FILM The current hand-wringing over whether an irresponsible entertainment industry corrupts our youth is notable for being such a blatant diversionary tactic by gun-control foes — their argument being a little beside the point, of course, since incidents are rather few of people being shot dead by a copy of Grand Theft Auto or a Saw flick.
The case against Hollywood as corruptor of morality and youth is otherwise nothing new. On several occasions outrage has risen enough to actually force changes (however modest or temporary), such as when unprecedented late-1960s levels of violent and sexual content instigated the creation of the current MPAA ratings system, now considered wildly out-of date.
But the biggest such fracas reached its zenith with the 1934 enforcement of the Production Code, which levied drastic new limitations on screen content. It introduced a bland new era, and orphaned the one just past — the one we’ve come to celebrate as “pre-Code,” and which is back once again in Elliot Lavine’s latest Roxie series, the week-long “Hollywood Before the Code: Deeper, Darker, Nastier!”
Hollywood had already been building — rightly or wrongly — a rep as the “modern Sodom” for some time. High-profile scandals during the silent era involving drug abuse, wrongful death, and unsavory sexual revelations prompted many a pulpit denunciation. When sound arrived, old talent was replaced by new imports from “blue” Broadway, where racy patter was de rigueur; so once the movies learned to talk, they quickly learned to talk … well, unclean, if not exactly legally dirty.
The Depression had brought harsh new social realities, and while audiences craved escapism, they didn’t mind if it was also vicariously rude and raw. (At least urban ones did — rural patrons had more conservative tastes, and in an era well before “wide” simultaneous openings on umpteen screens, the studios provided selective product accordingly.)
Violence was indeed a major issue: The original “gangster” cycle kicked off by The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931), and Scarface (1932) horrified many, with mayhem that barely registers by today’s standards censored on a state-by-state basis. But the main thing was allegedly pervasive and pernicious “smut,” as represented by everything from Betty Boop’s skirt length to the average prude’s Satanic Majesty Herself, Mae West. (The Code’s impact could be most directly measured in the speed with which a toned-down and thus nearly irrelevant West went from box-office titan to has been.)
In the brave new world of the Code, such threats to national sanity went away because sex no longer existed. Even married couples were to be depicted as having separate double beds, one spouse keeping always keeping a foot on the floor during any kisses (of less than three seconds in duration) in their vicinity.
But on the pre-Code screen, everybody was doing everybody, often for sweet cold cash — though of course the world’s oldest profession was never exactly named. This latest Roxie series features plenty of its practitioners, dames at once hard-boiled and over-easy but ready to go soft for an upstanding guy. The most famous is dubiously employed Marlene Dietrich in von Sternberg’s 1932 exotica masterpiece Shanghai Express, wherein she husks “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.” Then there’s Miriam Hopkins as Ivy the barmaid in Rouben Mamoulian’s classic Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931), with Frederic March in the lead role(s).
Most of the current program’s titles are variably obscure ones with glittering Golden Age stars in scenarios that further tarnish legally challenged ladies before romance buffs them shiny again — most in “four hanky” soap operas targeted toward a working-class female audience later represented by Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). Paramount’s glossy 1933 Torch Song has the next year’s Best Actress Oscar winner (for It Happened One Night), Claudette Colbert, as a nice girl turned dirty-blues chanteuse. Further down the totem pole, there’s pre-screwball Carole Lombard as the heroine of Virtue (1932), introduced while being escorted out of New York by the vice squad. Her past won’t quit her when she redeems herself via marriage to cynical cabbie Pat O’Brien. It’s an archetypal pre-Code rediscovery, no doubt thrown together at the time yet wonderfully snappy, saucy, and even poignant now.
Its themes are taken even further by films set in the era’s reliably lawless “tropical” locales, fictive or otherwise. Nothing’s quite so filthy by implication as brief near-star (“The Girl with the Naughty Twinkle in Her Eye!”) Dorothy Mackaill’s 1931 William Wellman-directed Safe in Hell, wherein she’s the runaway goodtime-girl “only white woman on the island.” Save perhaps 1934’s pre-Code last huzzah Black Moon, a voodoo potboiler that puts King Kong’s girlfriend Fay Wray in yea worse peril.
Other notable highlights include Waterloo Bridge, the rarely-revived 1931 first version of Robert Sherwood’s play by Frankenstein director James Whale; quasi-Sapphic, proto-Petrified Forest melodrama Heat Lightning (1934); and a tribute to staple Hollywood character actor Lyle Talbot, whose author daughter Margaret will appear before screenings March 7.
“Hollywood Before the Code: Deeper, Darkier, Nastier!”
MUSIC Four years ago, in the waning days of the aughts, the befuddling adlib term “chillwave” forged in the throes of the blogosphere, accompanied nearly every story about acts like Neon Indian, Washed Out, and Toro Y Moi. For the uninitiated, chillwave is a cheap, slap-on label used to describe grainy, dancey, lo-fi, 1980s inspired music, and most importantly is a disservice to any band associated with it. Luckily for music writers and listeners alike, this term has died a relatively swift death.
Toro Y Moi, the one-man bedroom project of Chaz Bundick, has exponentially progressed since the chillwave era, in addition to his relocation to Berkeley in August 2011. Bundick is currently on a sold-out tour with his live band and will headline two sold-out Noise Pop shows at the Independent this weekend.
His latest LP, Anything In Return, which came out last month on Carpark Records and was recorded in full in the Bay Area, is a fruitful expansion beyond his earlier albums Causers of This and Underneath the Pine, and a shining foray into experimental styles and sounds.
Anything In Return marks an ambitious departure from anything Bundick has done in the past; Bundick describes it to me as a “bigger sounding album, more accessible and poppy.” The result is a fluent and delicate fabrication of funk grooviness, R&B introspection, and swirling pop melodies. The success — and more importantly, the ethos of the effort — is highly indebted to the late sacrosanct hip-hop producer J Dilla. If Anything in Return signifies a reinvention of Toro Y Moi, then J Dilla and his “try anything, do anything” mantra are its guiding light.
Such a transformation can be daunting to some, but as Bundick notes during our phone call, Dilla “makes everything seem like it’s alright to try.” One of the few Dilla tributes outside of the Paid Dues and Rock the Bells festivals.
Though maturation and cheer remain central themes in terms of sound side of things, Anything in Return is loaded with confessions about Bundick grappling with his relationship and the strain the life of a touring musician has placed on it. The gripes are most poignant on tracks like “Cola” and “Say That,” where he laments the state of flux his and his girlfriend’s different lives have placed on their relationship and the resulting insecurities that arise from such limbo.
His new life in the Bay Area — he moved out here from his hometown of Columbia, South Carolina because his girlfriend enrolled in a grad program at Cal — is expectedly represented in Anything in Return‘s character and aural makeup. One of the first and last things heard on the opening track “Harm in Change” is the crisp noise of a BART train accelerating as it leaves a station — most likely one of the three Berkeley stations.
So far Bundick has fluidly adjusted to life in Berkeley and in the Bay Area in general and signals his health as the biggest benefactor of his relocation. Coming from BBQ-laden South Carolina, the recent vegetarian convert is grateful for the Bay Area’s wealth of veggie options; in a recent interview with SFStation, he listed the revered Berkeley institution Cheese Board Pizza as his favorite food joint. And like pretty much anyone who moves here, he’s been biking, busing, and BARTing more and more.
