Volume 44 Number 16

Restoring majority rule

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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lame duck response to California’s projected $20 billion state deficit has given supporters of more than 30 budget and revenue-related state initiatives now in circulation a renewed sense of urgency as they scramble to gather signatures and qualify proposed solutions to the state’s ongoing financial emergency for the November ballot.

But while this plethora of initiatives reflects widespread frustration over the state’s broken system of governance, disagreement rages over how to fix it and how best to restore majority rule to California.

“These are the hardest decisions a government must make, yet there is simply no conceivable way to avoid more cuts and more pain,” the governor told reporters Jan. 8 as he released a new budget proposal calling for $8.5 billion in cuts to state workers’ wages, health and human services, and prisons; a legally questionable $4.5 billion shift in other funds; and $6.9 billion in federal reimbursements that have yet to be approved.

Even steeper social services cuts are in the works, Schwarzenegger warned, if the feds don’t comply with this request for a bailout. But he refused to target corporations and millionaires as revenue sources, clinging instead to the standard Republican pledge not to raise taxes.

“We didn’t hear him say, ‘We are going to pinch the wealthy and the corporate,'<0x2009>” State Sen. Mark Leno observed. “He is definitely setting his sights on the social safety net.”

Recent revolts within the public university system, including the November takeover of UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall, suggest that tuition hikes, layoffs, and reduced study options have brought students to the tipping point.

But UC Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff fears that without restoring majority rule to the state’s budget and revenue-related measures, such revolts only address symptoms, not causes, of the impasse.

So Lakoff decided to author the California Democracy Act, an initiative that would replace the state’s two-thirds requirement on budget and revenue bills with a simple majority vote, after Sen. Loni Hancock invited him to meet with a group of Democratic state senators last spring.

“She said the Democrats were having problems getting anything done, and I went away saying, ‘this is ridiculous,'<0x2009>” Lakoff said. “It occurred to me that since the problem came by way of the initiative process, then it was possible to rectify it that way.”

Proposition 13, approved by voters in 1978, limited property tax increases and required a two-thirds supermajority in the Legislature to approve most new tax increase, measures that contributed mightily to the state’s bleak financial situation.

California also requires a two-thirds vote for the Legislature to approve the annual budget, along with only Arkansas and Delaware. On Jan. 5, Sonoma State philosophy professor Teed Rockwell told the Potrero Hill Democratic Club to endorse Lakoff’s initiative, noting that California is the only state to require two-thirds vote on budget and revenue bills.

“I have learned that essentially everything that is uniquely wrong with California results from this one fact,” Rockwell said.

California has the largest number of millionaires in the U.S., but as Rockwell observed, thanks to the fiscal stranglehold of the Republican minority, “We do not have enough money to keep our parks open or maintain affordable tuition at our public colleges. And the extremists in Sacramento want to solve this problem by decreasing taxes on millionaires and increasing taxes on the middle class.”

Rockwell noted that of the 22 states that produce oil in the U.S., all have oil severance taxes, including Sarah Palin’s Alaska and George W. Bush’s Texas — except California.

But while the California Democracy Act simply resolves that “all legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote,” neither the state Democratic Party nor the major unions are willing to support Lakoff’s measure, citing its bad results in the polls.

Instead, veteran legislator and California Democratic Party Chair John Burton is backing a Hancock proposal that seeks to reduce to a simple majority the Legislature’s voting requirement on budget bills.

Lakoff warns that budget bills merely determine how to slice the pie, while revenue bills determine the size of the pie. This means that if Democrats succeed in only reforming the state’s budget voting requirements, they’ll still be stuck with having to make painful cuts.

But Hancock, who has been living with the results of this fiscal gridlock since she was elected to the state Assembly six years ago and helped sponsor the failed oil severance tax initiative in 2006, believes decisions to cut prison or education spending are not trivial.

“Last year Democrats gave $2 billion in tax breaks just to get one desperately needed Republican vote on the budget,” Hancock told the Guardian. “And now the Republicans are asking for takeaways on environmental and labor protections that they otherwise wouldn’t have any power to negotiate.”

“I am a realistic idealist,” Hancock continued. “I believe we are better off to get the majority vote to pass the budget. That way, the minority might begin to negotiate and have a more rational conversation. I’m very pleased that throughout the state, folks are recognizing that state governance is broken.”

California Tax Reform Association executive director Lenny Goldberg told us it’s hard to choose between the Lakoff and Hancock initiatives.

“It’s a question of what’s achievable, of how to focus energy,” Goldberg said. “Lowering the vote requirement for the budget would eliminate some of the hostage-taking and help reverse the corporate loopholes that the Democrats were forced to accept to get a budget passed. So at least it would make the budget process better.”

But he agrees that budget reform only makes the Democrats solely responsible for the budget, while preventing them from raising revenue.

“So there is some disagreement whether it’s better to do one, if you can’t do tax reform,” he said. “In the end, it’s a strategic, not substantive, question. Is it better to do budget alone, or not at all? Personally, I think we’re better off doing budget reform than nothing — but it’s a close call.”

Hancock and Lakoff both believe that a competing initiative, endorsed by Schwarzenegger and funded by the group California Forward, is the poison pill in the upcoming fiscal equation.

“Unfortunately, it’ll make it harder to raise fees,” Hancock said.

“It should be renamed California Backward,” Lakoff quipped, noting that while the California Forward initiative supports a simple majority on budget bills, it seeks to raise to two-thirds the voting threshold on new fees.

California Forward executive director Jim Mayer said his organization supported Prop. 11, the redistricting measure that passed in November 2008, “as a start to melt the political gridlock.

“And our two initiatives will help legislators do a better job of spending the pie,” Mayer added, noting that his group is talking to Democrats and Republicans as well as counties, cities, and branches of the Chamber of Commerce.

One of California Forward’s initiatives seeks to change the budget vote requirement to a simple majority and create a two-year budget cycle. It also forces the Legislature to use one-time revenues for one-time expenditures — and requires a two-thirds vote on fee increases, raising Democrat hackles.

“When the Legislature attempts to replace what’s currently a tax on utilities with a fee, currently they can do that with a simple majority. But people on the right tend to worry that if you eliminate a tax and call it a fee, it’s illegal,” California Forward spokesperson Ryan Rauzon explained.

The other initiative would allow county governments to identify priorities and raise revenue with a simple majority vote, Mayer said, a plan he claims is about “empowering local governments.”

Plastique fantastique

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FILM The 2009 Toronto Film Festival encompassed, as usual, much

of what would turn out to be the year’s major award bait: Up in the Air, Precious: Based On the Novel Push By Sapphire, A Serious Man, new ones by Herzog, Almodóvar, Haneke, etc. But probably the best, and certainly most enjoyable, movie seen there was well off the official radar of must-sees. Perhaps because it centered on the adventures of plastic toys?

Profound, it is not. But A Town Called Panic is perhaps more consistently hilarious than anything since 2006’s Borat (which is now forever tainted by the association with 2009’s gravely disappointing Brüno). Several viewings later, it remains a delight. Now you can share the joy in local theaters. It’s that rare movie for everybody — or at least those old enough to read subtitles and not too wrong-headedly “grown-up” to snub a cartoon.

Opening in New York City and L.A. just in time to qualify for 2009 Oscar nominations, Panic is a dark horse not just because it’s foreign, but because last year was an unprecedentedly good one for animation. Personal faves Sita Sings the Blues and Up might have more intellect and heart, respectively. But Panic is funnier — than any ’09 live action feature, too.

It’s a feature expansion of a Belgian “puppetoon” series originating in a film-school project in 1991. A decade later, fellow graduates Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar decided to turn it into a series of five-minute shorts that wound up on TV networks worldwide. You can find several dubbed English-language episodes on YouTube — but trust me, it’s somehow even more hilarious in the original French, with subtitles of course.

The titular town is an idyllic patch of cartoon countryside whose primary stop-motion residents are a couple of households on adjacent hills. On one abides tantrum-prone Farmer Stephen, his wife Jeanine, and their livestock. The other houses our real protagonists, Cheval (a.k.a. Horse), Indian, and Cowboy. All look like the kinds of not-so-high-action figures kids possessed in the first half of the 20th century, before TV commercials made the toy market explode.

Ergo, Cheval is a hollow plastic mold of classic chestnut-stallion design, maybe seven-by-five inches, while his pals are possibly rubber figures a couple inches high, standing on li’l oval bases easily glued into the scenery of your homemade 1948 model-train landscape.

Of course they’re animate, albeit in the most endearingly klutzy fashion imaginable — though A Town Called Panic the movie is, like 1999’s South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, a significant visual upgrade from the broadcast version that nonetheless retains the air of cheerful crudity on which the concept’s charm largely rests.

Anyhoo, Cheval (voiced by Patar) is the responsible-adult minder to squeaky-voiced wards Cowboy (Aubier) and Indian (Bruce Ellison), who are like rambunctious five-year-olds — impulsive, well-intentioned, forever trying to haplessly hide the disasters they’ve accidentally caused. Having forgotten (once again) that it’s Cheval’s birthday, they have a bright idea that one wee computer keyboard whoopsie turns into a catastrophe for the whole village. But not before A Town Called Panic‘s most hysterical set piece: a birthday fete featuring breakdancing, a disco ball, Farmer Stephen passing out, and Cheval’s sexy slow dance with music-school teacher Mme. Longray (Jeanne Balibar) — his pink-maned, smoky-voiced romantic interest.

Subsequent adventures embroil our heroes in some undersea chase nonsense that feels less inspired, perhaps in part because of a sense that SpongeBob already owns the absurdist ocean floor. But at a hectic 75 minutes, Panic never lags long enough to let its energy or overall hilarity flag.

A TOWN CALLED PANIC opens Fri/22 in Bay Area theaters.

Saving ocean ecosystems

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GREEN CITY In the spring and summer months, pacific leatherback sea turtles arrive just outside the Golden Gate to feast on jellyfish. The turtles, which can weigh up to 1,200 pounds and live as long as a century, are some of the oldest reptiles in existence.

In a single year, a leatherback may swim 6,200 miles as it encircles the Pacific Ocean, migrating from nesting grounds as far away as Indonesia to feed off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. The leatherback was listed as a federally endangered species in 1970, and scientists now worry that the turtles could go extinct in as little as 10 years.

The ancient reptile may be rare, but its vanishing act is becoming common for marine creatures. Jackie Dragon, a campaign organizer with Pacific Environment, told us large fish populations, including bluefin tuna, Atlantic cod, marlin, and certain sharks, have declined by 90 percent since the advent of industrialized fishing in the 1950s. Meanwhile, ocean acidification due to rising carbon dioxide levels has imperiled key species, threatening to alter the food web with potentially drastic implications.

Recently, San Francisco’s ocean conservationists have displayed rare optimism, however, as historic new protections for ocean ecosystems and the leatherback seem within reach.

A coalition of local environmental organizations staged a Jan. 13 event at City Hall to rally for the creation of a new, comprehensive ocean-protection policy at the federal level. Dubbed Wear Blue for Oceans Day, the event drew a crowd of around 75 who donned blue in support of the federal policy, put forth by President Barack Obama last June.

