Volume 44 Number 19

Baker and Banker

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“Banker” might not be the most auspicious word to attach to yourself in these parlous times — people used to rob banks; now it seems to be the other way around — but what if it’s your surname? In a series of small ironies and convolutions, you’re a chef not a banker — a chef named Banker, Jeffrey Banker — and you’re married to a baker named Baker (Lori Baker), and you open a restaurant. The restaurant is called Baker & Banker, which sounds formidably institutional. Your patronage might expect a building with fluted marble columns and an ATM-like machine that dispenses pastry to holders of valid cards.

But no. Baker & Banker (which opened in early December) actually occupies the space, once an apothecary shop, that used to house the Meetinghouse (where Banker worked as a cook), and later Quince, before its move to the Financial District. The building, at the corner of Bush and Octavia streets, is authentically Victorian, right down (or up) to its flat roof; it looks like the sort of structure that would carry a small brass plaque saying Mark Twain once slept there. But of the old apothecary shop there is no longer, alas, any sign. The wallsful of small drawers that gave the Meetinghouse such a distinctive cast have been removed. The dining room is sleeker than it used to be, and also slightly roomier, although it’s still on the snug side. Wall banquettes upholstered in dark brown leather, plenty of dark wood, and a caramel paint scheme lend the room an urban warmth, maybe a little like that of an exclusive steakhouse on the Upper East Side.

One new design wrinkle involves placing chalkboards on the windowless walls. The chalkboards announce various specials, from cheese plates to beers and wines by the glass. The wine list, and indeed the menu as a whole, has a more Teutonic flavor than one is accustomed to finding on what is basically a California-cuisine menu. How about, for instance, a glass of German red wine, a spätburgunder from Georg Breuer ($13) — a pinot noir, in other words, as pale and delicately balanced as a young ballerina on her tiptoes, with a pronounced presence of cherry?

Actual cherry turned up, as a reduced juice, to sauce a plate of bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin ($24.50). The meat, which appeared as a pair of upright cylinders with beveled tops, was roasted medium-rare to a lovely rose color and accompanied by shreds of savoy cabbage dotted with spätzle, to continue our Teutonic theme. But I am getting ahead of myself.

As we might expect at a place where one of the principals is a baker named Baker, the baked goods are superlative, beginning with the basket of still-warm items — slices from a honey-wheat loaf, a pair of honey-rosemary buns — that reach your table not long after you do. Desserts are comparably fine … but again, I leap ahead.

The core of Banker’s menu is seasonal and eclectic — more like that of the Meetinghouse than Quince. You might start with a rather Italianish white-bean soup ($8.75) deepened by bits of pancetta, shreds of kale, and a creamy green-garlic sofrito. From there you could move on to a filet of seared black bass ($25.50), a pad of flaky white flesh plated atop a Thai-style shellfish risotto ringed with crispy shallots. Banker’s is a world without borders.

Or — since one of the less-advertised pleasures of winter is salad — a beautifully composed winter salad ($13) of Monterey calamari à la plancha, arugula, frisee, fried chickpeas, and sections of mild, juicy Oro Blanco grapefruit. Citrus, for all its sunniness, is largely a winter crop.

Dessert can get short shrift these days, since few of us need the extra expense or calories, and a certain repetitiveness haunts local dessert menus — crèmes brûlées flavored with lavender or Meyer lemon, flourless chocolate cake, profiteroles — but not Baker & Banker’s. The possibilities offered by Lori Baker are original and exquisite, from a holiday-worthy, coffee-black sticky toffee pudding ($8) — thickened with kumquat and prune, topped by a cap of candied-kumquat-peel ice cream, and napped by a blood-orange sauce — to a trio of brown-butter doughnuts ($8) filled with huckleberries (a petite cousin of the blueberry) and presented with a dish of lemon curd. Let the bankers have their bonuses! This stuff is better.

BAKER AND BANKER

Dinner: Tues.-Sun., 5:30–10 p.m.

1701 Octavia, SF

(415) 351-2500

www.bakerandbanker.com

Beer and wine

AE/MC/V

Somewhat noisy

Wheelchair accessible

 

A gate so golden

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Van Dyke Parks — who’ll be perfoming Fri/12 at Swedish American Hall — boasts an outstanding resume as an arranger, producer, lyricist, and studio musician for the likes of the Byrds, the Everly Brothers, Randy Newman, Tim Buckley, Phil Ochs, Rufus Wainwright, Frank Black, the Doobie Brothers, Sonny and Cher, Joanna Newsom, Ringo Starr, Saint Etienne … the list goes on. Under the heading “additional experience,” Parks could include actor: he was a minor child star, appearing in the Grace Kelly vehicle The Swan 1956), and in 1990, he showed up on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. He’s also written film scores.

Considering this array of accomplishments, it’s surprising that Parks is still primarily renowned as a musical whiz within niche circles. Perhaps this is a consequence of his intricate and somewhat inaccessible solo albums, commercial failures to roughly the same the degree that they are creative successes. Whatever the case, he has a keen awareness of his legacy. “I prefer not being celebrated because I think that it brings only dangerous results,” he says, when the topic is broached during a recent phone interview. “It brings a self-importance. The best thing I can say is that I’ve created some works that I think have a shelf-life that is longer than a jar of yogurt.”

Born in Mississippi, Parks gravitated toward music early in life. He was deemed a child prodigy, and his interests led him to Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon) in Pennsylvania. But California is his “adopted reality,” the place where he’s lived for more than 40 years. He began to fill up his now extensive resume as a studio musician, arranger and, songwriter in Los Angeles. In 1966, Brian Wilson commissioned him to write lyrics for the now-legendary SMiLE (Nonesuch). In 1968, at the age of 24, Parks released his first solo record, Song Cycle (Warner Bros.).

This year, Parks is finally adding “touring” to the “additional qualifications” section of his resume. For the first time, he’s going on the road with his material, from Song Cycle to Orange Crate Art (Warner Bros.), which was released in 1995.

When I called Parks to interview him, one of the first things we touched on was the similarity between our names. For me, multiple names make for a confusing mouthful. VDP explained that he was named for his paternal grandmother’s “beloved” cousin, who was killed over the English Channel by the Nazis the same week he was born. He also said he’s never sobered up — I think this was a joke — because he can’t take his name to AA meetings. Hearing this, I realized that the complications of having a two-part first name might be more inconvenient than a three-part last name. After VDP initiated questions about our names, he continued as an interviewer and asked me my musical tastes and my age, at which point we established that we have 43 years between us.

“My goal is just to try and create things that will stand the test of time, Parks said. “That’s always been my goal. I have a great work ethic, and I put my heart into everything I do hoping it’ll be my life-defining moment.” At the moment, Parks is finishing a new album that he hopes to put out at the end of the summer. It’s been more than 15 years since he has released any of his own material. “I believe my work is better than it’s ever been,” he asserts. “And in a town [L.A.] that celebrates and worships youth at the expense of any other consideration, I think I’m going to be able to prove that my best work is ahead of me — and that’s what gets me up every day.”

Parks’ manner of speaking has a similarity with the music he creates, nonchalantly integrating influences from far and wide. Explaining himself, he blends in metaphors and proverbs: “I’m a black ant on a watermelon.” “It’s like going from zero to hero.” “There may be snow on the roof, but a fire rages within.” When making music, he moves through and fuses musical genres from every direction, finding new points of entry and exit. In 32 minutes, Song Cycle spans almost every American musical genre, from bluegrass to jazz to show tunes. It’s an idiosyncratic soundtrack of America’s musical history.

Parks’ solo work has the feel of a soundtrack, or even a Disney score, with its oddball yet familiar style of joining orchestration and instrumentation (i.e. strings with banjo and harmonica, or French horn with mandolin). The literate and witty lyrics — “Palm Desert” turns L.A. into Never-Never Land; “San Francisco” is a lovers’ paradise “with a gate so golden” — conjure vivid imagery like a film projected onto the inside of one’s skull.

Perhaps VDP is a culture-sponge. As he says about his musical tastes, “I like it all. I eat everything that’s good.” But his gift is more complex than a talent for simply absorbing sounds and spitting them out again. He has a tendency to find connections in unlikely places and among unusual things. One man’s genius is another man’s idiot, or however it goes. But Parks doesn’t care what either of those guys think — he just wants to make songs.

“A song is the lightest piece of cultural goods,” he says. “You don’t need to pick it up in your hands. You can take it out in your head. It encourages you to do something, hopefully the right thing. It’s why we shall overcome. It’s what gives peace a chance. The song moves people to political or social action like nothing else because it has melody. And melody creates feelings, and the words, of course, address the thoughts. And no kidding, I want to keep writing and being surrounded with song forever. I want to bop till I drop.”

As the saying goes, genius is patience.

VAN DYKE PARKS

Feb. 12, 6:30 p.m., $22/25

With Clare and the Reasons and Josh Mease

Swedish American Hall

2174 Market, SF

www.swedishamericanhall.com

Logging helps the planet?

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By Jobert Poblete

news@sfbg.com

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), an environmental group with offices in San Francisco, filed a series of lawsuits last month challenging the state’s approval of 15 logging plans it says do not adequately address greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts. But the loggers take the opposite stance, arguing that their trees capture carbon and lessen global warming.

The logging plans submitted by Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) involve more than 5,000 acres of forests in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade regions. With 1.7 million acres in land holdings, SPI is the largest private landowner in the state and, CBD claims, the largest clear-cutting operation.

The lawsuits, which allege violations of the California Environmental Quality Act and the Forest Practice Act, represent a new line of attack against clear-cutting in California forests. They follow greenhouse gas challenges filed by CBD in August that resulted in SPI’s withdrawal and revision of three logging plans covering 1,600 acres. Previous challenges have focused on logging’s impact on endangered species, water quality, and other environmental measures.

The lawsuits come amid legislative and regulatory efforts to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. The California Global Warming Solutions Act (or AB 32), which required the state to develop regulations to reduce emissions. So companies like SPI have begun to incorporate greenhouse gas analyses into plans they submit for state approval.

California Department of Forestry spokesperson Daniel Bearlant defended the approval of the SPI plans, insisting its heeded relevant environmental laws. SPI Director of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability Mark Pawlicki called the lawsuits “groundless” and claimed that his company’s practices actually produce net carbon benefits.

“Our harvesting results in a net sequestration rate of carbon dioxide that far exceeds any emissions that might occur,” Pawlicki told us. “The people drafting the lawsuits don’t understand carbon sequestration as well as state experts who are supported by other experts. California has the most environmentally stringent laws anywhere in the world and the most environmentally knowledgeable technical experts.”

Pawlicki cited state data showing that the industry acts as a net carbon sink. “In California, forestry is the only sector that has a positive effect on air quality,” he said.

