Volume 44 Number 07

Dark mirrors



LIT Recently I was at a meeting with an unnamed arts organization, planning for an AfroSurreal art exhibit. As we were hashing out the details of display, the concept of the black dandy become a bone of contention among my learned colleagues. What was, and is, a black dandy? How does the black dandy differ from the white dandy? What’s the difference between a dandy and fop? Aren’t those terms interchangeable? Why bother looking at or for a black dandy at all? I’m seldom at a loss for words — it just takes me a minute to arrange them properly sometimes. (Ask my editor.) But this time, I had nothing to say. I just directed all queries to Slaves To Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity (Duke University Press, 408 pages, $24.95).

Monica L. Miller’s book is the first of its kind: a lengthy written study of the history of black dandyism and the role that style has played in the politics and aesthetics of African and African American identity. She draws from literature, film, photography, print ads, and music to reveal the black dandy’s underground cultural history and generate possibilities for the future.

Slaves to Fashion looks at black dandies of the past, beginning with Mungo Macaroni, a freed slave and well-known force within the London social scene in the 18th century. Miller also studies contemporary manifestations, in the vestments of Andre 3000 and Puff Daddy, showing how black dandies have historically used the signature tools of clothing, gesture, and wit to break down limiting definitions and introduce new, fluid concepts of social and political possibility. Though Slaves to Fashion is über-academic and at times weighed down by post-structrualist jargon, Miller more than makes up for it with uncanny feats of scholarship that illustrate ways in which the figure of the black dandy has been an elephant-in-the-room — albeit a particualrly well-dressed one.

A great example is Miller’s citing of the character of Adolph in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Almost immediately after the publication of this "great abolitionist work," its characters became some of the first American archetypes: Simon Legree and Uncle Tom are two notable examples. In comparison, Adolph — a black dandy pivotal to the story — was excised from the public imagination. Miller sees this as a reaction to what she calls "crimes of fashion," which take place when Africans and African Americans don the clothing of the oppressed to both emulate and satirize the oppressor. Adolph served as a "dark mirror" to both American materialism and the deep fear of the impending gender and race-mixing that would take place after abolition.

This fear, according to Miller, is the difference between the black dandy and the white dandy or the fop. Unlike a Caucasian counterpart, exemplified by the likes of Oscar Wilde, the black dandy comes from a position of underprivilege and uses flair and style as a way to redefine masculinity to include him. In other words, as opposed to a feminine front, it is the black dandy’s fluid masculinity — his "queering" of the term — that threatens to undermine the social order. Adolph is the exact opposite of the static, predictable docility and animalism of "the Big Black Buck" Uncle Tom. When he’s in town, you have to lock up your sons, daughters, wives, mother, father, and yourself because his power of seduction is so great. Think Prince during his Dirty Mind (Warner Bros., 1980) phase and you get the general idea.

Fear, according to Miller, continues to generate a serious backlash in reaction to the idea — let alone reality — of true equality for black people in the west. Images of black cork minstelry that lampoon the black dandy’s aspirations have been around as long as the black dandy. From Zip Coon and Jim Dandy in the early 19th century to present-day manifestations in popular culture, ambivalence — a tool of the black dandy — has served as a double-edged sword. Exactly when and where does "stylin’ out" become "coonin’"? If W.E.B. Du Bois, the quintessential black dandy, couldn’t figure it out, I’m not sure that I can find a definitive answer.

Slaves to Fashion rediscovers its footing in exploring the nature of "otherness." Returning from investigations of the black dandy’s lineage to note his role in contemporary art and culture, Miller shines a light on filmmaker Isaac Julien, editor and photographer Iké Udé, visual artist Yinka Shonibare, and beyond. In the process, she answers a variety of questions regarding what a black dandy is and does. Ultimately, the black dandy’s problem is an AfroSurreal one: by perpetrating these "crimes of fashion," by avoiding and exploding pat definitions of blackness, masculinity, and sexuality, he occupies a realm outside convention, and all too often, recognition. It is from these murky waters of post-postmodernity, I believe, that the black dandy brings a message for us all.

Dutch trick



SUPER EGO Say what you will about trance: it happened.

In fact, it happened two ways. The first, in all its flaming-poi-twirling, shaman-transcendentalist, goa-gamma-psy-matrix glory, is rooted in underground dance movements of the 1980s, and still provides a few subversive, head-pounding kicks. For a local taste, check out the Tantra tribe’s omnipresent DJ Liam Shy (www.liamshy.com), Skills DJ crew honcho Dyloot (www.myspace.com/dyloot), and the new Club S weekly, benefiting SF Food Bank (Thursdays, 9:30 p.m., $3/$1 with nonperishable food item. Paradise Lounge, 1501 Folsom, www.paradisesf.com). This strain of trance gets props both for its hyperactive dedication to melting far-flung cultural influences into its obliterating 155 b.p.m. bam-bam-bam and its surge of female power behind the decks. Holy neon dreads of Gaia, it even has its own store on Haight Street! (Ceiba, 1364 Haight, SF, www.ceibarec.com).

Then there’s the other kind. "Popular trance" ditches the wonky metaphysics and morphs the progressive Euro-house template of build-breakdown-build into a numbing, arena-filling formula that somehow took over the 2000s and gifted us with visions of Ed Hardy dudes spazzing out in Glo-Stick necklaces. Queasy. No one is more representative of this slicked-up genre than Tiësto, the 40-year-old Dutch DJ and producer who started as an underground gabber and rose with laser-like ambition to claim the title of "World’s Biggest DJ." Tiësto’s my favorite "supastar" punching bag — the Reebok shoe, the knighthood by Queen Beatrix, the video-game ubiquity, the sigh-raising "Adagio for Strings" redo, the agro cloud of spiky-haired, wraparound Gucci wannabes. It’s a tad much.

