Volume 46 Number 32

Deutch maneuver

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le.chicken.farmer@gmail.com

CHEAP EATS “Berlin is awesome,” Kayday writes me, from Berlin. “We should all live here.”

Amazingly, I answer her in German. “Genau,” I write.

Berlin is awesome, true. But it’s one thing May through September, and something very much else the rest of the time. Is my opinion.

Kayday lives in Seattle, and complains about the weather there from September through July.

She doesn’t want to live in Germany, I feel certain.

When she was here, just a few weeks ago, she wanted to eat at Schmidt’s, maybe for practice. So we did. No complaints from me. Schmidt’s has the best wild boar sausage in all of San Francisco.

We also ate at my new favorite Chinese restaurant, in the Richmond, but I’m not going to tell you yet about that. Maybe next week. If you’re good.

Wild boar sausage, I’m pretty sure I already told you about. There’s Rice Broker though, in the Mission, which is another place where Kayday and me ciao’d down.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hello.”

“Hola.”

And she tried to answer — probably in German — but couldn’t, because something had gone down the wrong pipe. Maybe, I’m thinking, a sesame seed. Or a teeny tiny speck of almond?

Both things were in her rice bowl, which was the two skewers of lemongrass beef one, with whole orange slices, string beans, and, yeah, almonds and sesame seeds.

Now, I’ve seen people choking in restaurants before. I’ve even been the person choking in restaurants. It’s no big thing. You cough, you turn red, you hold up your finger to let your dining companions know that, no, in fact you don’t need the Heimlich. Yet. And then you drink some water, cough some more, tear up a little, feel like an idiot, and continue eating.

So happens, the wrong-pipe problem is a recurring theme for me, in life. I have lots and lots of sympathy and patience, and too am ready — if necessary — to spring into action. Ever the nanny, I am trained in CPR and so forth.

“Hello?” I said again. “Are you quite sure you don’t need the Heimlich?”

“I’m OK,” Kayday said. “I just need to go for a walk.” And she excused herself. “Be right back.” And left.

This was a first.

I digged into my own bowl, which was rice porridge with pork-and-ginger meatballs, bok choy, and cilantro. It was excellent, and went down very smoothly.

While I ate, though, I couldn’t take my eyes off of Kayday’s bowl, which was beautiful. The meat, as yet untouched, glistened on its skewers. The orange slices shone forth, like little sunsets. The beans — it was just a beautiful bowl of food. Calling to me.

Kayday is a dear and good friend. She’s an important part of my band. It occurred to me she could choke and die outside on the sidewalk. Still, I decided not to eat her food. When she came back, I would ask. And she would share.

Then, the hell with it, I reached across the table and tried a piece of meat from her skewer. Tough city, go figure!

But, like I says, mine was very good. The meatballs were almost as smooth as the porridge, and good and gingery. And I loved my edamame snack bowl, with dandelion and cane vinegar.

Come to think of it, she’d had a snack bowl appetizer too. Pickled daikon and carrots. And I can’t remember now if I even tasted it, but it sounds pretty good, no?

Of course, this isn’t Kentucky Fried Chicken. But to its credit it isn’t Spork either. And even though it choked my friend, I like that Rice Broker is there. Here in the hood.

And anyway, she survived. She came back.

“Hello,” I said.

She said, “Hi.”

RICE BOWL

Wed-Sun 6-10pm

1058 Valencia, SF.

(415) 643-5000

Cash only

Beer and wine

 

Hard to be a filmmaker

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM In 1987, Soviet critics were polled to create a list of the nation’s greatest films. Landing on top was a movie still little-known abroad, whose maker has completed just five features in 45 years — one of which he doesn’t even consider truly his own work.

My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1984) likely wouldn’t have gotten near that exalted status if original, party-line-towing critics had had their way. After its well-received first screening, Aleksei Guerman’s own studio Lenfilm launched a broadside of attacks and demanded half his film be re-shot, though ultimately (more to spare additional costs than anything else) it remained unchanged.

Three years following a belated release, Ivan Lapshin was officially the “best Russian movie ever.” It was a remarkable turnabout for a director whose efforts had been — and in different ways would continue to be — perpetually thwarted, sometimes banned outright. In personal demeanor Guerman has been called “almost comically grim,” doubtless the result of so much uphill struggle. Yet that dour affect runs counter to the tenor of his most striking films, which are anarchic and borderline surreal, couching tragedy in absurdist humor and messy high spirits.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ two-week series “War and Remembrance: The Films of Aleksei Guerman” brings to SF all of this slim oeuvre, little of which has been seen outside Russia save in festival appearances, cut form, or poor transfers that diminish the director’s mastery of complicated traveling shots in moody black and white.

Guerman (sometimes translated as “German”) was raised in Leningrad as the son of Yuri Guerman, a celebrated author who managed never to fall out of Stalin’s favor. Aiming to be a doctor, he hit cinema instead — first as a student and assistant, then co-directing 1967’s The Seventh Companion with the more established Grigori Aronov. The two fought throughout production of this sober drama about a Tsarist military officer converting to Socialist ideals, and Guerman has disavowed the end product.

He had sole credit on 1971’s Trial on the Road, another redemption tale — former Nazi collaborator surrenders to the Red Army, then re-infiltrates Axis forces to destroy an ammunitions train — but one judged insufficiently “heroic” by the government. It went unseen until 1986, when Gorbachev’s perestroika era liberated numerous long-banned films. A second World War II tale, Twenty Days Without War (1976), managed to escape censure with its melancholy portrait of a soldier on hometown furlough. It hinted at the looser, anecdotal, community-as-protagonist approach to come.

Still, Ivan Lapshin was a surprise leap toward humor, incident over conventional narrative, childhood memory as warm, boisterous yet melancholy blur á la Amarcord (1973) or Mon oncle Antoine (1971). (Though no sensibility could be more purely Russian than Guerman’s.) Based on stories by the director’s father, its main event is one that hasn’t happened yet when the film begins — Stalin’s first “Great Purge,” which would sweep away many of the moderately criminal or just eccentric figures portrayed in this fictive 1935 provincial town. Everyone here is a little mad, driven to distraction by the chaos of a grand collectivist experiment, spinning wild as if anticipating the cold smack down they were about to suffer. The amorphous structure some initially found off-putting now seems Ivan Lapshin‘s boldest, defining trait, the thing that keeps it floating in midair.

Despite that precedent, beleaguered Khrustalyov, My Car! — production dogged this time not by Soviet watchdogs, but by unreliable international funders — was greeted with walkouts and “disaster” judgments at its 1998 Cannes bow. Yet many of the same critics, overwhelmed at first by its wholesale abandonment of realism and coherence for phantasmagoria, pronounced it a masterpiece after second or third viewings. Framed like Ivan Lapshin as a child’s memory of (later) Stalinist life, its 150 minutes lunge still further toward a Fellini-like grotesque-carnival clutter of excesses, from the hospital where “unauthorized death [is] prohibited!” to the delivery truck in which our macho surgeon protagonist is shockingly assaulted in a spontaneous gay orgy. He’s ordered resuscitate the already dead Stalin, an impossible task capping an insane rule; the film’s last words (the director’s own?) are a voiced-over “Fuck it all!” Khrustalyov is a monumental clutter of energy and invention, so jerry-built that the fear it might collapse at any moment is part of its indelible rush.

