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RUGGY’S YELP Lately the weather around San Francisco has been more akin to what you’d expect in a city like San Diego. Or San Antonio (remember Pewee, there’s no basement in the Alamo!). Or heck, even San Felipe, Mexico.
Feel free to insert your own tropical “San” destination as a point of comparison, but the fact remains: we’ve been as spoiled as a Kardashian sister in an NBA locker room over the last couple of weeks with this delicious abundance of California sunshine. When those warm days and nights take hold in our usually mild metropolis, the low hanging fruit for al fresco assimilation frequently ends up being Zeitgeist. But believe it or not, that’s not the only gunslinger in the Wild West of outdoor indulgence.
Looking to take a break from slugging bloody marys among a sea of tight-jeaned counter-culturalists? Check out a few of these lesser-known destinations for exoteric irrigation.
Taking up residency in an area of town better known for its seedy rathskellers and nondescript, shadowy tap rooms lies one of the most impressive open air asylums in town. With enough room to play a round of jai alai with every last member of the Polyphonic Spree, Jones is easily the most sprawling rooftop deck you’ll find anywhere in this seven-by-seven-mile playground. Featuring nibbles by Ola Fendert of Oola fame, the menu includes everything from fried chicken and waffles and Humboldt Fog pizza to lighter fare of seasonal soups, steamed mussels, and ambrosial salads, accompanied by an array of beer, wine, and specialty cocktail selections. Jones does channel a bit of the fist-pumping Ruby Skye scene at times, but don’t let a few spray-tanned fashionistas deter you from one of the best hangs under the stars for a balmy, cloudless night.
620 Jones, SF. (415) 496-6858, www.620-jones.com
This relative newcomer to the skids sits high above the curbs of the Sixth and Market interchange with a cozy garden setting ripe for an extended stopover any time of day. While pigeons fight over discarded bones from nearby Louisiana Fried Chicken and free-spirited drifters engage in heated debates with various inanimate objects, dive into a chilled glass of pinot grigio or a frothy pint of Lagunitas IPA (beer and wine only here) while devouring French-inspired treats like artisan fromage and meaty baguette sandwiches. While most menu selections don’t necessarily give Thomas Keller a run for his money, the croque monsieur is not to be missed if you know what’s good for ya.
28 Sixth St., SF. (415) 437-9730
In the space where the parking lot for the KFC that previously called this space home once stood is a finger-lickin’ good outdoor veranda, perfect for throwing back a few adult libations in the heart of the Mission. Few are aware of Spork’s hidden bucolic surroundings, so if it’s date night and you’re looking to impress your boo with an under-the-radar retreat, it will do the trick nicely.
And it ain’t no parking lot ambiance, either. The vintage record player that spits out tunes in the corner makes for a easefully hip aura perfect for tipping back a gaggle of hard-to-pronounce barley-malted bevies. In the event temperatures dip a little beyond your comfort level, the crew will gladly fire up the heatlamps to ensure that your goose bumps don’t get too out of hand. (Of course you could always take the opportunity to keep your dining companion warm with some old-fashioned 98 degree body heat, but we’ll leave that up to you, player.)
1058 Valencia, SF. (415) 643-5000, www.sporksf.com
The raffish Ruggy Joesten is senior community manager at Yelp.com.
CHEAP EATS The good news is that my asshole itself is just fine. It took me almost three days to convince the imbecilic network of Kaiser phone reps that no, it weren’t hemorrhoids, you’re going to have to actually fucking see me. Apparently my $350 a month isn’t enough to warrant them having a look at my ass once every six years. Let alone sticking a finger in it.
“Probably hemorrhoids,” they said. “Someone will call you.” Which they didn’t, so I called back, and back. Five, six times.
And they said hemorrhoids.
The fifth or sixth time they said hemorrhoids I said, “You don’t understand. I haven’t been constipated since the late 1970s. Constipated people call me from across the country. To chat! Just talking to me makes them have to use the bathroom. I’m serious, it’s what mothers love about me. I get all the poopy diapers, and they get a regular baby. One mother called me — you’re going to love this — I was on vacation, and her kid hadn’t pooped since I left. Could she please just put him on the phone with me, maybe the sound of my voice would loosen him up. Which it did. And now you’re trying to tell me I have a hemorrhoid? Do you know who you’re talking to? Trust me. I wish I were sexy, like everyone else in the world. But I’m not. I’m good for something else: eating with, and talking shit. And yes, the two go hand in hand. As it happens, you probably-entirely-blameless representative of a crock-of-shit company, even what little sexy I am is mostly my mouth and my asshole, so can we please get this taken care of please, because I don’t get a lot of love as it is, and my lover is visiting from New Orleans in a week. Plus I’m afraid to eat hot sauce, which is my muse and antidepressant. So …”
“I’ll have someone call you,” they said.
And, you know, eventually, someone did. My old Rohnert Park doc, who is a superhero, must have called San Francisco (after talking with me) and explained that the crazy lady they’d been ignoring, losing in the system, and silencing with red tape really was the world’s Most Regular Person — seen in a strictly gastroenterological light — and was more likely to be carrying the seed of an alien civilization in her asshole than a hemorrhoid.
I don’t know if those would have been her exact words. But finally, after being in pain for nearly 60 hours — sitting, standing, walking, lying down — and 24 hours after the onset of general achiness and chills (possible symptoms of systemic infection, by the way), I was able to make an appointment!
It took the doctor less than 30 seconds to determine what I’d been trying to tell them for two days. It wasn’t a hemorrhoid. It was an abscess or cyst or something, and it was infected. He put me on antibiotics and went to get someone to cut me.
And it was she, my cutter, who put her finger in and said that, yes, my ass was fine.
I’d been trying to tell people that for days, and in a larger sense, for years and years. “Thank you,” I said.
My whole right cheek was red and swollen and incredibly painful to the touch, but she decided not to cut me for two days. I’d have argued otherwise, but I was already an hour late for dinner.
Luckily it was with Mr. Wong, my patientest of friends.
Over Korean fried chicken (or KFC) at Red Wings, just a hop, waddle, and short 38 ride down Geary, I related my Bukowskiesque ordeal, complaining about Kaiser much as I have just done toward you.
Minus the chicken, which was pretty not-all-that-half-bad — at least the fried. Mr. Wong got his roasted, with garlic and herbs, and I tasted it: dry dry dry.
“Well, look at it this way,” Mr. Wong said, chomping chicken. “At least you have health insurance.”
True. And at the end of a week when two of my aunts died, I have my overall health, and life. But honestly, between an infected abscess and the health care provider I pay to take care of such — er — bumps in the road, I don’t know which is the bigger pain in the ass.
Daily: 5 p.m.–2 a.m.
3015 Geary, SF
Beer and wine
For some the ’60s and ’70s never stopped swinging — even (or especially) if they were barely out of womb when all that decadence crashed into the anti-counterculture, pro-coke Reagan era.
For many years, one of SF’s greatest connoisseurs of retro sexual revolution kitsch and coolness has been Scott Moffett. For all we know, even as you read this he’s reclining on a fun fur rug, drinking Martini & Rossi on the rocks, reeking of Hai Karate, sandwiched by Barbarella and Pussy Galore.
In 1994 he and Jacques Boyreau cofounded the Werepad, a waaaaaay-south o’ Market psychedelic lounge that hosted parties and screened rare, frequently scratchy 16mm prints of movies with titles like Maryjane (1968), Island of the Bloody Plantation (1983), and William Shatner’s Mysteries of the Gods (1977). He also created the Cosmic Hex Archive (whose website lets you can download everything from 1966’s Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs and 1976’s Shriek of the Mutilated to 1972’s Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny for a modest fee) to protect and show just such “forgotten works.” He’s collaborated on movies, books, and traveling exhibits, all reflecting the same groovy aesthetic.
The Werepad is now gone (as is Boyreau, to Portland, Ore.), but Moffett now runs its more compact successor not-so-far south of Market, the Vortex Room, and with Joe Niem programs its Thursday Film Cult nights.
The theme to the Vortex’s May schedule — sorry if you missed last week’s bill of Roger Corman’s 1959 beatnik parody Bucket of Blood and the astonishing 1969 Japanese portrait-of-a-crazed-artist erotic horror Blind Beast — is “Art, Obsession, and Film Cult.” The series unites a widely disparate slate dealing with art-making in one form or another, as inspired, manipulated, or rendered homicidal by sexuality and violence.
Thursday, May 12 there’s a double bill whose first half unusually (for the Vortex) reaches back to mainstream Hollywood’s “golden” era. German Expressionist master Fritz Lang (Metropolis, 1927; M., 1931), followed up 1944’s The Woman in the Window by regathering its stars on a new suspense melodrama: 1945’s Scarlet Street. The latter is crasser, pulpier, and driven by demure 1930s ingénue (and future Dark Shadows matron) Joan Bennett’s inspired vulgarity as Kitty “Lazy Legs” March, whose yea lazier boyfriend (Dan Duryea) proposes that she seduce an accountant and amateur painter (Edward G. Robinson) whom they both mistake for a wealthy artist. This lurid saga ends on an unusually bitter, ironic, haunted note for its time.
A greater discovery is Scarlet Street‘s Vortex cofeature. Scream Baby Scream (1969) is vintage psychedelic horror at its trippiest. This low-budget but pretty dang groovy artifact goes out of its way to be with-it: the cast wears ultra-mod fashions, the interiors are crammed with objets d’Op Art, the score is cool jazz-rock (dig those flute solos), and the dialogue is chock-full of Now Generation philosophizing (some rather grammatically-challenged, such as “I feel so strange — like a nightmare that I don’t want to think about”).
All of which doubles the fun in watching an otherwise (slightly better made) imitation of movies like Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1965 Color Me Blood Red. Written by future genre hero Larry Cohen, its young protagonists are four art-school students; hero Jason is practically cohabiting with girlfriend Janet, but she’s acting like maybe she Needs Some Space. (Of course, he’s also acting like a jealous jerk — it’s unclear whether the film is aware how clearly it reflects the none-too-feminist gender dynamics of mainstream hippiedom.)
Janet takes her art very seriously, attracting attention from a creepy established artist (Larry Swanson) famous for oil portraits of hideously distorted faces. Meanwhile, models, art students, and miscellaneous youth-on-the-beach keep “disappearing.”
You can guess what happens. But among Scream Baby Scream‘s many surprises are a long LSD trip sequence (protagonists go motorcycling on the highway! Feed baby elephants at the zoo! Imagine themselves as monkeys in a cage! Interpretive dance!), scenes at a psychedelic coffeehouse, a party setpiece with groovy band the Odyssey (plus go-go dancers and liquid light projections), and zombie ghouls on the loose.
There’s also nudity, pot smoking, and a lot of relationship arguments. The last half hour takes a weird left turn into Vincent Price terrain, complete with a gloomy old mansion, a mad-doctor flashback, and so forth. The movie was clearly intended for drive-ins at best, but it’s colorful, fast-paced, and ever so delightfully wrong. Directed by little remembered B-pic toiler Joseph Adler, it was an early big-screen writing credit for Cohen, showing signs of the perversity that would later result in 1973’s Black Caesar, 1974’s It’s Alive, 1976’s God Told Me To, and 1988’s Maniac Cop, to name a few.
Trash will spotlight the rest of the Vortex’s May schedule next week. A $5 donation gets you into these Thursday screenings. For that dough, you could buy half a ticket to Bridesmaids. Please don’t tell me that’s a tough decision. (Dennis Harvey)
ART, OBSESSION, AND FILM CULT
Scarlet Street, Thurs/12, 9 p.m.;
Scream Baby Scream, Thurs/12, 11 p.m., $5
1082 Howard, SF
Aaliyah has been an ephemeral touchstone for a number of different musical acts in recent years, with Gang Gang Dance citing her as an influence, James Blake sampling her voice, and The xx and Forest Swords covering “Hot Like Fire” and “If Your Girl Only Knew,” respectively, from her 1996 album One in a Million. In the last year, small fragments of her song “Rock the Boat” have also figured in albums by a pair of acts — Hype Williams and The Weeknd — that reshape elements of commercial R&B.