But beating this particular bugbear’s too easy. As his ruthless marketing onslaught suggests, the guy is really on top of his game. Worse, he’s actually quite charming — infectiously enthusiastic about his scene and quick to praise up-and-comers. Although avowedly apolitical, he’s used his clout to raise funds for HIV/AIDS awareness through the Dance4Life project. And with his new album Kaleidoscope (Ultra), Tiësto shows he’s suitably self-aware to know when enough’s enough.

"My brand of trance has evolved," he told me over the phone from Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he was preparing to slay a stadium of Canadian fanatics. ("Canada is 10 years ahead of the U.S. — I don’t have to scale down my tour here," he said.) "It’s kind of freaked me out. It’s not about the drugs or the old communal feeling so much, it’s about this big urge to party. My shows are like rock concerts now — crowd surfing, moshing, singing along. I realized I couldn’t do the same thing I used to, just these long trance sets. It was time for something different."

Kaleidoscope shows a definitive turning away from extended jams. Loaded with guest collaborators and indie darlings like Calvin Harris and Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke, most of the songs are less than five minutes long and stick to a classic pop template. None of it’s particularly mind-blowing — Tegan and Sara number "Feel It in my Bones" is the definite standout — but there’s a refreshing sense of risk and a few nice hooks.

"I’ve been listening to a lot more indie and rock lately, so this transition is a personal one, too," Tiësto said. "I don’t consider myself underground. I’m a pop artist now. I’m even writing songs on the road that could be called Tiësto R&B," he added with a laugh. "But it’s just the way the music is going, toward more pop structure. You can see that with David Guetta’s chart success this year. Everyone’s becoming more song-oriented. I’m a producer more than a DJ. That’s why I don’t call myself DJ Tiësto anymore. Just Tiësto."

But he still tours as a DJ, one famous for delivering nine-hour sets to crowds of 100,000. So how does he fit short pop blasts into the revolving-stage and firework-erupting Tiësto spectacle? "I have this trick where I split the show in two parts, the pop-rock and singing in the beginning and then the classic longer stuff later on. It really works out."

As for his fans’ reaction to the changes? "Look," he said, "I see stuff on the Internet. Some people hate it. Some new people love it. It’s always been the same about me anyway. Love or hate. But like I said — even with trance, you can’t do that same thing forever."


Sat/21, 8 p.m., $60

Cow Palace

2600 Geneva, Daly City



Checkout time



Two consecutive three-day strikes by hotel workers signaled a change in strategy for local labor, which is struggling to hold on to past gains in an increasingly bitter contract dispute during this economic downturn.

Hotel employees affiliated with UNITE HERE! Local 2 walked off the job at the Grand Hyatt on Nov. 6, kicking off a 72-hour work stoppage that labor organizers said was centered on the Hyatt but aimed at more than a dozen luxury hotels staffed by Local 2 workers.

Another strike, in front of the Palace Hotel, started Nov. 10 and ended at midnight Nov. 12. In both actions, hundreds of Local 2 members and other supporters expressed frustration at the hotels, claiming the hotel industry is scaling back employee benefits while reaping impressive profits.

"The hotel industry pulled down $110 billion in profits last year," said Mike Casey, president of Local 2, which represents approximately 12,000 hospitality workers in San Francisco and San Mateo. "Despite the so-called down economy, we feel like we should be able to move forward, at least modestly."

Casey and other Local 2 organizers pointed to the recent windfall of the Hyatt chain’s owners, the Pritzger family, who scooped up $950 million in an initial public offering for the company. "One family is getting all this money, and they’re quibbling over $250,000," said Casey, referring to the amount he says it would take to meet all of the local union’s demands.

Meanwhile, stalled negotiations have left workers without a contract since Aug. 14. Key factors in the dispute involve proposed rule changes for new hires and cuts in health care coverage that striking workers called unacceptable.

"We’re seeing an average increase in health care costs of about 12 percent per year," said Jeff Myers, a banquet waiter at the Westin St. Francis, and a member of Local 2’s 125-person negotiating team. "The hotel is paying for 2 percent of that."

"We expect to be in a long fight," said Carlos Narvaez, a 13-year employee at the Palace Hotel, where he works as a purchasing clerk. "But it’s a fight for justice, not only for us, but for new hires, who would be most affected."

Narvaez explained that under the new contract proposed by the hotels, new hires would be ineligible for pensions, and probationary periods for benefits would be extended from months to years. "If they’re planning to replace us, (new employees) don’t know what’s coming."

The tactic of going after one hotel at a time, rather than a blanket work stoppage, indicated the union’s desire to put pressure on hotel owners while limiting economic hardship to the rest of the city, and the potential for negative blowback. The latest round of negotiations broke down Nov. 12 when Hyatt rejected Local 2’s proposal for a one-year contract with some concessions on pay, rather than the customary five-year deal.

"You can’t have it both ways. If you want a cheap contract, fine, we’ll do it for a limited time. You can’t have a cheap long-term contract," Casey said, noting a one-year contract is partly a bet by Local 2 that the economy will be in better shape next year.

It also happens to line up with contract expiration dates for UNITE HERE! hotel workers in several cities throughout the U.S. and Canada, potentially giving the union greater leverage in contract negotiations next year.

At the Grand Hyatt strike, workers marched several blocks to the Westin St. Francis, where they held an impromptu picket for 20 minutes before returning to the Grand Hyatt. "It’s just a taste of what could happen," Casey said, splitting the group into two disciplined forces that filled the sidewalk while leaving the entrance to the St. Francis clear.

"They’re afraid it’s going to turn into 2004," Casey said of hotel owners, referring to a two-week stalemate in 2004 in which hotels reacted to the strike by locking out employees of several hotels and bringing in workers from other locations in an attempt to break the strike. But Casey said new times call for new tactics.