TORO Y MOI
With Sikane, Dog Bite, DRMS (Fri.), James and Evander (Sat)
VISUAL ART “Silence,” the large new thematic show at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, might have been titled in the plural, since it approaches silence from various angles phenomenological, political, and cultural. Co-curated by BAM/PFA and the Menil Collection, “Silence” takes its inspiration from one of the most famous 20th-century artworks in any medium, John Cage’s 4’33” (1952).
As you almost certainly already know, Cage’s 4’33” entails having the audience listen to ambient and accidental sounds of the auditorium while a pianist closes and opens a piano keyboard cover three times at set intervals but without touching the keys, both performing the difference between silence and quiet, and demonstrating the omnipresence of music wherever attentiveness is present. Cage’s work anchors the tone and scope of the show, and so from all possible kinds of silences, the exhibition limits to works by some 30 artists wherein silences are productive, pregnant, or impossible. Cage here is represented by scores for the performance as well as by several works that served as inspirations, descendants and tangents of his work.
Most directly, the show includes Robert Rauschenberg’s monochrome White Painting (Two Panel) (1951), which Cage cited as partial inspiration for 4’33” next to Ad Reinhardt’s all-black Abstract Painting (1965). If you know a bit of art history, then you get the curatorial statement here: aside from standing in for all sorts of minimalist silences, the yin and yang of Rauschenberg’s pregnant meditation juxtaposed with Reinhardt’s zero-degree absolutism are the boundaries for the gamut of representational possibilities that Cage and subsequent modernists have been sifting through. Of all Cage’s descendents, nobody gets that as well as Steve Roden, represented here by several conceptual and generative works based on 4’33”. Roden, who lives in Pasadena, crosses freely between sound and visual art in works that map, translate, and draw attention to the structures of sounds and the activity of listening. Alongside paintings and sculptures that take their generative cues from the text that accompanies the Cage piece, Roden is also exhibiting 365 x 433, (2011) three books of text that document and reflect on his daily performance of 4’33” over the course of a year.
Several other artists make explicit reference to silence and its relationship to listening, especially in social context. Brooklyn artist Jennie C. Jones uses materials commonly found in recording studios to make paintings that absorb and quench sounds in the spaces where they hang. Sustained Black with Broken Time and Undertone (2011) wraps around the corner on two walls of the gallery space, drawing attention to silence’s active relationship to architecture. Kurt Mueller’s Cenotaph (2011–13), a 100-CD jukebox filled with recordings of moments of silence called for by public figures, lays bare the thorny absurdity of state-imposed silence as ritual. On one jukebox panel, for example, you can choose between playing the moments of silence called for (from top to bottom) trapped miners, Michael Jackson, Corey Haim, or Ted Kennedy. Represented here by letters and photographs, Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1978–1979 (1979) casts silence as a form of cultural askesis. In that performance Hsieh locked himself in a cell inside his New York City loft for a year without talking, reading, writing, or entertainment.
Overlapping existential and cultural silences, the first gallery in the exhibition features several of Andy Warhol’s electric chair silkscreens (1965 and 1967), interspersed with Christian Marclay’s Silence paintings (all 2006), which appropriate a cropping from Warhol’s source photographs of the execution chamber and the “Silence” sign above the door that illuminated to alert attendees that the execution was about to take place. Also shown are extensive sketches from Marclay, showing his ongoing interest in these particular Warhols. As a framing device for the show, the pairing of Warhol and Marclay helps illustrate the pregnant potentials within Warhol’s bleak, lovely fascination with death imagery, and inverts the pairing of Rauschenberg and Reinhardt. Warhol’s particular silence, the attenuation and emptying of visual meanings through repetition, is taken up again by Marclay as productive fodder for an entire body of investigations.
Throughout February, film screenings addressing various kinds of cinematic and personal silences accompany the show. February 27, short experimental works that incorporate complications on sound and silence will include Darrin Martin’s Monograph in Stereo (2005), which addresses silence via hearing loss. *
THEATER In a deceptively low-key but major theatrical event, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts last weekend presented the local debuts of both the Wooster Group and the New York City Players, in their collaborative take on three of Eugene O’Neill’s seafaring “Glencairn plays.”
It’s striking and not a little frustrating that San Francisco has never before been a port of call for either of these two world-famous and globetrotting experimental theater companies. Moreover, because this was a first-time collaboration between the two influential groups, Early Plays (as the O’Neill program is titled) was not really representative of either one of them. Rather, it was an intriguing, at times euphoric, at times baffling exploration fusing actors from both companies with relatively bare-bones Wooster design elements — all under the signature directorial style of NYC Players’ playwright-director, Richard Maxwell. Even so, it was a stimulating evening in which the attentive, open curiosity of the audience was palpable.
The triplet of early O’Neill one-acts — all written between 1913 and 1916 and featuring polyglot crew members of the British tramp steamer Glencairn —included, in order of presentation, The Moon of the Caribbees, Bound East for Cardiff, and The Long Voyage Home. In these short and atmospheric plays, O’Neill explores the hard, often brutal lives of sailors and other working-class people swept along by the winds of trade. But in paying attention to their distinct cadences, relationships, and dreams, the playwright also points to the lyrical nature of their lonely yet social lives, as well as flickering moments of transcendent experience amid coarse routines and unruly bursts of energy.
In this sense, they are not all that different from (and nearly as contemporary as) Maxwell’s own plays (like House, Burger King, Boxing 2000, or People Without History), which often delve into the mundane musicality of ordinary, inconsequential lives sideswiped by half-understood forces, churned by bumptious pretentions and bumpy social interactions, bewildered by quiet epiphanies. Indeed, Maxwell’s work comes shaded by his own original songs in which the banal takes unexpected flight.
But whatever their resonances, their plays remain a fat century apart in theatrical worldviews. O’Neill, learning from Europe and especially Stindberg, was inventing an American theatrical vocabulary still not entirely free of a certain melodramatic tradition. Maxwell and the New York City Players, on the other hand, represent a distinct and sustained attack on the stifling affects of the theatrical artifice that has accrued since then. And the Wooster Group has maintained a visionary re-imagining of the stage, its strengths and capacities, for nearly four decades (a project whose power and scope was clearly visible even on video in the three-weekend series of Wooster Group work screened at YBCA in the lead-up to the Early Plays premiere).
And so, what audiences encountered last weekend was a purposively monotone rendering of O’Neill’s rather overwrought dialogue, laden with a variety of archaic-sounding dialects that the actors dutifully articulated as written but, for the most part, without further embellishment or affectation. The action, meanwhile, unfolded with a deliberately subdued, knowing amateurishness on a Wooster-like set (designed by Jim Clayburgh and Wooster leader Elizabeth LeCompte) whose exposed gray-planed design featured a floating stage floor, supported by thin vertical cables, on which a skeletal framework of piping, bulging light bulbs, ropes, and pulleys combined in vaguely nautical abstraction.
