Volume 45 Number 48

Grinning and bearing it

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THEATER A sweet, normally placid Southern working-class wifey named Nan Carter (Erin Gilley) — no relation to Jimmy, but oh how for some reason she wishes! — takes revenge on her abusive husband Kyle (Patrick Jones) with the help of two close friends, a roll of duct tape, a fresh deer carcass, and a working knowledge of the dramatic arts in Crowded Fire’s world premiere of playwright Lauren Gunderson’s light but witty comedy.

Taped to a ratty living room chair as the play opens, Kyle (a scruffy, gruff, gritty charmer in Jones’s skillful rendering) is getting his comeuppance in the form of a theatrical performance. Center stage is aggrieved wife Nan as herself, with admirable supporting work from new pal Sweetheart (Andrea Snow), a.k.a. Peaches, a stripper and amateur thesp who plays “Kyle” in a series of scenes meant to detail the real Kyle’s wicked ways, and make manifest Nan’s heretofore disregarded perspective. Out of the wings and through the front door also comes Simon Beaufort (Reggie D. White), Nan’s longtime best friend and champion as well as somewhat bitchy cheerleader (complete with pompoms).

Meanwhile, Kyle is prepped with hunks of venison and plastic bottles of honey for the bears that apparently still roam the mountains of North Georgia. His instinct, under the circumstances, is to pitch some overdue woo to his wavering wife, as fast as possible. Hence, more or less, the title of Gunderson’s play, which repeats a famously evocative stage direction in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The play has less to do with Shakespeare per se, however, than the role of imagination and theater as a vehicle for personal and communal transcendence.

Not to put too fine a point on it. Exit is a spirited comedy, able and clever, with likeable performances under Desdemona Chiang’s sure direction. There’s a trickle of treacle running through it, but Gunderson has a fine way with comic dialogue and demonstrates restraint in the sentiment department, while pivoting respectfully around the subject of domestic violence. At the same time, the invention and exploration feel tame for all the wild life running around the text — which also includes more arbitrary flights, like Nan’s emphasis on the words and quote-unquote wisdom of former president Carter, which flavor her dialogue like a sweet but vague slathering of peanut sauce. Moreover, the plot never holds much in way of suspense, the moral coming way out front. In fact, this easy pleasures here bring to mind another new play running on a local stage just now (and not just for its animal-imagery magnetism), Kim Rosenstock’s adept but ultimately glancing dramedy Tigers Be Still at SF Playhouse.

 

EXIT, PURSUED BY A BEAR

Through Sept. 17

Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m., $10–$35

Boxcar Playhouse

505 Natoma, SF www.crowdedfire.org

Refusing to be hotboxed

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HERBWISE Karen Cue, CEO of this weekend’s International Cannabis and Hemp Expo is taking me to school. “It’s insulting to switch up those terms,” she tells me.

The terms I switched up? I just asked her why it was important to have legal-for-cannabis-consumption “215 areas” at her upcoming event, which will draw a projected 30,000 marijuana patients and cannabis-curious folk, turning a full mile’s worth of streets into an exhibition area in middle of downtown Oakland.

I’m standing by the validity of the question — but apparently I shouldn’t have phrased it “why is it important for people to be able to smoke weed?”

“That’s the terminology for recreational use,” Cue says. The expo is not, she says, about getting blazed and blunted. Medical marijuana users pay $20 million a year to the California state government in what are called taxable donations. That should buy them some civil rights — and many advocates see having places to legally consume cannabis as a big deal. “95 percent” of the people that her expo is marketed to, Cue says, are medical marijuana patients.

The event has been growing larger every year. This is the first year it will be held in downtown Oakland, having outgrown 2010 and 2009’s site, Candlestick Park. Cue calls the expo’s old digs “kind of old, kind of rustic — it’s got its good qualities about it, but we’re looking at advancement.” An Oakland local herself, she saw the possibility of holding the expo in a more accessible location — an outdoors area with a shady park, no less — a way to improve everyone’s enjoyment of the weekend.

And after years of dealing with Candlestick (a state-owned facility), holding the event in the heart of Oaksterdam was a breeze. City government had rejected two cannabis expo event applications in the past, but Cue says the reputation of her group coupled with positive media reviews it has earned made the city’s process relatively easy to work through.

“They did not ask anything of us out of the norm. But it definitely did raise the attention of the Oakland police” — a security concern that she hopes will be unfounded.

But this is no simple smoke-out (which I say in the most medicine-respecting way possible). Cue says the exhibition is also meant as an important learning opportunity about the parts of the marijuana plant you consume — and the parts you wear.

Hemp, as any good stoner should know, was once used by the US military to make uniforms, ropes, and parachutes. The government even released a short movie entitled Hemp For Victory during World War II promoting the material’s importance to the American war machine. Drafts of the Declaration of Independence was written on the stuff, for chrissakes. It’s more durable than cotton, hemp oil is a prime source of essential fatty acids — the list of reasons for its full legalization goes on.

For a crash course in hemp’s utilitarian glory, Cue recommends checking out David (“Doctor”) Bronner’s talk at the expo. Bronner is a member of Canada’s International Hemp Association, a hemp advocacy group that has no equivalent here in the United States. Learnin’ will also be on tap at the expo’s three stages of speakers, at vendor booths, and at Grow Op’s portable marijuana-growing trailer.

Have fun, learn stuff — and don’t call it weed. 

INTERNATIONAL CANNABIS AND HEMP EXPO

Sat/3-Sun/4 noon- 8 p.m., $18-300

Frank Ogawa Plaza, Oakl.

www.intcheevents.com

WEST COAST CANNABIS AND MUSIC FESTIVAL

For even more cannabis celebration, check out next month’s tune-and-toke fest — three days of live music powered by Rock The Bike’s generator bicycles.

Oct. 7-9. Fri., 3-9 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-7 p.m., $18 one day pass/$45 three day pass

Cow Palace

Daly City

www.westcoastcannabisexpo.com

 

Reprogramming the hardware

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MUSIC Technology can be so existentially mystifying. One minute you’re a kid in the back seat of your parents’ car with thumbs aimed and eyes glued to the screen of your modern handheld gaming console, the next you’re on stage with blinding lights and an audience, smashing into a modified old-school Gameboy on a snare drum. One second you’re doubled over in bed with the stomach flu, the next you’re in a box on Google+, simultaneously interviewing two band members from their respective Bay Area cities.

It’s enough to melt your mind, and we haven’t even begun to discuss those Gameboy modifications. Chiptune or 8-bit music is nothing new — nerded out musicians have been tinkering with the sounds on gaming consoles since the products hit the shelves in the 1980s — but now the music has the distinction of being both technologically advanced by some standards, and vintage, given its nostalgic sound.

Plus, in these financially-strapped times, it’s an economical way of creating music. “You don’t need anything fancy to make it,” says drummer-synth programmer Matt Payne. “The equipment is dirt cheap and it’s so accessible.”

Chiptune community outreach is big for him, Payne adds from his home in Oakland, holding up a mutant Gameboy with a blinking fuzzed out screen. He and musician-@GAMER magazine associate editor Lizzie Cuevas make up Bay Area-based 8-bit band the Glowing Stars. Cuevas, joining us in the Google+ video chatroom from her office in Daly City, agrees that once people see a live chiptune band, they’re usually inspired to try out the technology themselves. “We always have people who come up at shows and ask, ‘how do you do it?'”

The duo has demonstrated just how they do that at the Maker Faire and Pulse Wave SF — a friendly monthly gathering for chiptune bands. Up next, they play the free CONVERGENCE International Alternative Music and Arts Festival at the Japantown Peace Plaza.

Cuevas and Payne met in 2005, each playing in different punk bands. Payne joined Cuevas’ band (Sputterdoll), which broke up a few years ago. “We knew we wanted to do something video game related, we just didn’t know exactly what,” says Cuevas.

Payne had futzed with a program called LSDJ (LittleSound DJ) when it first came out, but hadn’t been serious about it initially, he says. “There’s a learning curve, it’s one of those easy to learn, difficult to master things.” With the new band starting up in 2010, he began gathering Gameboys and filling them with his own sounds. Given Cuevas’ affinity for early Weezer, the music they make is poppy, but it also has that nostalgic synthesized MIDI sound.

“There’s a misconception about it, that we’re using samples from video game somehow or that we’re doing something using actual songs from video games,” says Payne. “But what we’re actually doing is basically stripping down the console to a little sound making computer and getting it to play back our music.”

The process works like this: Cuevas writes the first skeleton of a song on guitar then sends it to Payne. He then programs it using LSDJ and loads it onto the Gameboy for that 8-bit transformation. They ping it back and forth, adding layers to the song. Payne also just started making music with a Sega Genesis — you can make chiptune on any console — so that might come into play soon.

Live, Cuevas sings and play distorted guitar, and sometimes taps a fresh Gameboy, like in the song “Bounce Bounce” where she solos over the final instrumental part. Payne plays drums and, occasionally, picks up the keytar. He also keeps his modded Gameboy on his snare, which has only once caused significant damage.

“I hit it with the drum stick — it made a loud, awful noise,” he says.

Cuevas smiles and replies, “I think you lost a chunk of your Gameboy.”

 

CONVERGENCE FESTIVAL

The Glowing Stars

With the Bran Flakes, Planet Booty, Teenage Sweater

Sun/4, 12-5 p.m., free

Japantown Peace Plaza Post Street Between Webster and Laguna, SF www.convergencefest.com

Analytics

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caitlin@sfbg.com

MUSIC “I know I don’t speak English good, but I make music. So fuck it.”

Half the audience can’t understand a word of her songs, but it hardly seems to matter — Chilean emcee Ana Tijoux is killing it onstage at her recent show at Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz. The tiny rapper stalks around confidently in an outfit you’d probably read about in M.I.A.’s style book; an oversized blue T-shirt, athletic high-tops, and psychedelic, geometric black-and-white tights that I promise you cannot be found in this country.

The band surges behind her as she launches into her breakout single “1977,” about the year she was born, living with politically exiled Chilean parents in Europe during Augusto Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship. “Todo lo que cambia lo hará diferente,” she chants in the song’s chorus — that was the year that everything changed.

Tijoux’s banter is in English (don’t believe the self-deprecation, she speaks it rather well), but her flow is español puro, tight verses that, when you’re unable to keep up with their meaning, impress anyway with their complex structures. When she slyly throws out that “fuck it,” the crowd kind of freaks out. They love her, they get her.

It doesn’t make sense, really. The power of hip-hop — the most verbal of all musical genres — is in the meaning of the lyrics. How many non-English-speaking emcees make it big in the United States? Even Dizzee Rascal had trouble over crossover appeal and his first language, at least, was English. How do we interpret an emcee like Tijoux appealing to music fans who can’t possibly be tracing the metaphors in her verses? I Skyped Tijoux last week to get her take on things.

