschmann was clear in the appearance of deep-seated emotion, of "some really heavy moments and sad moments" that found their way onto The Devil, You + Me: "That’s definitely one reason why some people say it’s very dark." He tempered this by sharing the jubilant mood of the band, who haven’t toured this continent since 2004. "[Toronto] is the first concert." He sounded a bit awed by his words, then laughed. "We have to see what comes out!" *

THE NOTWIST

With Jel and Odd Nosdam

Mon/27, 8 p.m., $20

Bimbo’s 365 Club

1025 Columbus, SF

(415) 474-0365

www.bimbos365club.com

Surrealism’s island

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>a&eletters@sfbg.com

REVIEW Since his death in 1966, André Breton has received more than his fair share of knocks. I’ve heard both critics and poets call him "fascist," though if pressed, they can only cite Breton’s sometimes dogmatic leadership of the surrealist movement. Such loose talk is tiresome and ahistorical. A staunch Communist, Breton was nonetheless the first to denounce the totalitarian Stalin when the rest of the French Left turned a blind eye. He never went for Mao like the Tel Quel crowd. As leader of a left-wing movement opposed to Hitler, he was on the Nazis’ Parisian to-do list, and he only narrowly avoided arrest by Vichy authorities in Marseille, escaping to America aided by the efforts of Varian Fry (a sort of Schindler for lefty artists). Breton’s even occasionally criticized for fleeing the Nazis — as if it contradicted his principles — though his accusers tend to lead safe, academic lives. As we see in Martinique: Snake Charmer (University of Texas Press, 96 pages, $19.95), a chronicle of Breton’s stopover between Marseille and NYC, exile’s no picnic.

Breton had his flaws, of course, notably sexism and homophobia, yet even these were complicated, given the number of women and gays within the surrealist group. Most of his positions were politically progressive, particularly his anti-colonialism and anti-racism. Where much of the modernist avant-garde (Pound, Eliot, Marinetti, etc.) was avowedly racist, surrealism was the only movement that welcomed black artists as colleagues and innovators. In Martinique, in reference to the poet Aimé Césaire (who died only a few months ago, at 94), Breton writes: "It is a black man who handles the French language as no white man today is capable of handling it

. . . who is the one guiding us today into the unexplored." (Similarly, Breton would declare the Haitian Magloire Saint-Aude the most important surrealist poet of the post-war period.) Where more sympathetic artists like the Cubists exoticized Africans, Breton identifies with Césaire, "unable to distinguish his will from my own." This might seem naïve in today’s political climate, yet the testimonials by the Martinican and Haitian writers who met Breton in the ’40s — translated in Michael Richardson’s 1996 book Refusal of the Shadow — suggest the feeling was mutual. Maybe it’s not so naïve, for surrealism stretches the limits of the possible.

Like many surrealist books, Martinique is a hybrid work, alternating between "lyrical language" and "the language of simple information," reflecting "intolerable malaise on the one hand and radiance on the other." That Breton could still pursue the poetic marvelous under such trying conditions — on arrival, he’s thrown into a concentration by the pro-Vichy regime and, once freed, is constantly shadowed by police — is extraordinary. He was fascinated by Martinique’s natural beauty, celebrating, for example, the effect of rainfall on the island in surrealist terms: "If the light is the least bit veiled, all the sky’s water pierces its canopy, from a rigging of vertigo, water continually shakes itself, tuning its tall green-copper organ pipes." Not even the uncertainty of his fate could stop Breton’s imagination.

This edition of Martinique — the first in English — is not without drawbacks, the most egregious being the poor reproductions of André Masson’s drawings, seemingly scanned from the French edition. But the translation is admirable. In a society which falsely imagines itself "post-racial," Martinique is essential reading. *

Deeper and deeper

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Everybody has an unlucky-star arena in which they’ve serially flunked out. Madonna, long successful in so many media, has cinema. Can our hyper-ballsy Material Girl be intimidated by "real" acting, as opposed to music video personae she’s done fine by? Maybe. But that doesn’t explain why, after 30 years’ experience behind cameras, she’s made a directorial debut as poorly crafted as Filth and Wisdom, which looks cheap and ugly despite all gratuitous visual gimmicks.

That’s not even the real problem. Since she got religion, Madonna (like myriad post-hedonist celebrities) thinks she has profound wisdom to share. That renders this wannabe quirky ensemble seriocomedy not just unfunny, but annoying. Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz constantly lectures the camera with vapidities like "There’s duality in everything." Good. Evil. They co-exist! If that’s all Kabbalah offers, bring on the Zoroastrianism. It’s hard not to view Filth and Wisdom as a prism magnifying its auteur’s world view, which doesn’t flatter. Characters we’re meant to like — Hutz’s emigre rocker, ballerina-cum-stripper (Holly Weston), and drug-thieving pharmacist (Vicky McClure) — are snide and resentful. Their sexuality exists to generate $$. Everyone else is a fool or john. Then there’s Richard E. Grant’s blind poet, pathos apexing when he fondles and smells books he can no longer read. Smells. Seeking to amuse and enlighten, Filth feels joyless and pretentious, yet empty. There will be worse 2008 movies. Probably none will make their makers seem quite so smugly unpleasant.

Filth and Wisdom opens Fri/24 in Bay Area theaters.

Full disclosure

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> a&eletters@sfbg.com

"If you wouldn’t tell Stalin, don’t tell anyone." This billboard message casts us back to the New Mexico desert, where a mushroom cloud’s worth of paranoia ushered in the modern era of government secrecy. Harvard professors Peter Galison and Robb Moss base their guide to this dark world on interviews with former "secureaucrats" and watchdog lawyers, journalists and scholars. But even without a voice-over, Secrecy‘s editorial threads are clear. There is the B-roll of the pilot carrying that test atomic bomb, for example, fading to black for a muffled explosion before fading back in to a Google Earth image of Manhattan, stained with the debris of the 9/11 attacks. One clandestine mission gives way to another, and a new veil of secrecy spreads with the smoke.

Even as Secrecy‘s former operatives acknowledge the massive intelligence failures leading to 9/11, they’re ready to make the case for the increased need for government subterfuge in the War on Terror: what secrecy begets, only secrecy will solve, and every time the gloves come off, the blinders will go on. Against this tide of Cold War nostalgists, the doubters hardly need sound conspiratorial with 60 years of government abuses at their fingertips. Indeed, the legal precedent for the State Secrets Privilege itself hinges on a bogus case involving a mysterious B-29 accident — 50 years later, it was finally proven that the executive branch went to the Supreme Court not to protect military secrets, but to facilitate a cover-up of Air Force negligence.

Washington Post writer Barton Gellman rightly wonders whether anyone exclusively dedicated to maintaining secrecy is in a good position to judge what they’re defending. The Bush administration, of course, sacrificed this benefit of the doubt years ago. The State Secrets Privilege cannot be invoked as a cover for criminality, but with an executive branch that reserves the right to define the terms of criminality and confidentiality away from the prying eyes of Congress and the judiciary, there’s not much of a chance for checks, let alone balances. As Navy officer and Guantánamo lawyer Charles Swift puts it, "If I can execute you and don’t have to tell anyone why, what’s left?"

The NSA/CIA reps’ telescopic counterargument — that leaks disrupt the gathering of intelligence — hardly justifies these Constitutional affronts, but Galison and Moss still give the press too much of a free ride in Secrecy. Shit slides both ways in this Foucaultian tug of knowledge and power. Those Ari Fleischer press conference replays are only the tip of the iceberg of a culture of credulity and outright fabrication.

There are deeper problems still with Secrecy, starting with the lack of interviews with Pynchonian Web crawlers at the vanguard of the information liberation movement. The filmmakers refer to the paradoxical expansion of access and restriction with a few snippets of local maverick artist-muckraker Trevor Paglen’s work and a Google Earth shot of Guantánamo Bay, blacked out just like the sensitive documents of old, but one wants more on the subject. Perhaps more to the point, Moss and Galison do not always come up with satisfying solutions to the problem of how to visually represent a subject that is, by definition, obscure. The filler animations, X-Files-style soundtrack and surrealist cutaways to flurries of redacted documents in Secrecy are cold leftovers of the Errol Morris school of documentary.

If I’m being hard on Moss and Galison, it’s only because so much of the raw interview material is compelling on its own. The information-crusaders, in particular, are natural documentary heroes. Their quest for transparency dovetails perfectly with the moral imperative and epistemological pleasure of the best documentaries. See Secrecy for them — make it a double-feature with Burn After Reading, and you’ve got a swell kiss-off to the worst intelligence money can buy. *

SECRECY

Oct 24–30, check Web site for times, $11

Opera Plaza, Van Ness at Golden Gate, SF

www.sffs.org

Nostalgia

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› le_chicken_farmer@yahoo.com

CHEAP EATS Now that I am once again all chipper and cheerful and shit, albeit without wheels or money or, you know, prospects, I reckon I can return to writing about food. Anyway, I’m going to try.

My happiness is speculative. I figure, in a world with Alice Shaw and her biscuits in it, all things are not only possible, but likely. Right now, for example, I am lying outside in my tiny patch of woodsy sunshine, dreaming about becoming Canadian, if for no other reason because their Thanksgiving comes earlier than ours, and who wouldn’t want that?

What I love about sunbathing in the woods in October is that you don’t need to wear sunscreen. Or anything.

What I love about Canada …

What I love about fall is sitting in a pile of dead leaves on a sidewalk in Berkeley with Clara de la Cooter, wiggling our legs.

A couple weeks ago, when I was still engaging in defeatist activities such as dating, I was asked, over coffee, what my favorite restaurant was. I don’t believe the asker even knew I was a chicken farmer, let alone the chicken farmer, and that, therefore, my favorite restaurant was wherever I happened to be eating.

So it surprised me more than him when, instead of saying "all of them!" I waxed nostalgic over a particular one, Gravy’s, which has been boarded up for at least five years. If anything I should have said Penny’s Caribbean Café, which has been boarded up for less than one, and which I drive by once a week in the wild hope that she will have resurrected out of the flour and chickpea dust in her cluttered back-room kitchen on Sacramento Street.

Nostalgia happens. Fall’s a good time for it. It’s not a good or a bad thing. It’s nostalgia. It means that at one point in time, at least, you enjoyed life, and that your memory function is functioning. Unfortunately, it also implies that right now things aren’t so bacon for you. For example, you have no idea, say, where to get a good curry goat roti.

There’s a very plastic dollar-fitty-a-thing Chinese joint where Ann’s Café was. I went in there a couple months ago, and got it to go. What was Ann’s Café, in its entirety, is now just the kitchen. The grease on the walls back there looked familiar. I’ve been meaning to write about it.

Maybe next week.