Not that theatricality per se was absent: three of Maxwell’s workmanlike yet stirring ditties, for example, stitch together the O’Neill plays with simple, poignant, uninflected harmonies and rhythms as the actors smoothly reconfigure the stage. During Bound East for Cardiff, moreover, the stage was plunged into semi-darkness, sculpted by the warm glow of a few lantern lamps and the looming, slowly dissipating clouds blasted at intervals from a smoke machine, as main characters Yank and Driscoll (played respectively by NYC Players’ Brian Mendes and Wooster veteran Ari Fliakos) conferred at the former’s deathbed in a recessed, beautifully haunted corner of the stage. And in The Long Voyage Home, NYC Players stalwart Jim Fletcher (a riveting presence who is perhaps the quintessence of Maxwell’s forthright aesthetic, deflating and commanding at once) donned a too-tight barman’s vest and a toupee that looked like an animal roosting rump-forward on his head; while beside him Wooster’s luminous Kate Valk burst into and out of tears with a kind of blank perfection.
But it was precisely the melding of the clumsy and the graceful — and the volatile tension that arose between the purposely anti-theatrical and the inescapable pull of the plays themselves — that marked the production’s dissonant, quasi-Brechtian approach. In eschewing the usual cohesion, the production gave itself over to an admittedly not entirely successful but fascinating pursuit of what is much more rare: a sense of raw immediacy and authenticity, and a poetic capacity for unexpected instants of reflection. It’s an approach that wrestled with itself as much as the material or the audience, but it led to a refreshing sense of possibility and inquiry, and in it too there were moments when the lyrical and transcendent were given new life.
GAMER There aren’t a lot of great horror games on the console market. Even old stalwart Resident Evil gradually dropped anything resembling spooky game play, hoping to conjure the success of Western-developed shooters like Gears of War by incorporating cooperative play and action-packed, cover-based shooting. Good horror is about being alone, outnumbered and outgunned. So when Dead Space 3 was revealed at last year’s E3, fans were appropriately nervous when told the franchise’s new focus would be on cooperative play and cover-based shooting. It was Resident Evil all over again. The horror!
Now that it’s here, perhaps our concerns were misplaced. Dead Space 3 (Visceral Games/Electronic Arts; PS3, Xbox 360, PC) features everything fans were apprehensive about — and some unannounced and sour-tasting micro-transactions — but at its core beats the heart of a classic survival horror experience.
Dead Space‘s formula consists of traversing old spaceships, zero-gravity space, and desolate planets, unloading bullets into undead creepy-crawlies. Picking up shortly after the events of Dead Space 2, in which spaceship engineer Isaac Clarke battled zombies brought to life by alien artifacts called “markers,” Clarke once again is thrust into combat — this time to save ex-girlfriend Ellie and stop religious zealots from activating more markers on the ice planet Tau Volantis.
Dead Space 3 has a wonderful sense of location and atmosphere — hallmarks of any horror game. Rickety, malfunctioning hallways of long-abandoned spaceships fire sparks, creak and sway as you walk through, and enemies have a nasty way of sneaking up behind you with bloodcurdling screams. Although you won’t see the icy surface of Tau Volantis until maybe a third of the way through the game, the planet’s harsh winds and ivory cliffs are a welcome change of scenery. Some gamers will scoff at the “monster closets,” but Dead Space owns the artifice and builds upon it in interesting ways, making firefights consistently tense.
As for the co-op, cover-based shooting and micro-transactions, they are only as unpleasant as you allow them to be. While wholly different from the solitary feel of single-player, co-op is seamless and presents new approaches to combat and puzzle-solving. Being offered downloadable content each time you approach a work bench or spacesuit kiosk breaks the atmosphere of the game, but the weapon customization system is fun to play around with and cover-based shooting is encouraged only a handful of times.
That Dead Space 3 remains a solid traditional horror game in spite of distracting “broad appeal” additions is a dubious accomplishment, but perhaps it’s one fans can live with for the time being. The marketplace’s lack of quality horror games allows some leeway for a series that gets it mostly right. Let’s not get caught up in worrying how these lesser features might expand in the inevitable Dead Space 4; in the here and now, Dead Space 3 is exciting, beautiful, and best of all — scary.
CHEAP EATS K-3PO lives right in the neighborhood and claims to have played ping-pong with me in the ’90s. He also claims to have photographed my old band, and on this score I believe him.
We write at the same coffee shop. Right now, for example, I’m writing about him and he’s sitting across the room from me, either oblivious or not. Who knows?
He doesn’t have a cell phone. He has a weekly planner, with a black cover.
“Remember these?” he said, trying to make a dinner plan with me.
“Oh yeah. You’re old-fashioned,” I said, and he feigned offense. “I mean that as a compliment.” (The truth.)
Anyway, yeah, we had tried to go eat barbecue one night last week at the new neighborhood smokehouse, Hi-Lo, and luckily for all of us — but especially Hi-Lo, I’m thinking — they were closed for a private function.
I buy my pork steaks at that divey little market, 19th and Mission, and my bread at Duc Loi, so I walk past Hi-Lo pretty often, “doing the block.” There’s always some kind of friendliness marking the spot, lately. Like, a couple weeks ago a guy was standing outside and Hedgehog had already told me that barbecue was going in there, so I said: “Open?”
“Not yet,” he said, “but go on in and look around.”
I did. It must have been like a dress rehearsal, or something. Waitresspersonpeople were everywhere, the kitchen was all a-bustle, smelled like smoke . . . The one thing missing was customers. Of which I would have gladly been one, if they were open open.
I also wish they would have showed me to the basement, where they keep their three-ton smoker, but that didn’t seem to be going to happen, so I went on ahead to the market and got my pork steaks, and to Duc Loi, and home.
Then, when we tried to go with K-3PO, there was a sign on the door saying closed for private function. I must have looked sad, cause someone came out and gave me a little paper bag of cookies.
Those cookies were good! They were not barbecue, but they were sweet and salty. And buttery. I ate them at Baobab, while we were waiting for our red curry prawns, red curry chicken, and some other kind of chicken. With black-eyed peas.
None of which was barbecue, either. But: good. But, according to K-3PO, overpriced. I give up on anything ever being cheap anymore, in the Mission. I just wish that places would step up their game a little, to earn it. In addition to going, OK, it’s the Mission so let’s charge 20 to 30 percent more, go: it’s the Mission so let’s also make our food 20 to 30 percent more amazing.
It’s too close: I will, eventually, give Hi-Lo a chance, but people on Yelp are saying 15 clams for three to five slices of pretty dry brisket, without any sides. So they better step up their game. I can get friendliness and cookies for a lot cheaper than that, even without leaving the ‘hood, and I have a smoker of my own. Albeit not a three-ton one.
Wait. Why would you want a giant smoker? If the idea of barbecue is to impart smoke to meat (and it is) . . . seems to me that smaller spaces full of smoke would make meat smokier than bigger ones. But there’s probably something I’m not factoring in.
Anyway, this isn’t a review of Hi-Lo.
It’s a character study of K-3PO, who — this is what he’s been up to: “watching hundreds of archived mental hygiene films from the ’40s and ’50s,” he said.
Because that’s what he does. Here in the teens. He makes mentally hygienic films, hisself. I saw one, one time. It was freakin’ beautiful.
Another thing we talked about was almost dying, and how each of us has done it, in life. K-3PO told the story of a hike he took in Israel, in the desert, when he and a friend got stuck on the trail overnight and almost froze to death.
Hedgehog, turns out, just missed being torpedoed by an exploding fire extinguisher while she was in film school.
APPETITE In my endless treks ’round the city for the best partnerships of drink and food, here are a few notable current menu offerings.
