Volume 45 Number 23

Appetite: 2 intriguing new food memoirs

0

Just released in early March, here are two new reads I’d recommend not only for foodies but for fans of the absorbing, well-crafted memoir.

>>Life, On the Line by Grant Achatz & Nick Kokonas: When Alinea’s chef genius Grant Achatz writes a memoir, it’s destined to get buzz among foodies. When this visionary chef was diagnosed with stage four tongue cancer, threatened to lose his tongue and taste buds (something devastating to anyone, much less a celebrated chef), it was news well beyond the food world.

Achatz’s first memoir, written with his business partner, Nick Kokonas, is much more than a cancer survival story. It is also more than a chef memoir. Appropriately titled, Life, On the Line, it may not be the most literary of food memoirs, but it is gripping. I couldn’t stop reading of Achatz’s humble Michigan roots, his rise as a chef under Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller, and particularly the incessant drive that led him to opening his own, widely acclaimed restaurant just as he entered his thirtieth decade.

Life, On the Line is raw, honest, with a straightforwardness that is refreshing. A bittersweet tone underlies this impressive success story. I love Alinea as much as most who’ve had the privilege of eating there, and this book certainly acquaints me in a real, unsentimental way with the minds behind it.

I’m already plotting how I can get to Chicago after his unparalleled concepts of Aviary and Next open…

>>Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton: Who knew chef of NY’s beloved Prune, in the East Village, was first and foremost a writer? Early word on the street was that her book was, as Anthony Bourdain himself said, “the best memoir by a chef ever.”

I find the hype a bit high, but do think cooks and food lovers will find much to savor in Blood, Bones and Butter. Though I found it not as compelling as Achatz’s Life, On the Line, Hamilton shines in her mastery of the English language, making it a more pleasurable read.  From idyllic, dreamy parties her parents threw at her rural Pennsylvania childhood home, to the devastation of their divorce that led Hamilton to support herself in restaurant jobs from teen years on, her choice of words creates vivid pictures of each era of her life.

Amidst dish-washing and butchery, she describes her move back to school at “the Harvard of the Midwest” (University of Michigan), where she gets an MFA in fiction writing. It’s an intriguing journey from writing to unexpectedly running her own restaurant. You can’t help but feel writing is her first calling.

As she describes the lamb roasts of her youth, you clearly envision it, and acutely wish you were there: “… the lambs on their spits were hoisted off the pit onto the shoulders of men, like in a funeral procession, and set down on the makeshift plywood-on-sawhorse tables to be carved. Then the sun started to set and we lit the paper bag luminaria, which burned soft glowing amber, punctuating the meadow and the night, and the lamb was crisp-skinned and sticky from slow roasting, and the root beer was frigid and it caught, like an emotion, in the back of my throat.”

** Catch Gabrielle this week in SF at Camino in Oakland (3/11), Omnivore Books (3/12).

–Subscribe to Virgina’s twice monthly newsletter, The Perfect Spot

 

…And gaming for all

0

GAMER For a second there, the mighty PR machine seemed poised to devour the Game Developers Conference. The communal, feel-good GDC was built on sharing ideas, and in recent years the modest think tank had grown exponentially, as established game developers and publicity houses descended on downtown San Francisco with glossy preview events and headline-stealing announcements that previewed things to come at the summer E3 expo. However, this year the most talked-about events weren’t the off-site previews, but the conference-organized developer sessions, a phenomenon that marked a return to the sentiments that inspired the conference in the first place.

Big-name developers like Peter Molyneux, head of Lionhead games and lead developer of Fable; Cliff Bleszinski, design director of Epic games and spokesman for the Gears of War franchise; The Sims creator Will Wright; Doom honcho John Romero; and outspoken French impresario David Cage were just a few of the draws in the “classroom” area of Moscone Center. While these industry giants lectured about their experiences in the industry and gave postmortems on their classic games, the notion was that they were speaking directly to a generation of developers who might one day become successors — or even competitors.

Inspirational stories were the highlight of the conference, but a handful of games were happy to share the spotlight. And one game set out to draw maximum attention to its upcoming release by staging a controversial rally in Yerba Buena Gardens and releasing hundreds of red balloons over the downtown area. With its near-future shooter Homefront releasing in just a week, publisher THQ embarked on the biggest media push so far this year. In addition to the balloons and the rally (themed like an anti-North Korea rally, complete with posters of Kim Jong Il, a diagonal line through his face and the words “Game Over North Korea”), THQ shuffled press into a themed event with barbed wire, smoke machines, and stony-faced Korean soldiers. With publicity like that, it’s almost beside the point how the game plays, but let’s say it’s largely familiar.

Other attempts to stay relevant came in the form of Uncharted 3, whose developers showed the previously-seen “burning chateau level,” this time showcasing the game’s 3-D feature and an additional story-driven animatic that promises the game will be as blockbuster an experience as its predecessors. Battlefield 3 held an impressive “reveal event,” though the game had been partially revealed weeks earlier in Game Informer magazine. The game has wonderfully realistic animations, but the event itself was designed to draw attention to its Battlefield Play4free online shooter, which offers free FPS gameplay if you don’t mind a microtransaction or two.

With most of the game previews having been seen before, it was nice to see a few publishers making their debuts at the conference, such as The Darkness II, which proved that interactive storytelling has a place, even in a post-Heavy Rain marketplace. With musician Mike Patton returning for vocal duties, the sequel mixes gunplay with gruesome “quad-wielding” tentacle murder and an original, hand painted graphics style. Also making a gameplay debut was Batman: Arkham City, which looks to improve on Arkham Asylum‘s successes in nearly every category and with an attention to detail sure to please gamers and comic aficionados alike.

The conference buzzed with goodwill for the industry shift toward indie and mobile gaming, a revolution that meant a much larger contingent of attendees were likely to already identify as genuine developers. In the conference keynote, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata explicitly noted the shift, in the midst of a surprisingly defensive presentation that attempted to downplay the success of casual game developers and situate Nintendo’s place in the past and present of social gaming. If there’s one thing to take away from the keynote, and the 2011 conference as a whole, it’s the industry shift from conglomerate to individual. Nintendo’s threatened stance, and Microsoft’s noticeable absence, indicates a move toward dividing the industry just as gaming stands to enjoy unprecedented appeal in the form of casual gaming. In a world where anyone with a good idea can make a successful game, we might be looking at a return to the exciting, anything-goes Wild West atmosphere that marked gaming’s birth in the 1970s and ’80s. For an industry that could use a few paradigms shifted, it’s the best news yet.

Volume 45 Number 23 Flip-through Edition

0

The dead fish plan

0

By Patrick Porgans

news@sfbg.com

The recently formed Delta Stewardship Council, charged with protecting the San Francisco-San Joaquin Delta Estuary, released a draft report in February with more bad news about the possible fate of aquatic species.

A number of the fish, which have been the focus of national attention, are already listed as threatened or endangered under the provision of the Endangered Species Act.

This preliminary finding comes after more than $10 billion has been expended over the course of a decade by federal and state officials — who have insisted that their plans would not only restore estuary fisheries but would double the populations of endangered species such as salmon.

But CALFED — the joint federal/state effort — failed to restore fish populations, and now the state says some species may never recover. So it’s hard to have a lot of confidence in the new agency.

The draft report was released by DSC’s executive officer, Joe Grindstaff, former director of CALFED’s Bay-Delta program. At one point, in 2007, Grindstaff acknowledged: “Fundamentally, the system we designed didn’t work.”

That’s an understatement. Tens of millions of fish have been killed by government-operated projects pumping and exporting water from the delta. More than 50 million fish were considered “salvaged” — saved from the pumps — but millions of them also wound up dead. And there are tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, more that are unaccounted for.

Ironically, this unfathomable loss occurred while officials were engaged in several failed fish-doubling plans that spanned decades, cost the public billions of dollars in borrowed money, and contributed the California’s deficit-ridden budget crisis.

And now there’s a new plan, crafted by the same people who bungled the last one. It’s projected to cost as much as $80 billion and take another 90 years to complete.

According to the draft plan, “the funding needed … is large. Capital expenditures required for the delta in the next 10 to 15 years could range from $12 billion to $24 billion, with a high estimate of $80 billion. The annual operating costs of the … council are unknown.”

We’ve been here before. Critics argued from the inception of CALFED that it was doomed to fail because, like the new council, it was composed of many of the same agencies that caused the estuary to become imperiled. And it has, in fact, failed. When I called to find out its status, Eric Alvarez, a spokesperson for the new delta council, responded that CALFED “no longer exists in the conventional sense. It does not have a staff or a location.”

The first draft report of the new council provides some key preliminary findings, all of which ignore the essence of the problem.

First, it states that “California’s total water supply is oversubscribed. California regularly uses more water annually than is provided by nature.” It’s true that California’s water resources are oversubscribed — but that’s the result of the government’s failure to prudently appropriate the water we have.

Next it says, “California’s water supply is increasingly volatile” — a fact that has been made worse by mismanagement.

“Even with substantial ecosystem restoration efforts, some native species may not survive,” it adds, noting that “there is no comprehensive state or regional emergency response plan for the delta.” It doesn’t mention that state officials have had 50 years to come up with such a plan, and have consistently failed.

“Even with substantial restoration efforts, some native species may not survive,” the plan states. “Expert opinion suggests that some stressors are beyond our control and the system may have already changed so much that some species are living on the edge…. In addition, habitat conditions for some species may get worse before they improve.”

That’s an astonishing admission coming, in effect, from the same government agencies that once promised they would double fish populations by the year 2002.

The fact is that anadromous fish and other pelagic species populations, which depend on the delta estuary, have reached alarming all-time lows.

How did the salmonid and other endangered species reach what may be the point of no return? It’s simple — the delta pumps that send water south to irrigate arid land, as approved by CALFED, are by their very nature fish- killers.

According to data from the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG), from 1984 through 2006 an estimated 22 million fish were killed at the State Water Project’s Delta pumping facilities alone. That works out to an annual average of nearly 1 million fish killed as a result of SWP’s water exports from the delta.

And that’s just one pump. The federal Central Valley Project, which also sucks up delta water, provides estimates of federally-listed Chinook salmon and steelhead loss, as well as estimates for salvage rates of delta smelt, Sacramento splittail, and longfin smelt.

Data obtained from government sources indicate that from the period of 1980 through 2002, 54 million fish were salvaged from the SWP Skinner Fish Facility and the federal project’s Tracy Fish Facility. That averages out to 2.4 million salvaged fish, or five per minute, 365 days per year.