Anything can happen. I have a recurring dream about Ann’s reopening in a food court kind of setting, a small, square, open-air restaurant with Her, Fran, in the middle, holding court and slinging omelets. It’s the same feeling as the one I have when I dream about my closest comrade ever, who died 20 years ago: that this is just wonderful, and not at all, not-even-the-slightest-bit real, like heaven.

While I dream of food courts, by way of conceptualizing a nonexistent afterlife, or bullshit reincarnation, some people get to have children!

Take my other old favorite restaurant, Yamo Thai Kitchen, or Mean-Lady Thai as its ardent fans affectionately called it. Of course, Yamo still stands, in name, reincarnated as Yamo, a Burmese joint.

What you may not know is that Yamo’s son and daughter-in-law (who used to cook at Yamo, near the end) have opened a Thai restaurant in the Excelsior District, hooray! My last first-date ever, the guy who asked me what my favorite restaurant was, launching this nostalgic fit … he not only knew this but had eaten there, turns out. I excused myself.

Outside I called Earl Butter on my cell phone and said, "Let’s go."

We went. My new favorite restaurant is Zabb. Familiarly great Thai food for familiarly cheap prices. Diehard fans of Yamo might miss the tight quarters and sweet tension of watching your meal happen from a front-row counter seat, but I liked Zabb’s atmosphere too. Spacious, unpretentious, and very friendly. They definitely put more effort into presentation. The spring rolls were, if anything, better than Mom’s. The choo-chee curry was fantastic. And they also serve my old Yamo favorites, red curry duck, and chef noodles. All this … this is good news, for me. *

ZABB

Wed.–Mon., 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m.

4440 Mission, SF

(415) 586-2455

Beer & wine

Cougar Den

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› andrea@altsexcolumn.com

Dear Andrea,

I appreciated your response to Older and Wiser ["Sunrise, Sunset," 9/24/08], the late-20s woman who is planning marriage and kids with her late-50s boyfriend.

Fourteen years ago, when I was 26, I met my husband, who was then 58. We’ve stayed together through thick and thin, and we love each other enormously. It has pained me over the past decade to realize that, even when the woman in question has her own accomplishments and is not a "bimbo", and even when the man in question is appealing and interesting (neither a Donald Trump nor a philandering cad), still the nasty stereotypes abound. British comedian Graham Norton, for instance, refers to Catherine Zeta-Jones (39, married to Michael Douglas, 64) as "that gold-digging Welsh whore."

I find that otherwise thoughtful women I meet, acting on a mixture of feminism, anger, and what I infer to be unacknowledged personal pain or fear, seem too willing to continue such stereotypes, and I hesitate to open up to women I would otherwise think of as potential friends. I have hoped that as increasingly empowered women realize that they can date younger men if they choose, the rage over the double-standard and the fear of abandonment and dwindling romantic options will begin to fade.

Then SNL comes along with, among other bits that belittle older women, their despicable new "Cougar Den" skit, mocking sexually-active older women as ridiculous and disgusting. Fuck you, SNL!

These mean-spirited portrayals are destructive. I’ve attempted to convey this message through other venues and have been ignored. I remember a few years ago, you wrote that the only regrettable mixed union between adults is "the always unfortunate nice person/asshole combo" — so maybe you’ll see my point and print this.

Love,
Love My Older Spouse

Dear Love:
Ha, that’s a pretty good line. Thanks for remembering it.

I hadn’t even thought about SNL in years until the recent gratifying return of Tina Fey, but now that you mention it (you didn’t), I have conceived a visceral loathing for Sarah Palin so intense that I couldn’t even watch the debate for fear of feeling too sick to cook dinner. Yet I’ve still managed to be offended, feministically-speaking, by some of the endless harping on her supposed babe-itude. Can we not leave her legs (slender and therefore officially babe-ly) and Sen. Clinton’s, which have been judged unacceptably stumpy, and everyone else’s out of the equation, and judge the candidates on their merits? Gov. Palin, for instance, doesn’t have any. We win!

As for "cougars," I have puzzled over the sudden emergence of the stereotype and the unquestioned assumption that the women it is applied to deserve ridicule. After a spate of popular-media articles in the 1990s about older women and their younger men, I suppose some degree of backlash was inevitable. Still, I, like you, am nonplussed by the degree of venom spit at any woman of a certain age who not only dares to date above her age-determined station, but to do anything for fun at all beyond book club, knitting, and golf.

Don’t you think, though, that the reaction of some older women to a young one seen with a man old enough to be the first woman’s first husband is understandable? We can claim the right to date younger men all we like, but who’s to say that most younger men will be interested? And there are still legions of old coots advertising for "fit, slender" young things in the personals. There is still a media-driven double standard keeping George Clooney in the "sexy lead" seat while Glenn Close and Cybill Shepherd have to play doughty moms and, yes, cougars. Even the accolades heaped on the glorious Helen Mirren in recent years have a faint aspect of the freak show about them: "Step up and see the 60-something woman who is still sexually attractive!" These forces are still powerful enough to make your fond wish for a time when older women will inevitably gaze upon your union with one of their own with bland approval still a bit of a pipe dream. As long as older women with a sex drive, and indeed any juice at all left in them, are laughed and pointed at, some will still look at a young woman who scoops up one of the few available men in their bracket as whatever the opposite of a cougar might be. Minx. Bitch. Gold-digging (Welsh) whore. Sad, and frustrating, but human.

Incidentally, I was curious about the origin of "cougar" in this context and found an article dating it to the founding in 1999 of Cougardate, an online dating site. A book, Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men, by Valerie Gibson, came along in 2001. As you can see, these were guides for women, so the term, even with its "rapacious animal" connotations, wasn’t even meant pejoratively. The nastiness accrued to it gradually, it seems, and inevitably. If it’s about women actually wanting sex, that’s gonna happen.

OK, now I’m mad too.

Love,
Andrea

Got a salacious subject you want Andrea to discuss? Ask her a question!

Freeze! You’re … just browsing

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>a&eletters@sfbg.com

While the bankers who took your money were grabbing even more of it last weekend, a different sort of highbrow crowd — those whose investment, whether financial or personal, rests mainly in art — weren’t quite sure what to do. At the Frieze Art Fair in London’s Regent’s Park, the theme was non-commitment. "It feels like the old days," gallerist Jack Hanley said on the second evening of the four-day international fair. "Instead of buying up everything in the first 15 minutes, everyone is taking their time." Hanley, whose eponymous gallery has branches in New York and San Francisco’s Mission District, represented the only Bay Area gallery at either Frieze or the Zoo Art Fair, an equally significant affair that took place nearby.

At Frieze, the shift from a seller’s to a buyer’s market wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Gallerists were obviously nervous about waiting to see if all of the expressed interest would translate into sales in the post-fair follow-up. But with the power shifting back to the consumer, there were a lot more intriguing discussions. The resulting atmosphere was suggestive of a free music festivalwhere expectations are actually higher than they would be otherwise, since everyone is out for a damn good time, rather than just looking to get their money’s worth.

I had set out to see how collectors and other fair visitors perceived the Bay Area contemporary art on view, but it turned out that Frieze, a sight in its own right, had a different idea regarding how it should be covered. With sales slow and the mood contemplative, visitors were seemingly uninterested in where a particular artist hailed from and more concerned with smaller spectacles: illusions, dazzling techniques, and pieces that changed before their eyes.

A spectacle, art theorists will tell you, is a social relationship mediated by images. In other words, spectacles become a part of you and demand a certain sense of critique. At Frieze, in the wake of the incessant camera clicks following celebs like Gwyneth Paltrow, George Michael, Kate Bosworth, and Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich (who apparently took to Nobuyoshi Araki’s latest photos of bound women), there was a noticeable return to direct experience. Numerous fair projects took advantage of this need for interaction, including Dan Graham’s dimension-shifting Rectangle Inside 3/4 Cylinder and Norma Jeane’s three glass cubes where smokers could experience isolation in the midst of the fair’s chaos (check out the online video at www.friezefoundation.org/commissions/detail/norma_jeane/). In the first two days of the fair, almost 400 smokers lit up in the booths.

Work by SF’s Colter Jacobsen and SFMOMA SECA Art Award prize-winners Tauba Auerbach and Leslie Shows, all represented by Hanley, drew a constant stream of visitors. Conversations with gallerists, art students, browsers, and collectors at Hanley’s booth revealed a fascination with technique, in particular Shows’ hypnotic use of collage to create unnerving landscapes. "There’s a whole universe in there," said one art student from London about Shows’ Cross-Bedded Texts (The Magnetic Dynamo). Two gallerists from Manchester paced back and forth in front of Shows’ Elise (White Bile), Rachel (Blood), Phoebe (Yellow Bile), engrossed in the triptych’s color combination. Shows had a black piece, too, but there was no room for it in Hanley’s crowded booth.

In focusing on living artists and global undertakings, the fair’s directors Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp (who also own Frieze magazine) deserve props for supporting a personal environment. At Hanley’s booth, Home Country by Londoner-turned-Berliner Simon Evans left visitors discussing their individual experiences of particular London neighborhoods. The piece, a black-and-white subway map with puns, personal statements, and anecdotes carefully placed at many of the tube stops, also left some visitors wondering "why he never went to certain places," which were left curiously blank.

Props also should go to whoever controls the weather, for Frieze was blessed with uncannily sunny days in a city known more for fog than for illumination. Following talks by Yoko Ono, Scottish writer/artist Alasdair Gray, music critic Simon Reynolds, and contemporary Renaissance man (most recently of Edible Estates fame) Fritz Haeg, the crowd was buzzing about what might come next — not necessarily about which lines would next be blurred between auction houses, dealers, curators and buyers, but about which flashy sculpture they would encounter in the garden. As happens every year at Frieze, the talks will be made available for free (at www.friezefoundation.org/talks/), so put away your checkbook, put on your earphones, and don’t forget to write.

Little Delhi

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› paulr@sfbg.com

Manhattan joke: a part of Murray Hill, along Lexington Avenue in the ’20s, is known as Curry Hill because of its profusion of Indian and Pakistani restaurants. Even if you hadn’t heard the joke, you would probably recognize the neighborhood’s scent: no cuisine I’m aware of has a stronger or clearer olfactory signature. (Backyard barbecuing might deserve an honorable mention.)

We have our own Curry Hill, but it’s on Nob Hill, which pretty well mutes the word play, if not the scent. A major curry locus can be found on Jones Street south of Geary Boulevard, where the perfumed air is reminiscent of a spice market. But there is another node not far away, although perhaps — to vitiate the pun utterly — not on Nob Hill at all. I speak of the corner of Mason and Eddy streets, just a few steps from Union Square, the theater district, and the glamorous Westfield San Francisco Centre, and even fewer steps from the Tenderloin. If you’ve ever wondered what economic stratification, third world-style, might look like in a big American city, a brief reconnoiter of this largely flat area would give you a pretty good idea.