On “rescue dawn II (I am wiger toods),” from Find Out What Happens When People Stop Being Polite and Start Gettin Reel (De Stijl), the London-to-Berlin duo Hype Williams isolate the “Rock the Boat” line “Feel like I’m on dope,” slowing down Aaliyah’s voice in a manner similar to DJ Screw, and placing it next to off-key keyboards and video game sounds. The invocation of “Rock the Boat” in relation to Hype Williams’ name, which echoes that of the big-budget music video and movie director, creates or conjures subtext in a manner that’s both similar and markedly different from the inspirational way in which James Brown or Meters samples figured in early hip-hop.
Throughout Find Out What Happens, “Roy Blunt” and “Inga Copland” of Hype Williams borrow from disparate vocal elements, such as Pokémon rap and either a mutation or karaoke or obscure interpretation of Sade’s “The Sweetest Taboo.” While there’s a comedic quality to the album’s use of such sources, it mingles with a sense of time being altered. Whereas ’80s electronic musicians such as Harald Grasskopf or Scott Ryser of the Units have written about the difficulty of getting analog instruments such as Minimoogs to stay in sync while recording on tape, Hype Williams’ digital sound is riddled with moments in which melodies and rhythms deliberately fall out of step. Structurally, the duo’s new album One Nation (Hippos in Tanks) mingles randomness and more obviously constructed facets. Somber and meditative in comparison to the De Stijl collection, with free jazz atmospherics and beats to the fore, One Nation sometimes sounds like DJ Shadow, creating filigree at midnight in an imperfect world.
Bombast is not a part of Hype Williams’ sound, but it is present in The Weeknd’s self-released House of Balloons, a comparatively more polished recording that’s garnering roughly ten times the amount of attention on YouTube, a number that’s likely to increase. The Aaliyah loop on House of Balloons occurs seconds into the album’s second song, as a “hold you close” and a few other blurred words from “Rock the Boat” lead into a yearning dubstep-influenced ballad that works to differentiate between wants and needs, using echo effects to emphasize one while repeating the other like a mantra.
While Hype Williams generally sounds blunted or sleepy from syrup, speedier drug elements are laced throughout The Weeknd’s sound and the lyrics of House of Balloons. “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls” begins with vocal and instrumental elements and a hook interpolated from Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Happy House” before changing scenes halfway through, abandoning melodic, romantic, dramatic singing for a rap track set at an after-hours party gone awry. The next track, “The Morning,” begins with a blues lick and brings a sense of underlying anguish what is at least partly an account of a stripper’s jet-set lifestyle. “The Party & The After Party” is a seductive slow jam that uses Beach House’s “Master of None” (also present in Miranda July’s new movie The Future) as its musical bed.
As with the likely duo known as Hype Williams, the identity of the Weeknd, whether defined as Canadian singer-songwriter named Abel Tesfaye or a group of artists, has also been a matter of speculation. On blogs, websites, and in some publications, House of Balloons‘ comparative merit or weakness in relation to The-Dream, Drake, and other R&B contemporaries is a source of current debate. To dismiss any one of them outright in relation to the other is a simplistic response. In fact, R. Kelly is just as viable a comparison, and another way of returning to Aaliyah’s presence and the ways it can signify or suggest absence.
Compilations often serve two purposes, sometimes at the same time: they can be brief introductions or exhaustive overviews. The San Francisco label Dark Entries just released BART: Bay Area Retrograde, a collection of local, underground music from the early ’80s, which feels like a bit of both. Representing local bands — from Danville to Palo Alto, Berkeley, and SF — that gravitated toward an alienated, synth-driven sound, it’s a meticulously curated snapshot that feels complete in itself, but is also a primer for the minimal synth revival. With many songs verging on 30 years old, label owner and DJ Josh Cheon and co-curator Phil Maier have compiled tracks that were un- or little- known in their own time but now sound very much of the moment.
There are many names for the variety of styles represented across BART‘s 11 songs — synthpop, post-punk, and cold, minimal, or new wave are only the most common. But nearly half of the songs are complete obscurities — four are previously unreleased and two appeared only in small, self-released editions — and the compilation as a whole is difficult to pin down. These are artifacts from a lost era, our local contribution to an international group of artists who created music that was bound to be marginal, faced with intense rock chauvinism and Reagan-era optimism.
BART kicks off with three songs (Nominal State’s “Middle Class,” Batang Frisco’s “Power,” and Necropolis of Love’s “Talk”) that sound like a blueprint for the current renaissance of icy analog futurism by groups like Xeno and Oaklander, Staccato du Mal, and The Soft Moon. But curveballs like Wasp Women’s No-Wave-y “Kill Me” and The Units’ peppy ode “Mission” alleviate the future-shock claustrophobia and put the compilation in a category of its own — it’s as much a love letter to the Bay Area’s taste for the goofy and willfully weird as an archival release.
There’s a sense of playfulness that’s immediately apparent in the presentation. Eloise Leigh’s eye-popping jacket design is satisfyingly heavy on pink, blue, and yellow, and comes as a six-panel fold-out poster rather than a standard cardboard pocket, suggesting it would prefer wall space rather than a slot on the shelf. Comprising liner notes from the Guardian’s Johnny Ray Huston and band data on one side and Dr. Art Nuko’s painting Getting Bombed in San Francisco on the other, BART the consumer object feels like something that belongs nowhere so much as Valencia Street’s overflowing vintage zine store, Goteblüd. And while the music contained on the vinyl within can be dark and brooding like “Talk,” or abrasive and fractured like Standard of Living’s “N.F.A.,” the most memorable songs, to me, are the frothy ones: Danny Boy and the Serious Party Gods’ parody-of-a-parody “Castro Boy,” and the above-mentioned “Mission.” The former riffs on Zappa’s “Valley Girl,” but ups the raunch with ad-libs about fisting, while “Mission” builds up to its irrepressible chorus with verses celebrating the unassailable pleasures of being high and eating burritos. Even if you aren’t already a minimal synth nerd, BART is a fun album.
With its variety of styles and lyrical themes, BART holds together not only because there’s a high baseline of quality, but also because of the built-in context. In addition to the design, a lot of work clearly went into finding and collaborating with these long-defunct bands, from securing unheard demos to listing the synth models used for each track. It’s a meticulously assembled record, a guided experience that points out what is so unsatisfying about downloading some lost classic from a sharity blog and deleting it, unlistened to, months later. Its local focus also sets it apart from the compilations that helped define minimal wave, although it contributes to that canon as well.
As the underbelly of an underground dominated in the retelling by figures like Chrome, Flipper, and The Residents, BART‘s new audience lives in a skewed world, where technology provides us with nearly endless opportunities to connect, where analog synths are revered for their warmth and character, and where the Mission is gentrified. Yet faced with an excess of information every time we make a decision, the rough edges of this serious, cynical music offer opportunities to disconnect from the endless demands of the present. The past will always have the advantage of seeming coherent, but BART‘s biggest success is in the way it captures the innovative, corrosive energy of its time. * *
Sometimes it takes leaving a place to appreciate it. This past weekend, I went to Los Angeles. Once back in San Francisco, I walked from my apartment in SoMa by the freeway to my afternoon job at an elementary school in the Mission. I put on my headphones, pressed play, and the high-pitched wail that opens the Sandwitches’ recent release Mrs. Jones’ Cookies (Empty Cellar Records) woke me up.
The sky was endlessly azure. The sun was hitting my back as the cool breeze rushed at me, creating temperate perfection. It would be an understatement to say that the Sandwitches complemented this moment, because the music indeed heightened it. What was a routine walk felt new.
With doo-wop and old country influences, the band’s first full-length release, 2009’s How to Make Ambient Sadcake (Turn Up Records), seems to emerge from the 1950s. On Mrs. Jones’ Cookies, there are moments that sound even older, such as “Miracle Me” with its folk vibrato and flute solo, suggestive of a song for Gold Rush pioneers. then there are songs, like the slow-brewing “Black Rider,” that place the Sandwitches within the SF rock movement happening now. (The group’s Grace Cooper and Heidi Alexander were also former back-up singers for the Fresh & Onlys, which is where the pair originally met, and have released songs with Sonny Smith for his 100 Records project.) I feel that the Sandwitches’ music is from my era, but that the members have lived rich past lives. In this sense, their music is timeless.
Mrs. Jones’ Cookies‘ opening track “In The Garden” sings of forever love, narrating a tale of devotion, with images of diamonds and a locket held to the chest. “Heidi [Alexander], Roxanne [Brodeuer, the group’s drummer], and I can probably all agree that most of our song lyrics come from personal experiences,” explains vocalist-guitarist Grace Cooper, “most always experiences with guys.” On the spirited “Summer of Love,” Cooper and Alexander harmonize a romance story steeped in heated weather metaphors. The song climaxes after the two-minute mark, when the ladies’ vocals peak.
Before I left for L.A., I went to the Eagle Tavern’s second-to-last rock show, where I was able to squeeze to the front for the band’s opening set. Even more than when they fill my San Francisco-world via earbuds, the Sandwitches spellbind live. Cooper and Alexander seem to swing their jaws back and forth to create the complicated harmonies, challenging ranges, and intricate interweaving of their voices that set them apart.
“I’ve always sung a lot, ever since I was a kid,” Alexander says when asked about the Sandwitches’ unique vocals. To fight away the fear of loneliness, she sang show tunes and Joni Mitchell “as loud as I could.” After the vocal climax on “Summer of Love,” the song’s rhythm changes, a compositional surprise that’s executed with grace.
“My Heart Does Swell” is a heartbroken tale of lost love — “I’ve been wasting all my time/ Banging my head against a decorated wall of blame” — with a toy piano solo. “I try my best not to be totally obvious when I’m writing about a relationship,” Cooper adds. “I try to use a lot of fancy imagery and analogies to confuse people.”
The arrestingly gorgeous “Joe Says” talks about a man who says “impossibly beautiful things” and is “in love with every ounce of me.” But there’s an aching ambiguity to the relationship because he also “is out there doing something” and “never did believe in magic.” The song’s last line is “Joe says he has every intention of coming back to me,” but the listener does not know how this story ends.
I live down the street from the Eagle Tavern, which is near where my walk began. While I was away in L.A., the Eagle shut its doors. Most movements or institutions have limited life spans. The Eagle may return as it was, or become something new. “We all love the Eagle and are very sad to see it go,” Alexander says. “It felt good [to play there one last time] even though [the closure is] such a shitty thing. It is the end of a really good era.”
Paul Freedman, a.k.a. the Fossil Fool, is a singer-songwriter and builder of elaborate art bikes who lives in San Francisco’s Mission District. Since 2001, when he decided to apply his Harvard University education to building custom bikes, accessories, pedal-powered products, and mobile sound systems, Freedman created Fossil Fool and Rock the Bike to sell his creations and provide a platform for his performances and alternative transportation advocacy work.
But anyone who’s watched Freedman build and ride his creations — such as his latest, El Arbol, a 14-foot fiberglass tree built around a double-decker tall bike with elaborate generator, sound, and lighting systems and innovative landing gears — knows this is a serious labor of love by an individual at the forefront of Bay Area bike culture. We caught up with him recently to discuss his work and vision.
SFBG How did Rock the Bike start?
FOSSIL FUEL I was working at a shop in Berkeley and I decided to make my first bike music system, which I called Soul Cycles. So I had that other job at a bicycle nonprofit, which is cool, and that was the first impetus. I did two innovative things with my first bike music system: I put the controls on the handlebars, which I’d never seen anyone do, and I put speaker back-lighting to make the speakers look nice at night. I used a really nice CFL fluorescent lamp, and I started playing around with those and it looked great, so that was our first product for those first three or four years.
SFBG What was going on in the larger culture at the time that led you to believe your interest in bikes and technology was going to be fruitful or make an interesting statement?
FF I care deeply about biking and a lot of the people I was with did too, but I felt like the bicycle advocacy scene was not very effective when it came to actual outreach. I felt like the thing that had been really formative for me was this person-to-person interaction, in my case by hanging out with the guys who started Xtracycle, and going on quests to get ingredients for dinner and riding late at night with the music systems on the tour. I felt like those experiences were what made bicycling appealing, but the bike advocacy scene was using guilt trips and telling people you should ride a bike because you’re too fat and you should ride a bike because there’s too much traffic. And I felt like we needed to shift that mindset and really start focusing on the fun aspects of biking and the social aspects to grow the scene.