What happens to the salvaged fish? Nobody knows for sure. The DFG recently disclosed that it has never conducted a quantitative analysis or study on the topic.

The numbers would not be good. The salvaged fish are placed in tanker trucks and transported from the pumping facilities and dumped back into designated locations in the delta, where eagerly awaiting predators have a daily feeding frenzy. According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife 2008 report, “salvaged” Delta smelt, which in some years ranged as high as 5 million, are typically written off as dead.

Ironically, in all that time the responsible officials have yet to be held legally accountable for even one dead fish.

Gascon’s conflict

2

EDITORIAL There’s a good reason that not too many police chiefs become district attorneys. Obviously, not a lot of cops have law degrees, but it goes beyond that. The district attorney is supposed to monitor the police, to investigate criminal behavior by cops, to make sure the people out on the streets aren’t doing anything that will screw up cases in court.

But that didn’t bother former Mayor Gavin Newsom (who apparently doesn’t think that conflict-of-interest statutes apply to him). Newsom appointed Gascón to the D.A.’s job despite some serious concerns about the operations of the Police Department — and problems at the SFPD have blown up yet again. Four times in the past two weeks, Public Defender Jeff Adachi has released videotapes showing undercover cops entering residential hotel rooms without a warrant. The videos appear to contradict the information that the officers presented in their written reports, and the pattern of conduct has caused interim Chief Jeff Godown to suspend the entire undercover narcotics unit at Southern Station.

It’s also caused the District Attorney’s Office to undertake an investigation. And no matter what comes out of that inquiry, it will be fatally tainted by the fact that Gascón is, in effect, investigating his own operation.

Gascón hired Godown, who came from Los Angeles. He was, until just three months ago, in charge of the department that’s apparently running amok. The problems that have surfaced didn’t just emerge the day Gascón left; for all practical purposes, they are his problems, coming from his department, growing and festering under his watch.

A serious investigation would not only look at the actions of this one handful of officers, but at the command structure and climate that allowed this sort of behavior to become routine. It would look at the chain of command all the way to the top — that is, to the chief. To Gascón.

The D.A.’s office can’t possibly get this right. If Gascón finds wrongdoing on the part of these particular officers, the officers will no doubt seek to have the investigation and any prosecution set aside on the grounds that the former chief was a conflict. If he finds no wrongdoing, it will look like a cover-up.

This is only the first of what could be a long series of conflict problems with Gascón’s office. Put simply: the former chief can’t effectively monitor the police department, particularly if there are allegations of misconduct that come from the era when he was in charge.

There’s no easy way around this. Gascón could (and probably should) recuse himself and his office, and ask the attorney general to conduct the investigation. But the A.G.’s office doesn’t have a great track record on taking over local cases like these. His only real alternative is to hire an independent outsider — the equivalent of a special prosecutor — to handle all cases involving the police department. That would be expensive, but it’s the result of the unfortunate, highly unusual situation that Newsom and Gascón created.

Editor’s Notes

1

Tredmond@sfbg.com

Back in the early 1990s, when the city was hurting for money even more than usual, Sue Hestor, the environmental lawyer who is always full of good ideas, called me up and suggested that the city start charging banks a fee for every storefront ATM. "They have turned the public sidewalks into their bank lobbies," she said. ATMs can lead to congestion and are magnets for crime; why shouldn’t the banks (which made a lot of money replacing human tellers with machines and costly private space with public property) help pay for some of those impacts? After all, banks escaped most local business taxes.

I ran that one up the old flagpole, and got nowhere. Back then, the city attorney was Louise Renne, who wasn’t known for aggressive approaches to revenue generation; she immediately told me it wasn’t legal. Back then, at least nine of the 11 supervisors were guaranteed to vote against anything that would offend big business.

A few years later, Tom Ammiano, who had become the only supervisor serious about brining in new money for San Francisco, suggested that the city put a tiny tax on transactions at the Pacific Stock Exchange. A similar tax in New York City had brought in millions. The exchange quickly marched up to Sacramento and got the state to outlaw the idea.

Down in Los Angeles, they’re trying to put a severance tax on oil production. Great idea. Too bad (not really) we have no oil wells here.

Lots of good ideas. It’s time for some more.

Things in San Francisco are really, really dire, and the district-elected supervisors are far more open to progressive approaches to the budget crisis. And if you’re willing to stipulate — as I am — that San Francisco has a revenue problem as much as a spending problem, and that the rich and big businesses are radically undertaxed, then its time for a comprehensive look at the ways this city might bring in some more money.

There are some nice concepts floating around. David Chiu, the Board of Supervisors president, is talking about reforming the city’s business tax. Sup. John Avalos tried to put a nickel-a-drink impact fee on alcohol wholesalers. Sup. David Campos thinks downtown should help pay for Muni service. I still like the notion of a city income tax.

But what we need is a long list of options — a complete guide to how a charter city and county in California in 2011 is legally allowed to raise money.

Dennis Herrera, the city attorney, is a smart guy; he’s figured out all kinds of ways to use his office to go after polluters, scam artists, and crooks. I suspect that with a bit of a nudge, he could help develop a few dozen legally sound ways to tax the wealthy individuals and institutions. That ought to be priority one for the Budget Committee.

I’m not sure what would work best, and nobody else is either. But we ought to have all the options.

Waste not

0

sarah@sfbg.com

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has delayed consideration of a city waste disposal contract while officials investigate a broad range of questions ranging from logistical considerations to whether to break up Recology’s current garbage collection monopoly.

Is it feasible to move the city’s entire infrastructure for waste and recycling to the Port of San Francisco? Would it be more sustainable to barge or rail the city’s trash directly from the port rather than drive it across the Bay Bridge to Oakland every day? Considering that recyclables get shipped from Oakland to Asia anyway, why not send them by barge rather than truck? Or is that idea just an empty gesture since recycles, mostly paper products, consitute only 10 percent of the waste stream?

Some of these questions are being studied as part of a survey the San Francisco Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) is trying to complete by April, others as part of a longer-term investigation by the Department of Environment (DoE). At LAFCO’s Feb. 28 meeting, commissioners requested a survey of how other jurisdictions in the Bay Area procure trash collection, hauling, and disposal contracts.

Although the studies differ in scope and duration, both were triggered by a Feb. 3 Budget and Legislative Analyst (BLA) report that revealed that the annual cost to ratepayers of San Francisco’s waste system is $206 million. Yet only the $11 million landfill contract is being put out to competitive bid (see “Garbage Curveball,” 02/08/11).

The BLA report revealed that a 1932 ordinance intended to address territorial disputes around trash collection and transportation in San Francisco ultimately gave Recology (formerly NorCal Waste) a monopoly on all post-collection recycling, consolidation, composting, long-distance transport to landfills, and waste disposal contracts. The report triggered a political firestorm by recommending that the city replace existing trash collection and disposal laws with legislation that would require competitive bidding on all waste contracts and that rates for residential and commercial trash collection become subject to Board of Supervisors approval.

Faced with these recommendations, the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee asked Feb. 9 for a two-month delay on DoE’s proposal to award Recology a 10-year contract to dispose of San Francisco’s municipal solid waste at Recology’s Ostrom Road landfill Yuba County when its contract at Waste Management’s Altamont landfill expires.

DoE officials predict the WM contract will expire in 2015. But company representatives estimate the contract will last much longer, based on reduced volumes that San Francisco has been trucking to Altamont.

Sup. John Avalos, a LAFCO commissioner, requested that the LAFCO study include a map to give folks “a visual” of landfill locations throughout the greater Bay Area. “And there’s been an interesting discussion about the use of barging,” Avalos said, pointing to the flotilla of barges involved in building the Bay Bridge, which could be repurposed when that jobs ends. “A new maritime use could help the port raise revenue and reinvigorate other maritime uses on its property.”

At that point in the hearing, Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, the vice chairman of LAFCO, floated his “alternative barge plan,” under which only recyclables would get sent across the Bay to Oakland. Noting that he has met with Port Director Monique Moyer and Office of Economic and Workforce Development staff, Mirkarimi said that “the port is not equipped to deal with solid waste. But it is equipped to deal with recyclables, so this is something we should pursue.”

But Sup. David Campos, the chairman of LAFCO, clarified that the survey should still include a study of barging all trash. “Barging is complicated, but this is about providing basic information,” he said.

Records show the port reached out to DoE in 2009 with a letter that identified rail (but not barging) as an environmentally sustainable mode for moving waste from the city to its next landfill site.

In a June 23, 2009 letter to the DoE, Moyer and David Gavrich, president and CEO of the SF Bay Railroad (SFBR), stated that “rail directly from the port can not only minimize environmental impacts, it can provide an anchor of rail business for the port and a key economic development engine for the Bayview-Hunters Point community and the city as a whole.”

Recology’s trucks currently collect and haul about half the city’s waste to its recycling center, which sits on port-owned land at Pier 96. After the recyclables are offloaded for processing, the trucks haul the rest of the garbage through the Bayview and back onto the freeway to Brisbane, where it is loaded onto bigger trucks that haul the trash over the Bay Bridge each night to WM’s Altamont landfill near Livermore.

“It would seem most efficient to not double- or triple-handle the waste but to put it directly onto rail at the port instead,” Moyer and Gavrich wrote in 2009. “Collection vehicles could then go directly back out onto their routes, reducing time, fuel, emissions, and traffic impacts.”

The pair noted that SFBR and its affiliate Waste Solutions Group have used rail to haul more than 2 million tons of waste directly from the port in the past 15 years, using gondolas and 12-foot high municipal solid waste (MSW) containers on flat cars. They included an aerial photo showing Recology’s central recycling facility at Pier 96 and the extensive rail infrastructure and barge options that surround the facility.

But DoE never got back to them, Gavrich recalled last week as he fired up a SFBR locomotive and rode the rail tracks that crisscross the 20-acre port-owned facility that lies between SFBR’s outfit, Recology’s Pier 96 recycling facility, and the bay that is currently home to idle barges and rail cars that sit rusting a stone’s throw from the economically depressed Bayview.

“All that’s needed is two to four acres for an excellent transfer station,” Gavrich said. “Barge and rail access could not be better. It’s just waiting to be developed.”

In February, DoE officials told the Budget & Finance Committee that they had looked into and rejected barging as an option. But it turns out they did not conduct an official study. “There hasn’t been a study to date,” DoE’s Assmann said March 7, when the Guardian requested DoE’s barging report. “We had a discussion about it, but no formal policy.”

Assmann noted that DoE asked waste management companies that bid on the city’s landfill disposal contract to include a barging option. “But nobody did,” Assmann said, referring to Recology and Waste Management, the two finalists in the city’s landfill disposal contract bid process.

