Volume 47 Number 47

Scenes from a marriage


FILM At least since Grey Gardens in 1975 provided a peek at mother-and daughter eccentrics living in squalor — distinguished from your average crazy cat ladies by being closely related to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis — there’s been a documentary subgenre devoted to, well, weirdos. Errol Morris and Werner Herzog have devoted a sizable chunk of their output to them, those people who might make you nervous or annoyed if they lived next door but are fascinating to gawk at for 90 minutes or so. Like Cate Blanchett’s fictional wack job in Blue Jasmine, their dysfunctionality is entertaining at a safe distance.

The protagonists in Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer aren’t nuts, but they’ve been together over four decades without their problems really changing or getting any better. Ushio “Gyu-Chan” Shinohara was a somewhat notorious artist in Japan’s fertile avant-garde scene of the 1960s — we see footage of him sporting a Mohawk early in that decade, non-conformity already in full flower. His “neo-Dadaist” work already consisted largely of grotesque pop-art sculptures made out of found junk and large-scale canvases that, in a variation on Pollock’s action painting, he executed by battering paint onto them with boxing gloves. (When he finishes one, he raises his aims in triumph, like Rocky Balboa.)

In 1969 this wild man decided he needed a bigger stage, so he moved to New York. An early 1970s TV documentary excerpted here calls him perhaps “the most famous of the poor and struggling artists in the city,” noting that while his often outsized work gets a lot of attention, people seldom actually want to buy it. This is a situation that, we soon learn, hasn’t altered much since.

Gyu-Chan was 41 when he met wife Noriko, a 19-year-old art student also from Japan. She was swept up in the “purity” of his art and lifestyle; within six months she was pregnant with their only child, Alex (also a talented visual artist). In hindsight, she flatly tells us “I should have married a guy who made a secure living and took responsibility for what he did.”

We first meet the duo on his 80th birthday. It’s hardly a conventionally comfortable old age — in a tone so weary it can hardly be classified as nagging, Noriko reminds him that they’re late with the rent on their fairly large yet cluttered Brooklyn apartment-studio, and the utilities are about to be cut off for lack of payment. You get the feeling all this is business-as usual, and that the cheerful, oblivious, still-energetic Ushio would’ve been out on the street years ago if not for her insistence that he actually make some money once in a while.

It’s a classic dysfunctional-yet-still maintaining marital dynamic: the easygoing, charming, eternal bad boy herded about as successfully as a cat on a leash by the long-suffering wife. He no longer drinks — having stopped on doctor’s orders just a few years ago — but he’s still a manboy making junk-art mock motorcycles and pounding large canvases … and not making much money. His reputation remains incongruously far greater than his means, even if we see a Guggenheim representative ponder making a purchase of one of his “historical” pieces.

Meanwhile Noriko, who one senses has long resented living under the shadow of this larger-than-life figure, feels she’s finally escaped his influence in her own work. (It doesn’t help that, when acknowledging that she’s his occasional, reluctant assistant, Gyu-Chan confides “The average one has to support the genius.”) She’s working on a series of narrative, cartoon-like drawings depicting the titular “Cutie” and “Bullie” — blatant stand-ins for herself and Ushio, chronicling her long saga of disillusionment as a classic “good girl” who married a bad boy, to the detriment of her own art and the child she had to raise with “drunk adults hanging around him all the time.” (It is one of the film’s frustrations that we never really get Alex’s perspective on this, though he’s clearly a wary veteran of his parents’ misbehaviors and judgments.)

If her husband is discomfited by this exposure of their private life — even when the “Cutie” series (which is turned into simple animation throughout the documentary) is exhibited in conjunction with his own latest gallery show — he doesn’t show it. But then, she does the fretting for both of them.