CBD disputed these claims. “There are [greenhouse gas] sources and emissions that they’re not including at all,” Brian Nowicki, CBD’s California climate policy director, told us. “And there are many accounting tricks that they are using to undercount their emissions.” Nowicki pointed specifically to SPI’s failure to account for carbon emissions from soil and from the decomposition of roots and understory vegetation.

Nowicki also accused SPI of relying on unproven assumptions and processes outside its control. For example, SPI’s logging plans assume that the carbon stored in harvested wood will continue to be stored in wood products, noting that carbon is released when wood burns or rots. SPI also discounts its emissions by the amount of carbon it expects to be stored in new growth on its managed forests.

“As a result of our forest management, we are increasing the amount of stored carbon exponentially over the amount that would be stored in trees under forestry practices that did not include the investments we make in our lands,” Pawlicki said.

But Nowicki criticized SPI’s statements as nothing but a public relations move, one that could produce financial windfalls for the company as carbon offset schemes take hold. “It’s not that they’re improving their management of the forest,” Nowicki said. “They’re only reframing and repackaging the business practices they’ve been using before.”

Mark Harmon, professor of forest science at Oregon State University, echoed CBD’s criticisms, calling SPI’s claims misleading and scientifically invalid. Harmon was quoted in CBD’s lawsuit saying: “Harvesting forests generally reduces carbon stores and results in a net release of carbon to the atmosphere.”

While the science remains unsettled, CBD claims progress. Three years ago, the organization convinced the state to conduct greenhouse gas analyses. “Now,” Nowicki said, “[we’ve] established that these analyses need to be there.”

The heart of art

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arts@sfbg.com

DANCE In 1960, San Francisco City Hall’s glorious staircase became infamous when police turned fire hoses on protesters at a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Fifty years later, these same stairs will become the stage for a very different event: Erika Chong Shuch Performance Project’s Love Everywhere, a celebration of love and marriage equality.

Chong Shuch had never heard of the protest incident when Dancers’ Group commissioned her as part of its ONSITE initiative — free performances in public spaces that offer artists the opportunity to create something otherwise not possible (Joanna Haigood, Patrick Makuakane, and Anna Halprin are previous participants; Benjamin Levy is next). When Chong Shuch received the grant, she was asked to consider the Civic Center area as a possible site.

She first looked at the San Francisco Public Library, but upon walking into City Hall she was struck “by the beauty of the architecture of this public space that belongs to everybody living here.” She knew she wanted to make a work about “love and joy and the big things in my life as opposed to the difficulties.” Deciding on a Valentine’s Day piece, she was reminded that Feb. 12 is the sixth anniversary of when the city started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. That sealed the deal.

“I remembered how incredibly joyous it was to be in that City Hall space at the time, and I was inspired to try to generate that kind of joy,” she recalls.

You certainly couldn’t miss the love and joy in the couple dances, spiraling chains, and whirling circles practiced at a recent rehearsal in the Margaret Jenkins Performance Lab. Fifty or so performers (“At this point, I am not sure myself of how many,” she says) answered Chong Shuch’s call for volunteers to join her octet of professional dancers. These folks — primarily young, but with a gray head or two — were having the time of their lives.

Two also had a surprise awaiting them. In addition to calling for volunteers, Chong Shuch sent out a request for marriage vows that people had written for each other. She received around 30, ranging from “African ceremonial” to “quirky and artsy” and “formal, God-ly.” These vows form the texts for Love. One became the basis for a call-and-response: “I promise to pay close attention; I promise to listen.” But one couple recognized lyrics from a Daveen DiGiacomo song composed for the piece — because they had selected them for their wedding. “It’s a lovely way for this couple to have their own vows reflected back to them,” Chong Shuch says.

Using amateur performers — “I don’t like to call them that, I prefer to simply call them people” Chong Shuch says — seems to be something of a trend among Bay Area choreographers. Joe Goode, Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton, and Chong Shuch in her 2008 After All have done it successfully. It’s a way to fill large spaces where the added numbers often serve as choruses, but it’s also a sign of what might be called an attempt to “democratize” dance.

For Chong Shuch, this means thinking differently about her own role as choreographer. Just as she increasingly seeks her professional dancers’ input, she also thinks that “regardless of their training or lack thereof, individual expressions are still of value and of worth” — and, therefore, have a place on stage.

LOVE EVERYWHERE

Fri/12, noon–1 p.m., free

San Francisco City Hall Rotunda

One Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, SF

Sat/13, performances TBA (check Web site for updates)

Sun/14, 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., free

Glide Memorial Church

330 Ellis, SF

www.dancersgroup.com, www.erikachongshuch.org

Volume 44 Number 19 Flip-through Edition

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Souls and stars

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le.chicken.farmer@gmail.com

CHEAP EATS Dear Earl Butter,

I have accidentally fallen into the hands of hippies. They come from Pleiades, which is not a planet but a star cluster. How cool is that?

I used to love to be able to say, "I come from San Francisco." Suddenly it seems boring. Still, I bet we have better Mexican food than they do on Pleiades. Or in the Pleiades. (Not sure how to say this. I’ll have to ask.)

Other important points to remember are the number seven, some thing (or place or person or pizza joint) called "the Source," and that the universe is pure love. Like every other believer in reincarnation I have met, these ones claim to be "old souls."

I asked what I always ask: if time doesn’t really exist, as they also claim, how can one soul be any older than another?

They look at me like I’m a very young soul — which I would rather be, between me and you, because your face isn’t wrinkly yet and you sleep better. But technically I haven’t figured out yet about soul, meaning I don’t believe I exactly have one.

As for the universe being pure love … all I can say is I miss the smell of chicken shit and the feel of cold, dead, free-range chicken hearts in my small white hands. Not to mention the livers, and the taste of liver. And the fresh scallops we cut still pulsing from their shells and fried in butter with garlic. I miss these things, and love.

It was hard to be in Paris, too, without a heart. My brother-in-law’s brother and his girlfriend were immediate sympaticos, but they had to go to work, and so I wandered the streets and museums in almost utter amazement and disbelief — mostly that I was alone, but also the architecture and art.

I should have never left Paris, like I should have never left the chicken farm before that. But here I am in the South of France, which reminds me of Northern California, except substitute olive trees for vineyards. Jean Gene the Frenchman, who met me here, is traveling with a German disaster of his own. She’s more depressed than I am, in spite of being an old soul from the Pleiades, and her German accent is not good for me.

Back at the car after a day of hiking and sitting on cliffs high over the Mediterranean Sea, she offered me her hand and said, "Let’s make a pact. We each give it six more months, and then kill ourselves."

I just looked at her like she was from some other planet, or star cluster. "I only have one life," I said, finally. "For me, suicide is not an option."

She seemed surprised. Nevertheless, she’s a very good driver. Today we went to visit an obscure half-ruined chapel in the mountains called Notre Dame de Oeufs, or Our Lady of Eggs. No lie. People light candles and leave eggs there. The hippies said some prayers. I looked at the eggs.

Dearest Dani,

That is great. I should stop saying so much great stuff about Joel, but here is one thing. He will eat lunch with you if you are in a pinch. We went to Schmidt’s. It is right near Joel’s office. It is a little pricey for me for lunch, but I enjoyed myself nevertheless. We had lunch for $10 each.

We each got the grilled sausage. Joel got the kielbasa, which I am familiar with from my childhood and from Timmy Binko. And I got the smoked wild boar.

Modest size plates with a good-sized sausage, delicious potato salad, and sauerkraut, sweet and hot mustards, absolutely great! We both picked the wrong day to go, because neither of us could have a beer, but they’ve got a beer list longer than the menu. We were both dying to have one. Plenty of other stuff on the menu, and chalkboards of specials. This place is dark and elegant, but simple. And what I enjoyed most was that it was quiet. If there was music playing, I didn’t hear any, and I found this very refreshing.

SCHMIDT’S

Daily: 11 a.m.–3 p.m., 5:30 p.m.–11 p.m.

2400 Folsom, SF

(415) 401-0200

Beer and wine

Cash only

Not such a cani-ball

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NEW DVD Considering that it’s the most notorious case of its kind in North American history (cannibalism for survival as opposed to lunacy’s sake), and that movies have been less than shy about portraying flesh-eating in recent decades (at least the zombie kind), it’s a little strange that the Donner Party saga has occupied so little celluloid space to date.

You know the generalities: 19th-century wagon-train emigrants from the Midwest got caught by severe winter weather, ran out of provisions, and resorted to eating their dead. This occurred among a small group (of 87 original travelers, less than half finally survived) who’d struck out on snowshoes to cross the Sierra Nevada and hopefully raise a search party to rescue those left behind. A handful made it, but by the time four successive relief expeditions reached the camps — the last in April 1847 — many of the stranded pioneers had died, and some of the others had begun to eat their corpses as well.

Ric Burns — Ken’s brother — made a good PBS documentary about this history in 1992. But there have been surprisingly few dramatizations. A new direct-to-DVD arrival simply titled The Donner Party should, then, be welcome for filling a curious gap. Add the notion of Crispin Glover top-billed as an increasingly hysterical devout Christian who’s first to propose snackin’ on his comrades, and expectations naturally run high.

Alas, debuting writer-director T.J. Martin’s film is earnest, dull, and not even particularly devoted to the historical facts. Attempting to capture the desperation and tedium of starving and freezing to death in near-hopeless wilderness conditions is a noble cause of sorts, but Party emerges so enervated and uninvolving one wishes for a little lurid exploitation.

The film starts as the portion of the larger Donner Party who became convinced to take a “shortcut” route — dubbed the Hastings Cutoff after its promoter — is already trapped by snowstorms in abandoned or makeshift shelters, running out of supplies and with no game in sight. Those who decide to strike out include Glover’s moneyed trip financier and 24‘s Clayne Crawford as the hired guide who at this point considers it’s every man for himself. Among those playing eventual jerks are Sons of Anarchy‘s Mark Boone Jr. and Leverage‘s Christian Kane.

Shot on location, The Donner Party looks handsome, though not so much so to make a good argument for winter camping. Still, a chapter in U.S. history this grotesque ought to be more squirm-inducing. The scariest thing here is Glover leading the cast in prayer — admittedly an unnerving concept. But not one that one that ought to feel freakier than chowing down on your travel companions.

www.donnermovie.com

Tragically hip

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arts@sfbg.com

THEATER The Oedipus of Sophocles gets transposed to the California prison system and East L.A. in Luis Alfaro’s lively Oedipus el Rey, playing at the Magic Theatre in a world premiere slickly staged by artistic director Loretta Greco. Neither the classic nor contemporary terrain is new turf for Alfaro, whose Electricidad similarly reset the Electra myth. But San Francisco is another story, this being the acclaimed L.A.-based Latino playwright’s first professional Bay Area production.