Assmann said DoE is currently doing a long-term study into three transportation and facilities options for waste using port facilities: the first option would involve moving the entire infrastructure for waste and recycling to the port. The second would be to use the port as a transfer facility for garbage, and truck, barge, or rail haul garbage from the port. The third would involve barging recyclables only from Pier 96.

Assmann notes that the majority of infrastructure for the city’s waste system is at Recology’s Tunnel Road facility on the San Francisco-Brisbane border, a situation he claims would make it impossible to design, permit, finance, and build new facilities at the port before 2015.

But Barry Skolnick, WM’s vice president for Bay Area operations, told the Guardian that 2016 is a more realistic estimate of the landfill expiration date. “At the current disposal rate, we do not believe San Francisco will exhaust its disposal volumes under the existing Altamont landfill contract until 2016 at the earliest,” Skolnick said. “There is plenty of time for the Board of Supervisors and LAFCO to explore best practices and options for its collection, recycling, composting, transferring, and residual waste disposal services.”

Skolnick noted that WM discussed extending the Altamont contract at the Budget & Finance Committee hearing and the LAFCO hearing, and is proposing to extend the city’s current contract by several years.

“We are preparing a proposed three-year extension of the disposal agreement for San Francisco’s review this week,” Skolnick said. “The extension would involve a price increase for disposal but less than the disposal rate offered under the proposed Recology rail haul to Ostrom Road in Yuba County. The three-year extension would provide disposal at the Altamont until 2019 or 2020.”

But Assmann noted that Recology, which currently pays the port $1 million a year to lease Pier 96, wants to expand its Brisbane facility on Recology-owned land. “We have offered to analyze [the Brisbane expansion] option,” Assmann said, estimating that a new transfer facility would cost $40 to $60 million, while a new integrated facility would cost $200 to $450 million.

“If the infrastructure moved to the port, that would have big positive implications for the port,” Assmann said, acknowledging that the port would lose money if Recology relocates entirely to Brisbane. Plus, Brisbane might demand fees from a new facility, he noted. “But consolidation would save ratepayers money in the long run because the operation would become more efficient.”

Unlike the LAFCO study, DoE won’t have its report ready by April, when the city needs to decide on the landfill contract.

“Our proposal is to look at the bigger picture,” Assmann said. “If the board approves Recology’s landfill contract, we’ll still go ahead and do it. The board can always delay its landfill decision. But this looks at infrastructure the landfill agreement won’t impact.”

DoE recommends working with Recology to implement a pilot program to barge recyclables from Pier 96 to the Port of Oakland as it studies long term infrastructure options including locating infrastructure at the port, Assmann said. DoE also recommends that the proposed plan to award Recology the landfill contract and facilitation agreement remain the same “since our analysis shows (and the port concurs) that all options for utilizing the port for any kind of landfill transportation would require a permitting process that would last a minimum of five years and a total timeline of at least seven to nine years.”

So far, the landfill contract has not come before the full board because of delays and continuations at the Budget & Finance Committee. As Judson True, legislative aide to Board President David Chiu, recently observed, the process over the last few months has raised more questions than answers, including unexpected angles such as how the port can be better utilized and the implications of the 1932 refuse collection and disposal ordinance. “We need to get these answers before we can move forward,” True said. “We all have a lot of work to do before we can figure out what’s best for the city and pick a path.”

But Gavrich hopes history doesn’t repeat itself and that Chiu shows some leadership on the garbage contract hornet’s nest. “There are so many compelling reasons and benefits for the city — but that hasn’t stopped the city from doing the wrong thing in the past,” Gavrich said. Gavrich pointed to 2007, when all members of the board except Sup. Chris Daly voted to give the sewage sludge contract to Recology even though its bid was $3 million higher than the competitor, S&S Trucking.

A Dec. 14 2007 San Francisco Chronicle article by Robert Selna quoted Mirkarimi as saying that a key reason for awarding the contract to Recology was that it was a union company. “That’s the elephant in the room,” Mirkarimi said, framing the board’s decision to go with Recology as being about “the devil we know.” Selna recently left the Chronicle to work as Mirkarimi’s legislative aide.

Mirkarimi’s recent suggestion that LAFCO explore barging recyclables as a pilot program has Gavrich worried. “Saying let’s explore simply barging recyclables makes no sense. It’s a fraction of what makes barge/rail haul economically viable.” Gavrich said. “It would put a greater burden on the ratepayer than the economic and environmentally inefficient system they have in place at Pier 96. The port should get the deal. It would be a cash cow.”

The fight for KUSF

8

By Irwin Swirnoff

OPINION For almost 34 years, KUSF (90.3 FM), has provided unique and varied local programming that truly is the audio representation of the qualities that make San Francisco such a special place. A place where diversity is honored and given a voice. A place where art, culture, and music are given a platform to tell stories, evoke emotions, and unite a wide range of people.

With shows in more than a dozen languages and every imaginable musical genre, era, and region represented on its airwaves, KUSF stood as one of the most respected college and noncommercial radio stations in the country.

Beyond its wide scope of music programming, KUSF provided crucial cultural and public service programming that served so many communities and cultures in our city that are all too often marginalized. Chinese Star Radio was the only radio program in Cantonese for the large and vibrant Chinese community in San Francisco. Disability and Senior News Report provided in-depth reporting on pressing issues facing these often overlooked and neglected parts of our community.

On Jan. 18, at 10 a.m., all those voices, all those communities, and all those services were silenced and squashed. In a secret deal behind the back of the community, the University of San Francisco sold KUSF’s transmitter to the University of Southern California in a deal that also involves the large media conglomerate Entercom.

It went down like a hostile corporate takeover. The DJ on air wasn’t allowed to sign off. Armed security entered the station as every lock in the studio was being changed. As stewards of a scarce public resource, USF has an obligation to the community. It’s time for the university to take a step back from this deal and allow for a mutually beneficial solution that will keep community radio alive in San Francisco.

It’s become clear that USF had no idea what an irreplaceable public resource it was killing when it entered this sneaky deal that would afford USC with its sixth territorial radio station as it aims to create a monopoly on the left side of the dial and extend its fundraising capacities deep into the Bay Area.

It’s obvious that this is a bad deal for the city of San Francisco. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the San Francisco Democratic Party, and the USF Faculty Association have passed resolutions condemning the deal. Outspoken support has come from a wide range of city and state leaders, including state Sen. Leland Yee.

No one is arguing USF’s right to liquidate an asset. All we are asking is that the community be involved in this decision and be given the first opportunity to purchase the transmitter.

This is not a done deal. Our petition to deny the transfer has been filed at the Federal Communications Commission. Serious questions about the legality of this deal are being addressed, and the next several weeks and months will allow us time for negotiations to help save community radio in San Francisco.

This is not about a format change. It’s about a community being robbed of its voice. We are committed to this fight and need everyone in San Francisco to join us in saving this crucial community asset. Now is the time to speak truth to power.

Guardian contributor Irwin Swirnoff has been the musical director at KUSF. 

For safety’s sake

6

rebeccab@sfbg.com

A federal investigative hearing on the deadly Sept. 9, 2010 San Bruno explosion triggered by the rupture of a high-pressure Pacific Gas & Electric Co. pipeline was all about getting answers — but it has also sparked new questions.

For instance, why didn’t the San Bruno Fire Department have maps of the 30-inch gas line running beneath the neighborhood where the blast destroyed 37 homes and killed eight people? Why did PG&E’s records list that section of pipe as seamless when the federal investigation revealed that it actually consisted of shorter pieces of pipe, called pups, welded together? Why has PG&E been unable to produce records of close to 30 percent of its pipeline infrastructure, proving that the lines are in decent shape? And does the paperwork it has produced contain reliable information?

These shortcomings speak to a broader issue gaining attention as more fatal pipeline ruptures grab headlines. On a national scale, at least 59 percent of onshore gas transmission pipelines were installed before 1970, according to a report issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Pipeline Safety, making most of the infrastructure a minimum of four decades old.

Pipelines everywhere are getting older, and in some cases, weaker. Yet there tends to be a lack of awareness about the risks associated with the subsurface transport of hazardous materials, and as the San Bruno disaster demonstrated, there is often a lack of communication between utilities, local governments, and property owners about minimizing the risks.

These gaps are especially apparent in the process of approving new development projects. Tried-and-true systems are in place for indicating to contractors where they should and shouldn’t dig to avoid making direct contact with underground infrastructure, but that information seldom takes into account what condition a pipeline is in. The general assumption is that the pipeline operator (in this case, PG&E) is keeping up with maintenance, and that it’s safe to dig. Yet with the gaping questions surrounding PG&E’s infrastructure in the wake of the San Bruno blast, there’s a new level of uncertainty.

Pipeline safety isn’t just a problem for utilities and pipeline regulators to worry about, according to a report issued by Pipelines and Informed Planning Alliance (PIPA), an initiative led by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which brought together more than 100 experts in the field. It should also be on local governments’ radar when they’re making decisions about land use. Yet in San Francisco, this level of awareness seems to be absent.

According to PIPA, “Changes in land use and new developments near transmission pipelines can create risks to communities and to the pipelines.” The hefty report contains an exhaustive set of best practices for planning near pipelines, many specifically targeting local governments. Priority No. 1 for local planning departments should be to “obtain mapping data for all transmission pipelines within their areas of jurisdiction … and show these pipelines on maps used for development planning.” The report also suggests taking special precautions in areas spanning 660 feet on either side of a gas-transmission pipeline; creating systems of communication so information can be readily shared between local governments, utilities, and landowners; and identifying emergency contacts who can halt dangerous excavation activities in case something goes wrong.

The Guardian sent e-mail queries to the Planning Department and Department of Building Inspection (DBI) to find out if the city was adhering to any of the practices recommended by PIPA as the best ways to ensure safe planning near pipelines. Reached by phone, a spokesperson from Planning told the Guardian, “DBI is where you need to call.”

But DBI spokesperson Bill Strawn said, “Those questions you were asking really don’t fall into the Department of Building Inspection’s jurisdiction.”

Strawn added that the issue of underground infrastructure is not really taken into account when building permits are issued. “We don’t go to the [Public Utilities Commission] or [Department of Public Works] or PG&E” for that kind of information, Strawn said. “That would be the responsibility of the property owner, and the plans they submit to us don’t include that kind of utility information.”

PG&E is scrambling to meet a March 15 deadline imposed by the California Public Utilities Commission to turn over records proving its lines are intact. Until it can prove the integrity of its system either on paper or through costly, high-pressure water testing, the condition of some lines is unknown. PG&E did not return calls for comment.