Under the current regulatory system, there are 140 different laws relating to ocean management, and more than 20 disparate agencies, according to Dragon. “They have varying purposes and often conflicting mandates,” she explained. “Right now, it’s inconsistent with a healthy future for the ocean to have a piecemeal approach. And it’s absolutely necessary to appreciate that ecosystems in the ocean depend on a kind of management that takes into consideration the fact that these habitats … need to be looked at from a broader perspective.”

According to an interim report drafted by a 23-member task force convened by Obama to make suggestions for crafting a federal policy, the new approach would place ecosystem protection at the heart of regulatory decisions. Environmentalists hope it will improve the overall health of oceans.

The task force is scheduled to submit its final recommendations to Obama in early February, and the president is expected to announce the creation of the new policy shortly afterward. “The importance of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems cannot be overstated,” the report notes. “Simply put, we need them to survive.” Climate change and ocean acidification are named as top priorities.

A second regulatory victory seems imminent for the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, a San Francisco-based environmental organization that joined Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Turtle Island Restoration Network in pressing for expanded critical habitat designation for the pacific leatherback turtles in 2007.

The groups sued the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for failing to take action for two years. Following a settlement, the agency finally submitted its proposal Jan. 5 for a new protection zone. The critical habitat area would span some 70,000 square miles of open waters along the West Coast.

Chris Pincetich, a campaign organizer with the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, called the designation “a long overdue action by federal agencies.” However, the proposal doesn’t limit commercial fishing, which Pincetich notes is one of the greatest threats to the leatherbacks, because they can become ensnared in gillnets. Nor does it cover habitat areas in Southern California, where turtles have been known to migrate, Pincetich said. NMFS will accept public comments on the proposal until March 8.

Although it’s a major step forward, changes won’t be implemented until January 2011 at the earliest.

For the leatherback, with about a decade to fight for survival, time is of the essence.

tlhIngan maH!

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EVENT Encompassing an entire universe of exotic worlds, cutting-edge technology, and larger-than-life characters, the realm of Star Trek has inspired fans and captivated their imaginations since the first episode of the original television series was broadcast back in 1966.

Created by Gene Roddenberry, who wove many of the pressing social issues of the 1960s into the fabric of the Star Trek ethos, the franchise has continued to live on through several spin-off television series, feature films, books, video games, and more.

San Francisco — which also happens to be home to the fictional headquarters of “Starfleet Command” — will be filled with sci fi fans this weekend for an official Star Trek convention featuring luminaries from the series such as the legendary William Shatner, the newly knighted Sir Patrick Stewart, and several other notable actors.

Two fan favorites who will be in attendance on Saturday are J.G. Hertzler and Robert O’Reilly, best known in the Star Trek pantheon for their roles as the Klingons Martok and Gowron. Both will be making a rare appearance in full costume and makeup, and will be doing some light-hearted improv in character, including what they call “Kling Bling” — a bit of Klingon hip-hop.

Hertzler, who spent several years at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco before beginning his television career, enjoys stepping back into the character, which not only allows him to entertain fans but to interject political and social commentary into the proceedings.

“The thing about being a Klingon is that it allows you to rant. It’s on the edge of acceptable human behavior, but it’s all acceptable if you’re a Klingon,” Hertzler laughs.

The fervor with which fans embrace Star Trek is admired by O’Reilly, who also notes that many Trekkers have gone on to make valuable scientific contributions to society after being inspired by the series.

“People really feel deeply about Star Trek. If you see who the fans are, they’re scientists, astronomers — they’re very bright people,” O’Reilly says. “I’ve talked to astronauts who have said, ‘I wanted to be an astronaut because I watched Star Trek and I wanted to get up there.'”

Both actors, who have also done a great deal of work on the stage during their careers, are proud and appreciative of the connections they and others in the series have made with fans over the years, which they say can transcend differences even in culture or location.

“It’s truly amazing, I correspond with fans who live everywhere,” Hertzler says. “Because of Star Trek, I have friends all over the world.”

OFFICIAL STAR TREK CONVENTION 2010

Sat/23, 11 a.m.–9:45 p.m.;

Sun/24, 11 a.m.–6 p.m.; $20–$65

Westin St. Francis

335 Powell, SF

(818) 409-0960

www.creationent.com

Editor’s Notes

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I was in the Haight the other day, and saw something that would have made Police Chief George Gascón and Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius apoplectic. A group of young people, mostly men, were sitting right in the middle of the sidewalk. The scofflaws weren’t blocking my path since I was on Haight and they were a ways up Ashbury. But if I had wanted to walk in that direction, they would have been in the way. Which means they were already breaking the law, and if I’d complained and a cop had come along, they probably would have stood up and walked away. I can’t imagine they would have been arrested. In fact, if a beat officer had been walking Haight Street, they wouldn’t have been sitting there in the first place.

Gascón and Nevius are beating the drums for a “sit-lie” law, which would make it a crime to sit or lie on a public sidewalk. Since young thugs hassling residents, tourists, and shoppers in the Haight have become a problem, the sit-lie thing has legs; it could become this year’s version of Care Not Cash, the utterly bogus but politically catchy slogan that put Gavin Newsom in the Mayor’s Office.

There’s a populist anger about the poor behavior of a relatively small number of losers who are making life difficult for the generally upscale residents of the Haight, and progressives can’t ignore it. Frustration over decades of failed homeless policies made Newsom’s tough-love measure attractive. Explaining that it would never work, that it wasn’t a rational policy response, didn’t get the left anywhere.

That’s what we’re dealing with here. I can tell you, after watching Haight Street and its various generations of problems for more than 25 years, that a sit-lie law won’t solve anything. I can tell you that as soon as an officer approaches the troublemakers sitting on the street, they’ll do what any sane small-time crook would do: they’ll stand up. Then they’ll walk a few blocks away. If it keeps up, they’ll stop sitting down altogether. You can threaten, bully, and hassle people just as easily from a standing position.

And if they do get arrested, they’ll be released quickly (the city’s overcrowded jails, packed to the gills with the folks Gascón has rounded up in his Tenderloin sweeps, has no room for people charged with a minor crime like sitting on the sidewalk). Then they’ll be back.

I can tell you that the cost of arresting, charging, prosecuting, defending, and incarcerating these jerks would be way higher than the cost of having two cops walk up and down Haight Street all day, in uniform — a move that would absolutely solve the problem.

But this isn’t about rationality — it’s about emotion. Gascón has done a brilliant job, with the help of the Chron, of framing this as hard-headed law enforcement against the liberal supervisors.

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, no fan of street crime, wants a hearing on the issue, to get some rational facts on the table. That’s a good start — but we need an alternative proposal. How about a test: try having two cops walk the beat every day for three months, a visible community policing presence on Haight Street. If that doesn’t work, we can always try something else.

Year of the yahoo

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CULT FILM The year of cinematic enlightenment was 1967, with movies as disparate as Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, I Am Curious (Yellow), The President’s Analyst, and Week End all proclaiming the dawn of a truly adult era. Of course, not everybody was on that page. Some quite possibly couldn’t make out the text if they tried.

Clinging to its own personal celluloid Dark Ages was Shanty Tramp, which flew under reviewers’ radar while making a tidy profit from drive-in and grindhouse patrons with zero use for Godard. One of those movies that, once seen, can never be forgotten (though some might wish they could), it’s steadily accrued a cult following, with a legit Sinister Cinema DVD release last year and one-off screenings like Thrillville’s at the Four Star this week.

Advertised “for mature adults only!” with tellingly ungrammatical lure “Crowds! Talk! Bold! Visual! Naughty! Action!” Shanty Tramp is lurid in the most immature ways possible. Like much pre-hardcore smut, it remains all the smuttier for coarsely suggesting while seldom showing more than an occasionally topless woman in a spotlessly white, low-cut cocktail dress.

This incongruous apparel is form-fitted to titular tramp Emily (Lee Holland), whose meanderings around her small Florida bayou burg one long hot night wreak no end of havoc. The tawdry melodramatics encompass motorcycle-gang rumblage, attempted rape, miscegenation, phony rape accusations, racist lynch mobs, public inebriation, incest, belt-whuppin’, car theft, murder, mobsters, parricide, and a bogus evangelical salvation that triggers one of the greatest closing lines in film history.

Actually, this movie is wall-to-wall quotable, whether it’s Emily telling her soused paw “Find yourself a nice warm place in the gutter and sleep it off” or a bit-part biker opining “Crazy like, man! Like me and my chick wanna find a dark corner someplace, daddy-o.” Yet for all its absurdity, the feature is scarcely less sophisticated in its chiding attitude toward Southern race relations than Oscar’s overrated 1967 Best Picture pick, In the

Heat of the Night.

Presented by exploitation king K. Gordon Murray’s loftily named Trans-International Films (distributor mostly of dubbed Mexican horror and European fairy-tale cheapies), Shanty Tramp isn’t just so-bad-it’s-good. It’s so bad it’s great. One senses at least some participants knew how trashy their Tramp was. It’s anyone’s guess whether the variably amateurish (but vivid) actors

were in on the joke, or its butt.

Despite its rising infamy, little is known about Shanty Tramp‘s creation. Whatever became of Holland or fellow cast members? Director Joseph P. Mawra made just three more movies, with titles like Savages from Hell (1968). Even the enterprising Murray was out of the biz by 1974, dying of a heart attack just five years later after the IRS seized all his film prints for tax evasion.

One Shanty Tramp resident did make it to the proverbial big time. Mawra’s assistant Bob Clark graduated to directing ’70s horror cult classics (including 1974’s Black Christmas), hit a gusher called Porky’s (1982), then spent two decades shinnying up the pay-pole and sliding down the integrity one. His career ended with double-whammies The Karate Dog and Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 (both 2004). The comfortable retirement such labors had earned was cut short in 2007 by a drunk driver. Now that’s a trajectory even beyond K. Gordon Murray’s sordid imagination.

SHANTY TRAMP

Thurs/21, 8 p.m., $10

Four Star, 2200 Clement, SF

www.thrillville.net

Stop the Transamerica condo high-rise!

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The San Francisco Planning Commission and Recreation and Park Commission will hold a special joint meeting Jan. 21 to decide whether to allow the owner of the Transamerica Building to construct a 400-foot condo tower next door that would violate so many elements of the city’s Planning Code and rational planning policy that it’s almost impossible to list them all.

The building, which would contain 248 luxury housing units — something the city doesn’t need — would cast shadows on two city parks, make downtown traffic and air quality much worse (thanks to a four-level underground parking garage), and require special spot zoning to double the allowable height from 200 feet to 400 feet.

There is no conceivable policy reason to approve this abomination. Even so, Mayor Newsom’s Planning Department is pushing it, and four of the seven planning commissioners are Newsom appointees. If the mayor’s staff and appointees allow this project to go forward, it will be a lasting legacy of shame for his administration.

Aegon Corp. wants to build housing next to its landmark property, and nothing in the Planning Code discourages that. In fact, city planners are pushing for more housing downtown, close to workplaces. In theory, that should cut down on transportation needs and car use. And of course, just about everyone in town believes that San Francisco needs more housing.

In practice, the program hasn’t worked out. The new housing units built in downtown San Francisco have been purchased to a large extent by commuters who travel to Silicon Valley, by retirees who aren’t working anyway, by wealthy people who want a pied-à-terre in San Francisco and by real-estate speculators looking for a quick buck.

The high-end condos haven’t done anything to relieve pressure on the housing market and don’t meet the city’s urgent need for more housing for middle-class and low-income families. If anything, the luxury condo market downtown is overbuilt right now.