A quiet, almost meditative portrait of messy lives, Cutie and the Boxer doesn’t really answer the question of why these two remained together despite all (her) dissatisfaction. When he accepts an invitation to go to Japan — cramming a couple of small sculptures carelessly in his suitcase to sell while there — she says “suddenly the air clears” whenever he’s gone, and we see her lighten up considerably while showing a fellow Japanese expat friend her latest work. But you get the feeling Noriko, while hardly an emotional open book, loves her burdensome, unruly spouse more than she’d admit. Or at least she’s accepted the “struggle” of life with him as her own goading raison d’être. You know the saying: life is short, art is long. *


CUTIE AND THE BOXER opens Fri/23 in San Francisco.

Fizzling energy


A plan for a municipal power program that would offer 100 percent green energy to San Francisco customers was stalled on Aug. 13, prompting Sup. John Avalos to explore what legal options might be available to bring the program to fruition without further delay.

Prior to that San Francisco Public Utilities Commission hearing, supporters of CleanPowerSF rallied on the steps of City Hall, urging Mayor Ed Lee and members of the commission to approve a not-to-exceed rate, a technical hurdle that must be cleared before the program can advance. SFPUC staff cannot formalize a contract for purchasing power on the open market until that maximum rate has been formally established, so as long as it goes unapproved, CleanPowerSF lingers in limbo.

“We call on the Mayor’s Office to stop impeding progress with heavy-handed politics,” said Shawn Marshall, executive director of Local Energy Aggregation Network (LEAN) — a group that assists with clean-energy municipal power programs. “And we ask the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to stay focused on its job of implementing a program that was approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last September. That’s almost a year ago, folks.”

But after more than two hours of public comment in which dozens of advocates voiced support for moving ahead with the program, SFPUC commissioners voted down a motion to approve the rate, leaving CleanPowerSF in limbo with no clear path forward.



Commissioners Francesca Vietor and Anson Moran were the only ones on the commission to favor the rate approval, while Ann Moller Caen, Vince Courtney, and President Art Torres shot it down.

“I feel like today is a historic moment for the SFPUC as well as the city of San Francisco,” Vietor said as she introduced the motion at the beginning of the meeting, “to become a leader in combating climate change.”

Rather than focus on the question of whether or not to establish a top rate of 11.5 cents per kilowatt-hour (a reduced price from an earlier proposal that sparked an outcry from critics because of the sticker shock), Torres and Caen criticized CleanPowerSF before casting “no” votes.

Caen said she’d “always had problems with the opt-out situation,” referring to a system that will automatically enroll utility customers into the program, while Torres criticized the project for changing shape since its inception, saying, “at the end of the day, this is not what San Franciscans had anticipated.”

But after straying well beyond the scope of a discussion about the not-to-exceed rate, commissioners who shot down CleanPowerSF didn’t provide SFPUC staff with any hints on how to allay their concerns. Some might interpret the hearing outcome as a death knell for CleanPowerSF, but Avalos has taken up the cause of pushing for implementation.

Unable to attend the hearing in person, Avalos sent legislative aide Jeremy Pollock to convey his concerns. “We all understand the politics of the situation,” his statement noted. “The Board of Supervisors and every major environmental group in the City support this program. The Mayor, PG&E, and its union oppose it. I know you are feeling a lot of pressure from both sides. But we cannot afford further political gamesmanship to cause additional delays in an attempt to kill this program.”

The effort to implement CleanPowerSF is mired in politics. For Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Northern California’s largest utility, the enterprise represents an encroachment into prime service territory and a threat to the power company’s monopoly.

PG&E has long been highly influential at San Francisco City Hall. It has funded many political campaigns and curried favor with powerful figures (former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, known to be a frequent dining companion of the mayor, has been richly rewarded for his consulting services, for instance). Mayor Ed Lee opposes the program, and holds the authority to appoint commissioners to the SFPUC.



The City Charter gives the SFPUC the responsibility of establishing fair and sufficient rates for the city’s utility operations. But Avalos charged that “any further delay will essentially show that we are in a constitutional crisis caused by a city department failing to carry out a policy approved by a veto-proof supermajority of the Board of Supervisors.”