In San Francisco, a densely populated urban hub on an earthquake-prone peninsula where major development projects are being permitted all the time, these issues are particularly pressing. Charley Marsteller, former chair of San Francisco Common Cause, certainly thinks so.

Last December, Marsteller penned a letter to a well-respected geotechnical engineer, raising a question about pipeline safety in light of California Pacific Medical Center’s plans to construct a massive hospital at its Cathedral Hill site on Franklin Street. According to a map of underground gas lines published by the Guardian (See “PG&E’s Secret Pipeline Map,” 9/21/10) using several sources of data, a PG&E gas main appears to run beneath Franklin.

Marsteller was worried about whether excavation for CPMC — or other projects requiring excavation, or even simple contractor digging — could cause vibrations that could affect that pipe.

“As CPMC digs its 100-foot hole, and due to the massive construction vibrations, is there not a risk that the PG&E gas pipeline is at risk of rupture?” he wanted to know.

The engineer, who preferred not to have his name published, responded in an informal letter that “it is indeed possible that soil movement generated by excavation and/or foundation construction could rupture a deteriorated gas main.” He added that while he wasn’t familiar with the details of CPMC’s or other excavation projects on Franklin Street, he did know that the area in question “consists of relatively weak soil” underlain at depth by a geologic feature called the Franciscan Formation, made of sandstone and fine-grained, sedimentary rock.

Yet no one seems to be giving this question any kind of professional attention or study. Eerily, Marsteller seems to be the only person in San Francisco who’s asking what happens if a major excavation project is permitted nearby a corroded pipeline — and he says he hasn’t received much of a response from the “rather blistering memos” he’s fired off to planning commissioners and members of the Board of Supervisors to ask about it. “I’m very concerned that we’re not suspending contractor digging proximate to a pipeline,” Marsteller said, until PG&E can offer proof that the lines nearby excavation projects are in good shape. Whether these issues will ever be considered as part of the local planning process, Marsteller predicted: “The answer is, no one ever thinks about this.”

Excavation damage accounts for nearly one-quarter of pipeline “incidents” nationwide, according to the federal Office of Pipeline Safety report. Yet safeguards are in place to prevent these things from happening.

When the Guardian initially phoned the Planning Department to ask about digging near pipelines, the phone call was returned by the Department of Public Works. Anytime a street excavation project is planned, DPW’s Gloria Chan explained, a notice of intent is issued 120 days beforehand to PG&E, AT&T, the Public Utilities Commission, and any other stakeholders that might have something running underground. Projects are then designed to integrate existing lines. “Sometimes the information we get may be 40 years old,” Chan said. Through a mandated process called USA Service Alert, people go out to physically mark where the underground infrastructure begins and ends on the project site before a contractor starts breaking ground.

That same process occurs with private development projects, explained Alan Kropp, a geotechnical engineer with the firm Alan Kropp & Associates. Kropp said it’s left up to a private contractor to work out the technical details for digging, which are governed by a set of regulations. “If you’re one foot away or three feet away, most pipes don’t care,” Kropp said, but he acknowledged that if a pipe is deteriorated, there could be instances where digging a normally safe distance away could still pose a problem.

“Almost all the time, the system works well,” Kropp said. As for the condition of the pipe, Kropp said, that information generally doesn’t guide project decisions. “It’s really up to the owner of the pipeline,” he said. “They would be the ones in control of that information.”

The line, the line

0

arts@sfbg.com

ART “Philip Guston: A Life Lived and Discussed” is an event for anybody who appreciates provocative talkers.

The subject of Michael Blackwood’s Philip Guston: A Life Lived is quotable throughout the 1981 bio-doc. Shot at various points during the last decade of Guston’s life, the film opens with a retrospective being hung at SFMOMA in 1980. The painter, who will pass away within the year, is seen walking through the show, chatting with the curator and, somewhat later, his wife Musa. He frequently touches the paintings, taking advantage of the fact that, as he puts it, “This is the one show where nobody will tell me not to touch the work.”

Next, there’s a news conference where Guston parries questions and charms his audience, who are busy scribbling notes. Blackwood’s movie then flashes back to the early 1970s, when Guston enters his last highly prolific period. He’s seen at home in Woodstock, N.Y., hanging out in his studio. Surrounded by recent paintings, he frequently moves them around, in order to display examples of what he’s discussing. At one point, he paints over a new work because it’s “too much of a painting.” He also breezily discusses his creative life, recalling his teenage years in Los Angeles with Jackson Pollock, his rising prominence as an Abstract Expressionist in New York City during the 1950s and ’60s, and his artistic concerns at the present moment.

Guston stresses his displeasure with the mistaken, seemingly necessary yet all-too-easy categorizing that plagues the art world. As he says, referencing the readily rehashed modernist values found in his early painting Mother and Child (1930): “You have to come from somewhere.”

An enthusiasm for painting that is in “the midst of happening” drives Guston’s work. He doesn’t seek to achieve an image in which there’s a recognized “this with that, and that and that.” Rather, he desires that a painting be a thing realized for the first time to (or by) the world. He wants it to be unfamiliar, to leave questions, and to settle nothing.

Frequently making declarations like “I really enjoyed myself painting this,” Guston also reflects on his darker moods. His outlook on existence? He doesn’t “think of it as pessimistic,” but nonetheless feels “doomed.”

As Guston gestures about, endlessly smoking cigarettes, it’s easy to see how autobiographical his later paintings are, with large heads, eyeballs, and cigarettes crowding the large canvases. He paints his world; and in doing so, seeks to offer something new to ours.

At slightly less than an hour, Blackwood’s film leaves you wanting more — and luckily, the University of California Press just published Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations (344 pages, $29.95). The book is edited by Clark Coolidge, who makes a short appearance in the film discussing old brick buildings and how paintings are “dumb creatures.” After a screening of Blackwood’s portrait, Coolidge will be on hand for a public conversation, along with Bill Berkson, a fellow poet and friend of Guston.

Patrick James Dunagan is the author of There Are People Who Think That Painters Shouldn’t Talk: A GUSTONBOOK (Post-Apollo Press, 96 pages, $15).

PHILIP GUSTON: A LIFE LIVED AND DISCUSSED

With Bill Berkson and Clark Coolidge in conversation after the film

Mon./14, 7 p.m.; $10

Balboa Theatre

3630 Balboa, SF

(800) 838-3006

www.brownpapertickets.com

Beadeviled

1

CHEAP EATS Dear Earl Butter,

As it turns out, the whole purpose of Mardi Gras is to catch beads. There are also little plastic cups and stuff, but what I want is a football. I want to make a leaping spinning catch, like a halftime Frisbee dog, bring it on home, lay it at Coach’s feet, and pant.

Do you think she will pat me on the head?

Do you think she will let me play in the season opener (this weekend!) even though I’ve missed every single practice since training camp?

I don’t know.

She texted me yesterday to ask how my lesbianism was coming along. I said, We’re at a parade, recording the crowd and the sounds of feet, and taking pictures of the childerns. I said I was trying real hard to catch a football for her, but so far … beads.

She expressed her disbelief (which I share) that I was ever even thinking of France over Mardi Gras. Then she texted again and said, for clarification, "Boobies!!!!!"

I paraphrase. There might have only been four exclamation marks. The point is, Earl, that when people think of Mardi Gras, they think of tits. Well, I am here to tell you — you, Earl, of all people, because I know you are more interested in subtlety and nuance than most of my two lesbian friends — that this is about so much more than that.

For example: ass.

I’m kidding. I’ve been to four parades already and I’ve seen about as much skin as I would have seen if I went to church. Admittedly, I haven’t been hanging out in the French Canadian Quarter, let alone on Bourbon Street, which is what everyone associates with Mardi Gras, not to mention New Orleans. But that’s like thinking of San Francisco as Fisherman’s Wharf.

Which would be what? Ridiculous. Yes. So my own personal, privately-held, and highly journalistic insider’s impression of Mardi Gras so far is that it’s a family affair, featuring marching bands of pimply teenagers and cute-ass kids punctuated by horses, trucks, and tractor-pulled floats from which ridiculously attired adults shower the citizenry and streets of New Orleans with insanely cheap and even more insanely coveted toys and trinkets. You can imagine my joy!

Boobs be damned, Earl, I am catching Coach a football or my name ain’t whatever my name is.

Dear Li’l Sister,

That is great. Me and Diane went to Katana-Ya in downtown San Francisco after seeing the greatest western movie of all time. Diane called my tongue unsavory, which you would think would put me in a funk, but, I don’t know, I just blew it off somehow.

Which is kind of what happens in this western we seen. This guy kind of gets his tongue blew off. It’s an odd way to start an afternoon when you are going to write about food. But it is not too odd.

We both got ramen. Big bowls of delicious noodle soup with prizes, like pot stickers. Hers was vegetable with soba noodles ($11) and mine was the katanaya, which had fried chicken and pork and pot stickers (get to the pot stickers early or they get a little chewy) and corn and fried potatoes and seaweed and scallion and barbecued pork and boiled egg. That is a lot of prizes ($12.90).

We talked of how we were both going to find us mates. Her plan was, I forget. And my plan was to get a garage space in my building and then get a car and a motorcycle. I believe it is the parking inconvenience that has hindered me all these years.

We also had edamame.

And Diane had a lollipop, seeing that there was a bowl of them on the counter and they were free. That is supposed to be a good sign.

Yers,

Earl

Katana-Ya

Daily: 11:30 a.m.–1 a.m.

430 Geary, SF

(415)771-1280

MC/V

Beer and wine

March to the rainbow

0

culture@sfbg.com

IRISH Whether you live in Dallas or settle in SoMa, March is the month when Americans throw out their stale V-Day candy hearts and bring out the greens. Not the ones you smoke, silly, we’re talking St. Patrick’s Day here. Along with the rest of the country, San Franciscans will bite into green bagels, take a swig of something Irish, and head down to the St. Patrick’s Day parade (ours is early this year, Saturday, March 12) to join in the Celtic revelry. But — typical — there’s something about our Irish celebrations that set SF apart — our St. Patrick’s Day parade is one of few in the country to welcome the LGBT community to the party.

While it’s easy to forget over here at the end of the rainbow, most St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the U.S.A. have a strict no-gays policy when it comes to who is allowed to march — which is sad and ironic considering that Irish Americans once faced the same discrimination that their parade associations now seem to be condoning when it comes to gay Americans.

