Volume 44 [2009–10]

Appetite: Dinner and cocktails with a view

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Wednesday  through Saturday nights there’s a ready-made date if you want romance without having to think too hard. At $80 a person, it’s a package deal between Luce Restaurant (which I’ve written about more than once) in the Intercontinental Hotel and Top of the Mark. Choose the order – three course dinner or cocktails first – with a cab ride included to the second location.

I’ve always loved the old world class (not to mention in-the-thick-of-it San Francisco views) of Top of the Mark and live jazz with dancing, but cover charges and mediocre cocktails priced in the mid-teens make it unrealistic too often. With this package, the cost of a drink, cover charge and the cab ride alone would make up half of the $80 and that’s not counting three courses and sparkling wine at Luce.

On one of our mild September nights, I took in an offer to try the package  with The Renaissance Man – we opted for dinner first. It started with a glass of champagne (we added in a Rustic Grappa Flight – $14, see Imbiber for more on grappa at Luce/Bar 888) and an amuse bouche of Chicken Confit with diced Granny Smith apples and vanilla cream. The chicken was tender with a crispy confit layer. Contrasted by sweet, creamy accents, I almost wished it was my main course.

Chef Dominique Crenn, who’s cooking earned Luce a Michelin star and is getting ready to launch her Atelier Crenn restaurant this winter, could have crafted a throwaway prix fixe menu, yet it does not feel so except for a basic salad with nothing but vinaigrette as a first course option. Instead, I chose Chilled Corn Soup with mussels and a speck chip on top. Redolent of Summer with fresh corn sweetness, it is refreshing and generously portioned.

Though there was a Vegetarian Risotto, The Renaissance Man and I stuck with fish and meat. I had “Poisson du Jour” (catch of the day): Seared Branzino with Black Mission figs, corn, trumpet mushrooms and Bloomdale spinach. He had Niman Ranch Flat Iron Steak cooked medium-rare, with romano beans, baby carrots, potatoes, drizzled with beef consumme. Again, good-sized portions, from three juicy cuts of steak to the crispy, buttery Branzino.

While there were two dessert options in the prix fixe (Chocolate Custard with cocoa crumbs & Pear Williams or Earl Grey Tea Panna Cotta with lemon zest and shortbread), we opted for two desserts on the regular menu. The first, called “Peaches”, resembled a wild, mossy garden with pistachio sponge cake growing over pistachio sorbet, crispy sesame and white peach mousse. Subtle and Spring-like, it looks like a fairyland dessert, even if flavors aren’t overwhelming. More exciting flavor-wise is “Chocolate”, which, despite the straightforward name has a lot going on: chocolate ganache, dehydrated chocolate and cacao nib sorbet are covered in a crumbled, Oreo-reminiscent chocolate ‘soil’, with dots of passion fruit puree, basil oil and micro mint contrasting with dark, earthy goodness. One of the more creative desserts I’ve had in awhile.

We then took our ride up the hill to Top of the Mark, mentioned we had the dinner with a view package (to be exempt from the usual cover charge), then enjoyed the cheesy fun of cocktails like a Grasshopper and other sweeter-than-I-normally-prefer choices (one cocktail each is included), while we spent the rest of the night swing dancing to the live band surrounded by a sea of San Francisco lights.

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Appetite: The green fairy transforms

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Absinthe is on the move from its initial novelty phase once finally legalized in the US in 2007 into an era where appreciators of fine drink are gaining greater education and refinement on the subject. No, it is not a hallucinogen (more on that in a minute), and no, it’s not the artificially sweetened and colored liqueurs flooding the market (but labeled as absinthe). When made as it has been historically, it’s a natural, herbal spirit with a rich culture surrounding it. 

We owe increasing knowledge to artisan producers of absinthe near and far. Some are local guys, like Lance Winters of St. George Spirits, the first producer in the US when the ban was lifted, or more recently, Davorin Kuchan of Old World Spirits, producing green (verte) and bleue (white) absinthes. Then there’s absinthe historians and experts like Peter Schaf and John Troia of Tempus Fugit Spirits who import some of the best absinthes from France and Switzerland, such as Duplais’ brilliant verte and blanche (white) versions. Schaf also created Vieux Pontarlier, a classic-style absinthe made in Pontarlier, France, from local wormwood, long considered the finest grown in the world (where most wormwood was sourced over 100 years ago). Schaf, Winters and Ted Breaux of Lucid, formed a recent panel during SF Cocktail Week, a two hour session (and tasting) on the green fairy (read about it here).

Another source for absinthe education is books, the latest being A Taste for Absinthe, by R. Winston Guthrie with James F. Thompson. Though predominantly a cocktail recipe source, this elegant new book, with photography by Liza Gershman, offers an encompassing summary of the history and culture surrounding absinthe, from its poster art, to the spoons, glasses, fountains and accouterments used to serve it. It’s an artful drink requiring leisure and attention, not a hallucinogen, a myth still falsely promoted around the world (thujone is the fragrant chemical found in wormwood and other plants, such as sage, believed to be a neurotoxoin in extremely high doses – governments have strict regulations on the levels of thujone allowed in the making of absinthe so it is not remotely dangerous yet qualifies as actual absinthe). Kudos for film anecdotes throughout the book on movies where absinthe is imbibed, classic films I grew up watching that are rare to run across now like Lust for Life and Madame X. 

On the recipe side, the book is broken down into five sections: classics, fruit and citrus, whiskey and gin, liqueurs and bitters, and modern classics. The recipes are compiled from some of our country’s best bartenders, including many SF locals. While straightforward classics like Death in the Afternoon (absinthe and champagne) and a bright Brunelle (lemon, absinthe, citrus) are all here, there are also modern takes such as Neyah White’s Green Goddess: absinthe, Square One cucumber vodka, simple syrup, lime fresh basil and thyme. There’s even dessert-like recipes… try an Absinthe & Old Lace: gin, absinthe, creme de menthe, cream, egg white and chocolate mole bitters. 

A Taste for Absinthe is clearly well-researched, with many of the sources above tapped to bring together a comprehensive book worthy of a place on the shelves of absinthe aficionados as well as novices. This Monday at Book Passage (6pm) is a book release event with the author, photographer, and an all-star line-up of bartenders at neighboring Slanted Door serving four cocktails from the book: 

The event is free… well, purchased drinks and the book are on your own dime, but that’s a small price to pay for a little education.
 

Monday, 10/4 – 6pm

 Book Passage

1 Ferry Building # 42


www.atasteforabsinthe.com

 

Appetite: Highlights of SF Cocktail Week, part 2

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That fizzy, magical week during which cocktails take over our fair city has just washed over us. Here are more highlights — check out part 1 here.

9/26 – Cocktail Cookout on the Island  

 Though it’s a toss-up between the Cocktail Carnival and the St. George/Hangar One cookout for best event of the week, sheer fun and beauty was unrivaled on the stunning Sunday boat cruise to and from Alameda (entire boat for Cocktail Week attendees only). None other than Scott Beattie served cocktails for the scenic boat ride. It was a hot, over 80 degree day so Beattie’s creations topped with Thai coconut foam and apple chip or dotted with edible flowers cooled us off in the most gourmet of ways. Massive navy ships in Alameda’s port made for a dramatic unloading point.

At the ever festive St. George/Hangar One distillery, there was BBQ (pulled pork from Fatted Calf), East Bay bartenders shaking up ice-cold cocktails, umbrellas and wading pools in the massive lot with views of the city across the Bay. Claire of Claire’s Squares served seductively lush dark chocolate squares which she hand-filled with St. George brandy in a caramel sauce and topped with sea salt. Damn. Tours of the distillery, a DJ spinning reggae and hip hop and bright sun made for a cookout to trump all cookouts.

But nothing could top that ferry ride home… pristine horizons, a rosy orange sunset illuminating our fair San Francisco with a gentle glow, warm air and rounds of Firelit Coffee liqueur. Amidst much laughter with friends, I leaned over the side of the boat letting the spray of the waves caress my face as city lights begin to ignite before me. I knew, once again, the grateful wonder and privilege of living in a place so magically stunning. 

9/25 – The Return of Absinthe at Comstock 

 Absinthe distillers Peter Schaf of Vieux Pontarlier, Lance Winters of St. George, and Ted Breaux of Lucid, formed the panel for two hours of all things absinthe. Their expertise and knowledge is dizzying. It was a crucial intro for those who dabble in the green fairy, clarifying the difference between real absinthe distilled from herbs and the unnaturally colored and flavored “absinthes” that flood the market.  Absinthe’s history, art and paraphernalia, as well as “terroir” and sourcing of herbs, were all discussed… with occasionally rowdy laughter from comments such as the one about syphilis (don’t ask).Comstock Saloon was the perfect setting, serving us three impeccably-prepared (and in gorgeous classic glassware) absinthe cocktails, including a Sazerac and Brunelle, as well as savory snacks from their kitchen.

9/26 – I-talian I-ranian Spaghetti Feed

Negronis, Sangiovese, antipasti, spaghetti and meatballs (traditional Italian from Long Bar chef Erik Hopfinger, as well as Hoss Zaré of Zaré at Fly Trap‘s – famed Iranian meatballs), ending with tiramisu and grappa. This was Sunday night (plus red-checkered tablecloths) at Reza Esmaili’s Long Bar for the I-talian I-ranian American Spaghetti Feed. Some took the tip, wearing velour tracksuits or elastic-waisted trousers: trashy and tacky, ready to fill up after a long day in the sun at St. George. It was all delicious – a special kudos to Hoss’ decadent surprise meatball stuffing of foie gras, duck, fig and date.

 

Volume 44 Number 52 Flip-through Edition

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Expansive roles

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arts@sfbg.com

STAGE Ogun Size has shaped up into a complex, intriguing character across the first two plays staged so far in the Bay Area debut of Terrell Alvin McCraney’s The Brother/Sister Plays. The Magic Theater last week opened The Brothers Size, the second play in the celebrated trilogy, in an electric production sharply directed by Octavio Solis. Its choice minimalism (including a spare but evocative car garage set from scenic designer James Faerron and scenic/lighting designer Sarah Sidman) gives just the right lift to three fine, exuberant performances and full rein to the 20-something playwright’s delicate, volatile drama set in and around a Louisiana bayou housing project.

Ogun is an important but secondary character in the first play, In the Red and Brown Water (now up at Marin Theater Company, as part of an unprecedented three-company production that includes an offering by ACT in late October). That play focuses instead on his onetime love, Oya. Her dire fate gets alluded to in passing here, with understated pain, as Ogun (played by the impressively dynamic Joshua Elijah Reese) recounts neighborhood news to brother Oshoosi (a vital and wry Tobie Windham). Recently paroled, the excitable, silver-voiced, and perennially irresponsible Oshoosi is very reluctantly working alongside (and under the wary eye of) his older brother in the latter’s automotive repair shop.

Ogun’s wary eye soon also falls on Elegba (played with a magnetic, mercurial charm by a terrific Alex Ubokudom), the third and final character in a coiled little story of love, loyalty, jealousy, and desire that teases meaning from notions of brotherhood while brooding on the inevitable singularity and alienation at the heart of life. Elegba was already deemed complex by Oya in the first play, but here he is both more lifelike and ethereal, grounded in an almost preternatural obsession to have and control his former prison mate, Oshoosi. The jealous battle for Oshoosi that ensues is alternately boisterous, eerie, and wrenching. In the end, we watch Ogun Size grow larger — an expanse of feeling that increases the capacity of a heart bereft but open — as he finds himself, per force, alone again. Expanding like the universe itself, Ogun’s fate makes the infinity of his love still larger.