"If we did it the same way each time, [management] would be ready for us," Casey said. "We have to keep them on their toes" while staying visible and building incremental support for strikes. "If the strikes last long enough, a boycott could build that would be truly widespread. But let’s hope the hotels come to their senses before then."

The picket lines were festive and noisy, with union members banging drums and shouting catchy call-and-response slogans into no fewer than six bullhorns.

"What time is it?" the bullhorns blared. "It’s checkout time!" the picket line called back. Valets and bellhops at the Grand Hyatt, most wearing foam earplugs and sunglasses, winced as one man beat a large, ornate kettle drum less than five feet from the lobby entrance.

"This is designed to be measured and escautf8g," Casey said of the single-hotel strike approach. Though the two strikes have ended, Casey said boycotts remain in place for both the Grand Hyatt and the Palace Hotel, whose lavish centennial gala last weekend was marred by an additional Local 2 protest outside.

Hotel representatives have been taciturn about the dispute and its impact, issuing short, carefully-worded responses expressing disappointment at Local 2’s actions, and offering sheepish apologies to surprised guests. No hotel representatives were available to speak on record as of press time

Elena Duran, a server at the Palace Hotel, said behind-the-scenes operations have been thrown into disarray by the strikes. "Yesterday there was a fire in the kitchen," Duran said during the Palace strike, "because the new workers don’t know what they’re doing."

Any hotel labor dispute invariably invites comparisons with the 2004 strike. In that conflict, Mayor Gavin Newsom personally intervened, shaking hands with striking workers and declaring that San Francisco would not do business across picket lines. The mayor’s office did not respond to queries about the latest dispute. Local 2 press coordinator Riddhi Mehta said Casey and other union members, as well as their counterparts from the hotels, met with Newsom Nov. 10 for "informational purposes."

City Attorney Dennis Herrera, a likely mayoral candidate, stopped by the picket lines at the Grand Hyatt to offer words of support, telling the cheering strikers: "We are a world-class city. It’s not about the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s not about the views. It’s not about the cable cars. It’s about the work that you do every day."

While Local 2 organizers would welcome Newsom’s renewed support, they aren’t holding their breath. Rumors that Newsom had cut short his vacation to help defuse the situation were greeted with cautious optimism by negotiating team members.

Myers said the hotels were essentially attempting to externalize their employee’s health care costs, which would impose a burden on the city budget. Because of San Francisco’s universal health care program, Myers said, "If hotel workers can’t pay their co-pay, that cost will go to the city. That is abundantly clear to the mayor."

Editor’s Notes



You can see the city’s next fiscal crisis, and all the bloodshed it will involve, sticking up its ugly head at the Board of Supervisors these days.

The immediate issue on the table is a supplemental appropriation of $7 million to save the jobs of some 500 frontline public health workers who are scheduled to receive pink slips this month. But the deeper issue is how the supervisors are going to deal with the fundamental unfairness of the mayor’s budget — particularly as the issue gets reopened this winter. Because the city’s finances are not improving, and it’s almost certain that there will have to be midyear changes. And — sadly — there’s no indication that Mayor Gavin Newsom is going to be any more willing to work with the board and look for progressive solutions than he was in the summer.

The budget deal the supervisors signed off on in June wasn’t such a good deal at all, in part because it rested on Newsom’s promise to work toward a revenue measure for the November ballot. In retrospect, San Francisco missed an opportunity here — lots of Bay Area cities went to the ballot with tax increases to head off service cuts, and voters approved nearly all of them.

But Newsom never tried very hard to convince his allies on the board to go along with that plan and let the whole thing slide, putting the city in the position where layoffs that will cut deeply into the public health infrastructure are moving forward.

And now seven supervisors — all of the progressives plus Bevan Dufty — are ready to take an emergency step to stop the layoffs. They’re willing to put $7 million in reserve money up front, now. And if they can convince Sophie Maxwell to change her position and join them, the board will put the ball right back in the mayor’s court.

The thing is, the city’s budget crisis never really goes away. It’s a structural imbalance; save for the occasional boom years, San Francisco simply doesn’t bring in enough revenue to cover the costs of services people in this city want and need. It’s much worse in a recession, of course, but it’s always bad. And it’s going to remain an annual problem until the folks at City Hall make some major structural changes.

If, for example, we really want to avoid raising any new taxes — Newsom’s line — then we have to downsize, and the only fair way to do that is to start at the top. There are highly paid managementlevel people all over this city who don’t do nearly as much work in a week as a typical nurse’s aide does every day. The rampant cronyism slowed down after Mayor Willie Brown left office, but it never went away. A lot of Brown appointees still have cush jobs, and Newsom has added to the list. None of those folks ever get laid off.

With the layoffs scheduled this month, more than 1,000 members of SEIU Local 1021 — the union that represents frontline workers — will have been laid off. How many members of the Management Employees Association? Exactly 25.

And if we’re not going to look at radical restructuring, starting with department organization and management, then we have to bring in more money. That’s taxes, Gavin. In fact, to make this city solvent for the future we should probably do both.

Nobody wants to talk about that, though. So the women who hold the public health system together get canned, the wealthy enjoy low taxes, and the crisis goes one, year after year.

I hope Sup. Maxwell realizes what this is about — because if she votes the right way, it might actually force the mayor to make some of those tough choices he loves to talk about.

Fixing police discipline


EDITORIAL San Francisco’s new police chief wants more authority to discipline problem officers. He’s been talking about it since the day he arrived, and he’s getting some political traction. Sup. David Chiu has called for a hearing in the next few weeks, and it’s likely that the chief will seek a Charter Amendment next year to redefine how the top cop and Police Commission handle personnel issues.

We have no problem giving the chief the right to fire a bad cop. In fact, if George Gascón wants to quickly rid the force of the small number of violent and unprofessional officers who are responsible for most of the serious discipline problems, more power to him.

But Gascón isn’t stopping there — he wants to reduce the power of the commission and possibly the Office of Citizen Complaints. And that’s a very bad idea.