“The music industry convinces you that you’ll never be popular [performing] in another language — and in rap, even more,” Tijoux says, sounds of children playing in the background of her phone call. “But it’s about music in the end. Hip-hop is international, it’s the language of flow.” She says she was nervous before her US debut at South By Southwest in 2010, she thought that maybe people wouldn’t have the patience for an emcee that spat in another language.

But experience has calmed her doubts. Tijoux has since played stages from New York to Outside Lands 2011 — not to mention gigs across the world. She says she finds common threads of hip-hop counterculture wherever she goes, but is still surprised by regional variances, like Cuba’s cumbia inflected music.

Tijoux returns to the Bay next Sunday, September 11, a show at the Regency Ballroom with Venezuelan disco rockers Los Amigos Invisibles and members of Tijuana electronica-norteño group Nortec Collective.

“Sometimes it’s frustrating not being able to communicate with some people. It’s not about trying to have more crowd or market, it has to do with the number of people you can share a message with. If that means rapping in Chinese, fuck I will do it.” Sounds good — so when are her verses in English dropping?

“When it’s natural I will do it.” She’s freestyled in English before she says, but it’s not a pretty picture. I guess her monolingual California fans are going to have to wait for the next tour to be able to sing along with Ana.

But in place of new English cuts she’s keen, it turns out, on lending her flair to another crew who could use some help these days, um, communicating. What’s up, United Nations?

“Yeah! Contract me right now,” she laughs. “I’ll do all the translations in rapping.”

ANA TIJOUX

With Los Amigos Invisibles and the Nortec Collective’s Bostich and Fussible

Sun/11 8 p.m., $20

Regency Ballroom

1290 Sutter, SF

www.theregencyballroom.com

 

Muslim and proud (and hilarious)

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THEATER Onstage, a woman and her father battle over modern sensibilities versus religious tradition. The father leads with a left jab and the mantra “in the Koran, in the Koran, in the Koran,” which the daughter counters with a roundhouse punch and “third-wave feminism.” Both characters are being played by Zahra Noorbakhsh, a feisty, spirited, thoroughly modern woman — and a Muslim, an important part of her identity she’s not about to let anyone forget. But believing in God doesn’t mean your interpretation of “God’s law” is going to be the same as your parents’, and her notion that her long-distance, white, atheist boyfriend Duncan ought to move in with her, purely for reasons of economy of course, is not a prospect her devout Iranian parents can whole-heartedly embrace.

“It’s against the Koran, man,” her father states definitively. “What you want me to do?”

What he will do is the greatest draw of the show, provocatively entitled All Atheists Are Muslim, which made its New York International Fringe Festival debut to a sold-out house on August 12, weeks away from the tenth anniversary of 9/11 — a date most New Yorkers are all too aware of. Not that Iran has anything to do with that particular date (even George W. wouldn’t go that far), but the intricacies of Islam are nonetheless of enduring topical interest.

“Growing up Muslim-Iranian, I had to constantly, vehemently defend my faith, my culture, and my family everyday,” Noorbakhsh reminisces. Even today, people she is close with freely equate “Muslim” with “terrorist” in polite conversation — even people who have seen her show and know her personally.

Deciding to apply to the New York International Fringe Festival seemed like a logical way to bring her comedic message of tolerance and inter-cultural exchange to New York, especially after having accompanied her director W. Kamau Bell to the 2009 Fringe to run tech for his show The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in about an Hour. After several months of meeting deadlines for program blurbs, participant fees, and tech specs, Noorbakhsh and her “Authorized Company Representative” (also her atheist boyfriend) have been tirelessly navigating the Fringe from the clusters of black-box theaters that dot the brownstone landscape of the East Village.

Working the post-show crowds of her own and others’ shows, Noorbakhsh exudes big sisterly camaraderie and casual confidence rather than rehearsed marketing speak, and a good percentage of her audiences has been made up of fellow performers — a true sign of Fringe success. Of course the run hasn’t been without its surprises. One front-row audience member abruptly refused to be “converted” (“It says right on the postcard that the first three rows will be converted to Islam,” Noorbakhsh points out with amused exasperation). Along those lines, the emphasis placed on handing out postcards as marketing strategy was a surprise; “in San Francisco, it’s a faux pas,” she says of the practice in the local comedy club scene. Above all, her major sense of frustration has come from trying to attract fellow Persians to the show, a difficulty she has not experienced in California.

“In San Francisco I’m an active member of the Persian community,” she explains. “I’m vocal and participate in many organizations. [In New York], nobody knows me outside of this very bold, divisive, and controversial title.”

That many Iranian-Americans she knows identify as atheist rather than Muslim, distancing themselves as much as possible from Iran’s Islamic regime, is certainly part of the obstacle. It seems it’s not just misguided Caucasian theatre-goers who are guilty of confusing “Muslim” with “terrorist”

“This fear of the word Muslim has to stop,” Noorbakhsh opines. “We’ve got to point out how much people flinch at just the word and how horrifyingly racist and damaging that demonization is.”

At Noorbakhsh’s last show of her New York run, a record 20 people are turned away at the door (including, alas, the long-awaited Persians), and the packed house roars appreciatively at her lovingly-skewered portrayal of her foul-mouthed father (“What the shit hell is this, man?”) and her winsome mother, who offers to buy her a Persian rug if she’ll just get married already. Leading the audience through the terms of the compromise they all agree to in order to preserve the peace, Noorbakhsh makes it possible for the audience to fall in love with her tradition-bound family despite their initial resistance to Noorbakhsh’s American-born sensibilities.

And how do her parents feel about Noorbakhsh’s audiences? “They usually sell my tickets,” laughs Noorbakhsh. “They love it.”

ALL ATHEISTS ARE MUSLIM

Through Oct. 1, $20

Opens Thurs/1, 8 p.m.

Runs Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.

Stage Werx Theatre

533 Sutter, SF

(415) 517-3581

www.brownpapertickets.com

Eric Quezada. Presente.

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By Roberto Lovato and Jason Ferreira

“I’d love to see a garden of flowers there,” whispered Eric Quezada a few days before his final breath on Earth. Looking like a Guatemalan Quixote, a lanky Eric pointed to the front of his Bernal Heights home with an index finger whittled down by a cancer he’d been fighting ferociously for seven years.

Days later, about 150 people brought pots packed with daisies, bougainvilleas, lavender, lots of red roses — and a bright bouquet of candles to bear witness to the life and friendship of a man who had planted his gentle way into our thoughts, our actions and—most especially—our hearts. To see the tearful and trembling faces of the diverse crowd — former Salvadoran revolutionaries, African American internationalists, soccer buddies made over a lifetime, immigrant rights advocates, Aztec dancers, Guatemalan family members, long time and recent Mission residents, queer leaders and the (Latino) Man Who Would Be Mayor — was heartbreaking. But at the same time we were all shining forth the beautiful Mission that Eric spent a lifetime steadfastly tending to with love.

A true revolutionary, our friend, our brother, who died Aug. 24 at 45, Eric Quezada, lived and died organizing his community, La Misión.

San Francisco and the wider community lost more than just a housing activist, a former candidate for supervisor, and an extraordinarily effective standard bearer of the left. We lost a husband-father-son-brother, a loyal friend and mentor, and a spiritual-political figure whose sources of beauty only became obvious after he gently touched you.

The son of Carlos and Clara Quezada, two Guatemalan immigrants known to many Mission residents as the dynamic duo that birthed two soccer stars (Eric and older brother Carlos) and owned CQ Bike shop on 24th Street, the very soft-spoken Eric lived to bridge the human and the political.

Traveling as a child between a San Francisco on the verge of the silicon revolution-based gentrification wave and wartime Guatemala, Eric developed early on a sense of the emotional and political circuits connecting movements and people on the insurgent continent of América. He grew up hearing stories of very involved and engaged family members like aunt, Ana Maria Quezada, who was arrested for protesting and organizing in Argentina during the 1978 World Cup, and his parents, who lived through the military coup that ousted democratically-elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz. “I remember hearing stories about Arbenz,” Eric once told us, adding, “—and how the U.S. sponsored the coup.”

Eric’s unique vision was also born out of the racism –and the resistance to it-back home in the Bay Area. Eric often talked of how his mother and he once witnessed two police officers harassing several young African American boys in the parking lot of a convenience store. Clara immediately took the officers to task for their racism, refusing to leave until they left the young boys alone. Eric never forgot his immigrant mother’s courage, her transcendent lesson: always stand alongside those who face injustice.

“Eric is a continuum,” fellow organizer and beloved compañera, Lorena Melgarejo, said. “His beliefs, his commitment didn’t stop in public. They are deep in how he thought about life. As a dad, as a friend, as a lover- that’s who he was,” said Lorena.

After Eric told her when they first met that he didn’t want to burden her with his cancer, Lorena responded: “You have no right to stop your life, you can’t close the door to life!” After that, they were never apart. Embracing life, one filled with no regrets, they fell in love immediately. A few years later, upon the arrival of their beautiful daughter Ixchel, Lorena reminded the larger-than-life, activist father that, “You can’t put your personal life on hold because there’ll always be an event, a meeting or some crisis in the world.”

As was obvious to anyone who really got to know him, one of Eric’s primary connectors to that wider, crisis-filled world of politics and culture was something seemingly apolitical: soccer.

“His politics were like his soccer playing,” explained Eric’s uncle, Edgar, who formed an important part of the Sagastume soccer dynasty in late 20th century San Francisco. “When Eric played, he was cool, but tenacious, hard working. He trained meticulously and never gave up. Eric was fond of saying how he “learned about the politics in different countries—Croatia, Greece, Mexico, El Salvador, England, all kinds—from playing in the San Francisco (soccer) leagues. You learned international relations and neighborhood politics at the same time.”

Such a schooling made Eric a ferocious ally of Central American revolutionary movements including the URNG in Guatemala, Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the FMLN in El Salvador. These same commitments also served him well as a leader in the Venceremos Brigade to Cuba, where he met Fidel Castro, famously causing the Cuban leader to become nostalgic when asked about his memories of meeting Malcolm X in Harlem. Later, in 2002, he met with Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. They talked about everything from 21st century socialism to baseball. Beaming with the pride that only a lifelong—not fair weather—fan can display, Eric swore that Chávez was a huge fan of the San Francisco Giants.

The eclectic internationalism Eric envisioned and embodied was always two-way. He always strived towards reciprocity. Through Grassroots Global Justice and his work at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre (Brazil), Eric sought to bring to the international stage the struggles of working class San Franciscans: day laborers, the homeless, people with HIV, and undocumented immigrants.