GOING OUT TO PLAY


A friend and I went to a restaurant the other day, and while it’s always a little like being in a play, this was ridiculous — also stimulating, and even quietly ecstatic. I won’t give you the intimate, somewhat bizarre details of our half-hour interaction. Not because it’s private, but because it’s up for grabs: you can have it yourself if you want, exactly as we did.

True, it was never going to be an ordinary lunch. We expected something unusual since, although we entered a real San Francisco eatery, it wasn’t a meal we were after but a performance, designed by the London-based experimental troupe Rotozaza. Etiquette, which runs through this weekend courtesy of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, is participatory theater approaching some sort of outer limit: the audience goes Ark-like by twos (you can be paired up with another bewildered stranger or go with a friend) and performs the piece for one another. This takes place amid a roomful of unwitting patrons there strictly for the usual, namely a meal.

The first thing you notice is that this table doesn’t come with a menu, not even a bar list. There’s a glass of water, but you’ll hesitate to touch it. Instructions come via headsets. There are other intricacies best not revealed here, but as the encounter unfolds you find the lines between theater and "real life" dissolving, and your identity softening at the edges like a once-crusty crouton atop a bowl of soup. Meanwhile, the headphones, the concentration of your partner, the voice in your ear, the world of the tabletop, the knowledge that you are in a play, watching a play, and that, hell, you are the play — all this makes it surprisingly easy to shrug off any inhibition you might otherwise feel about making a "scene" in a restaurant.

The scene is your own in that you inhabit it, but then it is also dictated to you, bound by certain constraints. This tension is part of the delight generated by the piece. The audience-member-as-performer accepts, just as any actor does, the work of the playwright and instructions of the director. Within that there is room for individual choice and interpretation, but any action or decision comes circumscribed by the larger form. Day-to-day we all play our parts, of course, more or less self-consciously. But I never realized what a relief it might be to have your everyday encounters literally scripted for you. I suddenly thought I knew why pirates have parrots on their shoulders. I’d naively assumed it was the man feeding lines to the bird.

While Etiquette‘s parts are gender-specific, the participants might be of any sex, no matter the role. In fact, the idea of liberation from ascribed roles comes woven, in subtly layered fashion, into the very narratives unfolding and overlapping across the table. If the foundation of identity relies on the cultural and social forms we inherit, how liberating it is, even momentarily, to sit down in public and embrace play in all its forms.

THE BROTHERS SIZE

Through Oct. 17, $20–$60

Magic Theatre

Fort Mason Center, Bldg D, SF

(415) 441-8822

www.magictheatre.org

ETIQUETTE

Through Oct. 3, $8–$10

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787

www.ybca.org

SKI-thal weapon

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arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC E-A-SKI has been in the game nearly 20 years, producing tracks with then-partner CMT for Spice 1’s eponymous 1992 debut on Jive Records and subsequently working with the likes of Master P, Ice Cube, and even Dr. Dre. He’s also maintained a career as a rapper. Yet despite several local radio hits and four major-label deals — Priority, Relativity, Dreamworks, Columbia — he’s never released an album. The deals have always soured, yet the astute businessman has always made money on them, as his professional-grade studio in the middle of a huge house hidden beyond the Oakland Hills attests.

I’ve come by for a private screening of SKI’s new video, "No Problems," the first single from The Fifth of Skithoven, an album he plans to release next year through his own label, IMGMI. If "private screening" sounds highfalutin’, "No Problems" is no ordinary clip. It’s a six-minute film, directed by Wayans Brothers associate Michael Tiddes, that recently won an award for best music video at the 13th Okanagan International Film Festival in Kelowna, British Columbia.

"I didn’t just want to keep putting videos out there," SKI explains. "I wanted to do something more cinematic to express the music."

A John Woo-like allegory of rap integrity, "No Problems" finds SKI battling to reclaim his soul from the Devil, wagering the contents of a mysterious Pulp Fictionesque briefcase that he can do it. The "x-factor," as SKI puts it, is the actor playing the gravel-voiced, gangsta Devil: Danny Glover. After meeting years ago in activist circles — SKI frequently mentors inner-city youth — the two recently reconnected when they found themselves members of the same gym. Despite the demands of Glover’s schedule (seven films currently in post-production, according to imdb.com), the Lethal Weapon star made time for the shoot.

"I did it ’cause SKI kept bugging me," Glover laughs during a quick phone call. "No, seriously. I respect what he does with Oakland and the community, and I thought it’d be fun." Judging by his over-the-top supervillain meltdown as SKI emerges triumphant, Glover had plenty of fun with the role.

"It was an honor for him to even want to be in a hip-hop project," SKI says. "I did my first line with him and just froze, like, ‘This is Danny Glover!’ I ain’t gonna lie, I got star-struck! And I’ve done a lot of stuff."

It’s hard to imagine a tongue-tied E-A-SKI, but then again, even Frank Sinatra looks intimidated alongside Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls (1955). Getting Glover in his video is exactly the type of rabbit SKI consistently pulls out of his hat to keep himself relevant in a genre in which artists usually have short self-lives. Even on his own independent label, SKI routinely places videos on MTV, most recently 2009’s "Rare Form" by IMGMI-signee and Frontline-member Locksmith. Although there’s a trailer for "No Problems" on MTV’s movie blog, and SKI plans more film festival screenings, the video remains unreleased.

"I want to make its debut a big thing," SKI says. "Like MTV showing the trailer, having a build up, then boom! — a Jam of the Week. We have a relationship, so they’re open to it. But it’s still in the works because I’m trying to see what’s best for my album."

Like a rap Paul Masson, SKI will serve no wine before its time, and Skithoven is no exception, though he’s already lined up tracks with the likes of Tech 9ine, Freeway, and Ice Cube (whose upcoming I Am the West [Lench Mob] includes a bonus track produced by SKI). "It’s like a puzzle," he says. "I like to get the pieces and now I’m structuring it." But will we finally see an album from the man known as "The Bay’s Dre," or will there be more of the Detox-like delays that have led him to shelve previous discs like Earthquake and Apply Pressure? SKI’s patience is unwavering.

"I never let people dictate to me," he says. "I’m gonna do what I wanna do. I’ve always been a firm believer in, if I can’t do what I want to do at that time and then too much time goes by, it’s time to reinvent."

www.myspace.com/mreaski

High on arrival

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arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC If hip-hop is jazz, then Curren$y can be described as a traditionalist. His debut album, Pilot Talk (DD172/Def Jam), is pure braggadocio, with rhymes about fancy cars and free-flowing liquor and free-loving women. The music, lovingly produced and arranged by Ski Beatz, sounds like an update of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, all the way down to the New York session musicians recruited to crank out mellow grooves. It’s as if Curren$y has reinterpreted the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” for the new millennium.

In the world of jazz, the traditionalists famously waged war against the free jazz nuts who wanted to strip the form of tonality, and then against the fusionists who sought to infect it with slovenly rock and roll. With help from Dixieland revivalists and Ken Burns’s Jazz documentary, they succeeded. In contrast, rap nerds have always viewed avant-garde experimentation with suspicion at best, and complete ignorance at worst. The furthest we’ll go, it seems, is the high-tech funk of Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot: Son of Chico Dusty, or Madlib’s Medicine Show of gutbucket blues and crusty soul-jazz loops.

If fitted with John Coltrane’s sheets of sound or Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics, Pilot Talk would be a strangely awesome experience. As is, it’s soothing yet enlightening, like an animated chop session after smoking a joint or two with a friend. Curren$y clearly made it on blunted terms: the album artwork depicts a lone airplane flying over a landscape of lush green marijuana foliage.

So Pilot Talk is like weed talk, with several narratives hidden underneath the stoner blather. On “Example,” Curren$y claims “reimbursement for paid dues,” then states, “I am an example of what can happen when you quit being afraid to gamble.” On “Seat Change,” he mocks a girl who wants to “ride with a G,” concluding that “somewhere along the line she fucked up and realized she lost her seat.” His lines are pimp slick but thankfully shorn of delusion. When he flips a bevy of yeyo metaphors for “Audio Dope,” he clearly does it in service of the concept, not to build a farcical image of himself as a drug kingpin. The image is of a neighborhood (or, more accurately, Internet) baller.

Curren$y’s persistence comes from years spent toiling for various rap crews, hip-hop’s version of the mailroom. As a young scrapper from New Orleans’s Uptown neighborhood, he rolled with C-Murder’s TRU family before C-Murder infamously caught a life bid for murder, then transferred to Master P’s No Limit label. Then he landed at Lil Wayne’s fledgling Young Money Entertainment, dropping burner verses for Weezy’s The Carter II and Dedication mixtapes, before landing under the aegis of reformed hip-hop mandarin Damon Dash, whose DD172 label released Pilot Talk in July. It’s ironic that since Curren$y’s departure, Weezy has decided to transform Young Money into an overpublicized pop star boot camp for teen idols like Nicki Minaj and Drake. Then again, the fact that even Curren$y sounds alternative when posited against mainstream rap’s scions demonstrates how rigid the culture has truly become.

However, Curren$y also benefits from marketing, albeit of a viral nature. Pilot Talk boasts the cream of the blog rap crop, including Mikey Rocks from the Cool Kids, Big K.R.I.T., and Jay Electronica (who sharply compares Flavor Flav’s signature bow tie to the Nation of Islam’s attire). Even much-beloved weed rapper Devin the Dude drops a verse for “Chilled Coughphee.” A writer friend of mine, Christopher Weingarten, remarked to me that when Devin the Dude jumps in with sly wit like “I can fuck a bum up quick / But that’s some tenth grade shit,” it only underscores Curren$y’s relative lack of vocal presence.

Other critics have theorized that Pilot Talk‘s artistic triumph is largely due to Ski Beatz’s memorable accompaniment. An NY vet whose catalog ranges from membership in early-’90s woulda-beens Original Flavor to credits on Jay-Z’s 1996 classic Reasonable Doubt and Camp Lo’s “Luchini AKA (This Is It),” Ski Beatz initially produced Pilot Talk‘s tracks himself and then hired talented unknowns like bassist Brady Watt to transform them into instrumental gems. True, any rapper would sound incredible against the majestic sunshine funk of “Address.” But give Curren$y credit for lodging its hook in your brain — “Still nothing changed but the address.”

CURREN$Y

With C-Plus and NPire Da Great, J-Billion and P-Funk, DJ ANT-1

Wed/29, 9 p.m., $16–$20

330 Ritch

330 Ritch, SF

(415) 541-9574

www.330ritch.com

 

Do it Clean

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arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC For over 30 years now, the Clean have been at the forefront of the New Zealand rock scene. Despite some early lineup changes and temporary breakups, the core of the band — Robert Scott and brothers Hamish and David Kilgour — continue to tour together, work on solo or side projects, and occasionally release a new album. For special insight into Kiwi rock and all things Clean, I decided to get in touch with San Francisco expat Barbara Manning, who will be opening for the group at the Independent with her new band, the Rocket 69.

Welcoming me into her house in Chico, Manning pointed to a stack of vinyl and a couple dozen CDs she’d pulled out in a living room stocked full of records. She fancies herself as having one of the most thorough personal collections of New Zealand music around, and after just a quick glance it was easy to see why.

“We probably don’t have time for New Zealand Rock Music 101,” Manning said. “So I’ll just put some Clean stuff on.”