SFBG Do you feel like it has, and what effect do you think it had on those who weren’t already riding bikes?
FF I think it’s moving that direction. Even within traditional bike advocacy groups, those people are starting to really focus on their events and creating community, in a good way, and challenging themselves with doing so. And I think that’s really positive.
SFBG Your timing also dovetailed with heightened green awareness — with a push for renewable energy, concerns over peak oil, and things like that.
FF Yeah, I feel that transportation choices are the main thing people need to examine about their lives with respect to their impact on global warming. And that’s not just a feeling, that’s the consensus of the Union of Concerned Scientists. They say that if you want to have an impact on the planet, positive or negative, the first thing you should consider is your transportation habits. So that means flying, it means driving, and everything else. I don’t think it’s really beneficial to focus on what people need to do with a car, like they need to drop their kids off. It’s more important how people do the optional things with cars like the trips to Tahoe, and the flights to Mexico. It’s those optional things I want to focus on, which is why I’m so interested in Sunday Streets, which is like the antidote. It’s this thing you can do here, that you can walk and bike to, that’s as fun as driving to Tahoe.
SFBG Through your technology and design work, it also seems like you’re showing a broad range of what people can do on a bike, with lots of cargo or a whole performance stage setup. Do you think design is convincing people that bikes are more versatile that they thought they were?
FF Oh yeah, I think that would be a really beneficial outcome of this work. By riding through town with our music gear, of course people are going to look at that and think, oh yeah, I could probably go to Rainbow Grocery and buy a bunch of food for my household on a bike. So it would be a great outcome if people would make that connection.
SFBG Is there anything about San Francisco that makes people here more receptive to your message?
FF San Francisco is a very tight city geographically. It’s not like Phoenix. The blocks are pretty short here and the distances are pretty short here, and you can ride year-round here, which is not true in Boston where I grew up.
SFBG The focus on technology and design here also probably helps, right?
FF Oh, for sure. This is an awesome place to be prototyping and doing funky mechanical, electrical art. There’s a lot of support for it. There are places like Tap Plastics for learning about fiberglass. There are lots of electronics stores that serve the Silicon Valley tech developer communities. You can buy stuff there that’s helpful. You can learn about Arduino [an open source microprocessor] at Noisebridge. There are a lot of resources for doing interactive art here or for doing bicycle-related projects. There are a lot of welders here.
SFBG Where do you think we are on the arch with this stuff — the beginning, the middle? — in terms of gaining wider acceptance of biking as an imperative and an option for anyone?
FF I think there’s an important generational shift underway, and I don’t know whether it’s my focus on bikes that leads me to meet all these kinds of people, but it feels like I’m meeting more people these days that are going to pick their next city or their next neighborhood based on how it is to bike there. They’re bringing it up in conversation, it’s not me. So it seems like people are really considering what their daily life is going to be like and how the community feels, and biking is one of the symbols of a whole swath of other beneficial things. They know that if they see a bunch of bikes when they visit a place, then there’s probably a lot of other cool stuff like music, arts, farmers markets. Those kinds of things are sort of linked together, and the bike is the key indicator. So there’s been this generational change of thought. The idea that having a bigger, faster car is better, I just don’t think that’s popular with these people. They no longer believe it.
SFBG It’s having cooler bike.
FF It’s having cooler bike and being able to use it and not have to step into the stress of car culture if you can avoid it.
SFBG What’s your next step?
FF One of the really positive things for me has been the Rock the Bike community, with its roadies, performers, musicians — all types of people who are on our e-mail list. So I can just say, I need three roadies for a three-hour performance slot and there’s going to be a jam at the end, so bring your instruments. That’s an awesome thing and it’s just going to improve, so I think the community will grow as we continue do gigs where we have fun and the people have fun.
In terms of my own art, this tree [gesturing to his El Arbol bike] has been my focus for the last year or two, and it’s not done yet. It has to look undeniably like a tree. It looks like a tree, but with a light green bark that you really don’t see in nature, so that has to change. I want it to have brown bark, but I still want it to do beautiful things at night with translucency. And I want it to have a true canopy of leaves, so that when you’re far away from it at Sunday Streets and you’re wondering whether to go over there, you’ll see a tree. Not just a representation of a tree, but I want them to be like, how the hell did he ride a tree over here?
SFBG Why a tree?
FF I don’t know. You get these ideas, and you start drawing them and can’t shake them. There are all sorts of reasons why trees are interesting. They are gathering points.
SFBG And you’re doing some very innovative design work on this bike, such as the landing gear.
FF The roots. Yeah, that’s never been done before. Through the course of doing the project, people would send me tips and interesting things, and one guy sent me a link to a photo of tall bikes being used in Chicago in the early 1900s as gas lamp lighting tools, and they were very tall. I’d say 10 to 12 feet tall, and they were tandems, so there was a guy on top and a stoker on the bottom providing extra power, and they didn’t have landing gears. So they would ride from one lamp to another and hold the lamp as they refilled it. And I just love that story because if you were growing up in Chicago, and you saw these gas lamp people coming by in the early evening to turn the lights on, and if you were a little kid trying to fall asleep or whatever, that would have an indelible mark on your childhood, and that whimsical quality is what I’m going for. That should be part of what it’s like to grow up in the Mission District in 2011.
SFBG How does that fit into the other cultural stuff that you’re also bringing to the bike movement, the music you’re writing, design work, the style, and the events that you’re creating?
FF Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so multipronged. I would clearly be a better performer and musician if it was the only thing I did, so I apologize to all my fans for not putting 100 percent into the music. But I put 100 percent into the whole thing, including creating bikes and running Rock the Bike, which is a business.
SFBG But are you doing all these things because you find a synergy among them?
FF It’s the fullest expression of who I am.
SFBG Where do you see this headed? What will Rock the Bike be like five years from now?
FF I would like to see the quality of our entertainment offerings steadily improve to the point where people genuinely look forward to it, and not just to the gee-whiz aspect of look what they’re doing, but just for the feeling of being there. So I’d like to challenge ourselves with the quality of the music, how it is to be engaged in the setup process — because I think the setup is cool, with biking to the event and engaging in the transition to a spectacle, where every step along the way is part of the show. I like that idea. I’d like to challenge ourselves to be a carbon-free Cirque du Soleil, a show that is slamming entertainment and they bike there and pedal-power everything: the lighting, the sound, the transportation. And I want the performers to be just as good.
SFBG Are there people in other cities doing similar things?
FF The Bicycle Music Festival is spreading to other cities, which is cool. I think there are going to be over a dozen bicycle music festivals this summer. In terms of people doing really inspiring work with bike culture or this kind of mobile art, you definitely see some amazing things at Burning Man. That’s probably one of the best venues for this type of art. But I can’t think of another city where people are doing all of this. I’m part of a group on Flickr called Bicycle and Skater Sound Systems, and there’s nothing on that whole group that I see as being on this level. I don’t know why.
SFBG When you ride a cool custom bike down the street, the reactions it elicits from passersby is just so strong and happy. What is that about?
FF It’s a reaction to an expression of personal freedom. People light up when they see you expressing yourself, and a part of them thinks, oh yeah, that would be fun, I’d like to express myself. And there are just so many ways to express yourself and be human — and that’s something that we need to remind ourselves because, in many ways, our personal freedoms are declining and there’s more surveillance.
SFBG And people might take that spark and do any number of things with it.
FF One of the very cool things about bicycle art is that it’s mobile. So you ride your bike and you might turn heads a couple dozen times a day. I ride this tree, and if it’s in the full mode where it’s 14-feet tall and there’s music on, and I’m going from here to Golden Gate Park, I’d estimate that 500 people see it. There’s probably no other art form you can do that with. I can’t think of any other that’s like that. So it’s a really cool art form. Those people aren’t paying you, but you shared art with them, and it’s a good way to get exposure. It’s a great way for a lot of people to see your art.
SFBG With your mobile, pedal-powered stages, you’re also demonstrating green ways of powering even stationary art.
FF It is an interesting time for pedal power. I feel like there’s a turning point that’s maybe beginning in the field of events with how they’re powered. I think there are going to be a lot more people who are going to festivals in the coming years who are looking at the diesel generators and saying, ‘My summertime festival experience is being powered by diesel.’ And I think there are going to be a lot of people seeing that and wanting to do something else.
SFBG Have the technologies for how much juice you’re able to get out of pedal power been advancing since you’ve been working on it?
FF Yes, it’s truly impressive right now, particularly if you’re putting that juice into music because we have very efficient generators where there’s no friction interface anymore, nothing rolling on the tire, it’s all just ball bearings rolling on the hub. Then we put that power into these new modified amps, and they have a DC power supply now, as opposed to an AC power supply, so we don’t have to put the power into an inverter. So the net sum of that is one person can pedal-power dance music for 200 people, which is pretty amazing and inspiring.
SFBG And the battery technology is also improving, right?
FF Yeah, the batteries are what you use for the mobile rides, and that’s getting better. If you’ve been to a bike party, it’s just incredible how many good, loud sound systems there are right now. It’s a very kinetic art form, although I wish people would focus more on the visual aspects of their system, because I feel like there’s a trend to get big and loud fast. But I wish there were more people doing the work that Jay Brummel is doing, where he doesn’t just want to ride on a bicycle, so he turned his bike into a deer and he steers by holding the antlers.
SFBG But there has been some push-back from the police. Have you gotten many tickets?
FF Well, I got tickets for riding up high on this quadracycle. There is a law against riding tall bikes in California. It says you shouldn’t ride a bicycle in such as manner as to not be able to stop safely and put your foot down. Obviously you can’t put your foot down on a tall bike.
SFBG The fact that you have landing gears on your bike didn’t make a difference?
FF Well the officer didn’t take it seriously, but the court sided in my favor. The judge was flipping through photos of the landing gear the entire trial — he couldn’t stop flipping through them. And he asked, ‘How do you get on? Where do you step?’ So I was like, ‘Well, you step here, you step there, and you swing.’ It was pretty fun.
BICYCLE MUSIC FESTIVAL
Saturday, June 18
11 a.m.–10 p.m., free
Various locations, SF
Cheap genre films targeted for the drive-in or grindhouse aside, very few truly independent features were made in the U.S. before the 1960s, and those that were made seldom found an audience. As a result, most were soon forgotten — in rare instances rediscovered decades later, like the recently restored docudramas On the Bowery (1957) and The Exiles (1961), about Skid Row denizens in New York City and Los Angeles. Foreign films had a tiny theatrical circuit (albeit usually playing in cut and dubbed form), experimental ones none at all.
It was predictable, then, that a movie straddling pretty much all the above categories should have found no welcoming niche in the complacent 1950s. Elliot Lavine’s latest retrospective of noir and noir-ish oldies at the Roxie Theater, “I Wake Up Dreaming 2011,” is subtitled “The Legendary and the Lost,” terms that both apply to the film that kicks off the two-week series.
To paraphrase recent San Francisco International Film Festival guest Christine Vachon, behind every independent feature there’s a war story. Dementia (1955) is a good example of one little film that fought and lost — on every front save artistically, and perhaps in posterity.
Even by today’s standards, with our greater tolerance for “dark” and arty material, it’s an unclassifiable, commercially doomed proposition: an hour-long B&W nightmare in which an unstable young woman wanders empty urban streets, bounces from pimp to john to jazz club, commits acts of violence (or maybe just hallucinates them), and at the end simply disappears into the cosmos. (The opening and closing shots actually are of starry infinite space.)
Oh, and there is no dialogue, just a score by noted American composer George Antheil that uses wordless vocals by Marni Nixon (who later secretly provided the vocals for the famous leading ladies of 1956’s The King and I, 1961’s West Side Story, and 1964’s My Fair Lady) as a sort of human theremin. This very curious amalgam of noir, avant-garde, lurid potboiler and silent expressionism at various times brings to mind everyone from Roger Corman to Roman Polanski and Maya Deren. It was the first and last film for John Parker, about whom very little is known — save that he must have been gravely disappointed by the long road Dementia took to nowhere. (He would have been even more disappointed had he known years later his associate producer and cast member Bruno VeSota claimed Parker didn’t know what he was doing, and that he himself did most of the writing and half the directing.)
