Volume 45 Number 41

Buggin’ out

1

Actor Michael Rapaport probably didn’t set out to make a hip-hop Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004), but that’s pretty much where his portrait of A Tribe Called Quest ends up. The first half of Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest is predictably worshipful, slathering on low angles and slow motion to cover mediocre live shows. More effectively, Rapaport traces the Queens group’s brief incubation period and subsequent breakthroughs in what would later be called alternative or, more obnoxiously, conscious hip-hop. A slew of notable followers and contemporaries toast Tribe’s first three albums, but by the time Rapaport catches up to the group’s 2008 reunion even their longtime friends De La Soul are wishing they’d call the whole thing off.

The documentary slides into the Monster zone of hurt feelings and passive aggressive behavior in accounting for the group’s split after their inappropriately named 1998 album, The Love Movement. Phife Dawg and Q-Tip are the warring egos, though perennially slighted Phife is really no match for the imperially cool Tip. DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad is the Kirk Hammett of the outfit, looking on helplessly as the two bigger personalities make a mess of things. Tribe’s transgressions seem wholesome compared to Metallica’s binging (we hear a lot about sugar addiction from Phife, the self-proclaimed “funky diabetic”), but it’s similarly a case of childhood friendships distorted by success.

It’s not that surprising that the recent glut of cookie-cutter rock docs has for the most part left hip-hop untouched — someone like Jay-Z hardly needs the help of a bozo with Final Cut Pro to spin out self-mythologies. Rapaport’s portrait is utterly conventional, but there’s still novelty in a story about aging in hip-hop. Because Q-Tip basically just wants to talk music and Ali seems genuinely shy of the spotlight, turbulent Phife emerges as the emotional center of the film. He shakes off his wife’s suggestion that he should see a therapist, but that’s very much the mode of his rambling address to the camera. “I love hip-hop, but as it is now I could do with or without it,” Phife says at one point. That’s not what we expect from a fan’s notes, and Beats, Rhymes & Life is the stronger for it.

Those who appreciate Tribe’s flowing soul sound will find interesting tidbits spread thinly across the film: roll calls of the original legends of New York City hip-hop; fond reminiscences of the group’s Afrocentric costuming (“Some questionable shit,” per Black Thought); Phife’s breakout “Yo!” at the top of “Buggin’ Out”; and especially Q-Tip’s refined taste for loops (he gives a great reenactment of discovering the sublime groove for “Can I Kick It?” on an old Lonnie Smith record). One would happily trade 10 minutes of mediocre performance footage for more production insights (Ron Carter’s contribution to the Low End Theory hardly rates a mention), though Pharrell Williams’ rhapsodic praise goes some ways toward plugging the gap.

Rapaport doesn’t pursue more interesting questions of race and politics that naturally follow the band’s crossover appeal. And as is so often the case with hagiographies, discussion of broader musical trends comes to a halt when the group in question hits the big time. A stray exception is when bookish Questlove mentions that Tribe’s third album, Midnight Marauders, and the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), came out on the same day in 1993 — the last great day of classic hip-hop according to him, though one could just as easily read it as a sea change away from Tribe’s good vibes.

BEATS, RHYMES & LIFE: THE TRAVELS OF A TRIBE CALLED QUEST opens Fri/15 in Bay Area theaters.

 

Black and white and red all over

0

Mikhail Kalatozov’s career had a large hole in the middle, one that remains incompletely explained. Why were the two periods of his greatest work separated by roughly three decades? Why did he make almost nothing between? The answer definitely involved Stalin and his fickle cultural watchdogs, even if the full reason for such a long lull (or fall from favor) might never be known.

At least he was spared a permanent gulag vacation, which would have deprived us of a late 1950s reflowering that resulted in three world classics still being discovered in the West — particularly since 1964’s astonishing I Am Cuba got rereleased under Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese’s auspices 16 years ago. If you’ve seen that or another Kalatozov film, it’s distressing to think he spent any time unwillingly idle, since every feature still accessible today is some kind of masterpiece.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s 16th annual edition offers the last feature he made before that mysterious long withdrawal from the director’s chair. Nail in the Boot (1931) lasts just 53 minutes, but packs in more photographic and editorial ideas than a dozen features twice its length. It’s a dazzling application of sheer stylistic invention to propagandic material. Yet rather than please the apparatchiks upstairs, it ticked them off enough to derail Kalatozov’s career for a good spell.

Born in Tbilisi, Georgia, he began working as an actor, editor, and cinematographer in that (reluctant) Soviet republic’s 1920s film industry, eventually graduating to directing documentaries celebrating the USSR’s industrial, agricultural, and cultural advancement. Little is known about a first narrative feature, 1930’s Little Blind Girl. But the same year’s semi-staged Salt for Svanetia won acclaim for its strikingly poetical imagery of life in a remote Caucasus Mountains village.

That success presumably greased the way for the larger endeavor of Nail in the Boot, which mixes up the epic and the intimate, beautiful shots of lovingly lit machinery and glowing worker faces intercut with striking battle vistas and the proverbial cast of thousands. The story can be reduced to the title’s troublesome metal inch: when enemy forces strand armored train “Guardian of the Revolution” between blown-up track sections, a lone comrade (Aleqsandre Jaliashevili) is dispatched on foot to notify HQ. Running over hill and dale, he’s severely hampered when the poorly made boot from his own factory falls apart, driving a binding nail into his foot. As a result, his trapped compatriots are gassed to death before reinforcements arrive.

At a huge subsequent Party trial, our fallen hero is excoriated as a traitor for stopping to soak his painful, bleeding foot. “You shot them! The undelivered dispatch was like a bullet!” “He spared his feet and destroyed the armored train!” angry comrades shout, calling for his head. But this nameless prole finally defends himself, indicting his footwear’s shoddy workmanship as at least equal in fault. Nail in the Boot was intended as a parable (based in turn on a Russian folk tale) urging Soviets to always perform superlatively for the good of all, whatever their job. A final intertitle accuses lazy bones present: “Among you spectators: are there many like the bootmakers?”

That message seems simple and unimpeachable enough, not to mention spectacularly presented. Yet Nail had the ill fortune to arrive just as USSR arts ideology was changing. The experimentation encouraged in the 1920s was now judged indulgent “formalism” unsuitable for the masses, while a new school of nail-on-the-head “Social Realism” took shape as the sole officially state-sanctioned artistic guideline. Kalatozov’s film was denounced as confusing and unrealistic on petty grounds, as well being guilty of “formalistic aestheticism.” The film was banned, for a long time considered lost, and beyond a couple features at the start of World War II, Kalatozov was kept offscreen — albeit kicked upstairs to various film administrative posts.

He did well enough in those capacities to become the Soviet film industry’s emissary to Hollywood for an extended late 1940s stay. Hobnobbing with stars, he greatly admired the major studios’ streamlined production methods and technical advances — but like a good comrade, returned home to condemn Tinsel Town as the apex of capitalist decadence. (Hell yeah!) Then, finally, he was considered rehabilitated enough to trust behind a camera once again.

The results, after a few more conventional features no longer in circulation, were stupendous: 1957’s The Cranes Are Flying introduced a new Kalatozov, energetic and inventive as ever, director of photography Sergei Urusevsky’s wildly mobile camera replacing rhythmic Eisensteinian montage as his primary instrument. Taken as a cinematic emblem of Khrushchev-era Cold War thawing, it was an international triumph, even if its tragic wartime romance now seems less conceptually unique than two extraordinary (if far less popular) next ventures.

The Unsent Letter (1960) is one of the movies’ great man vs. nature depictions, as Soviet geologists searching for diamond deposits in remotest Siberia fall prey to that land’s geographic and climatic extremes. I Am Cuba, a Soviet-Cuban collaboration depicting the Cuban revolution on a humongous scale, was derided as being “too Russian” by the Cubanos, “too formalist” (or whatever the current ideological phrase was) by Moscow. Forgotten for decades, it’s been much written about lately — suffice to say Roger Ebert thought it contained the single “most astonishing [shot] I have ever seen,” amid 141 minutes full of such wonders.