In Manning’s opinion, despite a well-developed and underrated rock music scene that has thrived since the late ’70s, New Zealand rock and roll can really be narrowed down to three essential contributors — the Bats, the Chills, and the Clean. While all three groups have enjoyed various degrees of success, the Clean’s appeal has extended far beyond the borders of their native home to impact everything from ’80s power pop to ’90s indie rock to contemporary garage sounds.

“People incorrectly think that the Clean started rock music in New Zealand,” Manning said. “But they were the first ones to make America notice.”

From the bouncy keyboard melody and chugging bass line of the 1981 hit “Tally Ho” to the more exploratory and expansive feel of some of their later work, the Clean have always excelled at combining a good pop song with a rough-around-the-edges “hypnotic groove,” as Manning put it. Pavement and Yo La Tengo have gone on record singing the group’s praises, and more recently, artists such as Kurt Vile and the late Jay Reatard have made Clean-like recordings.

“The Clean have an edge to them that was especially fresh in the ’80s, when there was a ton of crap out there,” said Manning. “It was great hearing good, urgent, jangly pop songs that cut away the fat.”

Despite loving their music for decades and recording songs for one of David Kilgour’s solo albums, Manning — who lived in San Francisco from 1986 to 1998 — has never seen the Clean perform live. When bassist Robert Scott called to make sure she was coming to the group’s Bay Area show, she jumped at the opportunity to get involved.

“I said, ‘I’ll be there,'<0x2009>” Manning remembered, “<0x2009>’and how ’bout I open for you?'<0x2009>”

Manning’s new project includes Maurice Spencer on guitar, Jonathan Stoyanoff on bass, and Marcel Deguerre on drums. She said that those in attendance can expect a “power pop-heavy” set made up of material from her songbook and a handful of covers. Both her band and the Clean inject a sinister irreverence into the sometimes cookie-cutter world of guitar-driven pop. As Manning put it, “It’s always nice to hear jangly pop music that’s not all paisley and flowery.”

THE CLEAN

With the Rocket 69

Mon/4, 8 p.m., $18–$20

The Independent

628 Divisadero, SF

(415) 771-1421

www.theindependentsf.com

 

Of Human Bondage

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arts@sfbg.com

HAIRY EYEBALL Two life-size sculptures of human skulls sit side by side at Meridian Gallery. The first is cast in glass, tiny air bubbles filling its dome like frozen stars. The one to the right, the wall card indicates, is actually human, but you wouldn’t know it since it’s covered in black leather. The seamless second skin is pulled tight around the bone, as if shrink-wrapped. The effect is both helmet- and lifelike, making you immediately want to run your fingers across your head and face, feeling the tautness of your flesh, aware, at the same time, of what’s contained by such penetrable softness.

Bringing out the sentient in the inanimate is one function of certain forms of shamanism, but it could also serve as description of art making as well. It certainly applies to the practice of Toronto-based, African American artist Tim Whiten, whose work, by turns affecting and frustratingly opaque, is the subject of Meridian’s career-spanning overview, “Darker, Ever Darker; Deeper, Always Deeper: The Journey of Tim Whiten.” This is Whiten’s third show with the gallery, and his return is always something of personal one: his close friendship with exhibit curator and Meridian director Anne Trueblood Brodzky goes back decades.

With its use of natural, sometimes found materials — cotton, coffee, leather, wood, stone, bone, glass — and ritualistic air, Whiten’s art frequently gives off the impression of having been excavated rather than created in a studio, as if what fills Meridian’s three floors are the assembled artifacts from some now-vanished indigenous people. (This is an artist whose most well-known piece, Metamorphosis, involved him being sewn into — and then wriggling out from — a bear skin turned inside-out ). As Robert Farris Thompson’s essay in the accompanying catalog painstakingly details, Whiten’s work consciously takes inspiration from and evokes a network of traditions and objects (his “visual ancestry” in Thompson’s words) that stretches from the daily rituals of his late woodworker father to the bone yards of the American South to the totems of the Ejagham people of southwestern Camaroon.

Although such context is helpful, possessing it does not give a more overtly referential sculpture such as Magic Staffs (1970) — two wooden sticks wrapped in leather with dangling bits of animal bone and human hair — the same charge as Whiten’s far simpler leather encased stones from the same period. As with the leather-wrapped skull (Parsifal, 1986), Whiten’s covering of the stones serves to underscore the natural processes by which their shapes came to be while also reconstituting them as something more mammalian.

Two large canvases from the mid-to-late 1990s, Enigmata (no. 11) and Enigmata with Rose (no 4.), work in the reverse by displaying just the covering: in this case, hospital sheets, stained with coffee. Their chestnut brown wrinkles and creases suggest skin, as well as the bodies who once laid on and beneath them, leaving their marks in blood and sweat, giving birth to new life and passing on from this one. They are by far the most touchingly human pieces in “Darker.”

 

DARKER STILL

Darker still are the photos of Rudolph Schwarzkogler at Steven Wolf’s spacious new Mission District digs. “Castration Myth” documents the intense 1960s actions the late Vienna Aktionist carried out in front of a few spectators in his apartment. The indeterminacy of what’s happening in these photos (the exhibit takes its title from the apocryphal story that Schwarzkogler amputated his own penis in one performance) still causes unease, even if the Aktionists’ anti-aesthetic — in which the artist’s body is pushed to its limits, trussed up, battered, and defiled — has become metabolized into pop culture by way of punk rock and, more recently, the prurient sadism of the Saw films.

DARKER, EVEN DARKER; DEEPER, ALWAYS DEEPER: THE JOURNEY OF TIM WHITEN

Through Nov. 26

Meridian Gallery

535 Powell, SF

(415) 398-7229

www.meridiangallery.org

RUDOLPH SCHWARZKOGLER: CASTRATION MYTH

Through Oct. 9

Steven Wolf Fine Arts

2747 19th St., A, SF

(415) 263-3677

www.stevenwolffinearts.com

False witness

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM Documentaries that “tell” the Holocaust tend to employ archival footage generically as a kind of historical flavoring. It’s rare that we are asked to contemplate either the provenance of the images or the individual lives depicted. Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished simultaneously confronts both of these gaps with a taut historiography of several reels of Nazi propaganda footage. Even in the German film’s inchoate form, we easily apprehend the propagandistic moves to further manipulate an already constructed reality (the Warsaw Ghetto) for objective “proof” of the necessity of Hitler’s Final Solution. Yet here before us, flowing at the speed of life, are the faces and places that would be destroyed within months of the filming.

Hersonski attempts to extricate the documentary value of this footage using frame-speed manipulations and edits that call attention to telling movements. She also films elderly survivors watching the footage alone in a darkened theater. In their capacity for recognition and incredulousness, they unravel the German point of view. By weaving these live responses with diary entries of those consigned to the ghetto along with the deposition of a German cameraman, Hersonski draws a fragmentary, highly specific account of the Holocaust’s crisis of representation. We discussed the film during a recent e-mail exchange.

SFBG The question of how to use archival footage responsibly is one that haunts the great Holocaust-themed films — Night and Fog (1955), Shoah (1985), and the films of Péter Forgács all find very different solutions. Can you describe the way your own attitudes regarding the appropriation of this archive developed during the time you worked on A Film Unfinished?

Yael Hersonski During the last decade I became more and more preoccupied with the thought of the near future, when no Holocaust survivors will be left to remember — the time when the archives will be the only source of witness. I’ve tried to examine the possibilities of exploring the image like an archaeologist analyses a palimpsest and to excavate, by cinematic means, new layers of reality from beneath the known imagery. I admit that [at one] time I felt that Night and Fog and Shoah were all that a filmmaker could express facing such an inconceivable, unprecedented event. For [Shoah director Claude] Lanzmann, the Holocaust lies firmly outside the archive as the ultimate Other, a black hole that threatens to swallow every visual witness, and thus resists the film archive and its raptures.

Forgács faces the impossibility of bearing witness exactly by confronting the contemporary viewer (who knows how it all ended) with private documentation that was abruptly stopped when the photographer himself was no longer capable of documenting, nor his dear ones of being documented. Forgács’ films introduce me again and again to the immense capacity of footage to reveal, in the form of a private history, the traces of an inconceivable past. My aim in showing the Warsaw Ghetto footage (for the first time in its entire length) and confronting the images with many points of view about the filmmaking itself was not to tell “the true story” of the Warsaw Ghetto, nor to expose the evil of Nazi propaganda (which was obvious even to the German filmmaker who discovered the reels in 1954), but to make the viewers question the way they see these images, and through them, perceive the past.

A FILM UNFINISHED opens Fri/1 in Bay Area theaters.

Practiced distance

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM The first time I met Paul Clipson, we quickly discovered that we shared an intense regard for Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952). I had just seen material that would become Clipson’s short film Union at a San Francisco Cinematheque screening a few days prior and found that its psychically charged shift from rural to urban spaces reminded me of the Ray movie (specifically, a single dissolve as Robert Ryan’s character drives back into the city). Union belongs to a different species of cinema, of course. It’s shot on Super 8 and 16mm, wordless, with a narrative situation (a girl running) refracted as pure kinesis. As became apparent talking with Clipson, however, his deep knowledge of film history is attuned to texture rather than taxonomy. The second time I watched Union, I realized that On Dangerous Ground was just a convenient name for the deeper, more elusive sense of recognition it stirred in me.

Since that first meeting, I have seen Clipson project films on a billowing screen under the stars; in the squat confines of the Café Du Nord for the On Land music festival, where his work expanded several performances; and on the sides of a dome structure atop Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. There have been more traditional screenings as well, though Clipson’s eclectic live projections are drawing attention — he’s fresh back from a brief European tour and will be featured in New York’s Views from the Avant-Garde this weekend. Before then, he’ll present a ranging survey of his recent efforts at SFMOMA, where he works as head projectionist.

The shifting context of live collaborations and crystallized short subjects is crucial to understanding Clipson’s work, and so "The Elements" will feature both: a suite of finished films sandwiched between projections with frequent collaborator Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and an ensemble, Portraits. An open frame of performance is a crucial catalyst for the searching lyricism of Clipson’s cinematography. He shoots frequently, building long reels to run with the music. Clipson refers to these unrehearsed dives as his research.

The camera style is at once impressionistic in its technique and boldly graphic in its compositions, haunted by familiar visual forms that, loosed from conventional perspective, are revealed to carry unexpected resonances and rhythms. What do we see? A million suns, made multiple by the surface of water and the curve of the camera lens; neon signs; flitting vertical obstructions; telephone wires; vegetation; intimate, handheld disclosures of vast distances; architectural surfaces. As with Joris Ivens’ early shorts, Clipson’s films register the city in its minor variations. Within the frame, a storm of vision emerges of superimpositions, dissolves, rack focus, zooms, and the interlacing of color and black-and-white stocks. It often seems that the objects he films are bringing the camera into focus and not the other way around.

When I ask about this, Clipson says, "I’ve found that the pulpy intensity of the Super 8 film decides the subject matter in a way. It’s like the film is in your brain telling you to shoot this or that — you can just imagine the luster." The intuitive nature of his in-camera montage meshes well with the aural landscapes of the live performances; a floating minimalism prevails. As a former member of Tarantel and co-steward of the Root Strata label, Cantu-Ledesme has been Clipson’s primary point of entry to this musical world. Speaking over the phone, he notes their easy camaraderie: "Once Paul is in the moment of filming, he’s just really responding to what is happening on the other side of the lens … and at least when I’m playing by myself, I try to have that same attitude."