Guerman is, logically enough, headed next to outer space — his adaptation of Soviet sci-fi classic Hard To Be a God took five years (starting in 2000!) to shoot, and is still being edited, thwarting hopes for Cannes premiere this month. Adversity may not have invaded his career by invitation, but one gets the sense that by now, at age 75, it is his most trusted collaborator.

WAR AND REMEMBRANCE: THE FILMS OF ALEKSEI GUERMAN

May 17-31, $6-$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

www.ybca.org

 

The capital of cannabis?

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HERBWISE A few days after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi finally voiced her displeasure that federal agencies were making moves to curtail medical marijuana access, I was touring the hallway outside her offices in Washington DC.

“Access to medicinal marijuana for individuals who are ill or enduring difficult and painful therapies is both a medical and a states’ rights issue,” said Pelosi in a statement released on May 2.

And though Pelosi was surely spurred to speak on behalf of her federally-beleaguered California, she gets good reminders of cannabis’ import in her adopted home in Washington. Here, the fight for medical marijuana is finally coming to a head: six cultivation centers have been given final approval and four preliminary approval to open.

“It seems likely that patients will have access to medicinal marijuana later this fall,” said DC councilperson David Catania. Catania is a primary figure responsible for penning DC’s cannabis regulations. He is also — in the words of one local cannabis activist who shall remain nameless — “a gay, Republican-leaning Independent corporate lawyer-type. He is both bright and brash, bordering on arrogant. He is so adamantly anti-California medical cannabis laws that most of the tight restrictions here are driven by his stark dislike for what California’s laws have become.”

Well! Since I was darting about our nation’s capital anyway, an interview seemed to be in order so that councilperson Catania could let us know just how DC regulations worked — and what is was like working on marijuana issues in an office situated less than a mile from the Capitol Building and a block or two from the White House. I spoke to him via email last week.

SFBG You played an integral role in setting up cannabis rules and regulations in DC. Were you drawing on things that work or didn’t work in any specific areas of the United States?

David Catania We set out to implement a well-regulated system that was still accessible for those who need the medication. As we are the nation’s capital, we knew the spotlight would be on the program. We set out to create a system that worked for patients in need and I believe we are well on our way to accomplishing that goal.

SFBG What would you like to see happen with dispensaries in DC?

DC The four dispensaries that have been given preliminary approval are in various neighborhoods throughout the District, each with its own needs and concerns. The District Department of Health is doing extensive community outreach and work to involve residents nearby both dispensaries and cultivation centers, to educate them on the program and ensure open lines of dialogue between cultivation center and dispensary owners and their neighbors. Ensuring that positive relationship between the various parties is going to be a vital component of the program’s success. [note: in DC, dispensaries have been regulated as separate from cultivation centers, which are allowed up to 95 plants per location, an amount which was designated as to avoid harsher punishment in the case of federal action.]

SFBG What is it like setting up regulations regarding a federally illegal substance here in the shadow of the White House?

DC It’s interesting. We were very intentional in how we established the program, as we realized we needed to be extra-sensitive to the fact that we are the home of the federal government.

Steady WATERS

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MUSIC Van Pierszalowski’s story writes itself: musician finds love in picturesque European city, swims in fjords, writes a fuzzy grunge-inflected record about it and his travels, and calls the band WATERS (appearing Thu/10 at the Fillmore). “I met a girl,” he says from the road. “And I just wanted to get back over there. It was a place to work on songs, refocus.”

Even his story before the present wrote itself: young man travels to Alaska to fish with his father and creates chilly, acoustic folk soundscapes, names the band Port O’Brien after an Alaskan Bay.

This all happened. Only life isn’t all one big linear story, and Pierszalowski isn’t nearly so precious as implied within these tales. He never stopped writing songs between the break-up of Port O’Brien and formation of WATERS. He was bouncing back and forth between Oslo and San Francisco for two years, with stops here and there in New York and Alaska, also Dallas in spring of 2011 to record a full-length with producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Bill Callahan).

His first and latest album for WATERS — Out in the Light — came out last September to a flurry of positive reviews, tales of rebirth, etc. The record produced anthemic “For the One” (and its trippy dreamcatcher-based video), which kicks off with a slow buzz breaking into a chainsaw pop guitar line, and Pierszalowski pleading, “Oh my god I thought I was a free man out on road,” later in chorus, “when I wake up/and I take you with me/I’ve seen too much of old/And I’m not waiting.”

So what happens after the initial burst of new-band hype? Pierszalowski is still in love, and touring much of the year. When home in the Bay Area for brief snippets of time, he and the girl — Marte Solbakken — live together, and frequent Dynamo Donuts for sustenance. “I live up there on Potrero Hill. Everything’s there, that’s our home.”

While Pierszalowski is ringleader and songwriter, the current incarnation of the band — drummer Nicholas Wolch and bassist Alexander Margitich, both from Santa Rosa, guitarist Aaron Bradshaw, and Solbakken on keys and singing — has been touring the States together for some time.

This summer they’ll be back in Oslo briefly, and before that, more tours, including an opening slot for Delta Spirit, which brings the band to the Fillmore this week. Following that, there’s another tour with Nada Surf in June.

They’ll traverse the wide-open plains and rather familiar coasts of the U.S. — when not fishing in Alaska, Pierszalowski was raised in tiny coastal Cambria, just south of the Hearst Castle.

He wasn’t a surfer like many of the locals, so he found solace in music, taking inspiration from a long line of iconic guitarists and singers, starting with Billie Joe Armstrong in junior high, moving up to Joey Ramone, Thom Yorke, Neil Young, Will Oldham, and his most consistant inspiration, Kurt Cobain.

“I’ve always gone on record as saying In Utero is my favorite record of all time,” he says. Nirvana was an influence on Port O’Brien’s sound and a huge influence on WATERS.

So what’s next? Pierszalowski is feeling the pressure to start creating new music again, has written a few songs on the sly, and is already fantasizing about the next record — he’s hoping to get back in the studio at the end of the year. It’s his life on the road with the one that he loves, but it’s not just a simple fairytale. There are donuts involved.

WATERS

With Delta Spirit

Thu/10, 8pm, $20

Fillmore

1805 Fillmore, SF

www.thefillmore.com

The tender line

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arts@sfbg.com

THEATER A couple of days after the opening of the Cutting Ball’s documentary play, Tenderloin, I spotted independent filmmaker Rob Nilsson crossing the street at Taylor and Eddy, less than a block from the theater. Drawn to the neighborhood and its residents for decades, Nilsson is one of the more prominent artists who have found inspiration, collaboration and a kind of authenticity in the Tenderloin, long among San Francisco’s poorest and liveliest districts.

Director-writer Annie Elias and her Tenderloin team continue this tradition, with a clear concern to do right by their subjects (among whom happens to be Nilsson himself, played by actor Tristan Cunningham). The action emerges from an opening tableau of street life, featuring the colorful sights and harrying sounds of a rowdy inner-city intersection (nicely augmented by sound designer Matt Stines). Upstage rises scenic designer Michael Locher’s ceiling-high mound of furniture and bric-a-brac, which is fronted by two rows of hanging photographs, loving portraits of local people and places whose panels double as projection screens establishing context for each of the scenes that follow.