After less idiosyncratic but impressive 1970 Soviet-European superproduction The Red Tent (1970) — an arctic adventure with international stars like Sean Connery and Claudia Cardinale, shot in locations as frigid as 40 below zero — Kalatozov died at age 70, planning another impossibly ambitious epic. In a perfect world, he’d actually finish it, his cryogenically frozen brain retrieved from some secret polar lab. Imagine what he could do with a Steadicam and 3-D; James Cameron might find himself merely a wee prince of the world by comparison.

SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL

Thurs/14–Sun/17, free–$20

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120

www.silentfilm.org

Volume 45 Number 41 Flip-through Edition

0

Foxy saves

0

arts@sfbg.com

SOUND TO SPARE Sweating in that crevice behind your knee? Notice more mesh tops in the Castro than usual? Or maybe you’re like me, pretending it’s Wimbledon but really just stinking up the tennis courts at Dolores Park. It seems the Bay Area is actually being blessed with some unusually above-average temperatures this summer. But even when the fog inevitably rolls back in, sticky-hot summer jams don’t necessarily have to be about weather. They can be a mentality. So allow me to stroll down Memory Lane with a fitting album for these should-be-sizzling times.

Chock-full of lyrical wit and endless one-liners, 1999’s Chyna Doll (Def Jam) by Foxy Brown is the downright filthiest album of all time. Brown (only 19 at the time) had me inappropriately quoting her ill flows all summer long. Stuff like “MCs wanna eat me, but it’s Ramadan” or “Gimmie some room, all I need is some dick up in my womb” are among the most graphic, but rate as some of my favorites. I probably appreciated them even more back then, when I was equally as young, angsty, closeted, and still living at my parents’.

The Brooklynite’s brazen delivery of FCC-unfriendly rhymes (every track drops the F-bomb) was probably a combination of marketing brilliance and dumb luck that made for her best-sounding album. On this sophomore effort, she received solid reviews from mainstream press. Even the British magazine Q weighed in saying, “There’s more to her than simply showing off and swearing.” And boy does she love swearing. On the track “4-5-6” she rhymes the word “shit” with “shit” 15 times.

Admittedly a huge part of the appeal for me was that such raw content was coming from a female. (Note: Jay-Z contributed heavily as did many other male hip-hop notables on writing and production). I guess I ignorantly found novelty in the manifestation of a female feeling need to prove herself to the industry. Sure, women curse — and there were other femcees before her. In fact, it was an era of stiff competition with the likes of Missy Elliot, Jean Grae and Brown’s legendary rival and cohort Lil’ Kim. But it was Brown who titillated me with her confidence and cockiness, asking, “Do you know how many words I’ve flown past?” She was the undisputed queen of hardcore.

The song “My Life” explains this black girl’s ordeal, struggling with the price of fame while explicitly chronicling the falling out between her and former friend Lil’ Kim. Here we get the depth that Q must have been referencing with lines like “I ain’t asked to be born.” Whether she intended it or not, she reveals an existential vulnerability, one that queer youth could certainly relate to. Her descent turns darker, more chilling, and profoundly plain to see with the line, “Sometimes I wanna slit my wrists and end my life y’all.” It’s clear she had a lot more on her plate than her beef with Kim.

Foxy also calls out gender’s double standards when she raps, “If I was a dude, they’d all be amused. But I’m a woman, so I’m a bitch — simple as that,” pointing out how femininity can be a hindrance to achieving success in hip-hop. With clever wordplay she takes on the theme of inequality, sometimes through simple metaphor (“My bullets hurt same as yours”), other times with more lyrical prowess (“Talk slick, suck dick for money in ya hand, I’m like bitch …I got mo’ money than yo man!”)

This isn’t to say that Chyna Doll isn’t littered with the materialistic clichés common in mainstream hip-hop. But there’s a refreshing air of entitlement involved that is unapologetic. After all, it was released at a time when rap reigned supreme and MP3 downloading hadn’t yet collapsed the industry’s marketing model. There was plenty of money to be made. Brown tells us exactly what she wants written on the license plate of her Lexus as she rides in a decade later to light up another summer.

Calling the doom tune

0

arts@sfbg.com

THEATER 2012: The Musical!, the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s latest offering in its annual free outdoor theater shows, opens in the Oval Office, where President Obama (Michael Gene Sullivan) — face painted a garish red, white, and blue — sells out Workingclass Man (Cory Censoprano) at the bidding of his spooky capitalist overlords. It plays like a parody of agitprop conceits and, sure enough, it is. Audiences sprawled on the glade at the northwest corner of Dolores Park this Fourth of July (the production tours throughout the summer and fall across the Bay Area and beyond) were being treated to the radical stylings of “Theater BAM!”, a tiny left-wing theater company fighting the good fight against the Man and the Pigs, among other stock characters in the black-and-blue pageant of industrial and postindustrial capitalism.

It earned a good laugh, this dramatic feint. The scene ends, the company takes its bow, and the “real” play begins as life imitates art with uncomfortable (and self-referential) complications: the members of Theater BAM! are indeed committed to overthrowing the system, but have been at it some time now with limited results and redundant gestures. Worse still, the company is facing an unprecedented financial crisis that has them leaning toward corporate sponsorship.

This last detail appalls at least one member, steadfast artistic director Elaine (Lizzie Calogero). But the rest of the company finds itself swayed by Elaine’s sister and fellow BAMmer, ambitious daytime corporate sellout Suze (Siobhan Marie Doherty), otherwise busy climbing the ladder as assistant to investment banker Arthur Rand (Victor Toman). (“It’s all dirty money,” she sings, in composer-lyricists Pat Moran and Bruce Barthol’s bouncy 1950s-style R&B. “If you don’t take dirty money you don’t have any money at all.”)

Rand, for his part, tired of competing with the piffling “people” in the political marketplace, gets the idea (with Suze’s prompting) to buy himself a politician outright. The serviceable Senator Pheaus (Sullivan) does nicely in this position (i.e., supine). Eagerly, desperately following Rand’s explicit instructions, the telegenic Pheaus pushes forward Wall Street’s business-as-usual agenda through a ready rhetorical smokescreen of nebulous and all-pervading fear.

Meanwhile, the stalwarts of Theater BAM! find themselves underwritten by an ostensibly progressive, feel-good corporation called Green Planet, Inc., headed by a bubbly Ms. Haverlock (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro) who, with hands clasped firmly on the purse strings, “offers” increasingly invasive production suggestions. The upshot? A new musical about the end of everything called 2012, replete with Mayan priests and giddy millennial mayhem. Needless to say, apocalypse doesn’t go so well with political commitment or revolutionary change, but dovetails quite nicely with an apolitical consumerist ethos of all now and damn the future.

Directed with reliable snap by SFMT vet Wilma Bonet (augmented by Victor Toman’s big-time small-stage choreography) 2012: The Musical! is a solid SFMT production attuned to the timber of the “end times,” not as a biblical prophesy but as capitalist conspiracy. It also flags the messy compromises made all too easily by artists and audiences alike with “the system.” The script (by longtime head writer Sullivan, with additional dialogue from Ellen Callas) is along the way dependably smart and funny — and seemingly inspired at least in part by the recent Flake flap (to wit, Congressman and Arizona Republican Jeff Flake’s attack on NEA chair Rocco Landesman last May for the NEA’s funding of the 52-year-old left-wing San Francisco Mime Troupe). The half a dozen songs are equally snazzy, with admirably clear and pointed lyrics, and while the singing is not as strong as in recent years, the comic acting is first-rate.