The supervisor added that if the rate failed to win approval at the hearing, he would call upon the City Attorney to explore legal options “to resolve this type of stalemate—including the possibility of drafting a Charter Amendment. CleanPowerSF is too important and the threat of climate change is too significant to allow this program to die on the vine. It is time for leadership.”

Pollock said on Aug. 15 that Avalos was still awaiting a response from City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office.

Meanwhile, activists who’ve attended countless meetings with SFPUC staff to move the program forward expressed frustration in the aftermath of the vote. “Things are in this holding pattern, and the dissenting commissioners did not provide a way forward,” noted Jed Holtzman, an advocate with climate group 350 Bay Area. “They just kind of said, ‘no.'”

The weekend before the hearing, mailers paid for by International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, a union representing PG&E employees, blanketed Noe Valley residences with fliers. Depicting seashells besmirched with oil, the mailers seized on the involvement of Shell Energy North America, an oil giant with a contract pending with the SFPUC to administer power purchases for the first four and a half years of the program.

Shell’s involvement presents something of a challenge for advocates, who have long advocated for a program that would be run entirely by the SFPUC with a centerpiece of renewable power generation facilities that could double as a source of local job creation.

The initial program phase looked quite different: Shell would purchase green power on the open market, making CleanPowerSF significantly more expensive than PG&E. To address that concern and lower rates, SFPUC staff recently allowed the use of Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), more affordable units accounting for green power produced somewhere in California as opposed to electricity coming straight over the power lines.

Despite the drawbacks of a more watered down start to the program and the involvement of a notorious fossil fuel company, progressives and major environmental organizations strongly advocated for moving forward with the Shell contract to give the SFPUC a shot at positioning itself financially to float revenue bonds for build-outs of a local green energy infrastructure.

“The plan is to completely replace this with the build-out,” noted John Rizzo, who sits on the executive committee of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club.



A 134-page report prepared by Local Power Inc. described in careful detail how the city could use wind, solar, geothermal, energy efficiency, and other measures for a viable program. While SFPUC representatives have indicated that some of those recommendations will still be implemented, the agency is no longer working with Local Power.

“Our draft model was 1,500 jobs per year,” Paul Fenn, founder and president of Local Power, wrote in an email to the Guardian. “But earlier runs show as many as twice that many jobs, and we projected the higher end for the final model.” In the end, though, “SFPUC declined to continue with completion of this work, so we are in limbo — apparently an organization without allies,” Fenn added. Asked about this, Kim Malcom, the SFPUC’s director of CleanPowerSF, told the Guardian that Fenn’s analysis was based on the assumption that the agency would issue bonds totaling $1 billion. “We have no confidence that we could issue a billion dollars worth of bonds in the first few years of the program,” she said, noting that the highest the agency expected to go was closer to $200 million. And at this point, it remains to be seen whether CleanPowerSF will move ahead at all. “One of the difficulties we face is that we can’t move forward without a rate,” SFPUC spokesperson Charles Sheehan noted. “In terms of launching and implementing, we can’t do that until we have a rate structure,” and now that the utility board has blocked that from happening, there is no clear path forward. Still, activists who are serious about CleanPowerSF believe it’s key for positioning San Francisco as a leader in the fight against climate change. “CleanPowerSF is a crucial step for achieving California’s 2020 greenhouse gas goals,” Bill Reilly, chairman emeritus of the World Wildlife Fund and a former EPA administrator, wrote in a letter to Lee. “It’s also an essential model &ldots; as cities and communities are compelled to address the problems fueled by climate change.”

Sublime nonsense



THEATER The sets are gone, and the costumes, and that giant blue-and-yellow tent. Master clown and performance maker John Gilkey has ended his fourth stint with Cirque du Soleil since 1996. But if the wiry, often wild-haired Gilkey is no stranger to the big time, he moves just as ferociously through a bare stage in a small venue wearing not much more than, these days, a bushy beard.