In concert, the physical waves of sound and Clipson’s disembodied images are rich soil for a trance. It’s only in the concentrated shorts, however, that one finds the full extension of Clipson’s lyricism. The elliptical Sphinx on the Seine (2008) is still my favorite. Only eight minutes long, its shots seem to trace a voyage. We see the golden gleam of the sun as reflected by criss-crossing railways and snaking waterways, the shadow-world of a sidewalk, a phantasmal vision of Mount Fuji. Each of these lucid views slides away just as it ripens. Clipson’s collation of different cities is formally embedded in his composited images, which here appear as the fragile clues of some unknown existence. Like Sans Soleil (1983) and Mr. Arkadin (1955), two similarly itinerant films, Sphinx on the Seine evokes a tantalizing sense of placelessness.

One afternoon, both of us a little scatterbrained from a long week, Clipson and I get hung up on CinemaScope. He expresses admiration for the anamorphic framings of Ben Rivers’ I Know Where I’m Going (2009), and then draws a zigzag of appreciation between George Cukor’s 1954 A Star is Born ("The first 20 minutes"), Vincent Minnelli’s 1958 Some Came Running ("When you see it in the theater, it’s so much darker than on a television. You see shadows under people’s eyes"), and Otto Preminger’s general mastery of the form ("To me, those aren’t even compositions; they’re movements of thought"). It strikes me again and again that Clipson’s acute observations regarding film aesthetics are very much part of his creative force — yet his filmmaking doesn’t feel overcooked. Ben Rivers’ films work in a similar way: betraying a cinephile’s intimate knowledge of the medium, but out in the world all the same.

"Sometimes a few seconds of a film can live with you your whole life," Clipson tells me later that same afternoon, locating one such epiphany in the opening of Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948): "There are all these dissolves going through the witches’ cauldron. You see a smoke circle, a storm cloud, what maybe is the surface of clouds from above, the cauldron and hands … I could just make films entirely inspired by that for 10 years because it’s so intangible, with such a beautiful, dense logic of images that resists immediate understanding." Indeed, it sounds like a Paul Clipson film.

"PAUL CLIPSON PRESENTS THE ELEMENTS"

Thurs/30, 7 p.m., $5

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF

(415) 357-4000

www.sfmoma.org

Visionary movement

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DANCE Celine Schein, executive director of Chitresh Das Dance Company and its Chhandam School, was not born into Indian culture. But difficult Hindi words flow from her tongue with the ease of a native speaker. It’s a skill that should stand her in good stead during this weekend’s “Traditions Engaged: Dance, Drama, Rhythm,” which includes evening and daytime performances, lectures, panel discussions, and demonstrations of Indian classical dance.

Schein, a former ballet and modern dancer, has absorbed Indian dance into her very being. Yet it started almost by accident when she happened to fall into a Kathak class that classical dance master Pandit Chitresh Das was teaching at San Francisco State University. “I first loved the richness of its rhythms and movement patterns,” she recalls. “But then I was increasingly intrigued by [Das’] vision, even though it took me a long time to realize what exactly that was.”

Das is indeed a visionary. Committed to the rigor of exacting standards, he is also an innovator within the parameters of his art. He has, for instance, collaborated with tap virtuoso Jason Samuels Smith and Bharata Natyam dancer Mythili Kumar. His invention of Kathak yoga, which combines the two disciplines, is positively revolutionary. But other aspects of Das’ performances, like when he talks to the audience, are deeply traditional. “There is no fourth wall in Indian classical dance,” Schein explains. “Dancers interact with audiences and they are expected to respond. His own guru would comment during a performance, even criticize him.”

Indian classical dance gained a foothold in this country with the burgeoning interest in Eastern philosophy starting in the 1960’s, but grew stronger as Indian communities formed in Silicon Valley in the 1980s. Many families initially had little interest in Indian classical dance but wanted their children to grow up with the values it provided. Yet I once heard Das admonish the parents of his pupils that Kathak was a serious art, not just a spray-on for a young woman to look pretty on her wedding day.

A striving toward spirituality is deeply ingrained in Indian classical dance. Das’ mother told him “to dance from the gutter to the heaven.” He puts it into contemporary terms —the “vision” that so impressed Schein — by saying that dance allows you to become more yourself. Of course, none of this precludes enjoying Indian classical dance as a purely esthetic experience.

India has strong, highly diversified folkloric dance traditions, but “Traditions” focuses on classical dance forms: Bharata Natyam, originally a temple dance from southern India; Kathak, which blossomed at the Moslem Moghul courts of North India; Odissi, which was repressed by the British and revived after independence; Manipuri, a dramatic genre that deploys an expressive upper body; Kuchipudi, best known for a copper platter on whose rim the dancer performs; and Kathakali, which features spectacular masks and costumes. Also represented will be a new, recently recognized form, Gaudiya Bharati, from the Bengal region.

Unlike the scholar-oriented Kathak Festival in 2006, “Traditions” is solely devoted to practitioners. “We wanted to bring the best master artists together to talk about their work and perform — not just short snippets, but in depth,” Schein explains. Friday’s program will be focused on movement; Saturday’s on drama; and Sunday’s on rhythm. 

TRADITIONS ENGAGED

Thurs/30-Sun/3;

$25–$75 ($235–$295 for festival pass)

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787

www.ybca.org

It’s raining yuks

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caitlin@sfbg.com

STAGE Ho there! You with the sad-face! Check out these whoop-whooping upcoming comedy events and turn that ;( onto a 🙂 right quick.

 

THE ENDGAMES

It’s no laughing matter. Twelve San Francisco improv teams will enter Kitchen Stadium — sorry, the Ninth Street Independent Film Center — but only one will rise to the top like clownin’ Mario Batalis. Not only does the winner score the honor of beating less funny peers in front of a crowd (and G-list celebrity judges — the author of this article included), but he or she also gets a four-week run at the venue. We hear the art of improv involves never saying “no” — how you gonna turn down the cutthroat crazy of The Endgames?

Thursdays through Nov. 11, 9 p.m., $10

Ninth Street Independent Film Center

145 Ninth St., SF

www.endgamesimprov.blogspot.com

 

KUNG PAO KOSHER PRESENTS: FUNNY GIRLZ

It ain’t easy being a woman in the stand-up biz. But you’ll never know it watching the four women who will be onstage for this long-running (11 years!) annual lineup from Kung Pao Kosher Comedy. Kung Pao began as a haven for Jews on Christmas and has expanded into a year-round lineup of multicultural, multi-hilarious events. This year’s Funny Girlz include Pakistani native Brit Shazia Mirza (“at least, that’s what it says on my pilot’s license,” she quips); San Franciscan Clara Clayy; Dhaya Lakshminarayanan, one of India’s rare female comedians; and Kung Pao founder Lisa Geduldig. Breaking boundaries, busting glass ceilings? Try being an intelligent, funny female stand-up. Unfortunately, that can be radical enough at times.

Weds/29, 8 p.m., $25

Brava Theater

2781 27th St., SF

(415) 522-3737

www.koshercomedy.com

 

WILL FRANKEN

So your stash ran out, or you’re detoxing, or you’re done with the hallucinogenics, or whatever. Page back through your neatly stacked Guardian Best of the Bay issues and there it is: “Best Alternative to Psychedelic Drugs”: comedian Will Franken. Shall we listen in on one of his absurdist rants? “Every 60 seconds in America, 60 seconds go by. For every one minute, there are 59 others just waiting to form an hour. By the time this sentence is over, I will have finished saying it.” Franken is one of SF’s glorious bizarros, spackling his acts with TV commercials that fold into dual-voiced skits that segue to celebrations of diversity … for profit! Just don’t freak when does his Antichrist voice.

Fri/1 and Sat/2 8 p.m., $20

The Purple Onion

140 Columbus, SF

(415) 956-1653

www.caffeemacaroni.com

 

IMPROVISED SHAKESPEARE

Improv is a strange beast. Improv comedians find more thrill from throwing body and soul into the dark abyss of audience suggestion and happenstance genius than they do from conventional stand-up’s hours in front of the mirror perfecting that ever-so-crucial eyebrow raise or purposefully awkward arm movement. But from the abyss, great rewards they reap. No company in San Francisco has learned this lesson more effectively than BATS Improv, which has been entertaining Bay Area audiences since 1986. This week’s offering? “Warp Speed” is an all-improvised take on Star Trek – no Kirk, no Spock but a flurry of new characters made up on the spot, as well as, we’re sure, some seriously kooky props and alien situations.

Fri/1 8 p.m., $17–$20

BATS Improv

B350 Fort Mason Center, SF

(415) 474-6776

www.improv.org

 

KRISTEN SCHAAL

It’s a tricky line, but one Kristen Schaal walks well: that fissure between cute and psycho. She’s gone and perfected the odd balance on TV’s “Flight of the Conchords” as Mel, the persistent stalker of the eponymous New Zealand folk-humor duo. But standup comedy is where she got her start and laid the groundwork for her nerdy suave. Her sets vary between dark and light — she wants to tell you about her dream! Her sex dream. Featuring Winston Churchill. (The sex wasn’t great.)

Thurs/7–Sun/10 8 p.m., $17.50–$20.50

Cobb’s Comedy Club

915 Columbus, SF

(415) 928-4320

www.cobbscomedyclub.com

 

OUT LOUD COMEDY & ARTS FESTIVAL

It may not be the first comedy mélange devoted to our hilarious homos — Assemblymember Tom Ammiano’s Valencia Rose Cabaret flounced off with that title in the 1980s — but the four-day Out Loud fest may be the brightest and most focused yet. Shall we lead with the high-wattage names? Castro Theatre will be packed for “An Evening with Sandra Bernhard,” whose Nancy Bartlett on Roseanne was the first recurring lesbian character on American TV. Film snark Frank Decaro from The Daily Show will also be out and about, sassing up a corner of The Lookout interviewing his fellow festivators and performing with a swath of TV feys at the Swedish-American Music Hall for an evening called “Rooftops and Bottoms.” But you don’t gotta be on TV to kick it. Local drag cutup Sasha Soprano has rousted six of the finest becoiffed and becoming spotlight stars for Saturday’s “The Drag Queens of Comedy” at the Castro Theater. How exactly will their shtick be different from the rest of the shows on our fall highlights list? We asked one of the night’s main acts, Miss Coco Peru, a classy redhead who has kept New York City audiences enthralled since the early 1990s with monologues that switch between the weighty and the witty. “Well, it takes us all a lot longer to get ready,” she said. Oh, and you don’t heckle a drag queen — unless you think a stiletto to the sacrum will straighten out your kinks down there.

Oct. 7–10

See website for times, locations, and prices

www.outloudcomedy.com

When you’re having more than one

1

tiredmond@sfbg.com

BEER I saw a great T-shirt in upstate New York this summer, and it’s become my official motto: “You can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning.”

Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration — I’m not as young as I used to be, and the days of morning (or even afternoon) drinking are becoming rarer. But I’m still the guy Schaefer Beer was thinking about when they wrote that slogan in the 1960s about the “one beer to have when you’re having more than one.” Frankly, I’d rather down three or for (or five) cheap light beers than sit around all evening nursing one fine IPA.

So I’ve taken quite an interest in session beers — craft brews with an ABV (alcohol by volume) level of less than 4.5 percent. You can drink a session beer at lunch and still go back to work. You can drink a couple-three after work and not be too blotto to make dinner and put the kids to bed. Or, as one of our tasters put it: “If I hit a happy hour, I’m usually done for the night. But after these beers, I was still ready for an evening of drinking.”