MEZCAL AND COFFEE
Easily one of our city’s best bars, Comstock Saloon maintains historical reverence to SF’s Barbary Coast days without being stuffy. Old World decor, live jazz, and bartenders who know how to make a proper cocktail make it one of the most blessedly grown-up watering holes, particularly in partying North Beach. If this weren’t enough, it’s a top notch restaurant. Chef Carlo Espinas churns out dishes better than your typical gastropub “upscale comfort food” fare.
Mostly classic cocktails ($8-12) are often best ordered as a “Barkeep’s Whimsy” option (let the bartender decide how to make it, $12), like a gorgeous Smith & Cross Sour, showing off the musky-elegant-spicy notes of Smith & Cross rum with lemon, sugar, and frothy egg white. Another “whimsy” from the talented Ethan Terry: a stunner of smoky mezcal weaving with Firelit Coffee liqueur, Oloroso sherry and orange bitters. Menu classics remain, like an ever-drinkable Cherry Bounce: bourbon, cherry brandy, lemon, Angostura, Champagne.
Eat: I can’t resist melting soft, mashed potato fritters ($9) dipped in “loaded baked potato dip” (essence of bacon and chives in sour cream — I had to ask for more). Salads are refined yet comforting, whether the austere green of raw kale ($9) tossed with little gems, Parmesan and watermelon radishes in bright lemon dressing, or chunks of fresh crabmeat and smoked trout in a lentil, baby chicories salad ($12). Good thing I can contrast that healthy eating with bacon-wrapped meatloaf ($16), bearing a caramelized “skin” of ridiculously fine house ketchup (of brown sugar, tomato, chili, and more) alongside dreamy coleslaw.
Consider leisurely Brasserie S&P, inside the Mandarin Oriental hotel, your gin and tonic haven. But not just any G&T. Though cocktails fall on the pricey side ($12-16), beverage manager Priscilla Young oversees a robust gin collection, blends tonic waters in house, and presents mix-and-match G&T options via iPad. Her sommelier’s palate ensures tonics align with botanical profiles of gins like local Old World Spirits’ Blade Gin, its Asian botanicals dancing with Young’s citrus-tinged Sensei #1 tonic, orange, and Thai chilies. There’s an earthier G&T of St. George’s Dry Rye Gin with Sensei #1 tonic, orange, black pepper. In a “Dirty” G&T, Scottish Botanist Gin flows with celery brine and Q Tonic, decorated with salt-pepper rim. Outside of G&Ts, Fresno chilis and bacon make the Diablo’s Whisper a refreshingly savory cocktail of Don Julio reposado tequila, blackcurrant hibiscus, and lime.
Bonus: A new (and genius) offering is mini-martinis available all day at $5, like First Word, a twist on a classic Last Word cocktail, with Beefeater Gin, Green Chartreuse, lime and grapefruit. Imbibing guilt free, the diminutive size makes you want to order another.
Eat: Conveniently open 11am-11pm, the Bar at Brasserie S&P is an all day, downtown drink option, though it’s also a smart, non-trendy power lunch spot. Light, clean kanpachi crudo ($17) nods to Hawaii with Kona fish and macadamia nuts, drizzled in sesame oil and Fresno chilis. Also light yet laden with Dungeness crab is a Louie salad ($19) stacked with butter lettuce, sieved egg, avocado. I often glaze over chicken, but Mary’s chicken paillard ($18) is a highlight breaded in anchovy garlic crumbs over marcona almond pesto.
Rock-star cool and sexy describe Chambers’ record-lined dining room, one of the most striking in the city. Cocktails ($11) are improved from early days when it opened in 2011. Straightforward and unfussy, the drinks are well-made and thirst-quenching. Playing off one of the greats, a whiskey sour, the Whiskey Cider Sour combines house-made cider, whiskey, egg, and fresh-grated nutmeg. A garden-fresh cilantro daiquiri blends silver rum, Cointreau, and lime with plenty of muddled cilantro.
Eat: Appreciating executive chef Trevor Ogden’s unique presentation of smoked fish (salmon) in the past, now it’s tea-smoked tombo tuna ($15), slowly smoking over a grate tableside. Despite pork belly burnout years ago, I hadn’t tried smoking pork belly ($13) until recently, soft fat releasing its aromas as it burns before you, accompanied by Early Girl tomato kimchee. How could I resist? But salads unexpectedly steal the show. Winter is exemplified in an artistic display of fuyu persimmons ($10) happily partnered with burrata and toasted oat toffee, dotted with Angostura bitters (you heard right), olive oil, sea salt, and garam masala spices. Salade Lyonnaise ($12) is artfully deconstructed: grapefruit wedges, pork biscotti, lardons (thin strips of pork fat), and candied pomelo splay out spoke-like from a sous vide egg resting atop a mound of frisée in the center.
FILM San Francisco is a town of many film festivals: SF IndieFest wraps up Thu/21, and the Center for Asian American Media Festival (formerly the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival) kicks off March 14. Lest you suffer fest withdrawal, the gap between is filled nearly end-to-end by Cinequest — San Jose’s 23rd annual salute to cinema that has a Silicon Valley-appropriate focus on technological innovations.
One example of that focus: Sony-sponsored 4K digital screenings of Taxi Driver (1976), Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). While there’s no replacing the experience of seeing these classics projected on film, these restorations promise to render even Travis Bickle’s grimy apartment in eye-poppingly sharp relief. (“You talkin’ to me, or you checkin’ out my dirty dishes?”)
If the idea of burning highway miles to see movies you’ve already snagged on Blu-ray doesn’t appeal, Cinequest has corralled a genuine Hollywood icon for its Maverick Spirit Award: Harrison Ford. He’ll attend in person to discuss his career and, no doubt, field many a question about his rumored involvement in the upcoming Star Wars sequel-reboot-spinoff-thing — to be directed by J.J. Abrams, a past Maverick recipient himself. Other 2013 Maverick winners include Salman Rushdie, who’ll receive his award after the closing-night screening of Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children, based on Rushdie’s 1981 Booker Prize-winning novel; and Chuck Palahniuk, who’ll be honored after a screening of a short film he scripted, Romance (one theme: Britney Spears), among others.
Cinequest’s largest component is, of course, its actual film programming, with a wide array of shorts, narratives, and docs. The fest kicks off with Sally Potter’s downbeat coming-of-age tale Ginger & Rosa. It’s the 1960s, nuclear war is a real possibility, and nuclear-family war is an absolute certainty, at least in the London house occupied by Ginger (Elle Fanning), her emotionally wounded mother (Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks), and her narcissistic-intellectual father (Alessandro Nivola). Ginger’s teenage rebellion quickly morphs into angst when her BFF Rosa (Beautiful Creatures‘ Alice Englert) wedges her sexed-up neediness between Ginger’s parents. Hendricks (playing the accordion — just like Joan!) and Annette Bening (as an American activist who encourages Ginger’s political-protest leanings) are strong, but Fanning’s powerhouse performance is the main focus — though even she’s occasionally overshadowed by her artificially scarlet hair.
Horror fans: the number one reason to haul your carcass to Cinequest is Year of the Living Dead, a ghoulishly delightful look back at the making of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Rob Kuhns’ doc skews more cultural-legacy than fanboy, deploying a variety of talking heads (critics Mark Harris and Elvis Mitchell, Walking Dead producer Gale Anne Hurd, filmmaker Larry Fessenden) to explain why Night — offering just as much social commentary as any film from the Vietnam and Civil Rights era, except with way more squishy entrails — endures on so many levels. The best part, though, is the extended interview with George A. Romero, grinning and chuckling his way through anecdotes and on-set memories. On directing his amateur actors: “Just do your best zombie, man!”