It’s been three years since Gilkey last performed in San Francisco — flanked by comedians Alec Jones-Trujillo and Donny Divanian, the deadpan naïfs of his avant-comedy trio, We Are Nudes. Just as the very funny yet vaguely unnerving, off-center style of Nudes occupied some indeterminate territory between sketch comedy and Dadaist destruction, Gilkey’s latest venture — the Los Angeles–based eight-member improvisational ensemble known as Wet the Hippo — takes its audience beyond the usual endpoints of improv.

Born out of his Idiot Workshop classes in clown, Wet the Hippo is a big, brand-new baby of a beast, only four months old but charging forward with gusto — and an edgy, searching brilliance Gilkey is clearly thrilled with. He is frankly in love with his cast members, with whom he interacts as director, prodding them from onstage and off. Ahead of their first tentative tour (a three-stop zero-budget swing through Arcata, Placerville, and SF), Gilkey picked up the phone from his LA roost to talk Hippo-thetically.

SF Bay Guardian Wet the Hippo is quite a change from Cirque du Soleil, more low-to-the-ground, very much autonomous.

John Gilkey Yeah, what we’re doing now — there’s eight of us, there’s no budget. Low-to-the-ground is a good way to put it.

SFBG It’s a big contrast, but maybe there are similarities?

JG One way I describe the show: I’m taking everything I learned from Cirque about the creation process they have. (Although I should be clear about that: the creation process changed after Franco [Dragone] left.) But I was on Franco’s creative team for [his independent Las Vegas spectacular] Le Rêve —I’ve taken that process and I’ve applied that to this 10-dollar-a-ticket show with eight people. It’s an amazing contrast. And in some ways it’s quite similar.

When I’m working with the performers, I work with them similarly to Franco in that he’s trying really to get to the nut of the person. His number one question is, “Who are you?” He’s trying to figure out what is it about this person that’s interesting. Their strengths, their weaknesses, their physicality, their voice, all this stuff — how can we magnify this person into an interesting stage presence? I do that with my little cast here.

SFBG It’s an improvised show, but it’s clearly not the Harold, or other improv forms we’re familiar with.

JG It’s something new that we’re trying to do, so we’re learning about it, discovering it as we go forward, as we search. It’s an evolving process. But what I’m looking for as the director, both offstage and onstage — or the conductor-director when I’m onstage — is to try to get everybody buzzing, ringing, in tune, and then see how they harmonize. I think when we hit, it is music. It’s on a level you can’t quite put into words. This is when we succeed. We don’t always succeed. Part of the show is us searching for that, which is also fun. We play a lot with success and failure. When we’re failing we try to really make sure that we acknowledge it and somehow use it to our advantage.

SFBG How can failure work to your advantage?

JG One thing we’re discovering is that the highs aren’t as high if the lows aren’t as low. So that’s one reason to fail. And I tell people when we’re rehearsing or in the classes that I teach (all of this came out of these classes): This is the spirit of clown. You’re always looking to get yourself into danger. You want to be in danger. That’s where the drama really comes. Instead of pretending, we try to really get into danger.

SFBG This is an exploration that goes beyond the usual endpoints — something riskier, unknown?

JG In standard improv, in standard comedy, you’re going for the laugh, always. I believe there’s something that is greater than the laugh. Maybe the easiest way to say it is that it’s the sublime. And the way to get to the sublime is to ask an actor to play at their most genius level — either absolute smartest or absolute stupidest. It’s not a linear progression from stupid to genius; it’s circular. It’s where they meet. It’s where the genius in you meets the idiot in you that you become so beautiful that you hit sublime. It’s beyond laughter. It’s the moment where you get your mind blown. *


Mon/26-Tue/27, 7:30pm, $10 (advance tickets here)

Venue TBD (“Look for the skinny violinist at 22nd St and Valencia at 7:30pm; you will be escorted to the venue from there”), SF


For an extended version of this interview, visit www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision.