Slipping into Alfaro’s lyrical mix of the sacred and vernacular, his intuitive sense of comic timing, and his larger dramatic purposes proves relatively easy. Despite many appeals to artistic license — including a sometimes cumbersome substitution of a Christian universe for fate-bound Greek pantheism and the more intriguing revisioning of Oedipus as a barrio gangster on the make — the story remains familiar in outline, not least the beloved plot points “kills father, marries mother.” And decades into the work of playwrights like Luis Valdez, José Rivera, and Octavio Solis, there’s something already familiar as well about the setting’s wry, poetical, classically bound barrio.

But Alfaro is a knowing and competent progenitor of the style. The use of a four-cholo chorus, or Coro, is particularly deft, with the actors in orange prison smocks occupying the extreme corners of a mystically bare stage and calling on us to consider “this man” — played with a jagged, bounding innocence by Joshua Torrez — in a tough, sardonic but elegant litany that pounds open the themes of the play from the outset like a piñata idol.

But the less abstract scenes are among the most effective, especially the riveting relationship between Oedipus and his lover and unrecognized mother Jocasta (a winningly strong yet vulnerable Romi Dias), which unfolds as an incestuous but tender and strangely compelling meeting of damaged souls. If the play doesn’t cohere with quite the authority or intensity it aims for, what remains is a set of images and moments that set the prophetic and profane in vital relation to one another.

 

KEEPING IT REAL, OR PRÊT-À-PORTER

Drag performance artist and dancer Monique Jenkinson, a.k.a. Fauxnique, recently saw the weekend run of her new solo show Luxury Items at ODC Theater sell out in the bat of an eyelash. (See SFBG photographer Ariel Soto’s shots of that perfomance here.) So the current remounting at CounterPULSE comes highly anticipated. It doesn’t disappoint, and given the charisma and talent of its writer-choreographer-performer, not to mention the love lavished on her by adoring audiences, it’s hard to imagine how an intimate evening like this could. And considering its general execution and not least its ambition and scope — at once surprising and altogether apt — it’s well worth seeing at any stage in its ongoing development. At the same time, in the uneven arc of its dramatic line and somewhat choppy melding of themes, it remains a work-in-progress.

But what a work! Beginning in glorious repose across a deluxe chaise longue, Luxury Items revels in haute couture fantasy. But it soon acknowledges essential truths about our obsession with opulence in general and haute couture in particular. One: it’s built around an ersatz encounter with luxury that comes courtesy of media and advertising (“obsession,” in other words, is first of all a perfume ad). And two: it’s tacitly premised on a political economy whose principal characteristic is the ruthless class-based exploitation of laboring bodies.

If this makes drag sound like a drag, all the more reason to laud what Jenkinson is crafting here. It retains all requisite insouciance and wit even while deconstructing, in compellingly personal and historical terms, the “real” material bargain being made in every rarified, Chanel-clouded embrace of precious materialism.

OEDIPUS EL REY

Through Feb. 28

Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m. (also Sat., 2:30 p.m.);

Sun., 2:30 p.m.; Tues., 7 p.m., $20-$55

Magic Theatre

Bldg B, Fort Mason Center, SF

(415) 441-8822

www.magictheatre.org

LUXURY ITEMS

Through Feb. 21

Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m. (except Feb. 20, 10 p.m.), $20

CounterPULSE

1310 Mission, SF

(415) 626-2060

www.counterpulse.org

Even Steven

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM The beautifully complexioned Michael Cera is giving him a run for the scratcher bucks, but I continue to believe in Steve Buscemi as the patron saint of geeks everywhere. Still as bug-eyed and teeth-chatteringly anxious as a terminally neurotic pug — and now slightly thinner of hair and skinnier of bod — Buscemi has been bringing a ravenously hungry Ichabod Crane air to his portraits of suburban angst lately, last witnessed in Youth in Revolt, as Cera’s pop in the throes of a midlife crisis. You didn’t question Buscemi’s pressure-cooker rage at his cinematic offspring’s budding rebellion: he’s been there and done that, man — and darn if he’ll put up with it from his revolting kid.

That cameo was far too brief, so luckily along comes Saint John of Las Vegas to give Buscemi-philes a good long, yummy drink of our nerd overlord. His goofy Mr. Pink anti-cool has weathered nicely into a finely wrinkled facsimile of those nicotine-stained, pompadoured and comb-overed casino codgers you can find dug in on Vegas’ Fremont Street.

John’s a gambler fed up with the long odds and late nights, running from a vaguely sketchy past, so he has decided to consciously choose the straight path. "I never had a desk job before, but I watched it on TV," goes the opening voice-over. Read: a solid cubicle job at an auto insurance company. Breaks in the off-white monotony are spent flirting with sexy coworker Jill (Sarah Silverman) who has a penchant for slapping smiley faces on everything from her file folders to her fingernails. Apparently John isn’t the only one determined to put a happy face on life.

After summoning the courage to make a play for a raise (and Jill), John is enlisted by his tough little man of a boss (Peter Dinklage) to become a fraud inspector. He’s placed under the tutelage of Virgil (Romany Malco of Weeds) — this is, after all, very, very loosely based a certain Divine Comedy. Off our would-be pals go on John’s tryout case, Virgil aloof and knowing and John empathizing with the many quirky characters they encounter: a naked militant (Tim Blake Nelson) here and a circus performer with an out-of-hand flame suit (John Cho) there.

When their journey ends, you can’t help but be disappointed because you really don’t want this sweet-natured first film by director-writer and onetime Silicon Valley hotshot Hue Rhodes to end. It’s such a treat to watch Buscemi work, pulling the spooky-tooth tics and rattled nerves out of his bag of mannerisms. And it’s fitting that he has arrived here, because from its star to its bit players, Saint John offers a gentle Hail Mary to the usually less-than-visible guys and gals in the cameos.

SAINT JOHN OF LAS VEGAS opens Fri/12 in Bay Area theaters.

Ars longa

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andrea@altsexcolumn.com

Dear Andrea:

I’m 43, good-looking, and reputedly sexy, funny, and easy to hang out with. I got laid almost daily in my 20s. But my last steady relationship was in 2007. My confidence is at an all-time low. I masturbate way too much to movies with Asian women and men who are hung to the floor, which makes me feel very small. I’m in a bad place right now and I don’t see the point of approaching women since I won’t be able to satisfy them like in the movies.

I’m a little under five inches. I’ve never felt comfortable with my size, although I did become very imaginative, creative, and kinky to give women pleasure. But I have never made a woman shake or moan with my penis. I miss female companionship, but I don’t feel man enough to try anymore. I just don’t have the confidence. Now I just fantasize about the kind of women I used to get.

Love,

Feeling Small

Dear Small:

Back when I used to answer questions at San Francisco Sex Information, we used to hear from a lot of guys who assumed that intercourse ought to go on for 90 minutes, penises ought to be at least 8 inches long, and all women achieve dramatic and very noisy orgasms from straight-ahead pounding and enjoy nothing more than a nice refreshing facial. What these guys had in common, was over-exposure to (mainstream) porn and little or no real-life experience from which to develop the kind of bullshit-o-meter one needs to protect one’s fragile sense of self-worth from most artifacts of popular culture, including Hollywood movies and all those songs about doing it all night till the morning light.

Those guys were virgins or recently devirginated, though, and were dismayed when real life failed, as it so often does, to match its own hype. You have no such excuse. You have actually done it with a real girl. Lots and lots of real girls, to hear you tell it. So buck up and back away from the giant-dick porn. Maybe try some amateur stuff, which, while still porn and still rife with porny conventions, may at least be more realistically scaled.

You do know that porn, like advertising, is aspirational and relies on a viewer’s ability to project himself into the imagined scenario, right? And it probably doesn’t work so well on people who already feel as rich, thin, powerful, well-dressed, and sexually satisfied as the people portrayed. Messages designed to make you feel unsatisfied with your own lot can be especially persuasive when you’re feeling vulnerable. So I assume that you also know that porn, however powerful, does not possess secret witch-doctor superpowers and cannot reach through the screen and SHRINK YOUR PENIS. So what the hell, dude? You were the same (admittedly smallish but hardly pathologically so) size back when you were in like Flynn. And all those women were not complaining then. Something has changed but it’s not the equipment.

I stopped making art when I stopped having the time and space (I hear these two are related somehow) to really spread out and do stuff, and I lost some confidence in my skills along the way, but a few weeks ago, sick of being a person who doesn’t do art, I dragged all my supplies out of storage and made something. If I can make art, you can … screw (despite the set-up I just could not, in the end, bring myself to say "make love").

I usually tell the unhung that they’ll have to develop mad skillz instead of relying on brute size to do the work for them. And then I add that everybody else would do well to do the same, since brute size is never a replacement for the skill that you, reportedly, already possess. And I usually throw in the fact that, speaking of not much penis, the people who report the most satisfying sex lives in all those surveys tend to be … lesbians.

To shake bad habits of thought and bad habits, period, find a cognitive-behavioral therapist. And to combat the blues from not getting laid, take a deep breath and find a date. Just don’t get the two things confused, and don’t put "has small penis" in the personals ad. Many women don’t care (and some prefer what you’ve got to offer) but it just doesn’t sound nice. You don’t have to marry this date. You don’t have to do her. Just prove to yourself that you can go.

And yes, I do know it’s not that easy. Neither is getting imaginative and kinky and giving women pleasure, and you used to do all that just fine. I would caution you, though, that thinking of women as something you (used to) "get" may have flown in 2007, but it won’t work now, bub. It’s a new decade.

Love,

Andrea

See Andrea’s other column at carnalnation.com.

Dolce utopia

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arts@sfbg.com

VISUAL ART Amid day-to-day art world caprice, an event titled "Dynamic Adaptability: A Conference on New Thinking and New Strategies for the Arts" took place Jan. 28 at Herbst Theater. Rather than vie for stability, the organizers envisioned the gathering as an opportunity "to explore our changing environment and offer fresh ways of thinking about the future" of Bay Area arts. "This is a time," they asserted, "of tremendous potential for new ideas to take root."

Surprisingly, the speaker who best formulated this alternative model — this strategy of adaptive dynamism — was an outsider, and the youngest person at Herbst Theater that day. But 22-year-old neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer would argue this makes perfect, logical sense. Author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist (Houghton Mifflin, 256 pages, $24), Lehrer claims remote perspectives and practices offer unforeseeable insights. He argues that keen novelists like Proust can lead us to new understandings of the brain and society at large that neuroscientists (and other professionals) might otherwise overlook. The same goes for innovative artists; great art provokes new questions, which in turn abets new thinking.

The reason, Lehrer argues, is reason. Linear projections fashioned by rationality allow cognition only so many avenues. According to Lehrer, "emotions" — those messy feelings that propel many artists — "underlie cognition differently. And like morality and aesthetics, they have inexplicable qualities." Essentially, the more variegated and multidisciplinary the approach, the better the chance of screwing in that light bulb. The battlefield of "truth," it turns out, isn’t won solely by techies in labs, but also by writers and artists in studios.