But if the story complicates the usual agitprop scenario represented by the fictitious Theater BAM!, it can also be too pat to be wholly satisfying. The excuse offered business as usual by the distracting and enervating fear of the millennium has several sources after all, including the pernicious hard-on by religious demagogues for spiritual redemption in a fiery end (a crowd and pathology wonderfully exposed in SFMT’s Godfellas). The solutions as presented here are also less than clear. Getting the airhead Senator Pheaus to save the day by reading a speech crafted by our heroes, instead of his Wall Street handlers, only underscores the idea that such “representatives” are ventriloquist dummies who lean left or right depending on whose forearm is up their ass. Those guys are Theater Bum, and they’re overfunded.

2012: THE MUSICAL!

Through Sept. 25

Various Bay Area venues, free

www.sfmt.org

 

TV party

2

TRASH These days we’re used to TV series regularly offering better, more serious, and more relevant drama than mainstream movies, a notion unthinkable not long ago. But even at the height of boob tube silliness, when zero cable alternatives and FCC strictures resulted in mostly bland programming, there was some room for deviation from formula. That room was primarily occupied by TV movies, which began being produced in 1964. By decade’s end they were a broadcast staple, earning strong ratings and lessening the need for networks to purchase old theatrical-release films for broadcast.

In the 1970s TV movies would increasingly take on social issues. That kind of activist edge was still pretty rare, however, when two little-remembered telepics the Vortex Room is showing on Thursday, July 14 first aired. Both are dated relics stylistically but surprisingly prescient politically.

The Man (1972), which was given a brief theatrical release after being made for ABC, was adapted from Irving Wallace’s trashy bestseller by The Twilight Zone‘s Rod Serling — fair enough, since its conceit must have seemed science fiction at the time. James Earl Jones plays a fusty academic Senate president pro tempore suddenly swept into the Oval Office after circumstances wipe out the succession line before him.

Having a “black,” “Negro,” or “jigaboo” (depending on who’s talking and how publicly) commander-in-chief naturally brings out the not-so-latent racism in the various old white male power-mongers used to minority colleagues being powerless token figures. Polite and awed by his position to a fault — he’s no 2008 Barack Obama — our protag nonetheless learns to stand up for himself and his office, even if that means making some decisions unpopular with black voters.

Four years earlier, another trashy novelist (Sidney Sheldon of The Other Side of Midnight) had the pretty good idea of updating (without crediting) Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 cautionary novel It Can’t Happen Here — about a “patriotic” political party pushing the country toward a fascist dictatorship — as a modern action-suspense series. What with Vietnam protests, campus unrest, civil rights struggles, and so forth, the concept of our nation undergoing civil war was evidently too hot for the networks. They passed even after the original script had been shorn of nearly all direct political commentary.

Nonetheless, feature-length pilot Shadow on the Land is fairly strong (and violent) meat for the era. Its hectic portrait of a nation oppressed by governmental “security” brutality, air travel restrictions, etc. on one side, destabilized by a “Society of Man” underground resistance on the other is a metaphor applicable to the Nazi threat of Lewis’ day, Nixon vs. the Left, or post-Patriot Act America. It’s by turns wooden, heavy-handed, shrill, and sophisticated — not exactly good, but still a credible picture of something that could well happen here, perhaps more easily now than in 1968.  

THE UNITED STATES OF VORTEX

The Man, Thurs/14, 9 p.m.;

Shadow on the Land, Thurs/14, 11 p.m., $5

Vortex Room

1082 Howard, SF

www.myspace.com/thevortexroom

 

Hot reels

0

culture@sfbg.com

LUST FOR LIFE In 1969, San Francisco became the first American city to legalize screening hardcore pornography. In honor of director Michael Stabile’s documentary-in-progress Smut Capital of America, which chronicles the 1969 event and SF’s ensuing pivotal role in the adult film industry during the early 1970s, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is sponsoring a festival from July 14-Aug. 24 that will screen Stabile’s project and seven vintage porn films.

The festival kicks off with an evening featuring Smut Capital, a post-screening Q&A, rare vintage porn clips, and a discussion between Stabile and YBCA film and video curator Joel Shepard on SF sex culture in the 1960s and ’70s. After seeing the 16 minute-excerpt of the film, I ‘m already intrigued, entertained, and offended.

Smut Capital does more than give a blow-by-blow (sorry for the pun) porn history. It is also one of the few existing histories of sex work and queerness in the 1970s Tenderloin district. There is some pretty transphobic and sexist language in the footage (said by interviewees, not the filmmaker), and its treatment of street sex work and survival sex feels weirdly lighthearted. But because documenting the Tenderloin’s importance to queer and sex cultures is rare, I’m glad this film is in the works. I’m interested to see what other footage Stabile has for us down the road.

YBCA is also screening good old-fashioned smut — a passel of 1960s and ’70s blue shorts and full-lengths are on the schedule. And for another take on the era, a perspective piece from right in the thick of things, look to director Alex De Renzy’s Pornography in Denmark (1969), a controversial (at the time — but then, what wasn’t?) documentary he made during the first Danish adult trade expo to shoot its load after the country rescinded many of its anti-sex laws. De Renzy went on to direct such gems as 1989’s Bring on the Virgins and 1997’s Trashy Ass Deliquents, so you can probably guess where he stands on matters of sexual freedom.

Pornography in Denmark is far more interesting as a historical document than as a documentary or a porn film. As far as docs go, it’s slow; as far as porn goes, well, there’s nudity and sex, but they’re not very arousing. The film is a bit dry and long-winded, with the narrator earnestly explaining the history of porn in Denmark, right down to reciting the national average of production costs.

The interviews with sex industry workers are interesting, though, and some of the dialogue is priceless. I was having giggle fits over lines like “Probably not many men carry a vibrator in their attaché case”; “A tourist’s raincoat has deep pockets”; and “Making a pornographic film can raise a sharp appetite!”

All in all, these events are definitely worth checking out. I’ll be at “Smut Capital” — see you there?

SMUT CAPITAL OF AMERICA: SAN FRANCISCO’S SEX FILM REVOLUTION

Smut Capital , Thurs/14, 7:30 p.m., $6–$8

Pornography in Denmark , July 21, 7:30 p.m., $6–$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

www.ybca.org

 

The toast of London

0

virginia@sfbg.com

>>View an extended version of this article at Virginia’s site, the Perfect Spot.

TRAVEL TALES Twenty-five bars, from Notting Hill to Hoxton. I did some serious exploring when I splashed down in London’s famed cocktail scene this June, from cutting-edge experimentation to dive-y comfort, legendary classics to just-opened destinations. I sipped with cocktail luminaries like Nick Strangeway, imbibed incognito at world famous haunts, and raised my glass at good old-fashioned pubs. Here are some of my experiences, served neat.

A SHOT OF INNOVATION

It’s true: there’s some cutting edge stuff going down in London Town. Among them, 69 Colebrooke Row is considered a standard of experimentation, if not mad science, with drinks pioneer Tony Conigliaro at the helm. A visit to its test lab, Drink Factory — “a collective of like-minded bartenders and artists” — was a revelation. There, unexpected flavors are subjected to rigorous R&D via a dazzling collection of lab equipment ranging from sous vide thermal immersion circulator to tube-tangled “vacuum machine.” (Press comparisons of Conigliaro to Willy Wonka have grown cliched but remain effective.).

Drink Factory rhubarb gimlet, post-centrifuge

By no means are Conigliaro and crew’s concoctions fussy. When you taste a rhubarb gimlet, for example, you get the pure tart of fresh rhubarb stalks, their essence extracted via centrifuge. This gimlet — among the best cocktails I encountered in London — may have had a complex origin but it contained a mere three ingredients: rhubarb, Beefeater gin, and a twist of grapefruit.