Flyin’ high



MUSIC If you’ve been to a local metal show in recent months, chances are Ovvl was on the bill. If not, there was probably an Ovvl member standing next to you in the crowd. But hesher, stop now if you’ve been taking ’em for granted. With a new album and tours on the horizon, the four-piece is about to be mighty scarce around these parts.

For anyone echoing the band’s namesake and asking “Who?”, the first thing you need to know about Ovvl is that three-quarters of the band are related. Brothers Axell Baechle (at 18, he’s the youngest member by a decade; he plays guitar and sings), guitarist-vocalist K. Baechle, and drummer Clint Baechle were destined to play music together, though the band was only complete when bassist Melanie Burkett came aboard. Ahead of a busy day of filming its first video, then playing a show after, Ovvl paused to reflect on family bonding, Rush album art, and the action-packed months ahead.

SF Bay Guardian What makes brothers form a band?

Axell Baechle [K.] and I started playing music together when I was, like, 12, but it never really amounted to anything. A few years later, Clint had more time because he wasn’t playing in eight bands anymore.

Clint Baechle We were all at our parents’ house one Christmas. They had the songs written, so we recorded the original demo tape and released it. Lo and behold, people liked it. That lead to us getting the band together for real. Melanie saw us play our first show, when we didn’t even have a bass player.

Melanie Burkett I believe Axell was simultaneously smoking a joint and playing riffs in his boxers on top of a Marshall stack. And I was like, “Hey Clint, I want to be in your band, man.” I kept bugging him, until one day he was like, “We’re playing shows next month! Learn the songs! Let’s go!”

CB And there was no turning back.

SFBG How does being related affect the dynamic?

CB For us, it’s great. I’ve been playing music with [K.] since we were very young children. Axell came along musically after I’d moved out of our parents’ house, so we developed a musical relationship later. But what we have now is almost what you might call a telepathy. We finish each other’s riffs, finish each other’s sentences.

K. Baechle Finish each other’s beers …

AB Actually, just mostly that. There’s not really anything else.

MB After we had done a couple of tours, the boys started treating me like their sister. Growing up with two brothers, it was an easy role for me. Although we’re not blood related, we still argue like we are. [Laughs.]

SFBG Is the new album similar to your previous releases [including 2012’s self-released Owl]?

KB This second album’s more math-y. More intricate riffs, a little bit less diffuse.

AB It’s a bit more Maiden than Sabbath. Less jammy.

CB More complex. A little less swords-and-sorcery. We’ve been recording it over the past year with Kurt Schlegel at Lucky Cat Studios. Kurt does a lot of live sound [recording], so we have a really live-sounding record. The mixing is almost done and it sounds great — it should be out before the end of the year.

SFBG What’s the story behind the name?

AB I think it came from continuous viewing of the second Rush album cover.

CB [Agreeing.] Rush is the band that made owls badass for heavy metal. [As for the spelling,] we got a cease-and-desist order from an LA band called Owl, which was annoying to say the least. But we’ve been gradually phasing in an alternate spelling of our name, and we haven’t heard anything from that lawyer since then.

SFBG Where’s the tour going to take you?

MB Through the western United States for three weeks. Plus, Tijuana — it’s our first time in Mexico. But we’re really focused on going to Europe, which is slated to be a six-week tour. I think it will be a changing point in our career, getting a lot of new people into our music.

CB We self-released our first album, and I think we shipped more records to Europe than the US. We’re looking forward to playing for all these people who’ve been supporting us.

SFBG Do you have a preference between house shows and shows at established venues? [Visit www.owlbrotherhood.net for info on house shows, including a Fri/23 Oakland gig.]

KB My favorite is Bender’s — the best crowd.

CB In my opinion, nothing beats a great house show, though. Playing in somebody’s living room or basement. I’ll never get sick of it.