The play presents a spectrum of Tenderloin denizens whose stories reflect the dire straits normally associated with this congested low-income slice of downtown, but also the sense of freedom and community some have found there. We hear from the desperate and lonely but even more often from people who have grown to prefer the Tenderloin to more stifling environs.

That positive note lands too forcefully at times, especially when it comes from relatively privileged members of the commuting class (the plugging of the neighborhood by some middle-class patrons at the Nite Cap bar, for instance, begins to sound a little like an ad from the visitors bureau), or professional advocates like Reverend Karen Oliveto (played by Leigh Shaw) at Glide Memorial Church.

By contrast, the play excels when the voices are both genuinely local and agenda-free, as is the case with the story by a man from Sixth Street who haplessly agrees to accept responsibility for a newborn baby from an acquaintance on her way to jail (a story as charming and resonant as a well-crafted short story, and beautifully recreated by actor Michael Kelly).

A set of discrete interviews naturally runs the risk of becoming an aimless narrative, especially without a single dramatic episode or storyline at the center (as is the case with the better-known works in the docudrama genre, such as Tectonic Theater’s The Laramie Project). Elias sets out to mitigate this problem in several ways, first of all by casting well — in terms of both the selection of interview subjects and the delicate portrayals marshaled by her exceptional ensemble of actor-documentarians (aided by additional writing from David Westley Skillman).

In addition to Michael Kelly’s standout performance throughout, Rebecca Frank does particularly subtle work with a number of memorable personalities, including Leroy B. Looper, the (recently deceased) owner of the Cadillac Hotel, who appears here with wife and longtime business partner Kathy (played gracefully by David Sinaiko). (Siobhan Doherty rounds out the production’s admirable ensemble.)

Elias also relies on dynamic staging, often setting a couple of interviews in alternating tension with one another, a technique that generally serves the production well — as in a sly point-counterpoint between former Tenderloin police captain Gary Jimenez (Kelly) and a homeless person (Cunningham) — even if some scenes prove unnecessarily busy.

But the narrative that emerges, which lays a heavy emphasis on “stripping back the layers” and revealing the truth of the much-maligned district, suffers from the accumulation of a familiar liberal slant toward tolerance and understanding. To the extent it undercuts outrage at a larger system of extreme and degrading inequality, such a slant obscures as much as it reveals. *

TENDERLOIN

Through May 27

Thu, 7:30pm; Fri-Sat, 8pm (also Sat, 2pm); Sun, 5pm, $10-$50

Exit on Taylor

277 Taylor, SF

(415) 525-1205

www.cuttingball.com

 

Volume 46 Number 32 Flip-through Edition

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Regenerate me

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emilysavage@sfbg.com

MUSIC Burning Brides guitarist Dimitri Coats was in Keith Morris’ tip-of-Los Feliz living room one afternoon when he turned to Morris — Black Flag co-founder and longtime Circle Jerks vocalist — and asked: “Keith, if you were going to start a new band, who would you play with?”

It was a pretty short list. Bassist? Keith wanted Steven McDonald of Redd Kross. And for drums he listed former pro skater Mario Rubalcaba of Hot Snakes, Earthless, and Rocket From The Crypt fame. All the men were game, and, thus, a supergroup was born. Since its late 2009 formation the band, OFF!, has slowly spawned a reputation for an aggressive punk return to form and wildly entertaining, chaotic live shows.

Of course, having four viable and seasoned musicians stuffed in a band has its share of complications. When Morris peeks at the tour schedule grid many of the dates are blacked out due to other commitments, such as children and concurrent bands. Like, say, if Rubalcaba has to be whisked away to Australia to play with Earthless for a week.

“I want to be mad and angry but he’s a drummer, and any great drummer is not going to be in one band,” explains Morris diplomatically. It’s these other life obligations that have sped up OFF’s process. Their time is condensed.

Two weeks after that living room conversation they were already rehearsing — ” just banging and clashing and thumping and making loud sounds” — and it was sounding good, only it wasn’t the sound Morris had envisioned, he says. He’d wanted it to sound like Black Flag.

But he had an epiphany in the car ride home from the rehearsal space after, “you’re playing with these great players — nobody told Jimi Hendrix what to play, nobody told Greg Ginn what to play,” Morris recalls. “It’s like, you’ve done this long enough, continue doing what you’re doing.”

Soon after that first rehearsal, the group began releasing blistering seven-inches, which were then assembled into the First Four EPs vinyl box set and CD comp.

Last year, OFF! was at LA’s Kingsize Soundlabs, recording a raw, frantic self-titled full-length for VICE Records over a three day period. Morris claims they did it in even less time, thanks to the realities of life. “We tell everybody three days, it wasn’t really three days. You need a break to go to the bathroom, you need a break to go smoke a cigarette, you know you’re going to eat a couple of meals and I mean good meals, you don’t eat like, Taco Bell,” says the diabetic vocalist.

In the end, the album — which was released this month — actually does have some powerful elements of early Black Flag — all rapid tempos, heavy power chords, and Morris’ thick, instantly recognizable holler. Single “Wiped Out” could be a rare, cleaned up B-side to Nervous Breakdown, salt-watered, anxiety-driven punk pandemonium, which leads to one to wonder if Morris is perhaps messing with journalists today?

Back in that edge of Los Feliz living room — in a house not too far from the homes of rapper Bronx Style Bob, Gwen Stefani and family, and one of the three musical Haden triplets — the 56-year-old punk singer is pacing on the phone thanks to another of his five to seven interviews of the day. He’s just glad he doesn’t have to do mundane chores at the moment like take a bath, or figure out what to eat for breakfast. And he’s optimistic about the future of this new band.

He may not see the precise Black Flag impact on the music, but he says the vibe of OFF! is very similar to his first band at the start, the pioneering act that began 30 years back in surf punk haven Hermosa Beach.

“It was me going all the way back to the very beginning, when I was in Black Flag, when we didn’t know what we were doing. It was just ‘we’re going to do this, and we’re going to have fun. We’re going to go wherever this can take us,'” Morris says. “I think that’s what applies here, it’s something I’ve had in my heart, and carried around with me all of these years — just play it by ear.”

Later, in the same eerily recognizable, nasal-intoned voice he adds, “Not only am I excited, but I’m happy being in this band.”

 

OFF!

With Fidlar, Spider Fever

Fri/11, 9pm, $15

Slim’s

333 11th St., SF

(415) 255-0333

www.slimspresents.com

Sushi east and west

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virginia@sfbg.com

APPETITE Despite the countless lauded sushi restaurants I’ve eaten at in NY and LA, I find San Francisco more than keeps up, whether due to the staggering range of fish (and lovably surly attitude) Roger delivers at Zushi Puzzle (www.zushipuzzle.com) (pencilfish or flying fish, anyone?), the sustainable efforts of Tataki (www.tatakisushibar.com) and Sebo (www.sebosf.com), or the pristine precision of Sausalito stalwart Sushi Ran (www.sushiran.com), which tops overrated Nobu (www.noburestaurants.com) restaurants, in my book.

Here is one new SF spot and one revamped Berkeley restaurant adding more welcome sushi diversity to the Bay Area.

 

SARU SUSHI BAR

Why couldn’t Saru Sushi Bar have been in Noe Valley all the years I lived right by this 24th Street storefront? The space’s original two sushi incarnations were less than desirable, where I was once subjected to smelly, rubbery fish. The closet-sized restaurant is completely revamped to the unrecognizable point. Still tiny, it feels roomier with large front windows and sleek brown color scheme. Cheery service pleasantly elevates the experience, particularly on a sunny day at lunch.