The Colebrooke crew recently took on the fabulous new Zetter Townhouse bar. They’ve created a cocktail menu of understated, intricate sips like the Flintlock: Beefeater gin, gunpowder tea tincture, sugar, Fernet Branca, and dandelion and burdock bitters. Zetter’s British drawing room, whimsically peppered with taxidermy (a full-sized kangaroo!), a gramophone, and mismatched furniture, complemented by a stately yet quirky basement gaming room, is among London’s nicest spots to linger over drinks.

Another standout was the spanking new Worship Street Whistling Shop. I chatted with bar manager Ryan Chetiyawardana, formerly of Bramble Bar in Edinburgh and 69 Colebrooke Row. Candlelight glowed warmly against dark wood fixtures and a classic organ with more than a hint of Victorian influence in the basement bar’s decor. Chetiyawardana showed us their Rotovap (for distilling at low temperatures) in a tiny, glass-walled “lab.” Here the Whistling Shop elves create bitters, tonics, and ingredients like “walnut ketchup” (port wine, green walnut, chocolate, saffron, and spice).

Wonders are many, from a house gin fizz using vanilla salt, orange bitters, extra virgin olive oil, and soda, to a conversation-starter called the (Substitute) Bosom Caresser, layered with baby formula milk (you heard right), Hennessy Fine de Cognac, dry Madeira, house grenadine, salt, and pepper bitters. A pricey Champagne gin fizz (80 pounds a bottle) takes No. 3 gin, lemon, and sugar, fermenting the ingredients with yeast via méthode champenoise, a classic process of secondary fermentation in the bottle. Elegant, integrated beauty.

Some of Whistling Shop’s profoundest joys came from a row of mini-casks behind the bar where an intriguing mix of ingredients are infused into a range of spirits. Though the barrel-aged cocktail craze has swept the world, I’ve yet to see this range at any one bar. WS2 “Whisky” ages Balvenie with beech, maple, and peat syrup in new oak. WS2 “Genever” captivates with Tanqueray gin, Caol Ila Scotch, green malt, and spices, aged in sherry oak. Wherever you turn at this bar, you’ll find the unusual, while the staff and vibe are comfortable, classy. Just the kind of place I’d love to have in my own city.

TRADITIONAL, WITH TWISTS

Smokin’: Hawksmoor’s julep and Tobacco Old Fashioned

Hawksmoor is the territory of visionary mixer Nick Strangeway, where friendly bartenders continue his tradition of well-crafted drinks. I was delighted to order from a menu loaded with classic juleps, cobblers, punches. St. Regis mint julep is a 1930s new Orleans recipe: rye whiskey and Cuban rum form the base, while homemade grenadine rounds it out. it comes, wonderfully, in a traditional julep cup (atypically caked in thick ice, however) with a vivid garnish of berries and mints, tasting like a proper southern julep. compared to other smoke-infused cocktails, I would have liked to taste more tobacco in the Hawksmoor’s tobacco old fashioned. But with rye and house tobacco bitters, the drink was still beautifully executed.

AND THEN … NOT SO MUCH

It’s incredible how many acclaimed London menus are still littered with flavored vodkas and fruity, chichi, or just plain played-out drinks. I witnessed entire groups of friends each with a mojito in hand in bars that carried extensive, fascinating menus.

The 1930s tunes and classy, basement vibe of Nightjar worked in terms of a speakeasy-themed bar. But clientele appeared to be not a day over 18, making the place feel like “kindergarten just let out,” as my companion the Renaissance Man said. Fine — but the flamboyantly garnished yet crappy-tasting drinks really sank the place. Despite a beautiful menu, “signature” cocktails tasted of juice (Pedro Pamaro) or smoky tea (Name of the Samurai) but not at all of alcohol. The only win was a surprisingly good canape platter. For a mere 6 pounds, one can get six tasty, generously-sized canapés until 2 or 3 a.m. This is significant when you realize how impossible it is to get even a bite to eat in London’s hippest neighborhoods after 11 p.m. (just try!)

POMP OVER TASTE

My expectations were high for my visit to the lauded Artesian Bar at the Langham Hotel. The gorgeous, airy room is illuminated with Asian-meets-French decor, romantic and intimate. An extensive menu hosts a brilliant flavor-profile map to help choose a cocktail to suit your mood. All seemed to confirm how special this place was. And then …

Yes, I was prepared for pricey cocktails (15 pounds) but not for the menu to read better than it tasted. The standout was Cask Mai Tai, a cask-aged Mai Tai, deeply spiced and autumnal, with tart lime and fresh mint. However, Silk Route, an intriguing milk punch of Batavia Arrack, Pimento Dram, and Elements 8 Platinum Rum was bland with a funky aftertaste. I yearned for its sun-dried roasted coconut and lime elements to shine through. Alexino sounded luscious: Ron Zacapa 23 Rum shaken with whipping cream, red bean paste, and aromatic spices. I tasted little red bean or spice, while the bean paste sat sludge-like at the bottom of the glass. Granted, red bean is not an easy ingredient to mix into a drink. But at roughly $25 a cocktail, each should be exemplary.

SOMETIMES CLASSIC IS BEST

I’ve saved one of the best for last: Duke’s. This elegant, small hotel bar is a temple to the martini. I could see why it was frequented by James Bond author Ian Fleming and other martini lovers over the years. I cannot recall a more perfect martini. Head barman Alessandro Palazzi is among the most delightful, consummate bartenders I’ve had the pleasure to be served by. As he wheeled out a trolley laden with olives, lemons, ice, and gorgeous barware, he immediately impressed with his expert gin knowledge.

Asking where we were from, he launched into a rapturous account of his love for San Francisco gins 209 and Junipero, saying he’s long been extolling the glories of Junipero. Well-versed and intimately acquainted with the best gins the world over, he dropped distiller names like “Arne” and “Fritz.”

I asked for London’s Sipsmith gin. Alessandro proceeded to bring out a sample of another locally-produced, small distiller Sacred so we could compare side-by-side. He mixed our martinis to icy perfection, gin’s bite tempered with the refreshing cool of dry vermouth and a hint of lemon. This tiny, quiet haven remains among my favorite memories of London, an impeccable martini immaculately served lingering in my mind.

Ariel Soto-Suver’s world of animals

4

Pygmy elephants, Kinabatangan River, Borneo, Malaysia, 2010. My husband Sam and I spent three days along this river, spotting hornbills and proboscis monkeys. On the last day, we came across a herd of these gentle mini-giants, who played along the shore of the river for almost an hour, just 10 feet from our boat. Sadly, they are very much in danger of disappearing — the exploding palm oil business is decimating their habitat.

Yellow-eyed penguin, Dunedin, New Zealand, 2010. Unlike most penguins, the yellow-eyed penguin is unique in its mating habits. It likes to nest in the woods, under trees, just like this fellow we found while hiking along the coast of New Zealand. Only a few thousand of these penguins remain, mostly due to excessive tree removal along the coast for pasture land.

Green sea turtle, North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii, 2010. My mom, a.k.a. Snorkel Mom, read that there was a tiny beach along the North Shore where giant green sea turtles like to chill. There’s no sign on the beach, but after several hairy U-turns we found the beach, and several gigantic turtles, lazing at sunset in the sand.

Monkey cat, Koh Libong, Thailand, 2008. After gorging on a huge pile of stir-fried noodles prepared by an elderly lady in a turban, we wandered around the small village in search of even more delicious local food. Instead, we came across this cool little customer. The special love child of one monkey and one cat? Probably.

Great Bay escapes

0

culture@sfbg.com

 

AÑO NUEVO STATE PARK

Due to their penis-noses and penchant for lazing about, no animal invites as much tittering as the male elephant seal. We are currently in the thick of their molting season (older males nap and shed on the beach from July until the end of August), the perfect time to hike out to their hangout on the tip of Año Nuevo. Be sure you snag your visitor’s permit — you’ll need one to enter from April-August — from the entrance station.