Three cities in the country allow gay groups to participate in their St. Paddy’s parades: Queens, N.Y., SF, and Key West, Fla. (editor’s note: not exactly true, as it turns out — check out our correction for the other bergs around the country to welcome the queer community into the St. Paddy’s fold) The Queens parade was created as an all-inclusive alternative to the New York City parade, which still does not allow LGBT groups to participate despite years of protests — after Irish pride, these demonstrations may be NYC’s second highest profile St. Paddy’s Day tradition. This year the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, has refused to participate in the Big Apple’s march on account of the parade’s regrettable policy. She’s not the only one: Boston’s mayor has refused to march in his city’s parade for the past few years.

But here in the country’s queer mecca, we can shake our heads in smug, gay disapproval at the St. Patty’s wars of the rest of the country. SF has a history of hoisting our rainbow shamrock high: this city’s parade is all-inclusive, which the president of SF’s Irish Societies (the organization behind the parade and concurrent Civic Center Plaza festival), Dermot Philpot is glad about.

“We include everybody, and we look for them to be in the parade,” Philpot told us in a recent phone interview. “When we include LGBT groups and individuals in our parade, it shows that [the SF Irish community] is part of a larger community.” Although there are no nominally gay groups marching in the parade, unlike in years past, Philpot says he hopes “[the LGBT community] feels included and that they will be there.”

The San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band is one LGBT group that has high-stepped for Irish pride, making its most recent St. Patrick’s Day parade appearance in 2000. Doug Litwin, who is the secretary for the band’s board of directors, says the band had been participating in the parade even before he and his clarinet joined the group in 1985. Although marching on St. Paddy’s Day is a subject of contention for queer groups in other parts of the country, for the SF Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band the parade is about as run-of-the-mill as any. “The bottom line is in San Francisco it’s just not that big of a deal to be openly gay anymore,” says Litwin. “Our band was declared the official band of San Francisco by two different mayors. Some of these parade organizers practically beg us to march.”

Openly gay senator Mark Leno is another familiar face on parade day. Leno is unable to attend the event this year because of an out-of-town speaking engagement, but says he’s been included in the parade as far back as 1998, when he was first elected to office. “I’ve always been proud of the fact that San Francisco’s parade is inclusive. And as long as I have been in office, I’ve always felt welcome in the parade.” Only once has he ever gotten negative reactions from the parade crowds. As Leno recalls, that year he had opted to ride through the parade in a Jaguar. “I heard booing and hissing right as I got up to Second Street.” At issue: red-blooded parade watchers were upset that Leno hadn’t chosen an American car for his cruise through the crowds.

ST. PATRICK’S DAY PARADE

Sat/12, 11:30 a.m., free

Begins at Market and Second streets, SF

(415) 203-1027

www.uissf.org

Erin go barhopping

0

caitlin@sfbg.com

IRISH Public service announcement: you do not need to get drunk on St. Patrick’s Day. This year there are a gamut of cultural activities that will teach you more about paddie heritage than finding the bottom of yet another Irish car bomb. But drink yourself green if you must — in this country, an argument could be made that the day has become a celebration of alcoholic pride more than anything. Just please, for the love of corned beef and cabbage — try to limit your use of novelty T-shirts.

 

ST. PATRICK’S DAY PARADE AND FESTIVAL

The big potato kicks off St. Paddy’s season this year and will honor upstanding Irish folks from around the city.

Sat/12. Parade: 11:30 a.m., free. Starts at Market and Second; Festival: 10 a.m.–5 p.m., free. Civic Center Plaza, SF. 1-800-310-6563, www.sresproductions.com

 

ST. PATRICK’S DAY FITNESS CRAWL

Stage a preemptive strike against all the Guinness you’ll be drinking at this affordable fitness boot camp.

Sat/12 9:30 a.m.–3 p.m., $10. Third Street Boxing Gym, 2576 Third St., SF. (415) 550-8269, www.thirdstreetgym.com

 

“IRISH CALIFORNIA: AN EVENING WITH THE CALIFORNIA HISTORICAL SOCIETY COLLECTION”

Snack on Irish bites and booze while perusing the Historical Society’s stockpile of Irish American ephemera — photos, pamphlets, and more from the Golden State’s green past.

Wed/16 5:30–7:30 p.m., $4 suggested donation, free to members. RSVP recommended. The California Historical Society, 678 Mission, SF. (415) 357-1848, www.californiahistoricalsociety.com

 

ST. PADDY’S PUNK BASH XI

The leprechaun rager returns for its 11th year in action, featuring the Undead Boys, Street Justice, Crosstops, Ruleta Rusa, and Face the Rail.

Weds/16 8 p.m., $8. Elbo Room, 647 Valencia, SF. (415) 552-7788, www.elbo.com

 

FARLEY’S 22ND BIRTHDAY

The Guardian staff’s fave cafe around the corner celebrates multiple decades of well-roasted independent business awesomeness with live bagpipers in the daytime and a concert in the evening.

Thurs/17 bagpipes 9 a.m.–1 p.m.; concert 8 p.m., free. Farley’s, 1315 18th St., SF. (415) 648-1545, www.farleyscoffee.com

 

O’REILLY’S ST. PATTY’S BLOCK PARTY

Between this and the Royal Exchange block party (see below) you’ll be well — if not over — served on “Kiss Me I’m Irish” tees, green face paint, and Bailey’swhiskeycarbombGuinness blackout glory. Pad your stomach before you get too deep in the drinkin’ with O’Reilly’s classic Irish brunch foods.

Thurs/17 Serving brunch 9 a.m.–1:30 p.m.; black party 3 p.m., free. O’Reilly’s, 622 Green, SF. (415) 989-6222, www.sforeillys.com

 

HABITOT MUSEUM’S SHAMROCK DAY

Make potato prints, drink green punch, and decorate your own pair of shamrock glasses with your little leprechaun at the family learning museum.

Thurs/17 9:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m., $9 museum admission. Habitot Children’s Museum, 2065 Kittredge, Berk. (510) 647-1111, www.habitot.org

 

PARKSIDE TAVERN IRISH LUNCH

Traditional fixin’s abound on this Sunset pub’s special Irish menu — corned beef and a little Irish stew to go with your Jameson?

Serving from 10 a.m.–10 p.m. Parkside Tavern, 1940 Taravel, SF. (415) 731-8900, www.parksidetavernsf.com

 

FINANCIAL DISTRICT ST. PADDY’S STREET PARTY

Wonderbread 5 provides rockin’ live tunes during happy hour, and pub Royal Exchange keeps the suds a flowin’ at this al fresco rager in FiDi.

Thurs/17 3 p.m.–2 a.m., free. Front between Sacramento and California, SF. www.royalexchange.com

 

ST. PATRICK’S NIGHTLIFE

DJ Nako puts the spin on St. Patrick’s, and the swanky science museum plies you with green-themed activities at the shamrock edition of its bangin’ night at the museum’s weekly event.

Thurs/17 8–10 p.m., $12. California Academy of Sciences, 55 Music Concourse, SF. 1-888-670-4433, www.calacademy.org

 

DELHI TO DUBLIN

Can you hold your finger cymbals and Guinness stein in the same hand? Try. This multicultural Celtic bhangra group always brings the jams — its St. Paddy’s Day gig in clubland is sure to be the most high energy dance party this side of Riverdance.

Thurs/17 9 p.m., $15. Mezzanine, 444 Jessie, SF. (415) 625-8880, www.mezzaninesf.com

 

CULANN’S HOUNDS

Didn’t get enough of the folk rock Hounds at the March 12 Civic Center Plaza festival? Check out the SF group’s headlining gig ensconced in the wooden glory of the Great American Music Hall. Renée de la Prada’s dulcet voice soars over the accordions and violins of her band.

Thurs/17 7:30 p.m., $20. Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF. (415) 885-0750, www.gamh.com

 

BISS ME I’M IRISH ST. PATRICK’S DAY PARTY

Celebrate the Irish infiltration into every corner of the globe with the hip-hop-cumbia-reggaetón punch of La Gente, which headlines this diverse lineup, otherwise composed of female singer-songwriters bringing it in the keys of punk, rock, and pop.

Thurs/17 9 p.m., $10. Cafe Du Nord, 2170 Market, SF. (415) 861-5016, www.cafedunord.com

Bay Area dance’s bragging rights

0

DANCE When the 25th Annual Isadora Duncan Dance Awards take place March 14, the local dance scene will have much to celebrate. In advance of the event, I recently asked several local members of the community what makes Bay Area dance special.

Wayne Hazzard, executive director of Dancers’ Group, pinpoints the relationship between contemporary and traditional artists. “I’ve seen it [the dance community] really grow and continue to do what it’s been doing and attract new companies and artists to the area.”

According to Hazzard, the dance scene’s steady development is linked to the Bay Area’s “livability” and “the maverick nature of the West Coast, this region where you can find yourself. Even if you are coming from a tradition, you can deepen that and go in your own direction, which seems to be a truism of artists here whether [we’re discussing] the San Francisco Ballet or Brenda Way or Chitresh Das. They’re all traditionalists, yet they’re imbuing their formal structural ideas around theater and dance with current issues. Joe Goode as well.”

Jessica Robinson Love, artistic and executive director of CounterPulse, focuses on a different aspect of community. “We can’t talk about dance in the Bay Area without discussing the Ethnic Dance Festival and the huge amount of culturally-specific dance that’s practiced here,” she says. Love also believes the Bay Area’s proximity to Silicon Valley makes for greater interest in and use of technology: “Being on the Left Coast gives us a freedom to experiment. There’s less of a fear of risk-taking and failure, so there’s a lot more diversity in terms of the choices choreographers make about their work.”

“I also see a real emphasis on queer and gender-bending performance,” she adds. “There’s an emerging, blossoming conversation between the drag performance community and the dance community in San Francisco right now.”

Joe Landini, artistic director of The Garage, agrees that queer dance-makers are among the strongest voices to surface. Specializing in emerging choreographers, he produces an exceptional amount of new work. “What I’m finding is that a lot of choreographers coming out of the university system are choosing to relocate to San Francisco because the resources are less competitive than New York. San Francisco probably has more opportunities for emerging choreographers than any other place in the United States, so we have a huge pool of trained choreographers.”

Site-specific work also makes its mark on the scene. Hazzard points in particular to Anna Halprin’s long history of investigations, noting that, at 90, she’s still creating new work, including an upcoming trilogy honoring her late husband titled Remembering Lawrence. “Joanna Haigood particularly deals with space and ideas,” he adds, “so when you look at aerial artists that work here, whether its Haigood or Jo Kreiter or Project Bandaloop, no one anywhere else is doing what they’re doing. It’s uniquely about our region and space and relationship to dance and performance.”