Yet what if artists today can’t afford studios? Lehrer convincingly makes a case for dynamism, the importance of arts and humanities disciplines joining hands with sciences and other fields. But with arts budgets always the first to go in a paraplegic, sloughing economy, how are artists to survive, let alone produce? Better yet, how are they to adapt?

Artist-provocateur Philip Huang provided the conference’s other answer. Adorned in a cape, glitter vest, and Snoopy t-shirt, Huang greeted the audience by yelling, "Hey, motherfuckers!" Then he did it again, and again, until the shock wore off, at which point he was able to convince the crowd to taunt back, effectively turning the theater into an absurd acoustic swirl of contrived and zealous "Motherfucker!" chants.

Huang espoused an artistic model borrowed from TV and radio journalist Robert Krulwich, a strategy of "throwing yourself." It’s a prostitution tactic of pitching and hustling, but without the grip of the pimp or institution. And it works. In 10 short minutes, he convinced a dumbfounded-turned-elated crowd to fund his "24-hour Witness Fitness Performance," a straight-from-the-ass proposal to do a performance circuit on sidewalks that face treadmill runners as they vacuously stare into urban inanity. Hoang raised nearly $300 of wadded-up bills, all thrown at him like roses at a princess, despite his goading, "Fork it over, motherfuckers!"

Huang clearly doesn’t give a shit about the economy; he’s the type of artist who, despite uncertainties, will always find a way to produce via hustling. His "studio" is a case in point: the bedroom doubles as a "queer performance space" where he screens work and disseminates it through a YouTube channel (spider75berkely). But it’s his street performances that are most interesting. An artist’s work is likely to suffer if entirely withdrawn from the world (Proust’s last writings, where he ensconced himself in a cork-lined bedroom for three years, attest to this).

The mutability of an "in-between" or "third way" of making art was proposed by speakers at the "What is the Good of Work?" seminars organized by the Goethe-Institut in New York. Aimed at "think(ing) of unemployment as an artistic and philosophical category" given the amount of unemployed artists, the seminar "takes its starting point in the claim that today the artist — defined by creativity, unconventionality, and flexibility — might be seen as a role model for contemporary workers."

Liam Gillick, who spoke at the most recent seminar Jan. 30, believes today’s artist has an opportunity to "to reflect on permanent leisure." "The good artist is always productive and works all the time," he says. This "work" isn’t necessarily work or leisure in the traditional sense, but work characterized by "flexible knowledge-workers exercising self-organization and self-determination where the studio functions as a laboratory." Gillick views entropy as art’s current model: resistance and production via indeterminacy and flux.

In a similar spirit, albeit unwittingly, this article was written in several spaces (Herbst Theater; BART; seat 14B on a Boeing 757; Everyman Espresso and Fresh Salt Bar in NYC; a friend’s Brooklyn bedroom that isn’t really a bedroom but a living room with a partition; and all the criss-crossing streets in between), in several formats (notebook; laptop; cell phone; napkin; and folds in my brain). There were distractions — turbulence announcements; actors rehearsing scripts of banal, big city dating-related dialogue while jogging in place; a man’s heinous, relentless laughter that sounded exactly like a 1980 VW Rabbit desperately trying to turn over in the dead of winter; and near the rampant heat of a misused radiator. This may account for its moments of disjunction, but its words are imbued with many shifts in space and time, so that ideally they reflect more than a static mirror might.

Metacognition, or "thinking about thinking," as Lehrer explains it, is crucial to problem-solving and development. As is distance and movement. This is why Lehrer suggests doing work when traveling, walking — even daydreaming. Distancing oneself from an immediate obstacle allows for relaxation, which allows alpha waves to generate, which leads to moments of insight and epiphany.

"We shouldn’t be complaining about uncertainty or the prospect of no future," Gillick claims. Nor should we follow the opposite instinct of scrambling for "transparent utopias." Those, he warns, are never "transparent but actually opaque and dangerous."

I believe art critic Nicolas Bourriaud proffered the best way out of the current impasse faced by artists in a time of economic struggle and failure: "I am not persuaded that we should respond to this sort of ‘all or nothing’ by another globalizing system," he says. "I’m under the impression that we are approaching an era of ‘dolce utopia,’ to quote Maurizio Cattelan. It’s the idea of constructing temporal spaces which permit for a while experimentation."

Sunshine and shadows

2

tredmond@sfbg.com

It was, the San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed, the end of the world for development in the city, or at least something close to that. A ballot measure, sponsored by Sup. David Chiu, restricting new buildings from casting shadows on city parks “could imperil major development projects,” a Jan. 28 article by John Cote said. “Everything from a new wing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to the expansion of the Moscone Center and creation of a new downtown core around a rebuilt Transbay Terminal could be affected.”

A lot of that is wildly exaggerated. The Chiu ordinance, which has since been pulled from the ballot pending a city study of the issue, would hardly have halted all development — or even all high-rises — in San Francisco. It wouldn’t have gutted the Transbay Terminal plan (although it might have forced planners to reduce the height of a tower that would soar 400 feet above the tallest building in San Francisco). In fact, the real story is how Chiu has managed — for now — to stop a backroom attempt by developers to undermine a 25-year-old environmental law. We found some fascinating evidence of how Mayor Gavin Newsom has been working with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce to undermine Chui’s efforts — using broad threats to try to get his way.

Chiu’s legislation sought to clear up a couple of loopholes in a landmark 1984 law, which passed on the ballot as Proposition K. The measure, authored by then-Sup. Bill Maher, essentially barred any new construction that would cast a significant shadow on a city park.

In 1989, the final implementation guidelines were approved, and they’ve stopped literally hundreds of proposed projects from casting dark shadows on public open space.

But in the past year, city planners have been meeting with lawyers for big developers and looking for a way to change the rules. Citing new technology that better measures the curve of the earth and complex algorithms that calculate sunlight, the Planning Department has since proposed revising the Prop. K guidelines — in a way that would allow taller buildings and more shadows without getting the approval of voters or supervisors.

Chiu told us he’s been trying for months to find out exactly what the proposed guidelines would do — how many new buildings, at what heights, would be able to shadow which parks. “I was unable to get any answers,” he said.

The measure he drafted would have barred any new guidelines that allowed more shadows — and would have required the Board of Supervisors to sign off any changes. It would still allow the city to make case-by-case exemptions for projects that cast minor shadows but are otherwise deserving of approval — affordable housing developments, for example.

But downtown went nuts — and Newsom joined the fray.

The crux of the opposition came from the Chamber — and is outlined in an e-mail from Chamber Vice President Rob Black to members of the Chamber board.

“The mayor was very direct and clear about the need to defeat the measure,” the e-mail, which we obtained, states. “The mayor was also very clear that he was in no mood for deal-making on the issue and that he would look very unfavorably on any developer or anyone else who tries to cut a deal with David Chiu on the issue. He literally said, you will be on your own for the next two years if you go there.”

Black confirmed that the e-mail was in fact his — but said the version we’d obtained “has been edited. Some words were changed and other omitted.” He refused to say what the changes were, saying that the e-mail was meant to be a confidential communication to his board. However, he confirmed that the basic message and descriptions of a meeting with Newsom were accurate.

Tony Winnicker, Newsom’s press secretary, confirmed that Newsom had been directly involved in trying to scuttle the ordinance — and didn’t deny the mayor had made those threats.

“The mayor made clear the importance of asking the supervisor to withdraw the measure,” Winnicker wrote in an e-mail to us. “The mayor was clear that backroom deal-making should not be tolerated on the issue.”

Chiu was somewhat aghast at the mayor’s statements. “The context for all this is that the developers and their lawyers were trying to change the rules,” he said.

Aaron Peskin, the former supervisor and longtime North Beach neighborhood activist, told us that the “hysteria around this is factually untrue. This isn’t about stopping development — it’s about making sure development doesn’t have an adverse impact on the city’s common space.”

So now Chiu has agreed to hold off — but only if the key stakeholders (not just developers) have some input into how planning devises new shadow rules. And he’s ready to go back to the ballot in November if the developers try to play games again.

That makes sense, Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, told us. “There should be a heavy burden of proof on the people who want new rules,” he said. “And there should be a heavy burden of proof for anyone who wants a ballot measure.”

In other words, Prop. K — as it is, as it’s stood all these years — is working pretty well. And if the developers hadn’t tried to sneak in some big changes, none of this would have happened in the first place.

Clipboard clash

1

rebeccab@sfbg.com

When John Grubb switched jobs a few months ago to work for Repair California, a nonprofit that aims to remedy Sacramento’s political dysfunction by revising the state Constitution, he never imagined how ruthless the political world could be for a public figure advocating for reform.

“I got a death threat myself this morning,” Grubb confided in a recent telephone conversation with the Guardian. He declined to say from whom, and seemed to be wondering if he should have kept quiet about it. “Now we have our security guards at the building watching for this person,” he added, trying to laugh it off as if unfazed.

One day earlier, Grubb had distributed a press release charging that Repair California was being subjected to intimidation, blacklisting, and other “dirty tricks” and strong-arm tactics from representatives of the state’s major signature-gathering firms. These politically powerful companies are trying to quash Repair California’s campaign for a California constitutional convention, he charged.

Ironically, it seems an initiative campaign that could reform how initiative campaigns are conducted in California has provoked the ire of the initiative campaign industry.

Repair California is circulating petitions to get a pair of initiatives on the November ballot asking voters if a constitutional convention should be called to reform state government. Despite having a healthy $3.6 million in funding, it has encountered major stumbling blocks toward collecting the 1.1 million signatures needed to qualify.

Paid signature gatherers were shouted down in the streets, threatened with the prospect of never working in the industry again, and spied on by informants from signature-gathering firms that then placed them on blacklists, according to Grubb. The nonprofit also alleges that representatives from these firms were seen throwing stacks of signed constitutional convention petitions into the trash.

There are six major signature-gathering firms in California that contract with political campaigns to circulate petitions for ballot initiatives. Through a network of regional coordinators, they hire independent contractors who are paid by the signature to stand on the street with clipboards soliciting voters’ support.

The firms take in millions of dollars from each campaign, but for circulators who carry half a dozen petitions at once, the work comes in temporary bursts and moves from state to state. Paid signature gatherers who spoke with the Guardian said that being blacklisted could spell disaster — a hefty pay cut or being frozen out of a job completely.

Attorney Steven Miller, who works with the firm Hanson Bridgett and is representing Repair California, sent a cease and desist letter to at least three of the six major firms Feb. 2, a first step toward possible litigation. Miller told the Guardian that the firms’ activities constitute an illegal boycott and a violation of antitrust laws. Their tactics also interfere with rights guaranteed in the California Constitution to circulate petitions and place initiatives on the ballot. “Nothing surprises me anymore, but this really surprised me,” he said.

While Miller didn’t say exactly which firms he sent letters to, the three names that came up in various off-record conversations on this matter were Kimball Petition Management, run by Fred Kimball; National Petition Management, run by Lee Albright; and Arno Political Consultants, run by Michael Arno.