Open March–Sept., 8 a.m.–6 p.m. 1 New Year’s Creek, Pescadero. (Off Highway 1) (650) 879-2025, www.parks.ca.gov

 

ALAMEDA BOOZE DISTRICT

On the western edge of the island of Alameda, a one-time naval station has been repurposed into the discerning boozehound’s day trip of choice. Located within a easy block’s stumble of one another lie the tasting rooms of St. George Spirits (boasting absinthe, flavored vodkas, and coffee liqueur on the shelves) and Rock Wall Wine Company, a co-op of local wineries. They’re both a sunny walk from the ferry terminal — stroll by the massive aircraft carriers docked farther down the shore if you need to sober up after, or west to Rosenblum Cellars (2900 Main, Alameda) if you need more tastes.

St. George Spirits, 2601 Monarch, Alameda. (510) 769-1601, www.stgeorgespirits.com; Rock Wall Wine Company, 2301 Monarch, Alameda. (510) 522-5700, www.rockwallwines.com

 

CANDLESTICK POINT STATE RECREATION AREA

Candlestick Point has gone through a lot of changes in its varied history — but its current incarnation as a well-tended, if sometimes landscaped-feeling, urban refuge perfectly jibes with our times. Refreshing views of the bay, some fantastic hiking trails, and a sense of seclusion (despite the nearness of Highway 101 and the stadium) make this a neato spot to picnic, bird watch, or fish. Don’t forget to bring those layers though becuase sometimes the wind attempts to rifle gently through you.

Candlestick Park exit off Highway 101, SF

 

CHINA CAMP STATE PARK

Historically this waterfront slice on San Pablo Bay is important as the site of a Cantonese immigrant shrimp-fishing village in the 1800s (there’s a wee museum). For nature, there’s a delightful salt marsh and lazy-day winding paths drenched in sunlight and the calls of waterfowl. But — why hide it? — this is one of the best make-out places on the bay, with couples gladly making hay in the grasses. After the picnic, of course. Wet your whistle for the Annual Heritage Day Celebration on Aug. 27, 11:30 a.m.–4 p.m.

101 Peacock Gap Trail, San Rafael. www.parks.ca.gov

 

INK WELLS

Damn this SF summer fog! Escape north to Marin, where just past Boonville and just inside the border of Samuel P. Taylor State Park lie these cool pools. The rocky, clothing-optional swimming holes cascade into each other and feature prime jump-off spots for the daredevils among us who can’t be satisfied with a shady forest and some cold water on a hot day. Park your car just past Shafter Bridge (coming from Lagunitas) and walk underneath the copper-colored bridge to arrive. Samuel P. Taylor Park, Sir Francis Drake, Lagunitas

 

SLACKER HILL

Don’t freak, you don’t have to go far for nature adventures. This inappropriately-named Marin Headlands summit is just a 15 minute — albeit gnarly — hike up a gorgeous trail from a stop on the No. 76 Muni line. Once you’ve peaked, rest in the tall grass with a phenomenal 180 degree view of Sausalito, the bay, the bridges, and the city from downtown to the avenues. It’s like you’re inside one of those awesome Panoramio pics, but it’s not freezing your computer.

Trailhead begins on the right, 100 feet downhill on McCollough from the Conzelman intersection, Marin County.

 

UPCOMING FESTIVALS

SUNSET CAMPOUT

Three-day dancing and frolicking to superlative house music with thousands of others. With DJ Larry Heard, a.k.a. Mr. Fingers.

Fri/15-Sun/17, $125–>$150, Belden. www.sunsetcampout.com

 

PAL BLUES FESTIVAL

A smokin’ BBQ competition will satisfy, as will roots and blues music from dozens of performers.

Friday, July 22, 6 p.m.–8 p.m. and Saturday, July 23, 11 a.m.–8 p.m., free.

Courthouse Square, 2200 Broadway, Redwood City. www.palbluesfestival.com

 

SONOMA COUNTY FAIR

It’s the 75th year for this bonanza of California country living, with carnival rides, turkey races, vaudeville performances, wine tasting, and live music.

July 27–Aug. 14, various times, $9, kids under six and seniors free. Sonoma County Fairgrounds, www.sonomacountyfair.com

 

WANDERLUST

Bend over backward, outdoors, as yoga meets music with Michael Franti and Spearhead, Girl Talk, Cornflower, MC Yogi, and more.

July 28–31, $24.50–$450, Squaw Valley. squaw.wanderlustfestival.com

 

GAIA FESTIVAL

Celebrate the earth by getting down (and dirty?) with India.Arie and Idan Raichel, Aaron Neville, the Wailers, Funky Meters, and dozens more.

Aug. 5-7, $5–$180. Black Oak Ranch, Laytonville. www.thegaiafestival.com

 

GOOD OLD FASHIONED BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL

The Northern California Bluegrass Society goes all out with three days of pickin’ and pluckin’ campground jams and family fun.

Aug. 12–14, $8.50–$65. Bolado Park, Tres Piños. www.scbs.org/events/gov

 

OUTSIDE LANDS

A revamped food and wine aspect refreshes the massive SF music fest, whose star power includes Muse, Phish, and Arcade Fire.

Aug. 12–14, times and prices vary. Golden Gate Park, www.sfoutsidelands.com

 

BODEGA SEAFOOD ART AND WINE FESTIVAL

Drink, dine, and shop to your heart’s content. Also: Bodega Seafood Festival rubber duck races!

Saturday, Aug. 27, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 28, 10 a .m.–5 p.m., $8–$15. children under 12 free. 16855 Bodega Hwy, Bodega. www.winecountryfestivals.com

 

LOVEVOLUTION

The Bay’s hugest legal outdoor rave returns, now in Oakland for your fun-fur, hands-in-the-air pleasure. There will be a million DJs.

Sept. 24, price and time TBD. Oakland Coliseum Grounds, Oakl. www.sflovevolution.com


For more summer fairs and festival fun, visit www.sfbg.com/summerfests.

 

Big solar, little solar

4

rebeccab@sfbg.com

At a business conference this past May hosted by Wired Magazine, Bill Gates, the billionaire chair of Microsoft and an influential philanthropist, offered his two cents on solar energy. “If you’re going for cuteness,” he told Wired, “the stuff in the home is the place to go. It’s really kind of cool to have solar panels on your roof. But if you’re really interested in the energy problem, it’s those big things in the desert.”

Those big things in the desert are solar farms, designed to concentrate energy from the sun using arrays of mirrors or parabolic troughs spanning vast swaths of land. They’re green versions of the types of power plants big energy companies have always relied on — centralized, dependent on transmission lines, and requiring billions of dollars in investment. Some rely on water from desert aquifers for cooling, cleaning, and steam generation. Yet the plants can replace electricity that traditionally has been derived from burning coal, representing a significant advancement away from fossil fuels.

It’s too early to say whether California’s energy future will follow Gates’ maxim that rooftop solar is “cute” while desert solar represents the serious stuff. Others have argued just the opposite, and momentum is building on both fronts. Gov. Jerry Brown has endorsed the idea of installing 12,000 megawatts of rooftop solar, and was expected to bring stakeholders together in late July to discuss how to accomplish that goal.

At the same time, large-scale desert solar is attracting billions in investment, and big-name companies such as Bechtel, Chevron, AECOM, and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. are engaged in its development. The California Energy Commission approved nine desert solar-thermal projects last year, capable of producing 4,100 megawatts.

As California moves toward fulfilling a mandate of generating 33 percent of electricity from renewable power sources by 2020, there’s bound to be a political edge to solar development too. Giant utility companies profit by sending power along their transmission lines from desert solar farms to the grid. On the other hand, if energy-conscious customers generate more power than they use with rooftop solar panels, the utility company has to cut them a check. So there’s little incentive for utilities to encourage customer-owned, distributed generation of renewable power.

Jeanine Cotter, CEO of San Francisco-based Luminalt, a small solar installer, says it takes her work crew about a day and a half to mount new panels onto a rooftop. “That will produce power for that home for the next several decades,” Cotter notes. “It’s a rapidly deployable technology that is durable and will last a long time.”