As for the corner itself: the air is redolent of curry, and for some of us, that means seduction. On one side of the street stands Punjab, wonderfully fragrant but with no table service, while on the other we find Little Delhi, an Indian restaurant that’s as comfortable as a pair of well-worn shoes, with table service.

As someone who bears witness to a great many restaurants that seem to have entered the world fully-formed under the godlike guidance of some designer, I warm to a place whose interior isn’t designed so much as accreted. Little Delhi has a well-lived-in look; its creamy walls are hung with portraits, tapestries, a map, and a flat-panel screen showing sports. The crowd is equally ad hoc: we noticed several tables full of what appeared to be (non-English-speaking) tourists, several more of possible neighborhood dwellers, including students (CCSF and Academy of Art College have campuses nearby), and a generous smattering of people who could have been of south Asian descent. This last convergence suggests, to me, a degree of authenticity. If people who grow up eating a cuisine later turn up in a restaurant serving the cuisine, there’s a reasonable chance the restaurant is turning out creditable versions of the food.

And Little Delhi is doing that — at moderate prices. Most of the menu consists of dishes that cost less than $10, and portions are generous. There are plenty of familiar faces in the crowd, including a notably good saag paneer ($7.99) — spiced spinach with cubes of white cheese — whose mild seasoning let through more spinach flavor than is usual. We were vaguely reminded of the creamed spinach that is a fixture of many a holiday repast in our part of the world.

A preparation I hadn’t seen before was badami chicken ($9.99), boneless chunks of tandoori-roasted meat in a curry (and yogurt-thickened?) sauce laced with slivers of pistachio and cashew nuts. It was a near, and crunchy, relation to that lovable stalwart, chicken tikka masala, but what most impressed me was a smokiness in the meat that managed to be heard through the assertive saucing.

Quite similar was lamb tikka masala ($9.99), cubes of tandoori-roasted lamb in another sensuous sauce, this one a bit redder, sweeter, and more tomatoey than its badami cousin, due perhaps to the presence of ketchup. (Ketchup — English ketchup in particular — plays a central role in the evolution of tikka masala.) Lamb’s gaminess stands up to strong saucing, though I caught no hint of smoke here as I had with the chicken.

As is typical at south Asian restaurants, the list of meatless possibilities is extensive, and this is good news for vegetarians, even us flexos. We were particularly impressed with chana masala ($6.99), a classic dish of chickpeas, enlivened here with slices of tomato and whole cardamom pods. These softened some from being braised and, when chewed on, gave off their refreshing woody flavor, with its hints of cinnamon and ginger. Cardamom is rich in a substance called cineole, a natural antiseptic that can fight bad breath. FYI.

From the oven: perfectly good naan ($1.50), cut into triangles for ease of use in sopping up all those irresistible sauces. For whole wheat aficionados, there’s roti (also $1.50) — virtually the same thing, except made from whole grain. Also useful for sauce-soppers is rice pillau ($2), a sizable dish of basmati rice. "Pillau" looks suspiciously like "pilaf," which would mean rice cooked in some kind of stock. This rice appeared to have been cooked in plain water, which didn’t do much for its color — it looked like a gritty heap of corn snow — but did show its wonderful nutty flavor to clearest effect.

Basmati is so tasty, in fact, that demand for it has been surging in India and throughout the Middle East. According to a story published in July in The Wall Street Journal, its price has risen between 100 and 200 percent in the past two years. So let’s count ourselves lucky to be able to enjoy this modest luxury for so little — a treat that won’t break the bank, not that there are all that many banks left to be broken. May the Fed be with you. *

LITTLE DELHI

Daily, 11:30 a.m.–11 p.m.

83 Eddy, SF

(415) 398-3173

Beer and wine

AE/DC/DS/MC/V

Moderately noisy

Wheelchair accessible

Editor’s Notes

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› tredmond@sfbg.com

Our 42nd anniversary issue is all about creating a sustainable San Francisco. So, in many ways, is the Nov. 4 ballot.

Think about it. If you were going to design a blueprint for a sustainable city, it would have to include a clean-energy policy. That’s Proposition H. It would include provisions to make sure that a diverse population could afford to live here. That’s Proposition B. It would shift some of the tax burden off the smallest businesses and make sure the rich pay their fair share (that’s Props. N and Q). A sustainable city would need progressive leaders who understand that land-use planning can’t be run by developers. Electing Eric Mar in District 1, John Avalos in District 11, David Chiu in District 3 would keep the Board of Supervisors in progressive hands.

And of course, you’d want a mayor who makes sustainability a hallmark of his administration. So why is Gavin Newsom against every single ballot item that would take the city in a more environmentally sound direction?

He’s against Prop. B because he says he doesn’t want to tie his hands when it comes to future budgets. But this is a mayor who has refused to spend the affordable housing money the supervisors have allocated, and who insists that plans to add more than 50,000 new housing units, 85 percent of which will be affordable only to the top five percent of San Franciscans, is a sign of progress. He isn’t promoting a sustainable city; he’s promoting a city for millionaires.

Newsom’s against Prop. H because … wait, why is he against it? He’s never really explained himself — except through his proxy, Eric Jaye, who also happens to be running the $5 million Pacific Gas and Electric Co. campaign against H. Newsom doesn’t want a sustainable city; he wants a private-power-monopoly city.

He’s against the progressive supervisorial candidates and the progressive tax measures because, I think, he wants to keep the current power structure, controlled by downtown and landlord money, safely in place. That’s not a move toward a sustainable city; that’s leaving in charge the very same people who got us into environmental trouble in the first place. *

Anniversary Issue: The money at home

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"You need to shrink the distance between the people who visit the private economy and the people who run it."

David Morris. Institute for Local Self-Reliance


› tredmond@sfbg.com

Back in the early 1980s, when the word "sustainable" was barely a blip in the environmental vocabulary, the mayor of Saint Paul, Minn. brought in a consultant named David Morris to help him figure out how to revive the city’s economy.

Saint Paul was facing the same challenges as many other northern cities — old industry was dying, the downtown was decaying, and population was declining as more affluent residents moved to the suburbs. Mayor George Latimer didn’t want to do what some of the other cities were doing and beg companies to move into town: he wanted to see what could be done with the resources the city already had.

Morris, who now runs the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, started by contacting the US Patent Office and getting a list of everyone in Saint Paul with a recent patent. He eliminated corporations and universities and wound up with a list of a few hundred people — inventors, thinkers, folks who had come up with something new. About two dozen had created gizmos or technologies that solved a real problem. Most of the stuff was sitting in basements and in old notebooks.

"Latimer called them all together," Morris recalled, "and he said, ‘We believe in you, and we’re going to help you start a business and market your invention.’" The mayor helped the would-be entrepreneurs find the capital and support they could never have gotten by themselves from a private sector not terribly interested in small business start-up loans. He encouraged them to open companies and market their products. The results were remarkable — lots of new locally-owned companies, creation of good jobs, and the beginning of a revitalization plan that made Latimer a national figure.

That principle — look locally and use the resources you have — remains the heart of a sustainable local economy.

"A sustainable place can feed, power, and house its citizens with local resources," explained Michelle Long, executive director of Bellingham, Wash.-based Sustainable Connections. "You need to generate new innovations with local innovators."

The late urban thinker Jane Jacobs made that notion a centerpiece of her life’s work. Starting with The Economy of Cities in 1969 and later in Cities and the Wealth of Nations in 1964, Jacobs argued that urban economies are like ecosystems — they are healthiest when they are diverse, with many different niches, and they thrive when energy cycles through the system. The cities throughout history that have done best have been those that figured out how to replace imports with locally produced goods and services.

It’s not that complicated, really. A sustainable local economy, like a sustainable ecosystem, needs lots of players, needs the energy of the system — money — to stick around through numerous economic cycles, and needs to use local resources to grow.

An economy that doesn’t depend too heavily on any one sector will not only do better in good times but will be much hardier. As farmers know, a monocrop system not only needs far more sustenance (fertilizers, irrigation, etc.) but is far more vulnerable to catastrophic failure. Diverse local economies, with thousands of small businesses offering a wide range of goods and services, can survive bad times better than communities that depend on just a few big industries.

As the Guardian has shown through a series of studies we did years ago ("The end of the high-rise jobs myth," 10/23/85) — and which research done since then has proved — small, locally-owned businesses create the majority of new jobs in San Francisco. And money spent in small businesses circulates in the local economy; the proprietor of the local hardware store takes his or her revenue and spends it on shoes for the kids. The shoe store owner takes that money and buys groceries at the local market. Every dollar goes around several times; and each time, it adds economic benefit — what economists call the multiplier effect.

A dollar spent in a chain store leaves town within hours, wired to a central corporate headquarters where executives care nothing about San Francisco — save as a place to extract wealth from.

Jacobs was brilliant, but she had her libertarian leanings. She often argued that it was best for government to get out of the way and let economies grow organically. That may have made sense to someone who came of age fighting the old-fashioned redevelopment programs and top-down urban planning of the 1960s and ’70s. But the modern urban economy not only needs help from policymakers, but clear direction — particularly in unsettled times like these. As William Greider wrote in The Nation Oct. 20, "only government has the leverage to get the money moving again."

In fact, modern progressive economic thinkers say that the public sector has a huge, perhaps defining role to play in building a sustainable local economy.

"The city needs to emphasize the public over the private," Morris told me. A sustainable economy, he said, is "a society where the public commons grows and the private shrinks." Taking public programs and services and turning them over to private business — which is all the rage in the Mayor’s Office these days — is about the worst thing a community can do.

So what could City Hall do to create a more sustainable local economy? Start, Morris says, by reducing the need for money. "The things that are most valuable in a sustainable economy are those that are free," he said. That means keeping libraries open, making more public space accessible, offering free public events — and encouraging people to reuse even the basics. "There’s no need for most people to buy new clothes, especially for kids. Sustainability starts with people substituting free things for costly things."

That could mean, for example, city-run clothing exchanges (and toy exchanges and places where used construction materials could be traded). It also means leadership by example: Mayor Gavin Newsom isn’t as big on conspicuous consumption as his predecessor, Willie Brown, who bought new imported Italian suits by the rack. But he’s hardly been known for promoting a low-consumption lifestyle. "The mayor could announce, for example, that he is going to reduce his consumption of imported goods by 75 percent in the next year," Morris suggested, "and show everyone how he’s going to do it."