Police discipline is one of the biggest problems facing the force. The city has paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawsuit settlements in police abuse cases. Rogue cops have beaten, harassed, intimidated, and sometimes killed innocent people. And because so few officers ever face serious penalties, the bad behavior goes on unabated.

Gascón recognizes that. He told us in an interview in October that he thinks there are 10 cops on the force who ought to be fired, right now. That would send a powerful message: in the past 20 years, fewer than five police officers have ever been fired for misconduct.

Right now only the Police Commission can terminate an officer; the most the chief can issue on his own is a 10-day suspension. And there’s a huge backlog of discipline cases. That’s partly the result of the system itself — commissioners are part-time appointees and discipline hearings are time-consuming. It’s also partly the fault of the department — previous chiefs have shown little interest in expediting discipline cases and have worked to thwart the ability of the Office of Citizen Complains to complete investigations.

Gascón told us he’d like to see the commission become an appellate body. The chief would make most discipline decisions, and if an officer thought the ruling was unfair, he or she could take it up with the civilian panel. We understand his frustration with the process, but his proposal doesn’t make sense.

If Gascón is serious about weeding out problem cops (and taking on the politically powerful Police Officers Association to do it), he’d be the first chief in decades to do so. His recent predecessors showed almost no interest in discipline, and even if Gascón turns out to be the toughest chief in history, he won’t be here forever, and his successor might return to the bad old days.

That’s why the current system allows the OCC to take cases directly to the commission if the agency director feels that the chief has failed to act. That ability is central to any civilian oversight process and must remain as part of any reform.

We don’t see why there has to be any conflict here at all. We’re fine with giving the chief the extra authority to fire cops — and leaving the rest of the system intact. Let the chief enact firm discipline — and if he doesn’t, let the OCC and commission do it. That would preserve the checks and balances in the system and allow Gascón to clear up some of the disciplinary backlog and get rid of the worst problem officers.

San Francisco has long operated under the proposition that civilians, not police officers, should conduct investigations of complaints against cops — and should have the final authority on the disposition of those complaints. The supervisors should be open to giving Gascón what he wants — but not if it means dismantling the heart of a civilian-oversight program.

And if Gascón wants the voters to trust him with front-line discipline, let’s see some action. Work with the commission to fire those 10 bad cops — now — and we’ll all have a lot more faith in your reform credentials.

Seizing space


steve@sfbg.com; molly@sfbg.com

San Francisco’s streets and public spaces are undergoing a drastic transformation — and it’s happening subtly, often below the radar of traditional planning processes. Much of it was triggered by the renegade actions of a few outlaw urbanists, designers, and artists.

But increasingly, their tactics and spirit are being adopted inside City Hall, and the result is starting to look like a real urban design revolution — one that harks back to a movement that was interrupted back in the 1970s.

One of the earliest signs of the new approach emerged in 2005 on the first Park(ing) Day, the brainchild of the hip, young founders of the urban design group Rebar. The idea was simple: turn selected street parking spots around San Francisco into little one-day parks. Just plug some coins in the meter to rent the space, then set up chairs or lay down some sod, and kick it.

It was a simple yet powerful statement about how San Franciscans choose to use public space — and the folks at Rebar expected to get in trouble.

“When we did the first Park(ing) Day in 2005, JB [a.k.a. John Bela] and I were just prepared to be arrested and hauled into court,” Rebar’s Matthew Passmore told us at a recent interview in the group’s new Mission District warehouse space. “But nothing like that happened.”

Instead, City Hall called. 079_realcover.jpg Rebar’s Blaine Merker, Teresa Aguilera, Matthew Passmore, and John Bela at their carfreee space at Showplace Triangle

“We got a call from the director of city greening, who said this is great, I want to meet with you guys and talk about how the city can support this kind of activity,” Passmore said. “Much to our surprise, the city was totally responsive as opposed to shutting us down and imprisoning us.”

Bela said the group discovered that Mayor Gavin Newsom’s administration was looking for just the sort of innovative, cool, environmental ideas that were Rebar’s focus. And that connection merged with other people’s efforts — like sidewalk-to-garden conversions being pioneered by Jane Martin, the urban gardening and bicycling movements, and the unique public art that was making its way back from Burning Man. That created a catalyst for a wide array of city initiatives, from the Sunday Streets road closures to temporary art installations that began popping up around the city to the Pavement to Parks program that creates short-term parks in underutilized roadways.

“It was a single interaction five years ago, and now we have things like Sunday Streets,” Bela told us on Sept. 18’s Park(ing) Day, in which various individuals and groups took over more than 50 parking spots around town. “It’s about reclaiming the streets for people.”

Park(ing) Day itself blew up, becoming a worldwide phenomenon that is now in 151 cities on six continents, and one that the Mayor’s Office is planning to turn into a more permanent plan, with the regular conversion of some parking spots on commercial corridors into outdoor seating areas.

“You had a few guys and a girl who had an idea and now it’s an international event,” Mike Farrah, a longtime Newsom lieutenant who now heads the Office of Neighborhood Services and has been the main contact in City Hall for Rebar and similar groups, told the Guardian.

Locally, the success of events like Park(ing) Day have changed San Francisco’s approach to urban spaces, particularly on land left dormant by the economic downturn. Rebar, the permaculture collective Upcycle, and former MyFarm manager Chris Burley plan to turn the old Hayes Valley freeway property near Octavia, between Oak and Fell streets, into a massive community garden and gathering space. Plans are being hatched for temporary uses on Rincon Hill properties approved for residential towers. “Green pod” seating areas are sprouting along Market Street and there are plans to extend the Sunday Streets road closures next year. And, perhaps most amazingly, most projects are being accomplished with very little funding.