Still, if Aegon wanted to build a 200-foot tower within existing zoning parameters, the company could probably get away with it.

But that’s now what’s on the table. The 555 Washington St. building would be double the allowable height — and would violate Proposition K, the 1984 law that bars the construction of towers casting shadows on public parks. City planners acknowledge that both Sue Bierman Plaza and Maritime Park would lose sunshine if the high-rise is built.

In exchange, the developer has offered to give the city a new park. But that proposal is a scam, too. There’s already open space on the site — Redwood Park. That’s considered private property, to be used by Transamerica Building residents — but it exists only because the city mandated it in 1971 as part of the trade-off for constructing the Pyramid, which violated city height and bulk rules at the time.

The new park would include an additional 4,000 square feet, but also requires that the city sell Aegon part of a city street, Mark Twain Alley. Aegon will then use the air rights above that street to increase the bulk of the building, and construct a parking garage below.

So the city gives up public property to gain a slight addition to a park that the city forced the developer to construct in the first place — and in exchange lets the developer block the sun on two existing parks. This is considered a fair tradeoff?

In the wake of the construction of the Pyramid, the city adopted zoning rules that drove high-rises south of Market Street and imposed straight height limits on the edge of Chinatown and North Beach. The 555 Washington project would be a major, precedent-setting step backward.

And what’s the endgame here? What does the city get for bestowing a developer with a huge basket of favors? An unattractive building that will offer housing for a small number of very rich people.

The Planning Commission and Rec-Park Commission must both sign off on any proposal that casts shadows on a park. And while planning staffers have come up with some remarkably convoluted arguments (there weren’t good computer programs in 1984, and now we can track the sun better so it’s okay to rewrite the rules to allow more shade), the sunlight issue alone ought to derail this building. But there’s so much wrong with the proposal that any one of half-dozen issues should be enough to ensure that it never gets beyond the drawing board.

Thursday’s vote will be a test for Newsom and his commissioners. If they allow 555 Washington to proceed, it will be a sign that city planning is entirely in the hands of private developers and that any sense of reason has been lost in the process.

Clouds and mirrors

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Carl Fisher turned a mosquito-plagued, malarial sandbar into Miami Beach, “The Sun and Fun Capital of The World,” in less than a decade — dredging up sea bottom to build the island paradise, an all-American Las Vegas-by-the- Sea, where Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason partied and Richard Nixon received two Republican nominations for president. Art Deco hotels lined the beach, bold as Cadillacs, defiant in the path of hurricanes, their confident Modern lines projecting postwar American power. Morris Lapidus, the architect of the Fontainebleau Hotel, understood that the skin-deep city Fisher conjured out of neon and sunshine was a stage for the leisure fantasies of the ruling class. When his iconic Collins Avenue hotel opened in 1954, Lapidus said he wanted to design a place “where when (people) walk in, they do feel ‘This is what I’ve dreamed of, this is what we saw in the movies.'”

For many years in Miami, that movie was Scarface, as Colombian drug lords shot it out in mall parking lots. A shiny new downtown skyline of banks and condos emerged during a recession economy from the laundered proceeds of drug smuggling. Today the cocaine cowboys have all died, or done their time and moved on. Their descendents are selling art.

Art Basel came to Miami Beach in 2002, and the rise of Miami as an international art world capital neatly coincided with the glory days of the housing bubble. According to Peter Zalewski of Condovulture.com, around 23,000 new condo units were built in and around downtown Miami during the Art Basel era — twice the amount built in the 40 previous years. The success of the international art exhibition has inspired a fever dream among city leaders, in which Miami’s skyline and neighborhoods are radically transformed by art world-related real estate development.

Cesar Pelli’s $461 million, 570,000-square-foot Carnival Center for the Performing Arts opened in 2006 in a moribund section of downtown known for its proximity to the faded 1970s-era mall, the Omni. That same year, the Miami Art Museum (MAM) hired as its new director Terence Riley, the former curator for architecture and design at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Heralded in his new city as “the Robert Moses of the new Miami millennium,” Riley initiated the development of Museum Park. This 29-acre complex would be home to new buildings for the Miami Art Museum and the Miami Museum of Science and Planetarium. It was to be built on the site of Miami’s last public waterfront park, Bicentennial Park, long a sort-of autonomous zone for Miami’s homeless residents. While the new MAM is not scheduled for completion until 2013, by 2007, a 50-floor, 200-unit luxury condo development, 10 Museum Park, had already been finished across the street.

Art Basel Miami Beach brings an estimated 40,000 people to Miami each year to look at art, party, and more important, look at celebrities as they look at art and party. The art fair, once dubbed “the planet’s highest concentration of wealth and talent,” generates an estimated $500 million in art sales each year. Yet while Miami leaders seek to present to the world Basel’s image of wealth and glamour, the iconic image of South Florida today has abruptly become the newly built and entirely empty condo development. Zalewski estimates that 40% of the condo units built since 2003 remain unsold. Florida’s foreclosure rate is the second-highest in the nation, and for the first time since World War II, people are leaving Florida faster than they are arriving. Just months before this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach, a New York Times cover story told of the lone occupant in a towering Broward County condo that had gone entirely into foreclosure. As the fair approached, I wondered: can art really save a city like Miami? Or is its reliance on art world money part of the city’s collapse?

ATLANTIS CITY

At this year’s Art Basel, the glitz was, of course, played down, what with the global economic collapse and Art Basel’s main corporate sponsor, top Swiss bank UBS, now the subject of an FBI probe on charges of helping billionaire clients evade taxes. In the weeks before the opening of the fair, it was announced that the legendary UBS free caviar tent would not be open this year. One could not help but notice that the ice sculptures on the beach itself, hallmarks of the recent boom, were gone, already as fabled as the lost city of Atlantis.

Still, the epic “Arts and Power” issue of Miami magazine hit the stands on time, luxurious full-color spreads on oversize glossy pages. Press from all over the world wrote a month’s worth of previews leading up to the event, and on the day of the VIP vernissage, TV news reporters from all continents were there to dutifully record the arrivals of billionaires, celebrities, and fashion models at the Miami Beach Convention Center. As Art Basel Miami Beach 2009 opened, the floor of the convention center was eerily quiet, with hardly a sound except a hushed, determined whisper a bit like paper money being rubbed together. It seemed to me like everyone was doing her or his part, as if the whole art fair was a sort of performance art piece demonstrating the vigor of the free market in dark times.

This murmur ceased completely, and the air filled with the muted clicking of camera shutters, as Sylvester Stallone passed me on the convention floor. Stallone, too, was stoic, his expression hidden by dark sunglasses at mid-day. He stopped next to me and began to talk to TV news cameras about his own paintings on display, presented by the gallery Gmurzynska. Close-up and in person, clumps of the actor’s face, now just inches from mine, seemed to lay inert and dead like the unfortunate globs of oil paint he had arranged on his own canvasses. Pieces of puffy cheek hung limp and jowly under taut eyebrow skin, Botox and facelifts fighting age for control. For a paparazzi flashbulb moment, I thought I saw in Rambo’s sagging face a metaphor for the doomed efforts to prop up a whole failing way of life.

The Miami Beach Convention Center’s 500,000 square feet had been blocked out into booths and concourses that comprised a pseudo-city of art. As a city, it most resembled some parts of the new Manhattan — crowded yet curiously hollowed out and lifeless, under relentless surveillance, full of nostalgia for its former, more vital self. Groundbreaking art that once had the power to shock, move, or startle — Rauschenberg’s collages, Richard Prince’s Marlboro men, Barbara Krueger’s text block barrages — were presented here as high-priced real estate. In the city of art, time stood still; Matisse, de Kooning, and Duchamp had all retired to the same street. A sailor portrayed in a 2009 life-size portrait by David Hockney seemed to gaze wistfully across the hall toward a 1981 silk-screened print of a dollar sign by Andy Warhol. The life-size portraits by Kehinde Wiley felt just like the city in summer, how the radio of every passing car seems to be blasting the same song. A print of a photo of Warhol and Basquiat together in SoHo stood catty-corner to a 1985 Warhol paining of the text, “Someone Wants To Buy Your Apartment Building.”

I wondered if this city of art offered clues as to the kind of city that developers imagined Miami might become.

ART MAUL

Across Biscayne Bay, away from Miami Beach in the city of Miami, the fever dream of art was turning a down-and-out neighborhood in the poorest city in America into an outdoor art mall. Fifteen satellite art fairs and 60 galleries staged simultaneous exhibitions in Miami during the week of Art Basel Miami Beach. Virtually all this art was crammed into about 80 square blocks north of downtown Miami, bisected by North Miami Avenue. The area included Miami’s African American ghetto, Overtown, the warehouse district of the low rent Puerto Rican neighborhood, Wynwood, and the resurgent Miami Design District up to its shifting borders with Little Haiti.

Walking up North Miami Avenue and Northwest Second Avenue the night before the exhibitions began, I could see the usually moribund main drags transforming before my eyes. Warehouses vacant the other 50 weeks of the year were hastily being turned into galleries or party spaces. Solely for Art Basel week, the Lower East Side hipster bar Max Fish had built an exact replica of its Ludlow Street digs in an Overtown storefront. In Wynwood, the paint still appeared wet on a fresh layer of murals and graffiti running up and down the streets.

The modern-day Carl Fisher most perhaps most responsible for dredging this new art world Miami up from the bottom of the sea is Craig Robins. “I transformed the image of my city from Scarface into Art Deco,” is how Robins put it when I talked to him in the Design District offices of his development firm, Dacra. Widely considered to be the person who brought Art Basel to Miami Beach, Robins is, at a youthful 46, the man who perhaps more than anyone embodies the values and tastes of a new Miami where art and real estate have become as inseparable as fun and sun. Robins takes art seriously — he is a major collector of artists like John Baldessari, Elizabeth Peyton, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Richard Tuttle — and he made his name and fortune by restoring the derelict Art Deco motels on his native Miami Beach during the early 1990s into the international high-end tourist destination now known as South Beach. Today Robins is one of the principal owners of the warehouses in the Miami Design District and Wynwood.

With his casual dress, shaved head, and stylish Euro glasses, Robins could easily fit in as one of the German tourists who flock to the discos on the South Beach that he developed. His offices offer a rotating display of the works of art in his collection. Around the time of Art Basel, his staff had installed many works by the SoCal conceptual artist John Baldessari, in honor of Baldessari’s upcoming career retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London. Robins was friendly and projected a relaxed cool; when I’d met him on the convention center floor and asked for an interview, he gave me an affectionate shoulder squeeze and said, “Call my assistant and we’ll hang, OK?” A few days later, he grinned somewhat impishly when I sat down said, “I notice you sat in the Martin Bas chair,” as if it was a Rorschach test. Honestly, it was the only piece of furniture in the design collector’s office that looked dependably functional.

Not surprisingly, Robins was adept at explaining the art theory behind his development projects, and the ways Dacra is bringing art, design, and real estate together “to make Miami a brand name.” He said he learned from the successful preservation of historic buildings in his South Beach projects that consumers were starting to reject the cookie-cutter commodities of the mall and “starting to value unique experiences” made from “a combination of permanent and temporary things.” On the streets of the Design District and Wynwood, Robins sought to bring together restaurants, fashion showrooms, and high-end retail stores, surrounded by parties, international art shows, and public art. “This gives a richness to the experience of Miami,” Robins said. “That is the content that Miami is evolving toward right now.” I thought of Lapidus, the Godfather of Art Deco, and his quote about the Fontainebleau: In Wynwood, Robins wanted to turn not just a hotel lobby but an entire neighborhood into a place where visitors feel they have entered a movie.