I’d claim the space has finally arrived. There’s not just the usual hamachi and sake (salmon), but rather playful, unique bites prepared with care. “Spicy cracker” ($7) is a sheet of seaweed fried in tempura, topped with spicy tuna and avocado — a textural bite. Bright halibut tartare is drizzled in lime zest, yuzu juice, and Japanese sea salt. Though I ever appreciate sampling options, some tasting spoons ($7) work better than others. One that worked: young yellowtail (kanpachi) in truffle oil and ponzu sauce, with garlic chips and scallions.

I know I’m good hands if raw spot prawns (amaebi) are on the nigiri menu ($7 two pieces). Bright and firm, they taste as if they were caught fresh that morning. Snappy rolls (maki) are not overwrought. Quality raw scallops are a favorite, so I appreciate Naked Scallop ($12), a roll wrapped in light green soy paper, filled with snow crab, avocado, masago (smelt roe), and, of course, scallop. Not near as junk-food-sushi as it sounds, is the fresh, fun, subtly crispy Popcorn Tuna roll ($10): panko-crusted spicy tuna is topped with masago (smelt roe), scallions, spicy mayo, and a sweet soy glaze.

Noe Valley finally has a destination sushi bar.

3856 24th St., SF. (415) 400-4510, www.akaisarusf.com

 

JOSHU-YA BRASSERIE

At first glance, Joshu-ya Brasserie could be another hip Berkeley student hang-out: a funky, converted old house with red-gated front patio. But step inside the recently remodeled space and bamboo and dark wood exude an Old World Zen. A fountain out front murmurs soothingly while the sun warms the partially covered patio.

A chalkboard lists fish specials, but also rabbit tacos and Kobe kimchi sliders (the latter cooked too medium-well for me). One immediately realizes this is no typical sushi or even Japanese restaurant. Young executive chef-owner Jason Kwon’s vision is bigger. Yes, he is going for the Bay Area standard of seasonal, sustainable, locally-sourced ingredients — after all, he founded Couteaux Review (www.couteauxreview.com), a culinary organization promoting sustainable agriculture. But French influence and unique twists keep things interesting, with dishes like pan-roasted rib-eye medallions in blackberry balsamic reduction, or duck confit with buckwheat noodles, nori and bonito flakes. In some ways, the vision feels beyond what the restaurant has yet fully grown into, but the intriguing elements hold promise.

The $35 omakase is a steal, particularly when chef Kwon informs you his fish supplier is the same one that French Laundry and Morimoto buy from. After a starter of seared albacore, fresh and bright, if a little too doused in fried onions and ponzu sauce, a giant, artistic sashimi platter hits a number of high notes with actual fresh wasabi (always a good sign), aji tataki (horse mackerel) from Japan, kanpachi (young yellowtail) from Hawaii, hirame (halibut) from Korea, and chu-toro (bluefin tuna) from Spain. Only one fish on the platter arrived too cold and firm. The rest were silky and satisfying.

Being less of a sweet tooth, I’d rather have finished the omakase with another savory dish than tempura red bean ice cream. Generous scoops of fried ice cream and pound cake were a little weighted after such a refreshing meal. Seared salmon in truffle creme sounds like a fine dessert to me.

2441 Dwight Way, Berk. (510) 848-5260, www.joshu-ya.com

Subscribe to Virgina’s twice-monthly newsletter, The Perfect Spot, www.theperfectspotsf.com

How dark was my alley

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM The word that comes to mind when thinking of Elliot Lavine’s semiannual film noir programs at the Roxie is inexhaustible. With 30 films packed into 14 days, “I Wake up Dreaming” wisely takes a pass on questions of noir’s quintessence in favor of open-ended research into the mutations and paroxysms of mid-century malaise.

There’s no mistaking genuine masterpieces like The Big Combo (1955) and In a Lonely Place (1950), to say nothing of a still unfathomable crossover work like Detour (1945), but Lavine’s series conspires to induce the genre delirium that first inspired the French critics to call a noir a noir. In spite of the preponderance of dead ends and blind alleys, there’s always a trap door leading into the next movie. So this time around we get Shadow of Terror (1945) rather than Reign of Terror (1949), The Underworld Story (1950) instead of Underworld U.S.A. (1961), Killer’s Kiss (1955) instead of The Killers (versions 1946 or 1964) or Kubrick’s own follow-up The Killing (1956), Shoot to Kill (1947) instead of Born to Kill (1947). Chronologies matter less than interchangeability. You watch Lee Van Cleef’s icy professional in opening night’s The Big Combo (sparkling in a 35mm restoration by UCLA) return as a foaming killer in closing night’s Guns, Girls, and Gangsters (1959). His kind never has time to develop a character on the margins of these already marginal films, but with repetition comes iconography.

John Alton’s rhapsodic cinematography threads four of this year’s selections (The Big Combo; 1948’s Hollow Triumph; 1947’s The Pretender; 1944’s Storm Over Lisbon; and 1948’s He Walked By Night). In the famous finale of Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo, which audaciously sets out to improve upon 1942’s Casablanca‘s even more famous conclusion on the tarmac, the plot seems to exist primarily for the lighting. Cops emerge out of the fog and Jean Wallace’s trophy girl freezes Richard Conte’s sociopath in a spotlight — as pure an effect as anything in F.W. Murnau and in this case providing a perfect echo of an earlier scene of killing as silence rather than light.

Nicholas Ray and Val Lewton protégé Mark Robson lead Saturday’s bill with message movies impugning society’s guilt for a young man’s sins. As with many of the era’s social problem pictures, miles of speechifying script and awkward narrative frames make Knock on Any Door (1949) and Edge of Doom (1950) tough going if still interesting in the particulars. Knock on Any Door is timid next to Ray’s subsequent study in juvenile delinquency, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), but there are premonitions of what’s to come in those moments when the director fully engages his actors’ bodies: when Humphrey Bogart’s world-wary defense lawyer hauls Nick “Pretty Boy” Romano (John Derek) into a back alley to reclaim a debt, for instance, and in the passage when Romano’s wife slumps against the stove after he blows for a robbery. You’re so focused on her balletic movement to the floor that you hardly notice that she’s reaching for the gas.

There’s a similar fascination to Farley Granger performance as a loose cannon in Edge of Doom, lashing out at a world that doesn’t forget about money even when you’re trying to bury your poor mother. As in Ray’s indelible They Live by Night (1949), Granger’s palpable insecurity makes him a key figure for the melancholy shading of noir anxiety.

Prolific director Edward L. Cahn’s Guns, Girls, and Gangsters is the kind of red meat B movie that manages some genuinely weird flourishes in spite of its undeniable limitations as a factory-line commodity. The Vegas heist plot is barely motivation for Mamie Van Doren’s curves, and the film itself blends right in with the roadside motels and cheap nightclubs. It’s a particularly egregious offender in the redundant voice-over category (“It was a moment of great tension for Wheeler”), but then Van Cleef shows up — fresh out of prison with Mamie on the mind. The sight of him lurking outside a motel window at night in his sunglasses is something to remember. Van Doren may be the “merchandise,” as her character says, but Van Cleef conjures noir’s actual libido: leering, desperate, and unpredictable.