The term “session beer” is usually traced back to England in the World War II era, where the pubs were only open for a short “session” during the lunch hour so the workers could get back to the munitions plants. They’ve become pretty popular on the East Coast, where session beer festivals abound, and they’re making their way west.

It’s still not easy to find good session beer — we live in the land of high-craft, high-alcohol brews, and a lot of the smaller breweries (scared, perhaps, of the evil “light beer” rep) stay away from the weaker, or at least less alcoholic, stuff. But if you shop around a bit, you can find some excellent local choices.

Our willing lab rats sampled six local brews — well, one, Stone Levitation Ale, comes from San Diego, but you can buy it locally — with Bud Light thrown in as a ringer. The tasting was blind, the labels on the bottles well disguised; I was the only one who knew which beer was which.

What we found: There are some truly excellent session beers out there. But not every craft session beer is created equal; our panel liked some a lot better than others. “None of them will grab a beer snob,” one taster noted. “But there were some good ones.”

(A note: Some of these brews — particularly the ones from Haight Street’s Magnolia Pub and Brewery — are available only from the brewhouse. Others can be found in bottles anywhere that carries a wide assortment of craft beers.)

The two samples from Magnolia were the clear winners. Our tasters uniformly liked the Dark Star Mild, calling it “dark and rich tasting, with a light finish and soft aftertaste.” One noted: “I could see sitting on a roof on a hot day and drinking this with my lunch.” Even one of our skeptics, who wasn’t thrilled with any of the offerings, noted “I could drink this one.”

Magnolia’s Sarah’s Ruby, a dark, thick brew, was a close second. One panelist noted: “It has a lot of flavor going on, something I would be happy to order in a bar.” Another liked the “nice taste of toasted barley and hops” while another called it “very robust, not at all like a light beer.”

Anchor Brewing Company’s Small Beer was a close third. The beer, which comes in at just 3.3 ABV, has an interesting history. Anchor brews a barleywine ale, Old Foghorn, that’s almost 10 percent ABV. The brewers then take the once-used mix of malt mash and brew from it a second time, getting a much lighter result. But it doesn’t taste like a rerun at all; one of us said it was “a nice beer that I’d like to keep at home and drink a lot of.” Another called it “musty and earthy” and noted that it would “go well with a cheeseburger or pizza.” And even the critics said, in the words of one, “this is pretty damn okay.”

Ale Industries’ Bliss got points for being “very drinkable.” Our panelist noted a nice malty taste and called it “woodsy and smooth,” although some described it as a bit watery. Stone Brewery’s Stone Levitation Ale came off as “strong, with a bit of licorice flavor,” although one drinker said its strength was also a weakness: “A bit to hoppy to drink a lot of it.”

The Bud Light, I fear, didn’t fare so well. We threw this in for fun (I, for one, remain a Bud Light fan) and for comparison. Although not technically defined as a session beer, it does clock in at 4.5 ABV, 20 percent lower than a standard Bud. Our tasters were not impressed: “This tastes like the 3.2 beer I had to drink during basic training in Fort Carson,” our resident former infantryman wrote. Or, as another put it, “Has the metallic finish that makes for great keg parties and awful hangovers.” Still the Bud Light got points for sessionability; “For sure the best choice for beer pong. You could probably consume mass quantities and still be OK in the morning.”

Ale Industries Orange Shush came in last, probably because its flavor is unique and quite different from the other samples. The critics called its flavor too fruity. The people who liked it, though, said that it was a “good light beer that I could drink all night.”

Which is, after all, the point.

Who wants cheap beer?

5

culture@sfbg.com

Whether you’re unemployed, underemployed, or squirreling away your, ahem, nuts in terror of the post–American Empire Mad Max economapocalypse to come, these are hard times for beer lovers who like their pints out in public. You need cheap suds. Here’s a guide to staying within your meager budget while enjoying an oat soda or 10 to help you swallow the bitter pill that is the Bay Area economy. And cheer up, you ol’ bugger: it’s beer o’ clock!

 

THE HAPPIEST HOURS

Most bars have a happy hour, but when you’re looking out for numero uno, you notice that some are happier than others. Even among budget-friendly Mission bars (like, I don’t know, say, Mission Bar 2695 Mission, SF. 415-647-2300), the happy hour at Elbo Room (647 Valencia, SF. 415-552-7788, www.elbo.com) is generous, as far as duration goes. From 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., you’ll have plenty of opportunity to hit on a hipster hottie while sipping a Lost Coast Tangerine Wheat near the Ms. Pac-Man table top.

My blogger friend Jeff Diehl (spotsunknown.com) and I recently dove into North Beach, where we stumbled, literally, upon a real, cheap gem: International Sports Club (1000 Columbus, SF. 415-775-6036). Don’t let the name scare you. This place is as divey as a clean, well-lit place gets, with an interesting mix of tourists and scruffy locals. Bartender-cousins Mi and Emily serve up the ultimate poor man’s pour: tap drafts for $2.50, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays — decent drafts like Stella and Widmer.

But possibly the happiest hour(s) for the frugal sud-guzzler can be found at Bean Bag Café (601 Divisadero, SF. 414-563-3634), near the Panhandle. There are no beanbags, but there’d be room for none, as the clarion call of $1.92 pints of hefeweizen brings the thirsty hordes. If you’re a bit work-shy at the moment, get there early and beat some of these beasts to the tap.

 

PBR NATION

Obviously, nothing beats a deal with no strings attached. If you’re a San Francisco beer lover and you don’t know about Toronado (547 Haight, SF. 415-863-2276, www.toronado.com), you’re just doing it wrong. For a place so renowned, the big T’s tap selection is diverse enough to accommodate the not-so-rich while avoiding the option of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

I say that with the full knowledge that PBR has become something of a cultural touchstone in the city. Why PBR and not Hamm’s or Oly? Who knows? I blame Blue Velvet. In any event, there’s no shortage of hipster dives that will crack a can for you. (I see no real point of PBR on tap.) For my money, the best is Bender’s (806 S. Van Ness, SF. 415-824-1800, www.bendersbar.com). Not only will you find the obligatory $2 can of Frank Booth’s favorite bev, but you’ll also find my personal favorite canned option, local brewery 21st Amendment’s Hell or High Watermelon Wheat, for a mere $2.50. Can’t beat that with a stick, not to mention Bender’s other assets, such as a tasty grill and a smoky patio.

 

CHEAP? HOW ABOUT FREE?

I talk to beer freaks who have never taken a tour of the amazing Anchor Brewery (1705 Mariposa, SF. 415-863-8350, www.anchorbrewing.com), in Potrero Hill, and all of a sudden it’s like they’re speaking another language. I just don’t understand. I’ve been taking this tour since my first visit to the city back in 1992, and I still go at least once or twice a year. When I got laid off, my second act, after filing for unemployment benefits, was to book a tour at Anchor.

The good folks there recommend that you call two to three weeks in advance. But this is a small price to pay, and the only price. The tour is free, and if you love beer, it’s like a guided tour of how God runs heaven (if heaven smells like Grape-Nuts). The coup de grâce is the unlimited tasting that ends your journey of discovery and sends you off in the middle of the day with a belly full of top-notch brew — and hopefully a fresh perspective on the simple pleasures of living in a beautiful city for drinking beer.

OTHER CHEAP BEER FAVES

The Bitter End 441 Clement, SF. (415) 221-9538.

Broken Record 1166 Geneva, SF. (415) 963-1713, www.brokenrecordsf.com.

Delirium 3139 16th St., SF. (415) 552-5525.

500 Club 500 Guerrero, SF. (415) 861-2500.

Greens Sports Bar 2239 Polk, SF. (415) 775-4287.

Horseshoe Tavern 2024 Chestnut, SF. (415) 346-1430, www.horseshoetavernsf.com.

The Page 298 Divisadero, SF. (415) 255-6101, www.thepagebar.com.

Thee Parkside 1600 17th St., SF. (415) 252-1330, www.theeparkside.com.

El Rio 3158 Mission, SF. (415) 282-3325, www.elriosf.com.

 

The test of the Tenderloin

16

caitlin@sfbg.com

This is a story about love and money. Or a story about love, money, and location. — Rebecca Solnit, Hollow City (Verso 2000)

It’s a sunny day in the most maligned neighborhood in San Francisco. I’m walking down a busy sidewalk with an excited Randy Shaw, long-time housing advocate. He’s giving me a tour of his Tenderloin.

“There’s history everywhere you look here,” he notes as we rush about the dingy blocks of one of the city’s most densely populated, economically bereft communities. In a half-untucked navy button-down and square-frame glasses, Shaw reels off evidence of this legacy faster than I can write it down and still maintain our walking pace.

To our left, Hyde Street Studios, where the Grateful Dead recorded its 1970 album American Beauty. Across the street, a ramshackle building that once housed Guido Caccienti’s Black Hawk nightclub, where the sounds of jam-fests by the likes of Billie Holiday and John Coltrane would echo out onto the streets during its heyday in the 1950s. Throughout its history, the Tenderloin has been renowned for its nightlife: music, theater, sex work — and the social space that occurs between them.

Shaw came to the Tenderloin 30 years ago as a young law student and founded and built the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, a nonprofit agency that is now one of the largest property owners in the neighborhood and employs more than 250 full-time workers. Shaw has spent the last few decades fighting to improve conditions in the single-room occupancy hotels, or SROs, once notorious for malfunctioning heating systems and mail rooms that would dump the letters for their hundreds of low-income residents into a pile on the floor rather than fit them into personal lock boxes (which now line the walls of THC’s lobbies).

But that activism isn’t the reason for this tour. No, today Shaw is showing me why tourism can work in the Tenderloin. The heavy iron gate of an SRO is quickly buzzed open as the doorman recognizes him. Inside, working-class seniors mill about aided by walkers — this particular property is an old folks’ home — but over our heads, affixed to a majestically high ceiling, looms a triple-tiered glass and metal chandelier, evidence of the area’s architecturally important past.

“When I show people this,” Shaw smiles at my amazement at this bling in a nonprofit apartment building, “they’re amazed at the quality of the housing.” Further down the road, we peep in at a vividly Moorish geometric vaulted ceiling and a lobby that once housed a boxing gym where Miles Davis and Muhammad Ali liked to spar. Both are now home to the inner city’s poorest residents.

Of course, it’s not just tours that we’re talking when it comes to Shaw’s plans for the future. Shaw has acquired a 6,400-square-foot storefront in the Cadillac Hotel on the corner of Eddy and Leavenworth streets, where he plans to open the Uptown Tenderloin Museum in 2012. He says it will showcase the hood’s historical legacy as well as house a nighttime music venue in the basement. The increased foot traffic, he says, will do good things for public safety (a problem that has been identified as a high priority by the resident-run Tenderloin Neighborhood Association) and bring business to the neighborhood’s impressive collection of small ethnic restaurants.

An increased focus on the Tenderloin’s heritage and public image, Shaw says, will translate to more jobs and a better quality of life for the people who live here. “My goal is to have this be the first area in an American city where low income people have a high quality of life,” he says.

If Shaw is correct, it will indeed be a first. Many cities have attempted to transform low income areas with arts districts — and the end result has typically been the displacement of the poorer residents. Coalition on Homelessness director Jennifer Friedenbach described the process: “Gentrification follows a very specific path. First come police sweeps, then the arts, then the displacement. That’s the path that we’re seeing. Hopefully we’ll be able to avoid the displacement part,” she says.