Robins grew more excited as he discussed his vision. “With my work at Dacra, I build communities,” he told me. “When we brought Art Basel here, Miami immediately became recognized as a world-class city.”

Others are skeptical. “Miami will always be an attractive place for people to visit in December, but you can’t graft culture onto a city,” says Alan Farago of the widely read blog Eye On Miami. “It’s a mistaken belief that art can be a totem or a symbol of a great city without there being any substance. Miami will continue to be a pretender because there is no investment in local culture beyond building massive edifices like the Performing Arts Center.”

Indeed, the center — now renamed the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center, in honor of a wealthy benefactor — has become perhaps another in a long line of tragicomic failed improvements for the area. Bunker-like, it has been likened by some architecture critics to an upside-down Jacuzzi. Though 20 years in the making and long heralded by boosters as a building that would instantly make Miami a “world-class city,” the center has operated at a deficit and suffered from poor attendance since its opening. The future of Museum Park suddenly turned cloudy a month before the opening of this year’s Art Basel, when Miami Art Museum director Terrence Riley unexpectedly resigned days after unveiling the architects Herzog and de Meuron’s final model for the new buildings. Riley sited a desire to return to private practice as an architect, but online speculation had it that he already knew cash-strapped Miami would ultimately be unable to raise the money to build the museum.

Farago wonders what would change if the city did have the money. “In Miami on one hand, we have public school teachers using their own salaries to buy art supplies for their students,” he says. “Then we have these one-off art events and a performing arts center that brings us road shows of Rent, Annie, and 101 Dalmatians.”

When I asked Robins what lasting benefits Art Basel provided to the community, he cited a roster of new restaurants opened by star chefs and fashion showrooms. “It encourages people to come down here year-round,” he said. It was clear that Robins was discussing amenities designed for tourists, or for a speculative community of future residents who might be enticed to come to Miami.

I suggested that there were actually two different communities in Wynwood with potentially opposing interests. I told Robins I’d attended a community meeting held by the activist groups Power University and the Miami Workers Center. There, Wynwood residents discussed how their rents had doubled, how the city continued to neglect the facilities at Roberto Clemente Park, and how the increased presence of police escorting the art patrons to the new galleries had made them feel like they didn’t belong in their own neighborhood.

Robins, who had been very loose and calm during the first 45 minutes of our talk, became visibly upset. He launched into a sustained rant. “Well, look, active communities are a good thing,” he said, shaking his head. “But just because a community is active doesn’t mean it is rational. You go and sit in these meetings and half the people are nuts. Half are just there because they are miserable people and they have some soapbox to go and rant about all these things that they think they have some entitlement to attack government about when they never do anything themselves for anyone. I find that 20 percent of these people are totally irrational, mean-spirited people who would never agree with anyone about anything good.”

“What kind of people do you mean?” I asked.

“People who feel disenfranchised! They’re very angry. They have psychological problems and they want a forum to vent. I’m not implying we should stifle democracy — I’m a big believer in it! I’m saying these people should not be taken seriously by enlightened people!”

Robins rose to look at a clock on his desk. Not surprisingly, our time was up. I politely excused myself to the restroom. When I returned it was like no tantrum had ever happened. Robins’ impish grin even returned as I asked him to pose for a photo in front of one of his Baldessari prints. I had him stand in front of Cigar Smoke to Match Clouds That are Different (By Sight/ First Version), a 1972-3 triptych of photos. As the artist looks into a mirror at clouds over his shoulder in the sky, he blows out a mouthful of twisting cigar smoke, trying to match their elusive shape in the air.

GIMME DANGER

Out on the streets of Wynwood, it was still mostly quiet, expectant, but the scene at David Lynch’s art opening gave one a sense of what the coming weekend would be like. Lynch was presenting photos from a book of staged stills he is releasing with a CD of music by Danger Mouse. Hundreds of hipsters, mostly locals, guzzled free booze and gawked when new Miami resident Iggy Pop showed up, shirtless as usual, in a Miami Vice-style blue blazer. As I watched the Godfather of Punk pose for pictures with his arm around Danger Mouse, I thought of the city of art, the Jackson Pollacks and Donald Judds together at last, on the convention center floor. I had the eerie feeling that the Internet had come to life.

I left the opening and walked at random through the streets of Wynwood at 2:00 a.m. While looking at murals and thinking about the changes Art Basel had wrought, I unexpectedly came upon a small street party of people I knew. The side street intersection was lit up like a stage with an enormous floodlight. Street artist SWOON stood high on a scissor lift, painting a mural on a warehouse wall, while below a couple of kids dressed like old tramps wrestled with a big, brown stuffed bear.

The bear split open, and thousands of tiny white particles of stuffing poured out into a warm Miami breeze, swirling high into the air and reflecting the glow from the floodlight. I ran to join the kids, who were now playing and laughing in the sudden snowstorm. A guy I recognized from Brooklyn rode by on a tall bike. Bay Area artist Monica Canilao went careening by on a scooter with no helmet. A cop drove by and smiled and waved. Guys from Overtown with cornrows and gold teeth were laying out a spread of huge chicken legs on a flaming grill. Some punk kids from Brooklyn sat on the curb, drinking beer. A girl in the group laid her head on a boy’s shoulder as they all watched SWOON work.

For a second, I flashed back to the Stallone scene earlier in the day, back on the convention floor. Here, in this intersection, I had found something living and breathing. This could be the real city of art. But I also knew the SWOON mural was commissioned by Jeffrey Deitch. I stood and watched the painting and the dancing and laughing and eating in the fake December snowstorm and contemplated what the city would be like if we all had the free time, resources, and permission to take to the streets and transform the city any way we pleased. Was this a window to a different world where anything might be possible?

Or was it just art?

The second half of this essay will run in the Jan. 27 Guardian. *

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Swimming

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CHEAP EATS The ice that I am on is thin. It’s so thin it might not even be ice. I could be Jesus, skating on pure belief, or a dream. Certainly, things are surreal here.

On my gloves and knees, I press my lips to the thin line between world and world and kiss fish. I can only imagine what they, and the Germans, are thinking. Even the ducks have stopped speaking to me. I suppose I could take that as a compliment. They no longer see me as news?

Yesterday went I out the snow into, because it seemed beautiful, and the Thing To Do while one’s love of one’s life is with their ex, talking it over. Right? You walk in the snow, in the failing light, and feel real sorry for yourself. Who wouldn’t? And you cry and curse in as many languages as possible, under your breath. Or just a little bit over it.

In a dark, cold, hard, way, and especially in the snow, this town is almost beautiful.

*

It’s been decided, as if I didn’t already know. I never had a chance. Ah, thus the headaches of summer, and the anxiety of fall, whereas now I feel smashed flat but finally sane. I’m so proud of my body! It’s like it knew what my big dumb brain and nutty, naïve heart could not: That I would never have a chance.

I am an unfolded newspaper. I am a sticker off of a piece of fruit, the pool of blood, a rug, the grooves that our love-making made in the bedroom hardwood. I can form thoughts and poetry, sure, but can’t pull my pancaked self up, without help, from this griddle or pond.

On the plus side, my brother mailed me a spatula! He did. It’s true.

*

Help me here: the person who breaks up with the person just one month after bringing the person to the cold dark hard place where she doesn’t know a soul, or speak the language … that person, the breaker-upper, goes, right? Has to go.

Nein!

“What, are you kicking me out?” the psychologist said, in shock and disbelief.

Um … “Can’t you go stay with your ex?” I said. She didn’t want to. “Well then,” I said. “Can I?”

To her credit, and mine, she laughed. But she said that I couldn’t.

*

One of Romea’s lesbian friends, who has been with men too, says that being in a relationship with a man is like swimming in a swimming pool, whereas being with a woman is like swimming in the sea.

I usually prefer to save my reductionism for sauces and such, but this has been slow-simmering for some time, so let’s call it sauce.

I’m thinking: kids, water wings, beach balls, and, if you’re lucky, a slide vs. sharks, sleeper waves, undertow, endlessness … I can see arguments for both sides.

Being with a trans woman, though, ain’t like swimming anywhere; it’s like walking on water. You. Just. Have. To. Believe. And Romea, ultimately, sadly, tragically, for me, didn’t.

But wait, but isn’t it supposed to be hard to be sad while playing a ukulele? Or is that just an expression I just made up that isn’t even true? It reminds me of the last place we ate there, a very mirrory Vietnamese joint in downtown Oakland with a collection of miniature stringed instruments all along one wall. The food was not at all memorable, but the mirrors … I remember thinking I would probably never again be able to see my love from so many different angles while sitting so still and eating noodles.

Why didn’t I see this one? The goer-backer-to-the-exer side, oy.

I did manage to get my money back for the German course I won’t need to finish, and am off to the train station. I will write you next week from France, where I have sisters. And that is exactly what I need right now. A spatula, and sisters.

PHUONG NAM

Mon.–Sat.: 11 a.m.–9 p.m.

1615 Clay, Oakl.

(510) 663-9811

Beer & Wine

AE/MC/V

L.E. Leone’s new book is Big Bend (Sparkle Street Books), a collection of short fiction.

Volume 44 Number 16 Flip-through Edition

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Appetite: Check it out, Hot Cakes

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BAKERIES AROUND THE BAY AREA

Here’s a few bakeries worth hitting when outside of the city in Marin or South Bay for breakfast, a snack, dessert…

THE NEW: SusieCakes in Marin, Grand Opening 1/23

I took a pleasant jaunt up to Marin for the first NorCal soft opening of SusieCakes and chat with owner, Susan Sarich. She’s experienced much success in LA with her bakery, now with four locations, but always wanted a Bay Area shop. (She used to live here but faced some difficulties opening a shop here before.) I’m glad she’s back, albeit north of the city in a Greenbrae shopping center. She hopes for more in the Bay Area at some point, but is focused here, with a Grand Opening this Saturday, 1/23. Her emphasis is on classic, heartwarming sweets, re-creating family and childhood favorites. Layered cakes are a mainstay, with all kinds of custom options, red velvet being the bestseller. With a rich cream cheese frosting, it’s my favorite of the cakes I tried ($33-$46 or $5.50 for a slice).

There are also cupcakes, cookies, less common Whoopie Pies (aka “gobs”, a Pennsylvania tradition), and a killer, creamy butterscotch pudding, made with slow churned, European-style butter (as are all the baked goods)… and this comes from someone who is not a fan of pudding. The space is crisp, clean, with retro flair, down to adorable bandannas worn by each staff member. On another playful, Willie Wonka-esque note, Saturday’s opening includes 10 Golden Tickets hidden inside 10 “frosting-filled” cupcakes. Each equals a different gift, from a cake decorating class, to free cakes or cupcakes. For sugar-holics, securing a Golden Ticket also means you’re one of only 10 to be in the grand prize drawing for a year’s supply of cakes in the Cake-of-the-Month Club.