The same cheap thrills that Cahn serves up with gusto come under close scrutiny in Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss: here we find pulp as object d’art. Made when Kubrick was 27, the film emulates its Times Square setting in its barrage of perceptual jolts — like a Weegee photograph sprung to life. Plenty of noirs delineate capitalist degradations of the city, but rarely with a cleanness of line as the sequence in which Kubrick cuts between a man being prepped for the boxing ring and a woman making herself up for her nightshift as a dancing partner.

It’s all so much meat in Kubrick’s unsparing view, and one might add here that the rain of footsteps trailing down a New York canyon is more eloquent than any of the human dialogue (call it an anti-social problem picture). Kubrick acts as his own cinematographer, making great use of his chops as a magazine photographer to scavenge bitter ironies from street locations. His editing knocks things further lopsided, revealing only mirrors where you expect to find character. You know the hour is late watching Killer’s Kiss and The Big Combo, both of them released in 1955 and both advancing a self-conscious apotheosis of the style in the ruins of its bygone glamour — in a word, modernism. 

 

“I WAKE UP DREAMING: THE FRENCH HAVE A NAME FOR IT!”

May 11-24, $11

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St., SF

www.roxie.com

Love on wheels

2

In honor of our annual bike issue, we wanted to highlight a few of the free-wheeling people that polished our spokes this year. Keep on pumpin’!

KAREN WEINER AND BRETT THURBER, NEW WHEEL

On a family-oriented strip of Cortland Avenue perched halfway up the precipitous heights of Bernal Hill, husband-wife team Karen Weiner and Brett Thurber have invested their all in an enterprise some would deem experimental: the first electric bike shop in San Francisco.

Photo by Mirissa Neff

“San Francisco is really the perfect place for these bikes,” said Thurber when we went on a test ride with him and Weiner around the city. Iron-thighed fixie fans notwithstanding, he’s right — there are some neighborhoods in this city where the average bear will only be able to bring a bike if he or she pushes it up the final blocks of incline. For older bikers, the e-bikes (as they are lovingly dubbed by their adherents) make it possible to zip around town, car and fancy-free. Plus, they are disturbingly fun — when else can you cruise up Twin Peaks and still be breathing easy when you reach that panoramic view?

Other stores around town do sell certain models of e-bikes, but Thurber and Weiner’s new New Wheel is the first place to specialize in them. It stocks European and Canadian-made models in addition to retrofitting kits so that normie bikes can be tricked out with motors capable of doubling one’s pedaling power.

Thurber says business has been steadily growing, and that he’s noticed that the electric bike is not a purchase taken lightly by consumers — often times a customer will come by the store six or seven times before taking that heady ride into pedal power (perhaps indicative of the bikes’ spendy pricetags.)

“People are really making this mindful shift instead of listening to us be like ‘just do it,'” says the man who hopes to be SF’s e-bike proselytizer. (Caitlin Donohue)

New Wheel, 420 Cortland, SF. (415) 524-7362, www.newwheel.net

 

PAUL JORDAN’S BIKE CAVALRY

Twenty years ago, Critical Mass began demonstrating the power and potential of mass bike rides to make a political statement by seizing space from cars and confounding the authorities. Almost 10 years ago, anti-war cyclists in San Francisco borrowed Critical Mass tactics to interfere with business as usual on daily Bikes Not Bombs rides that also proved effective and hard to police. Today, as the tides of protest again rise with the Occupy Wall Street and related movements, Paul Jordan and other founders of the new collective SF Bike Cavalry ( sfbikecavalry.org) are reviving and expanding the concept.

Photo by Tim Daw

“It’s all kinda new, definitely more of a buzzword at this point,” Jordan, a 38-year-old painting contractor, said when we caught up with him and his cycling comrades during last week’s May Day marches. “But the idea is to use bicycles for activism.”

As they demonstrated on May Day, even a dozen or so cyclists can send loud messages to passersby or nimbly create opportunities for marchers to safely seize the streets, all while riding more-or-less legally. And they can use whimsy — silly costumes, funny signs, big smiles, blowing bubbles — to defuse any tensions.

“It’s hard to be mad when you’re stuck in traffic if you see bubbles,” Jordan said as he reloaded the bubble machine on the back of his bike. “I see bubbles as a very good activist tool.”

The Cavalry is a fairly new venture, which Jordan first displayed for big Jan. 20 protests, but he sees it as something with enormous potential: “We want to figure out how to grow this bigger.” (Steven T. Jones)

SAM KROYER AND RENITA TAYLOR, ROLL SF

Sometimes it seems like the Mission has as many bike shops as taquerias, but the neighborhoods east of Potrero lacks the same double-wheelin’ bounty. Sam Kroyer and Renita Taylor met in their Bernal Heights neighborhood, where Kroyer used to run a repair shop out of his garage. Taylor is an avid biker, and the two decided to meld their respective strengths — Kroyer’s mechanical prowess and Taylor’s business know-how — and create a service-oriented shop near Potrero Hill for every type of rider.

Photo by Mirissa Neff

“We’re really trying to make it for everybody, from entry-level commuter bikers to bikers with really crazy exotic $20,000+ bikes,” Kroyer says. Kroyer has 25 year of experience as a bike mechanic, and Taylor is a sharp businesswoman who spent several years working in the entertainment industry.

Roll SF seems like an outpost in an area not known, for now, as a cycling nexus, but its atmosphere is friendly and accessible. A long wooden table runs through the center of the shop, welcoming guests to sit down and stay awhile — to use the shop’s free wi-fi while they wait, watch and ask questions, or eat dinner. Kroyer provides you with his utmost attention and quickly diagnoses your bike. If it’s a fast fix, he’ll handle it promptly with the grace cultivated by years spent engaging with a multifaceted machine. “We’re trying to make sure you come away with a great experience — that you feel like you’ve really gotten something taken care of properly,” Kroyer says. (Mia Sullivan)

275 Rhode Island, SF. (415) 701-ROLL, www.rollsanfrancisco.com

 

SONS OF SCIENCE

Are you on a motherfucking bike? Tell me you’re reading this on a motherfucking bike, doing the Tour de Fuck You. Sing with me, “No greenhouse gas! A tiny carbon footprint up your ass!” Then launch into the wickedest bike horn solo ever.

You know what I’m talking about. “Motherfucking Bike” by Sons of Science (sonsofscience.bandcamp.com), the profane viral hymn to SF peddlin’ that’s closing in on a million YouTube views and has been Tweeted liberally by the likes of Russell Crowe and Juliette Lewis. Sure it plays on every fixie hipster stereotype you can image — it’s the “Shit San Franciscans Say” for mutton-chopped, skinny-pantsed, non-fat latte-quaffing riders — but it’s pretty damn funny. (And catchy. It is maniacally catchy. So be warned.)

Sons of Science are a freewheeling trio: Ward Evans and John Benson, who direct for Sausage Films (www.sausagefilms.com), and Hector Perez, a.k.a. Horn Solo. “We’ve known each other for years and just recently decided to collaborate for fun, and it clicked. It was a great excuse to do a video. For this track we were also very lucky to feature Tim Brooks, formerly of the Young Offenders, who plays the ‘Angry Commuter’. He brought a pantsload of energy and genuine cyclist cred,” Evan told me. Also featured: the guys from that delicious new MASH shop (www.mashsf.com) near Duboce Park.