Shot in 1953 Los Angeles, Dementia was asking for it on many levels, with content not only bizarre and uncommercial but often downright offensive by the standards of the era. Its paranoid, unpredictably mood-swinging heroine (Adrienne Barrett, billed only as “The Gamine” — not exactly the ideal description for this character) wanders alone through the city’s squalid underbelly. A flashback to her childhood — staged in a cemetery, with living-room furniture amid gravestones — reveals mom was a sluttish harpy killed by a boozed and abusive dad, who was then stabbed by guess who.
Handed over to a fat “Rich Man” (VeSota) by a slick sleazeball (Richard Barron as “The Evil One”) who picks her up on the street, she stabs him too, pushes him out a penthouse window, and saws off his hand when it won’t let go of a telltale necklace. Pursued by cops, she ducks into a club where the jivey sounds of Shorty Rogers and His Giants suddenly turn her into a sleek chanteuse (albeit one we don’t hear) alongside bongos and hopheads. All this is shot with considerable noirish panache by William C. Thompson, who as Ed Wood’s regular cinematographer made some completely ridiculous films (notably 1959’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, with its own atmospheric cemetery scenes) look much better than warranted.
Barely releasable at 61 minutes, the completed film then found that threadbare length was the least of its problems. Shown to a succession of censorial boards, it was repeatedly deemed too unhealthy for public viewing, prompting critiques like “indecent, inhuman, lacking in moral and spiritual values, could incite to crime” and “grist for the Communist mill.”
Finally after over two years and 11 screenings of different edits for New York State’s board, it was cleared with an “adults only” stamp. Double-billed with a documentary about Picasso in A Unique Program of Psychology and Art, advertised as “the first American Freudian film,” it opened on one 1955 Manhattan screen to little notice. (However Parker’s friend, the great, soon-to-be late director Preston Sturges did call it “a work of art,” strangely noting “it stirred my blood, purged my libido.”)
Two years later Parker’s producer sold the movie — now cut to 56 minutes, with pasted-on purple narration spoken in spookhouse tones by then-unknown Ed McMahon — for rerelease as Daughter of Horror. Again it flopped, although in 1958 it would gain pop culture footnote status when a clip was used as what the onscreen audience is watching when they’re attacked by amorphous sci-fi monster The Blob.
It was as Daughter that the movie started gaining a little admiration in recent years, getting a boost from Re/Search’s first Incredibly Strange Films volume and finally a DVD release (with both versions) from Kino. Taken as good, bad, or just daft, it remains unique.
Other highlights in the Roxie’s “Dreaming” program include Dementia‘s co-feature, Robert Siodmak’s terrific 1944 noir mystery Phantom Lady; actor director Robert Montgomery’s 1947 Mexican anti-holiday Ride the Pink Horse, a sort of hard-boiled cinematic Under the Volcano; and a number of exceedingly rare lesser-known titles. Certainly the campiest of them are contained on May 23’s bill: 1956’s The Violent Years, a girl-gang movie featuring the inimitable dialogue stylings of the aforementioned Mssr. Ed D. Wood, and Dance Hall Racket, an unbelievably amateurish 1953 cheapie whose stars are none other than pre-fame Lenny Bruce and his stripper wife Honey. Inspirational line: “Big deal! I kill a guy and that makes me a criminal?!”
I WAKE UP DREAMING 2011: THE LEGENDARY AND THE LOST!
3117 16th St., SF
Since grunge broke, who hasn’t been fascinated by those unwashed, straggly-haired, flannel-clad legions who somehow were recast as Kurt Cobain’s minions? In reality they lurked on the sidelines of school functions and adolescent gatherings long before Nevermind, butt hanging from lips, back set to slouch, and coolly assessing everything against some maddeningly precise internal bullshit meter. If you thought all the entertainment was up onstage, you’ve got another thing comin’.
But whatever you called them — skids, stoners, dirtbags, headbangers, or heshers, according to the Urban Dictionary definition (“Reebok-wearing, mulleted person in acid-washed jeans and a Judas Priest T-shirt who, at the age of 28, still lives in his/her parents’ basement”) — these figures always seemed like the stuff of grimy, suburban legend because, unlike everyone at a certain tender age, they didn’t give a rat’s ass about what anyone thought of them.
That’s why Hesher director and cowriter Spencer Susser loosely modeled his title character after late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton. “He was someone who didn’t worry about what people thought of him,” says Susser by phone recently. “He wore bell-bottoms in the early ’80s, way after they were considered cool, and he got a lot of grief about it, but he was like, ‘Screw you.’ I think [the character of] Hesher is very much like that. [Burton] was never interested in being a rock star. He just wanted to make music — he was very pure in a way.”
Susser and cowriter David Michod (2010’s Animal Kingdom) have a feel for that independent-minded spirit — probably one reason Metallica allowed more than one of its songs to be used in Susser’s first feature film. Hesher itself also likely had something to do with it — if the intrigue with heavy-metal-parking-lot culture doesn’t do donuts in your cul-de-sac, then the sobering story, seen through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy, might.
TJ (Devin Brochu) has lost his mom, and her shockingly sudden, traumatic passing has sent his entire family into a tailspin: his father (Rainn Wilson) can barely rouse himself from his heavily medicated stupor to attend their family grief counseling meetings, while his lonely grandmother (Piper Laurie) is left to care for the wrecked menfolk as best she can. All TJ can do is try to desperately hang onto the smashed car that has been sold to the used car salesman and then the junkyard, even if it means riding his bike into traffic and incurring the wrath of a neighborhood kid (Brendan Hill) who gets between him and the crushed metal.
So it almost seems like a dream when he stumbles on and catches the attention of an aloof, threatening metalhead named Hesher (a typecast-squashing, perfectly on-point Joseph Gordon-Levitt), squatting in an empty suburban model home. Hesher threatens to kill him, then gets TJ into trouble with his pint-sized archenemy, and finally moves in, becoming his so-called “friend” and brand-new, unwanted shadow.
What’s a grieving family lost in its own tragic inertia supposed to do with a home invasion staged by an angry, dangerous malevolent spirit — one giant raised middle finger etched into his back and a stick figure shooting itself in the head on his chest? The man is a walking fail tattoo — with a supernatural talent for arson, an appetite for grandma’s home cooking and down-home nurturing, and an attraction to TJ’s awkward friend Nicole (Natalie Portman, who also produced the film).
Coming to terms with Hesher’s presence becomes a lot like going through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief: there’s the denial that he’s taken over the living-room TV and rejiggered the cable to get a free porn channel; the anger that he’s set fire to your enemy’s hot rod and left you at the scene of the crime; and finally the acceptance that there’s no good, right, or unmessy way to say goodbye — even if farewell means a beer-soaked, profanity-laced eulogy and walking the coffin past the strip mall.
HESHER opens Fri/13 in Bay Area theaters.
There is such a thing as festival fatigue, but you’d do well to forget it with the ambitious programs ruling the 16th Street corridor this weekend. The Roxie launches Elliot Lavine’s latest dive into film noir’s deep end, while down at the Victoria San Francisco Cinematheque caps its spring season with the second annual Crossroads festival, a veritable bonanza of experimental cinema. I haven’t seen many of the 50-odd works being shown, but the quality of the ones I have makes me think that I wouldn’t trade Crossroads for Cannes.
The fest opens Thursday, May 12 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art with the culminating presentation of “Radical Light,” the epic panorama of local alternative cinemas that has lined Cinematheque and the Pacific Film Archive calendars since September 2010. This evening showcases rarely screened works by “Radical Light” mainstays (the Bruces Baillie and Conner, Gunvor Nelson, Scott Stark) as well as the premiere of a new film by Will Hindle, whose topsy-turvy Chinese Firedrill (1968) was one of the gems of a recent program at the museum.
Opening night includes at least one city symphony (Timoleon Wilkins’ Chinatown Sketch), a form expanded upon in several subsequent Crossroads shows. Jeanne Liotta’s aptly titled Crosswalk transcribes an Easter street processional in Loisaida, a Latino enclave of New York City. Liotta, an ambitious filmmaker who ranges over the history of science and the nature of belief, will be at the Victoria Friday, May 13 for the film’s West Coast premiere. Also showing is her beautiful condensation of stargazing, Observando el Cielo (2007).
The scientific method also informs closing night feature, The Observers, a recording of the recorders who gauge the famously extreme weather atop Mount Washington, as well as Saturday, May 14’s “Observers Observed” program. The latter spotlights Get Out of the Car, Thom Andersen’s termite tour of multilingual Los Angeles. In only 33 minutes, Andersen gives us a resonant culture container, looking back at what’s been lost and imagining how it might yet change form.
When Andersen holds out a photograph of what was in front of the landscape that is, he seems to refer to the nested frames of Gary Beydler’s elegant time lapse film, Hand Held Day (1975). You can judge for yourself as that earlier film is included on the same program. Other highlights across the weekend include an evening dedicated to Bay Area maverick Robert Nelson, Ben Russell’s latest consciousness-raising Trypp, a hand-cranked projection performance by Alex MacKenzie, and short films by master collagist Lewis Klahr and some guy named Apichatpong Weerasethakul. I could go on, but you should get going.
Thurs/12–Sun/15, $10 (festival pass, $50)
SFMOMA, 151 Third St., SF
Victoria Theater, 2961 16th St., SF
Grant Street is so strongly associated with Chinatown that it’s easy to forget there’s a segment of it north of Columbus. There, running along the west shoulder of Telegraph Hill, it becomes a part of — and maybe the heart of — Little Italy. In its narrowness and festive congestion, the street does come to seem Roman, and, as in Rome, it has better restaurants than the bigger, gaudier boulevard nearby. American tourists in Rome, it is said, will not leave the well-lighted thoroughfares to investigate dimmer side streets, so those thoroughfares are where you’re most likely to find rip-off joints with “turistica” menus in English.
Our own Columbus Avenue, while splendid in its way, is a kind of Fisherman’s Wharf of Italian cooking, so it’s no surprise that a restaurant like Ideale would situate itself on nearby Grant, out of sight of the hoi polloi, who are attracted to neon and other manifestations of brightness the way moths are to porch lamps. Ideale, which opened in late in the 1990s, is the kind of place you would seek out if you were in Rome; it draws the locals, and it is a curious fact of even the most touristy neighborhoods that they’re filled with locals. Locals are the fourth dimension in such one-dimensional universes.
The restaurant is bigger than it appears, because its second dining room, in the adjoining storefront, is fully separated from the main one and the entryway. And (huzzah!) its walls are hung with splendid paintings, which we supposed to be oil on stretched canvas, with impasto visible even from distant tables, like the little nubs you see in linen. There are few spectacles more discouraging to me than bare restaurant walls. The sweeps of emptiness make me think of prison, or foreclosure.
Chef Maurizio Bruschi is said to have learned to cook from his grandmother, and his style accordingly emphasizes the Italian classics, at least as those are understood in this country. Your first clue about the cooking can be found in the house-baked bread, which in true Italian fashion we found to be adequately salted. Salt makes an enormous difference in most foods, but particularly in bread, which is almost impossible to season after the fact. And Italian chefs, in my experience, aren’t afraid to salt their food. We took Bruschi’s bread to be a good omen. (Is he any relation of Tedy Bruschi? Probably not.)
Good bread implies good pizza, and Ideale’s pies are intense. (Naples is said to be the birthplace of Italian pizza, but Roman pies are reliably sensational.) We were particularly smitten with the funghi e salsiccia version ($14), which combined a crispy thin crust, a judicious ladling of well-seasoned and garlicky tomato sauce, enough mozzarella to glue things together, and a tossing of mushroom slices and bits of sausage that didn’t taste overwhelmingly of fennel — a frequent fault of Italian-style sausage as made in this country, in my view.
We noticed several effusions of fresh arugula. One thatch appeared beside the eggplant parmigiana ($11), which was baked in a crock like a little lasagna — not remarkable, but any halfway decent handling of eggplant gets at least one gold star from me. More arugula turned up with the grilled local calamari ($12), mostly tubes, nicely charred but still tender and lemony.