It’d be great if the Tenderloin took the road less traveled — but will it?

Shaw’s best-case scenario seems unlikely, according to Chester Hartman, a renowned urban planning scholar and author of the numerous studies of San Francisco history and the activist handbook Displacement: How to Fight It (National Housing Law Project 1982). Hartman doubts the Tenderloin will remain a housing option for the city’s poor, given its central location and market trends. “The question is, what proportion will move and what will stay?” he said in a phone interview.

Earlier this summer, the National Endowment of the Arts awarded the SF Arts Commission $250,000 toward an arts-based “revitalization of the mid-Market neighborhood.” The area, which is adjacent to the Tenderloin, is considered by many to be the more outwardly visible face of the TL. In truth, the two neighborhoods share many of the same issues and public characteristics, including high density living and prominent issues with drugs.

Amy Cohen, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s director of neighborhood business development, said the Newsom administration is using the money “to implement arts programming that would have an immediate impact on the street. These activities would then build momentum for the longer-term projects.” At this point, plans for that “immediate impact” have started with the installation of lights on Market Street between Sixth and Eighth streets. Two other projects are also in effect: a city-sponsored weekly arts market on United Nations Plaza and an al fresco public concert series.

It’s hard to distinguish these moves from a general trend toward rebranding the image of the Tenderloin. These streets have already seen Newsom announce a historic preservation initiative that put $15,000 worth of commemorative plaques on buildings; it was also announced they would be added to the National Register of Historic Places, a move that allows property owners deep tax cuts for building renovations.

Cohen said her office has spent time trying to attract a supermarket (something the neighborhood, although flush with corner stores, currently lacks), but efforts seem to be faltering. “Grocery store operators and other retailers perceive that the area is unsafe and have expressed concerns about the safety of their employees and customers,” Cohen said. “The arts strategy makes sense because it builds on the assets that are there. Cultivating the performing and visual arts uses that are already succeeding will ultimately enhance the neighborhood’s ability to attract restaurants, retail, and needed services like grocery stores.”

These days, many of the small businesses in the area have window signs hyping “Uptown Tenderloin: Walk, Dine, Enjoy” over graphics of jazzy, people-free high-rises. Looking skyward, one observes the recent deployment of tidy street banners funded by the North of Market/Tenderloin Community Benefit District that pay homage to the number of untouched historic buildings in the neighborhood. The banners read “409 historic buildings in 33 blocks. Yeah, we’re proud.”

Figuring out who benefits from these new bells and whistles can seem baffling at times. Even the museum plan, which Shaw says will draw inspiration in part from New York’s Tenement Museum, has drawn criticism. A July San Francisco Magazine blog post was subtitled “An indecent proposal that puzzled even the San Francisco Visitors Bureau” and likened Shaw’s attempts to the “reality tourism movement” that takes travelers through gang zones in L.A. and poverty-stricken townships in South Africa.

This seems to be a misconstruction of what he’s attempting. “You know what no one ever calls out? The Mission mural tours, the Chinatown tours,” Shaw says.

And Shaw scoffs when I bring up that PR bane of the urban renewer: gentrification. He takes me through a brief rundown of the strict zoning laws in the Tenderloin, adding that many people don’t believe that poor people have the right to live in a high-quality neighborhood: “I haven’t been down here for 30 years to create a neighborhood no one wants to live in.”

Indeed, thanks to the efforts of Shaw and others, it would be hard for even the most determined developers to get rid of the SRO housing in the Tenderloin.

In the 1980s, community activists struggled to change the zoning designation of the neighborhood, which lacked even a name on many city maps. The area was zoned for high-rise buildings and was being encroached on by the more expensive building projects of tourist-filled Union Square, Civic Center, and the wealthier Nob Hill neighborhood. Their success came in the form of 1990s Residential Hotel Anti-Conversion Ordinance, which placed strict limits on landlords flipping their SROs into more expensive housing.

Hartman remains unconvinced of the efficacy of the protective measures activists have won in years past; indeed, even SRO rental prices have soared. According to the Central City SRO Collaborative, in the decade after the Anti-Conversion Ordinance, rental prices increased by 150 percent, not only pricing residents out of the Tenderloin but out of the city. “Where do they move?” Hartman asked. “It’s probably the last bastion of low-income housing in the city. That changes the class composition of the city.”

“The neighborhood has been changing slowly but steadily,” says District Six Sup. Chris Daly when reached by e-mail for comment on the Tenderloin’s future. He writes that rents in the neighborhood have been consistently rising and that several condo development proposals have crossed his desk. Daly has been involved in negotiating “community benefits” and quotas for low income housing in past mid-Market housing projects, but has been disappointed by subsequent affordable housing levels in projects like Trinity Plaza on the corner of Sixth and Market streets. In terms of the Tenderloin, he said, “it is untrue to say that the neighborhood is immune from gentrifying forces. It is shielded, but not immune.”

But some see the influx of art-based attention to the area as a possible boon to residents. Debra Walker, a San Franciscan artist who is running for the District 6 supervisor post, said she believes arts can be used “organically to resolve some of the chronic problems in the Tenderloin, street safety being the primary one in my mind.”

Though most of her fellow candidates expressed similar views when contacted for this story, western SoMa neighborhood activist Jim Meko said he thinks artists in the area are being used to line the pockets of the real estate industry. “The idea of creating an arts district is an amenity that the real estate dealers want to see because it makes the neighborhood less scary for their upper class audience” he says.

The area clearly has a rich legacy of nightlife, arts, and theater. The Warfield is here, as is American Conservatory Theater, the Orpheum, and the Golden Gate. So is the unofficial center of SF’s “off-off Broadway district,” which includes Cutting Ball Theater and Exit Theater. The Exit has been located in the TL since its first performance in 1983, held in the lobby of the Cadillac Hotel, and sponsors the neighborhood’s yearly Fringe Festival. There are art galleries and soup kitchens, youth and age, and more shouted greetings on the streets than you’ll hear anywhere else in the city.

No one is more aware of this diversity of character than Machiko Saito, program director of Roaddawgz, a TL creative drop-in center and resource referral service for homeless youth. I met Saito in the Roaddawgz studio, which occupies a basement below Hospitality House, a homeless community center that also houses a drop-in self-help center, an employment program, men’s shelter and art studio for adults in transition.

Despite its being empty in the morning before the open hours that bring waves of youth to its stacks of paints and silk-screens, Roaddawgz is in a glorious state of bohemian dishevelment that implies a well-loved space. It could be a messy group studio if not for the load-bearing post in the center of the room covered with flyers for homelessness resource centers and a “missing” poster signed “your Mom loves you.”

We talk about how important it is that the kids Saito works with have a place like this, a spot where they can create “when all you want to do is your art and if you can’t you’ll die.” A career artist herself, she cuts a dramatic figure in black, safety pins, and deep red lipstick painted into a striking cupid’s bow. Her long fingernails tap the cluttered desk in front of her as she tells me stories from the high-risk lives that Roaddawgz youth come to escape: eviction, cop harassment, theft, rape.

The conversation moves to some of the recent developments in the area. Saito and I recently attended an arts advisory meeting convened by the Tenderloin Economic Development Corporation’s executive director, Elvin Padilla, who has received praise from many of the TL types I spoke with regarding his efforts to connect different factions of the community. Attendees ranged from a polished representative from ACT, which is considering building another theater, for students, in a space on Market and Mason streets, to heralded neighborhood newbies Grey Area Foundation, to Saito and longtime community art hub Luggage Store’s cofounder Darryl Smith. Talk centered on sweeping projects that could develop a more cohesive “identity” for the neighborhood.

I ask Saito how it felt for her to be involved with a group whose vision of the neighborhood might be focused on slightly different happenings than what she lives through Roaddawgz. She says she’s been to gatherings in the past where negative things about the Tenderloin were highlighted. Of Padilla’s arts advisory meeting, she says, “I think that one of the reasons I wanted to go was that it’s important [for attendees] to remember that there’s a community out there. Things can get really complicated. It’s hard to come up with decisions that affect everyone positively. If we’re going to say, ‘The homeless are bad; the drug addicts are bad; the business owners that don’t beautify their storefronts…” She trails off for a moment. “I don’t want to lose the heart of the Tenderloin.”

In yet another Tenderloin basement — this one housing the North of Market-Tenderloin CBD, an organization that is known for its work employing ex-addicts and adults in transition — Rick Darnell has created the Tenderloin Art Lending Library. The library accepts donated works from painters and makes them available for use by Tenderloin residents, many of whom have recently moved into their SRO housing and are in need of a homey touch.

Darnell is rightfully ecstatic at the inclusive nature of his library, but has been hurt over its reception at an arts advisory meeting he attended to publicize its creation. “Someone whispered under their breath ‘I would never lend anything to anyone in the Tenderloin,’ ” he tells me. The exclusion that Saito and Darnell sometimes feel highlights the reality that the definition of the Tenderloin might well vary, even among those who are set on making it “a better place.” The arts community appears to suffer from fractures that appear along the lines of where people live, their organizational affiliation, their housing status, and how they think art should play a role in community building.

Sammy Soun is one Tenderloin resident who would welcome an increased focus on art in the Tenderloin. Soun was born in a Thailand refugee camp to Cambodian parents fleeing the civil wars in their country. He grew up in the Tenderloin, where his family lived packed into small studios and apartments.

But he was part of a community, with plenty of support, and lives in the neighborhood to this day, as do one of his four siblings and his daughter. Soun paints, does graffiti, draws — he’s considering transferring from City College to the San Francisco Art Institute. He has worked at the Tenderloin Boys and Girls Club for nine years, giving back to the kids he says “are the future. They’re going to be the ones that promote this place or keep it going — if they want to.” His sister, cousins, and uncles still live in the neighborhood. You might say he has a vested interest in the area’s future.

He finds the incoming resources for the Tenderloin arts scene to be a mixed bag. Soun has never been to the Luggage Store, although it’s one of the longtime community art hubs in the area. He can’t relate to the kinds of art done at the neighborhood’s recent digital arts center, Grey Area Foundation for the Arts, though he says the space has contacted him and friends to visit. His disconnect from the arts scene implies that future arts projects need to work harder on their community outreach — or even better, planning — with artists who call the Tenderloin home.

But Soun loves the new Mona Caron mural the CBD sponsored on the corner of Jones Street and Golden Gate Avenue. Well-known for her panoramic bike path mural behind the Church Street Safeway, Caron painted “Windows into the Tenderloin” after dozens of interviews and tours of the neighborhood with community members. Its “before and after” panels are a dummies’ guide for anyone seeking input on ways to strengthen the Tenderloin community — though the “after” does show structural changes like roads converted into greenways and roof gardens sending tendrils down the sides of buildings, the focal point is the visibility of families. Where children were ushered through empty parking lots single-file in the “before” section, the second panel shows families strolling, children running, a space that belongs to them.

Our interview is probably the first time somebody has asked Soun where he thinks arts funding in the Tenderloin should go. “For projects by the kids in the community,he said.

Truth be told, more art of any kind can only make the Tenderloin a better place — but if you’re trying to improve quality life, focus needs to be on plans that positively affect residents of all ages — art can be a vital part of that, but it should be one part of a plan that ensures rent control, safe conditions, and access to services. After all, if you’re going to rebrand the Tenderloin, you might want to look at the painting on the wall.

Dollars or sense?