Also highly enjoyable is Tom Bean and Luke Poling’s Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, an affectionate portrait of the longtime Paris Review editor and “professional collector of experiences” who wrote books, articles, and made TV specials about his delight in being “the universal amateur.” His endeavors included playing football with the Detroit Lions, hockey with the Boston Bruins, and the triangle with the New York Philharmonic, among even more unusual pursuits. Some called him a dilettante (to his face while he was alive, and in this doc, too), but most of the friends, colleagues, and family members here recall Plimpton — born to an upper-crust New York family, he was friends with the Kennedys and worshipped Hemingway — as an irrepressible adventurer who more or less tailored a journalism career around his talents and personality.
Less upbeat but just as fascinating is Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross’ The Believers, which starts in 1989 as University of Utah scientists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons hold a press conference to announce they’ve discovered cold fusion — a way to make clean, cheap, plentiful power by fusing atoms instead of splitting them. But the initial excitement over their announcement soon gave way to skepticism and widespread dissent; eventually, their careers were in ruins, and by 1996, cold fusion was reduced to being a plot device for Keanu Reeves in Chain Reaction.
With new input from nearly everyone who was involved in the controversy (save the intensely private Pons, who’s seen in archival footage), The Believers captures cold fusion’s slow and spectacular fall from favor, while giving equal screen time to visionaries who believe it may still be possible. More importantly, its broader message explores what happens — or more pointedly, what doesn’t happen — when a radical idea appears, seemingly out of nowhere, to challenge an established way of thinking.
STREET SEEN I was going to write this column about what it was like to be art star Kehinde Wiley’s model. It was supposed to be an eloquent reflection on musedom, and I’d locked down a post-performance chat with Ethiopian Israeli rapper Kalkidan, who stars in several of Wiley’s portraits in the current show at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
But you know what, Tel Aviv to San Francisco is a long flight and I’ll wager that if you followed up the same journey with two hip-hop sets in front of the opening night Contemporary Jewish Museum hoi polloi — whose hosted-bar pink cocktails gave birth to some very art-world dance moves — you would wind up much the same way Kalkidan did for our chat. Call it jet lag. Our interview veered towards monosyllabic, though I did manage to gather he’d seen the Wiley paintings in which he stars two times before, when the exhibition toured LA and New York. And that he’s an Aquarius.
… Leaving me to my own devices with you, dear reader. Well, not entirely. I did have a chance to ask Wiley about the direction he gives to his “painfully young and present models,” as he calls them, mere minutes after his flight touched down from New York. (Right before another journalist saw fit to ask him about Frank Ocean? Has a moratorium been decreed on talking to black queers, or anyone even tangentially related to hip-hop, about anything else?)
Insight into Wiley’s models seems central to his gorgeous “World Stage” series, for which he poses young men of color in classic historical poses, with ornate backgrounds and rarified postures mimicking 18th and 19th European portraiture, among other influences. The conceit started when the San Francisco Art Institute grad moved to New York, and he’s painted other chapters of “World Stage” starring men in India, Nigeria, Brazil, China, and elsewhere.
Kalkidan on “World Stage: Israel” opening night at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Photo by David Schnur
Coupled with his subjects’ vivid streetwear, which Wiley and his assistants (the artist is well-known for employing staff that contribute the pieces’ background, if not more) render faithfully, and region-specific background motif, the series is a gorgeous homage to modern brown and black manhood, with a swagger that is decidedly hip-hop.
“There is an aspect of black American creative culture that has become globalized. Every country finds their own response to this evolving reality,” reads a Wiley quote that greets visitors to the CJM exhibit. How has a culture that’s made its way everywhere still so vilified?
Wiley allowed to our group of arthounds at the preview that he does tend to capture men who are gorgeous — you won’t miss the fact once surrounded by his canvas gods — but that his choice has less to do with his own personal preferences. “You can’t know who’s zooming who,” he said. “Nor is it a particular interest of mine.” I overheard curator Karen Tsujimoto tell another reporter that she didn’t believe sexuality played a role in his work.
I guess I buy that. Wiley said that painting beautiful men is about highlighting factors rarely pulled out to the front in the art world. “Male beauty seems to be the elephant in the room when it comes to the history of painting,” he reflected.
“The World Stage: Israel” Through May 27. Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission, SF. www.thecjm.org
BOYCHILD DOES BIG APPLE
I’d be wrong if I didn’t laserpoint out that drag (is that term adequate still?) babe boychild for bringing genderphucked Bay Area fierce to the runway for the Hood By Air-New York Fashion Week collection named, yeah, “boychild.” You know you’re the buzz when you’re overshadowing rapper A$AP Rocky, who also walked in the show. The look? Wetsuits and sportswear with glittering detail: canary yellow do-rags with blonde extensions, pearl-headphone earrings, French manicure. Strong, kinda freaky, hella pretty. Just like our child.
Not so much the disease itself — although the rate of HIV infections has been rising again in young gay men, according to a report last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and African Americans continue to be the hardest hit population in the US. And California, especially the Internet of California, has been gripped by another paroxysm of debate about barebacking porn, one that reached all the way to the ballot box in November with the passage of Measure B in Los Angeles, requiring all porn actors to wear condoms when filming in the city.
However, it’s the vibrant culture that grew up in resistance to the disease in the 1980s and ’90s that’s capturing the attention of a new generation, sparking a revival of interest that goes beyond typical retro-cycle nostalgia. For many young queers and allies frustrated by HIV discrimination, evictions, predatory pharmaceutical companies, sex-work criminalization, and immigration policy failures, it’s a newfound inspiration.
Rowdy AIDS resistance, defined by the loud-mouthed, street-closing, bridge-blocking, cathedral-occupying international AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power activist network, has been thrust back in the cultural spotlight after being overshadowed by more recent, conservative fights for marriage equality and military service rights. Initiated by NYC rabblerouser Larry Kramer in 1987, ACT UP defined queer politics for almost a decade and successfully changed the way government policy and the medical industry approached AIDS. (There would be no life-sustaining HIV drug combination therapy without ACT UP’s in-your-face civil disobedience.)
In San Francisco, the homegrown AIDS Action Pledge organization, started in 1985, laid the foundation for nonviolent yet radically confrontational AIDS activism, before partnering with ACT UP/New York and changing its name to ACT UP/San Francisco, helping to create a coast-to-coast juggernaut of information- and strategy-sharing. In its early ’90s heyday, thousands of virile ACT UPpers (and participants in related groups like Queer Nation, Gran Fury, and Boy With Arms Akimbo) from Kansas City to Copenhagen took to the streets, scaled walls, pilloried politicians, got arrested, and yes, got laid, too — it was a heady, cruisey time.
During the past two years four documentaries about the period have been released to critical acclaim — How to Survive a Plague, nominated for a 2013 Academy Award, which documents the enormous influence ACT UP and its offshoot Treatment Action Group had on the development of life-saving combination drug therapies by major pharmaceutical companies; United in Anger, director Jim Hubbard’s eye-opening ode to the diverse membership, complex infrastructure, and social issue agenda of ACT UP in New York, which draws on the immense ACT UP Oral History Project archives Hubbard started 10 years ago with writer Sarah Schulman; Vito, an HBO documentary about outspoken AIDS activist and Celluloid Closet author Vito Russo; and We Were Hereby director David Weissman (currently being Ellis Act evicted from his Castro apartment), which focuses on San Francisco at the very beginning of the epidemic leading up to ACT UP’s founding, and the development here of innovative treatments.