Then there’s distance — both physical and psychological. Obviously, reducing commutes and the need for long-distance shopping trips is a factor, but it’s not enough. "You need to shrink the distance between the people who visit the private economy and the people who run it," he said. The owners of businesses need to live in the community. They need to interact with their customers and neighbors, to see the local schools where their tax dollars go.

In Bellingham, Long’s group worked with local government on a large-scale marketing campaign with the slogan "think local, buy local, be local." Their effort involved an advertising campaign, a coupon book, and even a mascot. "We have a bee who goes around to events; it’s the Be-local Bee," she said. It’s more than just shopping; it’s about thinking about your community first.

The impact: more than 60 percent of Bellingham residents in a recent poll reported that they now think about finding local sources for their goods and services.


One key to all this, Doug Hammond, executive director of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, told us, is access to community capital. "If that’s not available, you never get out of the gate," he said.

BALLE, a seven-year old organization with headquarters in San Francisco, works with 20,000 members to promote small, locally-owned businesses and initiatives to sustain healthy economies — and healthy communities.

Community capital means "financing to support innovation," Long said, "from people who are willing to look at what we call living returns — something that works for the lender and for the borrower."

There are, Hammond notes, "almost no resources for locally-owned, independent businesses. It’s a disproportionately-tilted playing field."

Hammond, who took over as BALLE’s director this month, was startled to learn that San Francisco puts all its money — its payroll accounts, tax accounts, and so forth — in North Carolina-based Bank of America. That’s not a local bank. It’s not an institution that supports local businesses, and the money it makes doesn’t circulate in San Francisco.

Cities that want sustainable economies, he said, need "locally-owned common-good banks" that will invest in small loans to local businesses — and be willing to accept fair, but not excessive, returns. "If the city was willing to put some of its working money into that kind of a business, it would be a huge start," he told us. "That kind of thing is the low-hanging fruit."

The mayor has spent a lot of money on staff and programs that promote his image as environmentally conscious. But what he really needs, Hammond said, is a "local-first czar," someone at City Hall who has the mandate — and the authority — to promote a sustainable economy.

"There has to be a baseline for local procurement," he said. "How much of the city’s resources go back into the local community? What are the ways to make those resources community controlled again?"

San Francisco is a peninsula, but it isn’t an island. The city can’t operate entirely independent of the rest of the world. But at a time when global capital is in crisis, and fossil fuel use is threatening ecological catastrophe, and few people in Washington or Sacramento are offering true progressive solutions, San Francisco should be leading the way toward a model for a locally sustainable economy.

It’s not impossible. It’s not even that hard. It just takes political will.
*

Anniversary Issue: Culture isn’t convenient

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› molly@sfbg.com

San Francisco is the playpen of countercultures.

— R.Z. Sheppard, Time (1986)

I live near Church and Market streets, which means I’m stumbling distance from an organic grocery store, my favorite bar, several Muni stops, and a 24-hour diner. It also means the street outside my apartment is usually loud, the gutters are disgusting, there are rarely parking spots, and transients sleep, smoke, panhandle, and play really bad music near my front doorstep.

Actually, until recently, they did a lot of this on my front doorstep. Then the landlords — without asking us first — installed a gate. And I hate it. Yes, my stairs are cleaner. I suppose my stuff is safer. But I’m no longer as connected to my community. I’m separated from the life that’s happening on the street — the very reason I moved to this neighborhood in the first place. I fear I’ve lost more than I’ve gained.

Lately our city’s approach to entertainment and nightlife has been like that fence. While protecting people from noise, mess, and potential safety concerns, we’re threatening the very things we love about this city. Thanks to dwindling city budgets and increasingly vocal NIMBYs, it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to manage nightclubs, plan street fairs, and organize outdoor festivals. And as we continue to build million-dollar condos at a brisk place, the city is filling up with affluent residents who may not appreciate the inherent messiness of city living. We’re at risk of locking away (and therefore losing) the events that make this a vibrant place where we want to live.

The recent history of this issue can be traced to the 1990s, when dot-com gold brought live/work lofts to otherwise non-residential neighborhoods — and plenty of new residents to live in them. Those newcomers, perhaps used to the peace and quiet of the suburbs, or maybe expecting more comfort in exchange for their exorbitant monthly rent checks, didn’t want to hear the End Up’s late-night set or deal with riffraff from Folsom Street Fair peeing in their driveways. Conflicts escalated. The Police Department station in SoMa, responsible for issuing venue permits and for enforcing their conditions, embarked on a plan to shut down half the area’s nightclubs. Luckily, city government and citizens agreed to save the threatened venues and the police captain responsible for the proposal was transferred to the airport, the San Francisco equivalent of political exile. In 2003, the Entertainment Commission was formed, in part to take over the role of granting venue and event permits.

But as Guardian readers know, the problem was not solved. As we’ve covered in several stories ["The death of fun" (05/23/06), "Death of fun, the sequel," (04/25/07), "Fighting for the right to party" (07/02/08)], beloved events and venues are still at risk. How Weird Street Fair was forced to change locations. Halloween in the Castro District was cancelled altogether. Alcohol was banned at the Haight Ashbury Street Fair and restricted at the North Beach Jazz Festival. Fees are still increasing. Rules are getting more stringent. As we predicted, it’s getting harder and harder to have fun in San Francisco. And while it’s the job of the Entertainment Commission to prevent problems while protecting our right to party, it has never been given enough funding, staff or authority to properly do its job.

So why should we care? Our legendary nightlife, festivals, and parades bring international tourists to our city — where they stay in hotels, eat at restaurants, shop at stores, and otherwise pump money into our economy. Street fairs give us ways to connect to our neighbors and our neighborhoods. Free events (which, if permit fees increase and alcohol sales are prohibited, will be a thing of the past) give equal access to fun and frivolity to people in all income brackets — and most raise money for charities and nonprofits. Particular venues and happenings provide an important way for those in the counterculture — whether that’s LGBT youth or progressive artists — to meet, mingle, and support each other. And none of that captures the intangible quality of living in a city where freedom, tolerance, and the pursuit of a good time are supported. And all this is one of the reasons many of us moved here, where we pay taxes (and parking tickets), open businesses, start organizations, and contribute to our already diverse and vibrant population.

But if we don’t establish a way to protect our culture, personally and legally, we may lose it. Instead, we need an overarching policy that establishes our values as well as the legal ways we can go about supporting them. The Music and Culture Charter Amendment, in the works for more than three years and currently sitting before the Board of Supervisors, aims to do exactly this.

The most important part of the amendment, created by a coalition of artists, musicians, event planners, club owners, and concerned citizens who call themselves Save SF Culture, would be to revise San Francisco’s General Plan to include an entertainment and nightlife element, just as the current plan contains an entire section devoted to the protection of (presumably mainstream) dance, theater, music, and art, calling them "central to the essence and character of the city." Not only would this amendment mandate that future lawmakers try to preserve events and venues, it would give a roadmap on how to do this effectively — most notably by creating a streamlined, transparent, online permitting process for special events.

Yet even if this important amendment passes and wins the mayor’s signature (which is hardly a sure thing), that’s just the beginning of a process of figuring out how to sustain San Francisco’s culture in the face of potentially threatening socioeconomic changes. At the very least, the next step will be giving the Entertainment Commission the full funding and staff (it currently operates with five of the eight staffers required). And once our beloved clubs and events are out of immediate danger, it will be time to form a coalition of citizens, government officials, and city planners to decide how and where culture in our city should grow, asking questions like whether or not we want a large-scale amphitheater or if we need to designate an area as an entertainment district. Most important, the city needs to develop a framework for resolving the inevitable conflicts with NIMBYs in a way that promotes a vibrant culture.

Yet there’s also a role in this process for each citizen of San Francisco. We need to remind ourselves and our neighbors that tolerance is one of our core civic values, tolerance for different races, classes, genders, sexual identities, and for the potentially noisy, messy, chaotic ways our culture supports those differences. If we erect a gate — physical or metaphorical — every time we’re uncomfortable or inconvenienced, we’ll turn San Francisco into the sanitized, homogenous, boring suburbs that I moved to Church and Market to escape. *

Anniversary Issue: Beyond the automobile

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› steve@sfbg.com

More:

Download the the transportation roundtable discussion (DivShare)

Transportation is the linchpin of sustainability. Fix the transportation system, and almost every other aspect of the city’s ecological health improves: public health, conservation of resources, climate change, economics, and maintaining our culture and sense of community.

The region’s unsustainable transportation system is the biggest cause of global warming (more than half the Bay Area’s greenhouse gas emissions come from vehicles) and one of the biggest recipients of taxpayer money. And right now, most of those public funds from the state and federal governments are going to expand and maintain freeway systems, a priority that exacerbates our problems and delays the inevitable day of reckoning.

It’s going to have to change — and we can do it the easy way or the hard way.

“We’ll get to a more sustainable transportation system. The question is, are we going to be smart enough to make quality of life for people high within that sustainable transportation system?” said Dave Snyder, who revived the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and founded Transportation for a Livable City (now known as Livable City) before becoming transportation policy director for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. “People will drive less, but will they have dignified alternatives? That’s the question.”

That notion — that transportation sustainability is inevitable, but that it’ll be painful if we don’t start now in a deliberate way — was shared by all 10 transportation experts recently interviewed by the Guardian. And most agreed that needed reform involves shifting resources away from the automobile infrastructure, which is already crowding out more sustainable options and will gobble up an even bigger piece of the pie in the future if we continue to expand it.

“Yeah, it’ll be more sustainable, but will it be just? Will it be healthful? Will it be effective? Those are the questions,” said Tom Radulovich, director of Livable City and an elected member of the BART Board of Directors. “You can’t argue against geology. The planet is running out of oil. We’re going to have a more sustainable transportation system in the future. That’s a given. The question is, is it going to meet our other needs? Is it going to be what we need it to be?”

And the answer to all those questions is going to be no — as long as politicians choose to fund wasteful projects such as a fourth bore in the Caldecott Tunnel and transferring $4 billion from transit agencies to close California budget deficits accruing since 2000.

“Our leaders need to be putting our money where our collective mouth is and stop raiding these funds,” Carli Paine, transportation program director for Transportation and Land Use Coalition, told us. “I’m hopeful, but I think we all need to do more.”

 

TRANSIT AND BIKES

There is reason to be hopeful. With increased awareness of global warming and high gasoline prices, public transit ridership has increased significantly in the Bay Area. And one study indicates that the number of people bicycling in San Francisco has quadrupled in the last few years.

“Look at what’s happening on the streets of San Francisco: you have biking practically doubling every year without any new bike infrastructure. I think the demand is out there. The question is, when is the political leadership going to catch up to demand?” Jean Fraser, who sits on the SPUR and SFBC boards and until recently ran the San Francisco Health Plan under Mayor Gavin Newsom, told us.