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rebeccab@sfbg.com

It’s no secret that San Francisco is a particularly costly place to live. It consistently ranks in the top 10 most expensive cities nationwide, and it isn’t uncommon to see people renting out their walk-in closets as makeshift bedrooms to make ends meet.

There’s ample evidence that the city’s market-rate housing is out of reach for many families, middle-class workers, and low-income populations, particularly during the recession. Yet the shortage of affordable housing is a problem that is going largely unaddressed at City Hall.

The city’s General Plan estimates that a full 61 percent of new housing would have to be affordable to satisfy the housing needs of city residents, but even the most demanding development standards fall far short, producing only about half that amount. And while most new affordable housing is built for low-income people, a sizable portion is intended for first-time homebuyers with salaries at the highest threshold of affordability. In recent years, about one-third of new “affordable housing” was built to sell to people with “moderate” incomes.

So as big plans are mapped out for new residential developments composed of mostly market-rate units, what’s the strategy for addressing the underlying affordability gap? And will it ever be enough to keep from further turning San Francisco into a city of rich people while its workers are forced to live elsewhere?

This map, which appears in San Francisco’s Five-Year Consolidated Plan, charts concentrations of low- and moderate-income households in the city using HUD 2000 income data. Under federal guidelines, people with low and moderate income could be eligible for affordable housing.

A San Francisco Unified School District proposal to create new housing for San Francisco teachers underscores just how mismatched housing prices are to income. The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) estimates that San Francisco renters paying market rate in 2010 would have to earn $56,240 to afford rent a one-bedroom apartment, $70,400 for a two-bedroom unit, and $94,000 for a three-bedroom unit, assuming they spend no more than about one-third of their income on housing.

A starting teacher’s salary in San Francisco is $50,000, so early-career educators may feel the squeeze. A survey of teachers conducted for the proposal found that 81 percent of respondents were renters, most living with unrelated roommates. More than half had plans to relocate in five years to a city where they could afford to be homeowners.

Housing was a hot-button issue at the Sept. 16 Planning Commission hearing on the environmental impact review for a hospital and housing complex that California Pacific Medical Center wants to build near Van Ness Avenue.

“The CPMC EIR fails miserably to analyze the income of the CPMC work force, and where it’s supposed to be housed,” affordable housing advocate Calvin Welch told the Guardian. “It’s a profoundly important question. If they are [providing] jobs that produce incomes that are insufficient to pay for average market-rate housing in San Francisco, who’s responsibility is it going to be to build housing for that workforce?”

 

WHO CAN AFFORD IT?

San Francisco has a reputation as a diverse, politically engaged hub that supports emerging artists, independent thinkers, and advocates for youth, workers’ rights, healthy ecosystems, protections for the most vulnerable segments of society, and hundreds of other causes. Without economic diversity — which is only possible when housing is available to people with a range of incomes — it might be a different place.

NLIHC estimates that 65 percent of San Francisco households are renters, and a significant number are what the Mayor’s Office of Housing (MOH) calls “cost-burdened,” shelling out more than a third of their incomes on rent. To get by, tenants have been known to cram roommates in like sardines, or cling tenaciously to a rent-controlled unit.

In a thick report outlining affordable housing goals for 2010–14, MOH and two other city agencies clearly articulate the housing challenges facing low-income renters. For one thing, the report says rents are going up despite the economic recession and declining home prices. And most people’s salaries don’t stretch far enough to cover those high prices. Even though there are 16 billionaires and some fabulously wealthy CEOs residing in San Francisco, the majority of people work in more mundane occupations like waiting tables, retail, office work, nonprofit jobs, teaching, health care, or public service.

The MOH report notes that despite the city’s relatively high median income, there’s a widening gap between top earners and people on the lower end of the spectrum, so few households actually wind up in that middle zone. “In fact, over a quarter of San Francisco’s population earns under 50 percent of [area median income],” the report states. For individuals in 2010, this translates to one in four people earning $34,800 or less. Compounding that problem are recent unemployment figures indicating that nearly one in 10 is jobless.

About one half of San Francisco’s population is considered low- or moderate-income, the housing report notes, using the standards used to formulate affordable housing prices. MOH uses a tiered income matrix, calculated using federal guidelines, to determine who could qualify for housing below the market rate. If you make $20,900 or less, you’re counted as “extremely low income.” You’re “very low income” if you make between $21,000 and $34,800, “low income” if you earn between $35,496 and $55,700, and if you make between $56,376 and $83,500, you count as “moderate income.” Even these figures are skewed higher because they include data from wealthy Marin County. As a point of comparison, U.S. Census data estimates that the median income for American workers was $29,530 over the last several years.

Most of the new affordable housing constructed in San Francisco is aimed toward people in the lowest ranges, but in recent years one-third was built for those with moderate incomes, which could gentrify some parts of the city. “Supervisorial Districts 3, 6 and 10 had rates of more than 40 percent extremely low and low-income,” the MOH report notes. “These three districts make up the entire eastern part of the city.”

A Guardian analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics occupational and wage estimates for 2009 suggests that about 71 percent of people who work in San Francisco (many commute from less expensive places) earned less than that highest “moderate” salary limit of $83,500. It suggests that the vast majority of the workforce could not afford market-rate housing unless they sought it in pairs or groups.

“A big issue is the inability of San Francisco’s employment market to produce jobs that pay people enough to afford housing,” Welch says. “There’s a mismatch between market-rate income and market-rate housing costs. We’re housing somebody else’s workforce.”

Another stab at assessing the affordable housing need gazes into the future. The Housing Element of the San Francisco General Plan includes an estimate for the city’s future housing needs for the better part of the decade. The city should build 31,200 new housing units to meet its need, the General Plan says, and “at least 39 percent of these new units must be affordable to very low and low-income households. Another 22 percent should be affordable to households with moderate incomes.”

What this adds up to is a full 61 percent of new residential development in San Francisco ought to be dedicated to some form of affordable housing. The calculation reveals a lot about the condition San Francisco is in, but it might as well be chalked up as a hollow academic exercise. Indeed, the report deems this goal “unrealistic.” The reality of the market and chronic government deficits ensures that there will not even be an attempt to meet it.

 

IF YOU BUILD IT

The trouble with affordable housing is that developers won’t build it unless there is a financial incentive. “The only way it works is not in the marketplace,” Welch said. “There’s no such thing as affordable land, affordable sheetrock, affordable architects, or affordable engineers. The profound condition … is that the market cannot produce affordable housing.” As long as developers can make higher profits building market-rate, they will.

That’s why government steps in to subsidize or mandate new affordable housing construction or preserve existing stock. Under the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, if developers decide not to build the required 15 percent of affordable units, they must pay an in-lieu fee that gets funneled into an affordable housing fund.

In a good year, MOH Executive Director Douglas Shoemaker told the Guardian, the city receives $10 to $15 million from these fees, which is used in partnership with developers to build affordable projects. That system hasn’t worked so well lately. Last year funds for affordable housing were depleted instead of bolstered. Developers who paid their fees in anticipation of building new projects requested refunds after their projects were stalled, Shoemaker told the Guardian, so MOH gave back up to $12 million to developers instead of using that money to build new affordable housing.

This year, Mayor Gavin Newsom introduced what he called an “economic stimulus” program that allowed developers to defer payment of in-lieu fees. This guarantees that it will be a long, long time before new affordable housing can be built using those funds. So as it stands, the inclusionary housing law isn’t so effective at producing new affordable housing.

Projects done in conjunction with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, meanwhile, do include higher portions of affordable housing. With all of the planned Redevelopment projects combined — Treasure Island, the Hunter’s Point shipyard, and others — the city can expect to see perhaps 7,000 new affordable housing units in coming years, a portion of which will be condos meant for people in the “moderate” income range. It may well be better than other cities have offered, but it doesn’t begin to address the true need for more than 19,000 units outlined in the General Plan.

Shoemaker noted that San Francisco is a cut above the rest when it comes to affordable-housing requirements. “I just don’t think you could find a city that has more aggressive goals,” he said, noting that in major redevelopment areas, “We’re getting like 30 percent of homes to be affordable on some level.” Yet Shoemaker acknowledged, “the need is intense,” and “there’s more people we would like to serve.”

Olson Lee, deputy executive director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, also described San Francisco as taking a very aggressive stance on affordable housing. Redevelopment devotes 50 percent of its tax-increment financing to affordable housing, where the state requires just 20 percent, Lee said. And some Redevelopment project areas include twice as much affordable housing as is required by state law, he added. “The city has done a tremendous amount of affordable housing,” he said. However, “the fact of the matter is, there’s a greater demand for affordable housing than the number of units.”

From 2005 to 2009, there were 3,607 new affordable housing units constructed, mostly for people at the lowest end of the pay scale, MOH reports. But in that same time frame, 3,465 rental units were converted to condominiums. One could argue that the city essentially broke even with its affordable housing stock in a decade where housing prices almost doubled. As San Francisco housing prices skyrocketed, the city’s 170,000 rent-controlled units served as the saving grace for the majority who couldn’t afford market-rate, and condo conversions continue to threaten the erosion of that very significant housing stock.

Debra Walker, a candidate for District 6 and a tenant representative on the Building Inspection Commission, told the Guardian that she believes a new financing system is needed for affordable housing. “The argument for development is that we get affordable housing money out of it,” she said, but “the inclusionary doesn’t get us enough housing. We cannot include affordable in those high-rises, because they’re so expensive to build.”

She has talked up the idea of a real estate transfer tax that would create a dedicated fund that could then be used in partnerships with affordable-housing developers. Shoemaker, for his part, noted that having a dedicated revenue stream for affordable housing would be very helpful. A committee comprised of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, Welch, developer Oz Erickson, and Shoemaker was formed earlier this year and actually arrived at a deal, but Newsom ultimately rejected it. Other creative solutions, Walker says, might include reusing shuttered commercial properties or building cheaper by design using different building materials. “It’s about looking at what it is we need,” she said, “and realizing people are in a pinch.”

The greatest complicating factor of the current system, in which the city relies on market-rate development to get new affordable housing, is that even though there a some 40,000 new residential units in the pipeline, developers can’t secure financing to start building them. For now, in the down economy, they only exist on paper.

“They’ll never get built,” Welch predicts, and as long as Newsom continues to extend entitlements for those planned projects in hopes that the market will get a jump, “it’s freezing September 2008 conditions, evidently forever,” limiting opportunities to build something more reasonable.

“They’re zombies,” Welch added. “Who the fuck is going to pay $2 million for a new condo when they can buy a $4 million building for $1 million in foreclosure?” But if the need for affordable housing began to be addressed, he said, something might start to happen. “If you converted half the pipeline units to rental,” he theorized, “they might get built.”

Appetite: Highlights of SF Cocktail Week, part 1

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The magical settings, moments and drinks were many in the 4th Annual SF Cocktail Week, which set the bar high for all future Cocktail Weeks… consider attending next year, as it’s far from being just for drink aficionados. It’s for those who love a memorable party done in true San Francisco style.

I have watched Cocktail Week grow from intimate nights out at bars in prior years to this year’s galas and ferry rides. Camaraderie was strong and I couldn’t help but think that though there were even grander galas at major cocktail weeks like Tales of the Cocktail or Manhattan Cocktail Classic, the quality of the settings and drinks I had every night at SF Cocktail Week were far superior to most everything I tasted at either of those two events. SF, once again, does drink proud. (Check out part 2 here.)