Kramer’s own polemical, overwhelming 1985 play about the dawn of the disease in New York, The Normal Heart, was revived on Broadway in 2011 (it played here at A.C.T. last year), snagged three top Tony Awards, and is being made into a movie with Mark Ruffalo, Alec Baldwin, and possibly Julia Roberts. The artwork of hyperkinetic grafitti artist Keith Haring, who designed some of the most recognizable anti-AIDS iconography before succumbing to the disease in 1990, was everywhere in 2012, from Google Doodles and iPhone cases to collectible sex toys and a retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Dangly pink triangle earrings and “Silence = Death” t-shirts and buttons, emblems of ACT UP, are popping up on hipsters all over.
And, um, Justin Bieber wore an ACT UP T-shirt to the 2012 CMT Country Music Awards?
FANNING THE FLAMES
Last year, a 28-year-old sex worker and activist named Cyd Nova, along with others who had been involved with the Occupy movement, started contacting ACT UP veterans about the upcoming 25th anniversary of ACT UP that March.
“My friend Kentaro and I had developed a common obsession with ACT UP because we saw it as reflection of what is missing in our community,” he told me. Nova had discovered ACT UP when he was 17, as he made an attempt to “understand who I was in the world I was living in.” When he began researching the ACT UP Oral History Project online and watching New Queer Cinema classics like the 1993 HIV-themed musical Zero Patience he “found it all incredible.”
“The emergence of ACT UP represented to us this time when queers stood together when faced with a genocide of indifference, devoting their lives to fighting for the those of their friends, lovers, family and themselves. This stands in contrast to gay and lesbian culture of the 2000s — the focus on marriage and class climbing. For people of color, sex workers, drug users, and transgender people HIV still exists. I wanted to get involved in some deeper way.”
Kentaro updated ACT UP graphics with a new “Act the Fuck Up” design, and there was enough traction about the anniversary idea among curious young people and elders to plan a “NOT OVER: 25 Years of ACT UP” panel at the Women’s Building in March, followed by a march in April through the Castro and Mission protesting the evictions of people living with HIV/AIDS, condoms being used as evidence to prosecute sex workers, and the Catholic Church’s homophobic and sex-phobic policies.
Both the panel and the march were well-attended, and another panel — this time featuring ACT UP veteran Sarah Schulman reading from The Gentrification of the Mind, her impassioned memoir of how queer rebellion to the AIDS crisis vanished into conservatism and consumerism, — overflowed its Luggage Gallery setting. Several of the attendees decided to start holding regular meetings and full-on reactivate the movement, reviving the name ACT UP/San Francisco.
The new ACT UP/SF joining with OccuPride at the 2012 Pride Parade. Photo by Liz Highleyman
These events were followed by more old school-style ACT UP actions: slogan-bearing banner drops at Pink Saturday in the Castro, guerilla street art bombs, a “Cumdumpsters of the GOP” condom toss at Folsom Street Fair. A nexus of affiliation emerged among fellow radical queer groups like OccuPride, Homonomixxx, and active ACT UP chapters in other cities. In December, a small group managed to enter Bay Area-based pharmaceutical giant Gilead’s headquarters to protest the exorbitant pricing — $28,500 per year — of its new, more convenient HIV drug Stribild. An action is planned for February 25 to deliver letters protesting Stribild’s price to Gilead, and another for ACT UP’s 26th anniversary in March.
One of the less-emphasized aspects of ACT UP was its reverence for procedure and attention to order, its organization into multiple affinity groups and action committees: a trick learned from classical anarchism and the Civil Rights Movement. The young ACT UP/SF members I’ve met — there are about 25-30 core members — seem to have absorbed these techniques: they speak calmly and deliberately but candidly, seeking out consensus but unafraid to disagree. Their actions, too, seem deliberately organized and calmly executed.
The delicately butch-featured Nova joined me at Church Street Cafe, along with fellow ACT UP/San Francisco revivalists Mayra Lopez, 24, a poised yet vivacious nonprofit worker with striking red lips, and Alan Guttirez, 23, the kind of soft-voiced, sharply intelligent sex worker who somehow survives Dennis Cooper novels.
“I was 18 and taking a summer sociology class at SF State with this flaming faggot professor,” Guttirez told me. “Usually queer teachers like to talk about themselves a lot, and at some point he mentioned ACT UP. No one knew what he was talking about, that there was this whole radical movement here that had been almost completely buried. I was immediately curious about the possibilities.”
Lopez told me, “I grew up in Sonoma — for half my life, HIV wasn’t even on my radar. You never talked about sex in the Latino community I’m from, nevermind queer issues or HIV. Then, in high school, I watched a documentary about HIV and wanted to do a history of the disease for a project. I picked up a book of posters, included ones from ACT UP, that’s how I found out about it. From there I went to work for a nonprofit — but nonprofits have a problem with being able to address issues about migrant workers and HIV, which is my focus. They have to be so P.C. I feel like ACT UP is a tool to address those issues openly.”
A 2012 ACT UP/SF die-in outside Mission Dolores Basilica, protesting the Catholic Church’s homophobic and sexphobic policies. Photo by Liz Highleyman
Is any of the motivation for the ACT UP renewal a matter of trendy nostalgia? “We’re too busy for nostalgia,” Guttirez says. “We wish the people wearing ACT UP things or looking back at the ’90s would dig deeper into the meanings to know what those things stood for, that we’re still fighting against the same shit. Categorizing people on hookup sites as ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ according to their HIV status or making fun of poor people is just perpetuating behaviors that were once used against us, and killed us.”
A BROADER AGENDA
One of the original ACT UP’s main goals was access to life-sustaining drugs. What’s the agenda of a new ACT UP? Besides addressing the prohibitively high costs of AIDS meds — something most HIV-positive people with insurance may take for granted, a lack of awareness that drug companies can take advantage of by price gouging or delaying more cost-effective treatments, and leaving uninsured people scrambling and dangerously stressed as public programs are increasingly cut — and the lack of an HIV safety net for many immigrants, the new ACT UP/SF also gives priority to sex worker and housing issues.
ACT UP/SF joined a coalition of local organizations, including Nova’s employer St. James Infirmary, to successfully demand that the San Francisco Police Department ban the use of condoms found on someone suspected of prostitution from being used evidence against them. (On January 14, however, Police Chief Greg Suhr announced that the ban would remain “temporary” for 90 days.)
And ACT UP/SF is also agitating around a provision in the $15 billion, George W. Bush-initiated PEPFAR international AIDS relief program, which forces organizations to pledge to oppose prostitution in order to receive funds. The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case against the provision this year.
A more local, immediate concern, however, one that ACT UP/SF places at the top of its list, is the skyrocketing cost of rent in San Francisco and the increasing numbers of evictions and stressful threat of evictions that many people living with HIV/AIDS face today.
“Evictions are killing us, they’re murder,” Lopez said, as Guttirez and Nova voiced their agreement. “People think medication is the number one priority for people with HIV — but it’s not, it’s housing. SROs are being pushed out, affordable housing stock is shrinking, people are being forced to leave. Without stability, it’s very hard to comply with your drug regimen, which is already complicated enough.