When asked about his own motherfucking bike heroes, Evans replied, “A guy named Joff Summerfield rode a penny farthing around the globe. He’d be right up there.” (Marke B.)

 

Who is the brick thrower?

14

Yael@sfbg.com

The brick-throwing man whose projectiles hit two protesters at the Occupy San Francisco takeover of a Turk Street building on May Day has helped spark intense internal debates in the movement about the use of violence.

But nobody has heard the alleged hurler’s side of the story.

Jesse Nesbitt, 34, was arrested on the scene, and is accused of felony assault, assault on a police officer, and vandalism. I interviewed Nesbitt in San Francisco County Jail May 3. He spoke of his associations with drug addicts and revolutionaries; his previous stints in jails, prisons and psych wards; and his countless arrests on the streets of San Francisco for illegal lodging.

What emerged was a picture of a homeless Army veteran who suffers from untreated mental illness and substance-abuse issues — someone who found a degree of help and solace in the Occupy movement but has never fully escaped his problems. His story is, unfortunately, not unusual — there are many thousands of vets who the system has utterly failed.

Nesbitt told me he was diagnosed as schizophrenic at 16. “From bad things happening, my mental illness has snowballed since then,” he explained.

Nesbitt said he grew up in the projects outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during the 1980s. “It wasn’t too nice,” he explained. When he was 18, he joined the Army.

“I wanted to join the military all my life. That’s what I wanted to do,” he said. The schizophrenia could have stopped him — but “I lied my way in.”

His tour in Korea was during peace time, but he says he still saw combat. “We were supposed to be at peace with North Korea, in a ceasefire. But whenever they got a chance, they shot at us. And whenever we got a chance, we shot at them.

“It hardened my heart. And it gave me a sense of duty to uphold our Constitution.”

Nesbitt returned from South Korea in 1996. Afterward, “I hitchhiked from coast to coast twice. I got married three times. I have a kid in Pennsylvania. I went to jail in Pennsylvania for — being young and stupid,” he said.

Later in the interview, he expanded on his prison time in Pennsylvania. “I did four years and eight months for aggravated assault, theft, and possession of an instrument of crime,” said Nesbitt. “I also did time in Georgia for assault. And I did time in Alameda County for vandalism and weapons.”

In fact, as he tells it, Nesbitt’s time in Berkeley was spent mainly in jail, before he got involved with Occupy Berkeley.

“I don’t know how much time I did in total in Alameda County. I’d be in jail two, three weeks, get out five, six days, then get arrested again. That was from last April to July,” he says.

On the days when he was free, “I was doing what I normally do,” said Nesbitt. “I’d squat somewhere. In the daytime I’d panhandle, go to the library. I was doing a lot of drinking. Then I started getting arrested a lot when I started doing meth.”

That was his life before joining Occupy. “A friend of mine who was shooting heroin at the time said, let’s go join the revolution. It will help clean you up. It helped pull me out of a drug addiction and keep me healthy,” said Nesbitt.

But that wasn’t the only reason he joined.

“I’ve always had revolutionary beliefs,” he says. He spoke of his friends in Pittsburgh. They wouldn’t let him go the G20 protests in 2009, fearing he would be incited to violence.

“I’ve been involved with anarchists for a long time. They pointed out documentaries I should watch, things I should read,” said Nesbitt.

But the example he gave me isn’t your classic Emma Goldman. Nesbitt remembered “The Esoteric Agenda” — a conspiracy-theory film that connects stories about corporate greed with apocalyptic prophecies.

“The education was getting me ready for something,” he said.

At Occupy Berkeley, even while Nesbitt recovered from his meth addiction, he continued to live in a cycle of violence.

“It was in Berkeley out at the Occupy camp. I got into a fight with somebody, I was in a black out. It took six cops to hogtie 135-pound me, so I was talking shit. While I was hogtied, they dropped me on my head. I went from talking shit to unconscious. I slept for the next two weeks,” Nesbitt told me.

His involvement with Occupy San Francisco increased after the Occupy Berkeley encampment was taken down.

Occupy San Francisco, however, didn’t quite progress the way he had hoped. “When they started raiding us in December, I was hoping the numbers would go up. Instead they dwindled,” said Nesbitt.

He was part of a small group of people continuing the “occupation” tactic outside the Federal Reserve Building at 101 Market St. Back in the fall, that sidewalk was a spot where dozens of people held protest signs and meetings all day and many slept throughout the night. After a series of police raids, and as most of those organizing with Occupy moved on to different tactics and projects, some decided to remain there.

Even when the Justin Herman Plaza camp was in full functional form, it was derided as “nothing but a homeless camp.” There were homeless people there, but many found food and other resources, as well as security from both police and other people they feared on the street, leading many to devote themselves to the goals of the protest movement.

The 101 Market camp that emerged in February was mostly a homeless camp — and, although the people there remained fiercely political in their convictions, they certainly didn’t enjoy the safety that the Justin Herman camp once provided.

Nesbitt was one of those people. “The SFPD not letting us sleep, telling us sitting on cardboard was lodging, sitting under a blanket to stay warm was lodging, you can only take so much of it,” he said. “They slammed my head against the back of a paddy wagon last time they arrested me for sitting underneath a blanket.”

His story is not unusual.

“Veterans continue to lead the nation in homelessness,” explained Colleen Corliss, spokesperson for the veterans-aid nonprofit Swords to Plowshares. “There are a lot of factors at play. Those who go to war have a higher instance of mental illness and substance abuse, which ultimately can lead to a vicious cycle of homelessness,” she said. “Even if you serve during peace time, you can still have really traumatic experiences.”

Nesbitt’s experience with the city’s mental health facilities wasn’t enough to break this cycle. “I did get 5150-ed,” he said, describing the term for involuntary psychiatric commitment. “I was in the hospital less than 24 hours, they kicked me out.”

Why? “I threatened to kill a doctor,” said Nesbitt.

Nesbitt’s 24-hour stay was in the overburdened, short-staffed psych ward at San Francisco General Hospital. When the psych wards began closing beds in 2007, it was comprised of four units, each with 30 beds; it is now down to one unit, according to Ed Kinchley, a social worker in the medical emergency department at General.

There’s also a floor in the behavioral health center for psychiatric patients with 59 beds, but “they told the staff last week that they’re planning to close 29 of those beds.”

“Since [the beds] are full almost every day, the bar or the standard for who stays there or who goes in-patient is a lot higher than it used to be,” said Kinchley.

Whatever the reason, Nesbitt was not getting treatment the day of the alleged brick-throwing — and he was having problems. “I was getting an episode the day before it all happened,” he said. “I was afraid to go by myself to sleep because I was hearing voices. Normally those voices tell me to hurt people. I try to keep around people I love and trust that wouldn’t let me do anything.”

Mixed with his schizophrenia is a brand of Constitutionalism that’s not common on the left.

“When you join the military or the police department, you take an oath swearing to defend the United States Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic,” Nesbitt said. “Now they’re passing the NDAA, Patriot Act, and other bills I don’t know about. They’re intentionally taking away our constitutional rights. We’re supposed to defend those rights, not lie down and take it.

“I think Abraham Lincoln said, if the government betrays us, we’re supposed to take them out.” Nesbitt insists he’s “not a terrorist. No matter what they might say about me in the Chronicle or whatnot, I’m not a terrorist. What is he, then? “I’m a freedom fighter,” said Nesbitt. “I’m fighting for the freedom of everyone.”