Grubb formerly served as a spokesperson for the Bay Area Council, a business group based in San Francisco and the primary force behind Repair California. The council’s push for a Sacramento shakeup generated a buzz last November when Clint Reilly, a renowned San Francisco political consultant who sits on the board of the Council, emerged from retirement to helm the campaign.

Repair California envisions the convention as a rare opportunity for Californians to reshape certain aspects of state government. After an extensive meeting, convention delegates would ask voters to approve suggested tweaks to California’s constitution. Proponents say issues begging for reform include the Legislature’s two-thirds majority vote requirement to pass a budget, government efficiency, the election process, and the initiative process itself.

“In California today … you basically need to get 1 million signatures in 150 days or less” to get an initiative on the ballot, Grubb said. “And the only way to do that is with several million dollars in your checking account, which is something most average citizens don’t have. That means that the initiative process has in effect been captured by special interest groups — moneyed interests.”

Therein lies the rub. It would be virtually impossible for Repair California to get a call for a constitutional convention on the November 2010 ballot without paying people to collect signatures — but many paid signature gatherers are afraid of putting themselves out of business by circulating the petition. Some are worried about getting blacklisted by major firms, while others are concerned that the entire industry could be overhauled as a result of a constitutional convention.

Given the serious allegations and potential lawsuit surrounding this matter, only Grubb and Miller were willing to be quoted for this story. Yet sources on both sides of the issue did speak with the Guardian on condition of anonymity.

Grubb said that Repair California never sought contracts from the big signature-gathering firms, preferring instead to amass its own force of clipboard-wielding petitioners. “We never had the intention of going to them,” he said.

But an industry insider told the Guardian that the nonprofit did approach two of the major companies to sign a contract, but got turned down due to a consensus that the petition would lead to an overhaul of the industry. This person also suggested that the pending lawsuit was way off the mark, and speculated that Repair California was concocting it to try and win money, media attention, and public support.

Another person familiar with the industry put it this way: “None of the petition people wanted to carry it because it would slit their own throats. They all agreed not to do it — it could kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

So far, the campaign for a constitutional convention has gathered only about 100,000 of the 1.1 million signatures needed by the end of April to qualify for the November ballot. It will have to spend an estimated $1 million more than anticipated, Grubb said, because many of the paid petition circulators are being brought in from outside California’s initiative-industry network.

Despite the extra cost, Grubb says he feels confident the campaign will be a success. “Popularity hasn’t been a problem,” he said, “except for with the signature gathering firms.”

Cities and memory

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arts@sfbg.com

VISUAL ART Tucked into the first floor corner of Berkeley Art Museum’s Matrix gallery, Ahmet Ögüt’s Exploded City — installment 231 in the MATRIX series — doesn’t look like much at first glance. Originally commissioned for the Turkish Pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale, the installation centers around a mini-metropolis of meticulously constructed scale models of buildings arranged on concrete risers. On closer inspection, you notice that high-rise hotels abut mosques, and what look to be modest earthenware homes stand next to towering, anonymous office buildings. There is even a train, far below, that sits unmoving on tracks that loop between the risers.

What unites the buildings, sites, and vehicles of Exploded City is that all have figured in acts of violence and terrorism over the past two decades. A large, clear plastic legend features renderings of each structure and vehicle located in the model, along with its name, real world locale, and the date(s) it was subject to attack. From the Europa Hotel in Belfast, Ireland, which was damaged 33 times by Provisional IRA bombs between 1972-94, to most recently, the Oberoi, Trident in Mumbai, which was taken over in the 2008 terrorist attacks on that city, Ögüt has assembled a condensed, three-dimensional map of terrorism’s far-reaching geography.

I think it’s safe to say that most of us wouldn’t be able to identify by sight many of the buildings Ögüt has selected, or be able to piece together what grim distinction they all share. It is an ignorance set into relief by constantly going between the model and the wall key, connecting a particle board and plastic stand-in to some real life tragedy, the details of which we can only ascertain through our own empathetic imaginations. (Ögüt doesn’t give any information about how many unsuspecting people were killed at each site, or for which cause others willingly gave their lives.)

This makes the absence of the Twin Towers from Exploded City all the more pointed (the Oklahoma Federal Building is included). Ögüt’s decision to sidestep what has become a fetish object for the right wing — one that the Bush administration used to justify the atrocities depicted in Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib paintings, also currently on view at BAM — and instead focus on those sites which history has perhaps already forgotten, such as the two Afghani homes that were both accidentally bombed during wedding receptions, is a humbling reminder that no country or philosophy has a purchase on tragedy.

At the same time, Exploded City is not simply a necropolis. Ögüt has referred to his piece as a “3-D archive,” an index to be searched through and activated, rather than as, say, a memorial. Perhaps in a nod to its first Venetian home, a second, lengthy wall text describes the installation from the point of view of Marco Polo in Italo Calvino’s 1972 book Invisible Cities, in which Polo spends his days recounting fantastic cities from his voyages to the Kublai Khan. “This city is from the future,” Ögüt’s text reads. “Those who live there have emigrated from faraway lands, with dreams of traveling to the future. When they realized that there was no finding the future, they decided to build this city.”

A city of the future imagined by inhabitants whose real world futures would invariably be violently curtailed, Exploded City is a utopia in all senses of the word: an ideal that can never exist. Ögüt’s Polo describes meeting residents who can detail the exact manner in which they will die, and yet, it is implied, more will come to the site of the Exploded City to rebuild over their remains and the cycle will start anew. Ögüt’s model city captures that moment in freeze-frame, following the advice for survival that Calvino’s Polo dispenses at the novel’s end: “See and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

AHMET ÖGÜT: EXPLODED CITY/MATRIX 231

Through April 11, $5–$8 (free for Berkeley students/staff, and children under 12)

Berkeley Art Museum

2626 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-0808

www.bampfa.berkeley.edu

 

’80s babies

1

arts@sfbg.com

I’m from the city of gangstas and broken dreams / where we hopin’ the Lord hear our silent screams / but this dope money helpin’ my self-esteem — J Stalin, “Self-Destruction”

 

MUSIC I’ve known J Stalin for five years, during which I’ve watched the pint-sized, eternally baby-faced rapper develop from cocky adolescent to full-blown boss, head of a label and an ever-expanding crew of talent both known as Livewire. When we met, he’d already made a prestigious debut as an 18-year-old on Richie Rich’s Nixon Pryor Roundtree (Ten-Six, 2002), but he still had a long grind to get where he is now.

The title of “hottest rapper in Oakland” changes hands rapidly, but at the moment, it’s Stalin’s, coinciding with the recent release of his sophomore album, The Prenuptial Agreement (Livewire/SMC). “Sophomore” is misleading; J’s released countless projects since his first album, On Behalf of the Streets (Livewire/Zoo Ent, 2006) — not simply mixtapes, but full albums under one pretext or another, like a duo disc with Livewire-member Mayback, The Real World, Vol 2 (Livewire/DJ Fresh, 2008), or his entry in SMC’s Town Thizzness series, Gas Nation (2008). But these days, rappers reserve the right to designate “official solo albums” among their endless stream of releases, and J has patiently assembled Prenup over roughly three years.

On Behalf of the Streets was to prove myself to Oakland,” he says. “When I made Prenup, I was trying to make music for the world. My fanbase is bigger than Oakland now, so I gotta make my music bigger.”

Prenup definitely succeeds in this ambition. The Mekanix — who produced all of Streets — return in force, alongside numerous newer producers like teenage Alameda resident Swerve. Tracks like Swerve’s “Neighborhood Stars” (blessed by Oakland’s godfather, Too Short, as well as Mistah FAB) or the Mekanix’s “HNIC” (featuring Messy Marv) are spacious, state-of-the-art numbers that hold up against anything on national radio.

Yet the core of Stalin’s sound is very Oakland — unsurprising, given his role in shaping the Town’s current obsession: the 1980s. Musically, the signatures of this trend are classic 808 beats, layered with old skool keyboards from a time when synths barely resembled the instruments they allegedly imitated. Aside from the 808s, the resulting tracks sound little like ’80s hip-hop (or even funk), evoking more the sonic palette of that decade’s R&B and even new wave.

DJ Fresh, producer of J’s first “pre-album” The Real World (Livewire/DJ Fresh, 2006) and other Livewire projects, acknowledges that these sounds have had a role in digital hip-hop. “That sound was there, but we mastered it,” he said. “Nobody was really touchin’ that sound before. It helped me find my sound, and it sounds natural with the way Stalin raps.”

“I just got it in me, those ’80s beats,” the often melodic Stalin concurs. “It probably got beat into my head as a child. I got a smooth style of rappin’, my harmonizing and all that. I’m on that ’80s melody vibe.”

 

ROCK OF AGES

Given the size and influence of Livewire, and its association with Beeda Weeda’s PTB crew, the ’80s vibe has gone viral in Oakland over the past couple of years. But unlike other miners of ’80s terrain — say, the Casio rock trend of last decade — the new sound of the Town has an organic lyrical connection through tales of crack and the devastation the drug has wreaked in the ghetto. “Slangin’ rocks” is hardly a novel topic in rap, yet there’s been a shift in presentation. This, I think, is a directly connected to age: unlike their elders, these new rappers are the first generation born during the crack epidemic. Born in West Oakland’s Cypress Village in 1983, Stalin himself is literally a crack baby.

“My mama been clean for two-and-a-half years,” Stalin says. “She did drugs all my life. We wasn’t always broke, because she sold drugs too. But as she got older, she started using more and selling less.”

This was a harsh environment for the young Jovan Smith. When J was only five, his 18-year-old brother, Lamar Jackson, died from swallowing his rocks while escaping from the police. Stalin’s dad, a con man, was in jail for most of Stalin’s childhood.

Stevie Joe — a Livewire rapper whose upcoming disc ‘80s Baby also refers to his East Oakland hood, the Shady 80s — succinctly articulates the effects of such an upbringing.

“A lot of kids grew up alone,” he says. “You gotta go outside because your parents tell you, ‘I’m getting high, get outta here.’ When you outside and they inside getting high, they don’t know what you doing out there. That’s how people get involved with selling drugs, doing drugs, all that.”

Immersed in this environment, Stalin became a d-boy — a teen crack dealer — standing on the corner, taking turns with his friends selling as customers came through. Stevie himself sold drugs more casually until age 19, when his daughter was born. “I never wanted to hit the block, but I needed a stable place where I could make money. It might sound bad on paper, but it helped me raise her.”

Others, like Livewire’s Philthy Rich, whose Town Thizzness disc Funk or Die (SMC) dropped in late ’09, began even earlier. Hailing from East Oakland’s Seminary neighborhood, Philthy caught his first case at age 11 for stealing a bike, before graduating to the dope game.