Eric’s journey reflected that of his mentor and dear friend, the legendary Bill Sorro (who himself died of cancer four years ago this very week). Both Bill and Eric were revolutionaries largely unsatisfied with the traditional rhetoric and disarming anger of the left. “We don’t struggle because we hate, we do so because we love. Yes, we may hate oppression but in the end we are fighting for something, we fight out of a place of love.” Eric never wavered in this.

Eric was a jazz man. A saxophone player, he believed in the art of improvisation and experimentation. At a time when the left was floundering, Eric brought a musical spirit to the necessary work of strengthening dialogue, analysis, and education in the community. He co-founded the Center for Political Education (San Francisco’s equivalent of the legendary Brecht Forum), which has served since 1998 as a catalyst for more effective organizing and as a space to build bridges.

Eric understood the centrality of compassionate bridge-building to political success. And like one of his heroes, Monseñor Oscar Romero, he will in his death rise again in his people. For Oscar Grande, a young community organizer with PODER, a Mission-based Latino environmental and economic justice organization, “Eric was instrumental in bringing radical politics and a visionary spirit to Mission politics,” said Grande.

Eric’s involvement in city politics was less about winning elections and electoral power than about the process of teaching the community how to deal with the powers that be. “He was about ‘let’s re-write the laws and get rid of the bums at City Hall so we can get the things our community needs: housing, open space and recreation opportunities at the material level,'” Grande said. But, according to Grande, who describes Eric as an “older bro/mentor,” Eric’s greatest contribution was spiritual.

“There are fewer and fewer schools of politics, places where you learn how to do politics,” said Grande. “Most of those that are still around in the Latino community are about deal-making, cozying up to the politicians. Eric offered an alternative. The spiritual and the political were always there. Those other fools started from the top-down. Eric started from the bottom up.” This was a key principle of the Mission Anti-displacement Coalition that Eric was instrumental in establishing.

During the last five years of his life, Eric’s bottom-up, interconnecting philosophy was realized at Dolores Street Community Services, a housing and community advocacy organization. For Wendy Phillips, longtime friend of Eric and DSCS Interim Executive Director, Eric was instrumental in securing real housing and other resources for different groups and in connecting DSCS and the Mission to immigrant rights, LGBT rights, and other struggles of our time.

“I think helping create MAC was a huge accomplishment of his because it stopped the massive wave of gentrifying capital entering the Mission. He and MAC mobilized hundreds of people to resist and show the board of supervisors and Mayor that the Mission wasn’t going to go down without a fight.” Their efforts resulted in a community rezoning process that has prioritized the creation of affordable housing in the Mission.

Phillips also noted that, while at DSCS, Eric also spearheaded the creation of the San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Education Network, a network of thirteen organizations that provide free legal services for immigrants, and, of course, advocacy. As if describing his soccer-inspired cosmopolitanism, she said, “Before it became obvious to most, Eric sensed that things were getting really bad on immigration and decided to create SFILEN, which unites Latino organizations, African organizations, Arab organizations, and Asian organizations in an effort to defend immigrants citywide.”

Eric’s defense of — and offensives in — La Mision continues to reverberate in and beyond his beloved neighborhood. “My campaign is really reigniting and reasserting the movement that Eric Quezada helped to build and grow,” said John Avalos, a serious contender in the upcoming Mayor’s race. Avalos, who has dedicated his campaign to Eric and his family, believes that Eric best symbolizes the continuation of the “movement of the people to build power against the downtown forces of gentrification and create livable neighborhoods where people can live with dignity.”

Eric Quezada spent his last days accompanied by loved ones. Along with Lorena, Ixchel and his mother, Eric was tended to and accompanied at his bedside by soccer buddies, family members, his closest personal and political friends, all of whom joined him in taking in the soothing sounds of his favorite music: guitarist friends playing boleros and bossa nova, CD’s of Los Lobos and Jorge Drexler, whose song “Todo Se Transforma,” (nothing is lost, everything is transformed) gave solace to Eric until his final breath. From the vantage point of our present heartbreak, it gives the rest of us hope.

In the lingo of the Latino and Latin American musical and political movements that informed Eric’s thought and action and his life in La Mision, “El Compañero Eric Quezada murio conspirando,” Comrade Eric Quezada died conspiring.

While in English the word “conspire” means to “make secret plans jointly to commit an unlawful or harmful act,” in political Spanish the word has an almost opposite meaning. Conspirar is closer to the Latin roots that combine con, meaning “together,” and spirare, the word for “breathing” and the origin of the word, “spirit.”

In this way, Eric conspired for a better world. After his last breath, he has left us a great spirit. We love you, carnal. Compañero Eric Quezada PRESENTE! La Lucha Continua!!!

(Note: The Community Celebration of Eric Quezada will take place on Sunday, September 25, 2011, 2-5 p.m. at Horace Mann Middle School, 3351 23rd Street

Those wishing to help Eric’s family can donate to the MAF — Ixchel Quezada Education Fund, http://missionassetfund.org/ixchel)

A wave

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marke@sfbg.com

SUPER EGO And so, interest in user-friendly dance music has come to the point where it can support a full-fledged, all-ages, traveling arena festival tour, a kind of mid-period Lollapalooza for ravers of all stripes called Identity, which features a pretty thrilling grab bag of 35 acts in 20 cities, and rolls into Shoreline Amphitheatre on Sat/3. Well, why the hell not? It’s good to go big once in a while.

(Unlike Lollapalooza, however, Identity carries nary a hint of grassroots activism or cosmic enlightenment — although there are “glow products” for sale in the Vendor Village. Also, for something called “Identity” there’s an awfully pale-faced sausage-fest lineup. Both of these things, however, may just be an accurate reflection of contemporary electronic dance music mega-party affairs in general.)

Alongside marquee names like DJ Shadow, Crystal Method, Pete Tong, and Hercules and Love Affair and intriguing, less-familiar-Stateside acts Rusko, Nero, and Steve Lawler — not to mention heroes of hype Steve Aoki and Skrillex — is someone very familiar to San Franciscan clubgoers. Headlining Identity is Kaskade, a.k.a. Ryan Raddon, who made his early career in the city at OM Records before leaping to Billboard Dance Chart fame and becoming SF’s entry into that overwhelming, slightly horrifying, always fascinating pop-tech monster ball that includes Deadmau5, Tiësto, and David Guetta.

“It wasn’t really my ambition to get so big that here I am headlining this massive tour, which can be exhausting,” Kaskade told me over the phone as he prepared to jet off between Identity dates to play the UK’s famed Creamfields Fest. (As someone whose appearance at a block party sparked a full-on riot in LA last month, Kaskade’s down-to-earth, surfer-dude demeanor is a bit disarming.)

“My passion is really more about producing than DJing, although doing I.D. has been awesome and exposed me to new sounds and different audiences. It’s a great party. And it does feel more and more that the pop sound is coming around to what I’ve been doing. A wave of electronic music seems to be taking over right now. I don’t specifically compose for pop singers like Guetta, but I can see how my sound fits in with what’s happening, and that’s why it’s reaching more people.”

That sound is a thoroughly accessible, silky smooth, slightly melancholic series of usually vocal-based anthems that always seems to be shimmering on a Mediterranean beach somewhere (expensive sunglasses come to mind) even as it inexorably builds to its climaxes and breakdowns. New release “Eyes,” with singer Mindy Gledhill is emblematic, the aching breeziness pioneered by local OM and Naked Music labels in the early 2000s pumped up on the big-money, stadium-sized steroids of Kaskade’s current home, Ultra Records, based in New York City.

Headlining Identity has buoyed Kaskade’s mainstream standing, but hopping aboard has had other advantages as well. “One of the best things about the Identity tour is that I get to work on my own stage show, to turn the music into a whole experience. Most of the time as a DJ, I just come into predetermined venues like Ruby Skye and at least have a good light rig. But now I can really expand my musical ideas conceptually, with video projections and amphitheater effects. Opening up to that kind of thing, along with hearing what the other Identity acts like Datsik and Le Castle Vania are doing — I don’t get to go to other peoples’ shows very much because I’m always playing somewhere — that’s changed some of my ideas drastically.”

Is coming back to San Francisco a kind of triumphant homecoming? “I don’t think of it that way. I really don’t think I ever left San Francisco, or that anyone can ever really leave San Francisco. Obviously the Bay Area means a lot to me in terms of my development, but I think a lot about moving back there. The people are genuinely into the music — and they’re used to a high level of quality.”

Identity Festival Sat/3, 1 p.m., $60. Shoreline Amphitheater, Mountain View. www.idfestival.com.

 

BAD SHOES ANNIVERSARY

The local electro label pumps out a good share of thoughtful bangers, this free party at recently expanded swankity club Sloane Squared is a perfect chance to plug in to the crews’ mindbending doings. With Baan, Ear Jerker, MPHD, Dane O, and Teleport.

Wed/31, 10 p.m., free. Sloane Squared, 1525 Mission, SF. www.badshoesrecords.com

 

MATTHIAS TANZMANN

Cleverly fiendish, heavily electric house and techno, expertly mixed by this famous German, celebrated for his close association with Ibiza club Circoloco.

Fri/2, 10 p.m., $5 advance. Mighty, 119 Utah, SF. www.mighty119.com

 

ZUZUKA PODEROSA

Brazil-via-Brooklyn baile funk warrior queen gets provocative and splashes some neon rap over bass-heavy electronic tracks at one of my favorite monthly parties for downright friendliness and forward-thinking global jams, Braza!

Fri/2, 10 p.m., $10. SOM, 2529 16th St., SF. www.som-bar.com

 

D. DIGGLER AND KOLLEKTIV TURMSTRASSE

Repping Frankfurt and Hamburg respectively, these two acts are heroes of headspace-commandeering minimal techno — with duo Kollektiv considered by many to be among the best live acts in the world. Their sometimes haunting tracks will give the monthly Kontrol party an intense vibe.

Sat/3, 10 p.m.-6 a.m., $20. EndUp, 401 Sixth St., SF. www.kontrolsf.com

 

OPTIMO

Glaswegian geniuses of the extended 12-inch, this duo can make any retro track sound delightfully contemporary: classic rock, ska, dub, ’80s pop, it’s all fair game. Local “punch-drunk disco nihilists” Mi Ami, a band that’s garnered its own international fame, leads the charge.

Sat/3, 9 p.m.-4 a.m., $10 advance. Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. www.publicsf.com

 

ADRIAN SHERWOOD

One of the almighty princes of dub ruled the ’80s with treatments of Depeche Mode, Coldcut, the Woodentops, and Sinead O’Connor, released the first Black Uhuru records, cofounded the storied On-U Sound System, and is now helping celebrate excellent weekly Dub Mission’s 15th (!) anniversary. This is one of those “wows.”