Obama’s mistake

4

By Gabriel Haaland and Laura Thomas

Last month, Obama came out swinging against medical marijuana in an interview, defended his raids of law-abiding clubs, and is currently positioning himself to the right of former President George Bush — despite the fact that nearly 75 percent of Americans support legalized medical marijuana.

In Northern California, Melinda Haag, Obama’s US Attorney for the Northern District of California, is resolutely determined to shut down medical marijuana access. Her district starts in the Bay Area and runs up the California coast to the Oregon border. Ironically, her district may have the strongest support in the entire country for medical marijuana, from voters, law enforcement, elected officials, businesses, and community members. Why is she so obsessed with shutting down the clubs? She claims that it’s because she is protecting the children of California. Really. So the next time someone is dying of cancer and they don’t have legal access to medical marijuana, we will be sure to remember that the children of California are safe. And let’s be clear: She is going after regulated clubs and the idea of a regulated industry — regulations that communities, sheriffs, Boards of Supervisors, and health departments have built.

Haag is targeting community leaders, such as Richard Lee, the chief promoter of California’s effort to legalize marijuana, and Oaksterdam, the area where most of the medical dispensaries are in Oakland. She also shut down Mendocino’s ground-breaking regulation of marijuana growers — literally driving past illegal grows to one recently inspected and certified by Mendocino sheriff’s deputies. She subpoenaed Department of Public Health records used to issue licenses for dispensaries here. She is going after dispensaries in San Francisco that are in full compliance with local and state law, merely because they are within an arbitrary distance from a school or park, even if the park is unused, or the school opened after the dispensary did.

Her actions are not protecting children from the harms of marijuana. She states that dispensaries attract crime, which is not proven by any evidence. What does cause crime is the black market, especially the black market for marijuana imported from Mexico, where 50,000 people have been lost in prohibition-related violence. The less people can produce, purchase, and consume marijuana grown here in California, the worse things get for Mexico. She also seems oddly concerned about the evils of capitalism, worried that people may be making a living from the medical marijuana industry. While we may not be the biggest fans of capitalism, we don’t think closing small businesses (or even large ones) in these economic times is a great idea. Haag’s actions have put thousands out of work and eliminated tax revenues for localities and the state. She’s using taxpayer resources to make the local economy a little bit worse. Thanks.

In San Francisco, elected officials including the mayor, the Board of Supervisors, the district attorney, the city attorney, Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, State Senator Mark Leno, the Democratic County Central Committee, and most recently, Democratic Congressional Leader Nancy Pelosi, have all spoken out against Obama’s efforts to undermine legal, regulated medical marijuana in California. The San Francisco Chronicle has run not one, but two editorials in the last month on the topic, plus a column from conservative columnist Deb Saunders. There have been rallies, protests, petitions, meetings, and letters asking her to stop going after medical marijuana.

What will it take to get Obama to wake up to the fact that his effort are not supported by three quarters of the country and that, in particular, Melinda Haag is obsessed with shutting down any regulated medical marijuana business? She is making things worse: leaving patients to the black market to find their medication, undermining law enforcement efforts to work with medical marijuana producers, and exacerbating the violence in Mexico.

But instead of reining her in, Obama is doubling down one of the most popular causes in America.. Medical marijuana is far more popular in the U. S. right now than Congress, the president, or Republican candidate Mitt Romney. The most serious moment at the Correspondents Dinner in Washington, DC last week was when comedian Jimmy Kimmel asked Obama point-blank why he was going after medical marijuana. None of it makes much sense. How much evidence is needed to convince Obama and Haag that their actions are creating harm, not eliminating it? How much evidence is needed that this is not what the voters and taxpayers want? What kind of data do they need that regulation reduces crime? How many patients need to tell their stories? What will it take to change her actions?

And when will Obama wake up to the fact that he is making a huge mistake? 

Gabriel Haaland is a member of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee. Laura Thomas works with the Drug Policy Alliance.

20 percent by 2020

52

steve@sfbg.com

There’s no doubt that San Francisco is one of the best cities in the United States for bicyclists, a place where near universal support in City Hall has translated into regular cycling infrastructure improvements and pro-cyclist legislation, as a slew of activists and politicians will attest to on May 10 after dismounting from their Bike to Work Day morning rides.

But even the most bike-friendly U.S. cities — including Portland, Ore., Davis, Chicago, and New York City — are still on training wheels compared to our European counterparts, such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where around 30 percent of all vehicle trips are by bike. By comparison, even the best U.S. cities are still in the low single digits. [Correction: Davis, which stands alone among U.S. cities, is actually at about 15 percent bike mode share]

Board President David Chiu and other city officials proposed to aggressively address that gap two years ago after returning from a fact-finding trip to Europe that also included Ed Reiskin, executive director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), the agency charged with implementing city policies that favor transit riders, cyclists, and pedestrians over motorists.

Chiu sponsored legislation setting the goal of having 20 percent of all vehicle trips in San Francisco be by bike by the year 2020 and calling for the SFMTA to do a study on how to meet that goal. It was overwhelmingly approved by the Board of Supervisors and signed by Mayor Ed Lee, who has regularly cited it and proclaimed his support for what it now official city policy.

But the city will fail to meet that goal, probably by a significant amount, unless there is a radical change on our roadways.

The latest SFMTA traffic survey, released in February, showed that bikes represent about 3.5 percent of vehicle trips, a 71 percent increase in five years. While the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) lauded that gain as “impressive,” it would mean a 571 percent increase in the next seven years to meet the 2020 goal.

The SFMTA study on how to meet the goal is long overdue, with sources telling us its potentially controversial conclusions have it mired by internal concerns and divisions. SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose told us in March that it was coming out in April, and now he won’t say when to expect it and he won’t even make its authors available to answer our questions.

“We want to make sure everything is addressed before the plan is finalized,” he told us, acknowledging that it’s been a difficult process. “The challenge of reaching the goal is ambitious.”

Chiu acknowledges that the goal he set probably won’t be met and expressed frustration with the SFMTA. “I’m disappointed that two years after we set that goal, there is still no plan,” he told us, adding that to make major gains “will take leadership at the top” and a greater funding commitment to this cost-effective transportation option: “We’re spending budget dust on something that we say is a priority for the city.”

Reiskin also seemed to acknowledge the difficulty in meeting the goal when we asked him about it and he told us, “To get to 20 percent would be a quantum leap, no question, but the good news is there’s strong momentum in the right direction.”

Yet on Bike to Work Day, it’s worth exploring why we’re failing to meet our goal and how we might achieve it. What would have to happen, and what would it look like, to have 20 percent of traffic be people on bikes?

 

 

CLOSING THE GAP

SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum said that all the group’s studies show safety concerns are by far the biggest barrier to getting more people on bikes. Most people are simply scared to share space with automobiles, so SFBC’s top priority has been creating more bikes lanes, particularly lanes that are physically separated from traffic, known as cycletracks, like those on a portion of Market Street.

“We’ve seen it time and again, when you build, they will come,” Shahum said. “People want to feel safe. They want dedicated space on the roadways.”

SFBC’s Connecting the City proposal calls for the creation of four crosstown colored cycletracks totaling 100 miles. Other bike activists emphasize the importance of projects that close key gaps in the current bike network, such as the dangerous section along Oak and Fell streets that separates the Panhandle from the Wiggle, scary spots that deter people from cycling.