But the political leadership and federal transportation spending priorities are behind the times. Of the $835 million in federal funds administered by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for the nine Bay Area counties in 2006-07, 51.4 percent went to maintain and expand state highways. Only 2.5 percent went for expansion of public transit, and 2.4 percent for bike and pedestrian projects. Overall, Paine said, about 80 percent of all state and federal transportation funding goes to facilities for automobiles, leaving all modes of transportation to fight for the rest.

“Historically we favor the automobile at the expense of all those other modes,” Radulovich said at a forum of experts assembled by the Guardian (a recording of the discussion is available at sfbg.com). “It’s been given primacy, and I think everyone around this table is saying, in one way or another, that we need a more balanced approach. We need a more sustainable, sensible, and just way of allocating space on our roads.”

Yet the Bay Area is now locking in those wasteful patterns of the past with plans for about $6 billion in highway expansions, which means the MTC will have to spend even more every year keeping those roads in shape. Highway maintenance is the biggest line item in the MTC budget, at $275 million.

“We can’t pay for what we have now — to maintain it, repair it, seismically retrofit it — so why we’re building more is kind of beyond me,” Radulovich said. “We continue to invest in the wrong things.”

The experts also question big-ticket transit items such as the Central Subway project, a 1.7-mile link from SoMa to Chinatown that will cost an estimated $1.4 billion to build and about $4 million per year to run.

“There are 300 small capital projects we need to see,” Snyder said. “That’s really the answer. The idea of a few big capital projects as the answer to our problems is our problem. What we really need are 100 new bike lanes. We need 500 new bus bulbs. We need 300 new buses. It’s not the big sexy project, but 300 small projects.”

The most cost-efficient, environmentally effective transportation projects, according to renowned urban design thinkers such as Jan Gehl from Denmark, are those that encourage walking or riding a bike.

“I think Jan Gehl put it best, which is to say a city that is sweet to pedestrians and sweet to bicyclists is going to be a sustainable city,” Fraser said. “So I think focusing on those two particular modes of transportation meets the other goals of the financial viability because they’re the cheapest ways to get people around — and the healthiest ways — which I submit is one of the other criteria for sustainable transportation…. And it helps with the social justice and social connections.”

 

IT’S GOOD FOR YOU

In fact, transportation sustainability has far-reaching implications for communities such as San Francisco.

“I think of sustainability in two ways,” Fraser said. “The first is sustainability for the environment. And since I have a background in health care, I think of a sustainable transportation system as one that’s actually healthy for us. In the past at least 50 years, we’ve actually engineered any kind of active transportation — walking to work or to school, biking to school — out of our cities.”

But it can be engineered back into the system with land use policies that encourage more density around transit corridors and economic policies that promote the creation of neighborhood-serving commercial development.

“If my day-to-day needs can be met by walking, I don’t put pressure on the transportation system,” Manish Champsee, a Mission District resident who heads the group Walk SF, told us.

The transportation system can either promote that sense of community or it can detract from it. Champsee said San Francisco needs more traffic-calming measures, citing the 32 pedestrian deaths in San Francisco last year. Almost a third as many people are killed in car accidents as die from homicides in San Francisco — but murder gets more resources and attention.

“There’s a real sense in the neighborhoods that the roadways and streetscapes are not part of the neighborhood, they’re not even what links one neighborhood to another. They’re sort of this other system that cuts through neighborhoods,” said Gillian Gillette of the group CC Puede, which promotes safety improvements on Cesar Chavez Street.

Radulovich notes that streets are social spaces and that decisions about how to use public spaces are critical to achieving sustainability.

“A sustainable transportation system is one that allows you to connect to other people,” he said. “Cities have always thrived on connections between humans, and I think some of the transportation choices we’ve made, with reliance on the automobile, have begun to sever a lot of human connections. So you’ve got to think about whether it’s socially sustainable. Also economically sustainable, or fiscally sustainable, because we just can’t pay for what we have.”

So then what do we do? The first step will take place next year when Congress is scheduled to reauthorize federal transportation spending and policies, presenting an opportunity that only comes once every four years. Transportation advocates from around the country are already gearing up for the fight.

“We’ve built out the freeways. They’re connecting the cities — they’re pretty much done. So what do we need to do to make streets more vibrant and have more space for people and not just automobiles?” asked Jeff Wood, program associate for the nonprofit group Reconnecting America and the Center for Transit-Oriented Development.

Then, once communities such as San Francisco have more money and more flexibility on how to spend it, they can get to work on the other sustainability needs. “The key component is having all the transportation systems fully linked,” Paine said. That means coordinating the Bay Area’s 26 transit agencies; expanding on the new TransLink system to make buying tickets cheaper and easier; funding missing links such as connecting Caltrain from its terminus at King and Fourth streets to the new Transbay Terminal; and timing transfers so passengers aren’t wasting time waiting for connections.

And the one big-ticket transportation project supported by all the experts we consulted is high-speed rail, which goes before voters Nov. 4 as Proposition 1A. Not only is the project essential for facilitating trips between San Francisco and Los Angeles, it takes riders to the very core of the cities without their having to use roadways.

Paine also notes that the bond measure provides $995 million for regional rail improvements, with much of that going to the Bay Area. And that’s just the beginning of the resources that could be made available simply by flipping our transportation priorities and recognizing that the system needs to better accommodate all modes of getting around.

At the roundtable, I asked the group how much a reduction in automobile traffic we need to see in San Francisco 20 years from now to become sustainable — with safe streets for cyclists and pedestrians, free-flowing public transit, and vibrant public spaces. Sarah Sherburn-Zimmer, an organizer with SEIU Local 1021 and the Transit Not Traffic Coalition, said “half.” Nobody disagreed.

That may sound outrageous by today’s standards, when cars use about 30 percent of our roadways to handle about 5 percent of the people-moving (a similar ratio to how Americans constitute 5 percent of the world’s population but use more than 25 percent of the world’s resources). A sustainable, just, efficient mix would drastically beef up the operating budgets of Muni, BART, and other transit agencies, and transfer all the capital set aside for new freeways into new transit lines that would better serve, for example, the Sunset and Excelsior districts.

Alternative transportation advocates insist that they aren’t anti-car, and they say the automobile will continue to play a role in San Francisco’s transportation system. But the idea of sustainability means beefing up all the other, more efficient transportation options, so it becomes faster, cheaper, and easier to walk, bike, take transit, or rideshare (probably in that order of importance, based on the resources they consume). As Fraser said of residents choosing to drive cars, “We should make it so it’s their last choice.” *

 

Anniversary Issue: Just Food Nation

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> news@sfbg.com

Two gardens, both erupting with a rich array of flowers, herbs, and veggies, offer a scrumptious glimpse into the promises and challenges of San Francisco’s food future.

One, a sparkling emerald Victory Garden, opened to much acclaim in front of City Hall this September to foreground America’s first Slow Food Nation gala. It’s an aromatic display of planter boxes boasting culinary items both mundane and exotic — a feast for the senses, if not the stomach.

Across town, far from the headlines and tourists, Alemany Farm sprouts loamy rows of greens and veggies, fruit trees, a heaping compost pile, a duck pond, a windmill, and more. Since members of this public housing community planted the farm’s first seeds in 1994, with help from the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, this urban agriculture venture has spawned harvests of fresh produce and some new sparks of hope for the area’s economically embattled residents.

These two boulevards of sustenance evoke an awakening of urban agriculture, and offer partial answers to an increasingly pressing question: in an era of global warming and fast-dwindling oil supplies, how will San Francisco sustain itself? Are city leaders and communities doing everything needed to make this happen?

The two gardens also put on display a key dilemma lurking just below the celebratory surface of food reform: who’s benefiting from the urban food renaissance, and who’s being left out of this virtuous banquet? How do we bring the good food limelight — and dollars — to the places and people that need it most?

PEAK OIL = PEAK FOOD


What does oil have to do with food? Everything. Our current food supply relies entirely on oil and cheap labor. As a nation we dump 500,000 tons of petroleum-based pesticides on our food crops each year, according to the EPA. Even the push for alternative fuels — namely ethanol — is steeped in the pesticide-intensive harvesting of corn. Then there’s the long polluting journey most of our food travels, more than 1,500 miles from the fields to your table — on diesel-guzzling semi-trucks, oil-greedy ocean tankers, and freight trains. All in all, it’s a toxic harvest whose days are numbered.

The stakes are high — very high. We are eating oil, and the clock is ticking. As journalist Erica Etelson wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle last year, "global oil demand is at 84 million barrels a day and rising, and there are at most a trillion barrels’ worth still in the ground, most of which is very difficult and expensive to recover. Do the math, and you’ll see that the end of oil is, at most, 30 years away." In response, the Board of Supervisors appointed a seven-member Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force in October 2007 that’s investigating ways to get San Francisco off oil — and food is a major ingredient in that mix.

According to the task force’s food issues member Jason Mark, roughly 500 acres of city and county land are "sitting idle and could be used for agricultural production." Meanwhile, hundreds of residents are lined up on community gardening waiting lists; if policymakers move the land and the people into production, and invested in urban agriculture education, the city "could begin to produce a significant percentage of its own fruits and vegetables," says Mark, who co-manages the Alemany Farm. "This would relieve some of the pressure from growers in rural counties, opening up more space for diversified agriculture and creating a more resilient food system."

RE-DEFINING ‘SUSTAINABLE’


As oil shortages and ecological collapse loom, other questions are bubbling up. What would it mean to make San Francisco — a city famous for its foodies and epicurean extravagances — "sustainable" in what its residents eat? How do we sustain ourselves in a way that sustains the region’s environment, food supply, and people’s health?

If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re hip to the idea of eating organic and local — perhaps you’re a "locavore" who studiously prioritizes a diet grown within a 100-mile radius of your home. Perhaps you’re a vegetarian who eschews animal flesh in the name of the environment, as well as health and ethics; or a conscientious "flexitarian" who only dines on sustainably farmed, humanely slaughtered meat. Perhaps you go the extra mile and buy a box of organics each week from a local farm. There’s no shortage of individual responses to the ecological nightmare of industrial food.

But what is the city’s collective response to unsustainable food? A new systemic approach is taking hold that goes beyond sustainable agriculture, to a bigger vision of sustaining people (farmers and consumers), communities, and economies, as well as the environment.

To Michael Dimock of Roots of Change, a leading California food reform movement, a core problem lies in the current system’s values — both cultural and economic. "We live in an environment where people want cheap food," often at the expense of sustainability, Dimock says. "We’re over-dependent on pesticides that have disrupted natural cycles," and that have "created an economic straightjacket for farmers … we’ve got to get away from these toxic chemicals without collapsing the system." Indeed, as oil prices have risen, pesticide and fertilizer costs have become a serious threat to farmers’ livelihood.