9/21 – Inauguration of Boothby Center

SF now has a cocktail center to call its own: the “Cocktail Bill” Boothby Center for the Beverage Arts, which debuted opening night of Cocktail Week, named after SF bartending legend Cocktail Bill Boothby. A multi-use space in the Mission, it will be community center, beverage lab, and event space, preserving the art and history of the cocktail. The Barbary Coast Conservancy of the American Cocktail(BCCAC), headed up by H. Joseph Ehrmann (Elixir), Jeff Hollinger (Comstock Saloon), Duggan McDonnell (Cantina), calls it home base. Opening night was a raucous toast to the still raw space with, what else? Classic cocktails, including the week’s official drink, a Papa Ghirardelli.

9/23 – Ragtag Rabble Gaming Soiree  

The back room of one of my favorite bars, Burritt Room, was transformed into a turn-of-the-century, Barbary Coast-era saloon/parlor with craps, blackjack, roulette and poker (sans real money), and a beautiful menu of classic cocktails prepared with skillful care, from The Last Word to a Boulevardier with scotch. A jazz quartet (with talented female vocalist) set the mood, transporting me to another time, as did the decked-out crowd who filled but did not overcrowd the room with bowler hats, suspenders, boas, saloon or retro attire. It was a swank affair that carried on late into the night with an after-party at Comstock Saloon.

9/25 – Cocktail Carnival Gala

The event of the week, Cocktail Carnival Gala in the stunning, historic Old Mint, was a brilliant night. I only wish even more people filled  (not overcrowded) the spacious mansion we were given free reign in. This was a one-of-a-kind night I’d plan towards next year. The Barbary Coast-Era carnival theme included roving minstrels, talented musicians, contortionists, man-on-stilts, jugglers and acrobats, roving among us through each high-ceilinged room as we sipped punches from antique punch bowls.

Leave it to Martin Cate from Smuggler’s Cove to wow us with a 40-gallon rum punch bowl with flaming volcano shooting out of a sea of spiced punch. Daniel Hyatt and the Alembic crew scooped some mighty tasty ‘swill’ out of a swampy bucket. One cachaca-based punch sported an ethereal liquid nitrogen top. Bartenders from Elixir, Cantina and 15 Romolo ensured there was not one bad drink in the house.

Chef Chris L’Hommedieu of Restaurant Michael Mina and William Werner of Tell Tale Preserve Co. sent out small but impeccable bites like lobster corn dogs, chips topped with caviar and creme fraiche, and lush dark chocolate caramel cake squares.

The courtyard of the Old Mint was a surreal setting transporting me directly to an ancient Spanish or Italian square. Chipped building facades contrasted against a deep, midnight blue sky. As minstrels serenaded us on this warm, sultry night while the full moon cast a glow over the courtyard, I felt alive with the night… one of those perfect moments that lives illuminated in memory.

The evening ended (at 2am) with a bang: Brass Mafia played and we began to dance. Circling in and among us, their blaring brass brought to life songs from musicians as random as Michael Jackson, Salt-n-Pepa, Men at Work, even Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It”, all in New Orleans’ brass band style (they threw in a few classic Nola Dixieland tunes, too). It was a joyous, raucous dance.

Thanks to the Bon Vivants for co-hosting a tremendous event none who attended will soon forget (which I hope you will all attend next year).

Prop. B will save healthcare

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By Jeff Adachi and Jim Illig

Editors note: Last week we ran an op-ed by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano opposing Proposition B. Public Defender Jeff Adachi asked for space to respond. His position follows.

OPINION San Francisco prides itself on the excellent health care services it provides to its residents. Per capita, San Francisco provides better quality healthcare to its poorest and most vulnerable residents than any other city in our state. Our city’s Healthy San Francisco program, which provides low- cost access to healthcare for all uninsured residents, has been heralded as a model program nationwide.

But the healthcare system that serves the city’s employees is teetering on the brink of insolvency. This year, the city will spend $456 million for healthcare costs for 26,000 city employees, and 28,000 retirees and their 47,000 dependents. According to the Controller’s Office, the city’s health system has an unfunded liability of $4 billion — meaning that it has made $4 billion in promised coverage to city employees and their dependents that it doesn’t have the money to pay for.

That’s a major reason why two city departments that serve the poorest residents, the Public Defender and Public Health, must cut millions of dollars of essential services each year, to save the city’s General Fund for growing employee healthcare and pension costs.

Currently most city employees contribute nothing for their own healthcare. Taxpayers subsidize the entire cost, which runs between $2,890 and $5,560 per year for each employee. Proposition B would change this by requiring that an employee insured under the basic health plan pay just $96 a year ($8 a month) for their healthcare. Under Prop. B, city employees would still pay 22 times less than private sector employees, who pay an average of $2,185 per year for their health insurance.

City employees with dependents currently pay $8 a month. Under Prop. B, they would pay $2,988 per year. Private sector employees with dependents pay an average of $7,026 a year. And this doesn’t include the 31 percent of San Franciscans who do not receive employer-paid health care costs and pay the entire cost themselves.

Opponents of Prop. B claim that city workers cannot afford to pay the health benefits if Prop B. passes. Their argument ignores the fact that the average San Francisco city employee earns $93,000 a year in salary alone, excluding benefits, while the average private sector salary is $46,000.

They also argue that “a single mother will be forced to pay up to $5,600 per year for her child’s health care — in addition to the $8,154 she already pays.”

First, this is not true. A city employee with two dependents only pays a total of $448 a month for full health coverage. Only if the city employee chooses the most expensive health plan, which costs $31,645, would the employee have to pay $19,561 a year under Prop. B instead of the $16,922, which he or she now pays.

Even with contributions required by Prop. B, city employees will receive a benefit package that is unparalleled in the private sector. Even more important, the city’s healthcare fund will be made more sustainable by ensuring that the funding for the city’s healthcare program doesn’t run dry when the city can no longer afford to pay these costs.

According to the Controller’s ballot statement, Prop. B would save the city $121 million annually. Some of these funds could be used to prevent the devastating cuts to the city’s mental health, substance abuse, and other community health programs for poverty-stricken adults and children who do not have healthcare coverage.

Voting yes on Prop. B is an antidote to continuing cuts to healthcare for the poorest San Franciscans. *

Jeff Adachi is a proponent of Proposition B and the city’s public defender. Jim Illig is the president of the San Francisco Health Commission.

Needed: a public health master plan

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EDITORIAL More than 100 people showed up at the Planning Commission Sept. 23 to oppose California Pacific Medical Center’s plan to build a massive new regional hospital on Van Ness Avenue. Most were neighborhood residents who raised an excellent point: what, exactly, would the shiny new $2.5 billion hospital offer for low-income people in the Tenderloin?

And that’s just the starting point for discussion. The new project is a piece of a much larger plan: CPMC wants to shut down part of its Laurel Heights campus, reduce the number of beds and the scope of service at St. Luke’s, turn Ralph K. Davis into a specialty facility, and reshape the way health care is provided in San Francisco.

That’s a huge deal — but right now, the city is looking at the projects piecemeal. That’s poor public health policy and poor land-use planning. In fact, there’s no real way to evaluate the Van Ness hospital in its proper context — the Planning Commission, which will rule on the development issues, is hardly the best venue in which to discuss the future of health care in San Francisco.

So new legislation by Sup. David Campos is critical to injecting some sanity into this, and the larger, health facilities debate. The Campos legislation would mandate a citywide Health Care Services Master Plan and would require that all new hospital development, public or private, be consistent with that plan. It’s a pretty basic concept, and it’s hard to imagine that nobody’s suggested this before.

San Francisco has a large, complex network of facilities providing health care — a big public hospital, a university hospital system (University of California San Francisco), a series of public and nonprofit community clinics, half a dozen private hospitals run by two competing chains (CPMC and Catholic Healthcare West), and one health maintenance organization (Kaiser). Some provide unique services, some provide competitive services — and there are some critical services that are hard to find anywhere.

It’s hard to say whether the city needs what CPMC is proposing — a gigantic medical center that some have described as the Mayo Clinic of the West, designed to attract patients from all over the region — without any sort of overall plan. How would the new facility and the CPMC restructuring affect services at St. Luke’s, a critical part of the health care infrastructure in the Mission? Where would patients who rely on Davies for emergency and clinical care in the Castro district wind up? How about all the medical office buildings and doctors’ offices situated near hospitals that are about to change?

How will CPMC’s moves affect low-income-patient care? How does the project fit in with the new Obama health care policies and the city’s own Healthy San Francisco program? Will a new hospital on Van Ness increase access to primary and emergency care for residents of the Tenderloin — or will they be shuttled somewhere else while the high-end facility caters to better-off patients seeking expensive specialty procedures?

Those aren’t land-use decisions — and while some Cathedral Hill residents argue that the new hospital will cause traffic problems, the biggest issues go beyond the scope and expertise of the city Planning Department.

Under the Campos bill, the Public Health Department would develop a master plan (which public health director Mitch Katz says can be done with existing resources), the Health Commission would review that plan, hold public hearings, and sign off on it — and city planners and health officials would have to make sure that new health-related development met existing and future public needs.

The supervisors should pass the bill and get the process going as quickly as possible. And they should refuse to sign off on any final version of the hospital plan until there’s a city framework in place — or at the very least, until CPMC can demonstrate that its citywide infrastructure plans are designed to meet public health needs.

Editor’s Notes

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› tredmond@sfbg.com

Jane Reilly, a candidate for supervisor in District Two, came in to talk to us last week, and before we got around to interrogating her about tax policy, she told us a bit about her background. And while she was describing all of her (considerable) qualifications for the job, she noted that she’s done a lot of good work in the community and is "passionate about volunteerism."

Reilly’s a nice person, and (like a lot of wealthy people) she means well, so I didn’t get all Marxist on her and say that volunteerism is a bourgeois concept. And I know, poor people volunteer too, and it’s a wonderful thing that so many people do so much for so many, thousands of points of light and all that. It’s great, I really mean it.

But I’m also getting fucking sick of volunteerism and charity.

Because it’s not only an incomplete solution to our worst social problems — it also diverts attention from the full solutions.

Warren Buffett, the multibillionaire, is getting a lot of press attention and lavish praise for his pledge to give half of his fortune to charity. He’s got Larry Ellison and David Rockefeller and Ted Turner and a bunch of others to join him. How grand.

Meanwhile, most of these people have been paying a fraction of the tax burden that falls on the middle class (what’s left of it) and getting more and more wealthy from Reagan-, Bush-, Clinton-, and Bush II–era tax breaks.

The richest 5,000 Americans now own more than the poorest 160 million, combined. Millions are out of work while the nation’s infrastructure crumbles. The connection between those problems is clear and direct: since 1980, the U.S. government has stopped trying to redistribute the wealth of the superrich in ways that create jobs and economic opportunities for everyone else.

No amount of charity will change that (especially since "charity" includes gifts to extrawealthy institutions like Harvard University and the Getty Museum). No amount of volunteerism will lift huge masses out of poverty. There’s only one institution that can do that — government — and one effective way to make it work: progressive and redistributive taxation.

My new hero is a woman named Jill Heavenrich, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The New York Times published a letter from her on Sept. 20, which reads:


I’m 81. I don’t have to worry about losing my home. I know I’ll never go hungry.

I can help my grandchildren go to college. I can give to causes I believe in.

Why am I not being taxed more? Why was I told to go out and shop after 9/11? Why wasn’t I asked to help pay for two wars in which brave young men and women are dying? The question remains for me: ‘It’s my country. I love it. Where is my responsibility to help the only way I can with my taxes?’


That’s not charity. That’s reality.