That safety concern — and the possibilities for making cycling a more attractive option to more people — extends to neighborhood streets that don’t have bike lanes, where Shahum said measures to slow down automobile traffic and increase motorist awareness of cyclists would help. “What we’re talking about is a calmer, safer, greener, neighborhood-focused street,” she said.

Bike advocates say the goal is to make cycling a safe and attractive option for those 8 to 80 years old, a goal that will require extensive new bike infrastructure — not just new bike lanes, but also more dedicated bike parking — as well as education programs for all road users.

“What I hope is on the drawing board is infrastructure that will make more people feel safe riding, particularly women,” SFMTA board member Cheryl Brinkman, a regular cyclist, told us.

Shahum also praised the Bay Area Rapid Transit District’s new Bike Plan, which seeks to double the percentage of passengers who bike to stations (from 4 percent now up to 8 percent in 10 years), saying Muni should also take steps to better accommodate cyclists. And she praised the city’s bike-sharing program that will debut in August, making 1,000 bikes available to visitors.

But to realize the really big gains San Francisco would need to hit 20 percent by 2020 would take more than just steadily increasing the mileage of bike lanes, says Jason Henderson, a San Francisco State University geography professor who is writing a book on transportation politics. It would take a systemic, fundamental shift, one either deliberately chosen or forced on the city by dire circumstances.

“If gasoline goes to $10 per gallon, sure, we’ll get to 20 percent just because of austerity,” Henderson said. But unless energy prices experience that kind of sudden shock, which would idle cars and overwhelm public transit, thus forcing people onto bikes, getting to 20 percent would take smart planning and political will. In fact, it will require the city to stop catering to drivers and accommodating cars.

Henderson noted that bicycle mode share is as high as 10 percent in some eastern neighborhoods, such as the Mission District, Lower Haight, and in some neighborhoods near Civic Center. “In this part of the city, Muni is crowded and young people get tired of Muni being such a slow option,” Henderson said. “If you live within a certain radius of downtown, it’s easier to bike.”

To build on that, he said the city needs to limit the number of parking spaces built in residential projects in the city core even more than it does now, as well as adding substantially more affordable units. “The most bikeable parts of the city have massive rent increases,” he said. “We have to make sure affordable housing is wrapped around downtown.”

Henderson said city leaders need to show more courage in converting car lanes and street parking spaces into bike lanes, creating bike corridors that parallel those focused on cars or transit, and exempting most bike projects from the detailed environment review that slow their implementation. At the same time, he said the city needs to drastically expand Muni’s capacity to give people more options and compensate for bike improvements that may make driving slower.

“If you want 20 percent bike mode share, you need 30 percent on transit,” he said, noting that public transit ridership in San Francisco is now about 17 percent, far less than in the great bike cities of Amsterdam and Copenhagen, which made a commitment to reducing reliance on the automobile starting in the 1970s. “It’s like a puzzle.”

 

 

BARRIERS AND BACKLASH

The kind of active urban planning that Henderson advocates would be anathema to many San Franciscans, particularly people like Rob Anderson, the blogger and activist who sued San Francisco over the lack of studies supporting its Bike Plan and created a four-year court injunction against bike projects that just ended two years ago.

“The only way you could get to 20 percent is creating gridlock in San Francisco. I don’t think it’s going to happen. City Hall is adopting a slogan as transportation policy,” he told us. “It’s a statement of pro-bike, anti-car principle, but it’s not a realistic transportation policy.”

Anderson considers bicycles to be dangerous toys that will never be used by more than a small minority of city residents, believing the majority will always rely on automobiles and there will be a huge political backlash if the city continues to take space from cars for bikes or open space.

Many city officials and cycling advocates say making big gains means convincing people like Anderson that bicycles are not just a viable transportation option, but an important one to facilitate given global warming, oil wars, public health issues, and traffic congestion that will only worsen as the population increases.

“We need to help all San Franciscans see cycling as a legitimate transportation option,” Chiu said. Or as Shahum put it, “It’s prioritizing space for biking, walking, and transit over driving.”

Shahum said the city’s political leaders seem to get it, but she doesn’t feel the same sense of urgency from the city’s planners.

“I feel like the bureaucracy needs to get on board. We have strong political support and the public support is growing,” Shahum said. “We’ve set ambitious, worthwhile, and I think achievable goals, yet nobody is holding the city accountable….It can’t just be a political platitude, it needs to be an actual plan with measureables and people held accountable.”

She cited studies showing that the most bike-friendly cities in the U.S. are spending between $8 million and $40 million a year on bike infrastructure and education programs, “but San Francisco is spending more like $2-3 million, which is peanuts…San Francisco has got to start putting its money where its mouth is to improve biking numbers.”

It’s cheap and easy to stripe new bike lanes. “It’s one of the best investments we can make in terms of mode share,” Reiskin said. That makes cycling advocates question the city’s true commitment to goals like the 2020 policy. “We will need more investment,” Chiu said, “but compared to other modes of transportation, it is far cheaper per mile.”

 

 

POLITICAL WILL

So why then has San Francisco slipped back into a slow pace for doing bike projects following a year of rapid improvements after the bike injunction was lifted? And why does the city set arbitrary goals that it doesn’t know how to meet? The answer seems to lie at the intersection of the political and the practical.

“We need a more detailed and comprehensive strategy that says this is where we need to be in five years and this is how we get there,” Sup. David Campos, who chairs the San Francisco Transportation Authority, told us. “I feel like the commitment is there, but it’s a question of what resources you have to devote to that goal.”

But it’s also a question of how those resources are being used, and whether political leaders are grabbing at low-hanging fruit rather than making the tough choices to complete the city’s bike network and weather criticisms like those offered by Anderson.

It often seems as if SFMTA is still prioritizing political projects or experimenting in ways that waste time and money. For example, the most visible improvement to the bike network in the last year, and the one most often cited by Mayor Lee, is the new cycletracks on JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park. But they do little to make cycling more attractive and they may even exacerbate tensions between cyclists and drivers.

It was one of two major bike projects that Mayor Lee announced on Bike to Work Day last year, and it seemed to have more to do with politicians announcing more bike lane mileage that with actually improving the bike network.

The other project Lee announced, just a few blocks of bike lanes on Fell and Oak streets, really was a significant bike safety advance that SFBC has been seeking for several years. But Lee failed to live up to his pledge to install them by the end of 2011 after neighbors complained about the lost parking spots, and the project was pushed back to next year at the earliest.

“We’re talking about three blocks. It’s relatively small in scope but huge in impacts,” Shahum said of the project. “If the pace of change on these three blocks is replicated through the city, it’ll take hundreds of years to meet the [20 percent] goal.” But Lee Press Secretary Christine Falvey said: “The mayor is very much committed to the aggressive goals set to get to 20 percent by 2020 and the city is moving in the right direction. He has also always supported the Oak Fell project and we’re seeing progress.” Yes, but not the kind of progress the city would need to make to meet its own goal. “Chicago is really the leader right now,” Shahum said, noting Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s commitment to building 25 miles a year of new cycletracks and the city’s advocacy for getting more federal transportation money devoted to urban cycling improvements. “Where does San Francisco fit in this? Do we want to be at that level or not?”