Risotto alla pescatore has to be, at $17.75, one of the better buys on this or any comparable menu. For one thing, it was just choked with seafood, including black mussels, clams, calamari, and prawns. For another, the rice was cooked in flavorful liquid. The menu card mentioned pinot grigio and garlic, but I suspected the presence, too, of some kind of seafood stock, whether shrimp, clam, or fish. Makers of risotto tend to be obsessed with the complex mechanics, in particular the need to stir the rice constantly for 18 minutes, and to keep the stock at a simmer as you add it cupful by cupful, so you produce the characteristic creaminess. You can make perfectly creamy risotto with plain water, then tart it up Milanese-style with butter, pepper, and parmesan. But there is nothing like cooking rice, whether arborio or some other kind, in flavorful stock or broth, as here.
The flaps of veal in saltimbocca ($23) were generously overlaid with flaps of prosciutto,, whose saltiness helped balance the sauce, a frascati wine reduction infused with rosemary. Frascati is the wonderfully fruity white wine produced in Lazio, the region around Rome — highly drinkable, but if it isn’t on the wine list, having it as a sauce isn’t a bad fallback position. The plate was finished with coins of roasted potato and asparagus tips, the pinnacle of adequacy.
Dessert: how about profiteroles ($7)? With a twist: the pastry balls were filled with pastry cream, while the vanilla ice cream (as a scoop) had to wait outside. Lots of chocolate sauce. too, just the way Nonna used to do it.
Dinner: Mon.–Thurs., 5:30–10:30 p.m.;
Fri.–Sat., 5:30–11 p.m.; Sun., 5–10 p.m.
1315 Grant, SF
Beer and wine
The the sleek, the sublime, and the serendipitous hold each other aloft in Smuin Ballet’s spring concert, which runs at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through this coming weekend and then moves to Walnut Creek (May 20-21) and San Mateo (May 25-29). Artistic Director Celia Fushille’s job is to hang on to the Michael Smuin fans and bring in new audiences wanting to see other approaches to choreography. She’s on the right track. Overall, the program, with Cho-San Goh’s much praised, little seen Momentum, the premiere of Amy Seiwert’s Requiem, and Smuin’s bonbon To The Beatles, made for a well balanced, decently performed evening of contemporary ballet.
Seiwert faced what looked like an impossible task: choreographing one of Western music’s sublime choral works, Mozart’s unfinished Requiem. The piece is burdened with all kinds of rigmarole about authenticity, a mysterious visitor, and his connection to Mozart’s death. Additionally, this is a deeply religious, apocalyptic piece of music about the “days of wrath” and a “just and avenging God,” an alien language for many 21st century listeners.
Wisely, Seiwert stayed on the human level. Her stoic Requiem explores the inexorable journey toward death in a manner that is profoundly respectful of the music. She may, however, have restricted herself too much emotionally. creating a chasm between music and dance. Particularly toward the end, when she was trying to approximate a suggestion of transcendence, the choreography didn’t quite convince. Alexander V. Nichols’ design of columns of light and glimpses of an unseen space — and a body being grasped by unseen hands — seemed almost too overt.
Mozart’s Requiem is dramatic, even operatic; Seiwert’s is a quiet meditation on the process of dying — as influenced by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief, which the choreographer claims as an inspiration. In the end Seiwert returns her dancers to the beginning to start the process anew.
Despite what probably is a mismatch between music and dance, Seiwert’s accomplishment is considerable. Her Requiem is a quietly brave and thoughtful interpretation of a great piece of music. She expertly worked with a vocabulary that included a resonant use of the upper body and a gestural language for the arms that sometimes approximated hieroglyphs. Movement motives returned and metamorphosed into rich textures. A sense of loss and loving support pervaded the multiple drops, supports, and lifts. It all started with Erin Yarbrough-Stewart spreading her arms to raise the crumbled performers to begin the dance.
Goh was a Singapore-born choreographer who died of AIDS at 39, in 1987, in the middle of what had been a highly successful career. Some had great hopes for him as “the next Balanchine.” So it was good to see his Momentum, set to Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Flat — notable for its highly percussive piano writing — quite ignored by the choreography.
Set on two primary and three secondary couples, Momentum is striking for the way its liquid and spacious design suggests an ensemble much larger than the mere 10 dancers who keep leaping from the wings. The lead couples smoothly glide in and out of the ensemble, suggesting quasi-egalitarian rather than hierarchical relationships. The costumes — shiny white unitards with black sashes for everyone — enhanced Momentum‘s democratic aspirations. The nonstop work thrives in an attractive windblown environment in which a circle evaporates into duets and men and women confront each other across space only to hook up with each other again. Symmetry and mirror imaging — traditional structural procedures — abound, though Goh often tries to hide them. It’s all very attractive — very balletic, very contemporary — though not very exhilarating.
Yarbrough-Stewart and Jonathan Powell, a fine addition to the company this season, danced the allegro duet; newcomer Jane Rehm, a lovely refined dancer, paired with Travis Walker for the adagio. Momentum‘s choreography is highly exposed — all the time. It would benefit from a more refined performance.
Smuin’s take on the Beatles is slight. It shows the choreographer’s second love, show business, and was an opportunity for the dancers to shine in soft-shoe routines (Powell and Shannon Hurlbut), high kicks (Rehm), tap (Hurlbut), and acrobatics (Yarbrough-Stewart). Former San Francisco Ballet dancer Jonathan Mangosing, however, was a smash in his louche rendering of “Come Together.”
Wed/11–Fri/13, 8 p.m.; Sat./14, 2 and 8 p.m.;
Sun./15, 2 p.m.; $20–$62
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF
In contrast to the alley cat fixie fiends and placid Venice Beach cruisers, some of Los Angeles’ most ardent bicyclists were going unnoticed and underserved by bike advocacy groups. Working class Latinos are often the only ones on two wheels in several of the city’s most disadvantaged communities — but you weren’t going to catch them at Critical Mass or grabbing a seat at L.A. County Bike Coalition meetings.
The organizers of the community group Ciudad de Luces recognized that these riders, often stuck commuting on the L.A.’s most dangerous roads with substandard safety gear and rickety bikes, needed a voice in the development of the city’s biking infrastructure, and were being missed by the biking movement’s traditional outreach tactics.
The organization started distributing bike lights and Day-Glo visibility vests at day laborer centers; started a weekly bike repair workshop at one of the sites in response to popular demand from workers; and, in 2010, convinced the city to install 73 much-needed bike racks throughout the low income Pico-Union neighborhood. Ciudad de Luces coined a term to describe the community it works with: the invisible riders.
Biking is not a white middle class privilege, but many times the popular face of bike activism is perceived as such. In the case of Ciudad de Luce’s struggle for recognition, that meant the minority communities that do ride aren’t given necessary resources to keep them safe and secure. And according to Jenna Burton of the Oakland community bike group Red, Bike and Green, it also harms cycling’s popularity among some prospective riders.
“If you see something that is predominantly white, it’s automatically not going to be as appealing to the black community,” she said in a phone interview with the Guardian. Burton moved to the Bay Area from the East Coast, and was taken by the strong biking culture. Looking for community, she assumed there had to be some kind of African American bicycle meet-up. (“The Bay Area has everything, right?”) She was surprised to find that one didn’t exist.
Burton realized that blacks were underrepresented in the biking community. When she asked acquaintances about their reluctance to pedal through their daily lives, she found that many were intimidated by the ubiquity of bikes in the area. “It can be really intimidating to get out there for the first time. The culture is so strong here, it seems hardcore to people who are curious about biking.”
“There needed to be a targeted effort toward the black community.” Burton’s solution: create an organization that spoke directly to African Americans about why they should bike. She developed a Black Panthers-style three-point plan to break it down. Black people on average make less money and biking is cheap; black people are subject to chronic health problems and biking makes people stronger; black people are often the subjects of environmental racism and biking is a way to speak out against carcinogenic injustice. To spread the word, the group would hold social rides so riders could see that black bike riders really did exist.
Nick James didn’t own a bike, but when Burton told him about Red, Bike and Green, he was compelled to buy one. Already an activist for HIV/AIDS, education, youth, and health causes, James said in an e-mail interview with the Guardian that he believed Burton had hit upon a way to pull all those social issues together — through an experience that would not only be positive, but fun. Now he uses his bike to get to work and run everyday errands.
“Any space where African Americans can get out stress, laugh, communicate, or heal, I’m there,” he said. “Red, Bike and Green is a space where exercise, socializing, and activism flows seamlessly.”
Core volunteers publicized early rides through word of mouth, often handing out flyers to other black bicyclists that they passed in the streets. They found partners in the East Bay’s burgeoning minority biking advocacy network: Cycles of Change, an umbrella organization that includes the LGBT and minority-run Bikery and Changing Gears Bicycle Shop, and P.O.K.E.R. (People of Kolor Everyday Ridin’).
On Saturday, April 23, Red, Bike and Green held its first ride of 2011. Seventy people rode a route that took them through many of Oakland’s black residential neighborhoods — a tactic that organizers employ, as Burton puts it, to make other black people aware that they can rock some handlebars “to build community in our community.”
Since last year, the rides have attracted cyclists from age seven to 65, families, and strangers who can spend the ride connecting and networking. People have used the rides to announce impending garden harvest surpluses, Oscar Grant protests, and job openings.
As Bay Area bike lanes grow smarter and more numerous, and as gas prices soar and environmental issues become more troublesome, it’s pretty much a done deal that more people are going to be riding bikes. And yes, bike movement, that’s something to ring those bells over. But we have to turn the gears democratically: to really improve access to cycling, the needs of all communities have to be taken into account — and that means getting creative with outreach strategies.
Red, Bike and Green uses bikes to carve out a space for its riders — not only in the velo advocacy movement, but in the social fabric of the Bay Area. Burton is confident that the sight of so many black people rolling by will introduce a thought into the heads of spectators — a thought that really shouldn’t need to be introduced but does anyway: “This is our community, there needs to be space made for us too.”
OPINION It’s not often that the interests of seniors, cyclists, and small businesses intersect, but we all will be disadvantaged if Board of Supervisors President David Chui’s ordinance to stop Yellow Pages distribution in SF passes. Add gays and lesbians, non-English speakers, and low-income residents to the mix, and you have a large contingent of San Franciscans who, by necessity or choice, use a phone book rather than an smart phone to get information about their local community. And their use of the book may be far less of a drain on the environment than Chui’s misguided attempt to save paper.
It’s true that not everybody uses their copy of the Yellow Pages, and that not enough consumers know that they can opt out of receiving unwanted books online or with a simple phone call. But Chui’s ordinance goes beyond just addressing that problem — it cuts off a vital source of information for many local communities and vital advertising revenue for local businesses — which ultimately could send more San Francisco dollars out of town.
Chui’s ordinance doesn’t just mean no more of the big, fat, yellow books (which are already printed on recycled paper), it means no more of the specialized books as well: gay and lesbian, Hispanic and Chinese. These smaller books are key for consumers who want and need language-specific or specialized services as well as for specialized businesses to reach their audiences.
The Internet simply isn’t a substitute for everyone. While many San Franciscans are young, affluent, and take for granted phones that enable them to post their restaurant choices and arrivals on Facebook instantaneously, they are not our whole city.
According to a 2007 survey, low-income, elderly, and Latino residents, as well as those living in Bayview-Hunters Point, Crocker Amazon, Chinatown, Civic Center, and Visitacion Valley, have substantially lower levels of home computer and Internet usage than other San Franciscans.
Research by The Utility Reform Network (TURN) indicates the same, as does our experience with our own members, many of whom are seniors. Not only do they read our print newsletter, they often respond with comments, criticism, and questions via snail mail. Yes, they actually send us stamped, hand-written letters.
The supervisors have heard potent testimony from San Francisco’s small businesses begging not to be put at further disadvantage against large big-box stores and virtual retailers that can buy top billing on Google. Many small businesses owners told the board that the majority of their new customers come from Yellow Pages advertising, and that without this way of reaching those customers, they are likely to close.
Which is where the cyclists come in. I’m lucky enough to have a computer and decent Internet access at home, but I use the Yellow Pages to find local businesses that I can get to on my bike or on foot, preferably while en route to or from work.
So to me yellow is the new green. When I go online, Target, Walmart, and Zappos come up. With all of the push to buy local, why would we strangle local businesses for the sake of saving a bit of recycled paper?
The Yellow Pages Association has been quick to respond to Chui’s concerns with an upgraded website (www.yellowpagesoptout.com) that makes it easier than ever for consumers to choose whether to get the Yellow Pages, and how often.