How has San Francisco suddenly shifted into high gear when it comes to creating innovative new public spaces? The key is their common denominator: they’re all temporary. As such, they don’t require detailed studies, cumbersome approval processes, or the extensive outreach and input that can dampen the creative spark.

But San Francisco is starting to prove that dozens of short-term fixes can add up to a true transformation of the urban environment and the citizenry’s sense of possibility.



Rebar began as a group of friends and artists who came together to enter a design contest in 2004. Passmore was a practicing lawyer and Bela was a landscape architecture student at UC Berkeley. They chose the name Rebar for future collaborations, the first of which was Park(ing) Day.

Passmore, who had a background in conceptual art before going to law school, discovered a legal loophole that might allow for anything from a burlesque performance to a temporary swimming pool to be installed in metered parking spaces. Bela recruited Blaine Merker, a fellow landscape architecture student with whom he’d won a design competition, to join the effort.

Park(ing) Day was a hit, getting great press and igniting people’s imaginations. “We realized after we did it, like, oh, people are really getting this,” Merker said. And Rebar was off. In the following years they added a fourth principal, graphic designer Teresa Aguilera, and took on a number of acclaimed projects: planting the Victory Garden in Civic Center Plaza, building the Panhandle Bandshell from old car hoods and other recycled parts, creating COMMONspace events (from “Counterveillance” to the “Nappening”) in privately-owned public spaces, and designing the Bushwaffle (commissioned for the Experimenta-Design biennale in Amsterdam) to help soften paved urban spaces and create a sense of play.

Through it all, the group maintained its prankster spirit. When they were invited to present the Bandshell project at the prestigious Venice Biennale festival, Rebar members showed up costumed as Italian table-tennis players (a joke that mostly baffled other attendees, they said).

They told us every project needed to have a “quotient of ridiculum.” Or as Bela put it, “That’s how we know project has evolved to the right point — when we’re on the floor laughing.”

As Rebar found success, it was still mostly a side project for members who had other full-time jobs. “We were all playing hooky all the time,” said Merker, who, like Bela, joined a landscape architecture firm after he finished school. “It just got worse and worse.”

So now, they’re trying to turn their passion into a profession, recently moving into a cool warehouse office and workspace in the Mission. “We’re shifting our practice a little to have the same sort of spirit but trying to figure out how we can make that an occupation,” Merker said.

It’s also about moving from those short-lived installations to something a little more lasting, even while working within the realm of temporary projects. As Aguilera said, “A lot of the projects we started with were creating moments to maybe think about. But we’re shifting into more permanent ways to interact with the city.”

They may not be sure where they’re headed as an organization, but they have a clear conception of their canvas, as well as the traditions they draw from (including movements like the Situationists and artists such as Gordon Matta-Clark, who worked in urban niche spaces) and the fact that they are part of an emerging international movement to reclaim and redesign urban spaces.

“We’re not the originators of any of this stuff,” Bela said. “It’s like emerging phenomena happening in cities all over the world. We just happened to have plugged into it early on and we continue to push it.”



Rebar is strongly pushing a reclamation of spaces that have been rather thoughtlessly ceded to the automobile over the last few decades. “Street right-of-way is 25 percent of the city’s land area. A quarter of the city is streets,” Bela said. “And those streets were designed at the time when we wanted to privilege the automobile.

“So basically, there’s all this underutilized roadway,” he continued. “It’s asphalt and it’s pavement, and the city wants to reclaim some of those spaces for people. That’s a thread we’ve been exploring in our work for a long time, and now it’s elevated up to a citywide planning objective.”

The short-term nature of the projects comes in part from political necessity: temporary projects are usually exempt from costly, time-consuming environmental impact reports. Demonstration projects also don’t need the extensive public input that permanent changes do in San Francisco. But there’s more to the philosophy.

“It stands on this proposition that temporary or interim use does actually improve the character of the city,” Passmore said. “People used to think that if something is temporary or ephemeral, what good is it? It’s just here today, gone tomorrow. But I think now people are realizing that the city can be improved like this.”

And it goes even deeper than that. When people see parking spaces turned into parks, vacant lots blossoming with art and conversation nooks, or old freeway ramps turned into community gardens, their sense of what’s possible in San Francisco expands.

“What we’re remodeling is people’s mental hardware. It’s like stretching. You have to bend something a little more than it wants to go, and the next time you do that, it’s that much easier,” Merker said.

“There’s also a psychological aspect to that. When people see a crack in the Matrix open up, if you will, it can open up a whole lot more than just that one moment,” he said.

For those who have been working on urbanism issues in San Francisco for a long time, like Livable City director Tom Radulovich, this new energy and the tactic of conditioning people with temporary projects is a welcome development. “There is a huge resistance to change in San Francisco, no matter what the change is, and a lot of that stems from fear,” Radulovich said. But with temporary projects, he said, “you can establish what success looks like from the outset.”



The Rebar folks have been fairly savvy in their approach, making key friends inside City Hall, people who have helped them bridge the gap between their idealism and what’s possible in San Francisco.

“We are a process-driven city, and temporary allows you to create change without fear,” Farrah told us. He said the partnership between the Mayor’s Office and community groups that want to do cool, temporary public art really began in the summer of 2005 with the Temple at Hayes Green by longtime Burning Man temple builder, David Best.

Farrah had connections to the Burning Man community, so he facilitated the placement of the temple along Octavia Boulevard, then one of the city’s newest and least developed public spaces. Next came the placement of another Burning Man sculpture, Flock by Michael Christian, in Civic Center Plaza that fall. Both projects got funding and support from the Black Rock Arts Foundation, a public art outgrowth of Burning Man.

“I saw, after some of the temporary art and special events, how it’s changed people’s ideas about what’s possible,” Farrah said. “There has been a change in the way people view the streets.”