Labor costs chew up a major chunk of the food dollar — yet, farm workers toil for minimum wage in backbreaking conditions, and often live in ramshackle homes or canyons and ravines. Sixty percent of farm workers live below the poverty line. Meanwhile, meat factory workers suffer crippling injuries at alarming rates (roughly 20 percent a year) while laboring on brutal, dizzying-fast assembly-lines, typically for $8 per hour.

The solution lies beyond buying local and organic, and involves transforming food systems, locally and nationally (and globally) to meet an urgent array of needs: petroleum-free agriculture and food policies that build new infrastructures — markets, distribution channels, and a diversity of farms — centered on economic and ecological sustainability.

"It used to be about calories, now it’s about health — healthy people, healthy environment, and healthy communities," Dimock said. A blossoming "Buy fresh, buy local" label, an outgrowth of the Community Alliance with Family Farms, is building a network of local producers, distributors, and markets to simultaneously expand opportunities for smaller growers and access to fresh local foods for urban consumers.

But underlying tensions must be addressed: there are ongoing debates about what — beyond reducing pesticide use — makes farming "sustainable." Farms can be local and non-organic, or organic and non-local; or they may mass-produce a single organic crop for Wal-Mart or Safeway, depleting soils by monocropping, exploiting farm workers, and supporting corporate control over food.

SPROUTING CHANGE


Even in a city known for its conscientious consumption, industrially farmed and processed food remains a juggernaut. Fast food joints are plentiful, serving up fattening doses of unsustainably grown, heavily processed food. Most supermarket chains and smaller produce stores offer minimal organic fare at exorbitant prices, and often nothing remotely local.

More broadly, the city’s food infrastructure is a chaotic polyglot of stores and restaurants, with little design or planning to ensure health and economic diversity. In a market-driven economy, businesses simply rise up and succeed or fail — but food, like housing, education, and health, is a basic human necessity. As with most cities, there is no agency focused on making food sustainable in the broadest sense.

But sustainable foods policies are percoutf8g into the city bureaucracy — albeit sometimes piecemeal and slowly. In July 2005, city leaders made it official policy "to maximize the purchase of organic certified products in the process of procuring necessary goods for the city" — though adding, perhaps fatally, "when such products are available and of comparable cost to non-certified products." As it turns out, cost in particular (and supply to some degree) is a potential stumbling block to making this resolution a reality.

A Food Security Task Force, launched by the Board of Supervisors in 2005, is helping eligible families access and use food stamps, getting food to people in need while circuutf8g more dollars in the city. Getting food to hungry folks is an urgently needed service — but it doesn’t address the underlying poverty at hunger’s roots. Supplying charity food, while necessary on an emergency basis, does little to empower poor people to sustain themselves, and doesn’t ensure the food is healthful or sustainably grown.

Like most of urban America, San Francisco is a city of gastronomic extremes. Home to roughly 3,000 restaurants, triple-digit entrees, and a steady diet of haute cuisine celebrations, the city is an internationally renowned capital of fine food. For those with the money and time, Whole Foods Market and other venues offer bountiful aisles of organic produce, free-range meat, and at least some local fare.

But it’s not equal opportunity dining. For vast swaths of low-income and working class San Francisco, the options for good food are few and far between. Studies have found food "deserts" the size of entire zip codes, almost totally devoid of fresh produce — and other studies show this food gap causes serious nutritional deficits among the poor and people of color.

To put it bluntly, San Francisco suffers from food segregation. Apart from Alemany Farm’s oasis of green goodies, food-parched zones throughout the Tenderloin District, Bayview-Hunters Point, and other poorer quarters of town offer little more than liquor marts, convenience stores, and fast food chains with no fresh food or produce. It’s a surefire recipe for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other life-shortening ailments. As one food activist puts it, "homeless people are buying soda because it’s more calories for the money. Nobody wants hungry people — but it doesn’t get talked about."

BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER


How can all these needs — at once potentially conflicting and unifying — be met at a time when ecological collapse requires radical change, and economic distress makes those changes tougher yet more urgent? A common refrain from activists and policymakers echoes: there’s a lot more we could do, if we had the money.

Dana Woldow, co-chair of the school district’s student nutrition and physical activity committee, says school lunches, once made up of "revolting carnival food," have improved greatly — but they can’t buy more local organic foods because "everyone’s getting hammered on transportation costs. Our district takes a loss on every meal."

A new revenue source, such as a gross receipts tax on large firms, could enlarge the public pie — if there’s the political will to do it. But the lack of cash to create a fully sustainable area food system also reveals a less-than-full commitment by city leaders to turn promising policies into everyday realities.

"Every city should have a food czar," argues Dimock, to "take the contradictions out of city policies," and develop new policies — and leverage state and federal help — to increase food security.

Ultimately the city could use a model food bill — a local, progressive version of the Farm Bill — to bring energy and money and policy coherence to the great work being done on the ground. In such a bill, new laws taxing fast food or high-end dining could create revenue to ensure all city agencies — and its schools, hospitals, and jails — abide by local and organic-first purchasing policies.

Healthy food zone rules could ensure food-deprived poor neighborhoods get targeted grants to promote businesses that feature local foods. And policies could support new urban agriculture ventures using city land to grow food and train and employ residents in need — improving nutrition and the economy.

In the long term, Dimock says, we need to restore our "cultural understanding of how agriculture and food is where humans have our most intimate contact with the natural world." The struggle to recover this is "a symbol of our divorce from the natural world, of leaving the garden. We need a new mythology — we need to return to the garden." *

Christopher D. Cook is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis, and a former Guardian city editor. He is communications director and food policy advisor for District 9 Supervisor candidate Eric Quezada. His Web site is www.christopherdcook.com

Anniversary Issue: First, do no harm

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> sarah@sfbg.com

Mayor Gavin Newsom announced last week that San Francisco is "on pace" to build a historic number of homes in a five-year period.

"Despite the housing crisis facing the nation, San Francisco is bucking the trends and creating a record number of homes," Newsom said. "Once again, San Francisco is leading the way."

But where?

Newsom notes that his housing-development plans will triple what San Francisco produced in the ’90s, and double the past decade’s housing production. He claims that he has increased the city’s production of affordable housing for low- and very-low-income households to the highest levels ever.

But he doesn’t point out that most people who work in San Francisco won’t be able to afford the 54,000 housing units coming down the planning pipeline.

The truth is that, under Newsom’s current plans, San Francisco is on pace to expand its role as Silicon Valley’s bedroom community, further displace its lower- and middle-income workers, and thereby increase the city’s carbon footprint. All in the supposed name of combating global warming.

So, what can we do to create a truly sustainable land-use plan for San Francisco?

<\!s> Vote Yes on Prop. B

In an Oct. 16 San Francisco Chronicle article, Newsom tried to criticize the Board of Supervisors for not redirecting more money to affordable housing, and for placing an affordable housing set-aside on the ballot.

"There’s nothing stopping the Board of Supervisors from redirecting money for more affordable housing," Newsom claimed. "Why didn’t they redirect money to affordable housing this year if they care so much about it?"

Ah, but they did. Newsom refused to spend the $33 million that a veto-proof majority of the Board appropriated for affordable housing last year. Which is why eight supervisors placed Prop. B, an annual budget allocation for the next 15 years, on the Nov. 2008 ballot.

<\!s> Radically redirect sprawl

The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association’s executive director, Gabriel Metcalf, notes that existing Northern California cities —San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose — already have street, sewer, and transit grids, and mixed-use development in place.

"So we don’t have to allow one more inch of suburban sprawl. We could channel 100 percent of regional growth into cities. Instead, we hold workshops and ask ‘How much growth can we accommodate? The answer is none, because no one likes to change."

Metcalf said he believes people should be able to work where they want, provided that it’s reachable by public transit.

"What’s wrong with taking BART to Oakland and Berkeley, or Caltrain to San Jose?" Metcalf said.

<\!s> Don’t do dumbass growth

Housing activist and Prop. B supporter Calvin Welch rails at what he describes as "the perversion of smart growth in local planning circles."

The essence of smart growth is that you cut down the distance between where people work and live, Welch explains.

"But that makes the assumption that the price of the housing you build along transit corridors is affordable to the workforce that you want to get onto public transit," Welch adds. "If it’s not, it’s unlikely they’ll get out of their cars. Worse, if you produce housing that is only affordable to the community that works in Silicon Valley, you create a big problem in reverse, a regional transit shortage. Because you are building housing for folks who work in a place that is not connected to San Francisco by public transit."

Welch says the city also needs to invest more in transit infrastructure.

Pointing to Market-Octavia and the Eastern Neighborhoods, Welch notes that while the City Planning Department is calling for increased density there, Muni is proposing service cuts.

"This is beyond bizarre," Welch said. "It will result in dramatic increases in density in areas that are poorly served by transit. That’s the dumbest kind of growth."

Welch says sustainable land use has local employment opportunities at its heart.

Noting that 70 percent of residents worked in San Francisco 20 years ago, Welch says that only a little over 50 percent of local jobs are held by San Franciscans today.

"Most local jobs are held by people who live outside San Francisco, and most San Franciscans have to go elsewhere to find work. It’s environmentally catastrophic."

<\!s> Protect endangered communities

Earlier this year, members of a mayoral task force reported that San Francisco is losing its black population faster than any other large US city. That decline will continue, the task force warned, unless immediate steps are taken.

Ironically, the task force’s findings weren’t made public until after voters green-lighted Lennar’s plan to develop 10,000 (predominantly luxury) units in Bayview-Hunters Point, one of the last African American communities in town.

San Francisco Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Fred Blackwell has since recommended expanding his agency’s certificate of preference program to give people displaced by redevelopment access to all of the city’s affordable housing programs, an idea that the Board of Supervisors gave its initial nod to in early October. But that’s just a Band-Aid.

And community leader and Nation of Islam Minister Christopher Muhammad has suggested creating "endangered community zones" — places where residents are protected from displacement — in Bayview-Hunters Point and the Western Addition.

"It’s revolutionary, but doable," Muhammad said at the out-migration task force hearing.

<\!s> Don’t build car-oriented developments

BART director and Livable City executive Tom Radulovich predicts a silver lining in the current economic crisis: "The city will probably lose Lennar."

He’s talking about two million square feet of office space and 6,000 square feet of retail space that Lennar Corp., the financially troubled developer, is proposing in Southeast San Francisco.

"We should not be building an automobile-oriented office park in the Bayview," Radulovich said. "Well-meaning folks in the Planning Department are saying we need walkable cities, but Michael Cohen in the Mayor’s Office is planning an Orange County-style sprawl that will undo any good we do elsewhere. This is the Jekyll and Hyde of city planning."