Sun/4, 9 p.m., $15 advance. Elbo Room, 647 Valencia, SF. www.dubmission.com

 

TOM MIDDLETON

British Jedi master of smart tech-house in the 1990s has gone through a number of stylistic changes and clever monikers, but has never been afraid to let his classical and jazz training shine through his tracks. He’s headlining the grand Stompy + Sunset Labour of Love party.

Sun/4, 2 p.m., $20. Cafe Cocomo, 650 Indiana, SF. www.pacficsound.net

Volume 45 Number 48 Flip-through Edition

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To the extreme

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TRASH In the West we’ve basically known two kinds of Japanese cinema. One is that of Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and their inheritors — somber, formal, detailed. The other is the cinema of crazy shit: gangster and “pink” movies from the 1960s onward, cracked visionaries from Seijun Suzuki to Takashi Miike, the exercises in tongue-in-cheek fanboy excess like Tokyo Gore Police (2008) and Big Man Japan (2007).

Definitely falling in the gonzo category is Sion Sono, a poet-performance artist who’s been making (and occasionally acting in) films since the mid-80s. But awareness of his work abroad didn’t really spike until 2002’s Suicide Club, which famously opened with a chorus line of angelic schoolgirls cheerfully leaping into the path of a subway train.

Since then he’s made the first of two projected Suicide sequels, the surreal psychosexual nightmare Strange Circus (2005), and deadly-‘do J-horror exercise Exte: Hair Extensions (2007), to name a few. Though not in the Miike league of complete unpredictability (let alone productivity), Sono’s films have been a diverse lot, not excluding an exercise or two in straight-ahead naturalism.

The mega-dose of Sono that the Roxie offers this month, however, feels like two very large pieces cut from the same pie. Opening Friday is 2008’s Love Exposure, clocking just under four hours (not counting intermission); next up is 2010’s Cold Fish (starting Sept. 16), a comparatively succinct sit at 144 minutes. Such lengths might normally suggest epic longeurs and a meditative pace. Sono, however, fills each canvas to bursting with demented narrative turns, frantic activity, extreme emotions, and absurdist logic. Not to mention sizable quantities of over-the-top violence and warped sexuality.

Love Exposure opens with the claim that it’s “based on a true event,” which is no doubt its first joke. After the death of his saintly mother, youthful protagonist Yu (Takahiro Nishijima) adapts to the adoption of the priesthood by his father (Atsuro Watabe), though it’s harder to accept the eventual intrusion of an insanely needy new parishioner (a memorable Makiko Watanabe), a crackhead-acting real-life succubus who swiftly destroys dad’s faith and vocation. As a result Yu falls in with a bad crowd, becoming its Jesus in a weird pseudo-spiritual observance of taking “peek-a-boo panty photos” while remaining otherwise chaste in anticipation of meeting his own personal Madonna — Holy Virgin and Ciccone personae inclusive.

High school heartache, martial arts, Ravel’s Boléro, female impersonation, and the insidious manipulations of an agent (Sakura Ando) from the mysterious, Scientology-like Zero Church all factor prominently in a careening story whose takes on religion, sin, and redemption are nothing if not antic. Just what Sono is saying, however, tends to get lost in the blur. Exposure‘s sheer onslaught, not to mention its scale, have made bowled-over converts out of many viewers. Whether its crazy quilt requires 237 minutes, or 90, or 900 for that matter, is an open question — is the writer-director really going somewhere here, or just going and going and going?

Similarly occupied with indoctrination, masochism, and extreme behavior is Cold Fish, which is somewhat better able to sustain a tone of hysteria escalating toward dementia. An unhappy family (father Mitsuru Fukikoshi, daughter Hikari Kajiwara, stepmother Megumi Kagurazaka) is yanked into the orbit of a tropical-fish tycoon (Denden) who at first seems a boisterous benefactor providing shock therapy to their depressed lives out of simple altruism. But he and his bombshell wife (Asuka Kurosawa) soon reveal sides not just sinister but psychopathic, ensnaring all three in diabolical doings that encompass murder, rape, grisly corpse disposals, and more. Structured like Love Exposure as one long countdown to a transformative moment, Cold Fish pushes black comedy way beyond the bounds of taste with an oddly neutralizing good cheer. It’s a manic Grand Guignol set to the soothing kitsch strains of retro Hawaiian-flavored lounge music. (Dennis Harvey) 

LOVE EXPOSURE opens Fri/2 at the Roxie.

The mess at Lake Merced

2

By Jerry Cadagan

OPINION Lake Merced is a San Francisco jewel that for years has suffered from the benign neglect of the city. Here are some facts:

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is the owner of the lake and surrounding land. In 1950, the SFPUC made a major mistake in delegating to the Recreation and Park Department vague authority for recreation at the lake. Under the City Charter, Lake Merced is not a park that would ordinarily be handled by RPD.

Starting in the 1980s, the lake’s water levels dropped precipitously, for a variety of reasons. Neither agency took serious action to determine why, or to reverse the situation. That was a clue that having two quarterbacks running the Lake Merced operation was a bad idea. But starting in late 1993, many community activists started grappling with the water level issue, and it’s now under control.

As water levels recovered, SFPUC staffers wasted no time acting like they were fully in charge by initiating a planning process that, after four years of consultants feeding at the trough, resulted in a 187-page Lake Merced Watershed Report, released in 2010. The SFPUC paid the consultants a humongous $588,434. You can judge whether SFPUC’s ratepayers got their money’s worth by reading the document at sfwater.org/index.aspx?page=197

In January 2007, the Board of Supervisors requested that SFPUC and RPD revise the 1950 delegation of recreation management to RPD. The board’s resolution recites that SFPUC “has made a commitment to manage and maintain all the watershed lands … and to obtain and allocate the resources necessary” to do so. The Watershed Report (p. 10) confirmed that the “intent is to transfer primary responsibility for management of the lands surrounding the lake back to the SFPUC.” Those who were involved in the discussions in late 2006 know full well that the reason it is desirable for SFPUC to be fully in charge was so that there would be a single point of accountability.

The board’s January 2007 resolution asked the two agencies to report back in 90 days. They never did. Rather, some 1,180 days after the resolution, the agencies released a draft memorandum of understanding purporting to respond to the board’s request. Amazingly, the draft MOU left virtually all management responsibilities in the same muddled condition that has existed since 1950. The agencies held a public meeting to explain the draft MOU on July 19. The 40 attendees were generally unhappy with the lack of real change in management being proposed.

In an inexplicable move, in late July the SFPUC released a document describing intended renovations to the dilapidated boathouse building at the lake. The total cost of the proposed renovations is $940,000. But the document itself, and recent conversation with SFPUC staff, makes it clear that to make the building meet all building codes and disability access requirements would cost $1.9 million. Why is the SFPUC now planning to spend $940,000 when its own watershed report says, on page 24, “it may be better to completely rebuild and expand the facility rather than renovate?”

The ongoing litany of mismanagement and fiscal imprudence is unacceptable. Coherent, accountable management is needed at Lake Merced. Call Mayor Ed Lee (554-6141), Supervisor Sean Elsbernd (554-6516) and SFPUC General Manager Ed Harrington (554-3155) and demand it.

Jerry Cadagan was a co-founder of the Committee to Save Lake Merced in 1993 and has worked continuously on issues involving Lake Merced since that time.

Desolation angels

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM Wanda (1970) takes a long time to settle into anything resembling a plot, but the wayward scenes at the start of the film have a remarkable exactness to them. In one, the title character (played by director Barbara Loden) walks into a dingy bar looking to end the day early. She’s fresh from divorce court, where she lost her kids, merely acceding to the judgments of her ex-husband and the court. As the bartender puts a bottle of beer and glass on her table, a greasy lump at the bar says he’ll take care of the drink. The unsolicited offer clouds Wanda’s face; she sips her drink resigned to what it means. A rude cut takes us to a spent motel room where Wanda sleeps naked alone in pale afternoon light. The guy from the bar tiptoes around the room to leave, but he makes a noise setting Wanda to hurriedly dress herself, pointlessly calling after him to wait. The plainness of the scene’s despair tells us it’s nothing new for her.

Characterization emerges in the fluidity of situation and behavior, melancholy in an unanchored camera and stark ellipses. Once its protagonist takes up with an amateur thief who radiates nervous energy, Wanda unspools as an inverted Gun Crazy (1950), its unsentimental portrait of a female drifter looking ahead to films like Jeanne Dielman (1975), Vagabond (1985), Safe (1995), and Kelly Reichardt’s River of Grass (1994) and Wendy and Lucy (2008). Wanda screens in a restoration print as part of a bountiful overview at the Pacific Film Archive called “The Outsiders: New Hollywood in the Seventies.”

Drawing inspiration from The Last Great American Picture Show, an excellent anthology edited by Alexander Horwath to accompany an earlier retrospective at the Austrian Film Museum, the PFA series shifts the historical narrative of New Hollywood from movie brats to unnamed margins. Celebrity-driven surveys of the same period (like Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) miss the congruence of by-the-teeth filmmaking and borderline characters that helps to define the PFA series. Ample room is made for those filmmakers whose careers couldn’t hold a straight line (Loden’s career as a director began and ended with Wanda), and familiar landmarks like Mean Streets and Badlands (both 1973) are considered alongside lesser known but no less groundbreaking character studies like Dusty and Sweets McGee (1971), Ice (1970) and The Heartbreak Kid (1972).

The swift scene of Wanda getting picked up at the bar establishes a few leitmotifs for “The Outsiders.” You notice right away that the crummy motel rooms and bars are the real thing, and that an actor’s vanity is never spared a frank look at a character’s worn down body and face. The incidental nature of the camera placement, long duration of scenes, and dispersive spread of sound deepen the melancholy reality of these appearances. A verité-style handheld camera takes single measure of the scene, registering the immediacy of behavior but stopping short of slicing up the conflict into easy points of identification (Wanda cinematographer Nicholas T. Proferes cut his teeth with Robert Drew’s pioneering documentary crew in the early 1960s). Also borrowed from observational documentary is an interest in private, semi-coherent forms of speech; the stories are as much told through gesture and movement. You constantly feel on the precipice of emotions, watching as they form and stagnate in a languid real time that makes a character’s exhaustion palpable in the theater.

Most of these movies are indeed populated by outsiders, though the meaning of the word shifts from film to film. There are plenty of figures of hedonism (memorably, Rip Torn’s hard-driving country western singer in 1972’s Payday), but so too are there close portraits of the lived differences of gender, race, class and age — Wanda, but also Killer of Sheep (1977), Bush Mama (1975), and Over the Edge (1979). Unlike Easy Rider (1969), the film typically cited as launching a hundred New Hollywood productions, these movies don’t valorize the outsider towards an obvious political morality. A film like Killer of Sheep is delicate because it recognizes the social constraints of the central character’s life while at the same time respecting the fullness of his winnowed existence. The same long-take camera style which expresses pessimism is also left open to moments of ragged beauty that escape political allegory.