“I hear people all the time say, well if you can’t afford it here, then just move. They don’t understand that San Francisco is still one of the few places where queer people feel safe, that there’s a network of services here with proven results that you can’t find anywhere else, especially places many people living with HIV can afford to live. And there are support networks here, too, that aren’t available anywhere else.”
In fact, one of the most valuable things ACT UP/SF may be doing right now is offering a community for people, especially young people, with HIV to connect beyond the isolation of computer screens, to share information, enter into a positive dialogue, and receive support in a sympathetic environment geared toward changing the status quo.
Guttirez sums it up: “We’re for people who realize an angry Facebook post isn’t enough.”
BACK IN THE DAY
Have any old-guard feathers been ruffled by the ACT UP revival?
“The only real resistance we’ve had is to the name ACT UP/San Francisco — our intention is to reclaim the name from the mess that happened in the past,” Cyd told me. He’s referring to perhaps the most acrimonious legacy of local queer history. In 1990, after a phenomenally successful year of protest and media attention, several people left ACT UP/San Francisco to form ACT UP Golden Gate, intending to focus specifically on advocating for drug development and treatment, rather than address broader social issues like economic justice and gay equality.
The split was amenable at first, until things got really weird. Two men, David Pasquarelli and Michael Bellefountaine, moved here from Florida in 1993 and took over Act Up San Francisco. They quickly went from questioning the wisdom of poisoning one’s body with chemicals from the medical industry to flat out denying that HIV was the cause of AIDS, telling HIV-positive followers to forego medications altogether, saying that’s what was really killing them. Many panicked young people were swept into the new ACT UP/SF’s cultlike atmosphere, and to their doom.
“They were whackadoos!” old school ACT UP member Waiyde Palmer exclaimed when I brought up Pasquarelli and Bellefountiane. “They killed hundreds of people — and now they’re dead. Of AIDS. But the bitterness still lingers.”
I met the svelte and sassy Palmer, contributing editor of the Castro Biscuit news website and longtime survivor of AIDS, at Church Street Cafe, along with other ACT UP veterans Dean Ouellette, bushy-bearded gardener and musician, and respected journalist and activist Liz Highleyman. The three formed an uncanny, silver-haired mirror image of their younger counterparts I’d met with earlier.
A lively conversation careened among several milestones of queer radical AIDS activist history. The major early, roof-climbing takeover of pharmaceutical giant Burroughs Wellcome’s Burlingame office in 1987. The packed week of successful demonstrations around the sixth International AIDS Conference in 1990. Protesting a 1989 episode of NBC program “Midnight Caller,” which featured a murderous bisexual HIV-positive character. The 1989 day that Stop AIDS Now or Else blockaded the Golden Gate Bridge, two weeks after members of ACT UP/SF chained themselves to the Pacific Stock Exchange.
Juicy tidbits dropped: owner Marty Blecman of Megatone Records, Sylvester’s label, bankrolled ACT UP until he died in 1991; a fresh-faced Rachel Maddow, member of the AIDS Legal Referral Panel in 1994, stole some other cute dyke’s look. We tried to pin down a timeline of everything, but memories were fuzzy, exact dates had faded.
“I’m pleased to be a part of what’s happening, and I’m glad that it’s so intergenerational,” said Palmer (all three are active in the new ACT UP/SF) “but we need to maintain a momentum, and the motivation is different than when people were dying around you every day. Back then, the movement had members from every walk of life — yuppies, deadheads, people I never would have dreamed of associating with as a punk — united by this life-threatening illness.”
Highleyman agreed. “HIV has been taken over by the medical industry, we’re narcotized. A lot of ACT UP was based on exchanging information on these bewildering scientific things. Now people just ask their doctor what medicine to take. But who’s monitoring the doctors or watching the drug companies?”
“And the economics of the city have changed so much,” she continued. “I wonder if there are the resources anymore to support a protest movement. It’s just so expensive to live here, who has time to organize and follow through? The fact that these kids are taking it on is incredible and rare.”
“Back then we all worked three jobs, too” Palmer said. “But our rent was only $300 dollars — and if you had to leave one job to go to a protest, something else would pop up. I’m not sure if that can happen now.”
What happened to ACT UP? Leafing through the mesmerizing ACT UP Golden Gate files in the GLBT Historical Society archives in SoMa (especially those of its young star activist, Edward Zold, who succumbed to AIDS in 2009 at 38), a blizzard of drug names zips past: liposomal, foscarnet, fluconzole, sp-pg, TNP470, D4t, clarithromycin, AZT, Deovythymidine, xylocaine.
Every week it seemed, a new hope rose with a new drug name, only to be quashed when that drug failed. As several of the recent AIDS movies posit, the overwhelming amount of death just became too much, people couldn’t handle it anymore. Activists began turning on each other, the movement faded, and activist queer culture sank into despair. Until 1997, that is, when everyone began to realize the new anti-retroviral drug therapies would actually work. They were going to live, and then it was the best Folsom Street Fair ever.
Maybe more importantly, whatever happened to radical queer activism in general? I met with writer K.M. Soehnlein, who’s working on a novel based on his experiences of the ACT UP period — he was there from the very beginning in New York. He’s featured in United in Anger, and Queer Nation, an ACT UP offshoot formed to combat gay-bashing and promote queer visibility through renegade tactics, began in his living room in 1990.
“Occupy was a blip on the everyday gay person’s radar screen — and the police response to it was enormously more brutal and scary than when we protested in the ’90s and police usually worked with us,” he said. “But honestly, most gay people now are happy to see their president onscreen saying the word ‘gay’ before the word ‘marriage’ and that’s good enough for them.”
Soehnlein also has thoughts about why ACT UP may be resonating again. “There’s been talk about AIDS PTSD, and it really was a war. ACT UP felt like the only thing you could do to stay sane. Many people had to shut themselves off from that time in order to move on, and activism may be included in that.
“But 20, 25 years is a long time. It could just be a matter of waking people back up.”
ACT UP/SF meets at 7pm every first, third, and fifth Thursday — including Thu/21 at Alley Cat Books, 3036 24th St., SF. www.facebook.com/ACTUPSF
The Western South of Market area is ground zero for the city’s War on Fun, a place where nightlife often comes into conflict with residential expectations, particularly on the raucous 300 block of 11th Street and, to a lesser degree, Folsom Street’s old “miracle mile” of predominantly gay bars.
As the city’s Planning Department and its development community looks to accommodate another 4,000 homes for 10,000 new residents on less than 300 acres of Western SoMa — most of it along Folsom Street between 7th and 13th streets — that potential for conflict could grow in the coming years as funky old buildings give way to shiny new stacks of expensive condos.
And efforts to sort it out may hinge on the future of a 105-year old purple building.
After nearly eight years of work by a unique citizen-led task force, the Western SoMa Community Plan is now before the Board of Supervisors, with the Land Use Committee set to hold its first hearing on Feb. 25. Despite dozens of task force meetings seeking to strike the right balance between residential and entertainment interests, the plan is still being tweaked.
When the Planning Commission approved the plan and some related projects on Dec. 6, it followed King Solomon’s approach of cutting the 11th Street baby in half. The commission heeded the recent recommendation of the nightlife community and District 6 Sup. Jane Kim to modify the plan to prohibit new residential development on the 11th Street block where tipsy visitors to Slim’s, DNA Lounge, and other big clubs clog the sidewalks every weekend. But it also voted to grandfather in a 24-unit residential project at 340 11th Street, which everyone now involved in closed-door negotiations simply calls “the purple building,” a two-story masonry structure built in 1907 that is awaiting demolition.