“I got in the streets when I was young because I had a rough parenthood,” he said. “A single mother. Five different kids from five different fathers. For attention I was rebelling. And it’s not hard to start selling drugs when you already been around that life. Most of the crackheads is people’s family from the neighborhood. So it’s nothing new.

“It was just me out there, trying to find myself,” he continued. “I used to wonder why I was even born.”

 

D-BOY BLUES

In lyrical terms, the ’80s baby generation primarily identifies with classic Bay Area mob music, bypassing more recent hyphy. But there seems to be a difference in presentation. The ’90s mob rapper tended to rap from an adult perspective, portraying himself in hyperbolic exploits as a kind of Scarface-inspired action figure. To be sure, the ’80s babies haven’t abandoned such tales of million-dollar deals, speedboats, and private planes. But alongside this, the story of the d-boy has emerged, reflecting the trauma of the generation’s upbringing. In contrast to the mobster’s comic-book glory, d-boy stories are frequently anti-glamour in tone, from the mundane, heartbreaking experiences of neglect — wearing the same clothes for a week or more being a common detail — to the painful tragedies of losing parents and siblings to drugs or murder. These stories generally unfold against a middle-school or high-school backdrop and are narrated from a present-tense, first-person perspective. The popularity of Stalin and ’80s-baby peers partly stems from the bond these narratives create between a rapper and his young ghetto fanbase. They can appreciate and admire Stalin as the grownup mobster who measures dope by the kilo, but they can identify with J as the d-boy with a bundle of rocks and “dope fiend” mother.

“They relate to us because we talking about what they going through too,” Stalin says. “I was 17 once upon a time. I can still relate; you just got to remember. I remember when I was 12. I can relate to a 12-year-old.”

Despite his chaotic childhood, Stalin wound up one of the lucky ones. Busted at 17, with a weekday curfew and weekends in juvenile hall, he had time on his hands and, like Mac Dre and many others, he used this isolation to begin writing raps. As it turned out, his late brother’s best friend grew up to be DJ Daryl, who produced 2pac’s 1993 smash “Keep Ya Head Up.” Daryl took Stalin under his wing, eventually introducing J to Richie Rich, who was impressed enough to feature Stalin on several tracks on Nixon. For Philthy Rich — subject of a segment in the recent, somewhat histrionic Discovery TV documentary Gang Wars: Oakland (2009) — as well as Stevie Joe, getting off the block took a lot longer.

“After I had my second son,” says Philthy, “I needed to do something else than what I was doing, in and out of jail. The cycle was just going to repeat. I feel like I can get further doing this.”

A chance encounter with Keak da Sneak manager Dame Fame, who was impressed with the rapper’s talents, helped get Stevie off the block and into the recording studio.

“I backslid one time, after a couple of months,” he admits. “But that didn’t last long because I couldn’t do it no more. So every day since I been rappin’.”

While J, Stevie, and Philthy have left the d-boy life behind, they haven’t forgotten the struggles they went through. The pain of this music offers solace to today’s disaffected youth, who, given the cumulative social effects of crack, are wilder than ever.

“These motherfuckers are crazy, because they never been raised,” Stevie says, citing the passing of pre-crack generations in the hood. These are the kids the new brand of “conscious thug” reaches out to. Alongside glorified tales of killing and dealing, the rappers send out more cautionary messages. Stalin voices the paradox on the intro to Prenup: “I told them I sold rocks on MTV / I’m a hustla, I could sell a million mp3s / and still send the message ‘don’t sell drugs’ to teens.” “As black people, we adapted to the ghetto to where we feel like there’s nothing wrong with us,” Stalin says. “It’s like nobody sees the big picture. It seem like nobody have big dreams of getting out the ghetto. They content; fuck being content — strive for more. Like OK, I sold drugs, but when I die, my obituary’s not going to say ‘drug seller.’ My obituary’s something whole different.”

<3 <3 <3

0

superego@sfbg.com

SUPER EGO Love — can’t we just stick it in a blender with some vodka and call it a nightlife? This year Presidents Day, Valentine’s Day, and the International Bear Rendezvous all collide in a ginormous party-party mush. Which makes sense, since two bears back-to-back make an upside-down heart or Richard Nixon’s face. For large, hairy, gay events hit the IBR site (www.bosf.org/bearrendezvous). Below are more hearty affairs to flirt with.

1964

“He hit me (and it felt like a kiss)”? A special hand-holding, goin’ down to Love Town edition of the classic girl-group and Motown pop joint with DJs Sergio Iglesias and Matt Bonar.

Wed/10, 10 p.m., free. Edinburgh Castle, 950 Geary, SF. www.castlenews.com

ARABS GONE WILD

“We think nothing says ‘I love you’ more than watching a group of Arab American comedians be funny,” says joker Maysoon Zayid. She’ll be joined by Dean Obeidallah and Aron Kader for some heartfelt halal hilarity.

Thu/11, 8 p.m., $20 (Also Fri/12, 8 p.m. and 10:15 p.m.). Cobb’s, 915 Columbus, SF. www.cobbscomedyclub.com

NIGHTLIFE: ROMANCE AND REPRODUCTION

The diversity of life gets an amorous showcase at the Cal Academy’s wildly popular club night, while the diversity of sound comes courtesy of DJ Jeff Stallings’ Balearic, Bedouin, African and Latin beats.

Thu/11, 6 p.m.- 10 p.m., $10–$12. California Academy of Sciences, 55 Music Concourse Dr., SF. www.calacademy.org/nightlife

LUCHA VAVOOM

Burlesque-wrestlemania to tear your heart out! Take it to the mat with Hector Garza, Chocolate Caliente, El Bombero, Lucy Fur, Lil Cholo, hula-hooper extraordinaire Karis, and also some chickens, apparently, as they ring the bell of amour.

Fri/12, 8 p.m.-11 p.m., $32.50. Fillmore, 1805 Geary, SF. www.livenation.com

1994

World’s tallest DJ Stretch Armstrong has enough party-electro love to reach out from the late 2ks and embrace the fresh-faced crowds at this super-fashionable retro-fest. Will he drop some rave bombs? With Jeffrey Paradise and Richie Panic.

Sat/13, 9 p.m., $10 advance. 111 Minna, SF. www.111minnagallery.com

BLACK VALENTINE MASQUERADE

You go, ghoul (ugh). Goth it up in style with demonic Aussie heart-breakbeats from DJ Nick Thayer and a blippy dub blitz from Flying Skulls. Dress like hot, masked death.

Sat/12, 10 p.m.-4 a.m., $10. Mighty, 119 Utah, SF. www.mighty119.com

BLOWOFF

It may not be the most romantically named party for V-Day, but if you’re looking for furry snugglebunnies, in the form of large gay men, then this gathering is one of your best bets. DJs Bob Mould and Richard Morel bring the alt-rock dance remixes.

Sat/13, 10 p.m., $15. Slim’s 333 11th St., SF. www.blowoff.us

BOOTIE VALENTINES PARTY

“We’re going to scare our audience big-time with our most fucked up Valentines midnite mashup show ever,” DJ D of the still-going-strong bootleg club tells me. Get ready! Cousin Winderlette performs and A+D and Freddy King of Pants get wicked on the decks.

Sat/13, 9 p.m., $12. DNA Lounge, 375 11th St., SF. www.bootiesf.com

CLUB NEON UNDERWEAR PARTY

It’s the sixth anniversary of this pants on the ground must, with nubile flesh amply and cheekily displayed to indie-rock and hip-hop tunes from Jamie Jams, Emdee, Lil’ Melanie, and Aidan. Flash that bulging polka-dotted Ginch Gonch, brother.

Sat/13, 9 p.m., $10. The Knockout, 3223 Mission, SF. www.theknockoutsf.com

COCKBLOCK: THE LOVE PARTY

Who doesn’t want to feel the love of dozens of punkish young lezzies and bois with amazing hair, raising their cans to the heavy dance tunes of DJ Nuxx and Kidd Sysko

Sat/13, 10 p.m., $7. Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell, SF. www.cockblocksf.com

LE PERLE DEGLI SQUALLOR

Who needs love when you can have delicious anonymous queer encounters, which are also a form of love? A trickin’ chicken, tonsil-ticklin’, fanny-fondlin’, disco rareties free-for-all, tenderly sprayed down from DJ Bus Station John.

Sat/13, 10 p.m., $5. Hot Spot, 1414 Market, SF.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE BINGO

Oh, those Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — always getting pancake on my pants. It’ll be a “zombie of a good time” when our patron saints preside over a horrifically lovely zombie-themed installment of their charitable bingo bonanza. Even the undead need love.

Sat/13, 4 p.m.–7 p.m., donations encouraged. Veteran’s War Memorial, second floor, 401 Van Ness, SF. www.thesisters.org

PARADISE LOVERS DISCO

Singles going steady on the dance floor, please, for this retro-disco and lovebug-boogie extravaganza. DJs from Gemini Disco, Beat Electric, Donuts, Honey Soundsystem, and Sweaterfunk get all underground and passionate. Cheap, too.

Sat/13, 9 p.m.–3 a.m., $5. Mezzanine, 444 Jessie, SF. www.mezzaninesf.com

“A LOVELYFUCKING SUNDAY”

Why all the bitterness, when weekly bassbin funk-rap blowout Lowbrow has DJs Roost Uno, Smashy Trashy, Pony P, and Pozibelle on tap (and $2 brews). Plus, “photos by many drunk girls and most likely members of Ron Jeremy Fan Club.” I have no idea, but I like it.

Sun/14, 9 p.m., free. Delirium, 3139 16th St., SF. www.lowsf.com

HONEY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS

A Honey Sunday “leather discotheque Valentine’s” from Honey Soundsystem that will whip your lonely ticker into a frenzy — probably a tipsy frenzy, if you take advantage of the $8 beer bust until 11 p.m., DJ Ken Vulsion, Pee Play, and Derek Bobus make it work.

Sun/14, 9 p.m., $3. Paradise Lounge, 1501 Folsom, SF. www.honeysoundsystem.com

HUGS ‘N HEARTS

Monthly three-ring kiki-athon Big Top is a circus, and its special V-Day party will be a zoo, with NYC homo-rapper Cazwell and club legend Amanda LePore (she sings!) in town to stir things up. Heklina hostesses.

Sun/14, 9 p.m., $10–$25. Club Eight, 1151 Folsom, SF. www.eightsf.com

JUSTIN BOND: CLOSE TO YOU

The fantastical creature who jumped from local club kid talent to legend of New York stage (Tony nom, anyone?) is back with a freakin’ 10-piece orchestra to sing his favorite Carpenters’ songs. Mellow gold, child. 

Sun/14, 8:15, $25-$75. Castro Theatre, 419 Castro, SF. www.ticketweb.com

LOVESICK III

Geez, will anybody ever love you if you look like heck warmed over? Of course they will, Adam Lambert. But why not hit up this huge, buzzy lingerie fashion fiesta, dance floor prance, and trunk show party to polish your lacy underthings resume.