THE 25TH ANNUAL ISADORA DUNCAN DANCE AWARDS

Mon/14, 7 p.m., free

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787

www.ybca.org

The end?

0

DANCE Looking at the magnificent and elegant Merce Cunningham dancers perform Pond Way (1998), Antic Meet (1958) and Sounddance (1975) in the by no means sold-out Zellerbach Hall on March 3 made me sad. Each of these works showed such skill, beauty, and intelligence. Yet they left me pessimistic about the future of a precious repertoire.

So this was it. This was end of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which has appeared at UC Berkeley since 1962. Some people there this past weekend have been watching them since year one. I am not one of them. It took me a quite while to realize the difference between “connection” and “coexistence” of movement, music, and design. But I finally understood that connections happened between these elements — not as a result of planning, but simply by together at a particular moment. And once I apprehended Cunningham’s multifocused — rather than front- and center-oriented — stage picture, a wondrous world opened up.

Now it’s finished. Shortly before his death, the choreographer decided the company would go on a two-year “Legacy Tour” around the world and then disband. Following the Balanchine model, Cunningham set up a foundation that can license the pieces to companies that want to perform them. That’s the rub.

Who can do them? The company’s early quintets or septets are one thing, but his big, companywide choreographies, which still don’t make for easy viewing, are another. We don’t have a tradition of repertory modern dance companies; they are driven by their founder-choreographers. So who can do justice to Cunningham?

Ballet companies would seem the logical choice, since Cunningham’s technique — though exceedingly specific — relies heavily on ballet-trained dancers. But would these ensembles invest the amount of rehearsal that a Cunningham piece would require, especially at a time when choreographers are given as little as two weeks to create a new piece on a company? And what about their conservative base of support?

The serenely lyrical Pond Way has been described as one of Cunningham’s nature pieces. To be sure, Brian Eno’s sound score includes some howling monkeys and barking dogs, and if you want, you can see loping gazelles and hoping frogs in the choreography. But the work, with the ensemble dressed by Suzanne Gallo in tunic-like tops and wide pants, suggests a crowded Elysian fields — assuming one knows what that looks like — where the inhabitants are engaged in some kind of praise dancing.

Maybe Roy Lichtenstein’s barely perceivable ship on the backdrop had brought them there. Brandon Collwes, his hair bleached the whitest of blonds, magisterially streaked through the unisons, only to join them. An upstage quintet for women seemed inspired by Greek vase paintings. And then there was Marcie Munnerly, who for the longest period stood frozen in a running position, oblivious to the guys who tried to get her attention. She finally whipped herself into a solo that pulled her into the wings.

The recently-reconstructed Antic Meet, with Robert Rauschenberg’s design, is a rarity. A mashup of vaudeville and silent movie pratfalls, it’s a full-blown comedy. It takes on the oh-so-serious attempts of (old school) modern dancers to squeeze meaning out of every gesture. The dancers strained, pushed, pulled, then hopelessly collapsed into a muddle. Four of them, dressed in fluttering parachutes, flopped and hopped and surrounded their “heroine.” They looked as much like Edward Gorey characters as Martha Graham acolytes. Curiously, John Cage’s score sounded very much of its time, but the wittily-danced choreography looked as fresh as ever.

In this context, the sweet Sounddance felt like a farewell. Robert Swinston, the ensemble’s rehearsal director and a company member since 1980, stepped into the Cunningham role. As heavy baroque curtains seemed to spit out the dancers one by one, he tried to keep an eye on the multiple actions — four men manipulating Andrea Weber; evanescent couples and line dancing; Rashaun Mitchell enclosing everyone in a magic circle. In the end, the dancers and Swinston/Cunningham disappeared back into the curtains. It seemed very final.

Limon

3

paulr@sfbg.com

DINE In our epoch of wood-fired chic, gas-fired sounds, well, ordinary. If you have a barbecue at home, it’s more than likely gas-fired. Gas is cleaner, cheaper, and lights instantly, at the push of a button, without fuss. It’s the barbecue equivalent of an automatic transmission. Charcoal, on the other hand — to say nothing of actual wood — is a balky and oversensitive stick shift: tricky to start and unpredictable once started. If you lay too hot a fire, you’re stuck; you can’t just turn a dial (or downshift) to tame the inferno. Yet, just as a manual tranny is more absorbing and fun to drive than an automatic, charcoal and wood do impart character to food that gas doesn’t. They’re worth the trouble, provided it’s someone else’s trouble.

In this sense, it isn’t a huge surprise that restaurants have been touting their wood- or charcoal-burning bona fides, their grills and pizza ovens. They’re in a much stronger position to stoke the necessary apparatus, and there is presumably strong and steady demand from a public that has largely abandoned charcoal for gas in their home barbies. What does come as a bit of a surprise is that a fairly high-profile restaurant — one bearing the magic name of Limon, as in, Limon Rotisserie — makes a conspicuous display of its brasa, the gas-fired rotisserie on which dozens of chickens are, at any given moment, being roasted in the Peruvian style. It looks like a modern version of one of Mark Twain’s riverboat steamers, with jumping blue flames and the birds turning as if on a paddlewheel.

The evolution of the Limon franchise has been among the more stirring in recent memory. Martin Castillo opened the original Limon in 2002 in a modest 17th Street space now occupied by Maverick. A few years later it moved to grander digs in the heart of the Valencia corridor, with prices and tone rising accordingly. Limon Rotisserie isn’t exactly a throwback, but it does restore roast chicken to pride of place.

And the chicken is really splendid — a reminder of how good this most modest of birds can be if seasoned and cooked with care. A half-bird costs just $9.95 (including two sides) and arrived with crisp skin and cooked-through flesh that was still juicy. The juiciness surely had to do in part with the marinade, whose undisclosed ingredients had to include lemon and garlic, along with (I’m guessing now) cumin and paprika. Nothing about the bird seemed complex or exotic yet the result was sublime. Roast chicken is underrated; if done right, it’s simple, elegant, and memorable.

If the sides don’t make quite the same splash, they do offer variety, including fries in several forms (potato, yucca, sweet potato), tacu-tacu (wonderful rice-and-beans croquettes), and vegetales salteados (basically a quick sauté of green and yellow-wax beans).

Outside of the rotisserie, there is a wealth of ceviches, including a version with red snapper (pescado, $9.75), another with whitefish, calamari, and tiger shrimp (mixto, $9.75), and a soupy cocktail of seafood dice ($4.75) served in a heavy highball glass. All the ceviches are made with what the menu calls leche de tigre, a citrus-based marinade; yet despite this implication of acid, I found them all too salty. And if I find it too salty, it must really be salty. A little sugar (maybe from orange juice) might have helped pull the marinade into better trim and more complexity.

The restaurant’s menu scheme stresses shareability, so the kitchen turns out a wealth of small plates. Notable was the seco de costillas ($8.95), boneless flaps of braised (beef) short rib in a sauce dotted with carrots and peas, like beef Burgundy, but with huacatay (a pungent Peruvian herb) and cilantro. Then there was jalea ($9.75), a kind of relative of fritto misto, with batter-fried calamari rings and shrimp with salsa criolla and huacatay tartar sauce.

Despite a certain perfunctory quality, the dessert menu does offer a stellar possibility: the chocolate bandido ($7.25), a warm chocolate cake with brandy sauce and crème anglaise. The simplicity is deceptive and wise, because the chocolate is an engulfing experience, texturally somewhere between cake and fudge and of a singular intensity, like dark sexual heat. When you have chocolate like this, you really don’t care if the pastry chef has scattered some berries on the plate or made artful doodles with mint cream. No: you’re a fastball pitcher, you bring the heat. Let the batter worry about getting some wood on it.

LIMON ROTISSERIE

Daily: noon–10:30 p.m.

1001 S. Van Ness, SF

(415) 821-2134

www.limonrotisserie.com

Beer and wine

AE/MC/V

Noisy

Wheelchair accessible

Youth in revolt

0

arts@sfbg.com

SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL What’s the matter with kids today? Young people wrestle with issues that many adults would find beyond their ken at this year’s SFIAAFF. Coming of age is a hazard in a Vietnam where street gangs grapple with injustice, under highly emotional — and entertaining — circumstances; in Iran, where oppressive fundamentalism colors even the most carefree youth; and in Hawaii, where the endless party of skate-rat slackitude hits the skids of very adult responsibilities.

The young folks of Le Tranh Son’s Clash (2009) are desperate — and alas, all too used to it. The doe-like, fiery-eyed, and formidable fighter Trinh (actress-vocalist Ngo Thanh Van), a.k.a. Phoenix, has plenty to scowl about. Kidnapped at a tender age to serve as a prostitute, she was plucked from the brothel by crime king pin Black Dragon (Hoang Phuc) — an opera-loving, white-suited baddie that John Woo would love — to be groomed as one of his highly skilled soldiers. Now on a mission to steal a briefcase of codes for Vietnam’s first satellite, Trinh assembles a crew that Son films like the suavest thugs in the slum, set to a chest-thumping arena-rock and hip-hop soundtrack. The most handy-in-a-corner hottie of the bunch is Quan (Johnny Tri Nguyen), a.k.a. White Tiger.

Contrary to initial impressions, “we’re not in some cheesy Hong Kong action movie,” as one character declares when Trinh attempts to wield an iron fist of intimidation over her charges — although Nguyen and Ngo’s stunningly rapid-fire martial arts skills (and chemistry: the two are a real-life couple) make this flick a must-see for fight fans. Clash was the highest-grossing movie in 2009 in its homeland; though the film strives to please with its visceral, full-throttle fight scenes, it seems haunted by a colonial past as well as recent terrors. Life is a constant struggle for Clash‘s young people. They’re fully capable of working their conflicts out with bare knuckles, but what really breaks through their defenses are the injustices that befall family dear to them.

The ties that bind the handful of 20-something Iranians are tested in Hossein Keshavarz’s Dog Sweat (2010) — though not in ways one would immediately expect. The lo-fi, handheld camerawork can be distractingly shaky, especially since Dog Sweat was shot without the proper permissions and permits. But the director’s eye for telling detail is sure, at times humorous, and other moments poetically penetrating. Bedroom rock is the only way to go: behind closed doors, a trio of men booze it up on so-called Dog Sweat moonshine while dancing and flipping on and off the light switch for a homemade strobe effect — they’re dreaming of Western-style intoxicants and freedoms and wondering why America doesn’t come and “save us from this nightmare.”