10am-7pm

310 Bon Air Center, Greenbrae

415-461-2253

www.susiecakesla.com

SOUTH BAY

**Palo Alto’s Mayfield Bakery is pricey, with artisan bread and chichi pastries but oh, so delicious: try loaves, muffins, tarts.

**Rolling Pin Donuts is old school to the max…and pretty much a San Bruno institution.

**If you happen down to Los Gatos, Fleur de Cocoa is a classic French patisserie with genuine croissants and beloved Chocolate Royal (hazelnut) cake.

MARIN

**Yes, it’s a local chain but there’s only three Teacake Bake Shops: two in the East Bay (Emeryville, Lafayette), one in a Corte Madera outdoor shopping mall. The shops offer the usual array of cupcakes and brownies, but what I can’t get enough of is the addictive cookies, like Spiced Iced Molasses, Peanutty Chocolate or Lemon Pout.

Post-apocalyptic post-irony

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SONIC REDUCER Riddle me this, Indie Rocker: what happens when life kicks the nice, cozy crutch of irony out from under you? Where do you go the morning after cynicism, after tearing it all down and finding the ground crumbling below? The joke may be on guess who. And you’re not out of line to hear the latest albums by Magnetic Fields, Spoon, and Vampire Weekend as the equivalent of the apocalyptic scenarios cluttering nearby cinemas like The Road and The Book of Eli — post-crash-and-burn manifestations of the late-’00s that stare into the bombed-out, blank face of hopelessness.

Sure, it’s a postmodern dilemma, this crisis of what-next. The ’90s made it so easy to snark sourly — we were all in on the joke yet went for the money shot. The ’00s began with a dot-com crash and towers crumbling, and as prez-for-a-decade Duh-bya settled into terrorize the populace, it became easy to feel the sourness curdling into bitterness. How do you turn a brave face to the future when you were defined by knowing jadedness? Talking about you, Spoon, justifiably embittered by being wooed and ditched by Elektra Records. You, Magnetic Fields — too forbiddingly smart-ass to ever be “Seduced and Abandoned,” as the words of your new song go. And you, Vampire Weekend — seemingly constructed around the cynical premise of appropriating Afropop jangle by way of early childhood exposure of Graceland (Warner Bros., 1986). Which way out?

“Everybody loves you for your black eye,” sings Britt Daniel at the onset of Spoon’s Transference (Merge). From the title that references the transfer of emotions from a patient to therapist, to the song trajectory that implies the end and beginning of relationships, Transference sees Spoon — playing the Fox Theater April 13 — questioning the whys and wherefores of love. Clinical takedowns aren’t surprising from a band that has always boasted a razor-sharp suspicion of easy emotions and facile pop hooks and prided itself on its tough-minded lyrics and honed musical contours. Those sharp corners haven’t changed altogether, but halfway through around the ambient throb of “Who Makes Your Money,” the piano-driven blues of “Written in Reverse,” and the Velvets adoration of “I Saw the Light,” the music begins to break down. And open up, culminating in Spoon’s tenderest love song, “Goodnight Laura.” The baby talk of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge, 2007) — and its prescience concerning a certain Lady pop idol — has morphed into more adult feelings, and Transference sounds like a moment when Spoon’s defenses fell and Daniel discovered new reserves of power in vulnerability, while foregrounding fall-down-the-stairs piano and fizzing horror-filmish effects.

“You can’t go around saying stuff / Because it’s pretty / And I no longer drink enough / To think you’re witty.” Despite the characteristically clever phrasing, the Magnetic Fields aren’t mincing words with “You Must Be Out of Your Mind,” the opener of Realism (Nonesuch), which comes clad in the girl-symbol packaging to go with the boy plastered on the band’s last full-length, Distortion (Nonesuch, 2008). The group (at Fox Theater Feb. 27 and at Herbst Theatre March 1) has decided to play nicely this time around — whether or not you believe in realism or authenticity — promising “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree” and barbs done up in buttons and bows and late ’60s and early ’70s folk instrumentation. And in stark contrast to the candy-coated shit-fi of Distortion, Realism wallows in its startling all-acoustic, electronics-free loveliness, buffeted by umpteen mille-feuille pastry layers of autoharp, flugelhorn, harmonica, violin, sitar, and lashing rattle. Still knowing — and aware of the contrivances embedded in its aural reality show — Stephin Merritt and crew also appear to be daring their audience to embrace old-school beauty, an artifice like any other, along with sentimentality and traditional folk song values. Next stop, children’s tunes?

The most pleasant surprise must be Vampire Weekend’s new Contra (XL). The counter-revolutionary tendencies hinted at in the title apply to the group’s increasingly irreverent attitude toward its source material — making the Vampires sound less like Paul Simon than Panda Bear acolytes as they close in on those 808s and ’80s electro beats. As listenable as they are, Vampire Weekend (at the Fox Theater April 19-20) makes you work for your kicks, your pop hooks, embedding the kalimba thumb piano of “Horchata” in house-y synth and percolating rhythms, which melt naturally into “White Sky,” a union of African polyrhythms and electronic pointillism. The tour de force troika closers — “Giving Up the Gun,” “Diplomat’s Son,” and “I Think UR a Contra” — send the listener into a rippling sea of beats and a seething MIA-style South Asian grime-down that lightly pokes fun at privilege, before floating on a peaceful sea of TMI paranoia. Increasingly complex and satisfying, Vampire Weekend is growing out of its baby fangs.

Jay Reatard, 1980-2010

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MUSIC “It rocks, dude. Start to finish. Top to bottom.” This was my brother’s earnest recommendation of Blood Visions (In the Red), Jay Reatard’s incendiary 2006 solo debut and the record that, in the year or so following its release, startled me and many others into awareness of this Memphis punk auteur’s mesmerizing fury. Only a few years later, he has passed on, and no matter how many people he offended, slagged off, or punched out, it’s such a damn shame that he’s gone.

People admired many different things about Reatard (real name: Jimmy Lee Lindsey), even those turned off by his surly stage persona: his work ethic, how seriously he took every single show he played, and his intense commitment to craft, unusual at a time when tossed-off, blown-out punk became in vogue.

Visions‘ feverish litany rapidly unfolded into several subsequent solo releases — enough singles to fill two full-length compilations as well as a second LP, last year’s Watch Me Fall (Matador). Reatard released music faster than most of us scummy fanatics could acquire it. But as many songs as he cranked out, you never felt like he was cheating you out of a buck: this was a guy who clearly went to shows, nerded out over records, and knew bullshit when he saw it.

Knowing how lame a half-assed show could be, Reatard whipped his backing band into a tight unit, playing sets at twice the already speedy tempo at which they were laid to tape. Knowing full well the collector’s thrill of the hunt, he released a series of six increasingly limited-edition singles that, of course, punk vinyl fiends ate up with gusto. He knew how fun it was to both play and consume music, and kept doing it and doing it and doing it better than anyone else to the end.

I had the privilege of seeing Jay play on four occasions. As a performer, he had an almost comic intensity, which occasionally manifested itself in bizarre, unforgettable flame-outs. At one SF show last year, he angrily flung an audience member from the stage after the person attempted to break his treasured Flying V. Flipping the bird, he called it quits, encore be damned.

Other more highly publicized punches and feuds transpired, but these shenanigans weren’t what the guy, or his volatility, was all about. The man’s vigor and intensity, as rooted in anger as it seemed to be, has had an unexpected result: an undying vitality, born out of restlessness and an apparent love for the act of creation. Somehow his death doesn’t cast a purely macabre shadow over his work, pained and death-obsessed as it often was. Grim as it could be, his music always seemed more about living, accepting one’s flaws and making something great out of them, an ecstatic release of extraordinary pain.

Lately Reatard’s music had taken a turn toward the Kiwi sounds of the ’80s, enrolling in the Flying Nun school of pop with acoustic guitar in tow. Last year’s Watch Me Fall wasn’t quite as immediate or highly rated as the hard-ripping Visions, but featured some of his most inventive, infectious tunes yet. It’s heartbreaking going back to hear the beginning of this phase in his work with what might be his finest record, “I Know a Place” “Don’t Let Him Come Back” (Goner, 2007), the flip a Go-Betweens cover, the first single where his acoustic guitar and voice rang out with a tenderness we never knew he had in him. The dude shredded, start to finish. Top to bottom.

Hard Times Handbook

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It’s tough out there. The recession is supposed to be over, although you’d never know it to walk the streets of San Francisco. But we’re here to help; our Hard Times Handbook offers tips on bargains, deals, and discounts to make those fewer dollars go further.

———-

Broke doesn’t mean bored

Eight great ways to have fun in San Francisco for $5 or less

By Johnny Funcheap

Living on a tight budget and still trying to have fun in San Francisco is a near impossible task. This is an expensive city, thanks to the reality that everyone wants to live in the tiny 49-square-mile cultural oasis — driving up rents and the cost of just about everything else.

Despite its reputation, the city is actually getting slightly more affordable, if ever so relatively. (In 2008 San Francisco actually fell in the rankings of most expensive cities in the U.S. from fourth to fifth.)

Leading the charge toward making the city a more affordable place to have fun are numerous businesses, government-run sites, and co-ops that are trying to survive in the recession themselves — and using big discounts and fun free events to try to lure you in.

Here’s a list of my favorite deals and freebies I’ve found so far for 2010.

CAFÉ ROYALE

Waving the flag high for nightlife in the Trendynob with its curved couches and velvet curtains is the cozy beer and wine bar Café Royale. This late-night venue (it’s open until 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays) stages more than 20 nights of free events each month, an eclectic mix of live entertainment that includes jazz bands, Beatles karaoke, book readings, slam poetry, stand-up comedy, and even the odd accordion night. You can dine on small plates and noshables until the wee hours, and wash them down with a robust selection of wines by the glass and creatively yummy Soju cocktails like the Pom Pom and Creamsicle. And for billiards fans, Café Royale has one of the few three-quarter size tournament tables in San Francisco at just 75 cents a game.

800 Post at Leavenworth. 415-441-4099. www.caferoyale-sf.com

COUNTERPULSE

More an arts and culture community hub than just a performance space, CounterPULSE serves as a home and venue for a diverse mix of local artists, dancers, and playwrights to practice and showcase their latest works. A majority of the events at this nonprofit theater (plays, dance performances, as well as classes and workshops) are free. For more elaborate productions that require tickets, CounterPULSE has a wonderful “no one turned away for lack of funds” policy. You can also get in free by donating a few hours of your time to the volunteer usher program.

1310 Mission at Ninth St., 415-626-2060. www.counterpulse.org

$5 MOVIE NIGHT

Saving money on going out to the movies used to mean you had to blag your way to a cheap ticket using a long-expired student ID or arrive by lunchtime to save a few bucks on a matinee ticket. The historic Roxie Theater has done away with all of those shenanigans, at least on Monday nights, with cheaper-than-matinee prices ($5) to all films (except for the odd film festival or special screening when regular ticket prices still apply). This stalwart of the Mission District, which recently celebrated its 100th birthday, is an independent art-house theater that shows limited-run art, music, foreign, and documentary films on two small screens.

Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., 415-431-3611. www.roxie.com

BART DISCOUNTS AND FREE RIDES

You didn’t think BART — notoriously expensive for commuters — could be the source of cheap events, did you? Well, mybart.org, run by the transit system, lists a calendar of free events that take place close to BART stations. The site also gives you access to an constantly updated bevy of special discounts like two-for-one theater tickets, museum discounts, and heavily-discounted tickets to Warriors and Cal basketball games. For those of you who only respond to free, mybart.org also puts together ticket contests with different prizes each week, like the chance to win one of five preloaded $50 BART tickets.

www.mybart.org

PIER CRABBING

Hell with Fisherman’s Wharf and its giant crab sign. Forget the pricey crab dinners at local restaurants. You can learn how to be your own crusty crab-fisher, right in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. The National Park Service staffers at the historic Fort Port (built in the 1850s) give free pier-crabbing demonstrations every Saturday morning from March to October. After the class, they’ll even loan you crabbing equipment so you can put your newly-learned skills to the test. Space is limited and advanced reservations are required.

Fort Point, Marine Drive, Saturdays, 10 a.m.–noon, March–Oct. (415) 556-1693 www.nps.gov/fopo

THE HISTORY OF BAY AREA ROCK ‘N’ ROLL

Feeling nostalgic? You can get a taste for the era when the Bay Area and the psychedelic music scene were the center of the rock ‘n’ roll universe at the Museum of Performance and Design’s free history exhibit “Something’s Happenin’ Here: Bay Area Rock ‘n’ Roll 1963-73.” On display at this one-of-a-kind exhibit are the full-size original painting that made in onto the Grateful Dead’s “Anthem in the Sun” album cover, costume pieces worn by stars like Janis Joplin and Sly Stone, and original posters from the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom, along with a collection of previously unseen rock photos. Visitors can also listen to rare audioclips and watch vintage film footage they probably never knew existed. Exhibit runs through Aug. 28. It’s free, but the museum suggests a $5 donation.

Museum of Performance and Design, Veterans Building, 401 Van Ness, Fourth Floor. Wed.–Sat., noon–5 p.m. www.mpdsf.org

AMERICAN BOOKBINDERS MUSEUM

If you’re really looking for a blast from the past, check out the free exhibit at this little-known museum. Bookbinding is the art of physically assembling and sewing the pages and spine of a book by hand — a skill that was made essentially obsolete (at least, for the purpose of mass-production) with the dawning of the Industrial Revolution. But the nonprofit American Bookbinders Museum, part of a working bookbindery that still practices this art, documents the history of how books used to be put together with exhibits celebrating the skilled artisans who bound books, samples of vintage papers, and a maze of large and terrifying-looking 19th- and early 20th-century binding and cutting machines (many of which could cut off all your fingers in one go if you stood too close).

1962 Harrison at 16th St., Saturdays, noon–4 p.m. and by appointment, (415) 710-9369. www.bookbindersmuseum.com

SAN FRANCISCO BICYCLE COALITION

Unless you want to walk, there’s really no cheaper way to get around town than on a bicycle. And for the tens of thousands of San Franciscans who use bikes as their main mode of transportation, the Bike Coalition is a co-op knight in shining armor. The advocacy group, whose members successfully fought more than 200 miles of bike lanes in the city as well as bike access on Muni and BART, also puts on and sponsors a handful of events each month such as free urban cycling workshops to help you navigate the city streets safely, themed guided bike rides, and many other bike-friendly events. Membership starts at $35 per year, but many of their events are free for nonmembers or for a $5 donation.

www.sfbike.org

D-STRUCTURE

Owned by former pro skater and X-Games judge Azikiwee Anderson, D-Structure in the Lower Haight blurs the line between retail store, art gallery and performance space in a big way. Every month, this self-described “lifestyle clothing brand culture store” lets local artists take over the space and use the entire store as their canvas. For launch parties, which take place several times each month, the merchandise displays of urban hoodies and t-shirts and hip beanies are pushed to the walls to make room for DJs and events that range from art openings with live painting to indie rock shows, hip hop album release parties and film screenings. And did we mention the open bar? During its nighttime events, most of which are free and open to the public, D-Structure has been known to bring in a truck load of beer; that’s what happened on New Year’s Eve.

520 Haight, 415-252-8601, Mon.–Sat., noon–8 p.m.; Sundays, noon–6 p.m. www.d-structuresf.com

Johnny Funcheap runs FunCheapSF.com, a free SF-based service that uncovers and shares a hand-picked recommendation list of more than 50 cheap, fun, unique Bay Area events each week.

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Drink early and often

Five great happy hours that offer bargain booze — and amazing food deals

By Virginia Miller

BAR CRUDO’S HAPPY HOUR

About the best crudo (and some of the best seafood) anywhere, Bar Crudo’s new digs on Divisadero Street provide ample room for you and your friends. You want to go at happy hour; there’s free food and you can also get sweet deal on what is arguably one of the best seafood chowders around. A creamy bowl rich with fish, mussels, shrimp, squid, potatoes, and applewood-smoked bacon goes for $5 (normally $14). Oysters from British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, and Washington are normally $2.50 each, but only $1 during happy hour. Beer and wine specials rotate, $5 for wine or $3 for beer — and we’re not talking PBR. Bar Crudo is known for a broad selection of Belgian and artisan beers, not to mention some beautiful wines.

Mon.–Thurs., 5–6:30 p.m. 655 Divisadero.415-409-0679. www.barcrudo.com

SEAFOOD HAPPY HOUR AT SWELL

For happy hour with a touch of class — and an affordable price — you can’t beat Swell, a delightful, under-the-radar crudo/seafood restaurant. The post-work crowd gets $1 oysters — and not just any oysters, but our own local Point Reyes’ bivalves. There’s ceviche with kampachi and butterfish or mackerel bruschetta with garlic-ginger oil ($8 each). For imbibing, sip $6 Bellinis and Kir Royals or $6 glasses of chardonnay, syrah, or rosé.

Mon.–Thurs., 5–7 p.m. 603 Bush. 415-956-0396. www.swellsf.com

AVENUE LOUNGE’S FREE BRATS ON SUNDAYS

I’ll give you three words: bacon bloody marys. That alone makes it worthwhile trekking to Outer Sunset’s Avenue Lounge on a Sunday. But it gets better: buy any of the $3 well drinks or draft beers ($5 to upgrade to Belvedere or Hennessy in your cocktail) and they’ll throw in free brats and chips. Yes, you heard right: dogs, beer, and football on the flatscreens for $3. At that price, you could settle in all day.

Sundays, 10a.m.–2 a.m.. 1334 Noriega. 415-731-3757

NAMU’S FREE-FOOD MONDAYS

Monday night is free food night at Namu, the Richmond District’s gem of an Asian fusion restaurant that combines Korean and Japanese cooking techniques with Cali-fresh cuisine. With an order of sake, beer, or glass of wine, you can nibble on what Namu is dubbing “drinking food”: bite-size tapas, skewers, and spreads with Asian flair. If you can’t stay out late on a Monday night, there’s a weekday happy hour from 5-7 p.m.

Mondays, 9:30–10:30pm. 439 Balboa. 415-386-8332.www.namusf.com

DOSA ON FILLMORE’S SOUTH INDIAN HAPPY HOUR

This Pac Heights wing of Dosa has the feel of a chic London Indian restaurant, with striking chandeliers and gorgeous Indian-influenced cocktails. The happy hour rocks with a rotating selection of beer (like India’s Kingfisher), wine (maybe a Dona Paula Argentinean malbec) and, yes, those cocktails (how about “Mood Indigo,” i.e., Buffalo Trace bourbon, jackfruit marmalade, Angostura bitters, and a splash of sparkling wine) for a mere $5 each. For the same price, there’s a range of South Indian snacks like cochin calamari sautéed in coconut milk and served with a julienned salad, or a mung sprout salad with fresh lentils, tomatoes, ginger, cucumber, grated coconut, chile, and mustard-seed oil.

Mon.–Thurs., 5:30–7 p.m. 1700 Fillmore. 415-441-3672. www.dosasf.com.

Virginia Miller writes about food for sfbg.com and offers advice for great meals at theperfectspotsf.com

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Drinks on the cheap

By Caitlin Donohue

“No nation is drunken where wine is cheap, and none sober where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage.” So said our illustrious forefather and part-time debaucher, Thomas Jefferson, on the importance of happy hour. We are proud of the brave bar-owning San Franciscan souls who have held true to his vision of a nation built on cheap booze and high spirits. Here assembled are their numbers, true patriots that they are.

BAR ON CHURCH

Some days you want to get drunk and throw peanut shells on the floor. This is a practice aided and abetted by the B.O.C., which serves up 50 cent PBR’s (that elixir from the heavens for the broke-as-hell contingent) and free peanuts from 4-8 p.m. on Saturdays. Sit down, throw one back and get nutty with it.

198 Church, SF. (415) 355-9211. www.thebarsf.com

TSUNAMI SUSHI

With more than 100 sake bottles on the menu, Tsunami is usually off-limits to those with holes in their pockets. Not so during happy Hour (Mon.-Fri. 5-8 p.m., Sat. 6-9 p.m.) when all bottles and selected maki rolls are half off. Try the Sho Chiku Bai nigori sake, a sweet, creamy, unfiltered 720 ml that’ll only run you $16 — ureshii yo!

Mon.–Fri. 5–8 p.m., Sat. 6–9 p.m. 301B King, SF. (415) 284-0111. www.dajanigroup.net

EL RIO

Ah, Mondays at El Rio. If shuffleboard and easy access to cheap burritos isn’t enough to pull you Outer Mission-ward, than peep their very special Monday happy hour: $1 Pabsts, $2 wells all the live-long day. Get you in with that and then tell us you can’t hang with the hipster hangouts.

3158 Mission, SF. (415) 282-3352. www.elriosf.com

KYOTO SUSHI

Japanese businessmen have a reputation for sealing big deals utterly, blackout snookered. Something about how you can only really know a man when he’s being slapped by the waitress for being fresh or passed out drooling on your suit jacket. At any rate, sushi restaurants like to get you drunk. Check out Kyoto, where the anytime special of draft Sapporos for 99 cents will compel you to raise one to the salaryman.

1233 Van Ness, SF.(415) 351-1234. www.kyotosushi-sf.com

BRAIN WASH LAUNDROMAT

Now here’s a multitask for you: get drunk, listen to good music, and wash your clothes. Only one spot in the city where that’s a go — and to celebrate the lineup of fresh tunes and clean threads, Brain Wash Laundromat is offering $1 Pabst during happy hour and $3 wine glasses all the time. Drop by for its acoustic open mic nights Tuesdays at 7 p.m.

1122 Folsom, SF. (415) 861-3363. www.brainwash.com

BEAN BAG CAFE

Not only does this sunny, warm café serve the most bangingest breakfast burrito and plethora of bean blends in the city, the folks there have a soft spot for the low-income set. Bean Bag proves it with $1.75 Stella Artois and 21st Amendment beers on tap; just the ticket for easing your way through that mid-afternoon caffeine-booze transition. Just don’t spill on the laptop and you’re golden, you pillar of the community, you.

Bean Bag Café. 601 Divisadero, SF. (415) 563-3634 *

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How to fight foreclosure

By Caitlin Donohue

You’ve finally found your dream home, an apartment so well-loved even you can afford it. You settled in, cleaned the carpet, set the mouse traps … and then the eviction notice arrives: your landlord’s been foreclosed on. And the bank that owns the place now wants you out.