Sun/14, 7 p.m.-1 a.m., $15/$20. Mighty, 119 Utah, SF. www.mighty119.com

MOODYMANN

No one wants to date moody, but everyone shall dance to Moodymann, the second generation Detroit techno whiz and father of the current red-hot soul re-edits trend (although his Black Power message is getting a bit lost in the fray.) With Sunset and Stompy party DJs.

Sun/14, 3 p.m.-2 a.m., $15/$20. Café Cocomo, 650 Indiana, SF. www.stompy.com

SIXXTEEN

Rock out with your aorta out — it’s cuddle-with-a-chainsaw time as the legendary rock club returns, leopard Spandex and all. Kiss tribute band Heroes takes stage, while DJs Omar, Jenny, China G., Howie Pyro and more give you a whole lotta love. Panama!

Sun/14, 10 p.m.-3 a.m., $10. Cat Club, 1190 Folsom, SF. www.sfcatclub.com

The “jobs” shell game

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Written with Nima Maghame

news@sfbg.com

While many San Francisco city officials have been trying to figure out how to close a projected budget deficit of more than $520 million, Mayor Gavin Newsom has spent the last month trying to make that spending gap even larger by aggressively pushing a variety of business tax cuts that economists say will do little to improve the local economy and could actually make it worse.

Newsom first proposed his so-called “local economic stimulus package” a year ago during his ill-fated run for governor, just as President Barack Obama was pushing his own economic stimulus plan. But unlike the federal government’s $787 billion plan, about a third of which involved tax cuts demanded by conservatives, Newsom proposed to cut local business taxes while also deeply slashing local government spending and laying off hundreds of city workers.

Most economists say that’s a terrible idea. In fact, a report issued at the time by Moody’s Investor Services made it clear that every dollar of direct government spending adds about $1.60 into the economy (or $1.73 if it’s on food stamps, the most stimulative spending government can make), whereas business tax cuts add only about $1 to the economy for every dollar spent.

We clashed with the Mayor’s Office at the time on our Politics blog (see “Mayor Newsom doesn’t understand economics,” 2/13/09), with Newsom’s spokesperson telling us the mayor was relying on the input of City Economist Ted Egan. But when we interviewed Egan about the issue, he agreed that it’s a bad idea to slash government spending to pay for tax cuts.

“We were in no way saying you should cut taxes to stimulate the economy, particularly if it means reducing government spending,” Egan told us then. And when we asked directly whether it’s better for San Francisco’s economy for the city to directly spend a dollar on payroll or to give that dollar away in a private sector tax break, he told us, “The consensus among economists is that most of the time government spending stimulates the economy more.”

The Board of Supervisors basically ignored Newsom’s proposal. But he revived it last month, expanding the proposals with even more private sector subsidies and making them the centerpiece of his Jan. 13 State of the City speech, publicly pushing it since then with a series of public events at businesses located in the city.

And this time — with the local economy still slow, projected city budget deficits bigger than ever, and little serious talk about how the city can bring in more money — it appears the proposals will be the subject of a series of hearings before Board of Supervisors’ committees in the coming weeks.

Newsom’s tax cut proposals include a proposal to waive the 1.5 percent payroll tax (the city’s main business tax) for all new hires; extend and expand the payroll tax exemption for biotech companies (see “Biotech’s bonanza,” p. 12); give small businesses tax credits for their spending on health plans; and allow developers to pass one-third of their affordable housing in-lieu fees onto future homeowners.

Newsom and his Press Secretary Tony Winnicker have spoken euphorically about the proposals, saying they’re desperately needed to spur the local economy. “We believe that enacting these tax incentives, particularly the payroll tax credit for new hires, is one of the single biggest things we can do for economic growth,” Winnicker said.

Despite repeated questions about the economists’ concerns over financing tax cuts with government spending cuts, we couldn’t get them to address the tradeoff directly. “The mayor will support critical public services,” was all Winnicker would say about the deep cuts that Newsom is expected to announce in his June 1 budget.

Sup. John Avalos, who chairs the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee, expressed more skepticism about the mayor’s proposals. “Do tax breaks have the intended effect of stimulating the economy? As we underfund government services, are we getting a net gain or are we getting something taken away? For the very small businesses in my district, it’s going to be trickle-down economics. It’s very unrelated and unmeasurable in benefit,” he told us.

David Noyola, board aide to President David Chiu, said his boss is supporting the biotech tax credit but reserving judgment on the rest. “It’s going to be a cost-benefit analysis,” Noyola said. “When we’re talking about jobs, we’re talking about public and private sector jobs, always.”

While Egan’s economic analysis predicts tax cuts will encourage some economic growth, even he is circumspect about the good it will do, particularly without finding a way to avoid deep cuts in city spending. “The truth of the matter is that our stimulus efforts are small because the city has relatively small power to affect the local economy,” Egan told us.

That’s the consensus economic opinion. Huge federal spending can help a national economy a little bit, but local economies are just different animals that local governments are largely powerless to really alter, particularly through tax cuts.

“I agree with Egan: city government has little power over the local economy,” Mike Potepan, an urban development economist at San Francisco State University, told the Guardian.

Both economists agree that tying tax cuts to job creation or development stimulus is better than general tax cuts, but that neither is good if it means laying off more city workers.

“Research shows that by cutting taxes you have more business activity where studies show it is likely to effect employment,” Potepan said. “On the other side, you have to think about revenue. Cities are going to have to balance their budgets, which could mean a cut in services.”

Author Greg LeRoy expresses a more critical perspective in his book The Great American Jobs Scam: Corporate Tax Dodging and the Myth of Job Creation (1995, Berrett-Koehler), amassing evidence from economic studies and CEO surveys that corporate tax breaks, even those tied to new job creation, have almost no effect on private companies’ decisions about where to locate and whether to hire.

“How can companies get away with this? Because the system is rigged. Corporations have it down to a science. They have learned how to chant ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ to win huge corporate tax breaks — and still do whatever they wanted all along,” LeRoy writes. “That’s the Great American Jobs Scam: an intentionally constructed system that enables corporations to exact huge taxpayer subsidies by promising quality jobs — and lets them fail to deliver. The other benefit often promised — higher tax revenues — often proves false as well.”

While proposing to forgo collecting millions of dollars in payroll taxes (the Controller’s Office is still working on a projected total for the tax cut package), the Mayor’s Office also wants to spur development of new housing with a proposal that would delay collection of needed affordable housing money by more than a decade.

After hearing mostly from a large crowd of desperate developers and construction workers during a Jan. 21 hearing on the proposal, the Planning Commission approved the package on a 4-3 vote, with the mayor’s appointees in agreement and the board’s appointees in dissent. It will be considered by the Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee sometime after Feb. 12.

The most controversial part of the fee reform package involves reducing the fee developers pay to support affordable housing by 33 percent, then charging a 1 percent transfer tax to subsequent buyers of those homes. Egan estimates developers would save almost $20,000 per housing unit, and that it would take an average of 16 years for the city to recover that money. But for high-rise luxury condos, the city would eventually recover about $27,000 per unit.

“It’s a classic make-an-investment-now-to-get-more-later strategy,” Michael Yarne, who crafted the policy for the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development at Newsom’s direction, told the Guardian.

“If it makes it feasible for projects to be started, then it is worth passing,” Tim Colen, a representative of San Francisco Housing Action, said at the Planning Commission hearing, expressing hope that it will help create desperately needed construction jobs and new market rate housing.

But affordable housing advocates and some progressives criticize the policy as completely backward, saying that affordable housing development is desperately needed now, during these tough economic times, rather than a policy that encourages more market rate housing and bails out bad investments made at the height of the real estate bubble.

“What the city needs to do is directly build affordable housing, for which there is a demand,” affordable housing activist Calvin Welch told us. “The problem is that the banks don’t want to lend these guys money because they know nobody can afford to buy houses at the prices that these guys are demanding.”

Debra Walker, who is running for supervisor from District 6 and voted against the proposal when it came before the Building Inspection Commission (the sole vote on a commission dominated by mayoral appointees), agrees.

“The whole argument is that it stimulates development, but it doesn’t,” Walker said, arguing that the incremental gains (about 25 housing units per year, Egan estimates) will be offset by delayed affordable housing construction. “There would be more economic stimulus by using the fee to build more affordable housing.”

Instead, it simply shifts resources to favored entities: from home owners to developers, in the case of the affordable housing fees, or in the case of the tax credits, from the public to the private sector. But Newsom’s office just doesn’t see it that way.

“The Guardian believes in protecting public sector employees over private sector employees,” was how Winnicker formulated our understanding of what the economists are saying. “Most people don’t work for the city, and if we can support private sector jobs, that adds to sales tax revenues and benefits the economy. Despite a short-term impact of the tax credit, that’s a benefit.”

Adam Lesser contributed to this report

 

Biotech’s bonanza

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By Adam Lesser

news@sfbg.com

It’s difficult to measure the value a biotechnology company receives from locating in San Francisco. Most measures are qualitative: scientists talk about synergy with other biotech companies in the area, the intellectual community that thrives at the University of California-San Francisco, and support offered at the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3).

But the quantitative costs are easier to calculate, beginning with rents that often are two to three times higher than in the East Bay or South Bay. Add San Francisco’s 1.5 percent payroll tax, and companies can begin to attach a dollar figure to the premium of being in San Francisco.

To incentivize biotech companies to locate in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom is asking the Board of Supervisors to extend the six-year-old Biotech Payroll Tax Exemption. The exemption allows any new biotech company to get a full 7.5 years without paying local business taxes as long as it files for the exemption by Dec. 31, 2014.

At a time when San Francisco city officials are struggling to close a budget deficit of more than $500 million — for which Newsom hasn’t offered any significant revenue proposals to help bridge the gap — some are questioning why the city should continue giving millions of dollars in tax breaks to the thriving biotech industry.

The core question of whether the payroll tax credit has worked in bringing more biotech companies to San Francisco is complex. While Newsom boasted of attracting 54 new biotech companies in the last five years during his Jan. 13 State of the City address, analysis of the credit by Ted Egan, the city’s chief economist, indicated that only eight companies had applied for the credit by the end of 2008.

The thriving research environment at UCSF-Mission Bay and the establishment of the state taxpayer-funded California Institute for Regenerative Medicine have played significant roles in creating a favorable environment for young biotech companies. The last five years also have seen broad growth in biotech as scientific discoveries have accelerated. Would biotech companies have come to San Francisco regardless of the payroll tax exemption?

The city’s Office of Economic Analysis looked at the question of how effective the payroll tax exclusion actually has been in spurring biotech growth. Because the size of the incentive — an exemption from paying a 1.5 percent tax on its total payroll — is relatively small, Egan felt that there could not be a conclusive link between the exemption and biotech growth. But he did feel there was some benefit, writing in his analysis that “in fact, the primary worth of the incentive may lie in its marketing value and how it signals to the industry that San Francisco is a credible location for biotechnology.”