In another bedroom, girls gossip (“There were some hot guys at the demonstration!”) while shimmying with themselves in the mirror. Keshavarz captures the propaganda-embellished concrete and the parks for men searching for other lonely men, and the double standards that apply to the music-loving woman who yearns to sing but must hide from the recording studio owner, and the rebellious girl who acts out by donning a scarlet hijab and romancing her cousin’s husband. A rough snapshot of a generation that crosses class lines, conceived during Ahmadinejad’s crackdown on artists and dissidents, Keshavarz succeeds in conveying the palpable hopes, humor, anxieties, and fears of young people in resistance, primed to explode.

“Da kine,” that fuzzy, vagued-out arbiter of “whatever,” reigns supreme in the Hawaii of writer-director-skater Chuck Mitsui’s One Kine Day (2010). Welcome to the other side of the isle, far away from touristy Waikiki, where skater Ralsto (Ryan Greer) is dealing with his morning-sick 15-year-old girlfriend Alea. His boss at the skate shop isn’t buying his diffuse excuses for lateness; Alea doesn’t want to go through another abortion; mom is putting pressure on him to get a stable job at the post office; and loutish friend Nalu believes he can score the money for “da kine” abortion at an underground cock fight. Of course, it will all come crashing down at the big house party — but will the perpetually tragic-faced Ralsto go postal? Mitsui shines a light on the less-than-savory aspects of the islands — the pregnant teens in the malls, the ‘shroom-popping adults who turn on and phase out, the fact that you have to drive everywhere — and dares you to tear your eyes away from the sun-streaked, well-baked screen.

SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL

March 10–20, most shows $12

Various venues

www.caamedia.org

By demons driven

0

arts@sfbg.com

SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL A few years ago, much was being made of the “new wave” of Asian horror films. Western audiences were being introduced to the long-haired, vengeful spirits and women on the verge of murderous rampages that had been scaring moviegoers in Japan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia for much of the late 1990s and early aughts. Companies such as Tartan and Lionsgate rushed to make the latest bloodbaths from directors such as Takashi Miike and Kim Ji-woon available on DVD, and Hollywood began to voraciously buy up story rights and churn out English-language remakes. Then Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) came along.

But while the new wave of Asian horror may have crested as a Western phenomena, SFIAAFF’s retrospective “After Death: Horror Cinema from South East Asia” proves that using regional ghost stories as a springboard for Romero-worthy blood feasts is still a winning formula for many Southeast Asian directors. Nang Nak (1999), the oldest of the three films in the series, reenvisions the Thai folktale of a wife whose love for her family chains her to the earthly realm long after death. Histeria (2008) loosely bases its six-girls-tormented-by-an-evil-spirit variation on the classic slasher narrative on actual cases of mass hysteria among Malaysian schoolgirls. And 2008’s Affliction (the only film unavailable for preview) pits a father against his daughter as he fights to prevent her transformation into an Aswang, a blood-sucking monster of Filipino legend.

To be honest, there might be a reason these titles have received less attention abroad than the output of the Pang brothers (2002’s The Eye), for example. For all its flashy cinematography and folkloric source material, Nang Nak drags for most of its 100 minutes (when we already know long before the protagonist does that his dutiful dearest is not all she appears to be, waiting for him to finally catch on feels like an eternity). Histeria has more fun at least with its set-up, sketching out the hierarchy at work in its clique of schoolgirls sentenced to a long weekend of janitorial labor at their rural boarding school before dispatching them in unsavory ways one by one. The film even features what’s touted to be Malaysian cinema’s first same-sex onscreen kiss; although a “half-peck” might be more accurate. Still, the film’s special effects are imaginative — especially its creature design — and its scares are genuine even if the twist ending doesn’t pack much surprise. Indeed, the films in “After Death” are perhaps SFIAAFF’s most familiar offerings, but that doesn’t make them any less enjoyable for, say, date night.

SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL

March 10–20, most shows $12

Various venues

www.caamedia.org

 

Not for sale: An insider’s look at the battle to save KUSF

0

MUSIC/CULTURE Normally, Irwin Swirnoff’s demeanor is upbeat, and I’d consider him to be one of the friendliest people I know. But from the expression on his face, I thought someone had died. Even before walking into the room, I felt there was a weird vibe. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“We just got sold and were taken off the air,” he replied.

Immediately and instinctively, without even really processing his words, I fired back, “Well, what are we gonna do about it?” Within minutes we worked ourselves into a frenzy, sending e-mails, texts, tweets, and phone calls to let everyone know that the nonprofit station where we volunteered, KUSF, had unfairly been ripped from us without any fair warning.

That morning, Jan. 18, was a blur of bad news. My parents were staying with me, and I had the day off. I needed a brief escape and turned to my volunteer work. It doesn’t really feel like work. I consider it more of a hobby, but calling it that would be selling it short. It’s like you can’t even have a hobby anymore without someone taking it away, selling it for $3.75 million and making it corporate. That’s exactly what the University of San Francisco did by attempting to sell out KUSF and the community in a veiled deal involving Entercom, America’s fifth-largest radio conglomerate; the University of Southern California; and Classical Public Radio Network (CPRN). We now know some of the details and overall shady manner in which these events transpired.

When I step back to think about our battle to save KUSF, one thing I find interesting is the current micro- and macro- momentum of power-to-the-people movements and how they can become contagious. It’s been said that tragedy brings communities together in astounding ways. Maybe the attempt to dismantle KUSF was the wake-up call some of us needed to pay attention to the behind-the-scenes politics of how, in radio, conglomerates are swallowing the little guys. This isn’t the first time this has happened — and it won’t be the last. But so many people were moved, inspired, and outraged enough to incite action, myself included. Maybe this is what we needed to get organized.

There was something really satisfying, in an old-school way, about a large group of people coming together to chant, clap, and scream “Shame!” in unison and really mean it. That’s how it went down Jan. 19 during the ill-conceived Q&A-style meeting staged by USF and its president, Father Stephen A. Privett. There was real energy in the air that night; it was sad, inspiring, and exciting all at once. It felt like I was going to a rumble, and I even dressed for the occasion, donning my leather biker jacket. When I got to the scene of the rally, I wasn’t disappointed by what I saw: sheer numbers, picket signs, “Save KUSF” hats and T-shirts, all materializing within hours. Most important, we had supporters willing to get vocal, with the passion to stand up and fight those who had wronged us.

At the end of February, the very community that USF and Privett sold out had raised more than $15,000, which is partly going to legal fees for what could be a precedent-setting denial of the station’s sale by the FCC. I think a lot of us were high on adrenaline in those first days after the station’s sale, especially because of the way it happened. Our cause has since garnered support from San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. The majority of our supervisors seem to understand what the station meant to the community. You can’t just sell 33 years of independent radio, culture, and rock ‘n’ roll history. It never should have been for sale.

Radio radio!

5

arts@sfbg.com

Do you remember rock ‘n’ roll radio, as the Ramones once quizzed us, ever so long ago? If not that “Video Killed the Radio Star”-era iteration, a leather-clad punky nostalgia for Murray the K and Alan Freed, then do you remember college rock when it became the name of a musical genre in the early 1990s?

I’m trying to make out its faint strains now: a sound nominally dubbed rock, but as wildly eclectic and widely roaming as the winds blowing me over the Bay Bridge on this blustery, rain-streaked afternoon. I’m not imagining it. New, shaken-and-stirred PJ Harvey nudging family-band throwback the Cowsills. Nawlins jazzbos Kid Ory and Jimmy Noone rubbing sonic elbows with winsome Tim Hart and Maddy Prior. Brit electropoppers Fenech-Soler bursting beside Chilean melody-makers Lhasa. The ancient Popul Vuh tangling with the bright-eyed art-rock I Was a King. It’s an average playlist for KALX 90.7 FM, the last-standing free-form sound in San Francisco proper — though it hails from across the bay in Berkeley.

But what about SF’s own, KUSF? A former college radio DJ and assistant music director at the University of Hawaii’s KTUH and the University of Iowa’s KRUI, I’m one of those souls who’s searching for it far too late, even though I benefited from my time in college radio, garnering a major-league musical education simply flipping through the dog-eared LPs and listening to other jocks’ shows. Like so many music fans, I got lost — searching for the signal and repelled by commercial radio’s predictable computerized playlists, cheesy commercials, and blowhard DJs — and found NPR.

Today, I’m testing the signals within — the health of music on SF terra firma radio — by driving around the city, cruising City Hall, bumping through SoMa, and dodging bikes in the Mission. KALX’s signal is strong on the noncommercial side of the dial, alongside the lover’s rock streaming from long-standing KPOO 89.5 and the Strokes-y bounce bounding from San Jose modern rock upstart KSJO 92.3, whose tagline promises, “This is the alternative.” But KSJO’s distinct lack of a DJ voice and seamless emphasis on monochromatic Killers-and-Kings-of-Chemical-Romance tracks quickly bores, slotting it below its rival, Live 105.

Dang. I wind my way up Market to Twin Peaks. Waves of white noise begin to invade a Tim Hardin track. KALX’s signal fades as the billowing, smoky-looking fog rolls majestically down upscale Forest Hill to the middle-class Sunset. But I can hear it — with occasional static — on 19th Avenue, and later, in the Presidio and Richmond.

Throughout, KUSF’s old frequency, 90.3, comes through loud and clear — though now with the sound of KDFC’s light-classical and its penchant for swelling, feel-good woodwinds. The music is so innocuous that to rag on it feels as petty and mean as kicking a docile pup. But I get my share of instrumental wallpaper while fuming on corporate phone trees. It’s infuriating to realize that it supplanted KUSF, the last bastion of free-form radio in SF proper. Where is the free-form rock radio? This is the city that successfully birthed the format in the 1970s, with the freewheeling, bohemia-bred KSAN, and continued the upstart tradition with pirate stations such as SF Liberation Radio. Doesn’t San Francisco deserve its own WFMU or KCRW?

 

FEWER INDEPENDENTS, MORE CONSOLIDATION

Online radio — including forces like Emeryville’s Pandora and San Diego’s Slacker Radio — provides one alternative. This is true for listeners who use the TiVo-like Radio Shark tuner-recorder to rig their car (still the primo place to tune in) to listen to online stations all over the country. The just-launched cloud-based DVR Dar.fm also widens the online option.

Nevertheless, online access isn’t a substitute for free radio air waves. “We get the wrong impression that everyone is wired, and everyone’s online, and no one listens to terrestrial radio,” says radio activist and KFJC DJ Jennifer Waits. “Why then are these companies buying stations for millions of dollars?”

Waits and KALX general manager Sandra Wasson both point to the consolidation that’s overtaken commercial radio since deregulation with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — a trend that has now crept onto the noncommercial end of the dial.