<\!s> Buy housing

Ted Gullicksen at the San Francisco Tenants Union says that since land in San Francisco only increases in value, the city should buy up apartment buildings and turn them into co-ops and land-trust housing.

"The city should try to get as much housing off-market as possible, grab it now, while it’s coming up for sale, especially foreclosed properties," Gullicksen said. "That’s way quicker than trying to build, which takes years. And by retaining ownership, the city also retains control over what happens to the land."

<\!s> Work with nonprofit developers

Gullicksen said that the city should work with small nonprofits, and not big master developers, to create interesting, diverse neighborhoods.

Local architect David Baker says nonprofits are more likely to build affordable housing than private developers, even when the city mandates that a certain percentage of new housing must be sold below market rate.

"Thanks to the market crash, very little market rate housing is going to be built in the next five years, which means almost no inclusionary," Baker explains. "During a housing boom, you can jack up that percentage rate to 15 percent, or 20 percent, but then the boom crashes, and nothing gets built."

Gullicksen says the good news is that planners are beginning to think about how to create walkable, vibrant, and safe cities.

"They are thinking about pedestrian-oriented entrances and transparent storefronts, about hiding parking and leaving no blank walls on ground floors. Corner stores, which are prohibited in most neighborhoods, are a great amenity.

"San Francisco needs to figure out where it can put housing without destroying existing neighborhoods, or encroaching on lands appropriate for jobs."

<\!s> Design whole neighborhoods

Jim Meko, chair of the SoMa Leadership Council, was part of a community planning task force for the Western SoMa neighborhood. He told us that one of the most important things his group did was think about development and preservation in a holistic way.

"WSOMA’s idea is to plan a whole neighborhood, rather than simply re-zoning an area, which is how the Eastern Neighborhoods plan started," Meko said. "Re-zoning translates into figuring out how many units you can build and how many jobs you will lose. That’s a failed approach. It’s not smart growth. If you displace jobs, the economic vitality goes elsewhere, and people have to leave their neighborhood to find parks, recreational facilities and schools."

Meko noted that "housing has become an international investment. It’s why people from all around the world are snapping up condos along the eastern waterfront. But they are not building a neighborhood."

San Francisco, Meko said, "has the worst record of any US city when it comes to setting aside space for jobs in the service and light industrial sector. But those are exactly the kinds of jobs we need. The Financial District needs people to clean their buildings, and I need people to repair my printing press. But I don’t like having to pay them $165 an hour travel time."

<\!s> Practice low-impact development

Baker recommends that the city stop allowing air-conditioned offices.

"We’ve got great weather, we need to retrofit buildings with openable windows," he said. "We should stop analyzing the environmental impact of our buildings based on national tables. This stops us from making more pedestrian friendly streets. And people should have to pay a carbon fee to build a parking space."

A citywide green building ordinance goes into effect Nov. 3 and new storm water provisions follow in January, according to the SFPUC’s Rosey Jencks.

This greening impetus comes in response to San Francisco’s uniquely inconvenient truth: surrounded by rising seas on three sides, the city has a combined sewer system. That means that the more we green our city, the more we slow down the rate at which runoff mixes with sewage, the more we reduce the risk of floods and overflows, and the more we reduce the rate at which we’ll have to pump SoMa, as rising seas threaten to inundate our sewage system.

The SFPUC also appears committed to replacing ten seismically challenged and stinky digesters at its southeast plant.

<\!s> Strictly control the type of new housing

Marc Salomon, who served with Meko on the task force, told us he thinks the city needs to create a "boom-proof" development plan, "a Prop. M for housing." That’s a reference to the landmark 1986 measure that strictly limited new commercial office development and forced developers to compete for permits by offering amenities to the city.

The city’s General Plan currently mandates that roughly two-thirds of all new housing be affordable — but the city’s nowhere near that goal. And building a city where the vast majority of the population is rich is almost the definition of unsustainability.

"Too much construction is not sustainable at any one time, nor is too much uniform development," Salomon said. "If we see too many banks, coffee shops or dot-com offices coming in, we need hearings. We need to adopt tools now, so can stop and get things under control next time one of these waves hits. And since infrastructure and city services are in the economic hole, we need to make sure that new development pays for itself." *

Anniversary Issue: A city transformed

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When I first started writing about sustainable cities in the Guardian, I was 28, the paper was 20, urban environmentalism was still considered an oxymoron in much of the mainstream political world — and we didn’t have a name for what we were discussing.

In fact, the story I wrote on Oct. 15, 1986 was called "The city reconceived — a radical proposal" It was part of our 20th anniversary issue, but it wasn’t on the cover, and it wasn’t the lead feature. It was just something I had been thinking about a lot at the time, and since I was reporting a lot on everything that was wrong with city planning, it seemed to make sense to step back and talk about the way things ought to be.

It’s kind of strange to look back at that article today. So much has changed; so little has changed.

"It’s easy to argue that the problems are national, even international in scope, and that no progressive economic policy is possible without basic, fundamental changes in the US economic system," I wrote. "I’m sympathetic to that sort of argument, but somehow, it doesn’t satisfy me. A transformation of the nation’s economic orders is a long way off — and it may not be possible at all unless the seeds are sown at the local level."

I can see from the interviews I did back then the beginnings of what is now known internationally as the sustainable city movement. In 1986, there were a few scrawny nonprofits and a handful of academics; today there are think tanks, institutes, reports, studies, commissions. Mayors all over the world talk about sustainability; here in San Francisco, Gavin Newsom has a full-time $130,000-a-year staffer dedicated to developing environmentally sustainable policies.

And yet, when you look at what the word really means, and what a truly sustainable city would look like, you realize that, 22 years later, we’re still talking about a city reconceived. It’s still — in terms of what politicians like Newsom are putting on the table — a pretty radical proposal.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian prime minister, chaired a United Nations commission in 1983 that came up with what is probably the first official definition of sustainable development: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." An urban planning conference in Berlin in 2000 adopted a sustainability statement that talked about "the flow principle, that is based on an equilibrium of material and energy and also financial input/output."

The Vermont-based Institute for Sustainable Communities goes a bit further: "Sustainable communities have a strong sense of place … They are places that build on their assets and dare to be innovative." You can look on the Web and find a thousand more statements and definitions, some highly technical and some so hippy-dippy they’re painful to read.

But in the end, any real definition of a sustainable city starts with the second part of the phrase.

Cities are eternal. The world’s great metropolises have always outlived modest constructs like nations and empires. They are, as the late urbanist Jane Jacobs used to say, the building blocks of society.

But in the United States, and in much of the rest of the world, cities have become part of a globalized economic system that severs the use of products and services from their origin. Where did that burger you just ate come from? How about the lettuce at the supermarket? The clothes you wear to work? The electricity you use when you turn on your computer? Who controls the flow of money into and out of your community? Who controls the place you live, the money that comes out of the nearest ATM? What about your job — where does your paycheck come from, and where does it go?

How do those factors affect how you live — and how well you live — in San Francisco?

The thing is, you probably don’t know. And what you don’t know is hurting you.

Because a truly sustainable city isn’t just an environmental notion, and a sustainable urban policy isn’t just about planting gardens in front of City Hall. It’s about defining — and changing — the way we think about the economy, politics, business, and the local power structure.

That’s been part of the Guardian‘s mission for 42 years.

When you talk to progressive economists these days (and yeah, there are a few) and people who think about building sustainable local economies (and there are a growing number of them), they say three things:

Cities have to think about how to become more self-sufficient, how to provide locally things that we once imported, how to use local resources to create new jobs and economic activity. Those new jobs and sustainable practices are most likely to come from locally owned, independent businesses. And — particularly these days — the public sector has to play a major role.

That’s what the stories in this anniversary issue are about. A sustainable economy means encouraging start-ups and innovation, using public financing resources, and avoiding a reliance on big chains and giant corporations. A sustainable transportation and land-use policy means building neighborhoods with housing for diverse income groups and cutting down on cars and making the city a better, safer place to walk and bike. A sustainable energy policy means locally controlled renewable generation, not a monster private utility that ferries in nuclear and fossil-fuel power from out of town. Sustainable food means using community agriculture, right here in town.

It’s surprising how simple that sounds — and how politically difficult it is to implement.

See, in San Francisco — this great liberal city — policy decisions are still controlled to a stunning extent by a small group of powerful people who were never elected to anything. You can see how it looks this year by following the money chart we ran in the last issue. It showed how five downtown organizations have been raising and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to take control of the Board of Supervisors.

Or look at Proposition H, the Clean Energy Act on the November ballot. Prop. H is a prescription for sustainable energy; the measure would not only set aggressive goals for renewables, it would shift control of the city’s energy agenda away from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and give it to the people of San Francisco.

Big private energy companies may spend a lot of money on "green" advertising, but they never have, and never will, take the steps needed to create a sustainable system. Because that would mean undercutting their profits and limiting their growth.

A sustainable energy system would use much less electricity and import almost none. It would operate with thousands of small, distributed generation facilities, like solar panels on roofs. And power from the sun and wind is free. That doesn’t work for a giant profit-hungry utility; it works great for a community-based system.

So where is Newsom, who likes to call himself a green mayor? He’s against it. Where are the business leaders in town? Standing with PG&E. Where is the power structure? Fighting to prevent a sustainable energy future for San Francisco.

And the big chain-owned daily newspaper is right there with them.


There aren’t many locally-owned independent newspapers left in America. Even the alternative press has become chain-happy. In Boston, New York, Washington, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles … most of the nation’s biggest cities, the once-upstart weeklies are owned by big national chains.
But in San Francisco, the paper Bruce Brugmann and Jean Dibble founded in 1966 is still the paper that Bruce Brugmann and Jean Dibble run in 2008.
The Guardian was always both a newspaper and small business. Unlike a lot of the wild and wonderful publications that flourished in San Francisco in the 1960s, the Guardian was built to last. Bruce and Jean decided from the start that this would be their life’s work — and although it was a bit dicey at times, the paper has survived and grown into one of the most influential weeklies in the country.
The Guardian was always a part of San Francisco. We believe in this city, in this community, in its life and culture and grassroots politics. We’ve always taken an active role in trying to improve the place where we live and work, and we’re proud of it.
Over the years that has meant exposing the corrupt (and secretive) gang that was trying to turn San Francisco into another Manhattan. It’s meant publishing a pioneering cost-benefit study showing that high-rise office development costs the city more in services than it generates in taxes. It’s meant funding and publishing the first major local study showing that small businesses create most of the net new jobs in San Francisco. It’s meant revealing how PG&E violates federal law and steals cheap power from San Francisco. It’s meant competing with — and writing about — the local daily newspaper monopoly. It’s meant fighting privatization, from the Presidio to City Hall, and pushing for a Sunshine Ordinance to keep the politicians honest. It’s meant siding with the neighborhoods and the artists and the tenants against what we’ve called the economic cleansing of San Francisco.
And this year, it means promoting a real vision of what a sustainable city would look like. Which is, really, what the Guardian has been about all these 42 amazing years. *

Anniversary Issue: People’s power

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> amanda@sfbg.com

Living in a city like San Francisco, it’s pretty easy to advance your personal environmental prerogative. You can walk, ride your bike, or take public transportation almost anywhere you want to go. You can spurn the dominant consumer consciousness and buy used clothes and household goods at thrift stores. You can take short showers and drink clean Hetch Hetchy tap water instead of the bottled stuff. You can pick organic cornflakes over Kellogg’s version. You can even go to a worker-owned co-op that sells mostly organic goods and buy produce from Bay Area growers at the farmers markets.