The building houses light industrial businesses and is the former home of Universal Electric, whose owner, Tony Lo, wants to develop the property. Along with architect John Goldman, Lo submitted a residential project application in 2005, only to have it placed on hold pending adoption of the Western SoMa Community Plan.
“It was well along when the Planning Department put the project on hold,” Goldman told us.
City officials and even many of the nightlife advocates say they sympathize with the long wait that Lo and Goldman have endured, even if many oppose housing on the site and have been urging Lo to find another use for the site, such as an office building.
“They would have no idea what they’re getting into until that first Saturday night,” nightlife advocate Terrance Alan said of the would-be residents of the building, envisioning a young couple who had only visited during daytime hours trying push a baby stroller past the throngs of club-goers. Alan took part in recent meetings Kim facilitated with Lo and Goldman, and Alan told us, “There was, for the first time, a very frank discussion about the problems that owners would experience and the pressure they would put on clubs in the area.”
For example, just one neighbor of Slim’s — a popular live music venue on the block owned by singer Boz Scaggs — has waged a relentless campaign that has forced temporary shutdowns and cost the club more than $750,000 in mediation costs, Alan said, despite the club’s sound buffering and general compliance with local codes.
Alan said that it’s simply unthinkable to add more than two dozen new homeowners to that busy block in a condominium building that only allows access on 11th Street. Alan is hopeful for a negotiated compromise with Lo, something that Kim told us she also thinks is likely.
“I’m hoping we can come to a consensus of the property owners and business owners on 11th street, including the purple building,” Kim said, echoing Alan’s point that, “Just one resident can really shut down a business and hurt its financing.”
Goldman said he understands the concern and “my client is considering alternatives to housing.” While he was a little frustrated that it wasn’t until November that they first heard about a proposal to ban residential projects on the block, “We’ve definitely heard the concerns of the nightlife entertainment folks…No decision has been made yet, but it’s the goal of my client to decide fairly soon.”
A ban on housing is just one of the changes that Alan and other members of the California Music And Culture Association (CMAC) are pushing the supervisors to make to the plan, provisions he was unable to get into the plan as a member of the Western SoMa Task Force for four years before resigning in frustration.
“The task force was made up of people primarily interested in residential development,” Alan told us. “The plan is pretty much about protecting residential.”
That perspective irritates task force chair Jim Meko, who said he held about 60 meetings on entertainment and nightlife issues and bent over backward to accommodate that community. “Overall, the Western SoMa Plan is very friendly to the entertainment industry,” Meko said, noting that the plan grandfathers in all existing nightclubs, even after a building is demolished, and requires new residential construction to buffer against street noise. “They’re never satisfied.”
But Meko does concede that accommodating existing residents and new residential development was central to the task force’s work, as it was charged with doing by the Planning Department. “The most important thing was to do no harm to anyone,” Meko said was the guiding philosophy behind the task force’s approach. “We’re the real test case for a mixed use community in the city.”
While Folsom Street has more bars that 11th street, and those bars will be protected under the plan, Meko said the idea was to keep them limited in scale and prevent the proliferation of large clubs that operate into the wee hours.
“Folsom Street is where the residential growth will go,” Meko said. “That’s the area where we want to add the most residential growth and it seems dumb to add more nightclubs there.”
But he also doesn’t think it makes economic sense for many clubs to open there anyway. With allowable height limits in that corridor being increased from 50 feet now up to 65 feet, and with the plan’s approval allowing development projects to move forward, many of what he called the “old junky buildings” where clubs could find cheap rent will likely be demolished.
“With the height increases, those buildings are going to be history in five years,” Meko said.
Kim said she is supportive of both nightlife and the plan’s facilitation of residential development.
“It’s transit-first and a good place to be able to handle the density that’s close to downtown,” Kim said, noting that she’s supportive of even the massive residential project proposed for 801 Brannan Street, mostly because it includes units with up to two and three bedrooms and an elegant design by architect David Baker.
That project would have 432 housing units with a total of 606 bedrooms, 22,124 square feet of retail, and a 422-car parking garage on a site of just over four acres. In many ways, it is typical of the housing density that will begin to crowd into Western SoMa.
Meko was critical of how the entertainment community was able to make changes to the plan after all the hard work of the task force, and he told us, “It was a choice Jane Kim had to make, and she will have to answer to her constituents in the future.”
But Kim said the change on 11th Street made sense and that it’s important to strike a balance. “Entertainment is clearly an important part of Western SoMa and 11th Street is unique in showcasing that community,” Kim said.
Alan and Glendon Hyde — an LGBT activist who, like Meko, ran against Kim for D6 supervisor two years ago — are also pushing for other changes in the rules governing nightlife in SoMa, including who can get the limited live music permits that the city issues and extending the 10pm curfew in those permits.
“I think small businesses throughout the district should be able to use the limited live music permits, and they’re available only on Folsom Street under the plan,” Hyde told us, noting that otherwise he thinks nightlife fares well until the plan, particularly after Kim’s intervention on 11th Street.
Kim said that she in reluctant to start tweaking too many provisions of the plan, which she characterized as a separate discussion that doesn’t have to happen now: “I’m open to further discussions after we get the plan passed.”
The Western SoMa Plan was broken off from the larger Eastern Neighborhoods Plan by then-Sup. Chris Daly in 2005 to let a citizen-based effort tackle this area’s unique challenges, and Kim said the plan is a testament to the diligent efforts of Meko and a diverse set of members.
“I think it was a really good process with lots of stakeholders involved,” Kim said. “I like the balance. I’m happy.”
OPINION The words in President Obama’s State of the Union speech were often lofty, spinning through the air with the greatest of ease. But let’s decode the president’s smooth oratory in the realms of climate change, war and civil liberties.
“For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.”
We’ve done so little to combat climate change — we must do more.
“I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change…”
Climate change is an issue that can be very good for Wall Street. Folks who got the hang of “derivatives” and “credit default swaps” can learn how to handle “cap and trade.”
“The natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. We need to encourage that.”
Dual memo. To T. Boone Pickens: “Love ya.” To environmentalists who won’t suck up to me: “Frack you.” (And save your breath about methane.)
“After a decade of grinding war, our brave men and women in uniform are coming home.”
How’s that for an applause line? Don’t pay too much attention to the fine print. I’m planning to have 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan a year from now, and they won’t get out of there before the end of 2014. And did you notice the phrase “in uniform”? We’ve got plenty of out-of-uniform military contractors in Afghanistan now, and you can expect that to continue for a long time.
“We don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we’ll need to help countries like Yemen, Libya and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.”
We don’t need flag-draped coffins coming home. We’re so civilized that we’re the planetary leaders at killing people with remote control from halfway around the world.
“We must enlist our values in the fight. That’s why my administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism efforts.
I’m sick of taking flak just because I pick and choose which civil liberties I want to respect. If I need to give a bit more information to a few other pliant members of Congress, I will.
“The leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations. And we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.”
Maybe it’s just about time for another encore of “preemptive war.”
Norman Solomon is co-founder of RootsAction.org and founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. His books include “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” He writes the Political Culture 2013 column.