That got Farrah thinking about what else could be done, so he approached BRAF’s then-director Leslie Pritchett and Rebar’s Bela, telling them, “I need you to look at San Francisco like a canvas. Tell me the things you want to do, and I’ll tell you if it’s possible or not. And that’s led to a lot of cool stuff.”

Livable city advocates like Radulovich — progressives who are generally not allied with Newsom and who have battled with him on issues from limiting parking to the Healthy Saturdays effort to create more carfree space in Golden Gate Park — give the Mayor’s Office credit for its greening initiatives.

He credits Greening Director Astrid Haryati and DPW chief Ed Reiskin with facilitating this return to urbanism. “He’s really responsive and he gets it,” Radulovich said of Reiskin. “This is really where a lot of energy is going in the mayor’s office. It seems to have captured their imaginations.”

Another catalyst was last year’s visit by New York City transportation commissioner and public space visionary Janette Sadik-Khan, who met with Reiskin and Newsom on a trip sponsored by Livable City and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. Radulovich said her message, which SF has embraced, is that, “There are low-cost, reversible ways you can reclaim urban space in the near term.”

The Mayor’s Office, SFBC, and Livable City partnered last year to create Sunday Streets, which involved closing streets to cars for part of the day. The events have proven hugely successful after overcoming initial opposition from merchants who now embrace it.

Then there’s the Pavement to Parks program — which involves converting streets into temporary parks for weeks or months at a time — that grew directly from the Sadik-Khan visit. Andres Power, who directs the program for the Planning Department, told us the visit was a catalyst for Pavement to Parks: “She came to the city a year ago and inspired my director, Ed Reiskin.”

“We’re rethinking what the streets are and what they can be,” Power said. “It’s rewarding to see this stuff happen and to be at the forefront of a national effort to imagine what our streets could be.”



Pavement to Parks launched last year, a multiagency effort with virtually no budget, but the mandate to use existing materials the city has on hand to turn underutilized streets into active parks. “It looks at areas where we can reclaim space that’s been given over to cars over the decades,” Power told the Guardian.

At the first site, where 17th Street meets Market and Castro, the city and volunteer groups used planters and chairs to convert a one-block stretch of street that was little-used by cars because of the Muni line at the site.

“We bent over backward to make the space look temporary,” Power said, noting the concern over community backlash that never really materialized, leading to two time extensions for the project. “But we’re now ready to revamp that whole space.”

Another Pavement to Parks site at Guerrero and San Jose streets was created by Jane Martin, whom Newsom appointed to the city’s Commission on the Environment in part because of the innovative work she has done in creating and facilitating sidewalk gardens since 2003.

As a professional architect, Martin was used to dealing with city permits. But her experience in obtaining a “minor sidewalk encroachment permit” to convert part of the wide sidewalk near a building she owned on Shotwell Street into a garden convinced her there was room for improvement.

“At that point, I was really jazzed with the result and response [to her garden] and I wanted to make it so we could see more of it,” she said. So she started a nonprofit group called PlantSF, which stands for Permeable Lands As Neighborhood Treasure. Martin worked with city agencies to create a simpler and cheaper process for citizens to obtain permits and help ripping up sidewalks and planting gardens.

“We want to de-pave as much excess concrete as possible and do it to maximize the capture of rainwater,” she said.

Martin said the models she’s creating allow people to do the projects themselves or in small groups, encouraging the city’s DIY tradition and empowering people to make their neighborhoods more livable. More than 500 people have responded, creating gardens on former sidewalks around the city.

“We’ll get farther faster with that model,” she said. “It’s really about engaging people in their neighborhoods and helping them personalize public spaces.”

San Francisco has always been a process-driven city. “We in San Francisco tend to plan and design things to death, so as a result, everything takes a very long time,” Power said.

But with temporary projects under Pavement to Parks, the city can finally be more nimble and flexible. Three projects have been completed so far, and the goal is to have up to a dozen done by summer.

“We’re working feverishly to get the rest of the projects going,” Power said.

One of those projects involves an impending announcement of what Power called “flexible use of the parking lane” in commercial corridors like Columbus Avenue in North Beach. “We’re taking Park(ing) Day to the next level.”

The idea is to place platforms over one or two parking spots for restaurants to use as curbside seating, miniparks, or bicycle parking. “The Mayor’s Office will be announcing in the next few weeks a list of locations,” Power said. “There have been locations that have come to us asking for this.”

“The idea is to do a few of these as a pilot to determine what works and what doesn’t. The goal is to use their trial implementation to develop a permanent process,” Power said. “We want to think of our street space as more than a place for cars to drive through or park.”

Rebar was responsible for the last of the completed Pavement to Parks projects. Known as Showplace Triangle, it’s located at the corner of 16th and Eighth streets in the Showplace Square neighborhood near Potrero Hill. For Rebar, it was like coming full circle.

“We started doing this stuff about five years ago, finding these niches and loopholes and exploring interim use as a strategy for activating urban space,” Bela said. “And to our surprise, what we perceived as a tactical action is now being embodied by strategic players like the Planning Department.”



The Rebar crew was like kids in a candy store picking through the DPW yard.

“These projects are all built with material the city owns already, so we had the opportunity to go down to the DPW yard and inventory all of these materials they had, and figure out ways to configure them to make a successful street plaza,” Bela said.

So they turned old ceramic sewer pipes into tall street barriers topped by planter boxes, and built lower gardens bordered by old granite curbs.

“We are trying to be as creative as possible with the use of materials the city already has on hand,” Power said. In addition to the DPW yard that Rebar tapped for Showplace Triangle, Power said the Public Utilities Commission, Port of SF, and the Recreation and Parks Department all have yards around the city that are filled with materials.

“They each have stockpiles of unused stuff that has accumulated over the years,” he said.

For her Pavement to Parks project on Guerrero, Martin used fallen trees that originally had been planted in Golden Gate Park — pines, cypress, eucalyptus — but were headed for the mulcher. Not only were they great for creating a sense of place, they offered a nod to the city’s natural history.