That will further reduce what is already a minimal environment impact. Phone directories represent a mere 0.3 percent of the solid waste stream, significantly less than newspapers (3.2 percent) and office paper (2.2 percent).
San Franciscans without Internet access are more and more marginalized every day, and small businesses are fighting against the crush of online retailers. Local directories are key resource for keeping our dollars right here in San Francisco, and keeping shoppers out of their cars. We need to use them more, not less.
Mindy Spatt is communications director for The Utility Reform Network.
THEATER Taking ownership of their own image as Irish folk is not a thought that occurs to any character in Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan. The cranky rural inhabitants of the titular island — one of three hardscrabble Aran Islands off Ireland’s west coast — are more likely to assure themselves that Ireland “can’t be that bad” if others seem to think so. Nevertheless, image-making and self-image, both individual and collective, are important themes bandied about in the London-reared Irish playwright’s dark comedy, which is set in the early 1930s, just as American filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty and his Hollywood crew are shooting the 1934 pseudo-documentary feature, Man of Aran, on neighboring Inishmore.
The thematic shading as well as the humor, reluctant compassion, and musicality in McDonagh’s 1996 play are all shown off to fine effect in the current touring production by Ireland’s renowned Druid Theater Company, coproduced by New York’s Atlantic Theater and running through this weekend at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Playhouse. If neither the play or production achieve the surpassing power and beauty of Druid’s last offering in 2009, Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce, this is still a worthwhile show, especially for people intrigued by relatively recent and fairly strong productions at the Berkeley Rep of McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore (another in the playwright’s Aran Islands trilogy) and The Pillowman.
Druid’s cofounder Garry Hynes, an early and enthusiastic champion of the playwright-turned-filmmaker (writer-director of 2008’s Academy Award–nominated In Bruges) who took home a Tony for Druid’s staging of McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, directs her fine cast with admirable assurance. Indeed, her Cripple of Inishmaan takes ownership of the material without sentimentality, but rather in perfect sync with the brutally honest humor that signals as it sidesteps an underlying sweetness and sorrow.
The story centers on titular hero “Cripple Billy” Claven (the supple, slyly charismatic Tadhg Murphy), a kind-hearted bookworm with a misshapen right foot and hand who desires to secure himself a part in the Hollywood production and escape his treeless island burg. It’s a plan that inspires much ribald laughter from his fellow villagers who can only see Billy — an orphan raised by the two spinsters (Ingrid Craigie and Dearbhla Molloy) who run a half-stocked general store, in which cans of peas are over-represented and eggs and sweets at a premium — as a hopeless, ugly simpleton. Included in this consensus is Slippy Helen (a vivacious Clare Dunne), a disheveled, foul-mouthed yet majestic beauty with a pronounced violent streak who is Billy’s secret love interest.
Billy is plagued by a sense of guilt over the deaths of his parents, who died on the sea in an apparent suicide (a story that has more than one permutation as the play progresses), leaving him as an infant on the shore to be scooped up by local gossip-monger Johnnypateenmike (Dermot Crowley). Billy nevertheless exudes a confidence that belies his background, his handicap, or the general self-deprecating opinion of Irish life by those living it around him.
In the mouths of Hynes’ actors, the coarseness and banality of that life becomes more than an occasion for much humor. In subtle contrast to the self-effacing language of insult and pettiness, it becomes a kind of brilliant naïve music. The opening dialogue between Billy’s aunties, for instance, recalls Beckett as the two women, waiting anxiously for Billy’s return, pass the time side-by-side behind a long freestanding counter, facing blankly out to the audience as they trade a volley of simple lines about a “bad arm” as if the subject were a ping-pong ball, setting up a rhythm that is its own message and meaning, an idle sport marking time in the cadence of a children’s nursery poem.
If looks and words are deceiving here, so too are the initial impressions we have of Billy in others’ eyes: there are layers of unacknowledged perception at work between these characters. We, of course, see right away that Billy, despite an inflated reputation for cow-staring, is anything but vacuous. Indeed, he is easily the island’s most decent, intelligent, and charming inhabitant. And Murphy plays him with a long-suffering cool in which a sweetness and determination will not be silenced, as well as an offbeat physical grace. His Billy shuffles across the floor with a habitual ease that has something like a joy in it, something between a sashay and a swagger, as if he were a jazz musician stroking a set of brushes over a snare top.
The Cripple of Inishmaan makes good sport of the notion of superiority, moral or otherwise, in rural life. Taking his cue from the historical moment flagged and deceptively packaged by Man of Aran (whose depictions of traditional Aran life were in many cases already antiquated by the 1930s), McDonagh wrests his subjects from the premodern caricatures in Flaherty’s stagy documentary. (A late scene has the characters, sans Billy, gathered to watch the completed Flaherty film, marveling with some frustration at a slow-to-unfold shark-hunting sequence as if it were from another world altogether.) McDonagh, however, a boyhood visitor to the region but otherwise a life-long Londoner, does so not exactly in the name of realism, since his comedy is hardly an effort at documentary and trades in caricatures of its own. At the same time, while taking a contagious delight in mocking certain ethnographic and nationalist pretenses, he lets us glimpse in his characters a compassion — heavily guarded beneath an otherwise hearty brutality — that does not lie.
THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN
Wed/11–Fri/14, 8 p.m.; Sat, 2 and 8 p.m.; $68
UC Berkeley, Bancroft and Telegraph
The Department of Public Health has scheduled a May 13 hearing to review allegations that Recology subsidiary Sunset Scavenger overbilled for trash collection at a condominium building for years, resulting in $84,544 in excess charges, erroneously charged the building commercial rates, and is refusing to make a full refund. Recology counters that the building’s managers oversubscribed, and the company gave a three-month refund as a show of good faith, but considers additional refunds punitive.
The hearing should interest the 21 percent of San Francisco residents who own units in condominium buildings. According to the Assessor-Recorder’s Office, 42,478 of the city’s 200,409 recorded parcels are now condominiums, with 3,192 registered as live/work, 38,300 as market rate, 980 as below-market rate, and 958 as commercial condo parcels as of fall 2010.
This struggle between ratepayers and Recology, which controls almost all aspects of the city’s $275 million-a-year waste stream, seems emblematic of the problems that can arise when a monopoly is only partially regulated by local officials (the city does not have oversight of commercial collection rates) and then only in a labyrinthine process.
DPH’s May 13 hearing comes three weeks after the Board’s Budget and Finance Committee voted to wait until July before deciding whether to award the city’s next landfill disposal contract to Recology. And it hits 18 months after the Department of the Environment, which derives half its budget from Recology’s rates, first tentatively awarded the city’s landfill contract to the San Francisco based garbage giant.
Since then critics have questioned how Recology got its monopoly, whether the arrangement benefits rate payers, and whether it makes environmental sense to haul the city’s trash all the way to Yuba County, as Recology is proposing.
In February, the budget and legislative analyst recommended that the city replace existing trash collection and disposal laws with legislation that would require competitive bidding on all aspects of the city’s waste collection, consolidation, and recycling system.
The analyst also recommended requiring that refuse collection rates for residential and commercial services be subject to board approval, noting that competitive bidding could result in reduced refuse collection rates (see “Garbage curveball,” 02/8/11).
“The latest report says that the current system has been in existence since 1932 and let’s put it out to competitive bid,” said budget and legislative analyst Harvey Rose.
A 2002 report by Rose noted that the city has no regulatory authority over commercial refuse rates. “Instead, commercial rates are subject to agreements between the permitted and licensed refuse collectors and individual commercial producers of refuse, commercial tenants and building owners,)” the report stated.
Rose’s report also found that commercial building owners often pay commercial refuse fees to Recology, so tenants don’t know how much they are paying. “Normally, if tenants occupy such buildings for commercial purposes, the commercial refuse fees are passed on to the tenants as part of the overall rent and operating costs. As a result, it is likely that many commercial tenants do not know how much they are actually paying for commercial refuse collection,” the report found.
It also noted that when the analysts attempted to complain about commercial refuse collection and commercial refuse rates (“for audit procedure purposes”) and to inquire how to lodge a complaints with the city, there was “nobody to call.”
Fast-forward nine years, and Golan Yona, who sits on the board of the Alamo Square Board Homeowners Association, which represents 200 residents in a 63-unit building on Fulton Street, claims the city gave him the run-around when he complained that, over a four-year period, Recology subsidiary Sunset Scavenger billed his building to pick up two, two-yard compactor containers three times a week but only picked up one. “Each time one of the bins is being put out for collection, the second bin is connected to the trash chute,” and thus not in service for pickup, Yona said.
But Recology claims that HSM Management, the company the homeowners association hired to manage its building, “oversubscribed” for waste collection. Recology also notes that the commercial rate the association paid resulted in the building being charged a lower monthly cost, but that Sunset recognized this as an “internal error” and therefore is not pursuing collection of the undercharged amounts.
Recology spokesperson Adam Alberti characterized the disagreement as “a pretty simple billing dispute,” even as he claimed that HSM sometimes put two bins curbside.
“Recology has been providing a level of service that was not fully utilized,” Alberti said. “They had two bins and were only setting out one, though there were numerous times throughout the year when they set out two bins.”
Alberti said the responsibility lies with the condo group, which opted for that level of bin service. “At some point they called to discuss ways to reduce their bill, at which point Recology suggested they reduce their service to one bin. At that point, the homeowners association sought compensation,” he said.
“No, this is based on actual consumption,” Yona told the Guardian, claiming that Sunset has no problem charging extra if buildings put out extra bins.
Alberti claims it’s “far more common” for buildings to oversubscribe. “They plan for peak times,” he said. “As a good faith gesture, the company sought to come to terms with the customer — but they weren’t able to do so.”
DPH’s Scott Nakamura confirmed that rate hearings are rare in his department. “This is the first time in 30 years that I have heard of a dispute like this going to the DPH — and I’ve been working here more years than I’d like to admit,” he said.
Based on his experience and Rose’s 2002 report, Yona suspects that the reason for this lack of hearings lies with a lack of process — not a lack of complaints.
Yona held up a flow chart that depicts 17 contacts he had with City Hall in a five-week period as he tried to find out how collection rates are set, how homeowners can determine what their building should be paying, and how they can register complaints.
These included calls to the City Attorney’s Office, Department of Public Works, Department of Public Health, and the DPH’s offices of Environmental Health and Solid Waste.
As a result of his persistence, Yona discovered that the city’s refuse collection and disposal ordinance, adopted Nov. 8, 1932, stipulates that DPH’s director can revoke the license of any refuse collector “for failure in the part of the refuse collector to properly collect refuse, or for overcharging for the collection of same, or for insolence toward persons whose refuse he is collecting.”
In a complaint submitted to DPH director Barbara Garcia on behalf of Alamo Square Board HOA, Yona wrote: “We would like to note that our attempts to talk to the right authority in City Hall have met so far with difficulty. The seriousness of the matter requires intervention of the highest authority in City Hall.”
EDITORIAL San Francisco has a terrible record preserving its past. In the past 50 years, so many parts of the city’s history have been demolished, bulldozed, flattened, or destroyed in the name of development. The number of landmarks that are gone vastly exceeds the number of buildings or landscape features saved by historic preservation laws.
So when Sup. Scott Wiener called a hearing May 2 to discuss possible changes in the city’s historic preservation policies, it got a lot of neighborhood activists nervous. And for good reason. In a city where developers always seem to call the shots, where blocking a bad project is a difficult and expensive process, anything that removes a weapon from the quivers of the neighborhoods is potentially dangerous.
And coming in the wake of a 6-5 February vote at the board to appoint an unqualified, pro-development candidate to the Historic Preservation Commission, there’s a disturbing trend here. And the supervisors should be careful not to dismantle the protections that the 2008 ballot measure, Proposition J, put in place to protect the city’s history.
Wiener assures us he’s not out to gut preservation — he supported Prop. J and doesn’t think that the preservation movement has gone too far. “I just want to make sure that we are taking into account other policy priorities,” he said.
Wiener pointed to a few potential situations where historic preservation could get in the way of improvements to transportation and streetscapes. The street lights along Van Ness Avenue might have to be removed to make a bus rapid transit lane work — and some people might consider them historic structures. Pedestrian safety improvements along Dolores Street might require minor changes in the tree-lined median, which is not a landmark but potentially could be. He’s looking at changes in the City Planning Code provisions dealing with historic preservation — and potentially, with the way the Planning Department applies the California Environmental Quality Act.