It’s happening a lot in this city, where tenants get caught in the financial meltdown through no fault of their own. But don’t panic: in most San Francisco buildings, foreclosure isn’t a legal grounds for eviction. But you’ll have to stand up for your rights.

Here’s what the San Francisco Tenants Union advises:

If you sense your landlord’s at the brink of foreclosure, watch for telltale signs: realtors checking out the property or repairs that go unresolved. Keep in mind that lack of money is no defense for maintaining property, so call the Department of Building Inspections at 415-558-6200 for help with holding property-owners to their repair responsibilities.

Once the eviction notice due to foreclosure arrives, find out if you are covered by rent control. If you aren’t (if your rental was built after 1979 then you definitely aren’t) the bank has the power to evict you within 90 days. If you do have rent control, you have eviction protection. This means the bank can’t evict you or raise your rent.

Unfortunately, the bank might not know that if it’s based outside the city or state. Ignore the letters to vacate and contact the bank of its property agent directly to let them know you have protection. Then file a wrongful eviction petition with the SF Rent Board, which also handles cases from Oakland, Berkeley and West Palo Alto (forms available at the office at 25 Van Ness, SF or online at www.sfgov.org/rentboard).

Rent control or no, landlords can only collect rent on foreclosed properties until the deed of trust has gone to the bank. Determine who has control of your property to avoid paying rent twice. This information is available at the City Assessor’s Office at 415-554-7915. Send letters to the bank and to your landlord saying you have the money but don’t know who to pay. Until you can determine who has control, don’t pay rent.

For more resources, check out SF Tenants’ Union Web site at www.sftu.org.

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Avoid check-cashing fees

By Caitlin Donohue

ATM charges, big old monthly fees, frustrating commercials — oh Lord, save us from these banks! But you can’t live without ’em either — the average unbanked American spends 5 percent of his or her income at the check-casher. In San Francisco, we drop a total of $40 million a year accessing our own money — not to mention how much goes toward money order fees.

Enter the Bank of San Francisco, the mayor’s brainchild that allows city residents to open a checking or savings account for $5 a month or less. The bank is open to those without Social Security numbers as well as residents who have a poor record with accounts in the past. Go to www.bankonsf.org for more information on the program, or keep an eye peeled for one of the 140 participating city banks that have a “Bank on SF” sign in their window. There’s no reason to pay check-cashing fees any more.

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Food so cheap, it’s free

Let’s level here: how broke are you? Two-for-one beers and discounted oysters are all well and good for the casually unmonied, but there are times when one needs a real deal on nutrition — like, food that really is free. If we’ve got your number, here’s the Web site for you: www.freeprintshop.org, whose printable calendar lists 20 organizations that dish up meals open to all comers, including Food Not Bombs’ vegetarian dinners, which are served four times a week in U.N. Plaza. Free Print Shop gets the posthumous thumbs-up from Abraham Maslow: the up-to-date info on shelters, mental health, and neighborhood resources in the city has the bottom tier of your hierarchy of needs covered. Except for maybe the sex part; that might be another Web site. (Caitlin Donohue)

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Inner peace, by donation

It is said that whenever Buddha would speak to an audience that had not yet recognized him as their spiritual teacher, he would first expound on the concept of dana, or giving. If the listeners were unable to grasp this basic principle, he knew they weren’t ready for the Four Noble Truths.

Would that all yoga studios were this enlightened. I mean, $20 for 90 minutes of inner peace?

We are lucky that with a little bit of looking one can find financially accessible ayurveda even here, in the city of yoga-yuppies. Case in point: Yoga to the People, whose beautiful new Mission District studio (and fixture Berkeley location) offers three classes a day by donation, some of them by candlelight and all of them dana approved. And they’re not the only ones. Here’s a list of places that will relieve that tension you’ve been holding, including the strain in your wallet. (Caitlin Donohue)

YOGA TO THE PEOPLE

Class schedule online, donations

2673 16th St., SF

64 Shattuck, Berkeley

www.yogatothepeople.com

GREY AREA FOUNDATION FOR THE ARTS

Mondays, 6-7:30 p.m., donations

55 Taylor, SF

www.gaffta.org

SPORTS BASEMENT

Sundays, 1-2:30 p.m., free

1590 Bryant, SF

(415) 575-3000

LAUGHING LOTUS

Mon.-Fri. 2:30–3:45 p.m., donations

3261 16th St., SF

(415) 335-1600

www.laughinglotus.com

SATORI YOGA STUDIO

Mondays, 4:15– 5:15 p.m., free

40 First St., SF

(415) 618-0418

www.satoriyogastudio.com

PURUSHA YOGA

Saturdays, 11 a.m., free

Main entrance of Botanical Gardens

Golden Gate Park

Ninth Ave. and Lincoln Way, SF

(415) 694-8412

www.purushayoga.org

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Learning to love the rec centers

With free gyms, darkrooms, and play areas, city rec centers may be the athlete (or artist’s) answer to the bum economy

By Molly Freedenberg

I’ve always though of recreation centers as places where kids took cheap summer camp classes or attended awkward junior high school dances. But these city-funded centers are actually some of the coolest, most affordable, and least appreciated resources any community has to offer — and especially so in San Francisco.

From weight rooms and basketball courts to dance studios, dog parks, and performance-ready auditoriums, SF’s neighborhood centers offer a variety of resources for budget-conscious adults as well as their kids. Use of most facilities is free (or, on rare occasions, costs a nominal fee) and classes and workshops are priced low with a sliding scale and scholarship option.

Why does the city allocate $34.5 million in general fund support to maintain these centers every year? According to Elton Pon, spokesperson for the Recreation and Park Department (which also oversees public spaces like Golden Gate Park and Coit Tower), “they keep the city sane.”

We’ve outlined the resources at some of our favorite centers, but check parks.sfgov.org for a full list, sfreconline.org for programs, or call (415) 831-5520 for information on renting rec center buildings.

CHINESE RECREATION CENTER

This Nob Hill neighborhood center caters primarily to youth in Chinatown, which is most apparent weekdays after 3 p.m. when its gym areas fill up with teenage boys. But everyone can enjoy volleyball, basketball, and even dance in its indoor gym, outdoor hoops, and mini weight room. The secret to getting some grown-up time? Visit early on weekdays or after 7 p.m.

1199 Mason. (415) 292-2017

EUREKA VALLEY REC CENTER

Well-maintained and recently renovated, this Castro District facility is a favorite for its resources and fantastic location (there’s a grocery store right next door, not to mention the full Castro shopping corridor a block away). Parents love that the indoor and outdoor play areas are especially good for toddlers. Dog-owners love the enclosed dog run. Sporty adults appreciate that the basketball court is regularly relacquered, while event planners focus on the auditorium with raised stage and 70-seat capacity. Special bonuses? An LGBT Teen Center and an especially girl-friendly gym scene.

100 Collingwood. (415) 831-6810

HARVEY MILK ARTS CENTER

Geared more toward artists than athletes, this recently reopened center in Duboce Park is a dream-come-true for creative-leaning folks on a budget. With dark room, dance studio, costume room, meeting spaces, and variety of other opportunities, HMAC is a fantastic and affordable alternative to adult education courses, expensive dance studios, and booked-up theater spaces.

50 Scott. (415) 554-9523

MISSION REC CENTER

This hidden gem, often overlooked by athletes headed to Mission Cliffs, offers everything your K-12 schools did — without the homework or early call-time. Mission Rec provides a weight area, ping pong tables, squash courts, a dance studio (complete with floor-to-ceiling mirrors and enclosed storage space), basketball court, outdoor playground area, and a full auditorium with stage and curtains (and food prep area).

2450 Harrison. (415) 695-5014

POTRERO HILL REC CENTER

Most people notice the baseball fields first — a full-block expanse of green, grassy oasis in the center of what’s still mostly an industrial area. But this city property also offers a well-maintained indoor basketball court, recently revamped playground, decent tennis courts (though lights rarely work), and a dog-friendly area that notoriously extends to the rest of the park when games aren’t in session. Not feeling sporty? Check out the infamous mural of O.J. Simpson (who apparently used to frequent the park as a kid) or the fantastic view of the city and the bridge from the south/southeast end of the park.

801 Arkansas. (415) 695-5009

RICHMOND REC CENTER

Catering primarily to the very young and the very old, people in the middle can certainly appreciate this classic neighborhood meeting spot. Play badminton, volleyball, or take advantage of the dance studio (where many city dance programs are held). Or just people-watch: weekdays are great for spying toddlers in the big indoor play area or quieter play-and-craft spot; weekends are when older Asian ping pong masters take over.

251 18th Ave. (415) 666-7020

UPPER NOE REC CENTER

Newish, bright, and clean, this well-loved and well-funded facility also is one of the few with its own Web site (hosted by friends of the Noe Valley Recreation Center). The bright, shiny spot offers indoor and outdoor basketball courts, a playground, baseball field, tennis court, dog park, and (according to parents-in-the-know), an inordinately nice sandbox. Indeed, this spot is known for being especially good for babies and toddlers. Another bonus? A multipurpose room that can be rented for small events features an A/V system, stage area with upgraded theater curtains, and a large movie screen with a projector.

30th Sreet, west of Church. (415) 695-5011. www.noevalleyreccenter.com

The mighty uke

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MUSIC The ukulele has gone viral, again, via YouTube phenomena like the adorable Uke Kid and virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, who both perform interpretations of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” — originally by George Harrison, himself a professed uke-aholic.

The history of the ukulele is choppy. It has passed through waves of cultural significance and kitsch popularity. Its origins are commonly misremembered — it first appeared in Portugal as a small Madeiran guitar. Brought by Portuguese cane workers to Hawaii in the 19th century, it was given its new name of “ukulele,” which translates to “jumping flea.” King Kalakaua, a major proponent of the Hawaiian cultural renaissance, fell for the instrument and incorporated it into performances at royal gatherings.

The ukulele floated from Honolulu to the Bay for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, where “the Hawaiian Pavilion” launched the first continental fad for Hawaiian songs and the uke. The Bay Area soon became an international gateway for the ukulele.

Today’s vibrant ukulele scene continues this legacy. The current crop of Bay-based ukulele players have little connection to the instrument’s Hawaiian history and utilize the uke for a wide spectrum of musical genres: the Corner Laughers play bouncy indie power pop; Tippy Canoe incorporates early country music, ’30s jazz and ’60s pop; Ash Reiter accents her jazz-infused indie folk with the ukulele; Uni and Her Ukelele takes ideas from burlesque dancers, comedians, light rock and soul; and in a haphazard YouTube video made by Sandy Kim, ubiquitous garage rocker Ty Segall plays a ditty on the uke.

“As soon as I picked up the uke, I started writing a song,” explains vocalist-ukester Emily Ritz of HoneyComb. “Its size was perfect, and I liked the challenge of making a uke sound dirty, dark, and dangerous.” Influenced by everyone from Billie Holiday to Joanna Newsom, Ritz turns the ukulele into something mysterious and haunting.

Some Bay Area ukesters emerge from the kitsch appeal that the goofy-ginger TV personality Arthur Godfrey left in his wake. Godfrey learned to play the ukulele from a Hawaiian shipmate while he was in the Navy, and when he went on television to promote the new plastic ukuleles, more than 9 million ukuleles were sold, in the second great-wave of ukulele popularity.