Cotter practices what she preaches. “At my house, if you turn on all the appliances, you can look at the meter and see that we’re still relying on PG&E to bring us power,” she says. Cutting down results in the meter showing that the panels are producing electricity for the grid.

Self-empowerment is a major draw for proponents of rooftop solar. “The choice is pretty clear: pay for the ongoing cost of remote central-station renewable power or pocket the savings of locally-generated renewable power,” Al Weinrub of the Sierra Club writes in a pitch for decentralized solar generation in a January 2011 report. “Businesses with large rooftops or parking lots can become small power companies that feed electricity into the grid. Community cooperatives can pool the rooftop area of their neighborhoods to form, for example, an East Oakland Power Company.” The revenue could be rolled into job creation and more green-energy development.

Rooftop solar has gained traction in California over the past five years with a $3 billion program to subsidize installations. The California Public Utilities Commission recently touted the California Solar Initiative (CSI) program’s success — a 47 percent growth in installations since 2009. All told, the Golden State boasts 924 megawatts of solar generation capability, installed at 94,891 locations. Consultants for the California Public Utilities Commission found that 11,543 megawatts of solar could be generated on large urban rooftops statewide, while another 27,000 megawatts could be generated on empty lots near rural substations.

The potential is huge, but a cost barrier remains. Even with incentives, residential solar remains largely inaccessible to people who aren’t rich enough to own property or finance the upfront cost. In San Francisco — recently declared the greenest city in North America by Siemens — roughly 70 percent of residents are renters who almost never have the option of going solar. Proponents of desert solar farms claim that the large-scale, centralized technology offers something that rooftop panels can’t — the potential to bring renewable energy to the masses.

The largest desert solar plant under construction worldwide is BrightSource’s Ivanpah plant, which Bechtel is building in the Mojave Desert. Spearheaded by an Oakland company, the plant uses sunlight and mirrors to generate steam to power a turbine. The energy will flow onto the grid to serve PG&E and Southern California Edison customers. It’s a dramatic improvement compared with burning coal, but there are other issues. On a yearly basis, it will use enough groundwater in the arid desert to cover 100 acres, one-foot deep. And it riled environmentalists who worried that it would affect the habitat of an endangered tortoise.

No one disputes that on a per-watt basis, it’s cheaper to install desert solar than rooftop solar. According to estimates from Go Solar California, it costs more than $8 per watt to install small-scale rooftop solar systems, while recent costs for desert solar farms have been calculated at around $4 per watt. “Because they have the economy of scale, they can be built at less cost,” notes John White, executive director of the Sacramento-based Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies.

Yet a renewable energy expert who formerly worked for the California Energy Commission (CEC) says comparing costs of desert and rooftop solar from the point of view of the customer tells a different story. In April, Sanford Miller delivered a presentation at UC Davis that could have been considered subversive. His analysis essentially found that ratepayers shell out less to subsidize rooftop solar installations than they do to finance the purchase of energy from desert solar farms once the full cost of transmission and environmental mitigation are factored in.

“From a ratepayers’ perspective, rooftop solar would be significantly cheaper than the desert solar,” Miller says. When he sent his findings around to his colleagues at the CEC, “no one disputed it,” he said. “But the view was that desert solar was inevitable.”

But that still leaves the question of who can afford solar — and this is where Tom Price, former executive director of Black Rock Solar and now part of a solar investment firm called CleanPath, believes he’s found a middle way. As things stand, every utility customer chips in to subsidize the cost of individualized solar panels for the lucky few who are installing them, he points out, and those same customers are footing the bill for energy companies to buy power from giant solar farms. He’s pushing the Community Solar Gardens bill as an alternative.

Introduced as Senate Bill 843 by Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis), the bill would allow any customer to purchase a subscription to a centralized renewable energy facility, and receive credit on their utility bill in exchange for the monthly fee.

White takes the view that all the different solar technologies are needed — rooftop, desert, and “intermediary” — the kind of small-scale, centralized facility that is located closer to the customers who will use it, like the solar array at the Sunset Reservoir in San Francisco. “After Fukushima [Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan], we need to begin talking seriously about reducing our dependence on nuclear power,” White says. “When you look at what we’re trying to replace and what we’re trying to avoid, it’s like we’re trying to assemble a new portfolio.”

 

State park closures raise difficult issues

0

The recent state budget cuts remind us to treasure the natural beauty of California reflected in our state parks that we’ve taken for granted — until now. For the first time in state history, budget cuts will require closing up to 70 of our 278 state parks by July 1, 2012.

The closures are a result of the budget cuts of $11 million for the next fiscal year 2011-12. Another $11 million will be cut for the following fiscal year 2012-13. In the Bay Area alone, 20 state parks are set for closure, including Samuel P. Taylor State Park in Marin County and Castle Rock State Park in Santa Cruz County. “These cuts are unfortunate, but the state’s current budget crisis demands that tough decisions be made,” Resources Secretary John Laird said in a prepared statement.

Because no state park has ever been closed before, “we’re still figuring out what a closed park looks like,” said Danita Rodriguez, state park superintendent of Marin County.

One option is to continue to let people into the parks, but without facilities—no potable water, no bathrooms. Rodriguez hopes to create new partnerships and operating agreements in an effort to keep some of the doomed parks open, at least seasonally. “We’re in a whole new ball game right now,” she said.

Though the state park system has no intention of privatizing its parks to keep them open, it is still developing plans and guidelines and could allow private companies to operate parks under state rules as equipment rental places and restaurants within parks already do.

“In Little Basin, there’s United Camps Conferences and Retreats that operates the campground for us,” said California Department of Parks and Recreation Deputy Director of Communications Roy Stearns. “If we can find more professional campground organizations that can run campgrounds, under our rules, we’re going to consider it.”

The goal is to keep the land public, but to keep it open with private sector help if necessary, a scenario that could raise controversial privatization issues depending on what the department allows. At least 92 percent of today’s park attendance will be retained, even with the closure of 70 parks. But no one knows how the individual parks will be affected. “There are many unanswered questions,” said Chet Bardo, state park superintendent of Santa Cruz County. One such question is, how do you close a beach?

“It would be very difficult to keep people out,” Rodriguez said. But if you continue to let people in, they could act as extra eyes and ears to discourage vandalism.

Bardo suggested shortening the parks’ open seasons. “We’ve just never done this before,” so they don’t know what’s going to happen. Bardo is in the middle of submitting draft proposals for alternatives to full park closures, which could begin as early as February 2012, according to Stearns, as park employees begin getting laid off or moved to vacancies in other parks.

“Anybody who cares for their parks should visit them now and in the future, if they can,” said Bardo. 

 

PARKS IDENTIFIED FOR CLOSURE IN BAY AREA

Candlestick Point State Recreation Area

Gray Whale Cove State Beach

Samuel P. Taylor State Park

Tomales Bay State Park

Castle Rock State Park

Portola Redwoods State Park

Henry W. Coe State Park

Twin Lakes State Beach

Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park

Brennan Island State Recreation Area

Benicia Capitol State Historic Park/Benicia State Recreation Area

Olompali State Historic Park

China Camp State Park

Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park

Jack London State Historic Park

Annadel State Park

Sugarloaf Ridge State Park

Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park

Bothe-Napa Valley State Park

Austin Creek State Recreation Area

For a map of all parks identified for closure statewide, go to www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=26685.

 

Parks Inc.

6

steve@sfbg.com

Should the city be trying to make money off of its parks, recreation centers, and other facilities operated by the Recreation and Park Department? That’s the question at the center of several big controversies in recent years, as well as a fall ballot measure and an effort to elevate revenue generation into an official long-term strategy for the department.