There are always times when preservation conflicts with progress, and there will always be dubious uses of preservation law. But overall, in the course of many, many years, the pendulum has swung far in the other direction: historic preservation has been trumped again and again by the greed and political power of developers and the construction industry. And even well-meaning attempts to adjust city law will almost certainly become loopholes for more destruction.
Almost everything good in this city, from the cable cars to the Presidio, has been threatened with extinction at some point. Battling to save the city’s treasures is a full-time occupation.
There are ways to balance preservation against valid public policies like the need for affordable housing (almost never blocked by preservationists) and street improvements (one anti-bicycle character delayed new bike lanes for years, but not on the grounds of historic preservation). But there has to be a clear line: no changes or loopholes aimed at helping private, for-profit developers. Nothing that limits the ability of neighborhood groups to stop the destruction of city history.
The problem in San Francisco is not too much historic preservation, it’s that we allow too much to get lost. That’s why Wiener needs to tread lightly on this ground — and his colleagues have to make sure he doesn’t go too far.
I’m tired of stories about poor San Francisco landlords. Because residential landlords in San Francisco have a great gig — and almost none have any right to complain about it.
The latest tale appeared in The New York Times May 1, with a longer version in the Bay Citizen the same day. It involves Wayne Koniuk, who owns a building on Divisadero Street. He has a shop where he makes prosthetic devices and two units upstairs.
Koniuk inherited the building from his father. He cleared out one of the units and moved in one of his sons. Now he wants to evict the tenant in the remaining unit — Robert Murphy, a senior citizen and retired union worker living on a fixed income — so he can move in his other son. Turns out that’s not easy. Koniuk is upset, and the Times presents his case: after all, Koniuk owns the building. Why can’t his children live there?
It’s an interesting question that drives a lot of passions in this town (the Bay Citizen has almost 100 comments on the story; my blog post on the subject has 65). And it gets to the heart of what rent control and regulations on property and land use are about.
See, by law — and public policy — the fact that Koniuk owns the building and Murphy rents is largely irrelevant. A long-term tenant in a protected class (in this case, someone over 60) who pays the rent on time every month and has created no nuisance has a right to stay there, except in limited circumstances. Yes, that’s an infringement on the “ownership” right of the landlord — but those rights are already strictly limited. I own a house — but not the right to demolish it, or the right to build a second unit in the basement and rent it out, or the right to add three stories to the top, or the right to turn it into a gas station or a Burger King. I knew those things when I bought the place — and if I didn’t, I should have. In San Francisco — a dense city with tight zoning laws and a legally certified housing crisis — property owners have limited rights.
They also have low property taxes (under Prop. 13), and the value of their investments keeps rising. Not a bad deal at all.
When you buy, or inherit, a building with a tenant who qualifies for protection under the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, you don’t have the right to raise the rent more than a certain percentage every year. And you don’t have the right to evict the person, except for what the law calls just cause. (Just cause, by the way, typically does allow eviction to move in a relative — but it’s harder if you’ve already done one such eviction and if the tenant is a senior or disabled.)
Koniuk has a place to live (in Belmont); both his sons have places to live. They are, by definition, better off than Murphy, who is facing the prospect of no place to live at all. I’m not shedding any tears for the poor landlord.
The Board of Supervisors is gearing up to revisit whether telecommunications giant AT&T should be permitted to install 726 new metal boxes on city sidewalks for a communications network upgrade, without completing an environmental impact review.
At an April 26 meeting, the board spent several tedious hours listening to concerns such as whether the boxes would attract graffiti or clutter the sidewalks, and debated the finer points of whether the project could legally be considered exempt, ultimately resolving to take up the issue again May 24.
Meanwhile, a small cadre of tech-savvy San Franciscans has seized on this debate as an opportunity to drum up enthusiasm for an alternate vision of a citywide communications future, one with faster connection speeds that wouldn’t necessarily be controlled by the AT&T and Comcast duopoly.
At the meeting, AT&T California President Ken McNeely, dressed in a sharp suit, trumpeted the company’s proposed upgrade, part of a new system called U-verse. “This is the largest single upgrade to the San Francisco local phone network in more than a century,” he said. “Our network will provide the next-generation IP technologies that San Francisco needs to provide if it wants to continue to attract the best and brightest in the region.”
Yet Rudy Rucker, bearded and clad in a camouflage T-shirt, sounded a different note. “The U.S. is No. 30 in the world in Internet speed,” he said. “The boxes are not the way to go. What we need to do is rework the entire infrastructure of how we do communications in the city. We’re relying on copper lines. We need to pull all those out, recycle the copper, and put in fiber-optic cable.” Rucker is a cofounder of MonkeyBrains, an independent Internet service provider (ISP) based in San Francisco.
AT&T’s U-verse upgrade would enable it to offer connection speeds three times faster than current service — but not nearly as fast as what fiber proponents envision. Several members of the tech industry interviewed by the Guardian cautioned that another AT&T upgrade might be necessary after less than a decade to keep pace with technological advancement. At that point, it’s anyone’s guess whether those boxes would continue to be useful. AT&T did not respond to a query from the Guardian.
When it comes to Internet speeds, the United States trails Asia and some European countries. “We’ve fallen from first place,” said Ashwin Navin, who founded several tech startups including a file-sharing company called BitTorrent. “It’s really put our software and technology industry at a disadvantage.”
According to a website that compares connection speeds using data compilation, California ranks 23rd in the nation, while San Francisco doesn’t even clear the top 30 cities nationwide, Navin noted.
Yet much faster connection speeds are possible — even commonplace — in countries such as Japan and Singapore. “Right now, the average download speed in San Francisco is something around eight megabits,” explained Dana Sniezko, who’s emerged as a tech activist since creating a website called SF Fiber, which calls for a neutral, open, affordable community fiber network. “What U-verse is going to offer is about three times that. Something like fiber can offer service that’s 1,000 megabits [called a gigabit], or even much larger than that. Fiber allows you to really have a huge capacity for the future.”
Put in practical terms, Sniezko said, the difference between a connection speed of eight megabits and a gigabit amounts to downloading a full-length feature film in 90 minutes, versus several seconds. And since fiber also can deliver faster upload speeds, it opens the door to new possibilities. “It lets individuals potentially come up with really innovative and creative ideas,” Sniezko said. “If you wanted to have your own streaming TV channel from your house, you could. Or anything, really.”
Fiber already exists under San Francisco city streets — but most places lack the direct connections to homes or businesses, so the capacity is not realized. The city’s Department of Technology and Information Services (DTIS) convened a study in 2007 for developing the infrastructure to create a full-fiber network, deeming fiber “the holy grail of communications networking: unlimited capacity, long life, and global reach.”
Since then, progress has been slow. AT&T’s new system would also be based on fiber, but information would still travel to homes or offices over copper phone lines, resulting in slower speeds than a direct connection could supply.
On a recent afternoon, MonkeyBrains cofounder Alex Menendez scrambled up a ladder leading from his small Potrero Hill office space to show off some rooftop antennas and laser devices. There was a clear view from the flat, sunny roof to the office building the laser was pointed at, many blocks away. Secured to a hand-built metal stand, the gadgets were part of the company’s high-speed Internet network, which counts KQED among its roughly 1,000 subscribers.
Menendez was explaining how his small company is able to use these microwave devices in combination with fiber-optic cables to provide high-speed Internet by leapfrogging from node to node throughout San Francisco.
Menendez said he didn’t feel strongly one way or another about AT&T’s metal boxes. “But it raises a more interesting issue: what’s the 50-year-down-the-line solution? There’s much better technology out there. It could be super-affordable, with a wide-open, massive amount of bandwidth.”
But, he added, it won’t happen without the support of local government.
The City and County of San Francisco owns an underground fiber-optic network spanning more than 110 miles, used mostly for municipal and emergency purposes. AT&T has its own fiber — and with a history going back more than a century in San Francisco, it also has a lock on the market.
AT&T owns underground cables, copper phone lines, and rights-of-way, making it necessary for small market players to interface with the corporation and pay fees. This makes it difficult for local ISPs to compete on any meaningful scale. “They have the right to trench the street,” Menendez explained. “We don’t.”
Mendendez and others are looking at micro-trenching as a possible way around this. Last summer, Google hosted an event at its Mountain View headquarters called the Micro-trenching Olympics (“A very Google-y thing to do,” according to a company representative speaking in a YouTube video) to find out which contractor could best slice a one-inch wide, nine-inch deep trench in a parking lot and install fiber-optic cable inside. The idea behind micro-trenching is that it’s fast and minimally disruptive — and best of all, it doesn’t interfere with existing infrastructure, so there’s no need to pay a fee to AT&T, or any other company.
Some in the tech community are hoping it will signify a new and efficient way to link fiber-optic cable directly to homes and businesses, ultimately resulting in the kind of Internet speed that would let you download a movie in less than ten seconds. With micro-trenching, there would be no need for utility boxes.
Navin, Mendendez, and several others have talked up the idea of micro-trenching a small area in the Mission District to bring fiber-optic, high-speed Internet to an entire neighborhood. Yet their early conversations with the city’s Department of Public Works suggest that it may be a slow process. “They were like, ‘What is this?'” Menendez recounted. “There’s no established permitting process.”
Meanwhile, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu recently asked DTIS to examine the possibility of leasing excess capacity on city-owned dark-fiber infrastructure, which is currently in place but not being used. This could boost bandwidth for entities such as nonprofits, health care facilities, biotech companies, digital media companies, or universities, Chiu said, while bolstering city coffers. “There are many places in town that need a lot more bandwidth, and this is an easy way to provide it,” he said.
Sniezko noted that other cities have created open-access networks to deploy fiber. “This is really effective because it’s a lot like a public utility,” she explained. “The city or someone fills a pipe, and then anyone who wants to run information or service on that pipe can do so. They pay a leasing fee. This has worked in many places in Europe, and they actually do it in Utah. In many cases, it’s really cool — because it’s publicly owned and it’s neutral. There’s no prioritizing traffic for one thing over another, or limitation on who’s allowed to offer service on the network. It … creates some good public infrastructure, and also allows for competition, and it sort of revives the local ISP. Chiu’s proposal is a little bit in that vein, it sounds like. But he hasn’t released a lot of details on it yet, so we’re still looking.”
Visit www.sffiber.info for more info
San Francisco has quickly peddled back into the front of the pack among bicycle-friendly U.S. cities, regaining the ground it lost during a four-year court injunction against new bike projects that was partially lifted in November 2009 and completely ended last June.
Since then, the streets of San Francisco have been transformed as the city completed 19 long overdue bike projects, including 11 miles of new bike lanes, 40 miles of “sharrow” shared lane markings, and hundreds of new bike racks. The city’s first physically separated green bike lanes on Market Street are now being extended, and new ones are being added on Alemany and Laguna Honda boulevards.
“The crews are out on Market Street right now filling in the new green bikeway,” San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Director Leah Shahum told us on May 6. “Far and away the No. 1 encouragement to getting people to bike is to make sure they feel safe.”
But it isn’t just bike lanes and other infrastructure that are causing bicycling to blossom in San Francisco. Bike culture is also exploding in myriad ways, including events such as the San Francisco Bike Party and Rock the Bike shows we profile in this issue, as well as the popularity of the monthly neighborhood street closures of Sunday Streets.
At the most recent Sunday Streets in the Mission District on May 8, Valencia and 24th streets were packed with thousands of people riding bikes, skating, and walking, or engaged with activities — in streets usually dominated by cars — such as yoga, art projects, shopping, and dancing.
“It’s a celebration. It’s not about confrontation anymore, it’s about bringing people along with a more expanded idea of how we can use public space,” Sunday Streets Coordinator Susan King told us at the event.
She said Sunday Streets has helped bridge the gap between families and the bicycling and skating communities, as well as cutting across classes, cultures, and communities. The response to the event has been phenomenal, she noted, and she hopes to see a similar momentum leading up to the next Sunday Streets event on June 12 in the Bayview.
“The Bayview event is really important to us because we have extraordinary support from the Bayview merchants and they want to get more involved with the bicycling community,” King said.