As competition for limited bandwidth accelerates (in San Francisco, this situation is compounded by a hilly topography with limited low-power station coverage) and classical radio stations like KDFC are pushed off the commercial frequencies, universities are being approached by radio brokers. One such entity, Public Radio Capital, was part of the secretive $3.75 million deal to sell KUSF’s transmitter and frequency. Similar moves are occurring throughout the U.S., according to Waits. She cites the case of KTXT, the college radio station at Texas Tech, as akin to KUSF’s situation, while noting Rice and Vanderbilt universities are also exploring station sales.

“The noncommercial band is following in the footsteps of the commercial band in the way of consolidation,” Wasson says, from her paper-crammed but spartan office at KALX, after a tour of the station’s 90,000-strong record library. Wire, Ringo Death Starr, and Mountain emanate from the on-air DJ booth, as students prep the day’s newscast and a volunteer readies a public-affairs show. “Buying and selling noncommercial radio seems to me very much like what used to happen and still does in commercial radio: one company owns a lot stations in a lot of different markets and does different kinds of programming in different markets. Deregulation changed it so that 10-watt stations weren’t protected anymore. There were impacts on commercial and noncommercial sides.”

Lack of foresight leads cash-strapped schools to leap for the quick payout. “Once a school sells a station, it’s unlikely it will be able to buy one back,” says Waits. “Licenses don’t come up for sale and there are limited frequencies. They have an amazing resource and they’re making a decision that isn’t thought-through.”

 

DREAMING IN STEREO

There are still people willing to put imagination — and money — behind their radio dreams. But free-form has come to sound risky after the rise of KSAN and FM radio and the subsequent streamlining and mainstreaming of the format.

Author and journalist Ben Fong-Torres, who once oversaw a KUSF show devoted to KSAN jocks, cites the LGBT-friendly, dance-music-focused KNGY 92.7 as a recent example of investors willing to try out a “restricted” format. “They were a good solid city station that sounded quite loose,” he explains. “But even there they weren’t able to sell much advertising because they were limited to the demographic in San Francisco and they couldn’t make enough to pay their debts.”

Nonetheless, Fong-Torres continues to be approached by radio lovers eager to start a great music station. “I’ve told them what I’m telling you,” he says. “It’s really difficult to acquire a stick in these parts, to grab whatever best signals there are.” This is especially true with USC/KDFC rumored to be on a quest for frequencies south of SF.

“There are some dreamers out there who think about it,” muses Fong-Torres. “A single person who’s willing to bankroll a station just out of the goodness of his or her heart and let people spread good music — someone like Paul Allen, who did KEXP in Seattle.”

 

THE FIGHT TO SAVE KUSF

The University of San Francisco has touted the sale of KUSF’s frequency and the station’s proposed shift to online radio as a teaching opportunity. But the real lesson may be a reminder of the value of the city’s assets — and how easily they can be taken away. “We’re learning how unbelievably sacred bandwidth is on the FM dial,” says Irwin Swirnoff, who was a musical director at the station.

Swirnoff and the Save KUSF campaign hope USF will give the community an opportunity to buy the university’s transmitter, much as Southern Vermont College’s WBTN 1370 AM was purchased by a local nonprofit.

For Swirnoff and many others, listener-generated playlists can’t substitute for the human touch. “DJs get to tell a story through music,” he explains. “They’re able to reach a range of emotions and [speak to] the factors that are in the city at that moment, its nature and politics. Through music, they can create a moving dialogue and story.”

Swirnoff also points to the DJ’s personally selective role during a time of corporate media saturation and tremendous musical production. “In the digital age, the amount of music out in the world can be totally overwhelming,” he says. “A good station can take in all those releases and give you the best garage rock, the best Persian dance music, everything. One DJ can be a curator of 100 years of music and can find a way to bring the listener to a unique place.”

Local music and voices aren’t getting heard on computer-programmed, voice-tracked commercial stations despite inroads of satellite radio into local news. In a world where marketing seems to reign supreme, is there a stronger SF radio brand than the almost 50-year-old KUSF when it comes to sponsoring shows and breaking new bands for the discriminating SF music fan? “People in the San Francisco music community who are in bands and are club owners know college radio is still a vital piece in promoting bands and clubs,” says Waits. “There are small shows that are only getting promotion over college radio.”

“It was a great year for San Francisco music, and we [KUSF] got to blast it the most,” Swirnoff continued. “It’s really sad that right now you can’t turn on terrestrial radio and hear Grass Widow, Sic Alps, or Thee Oh Sees, when it’s some of the best music being made in the city right now.”

 

PIRATE CAT-ASTROPHE — AND THE DRIVE TO KEEP RADIO ALIVE

Aside from KUSF, the only place where you could hear, for instance, minimal Scandinavian electronics and sweater funk regularly on the radio was Pirate Cat. The pirate station was the latest in a long, unruly queue, from Radio Libre to KPBJ, that — as rhapsodized about in Sue Carpenter’s 2004 memoir, 40 Watts From Nowhere: A Journey into Pirate Radio — have taken to the air with low-power FM transmitters.

After being shut down by the FCC and fined $10,000 in 2009, Pirate Cat is in limbo, further adrift thanks to a dispute about who owns the station. Daniel “Monkey” Roberts’ sale of Pirate Cat Café in the Mission left loyal volunteers wondering who should even receive their $30-a-month contributions. Roberts shut down the Pirate Cat site and stream on Feb. 20. Since then, some Pirate Cat volunteers have been attempting to launch their own online stream under the moniker PCR Collective Radio.

“We would definitely start our own station,” says Aaron Lazenby, Pirate Cat’s skweee DJ and a Radio Free Santa Cruz vet. “The question now is how to resolve the use of Pirate Cat so we don’t lose momentum and lose our community. We all love it too much to let it fizzle out like that.”

Some people are even willing to take the ride into DIY low-power terrestrial radio. I stumbled over the Bay Area’s latest on a wet, windy Oakland evening at Clarke Commons’ craftsman-y abode. The door was flung open and a colorful, quilt-covered fort/listening station greeted me in the living room. In the dining space, a “magical handcrafted closet studio station” provided ground zero for the micro-micro K-Okay Radio — essentially a computer sporting cute kitchen-style curtains and playing digitized sounds.

A brown, blue, and russet petal-shingled installation looked down on K-Okay’s guests as they took their turn at the mic. And if you were in a several-block radius of the neat-as-a-pin house-under-construction and tuned your boombox to 88.1 FM, you could have caught some indescribably strange sounds and yarns concerning home and migration. I drove away warmed by the friendly mumble of sound art.

Who would have imagined radio as an art installation? Yet it’s just another positive use for a medium that has functioned in myriad helpful ways, whether as a life link for Haitians after the 2010 earthquake or (as on a recent Radio Valencia show) a rock gossip line concerning the Bruise Cruise Fest. As Waits puts it, radio is “about allowing yourself to be taken on a musical journey rather than doing the driving yourself online.” Today it sounds like we need the drive to keep that spirit alive.

Mother courage

0

arts@sfbg.com

STAGE As outrage mounts at the vicious repression of civilians in Libya, Lynn Nottage’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined reminds us of the ongoing crimes against humanity — in particular the strategic use of sexual violence against women — carried out routinely for years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The devastating civil war that began there in 1998 continues today as one of the most destructive on the planet, having taken well more than 5 million lives.

Despite its title, Ruined is as much a tribute to the persistence of life amid the most unspeakable atrocities. The play gets a strong, well-acted Bay Area premiere in a coproduction between the Berkeley Rep, Huntington Theatre Company, and La Jolla Playhouse. Directed with sharp timing and a keen eye by Liesl Tommy, it uses a small circle of characters to draw attention to the horrendous ordeal, as well as the enduring fortitude and resilience, of hundreds of thousands of Congolese women whose bodies, as one character puts it, have been used as battlegrounds in a ruthless and terrifying conflict.

Mama Nadi (an expansive and canny Tonye Patano) runs a modest little bar and brothel in a mining town somewhere in the lush and lawless countryside of eastern Congo. Her clientele are exclusively men: a dangerous mixture of miners, soldiers, rebel militiamen, and shady merchants. Not unlike the title character in Brecht’s Mother Courage (which was indeed the inspiration for Nottage’s protagonist and a starting point for her play as a whole), Mama does her best to keep the conflict outside in the name of doing business, insisting that her customers unload their weapons before entering and smoothly managing any potential unrest with a swift flow of alcohol or some proffered female companionship.

But in truth, the best Mama can hope for is an uneasy negotiation with the usually heavily-intoxicated and power-drunk marauders who inevitably bring the evils of war with them as they come looking for respite. And Mama is not all business either. She’s reluctantly kind-hearted, a trait that creates (or recapitulates) conflict where she would prefer there was none.

Four years sober but soon pushed off the wagon, Mama’s friend Christian (a compelling Oberon K.A. Adjepong) brings over two young war refugees as new labor for her business. She finally accepts both, even though the shy, limping Sophie (a moving Carla Duren) is “ruined” by the sexual assaults she’s suffered, and thus of limited use to the proprietress. The other woman, Salima (Pascale Armand), is a former wife and mother cast off by her husband and community in the wake of her abduction and rape by a group of soldiers. (Her soldier husband, played by Wendell B. Franklin, eventually comes looking for her, having reconsidered, but he doesn’t realize she’s pregnant.)

The Brooklyn-born Nottage — whose earlier play Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine is also running in the Bay Area this month in a production by the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre — traveled to Africa to hear firsthand from Congolese women who had suffered the various forms of violence, exploitation, and exclusion depicted here. There is a strong sense of authenticity in the stories that Ruined elaborates, despite the conventions of the dramatic form she has chosen. It’s an emotive and sturdily constructed drama, if also a traditional and familiar-feeling one.

The tension arises less from the storyline — which is dispersed across several overlapping plot points — than the palpable threat of violence and fearful gloom permeating the stage, an open-air barroom enshrouded by vaunting jungle in scenic designer Clint Ramos’ impressive rendering.

It’s a venomous atmosphere dispelled strategically, here and there, in merciful moments of humor, tentative affection, and bursts of lovely, joyful song delivered by Sophie (backed by an understated but terrific pair of musicians acting as Mama’s house band: Adesoji Odukogbe and Alvin Terry). This dynamic — the contrast between the memory and promise of happiness contained in the music, and the toxic physical and mental forces bearing down on the characters — might be Ruined‘s most tangible illustration of the perversion of life by war. 

RUINED

Through April 10

Berkeley Rep, Roda Theatre

2025 Addison, Berk.

(510) 647-2949

www.berkeleyrep.org