But when it comes to energy, you’re stuck.

You’re stuck with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. You’re stuck buying electricity that’s 89 percent environmentally unsound, from a company that can’t even meet the modest state requirement of 20 percent renewable by 2010.

The $12 billion utility company offers absolutely no way for consumers to purchase 100 percent green energy, although some of its counterparts, including publicly owned Sacramento Municipal Utility District and Silicon Valley Power, make that option available.

Sure, you can use less electricity by screwing compact fluorescent light bulbs into your lamps, unplugging your cell phone charger when you leave the house, and hanging your clothes on the line to dry. But you can’t look at the diesel and gas-fired Potrero Hill power plant and say, "Nope, I’m getting my power elsewhere."

What if you could? What if you could hike to the top of Bernal Hill or Mount Sutro and look out across the skyline of San Francisco and no longer see any power plant stacks belching fumes? What if you saw solar panels shimmering on nearly every roof, and wind turbines spinning furiously in the late afternoon breeze, and you knew that your apartment didn’t depend on a distant fossil fuel plant polluting Antioch, or an aging nuclear plant menacing the people of San Luis Obispo?

That’s what a long-term financially and environmentally sustainable energy system for San Francisco would look like. The picture would include thousands of small-scale, locally-owned solar panels and wind turbines and geothermal home heating pumps and plug-in hybrid cars, distributed throughout the city, feeding into a grid that uses wireless technology to monitor and automatically adjust loads in tiny ways you don’t even notice.

It would also involve a new economic model that doesn’t require you to own a home to own solar power, and a system that uses off-the-shelf and emerging technologies to promote efficiency. The city would use its low interest bonding ability to invest in larger tidal power and wind farm infrastructure, and pay for things like burying power lines and training the next generation of city workers to run the new, smarter energy grid and maintain and install more renewable energy.

It isn’t pie in the sky, either — most of the technologies exist, the funding structures are there, and the goals are real: Al Gore has said the country could have 100 percent renewable energy in 10 years, and he’s right.

San Francisco is actually on the path to making it happen — with a November ballot measure, Proposition H, and a community choice aggregation system — if City Hall and the voters can get beyond PG&E’s lobbying and lies.

Imagine you’re a longtime tenant in a rent-controlled apartment with a landlord who hasn’t bothered to put solar panels on the roof because he or she doesn’t pay the electric bill (you do). But it doesn’t matter, because you actually own shares in a vast network of photovoltaic panels distributed all over the city, maintained and managed by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC).

You, along with the thousands of other San Franciscans who are part of this power cooperative, pay a flat rate for enough shares to meet your energy needs. Over time, as the upfront cost of the system is paid off, your rates decrease and your power bill drops so low it is barely a factor in your life. And the SFPUC helped you find ways to make your apartment more energy efficient, so that some of your wasted electricity could be freed for other people to use. That way, the city wouldn’t have to spend more public money building a new power plant. And the panels you own provide more electricity than you actually need — so you’re making a little money selling the excess to other residents.

This is the vision of what would happen under Proposition H and community choice aggregation (CCA), the city’s proposed plan for locally controlled power. "It unbundles the location of the resource from the ownership so renters can participate," said Paul Fenn, CEO of Local Power and lead author of the city’s CCA plan. That’s key for a city like San Francisco, where two-thirds of the population rents.

Right now, even though the city has some robust incentives for purchasing solar panels, buyers still need deep pockets to cover the upfront cost.

But the city can use its low-interest bonding authority to purchase panels in bulk and identify well-oriented, available roof space to install them. The roof owner could own the panels, rent the space, just buy the power, or opt out entirely. "It’s not just public power, it’s community power," Fenn said. "It’s not just owned by the government — it’s owned by the people."

SMUD — a model public power agency — offers its customers something similar, "solar shares" in an array of panels. Shares start at $10.75 for a half-kilowatt and, depending on how much energy you use, you would save between $4 and $50 per month.

California’s CCA law — Assembly Bill 117, authored by state Sen. Carole Migden and passed in 2002 — allows counties to become their own energy providers and buy or build their own power, then pipe it to residents using the existing transmission infrastructure owned by the utility company. As a CCA, the city could pursue green energy more aggressively than PG&E does, could set its own rates, and make rules about how people are compensated for their power.

For example, current metering laws allow you to be credited the extra energy your solar panels produce during times they aren’t producing. But if at the end of the year your system generates more power than you use, PG&E keeps the surplus — for free. The CCA could pay you a fair rate for it instead.

San Francisco’s current CCA plan lays out the financing and acquisition for 51 percent renewable energy by 2017.

That’s about 360 MW of energy — and the upfront costs for solar panels on homes, businesses, and city buildings, as well as a 150 MW wind farm and scores of other energy-saving measures, are financed by a $1.2 billion revenue bond. Assuming a good interest rate of about 5.5 percent and a 20-year payback, that amounts to $99 million a year for the city.

Rates would cover this and any excess revenue could lower bills or fund future renewable energy projects. And, if voters pass Prop H in November, the city will be required to provide 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. Prop. H builds on the existing CCA plan by requiring the city to look at owning its own transmission and distribution system — a program that would bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, enough to fund extensive conservation and renewable programs. How can clean, reliable, low-cost energy be right on the horizon? Simple: Public ownership and decentralized local generation.

The benefits of publicly owned, locally based energy are vast. Local distribution cuts the cost of building large transmission lines and saves a lot of energy that’s lost as heat from high voltage electricity traveling long distances. Renewable energy doesn’t use fuel, and fuel is what we’re really paying for from PG&E — which is also a natural gas company.

The city owns no fossil fuel-reliant infrastructure, but PG&E is deeply invested in natural gas, gets about 40 percent of its energy from it, and has four new gas plants under construction. "As a society, we have to decide whether we want to get on the up elevator or the down elevator," said Robert Freehling, research director for Local Power. "Over time, fuel costs more and more. We make all these investments in hardware and tend to forget that it’s a promise to spend more money later. With solar panels and wind turbines there are no risks that the cost of wind or sunlight is going to go up in five years."

Natural gas, as well as every other fossil fuel, definitely will rise in price. (PG&E recently raised rates 6 percent to reflect that.) If a carbon tax or a cap and trade law is implemented, it’ll go up even more.

"Ultimately what will happen is that fossil fuels will get more expensive and renewable energy will become more affordable," Freehling said.

Would the city do a better job of promoting energy efficiency than PG&E? Look at the record.

Between 2003 and 2005, a Peak Energy Program was undertaken as a partnership between PG&E and the SF Department of the Environment (SFE) with $16.3 million in state money. In an August 2006 report, the Office of the Legislative Analyst found that with only an eighth of the funding, SFE was responsible for more than one-fifth of the energy savings. In other words, the city used the money more efficiently than PG&E.

The major criticism of most renewable energy technologies is that they’re intermittent, meaning they can’t provide power all day and all night. The sun goes down; the wind fades. Nuclear, coal, and natural gas are always on because we need power. And though many energy experts have asserted that the grid still needs at least some base load power, this assumes we’ll never apply technology to the system in any meaningful way.

But those critics are talking about a stupid grid — and the days when energy was managed that way are over. Federal and state regulators began meeting as a smart grid task force this year.

In a smart-grid world with 100 percent renewables, intermittent resources are blended to meet the current load, and the load is tweaked in minor, unnoticeable ways to meet what the resources can provide.

Suppose, for example, that it’s mid-afternoon on a hot day and a cloud bank passes over San Francisco, causing the output from all the city’s rooftop solar panels to decrease slightly. The smart grid would instantly send a signal to 10,000 air conditioners and shut them off for 15 minutes until the cloud passes. Later that night, perhaps the output from the city’s wind farm dips from 150 MW to 100 MW — the grid would automatically turn down everyone’s refrigerator by one degree.

"It’s called capacity-balancing," Fenn said. "It’s part of how you go greener and stay cheaper."

But PG&E will never pursue real green energy because in the long run, there’s no profit in it. "That’s like trying to persuade AT&T, back in 1975, to pursue developing the Internet," Fenn said. "We’re not looking for a 20 percent improvement. We want a complete transformation." *

Sustainable San Francisco

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In honor of our 42nd year printing the news and raising hell, the Guardian imagines a sustainable future for San Francisco, with visions for energy, land use, food, transportation, culture, and the economy.

A city transformed: Fighting the power structure, and building a sustainable community, for 42 amazing years

People’s power: A sustainable energy system is well within San Francisco’s reach

First, do no harm: A sustainable land use plan is about what we don’t allow as well as what we do

Beyond the automobile: The road to sustainability has lanes for more than just cars

Just Food Nation: Transforming how we eat will address poverty, public health, and environmental sustainability

Culture isn’t convenient: Sustaining entertainment and nightlife in San Francisco requires awareness and a policy shift

The money at home: A sustainable local economy starts with small business – and the public sector

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: For 42 years, the Guardian has been writing about environmental issues, land-use issues, energy issues economic issues … and when you read back issues, you can see the outlines of what we now call a platform for a sustainable city. We’ve gone back through the archives and pulled out some of our anniversary issues that fit into that theme. You can see the covers and read the main pieces here (all files PDFs):

Oct 6- 13, 1982
16th anniversary issue

Oct 12- 19, 1983
17th anniversary issue

Oct 10- 17, 1984
18th anniversary issue

Oct 23- 30, 1985
19th anniversary issue

Oct 22- 29, 1986
A Bay Guardian study showing that as highrises have gone up, downtown SF has lost jobs.

Oct 7- 13, 1998
33rd anniversary issue

Oct 10- 16, 2001
35th anniversary issue

Oct 16- 22, 2002
36th anniversary issue

Oct 22- 28, 2003
37th anniversary issue

Volume 43 Number 4 Flip-through Edition

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