Camp taste has an allure, and Uni and Her Ukelele — deliberately spelled the British way, according to Uni, because “I just like how the ‘e’ and ‘l’ loop together in cursive” — mine that appeal by including mermaids, rainbows, and unicorns as subject matter. “While I was learning the basic chords on the ukulele, I found it easier to write more quirky songs,” Uni explains via e-mail from New Zealand. “Fun is a good place to start.”

Post Godfrey, the ukulele’s second wave ended with the annoying falsetto voice of Tiny Tim. Baby boomers threw their plastic strummers into their closets, associating the instrument with all things cheesy. Many guitar distributors ceased making ukuleles during the 1990s, but a third resurgence began in the early aughts, due in part to two significant events: Paul McCartney played the instrument at a tribute concert after George Harrison’s passing, and Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwoole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” medley became familiar through countless radio-plays, movies, commercials, and weddings. Now even the iPhone has an application that mimics and teaches ukulele chords.

Introductions to the ukulele are often random rather than contrived, much like the ebb-and-flow history of the instrument. Ash Reiter, who fronts a band of the same name, got a uke as a gift from a friend in high school. She later acquired her own, only to have it stolen at a performance with fellow ukesters. She stopped playing, but eventually inherited another one from her grandfather. “It’s one that he got while he was stationed in Hawaii for a while,” Reiter says. “It’s just one of the few things that we shared, and I remember he used to sing a lot of dirty songs that he learned in the war on it, like ‘One-Eyed Dick.’ Then when he was in the nursing home, I would play the ukulele for him.”

Like all good things, the ukulele comes in different shapes and sizes: there are traditional pear-shaped ukes; pineapple-shaped ukuleles that produce a mellower sound; DIY ukuleles made from cigar boxes and plastic lollipop knobs. Godfrey designed the first baritone ukulele, and then there is the “banjulele” popularized by Englishmen George Formby during the ’30s and ’40s. Formby is also an inspiration for Karla Kane, vocalist and ukulele-player of the Corner Laughers, who describes its sound as “twangy” and explains that she found her 1930s banjulele at an antiques fair in San Rafael.

Berkeley-based ukulele artisan Peter Hurney specially designed Tippy Canoe, a.k.a. Michele Kappel-Stone, a ukulele. “At the time I was playing a ukulele that was all black, and he came up to me and said, ‘You need an ukulele that matches your personality,'<0x2009>” explains Kappel-Stone. The two collaborated and chose imagery from a 1913 Bauhaus poster, which circles the ukulele’s sound hole.

Musically, each of these Bay Area musicians advance the uke in different ways. “We put the ukulele on almost every track on the new album,” explains Kane of the Corner Laughers. “But a lot of people don’t even recognize it because we put a lot of cool effects on it. I have an electric ukulele, so I put it through an amplifier, and a space-echo box, and distortion.”

Uni and her Ukelele write songs on the uke, whereas Ash Reiter uses the ukulele only occasionally, often as an accent or a layer within the song. Outside the Bay Area, the instrument has been used by everyone from Kate Bush to Elvis Costello to tUnE-yArDs in recent years. As Tippy Canoe says, “I love that it is such a universal instrument. Anyone can pick it up and play it.” In the Bay Area, and beyond, an increasing number of bands are doing exactly that.

HONEYCOMB

With Annie Bacon and her Oshen, the Spindles

Wed/20, 9 p.m., $7

Elbo Room

647 Valencia St., SF

www.elbo.com

THE CORNER LAUGHERS

With Photons

Sat/23, 7:30, $7

The Make-Out Room

3225 22nd Street

www.makeoutroom.com

ASH REITER

Feb. 17, 8 p.m., $10

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell St., SF

www.rickshawstop.com

TIPPY CANOE, MIKIE LEE PRASAD

With Anna Ash

March 4, 9:30 p.m. $6

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk St., SF

www.hemlocktavern.com

Schmidt’s

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Schmidt’s, which opened last summer in the heart of the Mission District’s latest trendy-food zone, would appear to be an offspring of Hayes Valley stalwart Suppenküche, but its parentage is actually traceable to Walzwerk. Suppenküche has a blond-wood look that seems to be part ski chalet and part beer hall, while Walzwerk conjures the spirit of contemporary Prenzlauerberg, the Berlin (once East Berlin) neighborhood where urban chic has bloomed amid war-ruined buildings. Walzwerk didn’t face quite so steep a climb, of course, but it did manage to be a success in a troubled space on a fairly sketchy run of South Van Ness Avenue.

With expansive wood floors worthy of a gymnasium and plenty of wood furniture (too dark to be blond), Schmidt’s resembles Suppenküche more than Walzwerk, but it’s roomier and more open than either. Its ceiling floats high above cream-colored walls that could not be barer. As if to compensate for this desolation, the design seems to invite noise. Once the place starts to fill up — and fill up it does, mostly with younger people who might find the moderate prices attractive — conversation becomes difficult.

Other notable peculiarities: Schmidt’s doesn’t accept reservations, takes only cash (there is a cash machine stashed in a far corner, near the toilet), and, under its deli cap, sells German groceries from a wall of shelves just inside the door. In this sense the place reminds me a bit of Speckmann’s in Noe Valley, which gave way some years ago to Incanto.

Schmidt’s mixed bag of eccentricities wouldn’t mean much either way if the food wasn’t good, but it is good. The heart of the menu is the grilled sausage platter ($10), which gives you a choice from among a dozen or so interesting varieties of sausage (including several types of bratwurst), along with a heroic pile of potato salad and a heap of the house-made sauerkraut. We found the kraut to be a bit salty, despite a festive leavening of fried capers.

The other main dishes tend toward meatiness, although the emphasis is on lighter meats (if there is such a thing), such as pork and veal. A Holstein-style schnitzel ($12) features a breaded veal cutlet pan-fried to a bronze crispness; it’s seated on a bed of braised cauliflower florets and leeks and topped with an anchovy and a fried egg. The organizing principle of this dish escaped me, but there was no denying its complex substance.

A German meal could hardly be complete without spätzle, the little noodle pellets that are the German answer to orzo or pearl couscous. If you’re a vegetarian, you can get the spätzle as a full main course, but even as a side ($4), it’s pretty substantial. It’s even more substantial with cheese ($1 extra), which results in something like macaroni and cheese.

The most interesting cooking can be found among the appetizers and salads. Here you’ll find such treats as pea cakes ($7.50 for a trio) topped with house-cured gravlax and crème fraïche. The cakes themselves strongly resemble latkes, except that they’re bright green and retain their distinctive pea flavor. Radishes, a winter staple, become the basis of a salad ($7.50) energized with sections of blood orange and given a thick, creamy dressing based on quark (k’vahrk), a fresh, white cheese that resembles a cross between mascarpone and ricotta. Most salads are ensembles, but this one turned out to be completely dependent on the blood oranges. A forkful without some orange was pretty undistinguished, but with the citrus, it was like flipping on a light in a dark room.

Desserts, in the tradition of Mitteleuropa, are impressive. Linzertorte ($6) turned out to be basically a slice of strawberry pie, intense with berry flavor in a swaddling of flaky, buttery pastry. And speaking of pastry: the apple strudel ($6) was a rectangular fortress of crispy phyllo sheltering apple slices under a sky filled with thunderheads of whipped cream. The strudel had a wonderfully light, airy look, but when you are working your way through an arrangement of butter and cream the size of a brick, you are scarfing up some calories, even if it doesn’t quite feel that way.

Service is friendly and knowledgeable if occasionally balky. My impression was that the floor staff is stretched a bit thin — maybe, like the value pricing, a sign of the times.

SCHMIDT’S

Lunch: daily, 11 a.m.–3 p.m.

Dinner: nightly, 5:30–11 p.m.

2400 Folsom, SF

(415)401-0200

Beer and wine

Cash only

Deafening

Wheelchair accessible

Enter night

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FILM Hollywood always exploits the space between plausibility and fantasy, but rarely with such fluidity as in the films of the 1940s and ’50s. Some of the era’s darkest refractions of the disquieted American belong to Jerry Lewis, but generally we look to film noir for the cynical postwar imagination.

The canon is not nearly so settled as some might imagine, and San Francisco’s Eddie Muller has done as much anybody to reinvigorate this American trust. His enterprising archival work and affable showmanship have turned the San Francisco Film Noir Festival into that rarest bird in repertory programming: a sure thing. Over the course of a week jammed with 12 double-features, Noir City furnishes a utopic movie universe where the Castro Theatre is always packed and the credits of unsung Hollywood talents like screenwriter Bill Bowers and cinematographer James Wong Howe win spontaneous applause. This year’s theme, “Lust and Larceny,” is sufficiently baggy to accommodate a wide range of rarities, but my early pick is for the one-eyed André de Toth’s Pitfall (1948), a despairing adultery tale that makes serious sport of the fault-lines running through the suburban family unit.

Fortuitously, the Noir City festival opens the same night as a Pacific Film Archive retrospective of producer Val Lewton’s seminal B movies. The 10 films unspooling during January and February date from the same war-frayed years that the noir mood came into its own, and in many ways the Lewton films are the flipside of Noir City’s disillusionment. Instead of the pathology of everyday life, here we have intensely relatable nightmares. In Kent Jones’ 2007 documentary portrait, Val Lewton: The Man in Shadows, a visibly moved Kiyoshi Kurosawa speaks of Lewton’s films bearing the hermetic mark of works made in rapid succession, when inspiration burns brightest.

It is surely one of the great ironies of American film history that RKO’s front office brought on Lewton’s unit to jettison Orson Welles’ long shadow. Boasting dunderheaded populism (“Showmanship in Place of Genius”), they ended up with another great artist. Everything that makes Lewton’s legacy comparatively minor has, paradoxically, made him the more fiercely prized auteur in cinephile circles. James Agee pitched him as one of the three preeminent creative minds in Hollywood, but Lewton still belongs to Manny Farber. One can sense the recently canonized critic honing his taste for lateral movement, character actors, weird symbols, and the effectively out-of-joint in his early writings on Lewton’s unlikely perfection.

As many have remarked, the Russian-born producer’s strategic acceptance of budget constraints purchased a unique degree of creative freedom and formal consistency. And yet, however exact the films’ realization, the melancholy that sets women on slow promenades and objects to mysterious life verges on unbounded irrationalism. The conventional take on Lewton — that he worked tight budgets to his advantage by pressing shadows and sounds to suggestive heights, in stark contrast to Universal’s corny monsters — is right as far as it goes, but the films’ dark tidings cannot be put down to economy. Invisibility always operates on several levels in a Lewton film. Most basically, the inspired chills slaking horror’s thirst do not resolve in the proper genre manner, but rather twist towards deeper, irrevocable anguish.

But what exquisite torment! In spite of the morose overtones — and it’s difficult to think of another Hollywood oeuvre from this period so contently in the grip of death — there is something ecstatic in the films’ animistic apprehension. The violent sway of a ship’s hook, a rustling branch, a voodoo doll, a pool, and a whole world of echo: these things have a talismanic significance that can help explain why Lewton’s cinema simultaneously seems so cluttered and withholding, compressed, and lingering — in a word, loving.

SAN FRANCISCO FILM NOIR FESTIVAL

Jan 22–31, $10

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

www.noircity.com

“COMPLICATED SHADOWS: THE FILMS OF VAL LEWTON”

Jan. 22–Feb 13, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk

(510) 642-5249

www.bampfa.berkeley.edu