But perhaps the coolest material that had been sitting around for decades was the massive black granite blocks that Rebar incorporated into Showplace Triangle. “One of the most interesting materials that we used in Showplace Triangle was the big granite blocks from Market Street that were taken off because merchants didn’t like people encamping there. They were too successful as spaces, so they got torn out,” Merker said.

Bela said they couldn’t believe their eyes: “We saw these stacks of five-by-five by one-foot deep black granite. Just extraordinary. If we were to do a public project today, we could never afford that stuff. There’s no way. But the taxpayers bought that stuff back in the ’70s and now it’s just sitting there in the DPW yard. It’s a crime that it’s not being used, so it was great to get it back out on the street.”

Radulovich said the return of the black granite boxes to the streets represents the city coming full circle. He remembers talking to DPW manager Mohammad Nuru as he was removing the last of them from Market Street in the 1970s, citing concerns about people loitering on them.

“To see them put up again in JB’s project was symbolic of where the city went and where it’s coming back from,” Radulovich said. “It’s almost like the livability revolution got interrupted and we lost two decades and now it’s picking up again.”

Back in the 1970s, Radulovich said the city was actively creating new public spaces such as Duboce Triangle. It was also creating seating along Market Street and generally valuing the creation of gathering places. But in the antitax era that followed, public sector maintenance of the spaces lagged and they were discovered by the ever-growing ranks of the homeless that were turned loose from institutions.

“The fear factor took over,” Radulovich said. “We did a lot to destroy public spaces in the ’80s and ’90s.”

But by creating temporary public spaces, people are starting to realize what’s been lost and to value it again. “These baby steps are helping us relearn what makes a good public space,” Radulovich said.

For much of the younger generation, building public squares is a new thing. As Aguilera noted, “We don’t have a lot of public plazas anymore or places for people to gather. When Obama was elected, where did everyone go in the city? Into the streets. So we’re trying to give that back to the city.”



Perhaps the most high-profile laboratory for these ideas is the Hayes Valley Farm, a temporary project planned for the 2.5 acres of freeway left behind after the Loma Prieta earthquake. The publicly-owned land between Oak and Fell streets is slated for housing projects that have been stalled by the slow economy.

“The site’s been vacant for 10 years. They came up with a beautiful master plan. And the moment they’re ready to move on the master plan, there’s an economic collapse, so nothing is happening,” Bela said.

In the meantime, the Mayor’s Office and Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association pushed for temporary use of the neglected site. They approached the urban farming collectives MyFarm and Upcycle. Later, Rebar was brought in to design and coordinate the project.

Now the group known as the Hayes Valley Farm Team has an ambitious plan for the area: part urban garden, part social gathering spot, and part educational space. There will be an orchard of fruit trees, a portable greenhouse, demonstrations on urban farming, and a regular farmers market.

“The different topography of ramps allows for different growing conditions. These ramps are prime exposure to the south,” Merker said. “They create these areas that can produce some really great growing conditions, so it’s kind of funny that this freeway is responsible for that. The ramps actually create different microclimates.”

Most remarkably, the whole project is temporary, designed to be moved in three years. “We’re interested in developing infrastructure and tools and machinery and implements that are sort of coded for the scale of the city: a lot of pedal-powered things, a lot of mobile infrastructure, and smaller things that are designed to be useful in a plot that is only 2.5 acres,” Bela said. “Then when we need to move on, we’ll be able to do that. It’s about being strategic with some of the investments so we can take some of the tools we develop here and move it to the next vacant lot down the street.”

The project has lofty goals, ranging from creating a social plaza in Hayes Valley to educating the public about productive landscaping. “We’re getting away from ideas of turning parks into food production — it can be both,” said David Cody of Upcycle. “We want to just crack the awareness that cities can be multi-use and agriculture doesn’t mean farm.”

This is perhaps the most ambitious temporary project the Mayor’s Office has taken on. “Rebar pushed the envelope on what is possible. I told them it would be a tough one,” Farrah said of the project. But he loves the concept: “You can argue that putting gardens in temporary spaces changes attitudes.”

Symbolically, this land seems the perfect place for such an experiment. “This really is a special spot. If you look at a map of the city, Hayes Valley is in the very center, and this is right in the heart of Hayes Valley,” Aguilera said. “And right now, in the heart of a neighborhood in the heart of the city, there’s this vacant, fallow reminder of what used to be there. We’re looking to turn it into a new beating heart that brings together lots of different parts of the community.”



Activating dormant spaces in the city isn’t easy, particularly for properties with pending projects. In Hayes Valley, for example, the Rebar crew was required to develop a detailed takedown plan.

“A lot of development is hesitant to get involved with these interim uses because at the end, they’re worried that it’s going to be framed as the evil, money-hungry developer coming in to kick out artists or farmers,” Passmore said. “But the reality is, they are very generously opening up their space is the first place.”

With last year’s crash of the rental estate and credit markets, development in San Francisco stalled, leaving potentially productive land all over the city. “As the city has gone through an economic downturn, like now, the city has a lot of vacant lots with developer entitlements on them, but nothing is being built right now. Those are spaces the public has an interest in,” Merker said, citing Rincon Hill as a key example.

Michael Yarne, who facilitates development projects for the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, has been working on how developers might be encouraged to adopt temporary uses of their vacant lots.

“How can we credit them to do a greening project on a vacant lot?” Yarne asks, a problem that is exacerbated by the complication that neither the developers nor local government have money to fund the interim improvements.

He looked at the possibility of using developer impact fees on short-term projects, but there are legal problems with that approach. The courts have placed strict limits on how impact fees are charged and used, requiring detailed studies proving that the fees offset a project’s real cost and damage.

“But there is other value we can give as a city without spending a dollar — and that is certainty,” said Yarne, a former developer. He said developers value certainty more than anything else.