The earnest work of SFBC, SFMTA, and other entities that have helped expand the bicycling infrastructure in San Francisco, bringing safe cycling opportunities into every neighborhood, has in turn allowed organic expressions of bike culture to flourish.
From hipsters on their colorful fixies to anarchists riding tall bikes, from old-school Schwinns to cargo-laden Xtracycles, from elaborate art bikes to simple bike trailers with amazing sounds systems, from old white guys in Spandex to the young black kids on custom scraper bikes, from the hardcore bike messengers to the tourists on rental bikes, from Critical Mass defiance to Bike Party celebration, the streets of San Francisco are brimming with bike culture diversity. And the only commonality, the only one that’s really needed, is a simple appreciation for pedal power.
“We need to get the message out that biking is fun — and that’s happening,” Smith said. “We need a paradigm shift, and I think we’re really on the cusp of that.”
BIKE TO WORK DAY
Energizer commute stations open:
Thurs/12 7:30–9:30 a.m. and 5–7 p.m., free
Check map on page 28 for locations
Bike From Work party and fashion show
Thurs/12 6–10 p.m., $5 SFBC members/$10 nonmembers (or join at the door and get in free)
DNA Lounge, 375 11th St., SF
On Friday night, May 6, hundreds of bikes lean against the massive pillars holding up the Palace of Fine Arts’ rotunda, a colorful array of plastic flowers and stereo speakers affixed to their baskets and trailers.
Their riders, flushed with endorphins after a four-mile cruise across town, are ignoring the winds whipping off the bay and dancing their asses off to a pumping sound-system that switches from bubblegum pop to John Lennon’s “Imagine” and on to an electronica instrumental as more bikes arrive under the dome and the circle of dancers grows.
As a conga line forms, the dancers intermittently cheer “Bike party!” just as the cyclists have been declaring at the mini-parties held at every red light throughout this and the other monthly San Francisco Bike Party rides that started in January.
It’s a celebratory moment for San Francisco bike culture, and a sign that it’s branching off into new directions. While the venerable Critical Mass ride — which marks its 20th anniversary next year — seizes space on the roads, ignores red lights, and often sparks confrontations with motorists, Bike Party is a celebration that seeks to share space, avoid conflict, and just have fun.
Bike Party follows a set route on the first Friday night of every month, stopping two to three times along the way for dance parties. The basic idea is that participants should obey most traffic laws, stop at red lights, and try to avoid taking up more than one lane. And while Critical Mass is a local invention that was exported to cities around the world, Bike Party was imported from San Jose, where it started with the efforts of three 20-something roommates.
They were Nick Laskowski, who had helped to organize the by-then defunct San Jose Critical Mass ride; Amber Lamason, another organizer of San Jose social bike rides; and Lauryn McCarthy, an East Coast native new to San Jose who “just wanted to build community and meet people who liked to bike.”
In a town hardly known for its great biking environment (despite its relative-to-San-Francisco flatness, bike riding on San Jose’s freeway-like thoroughfares “can be really daunting to new riders,” as one SJBP organizer put it) the three publicized their new Bike Party on Facebook, and 25 people showed up to the first ride in October 2007.
“We were stoked,” McCarthy, who has since moved to San Francisco, recalled during an interview at a cafe on lower Divisadero Street. By June 2008, the monthly ride hit 120 riders, and one day a biker she didn’t recognize invited McCarthy to join the ride. “I knew it had arrived.”
S–M TO ANIMALS
These days, San Jose Bike Parties have monthly costume themes from S–M to animals, and can attract up to 3,500 riders. The events have gotten so large that organizers now wait to publish routes until 24 hours before the ride to cut down the numbers. Other chapters have sprung up (with the organizational help of San Jose core volunteers) in the East Bay and San Francisco.
How to explain Bike Party’s instant popularity among Bay Area riders? It might be that its ethos appeals to a different sentiment than Critical Mass. While most Mass riders see that monthly ride as an opportunity to disrupt the automobile status quo, Bike Party is built around sharing the road.
It’s been a welcome new addition to the scene for many longtime urban cycling advocates like Justin Fraser, who has long held a Critical Mass pre-party but who switched the event to precede the San Francisco Bike Party after having a great time at the maiden ride in January.
“I’ve been doing Critical Mass since the late ’90s, and I usually go about 10 times over the course of the year, so I’m a regular. What I loved about Critical Mass is it’s a great group bike ride.” Fraser said.
But he and other regular riders often grew tired of the regular confrontations with angry motorists, the police presence, and the often circular routes through car-clogged downtown during rush hour that the leaderless Critical Mass ride would take.
“I love how it’s a planned ride and you get out to other parts of the city, like the recent ride out to Candlestick Point,” Fraser said. “Bike Party avoids lots of Critical Mass’ conflicts by stopping at lights, getting out of downtown, and starting later.”
Amandeep “Deep” Jawa, another longtime bike culture leader whose “Trikeasaurus,” a three-wheeler tricked out with a booming sound system, is a familiar sight to many SF riders, has also warmly embraced Bike Party and volunteered his time to helping establish it here.
“I’m not sure whether it’s an evolution or just something different,” Jawa said, comparing Bike Party to Critical Mass. “I love both of them for different reasons. I don’t think Bike Party is ever going to have that agit-prop element to it.”
Indeed, Critical Mass was founded as an agitation-propaganda event to directly challenge the dominance of car culture, something Jawa says is still relevant and attractive to him. But Bike Party is a deliberate effort to broaden the appeal of group bike rides to larger audiences, which organizers say still has a political impact.
“Anytime you put bicycles on the road en masse, it’s an inherently political act,” says McCarthy. In an e-mail to the Guardian, the San Francisco Bike Party collective backed up her sentiment. “While SFBP doesn’t specifically advocate for any politics or policies, by simply showing how many regular folks want to party on their bikes each month, we’re showing that there is a need for a public space for people who ride bikes.”
Contrary to much of the Bike Party’s recent coverage by anti-Critical Mass media sources, which tend to represent it as the antithesis to the decades-old ride, the two events started with similar traffic policies and work to many of the same ends.
Like Mass, Bike Party practiced “corking” in its early stages in San Jose, assigning volunteers (or “birds,” in the group’s parlance) to post up in intersections to block cars for other riders as a safety precaution.
In 1997, Critical Mass experimented with stopping at red lights but soon eschewed the practice — it was considered too dangerous with the 5,000 to 8,000 people who were then riders. “It just meant a very long, slow-moving traffic jam,” said Hugh D’Andrade, who has been involved with Critical Mass almost since shortly after its first ride in 1992 and created a website devoted to the San Francisco ride.
It wasn’t until 2008 that Bike Party organizers decided to switch to the ride’s current system of stopping at lights and sharing the road. “We thought it would be safer for our riders,” said McCarthy. D’Andrade and friends rode in the San Jose Bike Party in early 2010, a ride he recalls was “so thoughtfully laid out, super celebratory, ethnically diverse.”
That ethos seems to appeal to bikers at all levels of commitment and many walks of life. The San Jose rides now attract “mountain bikes, fixies, roadies — we have a cruiser bike gang that comes, even families,” said McCarthy. San Francisco’s ride, which officially kicked off Jan. 7 with a “happy birthday” theme, has yet to draw the thousands of people that Critical Mass or its San Jose counterpart do. But some bike activists we interviewed for this article felt like it was only a matter of time before it does.
D’Andrade now rides both events every month. He designed SF Bike Party’s logo and now is a member of the group’s planning collective, or “hub” as Bike Partiers refer to themselves. He said he feels the same vibe riding in both events.
But here’s no doubt that the two rides were created at very different moments in San Francisco bike culture. “To ride through San Francisco in the early ’90s was to take your life into your hands and be subject to harassment,” he said. “Bicycling was not a mainstream transportation option.”
Today, thanks to decades of Critical Mass Rides and concerted political advocacy work by people like Fraser and Jawa — both longtime board members of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition — the city now offers an extensive bike lane network, near universal political support for bicycling, and packs of bicyclists on the road offering the safety of numbers.
“You wouldn’t have this critical mass without the earnest approach of the Bike Coalition. But then, when all these people are out there cycling, it creates opportunities for things like the Bike Party,” Jawa said. “There are just so many of us now, and so much joy around it, that people automatically get excited.”
The sophistication of Bike Party’s route planning and event management is another difference between the two rides. D’Andrade remembers the April 1 ride (themed “Robots and Cyborgs”) when the group stopped at Children’s Playground in Golden Gate Park, and caught in a moment of glee, swarmed the play structures en masse.
It was fun, but to D’Andrade, it just didn’t feel quite as organic or spontaneous as the best moments of Critical Mass. As he said, “That kind of thing happens at Critical Mass, but here you know it was planned.”
Luckily, there’s no need to roll your wheels just one way. With the SF Bike Party on the first Friday of every month and Critical Mass on the last Friday, San Francisco bike culture has more than enough room for both events — and then some.
To meet San Francisco’s policy goal of having 20 percent of all vehicle trips made by bicycle by the year 2020, advocates and officials say the city will need to make cycling more attractive to the young and old, from age 8 to 80. But there are some built-in challenges to getting more school children on bikes, even if there has been some recent progress, as demonstrated during the Bike to School Day in April.
“I see more and more middle and high school teams out there,” Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said of the group rides to and from school that parents have been organizing.
According to a 2009 David Binder poll, seven out of 10 residents in San Francisco use a bicycle (this includes regular commuters and once-a-year riders) and last year’s city count of bike ridership from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s annual report saw a 58 percent increase in the number of cyclists on the road. At any given time during regular business weekday hours, some 9,210 riders pedal through the streets, according to last year’s results.
Children account for some of that increase, as demonstrated by the Bike to School Day event and its 3,000 riders — the most ever. Shahum attributes some of the increase to the new separated bikeways on Market Street, Alemany Boulevard, and Laguna Honda Boulevard, which allow children and their parents to feel safer. “When the bikeway was introduced, the numbers increased — there is growing demand.”
Programs like the Department of Public Health’s Safe Routes to School and SF Unified School District’s Student Support Services Department are helping to raise awareness of the improvements to encourage more cycling by young people.
Safe Routes to School Project Coordinator Ana Validzic said cycling is often more convenient than driving to school, particularly given the difficult parking situations at schools. Martha Adriasola, a committee member for the program, said parents and students also are attracted by the increased physical activity from cycling.
But a large portion of San Francisco’s grade school-bound population has yet to join the pedal revolution. Adriasola mentioned several reasons that prevent children from biking, including getting to schools on hills or far from home as well as the lack of bike storage at schools.
“There used to be a lot of concern about where to keep the bicycles,” Adriasola told the Guardian. But that’s changing thanks to a recent grant from the Department of Sustainability will provide bike racks for students at all schools in the district.
“That was one of the missing pieces,” Shahum said of the bike racks. “The district understands that it is good for the city for folks to ride their bikes.”
With new racks lining the campuses, the question remains whether there will be enough riders to fill them. Efforts to improve diversity in the school system and parent preferences for certain schools mean many kids travel across town to school.
Gentle Blythe, SFUSD’s executive director of public outreach and communications, said that last year the school board modified its school selection system to encourage more students to attend their local schools by resolving ties between applicants based on whether the applicant lives in the school’s attendance area. Currently, Blythe said, three out of every four applicants list a school that is not the one closest to their home as their first choice.
According to SFUSD’s 2010 fall enrollment maps, which show all the district’s elementary schools and compares them to the students’ residences, most of the 72 schools have as many students traveling from across the district as those living within a mile of the campus. Parker Elementary in North Beach is such an example, with an almost equal number living inside and outside the neighborhood, including some who live as far away as Visitacion Valley.
With such a long way to ride, it’s difficult for parents and those concerned with safety to feel comfortable allowing children to ride. But Shahum believes it’s still possible. SFBC’s Connecting the City project advocates for safe, cross-town bikeways throughout the city, which could draw more children onto the streets.
Shahum noted that bicycling increased dramatically even when there was a court injunction barring new bike projects. “Imagine the change we can expect when the changes do come,” she said.
She also said that events such as Sunday Streets, the monthly carfree streets events, are attracting families and encouraging them to start cycling together. So the answer to encouraging more youth cycling may be to make the streets safer and more inviting for everyone.
“We hope, through the Connecting the City vision, to see people riding on cross-town bikeways — for everyone from 8 to 80.” she said.