So far, the revenue-generating initiatives by RPD General Manager Phil Ginsburg and former Mayor Gavin Newsom have been done on an ad hoc basis — such as permitting vendors in Dolores Park, charging visitors to Strybing Arboretum, and leasing out recreation centers — but an update of the Recreation and Open Space Element (ROSE) of the General Plan seeks to make it official city policy.

The last of six objectives in the plan, which will be heard by the Planning Commission Aug. 4, is “secure long-term resources and management for open space acquisition, operations, and maintenance,” a goal that includes three policies: develop long-term funding mechanisms (mostly through new fees and taxes); partner with other public agencies and nonprofits to manage resources; and, most controversially, “pursue public-private partnerships to generate new operating revenues for open spaces.”

The plan likens that last policy to the city’s deal with Clear Channel to maintain Muni bus stops with funding from advertising revenue, saying that “similar strategies could apply to parks.” It cites the Portland Parks Foundation as a model for letting Nike and Columbia Sportswear maintain facilities and mark them with their corporate logos, and said businesses such as bike rental shops, cafes, and coffee kiosks can “serve to activate an open space,” a phrase it uses repeatedly.

“The city should seek out new opportunities, including corporate sponsorships where appropriate, and where such sponsorship is in keeping with the mission of the open space itself,” the document says.

Yet that approach is anathema to how many San Franciscans see their parks and open spaces — as vital public assets that should be maintained with general tax revenue rather than being dependent on volunteers and wealthy donors, subject to entry fees, or leased to private organizations.

That basic philosophical divide over how the city’s parks and recreational facilities are managed has animated a series of conflicts in recent years that have soured many people on the RPD. They include the mass firing of rec directors and leasing out of rec centers, the scandal-tinged process of selecting a new Stow Lake Boathouse vendor, new vending contracts for Dolores Park, the eviction of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Center recycling facility, plans to develop western Golden Gate Park and other spots, the conversion by the private City Fields Foundation of many soccer fields to artificial turf, and the imposition of entry fees at the arboretum.

Activists involved in those seemingly unrelated battles united into a group called Take Back Our Parks, recognizing that “it’s all the same problem: the monetization of the park system,” says member John Rizzo, a Sierra Club activist and elected City College trustee. “It’s this Republican idea that the parks should pay for themselves.”

And now, with the help of the four most progressive members of the Board of Supervisors, the group is putting the issue before voters and trying to stop what it calls the auctioning off of the city’s most valuable public assets to the highest bidders.

The Parks for the Public initiative — which was written by the group and placed on the ballot by Sups. John Avalos, David Campos, Eric Mar, and Ross Mirkarimi — is intended to “ensure equal public access to parks and recreation facilities and prevent privatization of our public parks and facilities,” as the measure states. It would prevent the department from entering into any new leases or creating new entry fees for parks and other facilities.

Even its promoters call it a small first step that doesn’t get into controversies such as permitting more vending in the parks, including placing a taco truck in Dolores Park and the aborted attempt to allow a Blue Bottle Coffee concession there. But it does address the central strategy Newsom and his former chief of staff, Ginsburg, have been using to address the dwindling RPD budget, which was slashed by 7 percent last year.

“What a lot of us think the Recreation and Parks Department is actually doing is relinquishing the maintenance of park facilities to private entities,” says Denis Mosgofian, who founded the group following his battles with RPD over the closures and leases rec centers. “They’re actually dismantling much of what the public has created.”

He notes that San Francisco voters have approved $371 million in bonds over the last 20 years to improve parks and recreation centers, only to have their operations defunded and control of many of them simply turned over to private organizations that often limit the public’s ability to use them.

By Mosgofian’s calculation, at least 14 of the city’s 47 clubhouses and recreation centers have been leased out and another 11 have been made available for leases, often for $90 per hour, which is more than most community groups can afford. And he says 166 recreation directors and support staffers have been laid off in the last two years, offset by the hiring of at least nine property management positions to handle the leases.

Often, he said, the leases don’t even make fiscal sense, with some facilities being leased for less money than the city is spending to service the debt used to refurbish them. Other lease arrangements raised economic justice concerns, such as when RPD evicted a 38-year-old City College preschool program from the Laurel Hill Clubhouse to lease it to Language in Action, a company that does language immersion programs for preschoolers.

“Without telling anyone, they arranged to have a private, high-end preschool go in,” Rizzo said, noting that its annual tuition of around $12,000 is too expensive for most city residents and that the program even fenced off part of the playground for its private use, all for a monthly lease of less than $1,500. “They don’t talk to the neighbors who are affected or the users of the park … We’re paying for it and then we don’t have access to it.”

They also refused to answer our questions. Neither Ginsburg nor Recreation and Park Commission President Mark Buell responded to Guardian messages. Department spokesperson Connie Chan responded by e-mail and asked us to submit a list of questions, which department officials still hadn’t answered at Guardian press time. But it does appear that the approach has at least the tacit backing of Mayor Ed Lee.

“In order to increase its financial sustainability in the face of ongoing General Fund reductions, the Recreation and Parks Department continues to focus on maximizing its earned revenue. Its efforts include capitalizing on the value of the department’s property and concessions by entering into new leases and developing new park amenities, pursuing philanthropy, and searching for sponsorships and development opportunities,” reads Mayor Lee’s proposed budget for RPD, which includes a chart entitled “Department Generated Revenue” that shows it steadily increasing from about $35 million in 2005-06 to about $45 million in 2011-12.

And that policy approach would get a big boost if it gets written into the city’s General Plan, which could happen later this year.

Land use attorney Sue Hestor has been fighting projects that have disproportionately favored the wealthy for decades, often using the city’s General Plan, a state-mandated document that lays out official city goals and policies. She also is concerned that the ROSE is quietly being developed to “run interference for Rec-Park to do anything they want to.”

“By getting policies into the General Plan that are a rationalization of privatization, it backs up what Rec-Park is doing,” Hestor said, noting how much influence Ginsburg and his allies have clearly exerted over the Planning Department document. “It’s effectively a Rec-Park plan.”

Sue Exeline, the lead planner on ROSE, said the process was launched in November 2007 by an Open Space Task Force created by Newsom, and that the Planning Department, Neighborhood Parks Council, and speakers at community meetings have all influenced its development. Yet she conceded that RPD was “a big part of the process.”

When we asked about the revenue-generating policies, where they came from, and why they were presented in such laudatory fashion without noting the controversy that underlies them, Exeline said simply: “It will continue to be vetted.” And when we continued to push for answers, she tried to say the conversation was off-the-record, referred us to RPD or Planning Director John Rahaim, and hung up the phone.

The rationale for bringing in private sources of revenue: it’s the only way to maintain RPD resources during these tight budget times. A July 5 San Francisco Examiner editorial that praised these “revenue-generating business partnerships” and lambasted the ballot measure and its proponents was titled “Purists want Rec and Park to pull cash off trees.”

But critics say the department could be putting more energy into a tax measure, impact fees, or other general revenue sources rather than simply turning toward privatization options.

“We need to see revenue, but we also need to stop the knee-jerk acceptance of every corporate hand that offers anything,” Mosgofian said. “Our political leadership believes you need to genuflect before wealth.”

And they say that their supporters cover the entire ideological spectrum.

“We’re getting wide support, everywhere from conservative neighborhoods to progressive neighborhoods. It’s not a left-right issue, it’s about fairness and equity,” Rizzo said.

In sponsoring the Parks for the People initiative and unsuccessfully trying to end the arboretum fees (it failed on a 5-6 vote at the Board of Supervisors, with President David Chiu the swing vote), John Avalos is the one major mayoral candidate that is raising concerns about the RPD schemes.

“Our parks are our public commons. They are public assets that should be paid for with tax dollars,” Avalos told us. He called the idea of allowing advertising and corporate sponsorships into the parks, “a real breach from what the public expects from parks and open space.”