Right now, developers have to return to the Planning Commission every year or so to renew project entitlements, something that costs time and money and potentially places the project at risk. But he said the city might be able to enter into developer agreements with a project proponent, waiving the renewal requirement for a certain number of years in exchange for facilitating short-term projects.

“Everyone wins. We get a short-term use, and the developer gets certainty that they won’t lose their rights,” Yarne said, noting that he’s now developing a pilot project on Rincon Hill. “If that works, that could be a template we could use over and over.”

Radulovich is happy to see the new energy Rebar and other groups are infusing into a quest to remake city streets and lots, and with the use of temporary projects to expand the realm of the possible in people’s minds: “Let’s get people reimagining what the streets could be.”


Holiday Guide 2009


Does this time of year leave you mumbling “Bah, humbug!” (or maybe “Holidays schmolidays!”)? We understand. The commercialism of this season can feel crippling, especially in an economy as dismal as this one. But here’s hoping our guide to affordable gifts, uplifting food and spirits, and festive destinations helps put some of the cheer back into a season that has potential for so much of it. And if that still doesn’t work? Buy a batch of barleywine. A few bottles in, you won’t even remember what month this is. (Molly Freedenberg, Holiday Guide Editor)

Drunk on holiday spirit
Events, performances, and places to get you in the mood

Gifts on a shoestring
Cheap and DIY ideas for personal gifts

Season’s eatings
Treats and tipples to tickle your holiday fancy

Presents of mind
Gifts that give back

Holiday hops
Seasonal brews to chase away those cold weather blues

Good work
Ways to give your time

Merry mayhem
Gifts for gamers

That’s a wrap
Gifts for movie geeks

‘Tis the season to be Jewy




Dear Andrea:

Since you were so good as to weigh in on "cougar" ["Cougar Den," 10/22/08], perhaps you could settle the evident controversy around the correct usage of "MILF?" I think a MILF (Mother I’d Like to Fuck) is the mother of someone in your peer group. If your mom seems as sexual as burnt toast but Jimmy’s mom looks surprisingly hot at the ninth grade bake sale, it makes you reevaluate the sexiness of mothers or, generally, adults over 35. Jimmy’s mother is a MILF, and deserves the special category, only from the intergenerational perspective of a 14-year-old or whatever. It seems, though, that it’s being used to mean any woman who has a kid, which totally gets my back up. I’m 26 with an infant — I’d like to think I’m sexy in my own right and MILF is uncalled for, unless my kid’s friends at play-date start using the term way early. What do you think? Is MILF only referring to women of your parent’s age and above, or does it mean any woman who has (gasp!) had a child?


Still Hot?

Dear Hot:

I think I’ve weighed in on "cougar" a bunch of times, and fascinated as I am by the way the sexually-not-dead-yet moderately older woman has become the Hottentot Venus of our time — sexualized yet grotesque-ified, exoticized, gawped at, and lampooned — I think I need to leave it alone now. As for "MiLF" and MILFs, we have discussed it and them here, but only once, in passing, when some bozo wrote in about his hot former ex niece-in-law, or something, whom he described as "the very personification of the MILF." And indeed, he did want to F her.

"What does it even mean" I wrote then, "by specifying the ‘mother’ in ‘mother I’d like to fuck?’ Does the speaker intend to make a distinction between the rare mother worth fucking and the unfuckable masses? Or is it really the ‘mother’ part that intrigues, that sexy whiff of fecundity, that milkshake that brings all the boys to our yard? My personal suspicion is that it’s the latter masquerading as the former, that the fascination with the pregnant or baby-toting Heidi Klum or Angelina Jolie is not fueled so much by the fact that they still look ‘hot’ as by the implication that if somebody knocked them up, then so, by extension, could you. But I may be getting a little theory-addled here."

And indeed I think I was. Such subtexts are fun to contemplate, and I do think there’s something to it, but it’s obvious the other element in wanting to F Heidi Klum is simply wanting to F Heidi Klum. And while we’re on Heidi, no pun intended, my husband and I got to teach the "sex and parenting" section at San Francisco Sex Information this past weekend and got to tell my Heidi Klum joke, which is actually no joke, and goes like this:

Q: How do you look like Heidi Klum after you have a baby?

A: Easy. All you have to do is look like Heidi Klum before you have a baby.

Now, on to your specific questions. I’m glad it’s not that you actually aspire to being classified as MILFy and are trying to figure out who has the standing to nominate you. You are more than just musing semantically, though, the way I might while washing dishes or pushing the stroller around. This bugs you! I’m sorry!

I think you have the right of it when you narrow the term to what I’ve always felt was the best use of the (icky anyway) phrase: the mother of one of your friends, a full generation older than you "but" still hot. Stacy’s mom. Or, to hark back to the classics, Anne Bancroft in the leopard-skin coat, coo-coo-ca-choo. And by the way, do you know how old Anne Bancroft was when she played Mrs. Robinson? Thirty-five. Thirty-five! No fairsies playing the hot older woman when you barely qualify as "older," Anna Maria Italiano.

I loved Anne Bancroft.

Since its (fairly recent) inception, the "proper" use of MILF has morphed from "Mrs. Robinson" to, yes, anybody female and parous, of any age, whom the observer, also of any age, deems "fuckable." This is sort of nasty in that it clearly divides the fuckable from the un, probably along the most obvious and cartoonish model (you need to be thin, flat-bellied, big-but-perkily boobed, etc. to qualify). And yes, it also casts those of us who have had kids into a special category, needing to be judged, separate from the nulliparous masses, as still fuckable despite having committed the antisexual sin of reserving much of our time and affection and a good deal of the access of our bodies for (small) people who are not the guys doing the judging. Oops! Sorry, dudes!

It is objectionable. It is kind of gross. But it is also silly and far more their problem than yours.



See Andrea’s other column at carnalnation.com.