The exciting vision of radical heroism offered by Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) is the exception that makes it easier to imagine how Wanda‘s brittle poetry of despair might have disappointed feminists at the time. Wanda is left alone again at the end of the film, seemingly unable to live with or without a man. There’s a glimmer of hope when another woman invites her inside a raucous roadhouse where mixed company drink and smoke and laugh as a string duo stomp out a joyful sound. But through it all Wanda remains withdrawn, eating and drinking as if someone might at any moment snatch the food out of her hands. The film ends with a freeze frame of her blank face as the music slowly drains away on the soundtrack. The shot holds a mirror up to our desire for her story to mean something, our wish for the succor of tragedy or redemption. Loden’s film instead narrows in on the insoluble nature of the character’s existence, holding the wreckage of her life in view with both pitiless reserve and tender regard.

THE OUTSIDERS: NEW HOLLYWOOD CINEMA IN THE SEVENTIES

Sept. 2-Oct.27, $5.50–<\d>$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-5249

bampfa.berkeley.edu

Chicago hope

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM Hard times and an African American man in the White House have unleashed racial hostilities on a level unseen for decades, even if most of it is (thinly) veiled. Millions of low-paid or unemployed whites who should know better from their own experiences with economic struggles view blacks as a homogenous group of “welfare cheats” (believing all welfare is cheating, unless of course you need it yourself) and violent thugs. The online rhetoric, where everyone’s ugliest prejudices can be aired from a safe place of anonymity, reveals a nation of way too many people who spend way too much time hating each other. The venom is so enthusiastic you know most of them wouldn’t want rapprochement if it came with a $50 Wal-Mart gift certificate.

With concern from society and government as a whole at low ebb, communities at greater risk of violence from within than ever have had to come up with their own peace-making solutions. The Interrupters, the latest documentary by Steve James (1994’s Hoop Dreams), shows dedicated efforts to help one of the nation’s worst centers of such bloodshed. In Chicago, the overwhelming majority of both victims and perps of gang-related, domestic, and armed robbery fatalities are African American; shooting incidents in a few neighborhoods have continued to skyrocket even as similar statistics have declined elsewhere around the country.

“Violence is like the great infectious diseases of all history,” says epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, in that it can be stopped from spreading to epidemic proportions by numerous “initial interruption(s) of transmission” at its source. He translated that perspective into the founding of CeaseFire, a Chicago-based organization that doesn’t aim to summarily end the existence of gangs and drug trade. Instead, its plain but hardly simple mission is to stop the shootings, stabbings, etc. which are exacerbated by unemployment, broken families, and other sources of stress whose cumulative effect can rapidly escalate a casual dis to a mortal confrontation. As one interviewee in James’ film says, “sticks and stones” logic doesn’t apply here because “words can get you killed.”

Under CeaseFire’s auspices, Tio Hardiman created the Violence Interrupters program, which drafts people from the community — many former gangbangers themselves — as mediators wading into conflicts to defuse them before things get out of hand. It takes considerable will and nerves of steel; “interrupters” have been shot at, and during the course of this documentary’s year-long span one volunteer lands in the hospital for his trouble.

The Interrupters‘ most charismatic figure is Ameena Matthews, daughter of legendary local crime boss Jeff Fort (now in prison for life) and a onetime enforcer herself. Now a mother and devout Muslim, she is seen fearlessly, tirelessly diving into fraught situations where few would be able to command sufficient respect to “interrupt,” let alone arrest, the path that leads from disagreement to threat to assault. She even takes the podium at (yet another) funeral to harangue the attendees about stopping the cycle of brutal retaliation slayings. It’s hardly just active gang members or even their families who are at risk — random, mistaken-identity, and bystander shootings claim an outrageous number of lives every year. (In the New York Times Magazine article that led to this documentary, producer Alex Kotlowitz noted one summer Chicago weekend in which 36 people were shot, seven fatally.)

Like much of inner Detroit — as other recent docs have observed — these Chicago neighborhoods have practically been abandoned by the larger society, considered incurable zones in terms of crime, blight, brutality, abuse, despair. If residents already rank low in a pinched job market, prospects for those who’ve returned from prison stints are subterranean.

Such frustration and anger will be channeled one way or another; constructive alternatives are damn few. But The Interrupters makes a powerful case against the inevitability of hopelessness turning into violence. The program has even seen former perps transformed to the point of returning to the scene of a crime in order to apologize. Rage is blinding; CeaseFire and its mediators prove there’s nothing like taking a step back and a clear-eyed look at oneself to achieve peace in near-impossible circumstances. “Community, heal thyself” may well have to become the American mantra of the near future, because you know the Tea Party wouldn’t mind in the least letting certain groups self-destruct. 

THE INTERRUPTERS opens Fri/2 in Bay Area theaters.

Editor’s Notes

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tredmond@sfbg.com

I have friends — progressives, activists, good people — who support Ed Lee for mayor. They tell me that Lee is accessible, that he listens to labor and grassroots community groups, that he’s going to be good on a lot of issues and that, compared to the mayors we’ve had in the past 30 years or so, he won’t be all that bad.

I respect that. I understand. But I try to remind them, and anyone else who’s listening, that the years when Willie Brown ran this town were really, really bad.

At the height of the Brown era, during the dot-com boom, hundreds of evictions were filed every single month. Thousands and thousands of low-income and working-class tenants were displaced, tossed out of San Francisco forever. Blue-collar jobs were destroyed as high-tech offices took over industrial space. Every single developer who waved money at the mayor got a permit, no matter how ridiculous, dangerous or crazy the project was.

In 1999, Paulina Borsook wrote a famous piece for Salon called “How the Internet ruined San Francisco.” But the Internet was just technology; what damaged this city so badly was a mayor who didn’t care what happened to the most vulnerable populations. At one point, Brown even said that poor people shouldn’t live in this city. We called his policies “the economic cleansing of San Francisco.”

He controlled local politics — brutally. If you didn’t kiss the mayor’s ring, you were crushed. He announced one day that the supervisors (then elected citywide) were nothing but “mistresses who have to be serviced” — and since most of them were utterly subservient to Brown, they didn’t even complain. Only one person on the board — Tom Ammiano — regularly defied the mayor; occasionally, Leland Yee and Sue Bierman joined him. But that was it.

The corruption was rampant. People who paid to play got in the door; nobody else came close. You did a favor for Brown and you got a commission appointment or a high-paid job, even if you weren’t remotely qualified.

The ones who suffered most were the poorest residents, particularly tenants, particularly on the east side of town. Brown didn’t seem to care that his appointments, deals and policies were causing terrible pain on the ground; it was as if politics was just a fun game, as if he were some sort of royal potentate, partying in the executive suites and ignoring what was happening on the streets.

There are people who believe that Ed Lee can be independent of Brown, and I hope they’re right. But Lee and Brown are close, and Brown helped put him in office — and the thought of even a small part of that rotten era of sleaze coming back makes me very, very nervous.

Txoko

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› paulr@sfbg.com

DINE Among the reasons to regret the passing of Enrico’s and its replacement by Txoko is that “Enrico’s” was pretty straightforward to pronounce, whereas the new endeavor, with its impossible juxtaposition of t and x — the spelling equivalent of dividing by zero — does not seem to be. Txoko, despite its modest five letters, has the look of what Sam (having heard Dwarvish spoken for the first time) called “a fair jaw-cracker” in The Lord of the Rings. The good news is that “tx” is pronounced “ch,” so the restaurant’s name is “choke-o,” which sounds like the stage name of a particularly menacing rapper.

As a cultural signifier, “tx” tells us that we’re in or near the Basque country, and I know this mainly because I love the wonderful white wines produced in Spain’s Basque provinces from the Txakoli grape. (The same grape is now grown in Chile and spelled, mercifully, chacoli. ) The wine — Txoko offers a lovely example from Uriondo for $9 a glass — is sharp, bright, minerally, and sour, about as close as a white wine could be to lemon juice passed through a gravel filter. This could be an acquired taste, and if so, I’ve acquired it. The Basques, incidentally, are a singular people; their language is not known to be related to any other in the world, and their Iberian origins are believed to run back 40,000 years or more, to a time when early homo sapiens sapiens and the people we know as Neanderthal might have coexisted and perhaps, as judge advocate general types like to put it, fraternized.

Enrico’s always had a slightly fraternal air for me, and the new regime doesn’t seem to have changed much about the space’s appearance. It’s still a dark, stage-like vault, with a concave face of window glass that looks south, soaking up all the available sunlight like a snowbird in Florida on a weeklong January holiday. All the daylight streaming in makes the interior seem that much darker and lounge-like; it’s as though you’re looking right at a flashbulb as it goes off.

Chef Ian Begg’s menu deals mainly in small plates, among them pintxos, the Basque edition of tapas. There’s only one main dish offered: a $65 ribeye steak for two, which might be a sort of oblique answer to Zuni Cafe’s roast chicken for two. A giant steak sounds pretty all-American, and indeed the tone of much of the rest of the food is mainly Cal-Med: grilled Delta asparagus ($9), for instance, topped with a fried egg and a marvelously cheesy green garlic hollandaise sauce. There are various ways of dealing with asparagus’s grassiness if, like me, you’re not wild about it; Begg’s pincer movement — grilling plus a heavy wash of fat — was most effective.

A wild mushroom empanada ($5), rather pastry-ish, did have an Iberian flair, along with intense fungal flavor. Equally fungal was the wild mushroom arroz ($10), similar to a risotto but with a powerfully concentrated reduction (from chanterelles, baby shiitake, and hen-of-the-wood) that hinted at soup. A batter-fried squash blossom ($3) seemed rather Italian; this version was stuffed with herbed ricotta and presented on a toasted levain spear, with a smear of goat cheese nearby.

One of the more striking items turned out by the kitchen wasn’t even a headliner on the menu card. It was the summer squash and tomato tartlet that accompanied a tiny fist of grilled lamb loin chop ($11). The lamb itself was flavorful and juicy, though slightly complex to eat, despite its size, because a bit of bone that had to be carved around. But the tartlet was a small masterpiece, a kind of ratatouille napoleon reminiscent of the pièce de resistance in the Pixar movie Ratatouille. It looked like a tomato-slathered disk, but under the tomato cap was the summer squash, thin coins carefully arranged into coiling strands, like DNA. The bean salad accompanying a small filet of butter-braised halibut ($12), by contrast, was much more free-form, in fact totally free-form, though several of the players were notable, among them fava beans, fresh chickpeas, and sea beans, an unusual edible that could pass as a cross between kelp and asparagus.