When asked whether, if he’s elected mayor, he would continue the policies and let Ginsburg continue to run RPD, Avalos said, “Probably not. I think we need to make a lot of changes in the department. They should be given better support in the General Fund so we don’t have to make these kinds of choices.”

ROSE will be the subject of informational hearings before the Planning Commission on Aug. 4 and Sept. 15, with an adoption hearing scheduled for Oct. 13. Each hearing begins at noon in Room 400, City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Dr., San Francisco.

 

Dismantle death row

0

The moment has arrived to eliminate the death penalty in California and, for the first time in decades, it is a goal we can accomplish.

My legislation, Senate Bill 490, would close death row and replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Last week it passed its first legislative test by a vote of 5-2 in the Assembly Public Safety Committee.

The witnesses who appeared in support of the bill were most certainly not people we think of as the usual suspects. One of them — Don Heller — was the author of the 1978 initiative that reinstituted the death penalty in California. A former prosecutor and a Republican, Heller now believes it should be eliminated. He says it has been applied unequally, that at least one possibly innocent person has been executed, and that it is not making us safer in our communities.

More striking testimony came from Jeanne Woodford, who presided over four executions as the warden of San Quentin State Prison, where she worked for almost 27 years. She called the death penalty process a “broken, costly, failed system.”

Finally, Judith Kerr testified about the heartbreaking murder of her beloved brother in 2003. “I want Bob’s killer to be apprehended and punished — I do not want someone else’s brother to be killed and I do not want to wait 25 years for the case to finally close,” she said. “Public safety would be better served by spending the money solving the 46 percent of California murders that go unsolved every year.”

Reconsidering the death penalty is particularly important at a time when the state is making heartbreaking cuts to higher education, children’s health, help for the elderly and disabled, and all the great public institutions took decades to build and that are now being allowed to wither. The fact is, the death penalty is costing us a fortune.

Since 1978, California has spent approximately $4 billion on death penalty costs and has executed only 13 people. That’s $308 million per condemned inmate. And every year it costs Californians $185 million more to maintain the 714 prisoners on death row than if they were housed in a maximum-security prison.

We aren’t being tough on crime; we’re just being tough on the taxpayer.

Those stunning figures come from a study released earlier this week by U.S. Ninth Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell. Their neutral analysis, based on previously unavailable data from the California Department of Corrections, estimates the state could save $1 billion every five years by replacing the death penalty with life in prison without parole.

It might seem counterintuitive that sentencing people to death is more costly than life in prison without parole. But death penalty cases require longer trials, careful investigation, heightened security, and legal reviews mandated by both the state and federal constitutions. A death penalty trial can cost as much as 20 times more than sentencing an inmate to life without parole.

It’s more likely for a death row prisoner in California to die of illness, suicide, or old age than execution.

As a state senator, a mother, and a grandmother, I cannot justify this expense. Not when we are all tightening our belts and accepting deep cuts to education, health care, and environmental protections — cuts that diminish the life prospects for us and for generations to come.

My bill would also eliminate the risk of wrongful execution. At least 138 people across the country have been released from death row after new evidence emerged proving they were innocent.

Opponents claim that public support for the death penalty is strong in California. However, a 2011 poll released by David Binder Research found that 63 percent of likely California voters support replacing the death penalty with permanent imprisonment without the chance of parole. It seems that voters have had enough.

Now is the time. Eliminating the death penalty will save hundreds of millions of dollars every year. It is the right thing to do.

State Senator Loni Hancock represents the East Bay.

 

Editor’s notes

16

tredmond@sfbg.com

I’m not prone to agreeing with right-wing nuts from Riverside County, but there’s a county supervisor down there named Jeff Stone who has a dandy idea. He wants to secede.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Stone is proposing that 13 counties in the southland and inland empire split off and become their own state, which would be called South California. We’re talking everything south of Madera, with the coastal counties (and Los Angeles) left behind. A real conservative haven of low taxes and limited regulation.

And I say: Go for it, pal. I’m completely with you.

Imagine what would happen if Supervisor Stone got his way. There would be no more budget paralysis in the California Legislature. Democrats would control two-thirds of both houses and could pass a budget that included higher taxes on the rich and big corporations. Candidates for governor wouldn’t have to worry about getting votes from the conservative parts of the state, so they could talk more honestly about the major issues. Same-sex marriage would pass the first week. Pot would be legal. The death penalty would be gone in a year or two.

It might take a while longer to amend Prop. 13, but with the ability to raise revenue instead of just cutting, California could begin to fund the schools adequately, rebuild the state university system, and move forward with projects like high-speed rail.

And let’s remember: those counties that want to leave? They elect representatives who won’t vote for taxes — but they are the biggest beneficiaries of state revenues. The northern and coastal counties, the more liberal ones, pay more in taxes than we get in services. Our taxpayers are subsidizing their tax haters.

So go on — leave. We’ll keep our money here.

Now, just to our south and east would be a train wreck of a state with few public services — but South California would still be part of America, so people could move north without worrying about immigration papers. I’d propose that we set up a state fund to resettle refugees from Republicanland.

And maybe, after a while, the people who have to live with crappy schools and crumbling roads will look across the border and say, Why do they have it so good? And maybe they’ll start to think differently about the role of government.

End the BART cover-up

3

Ten days have passed since a BART police officer shot and killed a man at the Civic Center station — and the public still knows almost nothing about what happened. BART will only say that an officer (unnamed) shot a man who was “aggressive” and “holding a bottle and a knife.” One witness told the Bay Citizen that the man “looked like a drunk hippie” and wasn’t running or lunging toward the two officers on duty. The coroner has identified the victim as Charles Blair Hill, 45; he had no known address.

And that’s about it. BART is investigating and so is the San Francisco Police Department, but neither agency has released a single police report or any further information. BART is still withholding a security video from the station that shows part of the incident. All that either police department will say at this point is that the investigation is under way — but nobody will offer any time frame for its completion.

For an agency still reeling from the last police shooting and still trying to win some kind of public confidence in its ability to run a law-enforcement operation, this kind of stonewalling is a big mistake.

We understand that the surveillance video might influence potential witnesses and perhaps should be kept under wraps until everyone on the scene has made a statement. But how long can that take? Two weeks? Three? At a certain point, the cops will have found all the witnesses they’re going to find — and the public needs to know that there will be a reasonable time limit after which the video will be made public.

The same goes for police reports on the incident, including the statements of other witnesses — and the names of the officers involved.

BART’s spokesperson, Linton Johnson, told us he can’t release the names of the officers because state law forbids it. He says he will release the video footage as soon as the investigation is complete. When will that be? Nobody’s giving so much as a hint. Johnson says he doesn’t know because the San Francisco Police Department is the lead agency; SFPD public affairs says the only person authorized to talk about the case is Johnson at BART.

SFPD has no business giving BART the final says on this — San Francisco ought to release the information from its incident reports immediately.

We’d be more patient about this if BART didn’t have such a long, disgraceful history of cover-ups, obfuscation, and lies about police shootings. Since 1992, when the agency completely fabricated a story to justify the shooting of an 19-year-old Jerrold Hall (BART said Hall was struggling for control of the cop’s gun; evidence showed he was actually shot in the back, from a considerable distance) it’s been hard to trust anything the transit system says.

A BART cop shot and killed a naked, mentally ill man in 2001 (and tried to cover up the scandal). And of course, the 2009 Oscar Grant shooting was marked by misinformation and cover-ups.

So BART has a particular responsibility to handle this case with the greatest amount of sunshine possible. For starters, the basic police reports — the officers’ own accounts and the reports of the initial response team — ought to be public (even if the names of the officers and witnesses are redacted). And if there’s a legal issue, the BART board ought to take the initiative to ask a judge to authorize the release of at least some relevant information.

If the officer who fired on Charles Blair Hill acted properly, then there’s nothing to hide. If the officer shot too quickly, then the public needs to know that BART is aware of the problem and is going to act on it — before anyone else gets killed.