Between 2004 and 2008, the biotech tax credit cost the city $1.2 million. If costs stay on pace with 2008, the existing Biotechnology Tax Exclusion will cost at least an additional $2 million. There are no cost estimates yet on extending the credit to give all biotech companies the full 7.5 years of payroll tax exclusion.

The extension faces opposition. Sup. John Avalos, chair of the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee, has expressed concern about the effectiveness of tax credits.

“I’m not sure the city is going to be able to show a direct connection between taxes and the growth of the biotech industry. The verdict is still out for me,” Avalos told the Guardian. “We’ve created the whole infrastructure for the industry around Mission Bay. That could have a lot to do with companies coming to San Francisco.” The city donated a portion of the land the UCSF-Mission Bay campus was built on.

Allopartis Biotechnologies is a small biotech startup in QB3 at UCSF-Mission Bay that has received venture capital funding. It saved $3,670 in 2009 by qualifying for the payroll exclusion. Allopartis has six employees and focuses on developing technologies to convert biomass into sustainable fuels.

“You pay a premium to be in the city, and it’s worth it,” said Robert Blazej, cofounder of Allopartis. “We’d like to stay close to this nexus of innovation and collaborators. But it’s going to be challenging with the cost of square footage.”

Interviews with other growing San Francisco businesses showed that their biggest concern was the cost and availability of commercial real estate. Zynga, a social gaming company in Potrero Hill, plans to add 800 jobs over the next two years. Newsom has asked for an additional waiver on payroll taxes for all new hires over the next two years, regardless of industry.

“We considered moving out of San Francisco for a couple reasons. One is the availability of commercial real estate. The other is the payroll tax,” said Chief Financial Officer Mark Vranesh. “The large blocks of space we would be looking for are hard to find.”

But as the city tries to plug gaps in dwindling city services, concerns are mounting about how much the city can give away to companies under the premise that tax credits create new jobs. In the debate about the biotech tax credit, objections have been raised about the fundamental fairness of giving a tax break to one industry while others still pay their share. Similar next generation industries with large up-front research and development costs such as solar energy or fiberoptic Internet do not receive payroll tax waivers.

Economists such as the Tax Foundation’s Patrick Fleenor are quick to point out that there are no political advantages to taxing everyone equally. “The problem is a political one. If you tax everyone the same, there aren’t politicians creating little fiefdoms. There aren’t ribbon-cutting ceremonies,” he said.

Avalos has equated judging the effectiveness of tax credits at creating jobs to looking into a crystal ball. But the price tag of each tax credit is borne in the present as the city contemplates laying off hundreds of city workers.

Adding to the political infighting have been public complaints by Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier that Newsom is trying to take credit for the biotech payroll exclusion, which she originally proposed and helped legislate in 2004. She requested an extension for the biotech tax credit in November. Her office has defended the bill. “We’re creating a hub so that other biotech companies can come to San Francisco,” said Bill Barnes, Alioto-Pier’s legislative aide. “When she was courting biotech, she was hearing that the payroll tax was an impediment.”

But other cities charge local business taxes comparable to San Francisco’s payroll tax. And if there was ever an industry that has been heaped with support from the public sector, it is biotech.

Proposition 71 passed with 59 percent voter support in 2004 and established the CIRM, which provides grants and loans for stem cell research. Stem cell research is an area within biotech that has seen significant political support, particularly since the time of the Bush administration, when federal funding for embryonic stem cell research was heavily restricted.

But appearing to be doing something about the economy remains politically important, even if the actual benefits are somewhat dubious.

“It’s a big political game that the mayor is playing. He wants to paint progressives as anti-jobs, which is ridiculous, and paint himself as the mayor for jobs,” Avalos told us. “We would be cannibalizing government services for the private sector.”

Newsom has been vague about whether he accepts that tradeoff or even understands its implications to city coffers and the local economy. Newsom Press Secretary Tony Winnicker recently told us, “He thinks it’s good policy to spur private sector job growth.”

Later, he added: “While not every company has taken advantage of it, we feel extending it sends the right message,”

Editor’s Notes

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tredmond@sfbg.com

Progressives don’t have to be afraid of economic development, don’t have to be afraid of promoting business and creating private-sector employment. And we don’t have to be terrified of a mayor who wants to label anyone who opposes Reagan-era economic policies as anti-jobs.

The thing is, San Francisco needs to promote the biggest engine of new employment — small business — and needs to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation. But there’s enough good economic science out there, enough evidence of what works and what doesn’t, that we don’t have to be stupid.

The most obvious example of that is tax cuts. We talk about the mayor’s tax plans this week — and what’s most remarkable is the consensus among economists, even the city’s own economist, that what Newsom is proposing won’t work.

If cutting specific taxes for certain businesses — say, waiving the 1.5 percent payroll tax for biotech — would actually lead local companies to hire hundreds of new people, it might be worth the budget pain. But that’s not going to happen. If allowing developers to pay their affordable housing fees years down the road would put thousands of construction workers back on the job, you could make the case for it — but nobody with any sense really thinks that’s likely.

What do we know would create employment opportunities? Well, a giant affordable housing bond, hundreds of millions in city money going to build new apartments, would generate construction jobs. But what most small businesses really need, what would really encourage hiring, is credit. If San Francisco took the money it’s going to expend (and tax cuts are an expense; let’s be honest) and put all of it into a revolving microloan fund for community businesses, we’d get a lot more jobs. In fact, almost any way that San Francisco spends that money on direct services would create more jobs than these tax cuts.

That’s not politics or ideology or anything else. It’s just reality.

The attack on district elections

3

EDITORIAL The Chamber of Commerce, the Mayor’s Office, and the San Francisco Chronicle have created, apparently out of whole cloth, a new attack on district elections of supervisors. And although there’s no campaign or formal proposal on the table, the new move needs to be taken seriously.

And it’s important to understand from the start what this is really about.

The Chamber and the Chron are talking about the need for more “citywide perspective,” trying to spin the notion that supervisors elected by district care only about micro-local, parochial issues. But after 10 years of district elections, the record is exactly the opposite. District-elected supervisors have devoted themselves to a long string of exceptional citywide reform measures and have been guilty of very little district pandering.

Consider a few examples:

Healthy San Francisco, the local effort at universal health care that has drawn national attention and plaudits from President Obama, was a product of the district board, led by then-Sup. Tom Ammiano. So was the rainy day fund, which has provided millions to the public schools and prevented widespread teacher layoffs.

The district board reformed the makeup of the Planning Commission, Police Commission, and Board of Appeals.

District-elected Sup. Ross Mirkarimi’s legislation restricting the use of plastic bags has been hailed by environmental groups all over the country.

The district board passed the city’s minimum wage and sick day laws.

The district board created a citywide infrastructure plan and bond program.

Community choice aggregation, a direct challenge to Pacific Gas and Electric Co. that will bring San Francisco clean energy and lower electricity rates, is entirely a product of the district board. So is campaign finance reform, sanctuary city protecting for immigrants, a long list of tenant-protecting laws … the list goes on and on. What significant policy initiatives came out of the previous 10 years of at-large supervisors? Very little — except the promotion of hyper-expensive live-work lofts; the displacement of thousands of tenants, artists, and low-income people; and the economic cleansing of San Francisco, all on behalf of the dot-com boom, real estate speculators, and developers.

People can agree or disagree with what the board has done in the past decade, but nobody can honestly say that the district supervisors have ignored citywide issues or that they don’t have a citywide perspective.

No, this has nothing to do with citywide issues vs. district issues. It’s entirely about policy — about the fact that district supervisors are more progressive. About the fact that downtown can’t possibly get a majority under a district system — because with small districts, big money can’t carry the day.

Under an at-large system, nobody can seriously run for supervisor without at lest $250,000, and candidates who start off without high name recognition need twice that. There’s only one way to get that kind of money — and it’s not from protecting tenants and immigrants and fighting developers and PG&E.

In a district system, grassroots organizing — the stuff that labor and nonprofits and progressive groups are good at — is more important than raising money. So district supes are accountable to a different constituency.

Polls consistently show that people like having district supervisors — and for good reason. With at-large elections, the only people who have regular, direct access to the supervisors are big donors and lobbyists who can deliver money. District supervisors are out in the neighborhoods, take phone calls from community activists, and are far more accessible to their constituents.

So instead of trying to repeal the district system, the Chamber has come up with this “hybrid” effort. The idea would be to reduce the number of districts to seven and elect four supervisors citywide.

What that means, of course, is that a third of the board, elected on a pile of money, will be pretty much call-up votes for downtown. With two more from the more conservative districts, you’ve got a majority.

So this is about money and political control, and about the political direction the city is going, and about who’s going to set that direction. That’s the message progressive leaders need to start putting out, now. And every incumbent supervisor, and every candidate for supervisor, needs to make preservation of district elections a public priority.

Welcome to the new SFBG.com

4

Happy 2010, and welcome to the new SFBG.com — the Web site for the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

We’ve redesigned the site in order to have a more immediate interaction with you, our reader, and to launch the next phase in our 45-year history of serving the Bay Area community with the latest, local-oriented, proudly made-in-the-Bay news, reviews, commentary, and guides. It’s a fiesta, so dig in!

In the near future, we’ll be adding new features, making some wee adjustments, and ironing out any kinks. We always appreciate your feedback, and hope that you enjoy our changes.

Here are a few notes to help you get oriented.

*Our homepage now consists of a Top Story, links to listings, our daily Hot List, and recent posts from our blogs. The homepage is updated several times a day with fresh stories and features.

*You can access the content of our current weekly paper by clicking on the cover under “This Week’s Paper” at the top of the site.

*You can access anything on the site through the top navigational bar, using the mouse-over menus — or, you can use the search box located at the top of every page.

*You no longer have to register and remember that pesky username and password to comment on any articles or blog posts.

*Unfortunately, a few recent comments on articles and posts were deleted during the transition. We apologize. Please feel free to post your thoughts again if they were deleted.

*The weekly paper area will be updated every Tuesday night, as usual. But the blogs and homepage will be updated several times a day.

*We are still in the process of adding some back issues to the site. A few old article link URLs no longer work, but you can find almost any article from 2005 until now by using the search box.

*As always, comments are welcome — we love to engage in constructive dialogue. We would never censor anyone expressing a different opinion about or offering supplemental information to our stories. However, we reserve the right to delete any comments containing hate speech, libelous implications, or completely unrelated blather.

*Please explore!

Again, we always welcome feedback. You can email me directly, and we’ll be publishing a Contact Us page very soon.

Thanks,

Marke B.

Senior Editor, Culture and Web

marke@sfbg.com

 

PS. Incredible thanks to our Web developer Harris Rashid and tech admin Adam Michon for all their help!