In keeping with a strong recent trend, desserts are excellent. We warmed to a date bread pudding ($8), which had the velvet-sponge consistency of angelfood cake and was finished with a pair of mock-savory witticisms: a sail (stuck into the top) of latticed chorizo crisped like a tuile, and a smear of black-olive caramel sauce, a clever recasting of that current vogue item, sea-salt caramel. The gâteau Basque ($8) also made imaginative use of an herb, thyme, we usually associate with the savory; here it was combined with peaches into what amounted to a fabulously moist clafoutis, capped with crottin of Straus frozen yogurt. Easy on the jaws.

TXOKO

Dinner: Tues.-Sat. from 5 p.m.

504 Broadway, SF

(415) 500-2744

www.txokosf.com

Full bar

MC/V

Noisy

Wheelchair accessible

Move youth housing forward

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EDITORIAL Somewhere between 4,500 and 6,800 young adults in San Francisco are either homeless or marginally housed, according to a 2007 report by the Mayor’s Transitional Youth Task Force. And the city has exactly 314 housing units for at-risk young people who have passed their 18th birthday and are kicked out of the foster housing program. That’s the definition of a crisis — yet two modest projects that would make a small dent in the problem have faced immense obstacles moving forward.

The Booker T. Washington Center and the Community Housing Partnership want to create a combined 74 units of affordable housing for vulnerable youth. But both have endured long delays in the planning process, thanks to opposition for people in upscale neighborhoods who clearly don’t want this kind of housing in their midst.

The Booker T. Washington project finally made it through the Board of Supervisors in July — although the small nonprofit is now facing a lawsuit to stop the housing. The CHP’s plan to build 24 units on the site of the old Edward II Hotel in the Marina comes before the board in September, and may also face litigation.

The supervisors needs to approve the CHP project and send a strong message that this is housing San Francisco needs — and that all group housing for vulnerable populations shouldn’t be confined to a few central city neighborhoods.

Opponents of the CHP project argue that it’s too dense for the neighborhood. That makes little sense: The hotel that the project is replacing once offered 29 rooms, mostly double-occupied. And the majority of those temporary residents drove cars; the majority of the young people served by the project won’t be vehicle owners. So the level of congestion and neighborhood impact should be relatively minor.

The larger issue that both projects reflect is that much of the low-income, transitional and supportive housing in this city has been concentrated in a few neighborhoods. It makes sense to put some housing near services, but there’s no reason why projects that offer on-site support for young people who are transitioning from high school to either college or the job market can’t be spread all over the city. In fact, that’s what the Mayor’s Office initially suggested several years ago when it sought proposals for youth housing projects.

The notion (quietly voiced by some project foes) that transitional youth housing will attract crime isn’t supported by either rational thinking or evidence. Young people who have lived most of their lives in foster homes — and are facing homelessness simply because they have aged out of the system — are far less likely to have legal problems if they’re housed in a supportive environment.

The city needs to be building more of this sort of affordable housing — and a clear vote in favor of the CHP project might encourage other nonprofits to start looking at similar proposals.

Double stuff

0

le.chicken.farmer@gmail.com

CHEAP EATS Did you ever have one of those dreams, you know, where you know it’s too good to be true and yet there it is, so you decide to keep dreaming, to let it be true for as long as possible, please, because eventually the alarm’s going to go off and you are going to wake up and eat your oatmeal and start having to answer to your exact life again, the real one, with mosquito bites and carsickness in it?

My roommate looked like Elvis Costello in 1977. She picked up the box of Oreo cookies, examined it, then made a face and went, “These would be good if it weren’t for that gross stuff in the middle. Eww — and there’s more of it than usual! Does anyone mind if I just eat the halves without the white stuff?”

I stood there, in the middle of this kitchen, pinching myself. This can’t be happening, I thought. I must be dreaming.

Then: Go with it. Just .. . go.

“Oh, I don’t mind, I suppose,” I said, twisting an Oreo in half, stuffing the double-stuffed half into my mouth and conceding to my new favorite roommate ever the half that, in real life, no one wants.

“Thank you so much, roomie,” she said. “You’re the best!”

“It’s OK,” I said, sighing as if my reward would be in heaven. As if this weren’t already heaven, this magical land where your roommate takes what most people leave in the bottom of the cookie jar — or wish they could — in that otherworldly, distant world called, the world.

On the beach — which is just off our balcony, btw — turtles hatch almost nightly, and someone stands in the surf with a red light, luring the cute little adorables, hundreds at a time, toward the Caribbean and away from the condos.

Last night I was sipping tea under a thatched straw umbrella, listening to the waves, watching the lightning, and talking with Beth about her novel and my short story project . . . when all of a sudden a mama sea turtle came lumbering out of the surf and onto the beach next to us.

“So,” I said, “what are you working on?”

She didn’t say. You’re supposed to show, not tell, and turtles know this. She flapped her powerful flippers, digging a huge hole in the sand, breaking for breath more than she was actually digging. But getting the job done.

It took hours, and two tries, and then we got to watch her lay her eggs. When she finally had packed and buried them to her liking, and made her way one small step at a time, huffing and puffing, to the water’s edge, and in, we cheered.

This is an endangered species, only here you wouldn’t know it. The beach is lined with nests, encircled by stones, and marked with a dated wooden cross that in this dream doesn’t mean death but new life — for reals! Sixty days later.

Yo, nine weirdo writers from the Bay Area, L.A., New York, Phoenix, and Amherst, Mass. are invited by RADAR Productions to Akumal, Mexico to write and eat together for ten days, and not one of the nine is vegetarian, let alone vegan.

Pinch me.

Ow!! I woke up. I do miss my baby, not to mention my babies, and I’m trying to remember another distant dream in which my dear Hedgehog and I are oh so very hungry in one of those first-place-we-see kind of ways, when: wham! At the corner of Balboa and 5th Avenue: Muguboka.

It’s not bad Korean, and affordable — at lunchtime anyway. For only $8 and $9 we had bulgogi and galbi (or marinated steak and short ribs, in lay terms) and no less than 12 different band cheeses (or little bowls of delicious things, in lay terms).

Those little tiny crunchy fishes was one. Kimchi. I wish I could show-not-tell you all 12, but my memory has been erased by some of the most fantastickest meals imaginable, here in Mexico. Last night: the first bowl of tortilla soup I ever truly loved. If they were a restaurant, our camp cooks, Other Beth and Only Christina, would be my new favorite one. Instead:

MUGUBOKA

Mon.-Sat.: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun. 5-11 p.m.

401 Balboa St., S.F.

(415) 668-6007

Beer & wine

MC/V

 

The real Leland Yee

53

tredmond@sfbg.com

It’s early January 2011, and the Four Seas restaurant at Grant and Clay is packed. Everyone who is anyone in Chinatown is there — and for good reason. In a few days, the Board of Supervisors is expected to appoint the city’s first Asian mayor.

The rally is billed as a statement of support for Ed Lee, the mild-mannered bureaucrat and reluctant mayoral hopeful. But that’s not the entire — or even, perhaps, the central — agenda.

Rose Pak, who describes herself as a consultant to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce but who is more widely known as a Chinatown powerbroker, is the host of the event. She stands in front of the room, takes the microphone, and, in Cantonese, delivers a remarkable political speech.

According to people in the audience, she says, in essence, that the community has come out to celebrate and support Ed Lee — but that’s just the start. She also urges them not just to promote their candidate — but to do everything possible to prevent Leland Yee from becoming mayor.

She continues on for several minutes, lambasting Yee, the state Senator who lived in Chinatown as a child, accusing him of about every possible political sin — and turning the Lee rally into an anti-Yee crusade. And nobody in the crowd seems terribly surprised.

Across Chinatown, from the liberal nonprofits to the conservative Chamber of Commerce, there’s a palpable fear and distrust of the man who for years has been among San Francisco’s most prominent Asian politicians — and who, had Lee not changed his mind and decided to run for a full term this fall, was the odds-on favorite to become the city’s first elected Chinese mayor.

The reasons for that fear are complex and say a lot about the changing politics of Asian San Francisco, the power structure of a city where an old political machine is making a bold bid to recover its lucrative clout — and about the career of Yee himself.

Senator Leland Yee is a political puzzle. He’s a Chinese immigrant who has built a political base almost entirely outside of the traditional Chinatown community. He’s a politician who once represented a deeply conservative district, opposed tenant protections, voted against transgender health benefits and sided with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. on key environmental issues — and now has the support of some of the most progressive organizations in the city. He’s taken large sums of campaign money from some of the worst polluters in California, but gets high marks from the Sierra Club.

His roots are as a fiscal conservative — yet he’s been the only Democrat in Sacramento to reject budget compromises on the grounds that they required too many spending cuts.

He’s grown, changed, and developed his positions over time. Or he’s become an expert at political pandering, telling every group exactly what it wants to hear. He’s the best chance progressives have of keeping the corrupt old political machine out of City Hall — or he’s a chameleon who will be a nightmare for progressive San Francisco.

Or maybe he’s a little bit of all of that.

 

Leland Yin Yee was born in Taishan, a city in China’s Guangdong province on the South China Sea. The year was 1948; Mao Zedong’s Communist Party of China had taken control of much of the countryside and was moving rapidly to take the major cities. The nationalist army of General Chiang Kai-Shek was falling apart, and Yee’s father, who owned a store, decided it was time for the family to leave.

The Yees made it to Hong Kong, and since Mee G. Yee had previously lived in the United States and served in the U.S. Army during World War II, he was ultimately able to move the family to San Francisco. In 1951, the three-year-old Leland Yee arrived in Chinatown.

For four years, Yee lived with his sister and mother in a one-room apartment with a shared bathroom while his father worked as a sailor in the merchant marine. It was, Yee recalled in a recent interview, a tight, closed, and largely self-sufficient community.

“The movie theater, the shoe store, the barber shop, food — everything you needed you could get in Chinatown,” Yee said. “You never had to leave.”

Of course, after a while, Yee and his mom started to venture out, down Stockton Street to Market, where they’d shop at the Emporium, the venerable department store. “It was like walking into a different country,” he said. “If you didn’t know English, they didn’t have time for you.”

Yee, like a lot of young Chinese immigrants of his era, put much of his time into his studies — in the San Francisco public schools and in a local Chinese school. “My mom spoke a village dialect, and we had to learn Cantonese,” he said. “Every little kid had to go to Chinese school. We hated it.”

When Yee was eight, his parents managed to buy a four-unit building on Dolores Street, and the family moved to the Mission, where he would spend not only the rest of his childhood but much of his early adult life. He graduated from Mission High School, enrolled in City College, studied psychology and after two years won admission to UC Berkeley.

Berkeley in 1968 was a very different world from Chinatown and even the relatively controlled environment he’d experienced at home in the Mission. “You didn’t protest in school. You’d have been sent home, and your mother would kill you,” he said.

At Berekely, all hell was breaking loose, with the antiwar protests, the People’s Park demonstrations, the campaign to create a Third World College (which led to the first Ethnic Studies Department), and a general attitude of mistrust for authority. “I developed a sense of activism,” Yee said. “I realized I could speak out.”

That spirit quickly vanished when Yee lost faith in some of his fellow activists. “People would work with us, then get into positions of power and use that against you,” he recalled. “A lot of my friends said ‘forget it.’ I left the scene.”

Yee once again devoted his energy to school, earning a masters at San Francisco State University and a Ph.D in child psychology from the University of Hawaii. Along the way, he met his wife, Maxine.

With his new degree, the Yees moved back to San Francisco — and back in with his parents at the Dolores property, where he, Maxine and a family that would grow to four kids would live for more than a decade.

 

Yee worked as a child psychologist for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, starting the city’s first high school mental-health clinic. He went on to become a child psychologist at the Oakland Unified School District, then joined a nonprofit mental health program in San Jose.

In 1986, Yee decided to get active in politics for the first time since college, and ran for the San Francisco School Board. He lost — and that would be the only election he would ever lose. In 1988, he won a seat, and established himself as an advocate for students of color, fighting school closures in minority neighborhoods. He also tried to get the district to modify its harsh disciplinary rules, arguing against mandatory expulsions.

On fiscal issues, though, Yee was a conservative. For his first term, despite the brutal cutbacks of the recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s, he insisted that the district make do with the money it had. His solution to the red ink: Cut waste. Only in 1992, when he was up for re-election, did he acknowledge that the district needed more cash; at that point, he supported a statewide initiative to tax the rich to bring money to the schools.

The sense of fiscal conservatism — of holding the line on taxes, but mandating open and fair contracting procedures and tight financial controls — was a hallmark of much of his political career. When the Guardian endorsed him for re-election to the board in 1992, we wrote that “there’s real value in his continuing vigilance against administrative fat and favoritism in contracts.”

Over the next four years, Yee worked with then-Superintendent Waldemar “Bill” Rojas, a deeply polarizing figure who pushed his own personal theory of “reconstitution” — firing all the staff at low-performing schools — and later was enmeshed in a scandal that led to prison time for a contractor he’d hired. Yee told me he was the only board member to vote against hiring Rojas, but people who were watching the board closely back then say he didn’t always stand up to the superintendent.

He also became what some say was a bit too close with Tim Tronson, a consultant hired by the district as a $1,000-a-day facilities consultant. Tronson wound up getting indicted on 22 counts of grand theft, embezzlement, and conspiracy in a scheme to steal $850,000 from the schools, and was sentenced to four years in state prison.

In 1998, when some school board members wanted to build housing for teachers on property that the district owned in the Sunset, Yee led the opposition — with Tronson’s help. At one meeting at Sunset Elementary School, Yee went so far as to say, according to people present, that “Tim Tronson is my man, and I rely on him for advice.”

Yee acknowledged that he worked closely with Tronson to defeat that housing project. “He was the facilities manager,” Yee explained, “and I said that I trusted his judgment.”

 

Yee has either a great sense of political timing or exceptional luck. He ran for the Board of Supervisors in 1996, facing one of the weakest fields in modern San Francisco history. He was the only Chinese candidate and one of just two Asians (the other, appointed incumbent Michael Yaki, barely squeaked to re-election). In an at at-large election with the top five winning seats, Yee came in third, with 103,000 votes.

He was never a progressive supervisor. In 2000, the Guardian ranked the good votes of what we referred to as Willie Brown’s Board, and Yee scored only 43 percent. He was against campaign finance reform. He supported the brutal gentrification and community displacement represented by the Bryant Square development. He voted to kill a public-power feasibility study and opposed the Municipal Utility District initiative. He opposed a moratorium on uncontrolled live-work development.

In 2002, Yee was one of only three supervisors to oppose Proposition D, a crucial public-power measure that would have broken up PG&E’s monopoly in the city. He stood with PG&E (and then-Sups. Tony Hall and Gavin Newsom) in opposition to the measure, then signed a pro-PG&E ballot argument packed with PG&E lies.

When I asked him about that stand, Yee at first didn’t recall opposing Prop. D, but then said he “stood with labor” on the issue. In fact, the progressive unions didn’t oppose Prop. D at all; the opposition was led by PG&E’s house union, IBEW Local 1245.

Yee was particularly bad on tenant issues. He not only voted to deny city funding for the Eviction Defense Collaborative, which helped low-income tenants fight evictions; he actually tried to get the city to put up money for a free legal fund to help landlords evict their tenants. He opposed a ballot measure limiting condo conversions. He opposed a measure to limit the ability of landlords to pass improvement costs on to their tenants.

In 2001, Yee voted to uphold a Willie Brown veto of legislation to limit tenancies in common, a backdoor way to get around the city’s condo conversion ordinance. Only Hall and Newsom, then the most conservative supervisors on the board, joined Yee. At one point, he started asking whether the city should consider repealing rent control.

He opposed an affordable housing bond in 2002, joining the big landlord groups in arguing that it would raise property taxes. Every tenant group in town supported the measure, Proposition B; every landlord group opposed it.

I asked Yee about his tenant record, and he told me that he now supports rent control. But he said that he was always on the side of homeowners and small landlords, and that property ownership was central to Chinese culture. “I was responding to the Chinese community and the West Side,” he said.

He wasn’t much of an environmentalist, either — at least not in today’s terms. He was one of the only city officials to support a “Critical Car” rally in 1999, aimed at promoting the rights of vehicle drivers (and by implication, criticizing Critical Mass and the bicycle movement).

His record on LGBT issues was mixed. While he supported a counseling program for queer youth when he was on the school board, he also supported JROTC, angering queer leaders who didn’t want a program in the public schools run by, and used as a recruiting tool for, the military, which at that point open discriminated against gay and lesbian people.

 

 

Yee was also one of only two supervisors who voted in 2001 against extending city health benefits to transgender employees.

That was a dramatic moment in local politics. Nine votes were needed to pass the measure, and while eight of the supervisors were in favor, Yee and Hall balked. At one point, Board President Tom Ammiano had to direct the Sheriff’s Office to go roust Sup. Gerardo Sandoval, who was ducking the issue in his office, to provide the crucial ninth vote.

Yee didn’t just vote against the bill. According to one reliable source who was there at the time, Yee spoke to a community meeting out on Ulloa Street in the Sunset and berated his colleagues, quipping that the city should have better things to do than “spend taxpayer money on sex-change operations.”

It was a bit shocking to trans people — Yee had, over the years, befriended some of the most marginalized members of what was already a marginalized community. “There was one person at the rail crying, saying ‘Leland, how could you do this to us,'” Ammiano recalled.

The LGBT community was furious with Yee. “I didn’t speak to him for at least a year,” Gabriel Haaland, one of the city’s most prominent transgender activists, told me.

Yee now says the vote was a mistake — but at the time, he told me, he was under immense pressure. When he voted for the queer youth program, he said, “the elders of the Chinese community ripped me apart. They called my mother’s friends back in the village [where he was born] and said her son was embarrassing the Chinese community.”

That must have been difficult — and he said that “if I had known the pain I had caused, I wouldn’t have voted that way.” But it was hard to miss that pain his vote caused.

On the other hand, people learn from their experiences, attitudes evolve, we all grow up and get smarter, and the way Yee describes it, that’s what happened to him.

In 2006, when he was running for state Senate, Yee met with a group of trans leaders and formally — many now say sincerely — apologized. It was an important gesture that made a lot of his critics feel better about him.

“He didn’t have to do that,” Haaland said. “People change, and he paid for his crime, and that’s genuine enough for me.”

As a former school board member, Yee kept an interest in the schools — but not always a healthy one. At one point, he actually proposed splitting SFUSD into two districts, one on the (poorer) east side of town and one on the (richer) west. “We strongly opposed that,” recalled Margaret Brodkin, who at the time ran Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth. “Eventually he dropped the idea.”

For all the problems, in his time on the Board of Supervisors, Yee developed a reputation for independence from the Brown Machine, which utterly dominated much of city politics in the late 1990s. His weak 43 percent rating on the Guardian scorecard was actually third-best among the supervisors, after Ammiano and the late Sue Bierman.

In 1998, he was one of the leaders in a battle to prevent the owners of Sutro Tower from defying the city’s zoning administrator and placing hundreds of new antennas on Sutro Tower. He, Bierman, and Ammiano were the only supervisors opposing Brown’s crackdown on homeless people in Union Square.

When he ran in the first district elections, in 2000, against two opponents who had Brown’s support and big downtown money, the Guardian endorsed him, noting that while he “can’t be counted on to support worthy legislation … He’s one of only two board members who regularly buck the mayor on the big issues.”

(He never liked district elections, and used to take any opportunity to denounce the system, at times forcing Ammiano to use his position as president to tell Yee to quit dissing the electoral process and get to the point of his speech.)

 

In 2002, the westside state Assembly district seat opened up, and both Yee and his former school board colleague Dan Kelly ran in the Democratic primary. Yee won, and went on to win the general election with only token opposition.

His legislative record in the Assembly wasn’t terribly distinguished. Yee never chaired a policy committee — although he did win a leadership post as speaker pro tem. And he cast some surprisingly bad votes.

In 2003, for example, then-Assemblymember Mark Leno introduced a bill that would have exempted single-room occupancy hotels from the Ellis Act, which allows landlords to evict tenants for no reason. Yee refused to vote for the bill. Leno was furious — he was one vote short of a majority and Yee’s position would have doomed the bill. At the last minute, a conservative Republican who had grown up in an SRO hotel voted in favor.

When he ran for re-election in 2004, we noted: “What’s Leland Yee doing up in Sacramento? We can’t figure it out — and neither, as far as we can tell, can his colleagues or constituents. He’s introduced almost no significant bills — compared, for example, to Assemblymember Mark Leno’s record, Yee’s is an embarrassment. The only high-profile thing he’s done in the past several years is introduce a bill to urge state and local governments to allow feng shui principles in building codes.”

In 2006, Yee decided to move up to the state Senate, and he won handily, beating a weak opponent (San Mateo County Supervisor and former San Francisco cop Mike Nevin) by almost 2-1. His productivity increased significantly in the upper chamber — and in some ways, he moved to the left. He’s begun to support taxes — particularly, an oil severance tax — and when I’ve questioned him, he somewhat grudgingly admits that Prop. 13 deserves review.

He’s done some awful stuff, like trying to sell off the Cow Palace land to private developers. But he has consistently been one of the best voices in the Legislature on open government, and that’s brought him some national attention.

Yee has been a harsh critic of spending practices and secrecy at the University of California, and when UC Stanislaus refused in 2010 to release the documents that would show how much the school was paying Sarah Palin to speak at a fundraiser, Leland flew into action. He not only blasted the university and introduced legislation to force university foundations to abide by sunshine laws; he worked with two Stanislaus students who had found the contract in a dumpster and made headlines all over the country.

He’s fought for student free speech rights and this year pushed a bill mandating that corporations that get tax breaks for job creation prove that they’ve actually created jobs — or pay the tax money back. He’s also won immense plaudits from youth advocates and criminal justice reformers for his bill that would end life-without-parole sentences for offenders under 18.

Along the way, he compiled a 100 percent voting record from the major labor unions, including the California Nurses Association and SEIU, and with the Sierra Club. All three organizations have endorsed him for mayor.

Yee told me that he thinks he’s become more progressive over the years. “My philosophy has shifted,” he said.

Yet when you talk to his colleagues in Sacramento, including Democrats, they aren’t always happy with him. Yee has a tendency to be a bit of a loner — he’s never chaired a policy committee and in some of the most bitter budget fights, he’s refused to go along with the Democratic majority. Yee insists that he’s taken principled stands, declining to vote for budget bills that include deep service cuts. But the reality in Sacramento is that budget bills have until this year required a two-thirds vote, meaning two or three Republicans have had to accept the deal — and losing a Democratic vote has its cost.

“You have to give up all sorts of things, make terrible compromises, to get even two Republicans,” one legislative insider told me. “When a Democrat goes south, you have to find another Republican, and give up even more.”

In other words: It’s easy to take a principled stand, and make a lot of liberal constituencies happy, when you aren’t really trying to make the state budget work.

 

I met Rose Pak on a July afternoon at the Chinatown Hilton. She brought along her own loose tea, in a paper package; the waitress, who clearly knew the drill, took it back to the kitchen to brew. Pak and I have not been on the greatest of terms; she’s called the Guardian all kinds of names, and I’ve had my share of critical things to say about her. But on this day, she was polite and even at times charming.

After we got the niceties out of the way (she told me I was unfair to her, and I told her I didn’t like the way she and Willie Brown played politics), we started talking about Yee. And Pak (unlike some people I interviewed for this story) was happy to speak on the record.

She told me Yee had “no moral character.” She told me she couldn’t trust him. She told me a lot of stories and made a lot of allegations that we both knew neither she nor I could ever prove.

Then we got to talking about the politics of Chinatown and Asians in San Francisco, and a lot of the animosity toward Yee became more clear.

For decades, Chinatown and the institutions and people who live and work there have been the political center of the Chinese community. Nonprofits like the Chinatown Community Development Center have trained several generations of community organizers and leaders. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the Six Companies, and other business groups have represented the interests of Chinese merchants. And while the various players don’t always get along, there’s a sense of shared political culture.

“In Chinatown,” Gordon Chin, CCDC’s director, likes to say, “it’s all about personal connections.”

There’s a lively infrastructure of community-service programs, some of which get city money. There’s also a sense that any mayor or supervisor who wants to work with the Chinese community needs to at least touch base with the Chinatown establishment.

Yee doesn’t do that. “He doesn’t give a shit about them,” David Looman, a political consultant who has worked with many Chinese candidates over the years, told me.

Yee’s Asian political base is outside of Chinatown; he told me he sees himself representing more of the Chinese population of the Sunset and Richmond and the growing Asian community in Visitacion Valley and Bayview.

Pak is connected closely to Brown, who Yee often clashed with. For Pak, Brown, and their allies, strong connections to City Hall mean lucrative lobbying deals and public attention to the needs of Chinatown businesses. Then there’s the nonprofit sector.

CCDC and other nonprofits do important, sometimes crucial work, building and maintaining affordable housing, taking care of seniors, fighting for workers rights, and protecting the community safety net. Yee, Pak said, “has never shown any interest in our local nonprofits. We all work together here, and he doesn’t seem to care what we do.” Yee told me he has no desire to see funding cut for any critical social services in any part of town. But he has also made no secret of the fact that he questions the current model of delivering city services through a large network of nonprofits, some of which get millions of taxpayer dollars. And the way Pak sees it, all of that — the nonprofits, the business benefits, the contracts — are all at risk. “If Leland Yee is elected mayor,” she told me, “we are all dead.”

I ran into an old San Francisco political figure the other day, a man who has been around since the 1970s, inside and outside of City Hall, who remains an astute observer of the players and the power relationships in the local scene. At the time we talked, he wasn’t supporting any of the mayoral candidates, but he had a thought for me. “This town,” he said, “is being taken over by a syndicate. Willie Brown is the CEO, and Rose Pak is the COO, and it’s all about money and influence.”

That’s not a pleasant thought — I’ve lived through the era of political machine dominance in this town, and it was awful. In the days when Brown ran San Francisco, politics was a tightly controlled operation; only a small number of people managed to get elected to office without the support of the machine. Developers made land-use policy; gentrification and displacement were rampant; corruption at City Hall turned a lot of San Franciscans off, not only to the political process but to the whole notion that government could be a positive force in society.

A few years ago, I thought those days were over — and to a certain extent, district elections will always make machine politics more difficult. But when I see signs of the syndicate popping up — and I see a candidate like Ed Lee, who’s close friends with Brown, leading the Mayor’s Race — it makes me nervous. And for all his obvious flaws, at least Leland Yee isn’t part of that particular operation. If there’s a better reason to vote for him, I don’t know what it is.

YEE HOME PURCHASE RAISES SUSPICIONS

Rose Pak has a question about Leland Yee. “How,” she asked me, “did the guy manage to buy a million-dollar house on a $30,000 City Hall salary?”

Pak isn’t the only one asking — numerous media reports over the years have examined how Yee raised a family of four and bought a house in the Sunset on very little visible income. And while I’m not usually that interested in the personal finances of political candidates, I decided that it was worth a look.

Here’s what I found: Public records show that in July 1999, Yee and his wife, Maxine, purchased a house on 24th Avenue for $875,000 (it’s now assessed at slightly more than $1 million). At the time, Yee was a San Francisco supervisor, earning a little more than $30,000 a year. (The salary of the supervisors was raised dramatically shortly after Yee left the board and went to the state Assembly.) His wife wasn’t working. And his economic interest statements for that period show no other outside earnings. So the disposable, after-tax income of the entire Yee family couldn’t have been much more than $25,000.

That, by any normal standard, shouldn’t have been enough to float a mortgage that, records show, totaled $516,000. In fact, the interest payments alone on that mortgage alone would total $3,600 a month — more than Yee’s gross income.

Documents in the Assessor’s Office show another paper trail, too. In 1989, Jung H. Lee, Yee’s mother, transferred the deed on a four-unit Dolores St. building where the family had been living to Maxine and Leland Yee — for no money. And a few months before the Yees bought the Sunset house, they took out a $320,000 home-equity loan on that property. That was the down payment on the Sunset property.

Still: At that point, the Yees would have been paying off two mortgages, with a total nut of about $5,000 a month — and supporting four kids, in San Francisco. In 2002, Yee’s economic interest statement’s show some modest income from teaching at Lincoln University — but nowhere near enough to pay that level of expenses.

What happened? Yee explains it this way: “For more than 10 years, we were living rent-free in my parents’ property,” he told me I an interview. “We were a close Chinese family, and my parents provided the food and helped pay for the children’s clothing. So we had almost no expenses and we lived very frugally.”

During that period, Yee was working for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the Oakland Unified School District, and a San Jose nonprofit, earning, he said, between $50,000 and $90,000 a year. If he saved almost all of that money, he would have had more than a half-million dollars in the bank when he bought the Sunset house.

There’s nothing on any of his economic disclosure forms showing any ownership of stocks or other reportable financial interests during that period, so he wasn’t investing the money. In fact, he says, it was, and is, all in simple savings accounts. A bit unusual for that large a sum of money.

How did he get a mortgage? “Back then,” he said, “banks were willing to lend a lot more freely than they do today.”

Starting in 2003, Yee was in the state Assembly, making a higher salary — but still not much in excess of $100,000 a year. After taxes, he was probably taking home about $75,000 — and $60,000 was going to the two mortgages.

How did he do it? “We have been supplementing our income with our savings,” he said. “We don’t take vacations, we are very careful with our money.” And they clearly aren’t desperate for cash — Yee’s daughter occupies two of the four units in the Dolores St. building they own, but the other two units are vacant.

It’s possible. It’s plausible. But I don’t blame people for wondering how he managed to pull it off. (Tim Redmond, with research assistance by Oona Robertson) 

 

 

 

BIG CORPORATIONS HAVE BACKED YEE

Yee became a prodigious fundraiser in Sacramento — and a lot of the money came from big corporations that had business in the Legislature. And while he has perfect scores from the Sierra Club and the big labor unions, he’s taken tens of thousands of dollars from some of the biggest corporations, agribusiness interests, and polluters in the state. And at times, he’s voted their way.

Since 1993, for example, campaign finance records show Yee has taken more than $20,000 from Chevron, ExxonMobil, Valero, Conoco Phillips, and BP. He’s received another $22,450 from the chemical industry (and industry employees). Most of it came from Clorox, Dow Chemical, and Dupont.

And while the Sierra Club may not have considered it a priority, Sen. Mark Leno has worked hard to pass a bill limiting chemical fire retardants in furniture. In 2008, Yee voted against Leno’s AB 706.

That year he also refused to support a bill that would prohibit the use of the chemical diacetyl in workplaces. The industries that opposed AB 514 (including Bayer, Abbott Laboratories, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson) have given Yee a total of more than $60,000.

In 2003, Yee voted against a crucial tenant bill, one that would have prevented the owners of single room occupancy hotels from using the Ellis Act to evict tenants. He received a campaign check for $2,500 from the San Francisco Apartment Association the next day. Landlords in general have given Yee close to $40,000.

Then there’s agribusiness. Yee gets a lot of money from the farming industry, despite the fact that there obviously aren’t many farms in his district. Why, for example, would the California Poultry Association, the California Cattlemen’s Association, and the California Farm Bureau give him money? The Poultry Association’s Bill Mattos told us that Yee “has taken a keen interest in California’s poultry industry.”

Yee also took immense flak from the San Francisco Chronicle and other papers over a 2003 vote against a bill to limit emissions from farm vehicles. In an editorial, the paper wrote that he was “doing dirty work for the lobbyists.” In the end, under immense public pressure, he switched positions and voted for the bill. I asked Yee about all that money from all those bad operators, and he told me — as most politicians will — that campaign cash has never influenced any of his votes.

So why do all these groups give him money? “It’s about whether you will sit down and listen,” Yee said. “I will talk to all sides and at least consider the arguments as a thoughtful human being. Then I vote my conscience.” (Tim Redmond, with research by Oona Robertson)