SFBG How does Ovvl fit into the Bay Area metal scene?

MB We fit into a few different genres. We’ve played shows with psychedelic, metal, punk, and rock bands, and those elements are within almost every Ovvl song. Most recently we played with Slough Feg, which was awesome — I think that was pretty much right on as far as matching genres go.

CB I think that the Bay Area has always had one of the best metal scenes in the world, and it’s cool just to be a part of it, even if it’s a small part. It’s a fun scene to be in, because there are cool bands and the people here are really into metal and they’re really into music.

SFBG Is there an Ovvl band philosophy?

CB Have a good time, all the time [laughs]. If it’s anything, it’s just ‘Do what we feel like doing.’ We play retro stoner metal right now, but if we felt like turning the band into a hip-hop crew, we would do that too. It’s not about doing a certain style — it’s about doing what’s fun for us and what we enjoy most. *


With Crag Dweller

Sat/24, 9pm, $5

Bender’s Bar and Grill

806 S. Van Ness, SF






MUSIC This is the reunion for which we dared not hope. Until this year, My Bloody Valentine’s genre-defining masterstroke of the shoegaze movement, 1991’s Loveless, was the last we had heard from the Irish-English band, and as a result, it was canonized as one of those pristine, “perfect” albums, frozen in time and untainted by inferior follow-ups.

And then, this past Groundhog Day, the unthinkable happened: after an excruciating, 22-year wait, and countless broken promises, bandleader Kevin Shields casually posted a new record, mbv, on the web, In Rainbows style, surprising his diehard fans with the legendary third album they had been hopelessly fantasizing about only a week before.

This Friday, My Bloody Valentine will pay a visit to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium for its first SF show since the release of mbv.

Headed up by Shields (the band’s mastermind, principal guitarist, and sometimes-vocalist), and backed by Bilinda Butcher on guitars and vocals, Deb Googe on bass, and Colm Ó Ciosóig on drums, My Bloody Valentine kicked off its career in 1983 as a rather inconsequential, punk-ish pop band, before moving on to bigger things.

The You Made Me Realize EP and the group’s first full-length, Isn’t Anything, (both released in 1988) showed great promise, layering Jesus and Mary Chain-ish guitar squalls atop tender pop songs, with androgynous, barely intelligible vocals submerged in the surrounding fuzz. Equally seductive and menacing, this was the sound of the shoegaze genre taking form.

The subsequent release of Loveless presented a vivid realization of Shields’ musical vision, full enough to put him in a state of creative paralysis for the next two decades, unsure of where to go next. The songs were more harmonious this time around, often reminiscent of Brian Wilson in their structures and chord progressions. Also, the guitar sound was more rounded and hypnotic than ever before; songs like “Loomer” and “Come In Alone” found Kevin Shields using his “glide guitar” method to great effect, constantly pushing and pulling on the tremolo arm of his Fender Jaguar for a woozy, undulating sound, inviting the listener to get blissfully lost in the midst of it all. Upon its release, and even to this day, Loveless presented some of the most tactile, emotionally complex guitar rock ever committed to tape.

With the exception of a cover for a Wire tribute album, some soundtrack work for Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, the occasional collaboration with Primal Scream or Patti Smith, and a brief reunion tour in 2009, Shields and My Bloody Valentine remained stagnant from’91 to February of this year. Over the course of those two decades, Loveless has built the kind of reputation normally reserved for recordings of the Beatles era; even Phish’s Trey Anstasio has proclaimed it the greatest album of the ’90s. Loveless‘ seminal blend of pop purity and uncompromising noise has spawned a thousand imitators, but no worthy successor, rendering the release of mbv an uncommonly big deal in the music world, even in a year dominated by comeback efforts, from David Bowie to Boards of Canada.

Despite the skeptical fans, who doubted Shields’ ability to recapture his singular sound or take it into new realms, the response to mbv was resoundingly positive. Tracks like “who sees you” and “only tomorrow” found Shields and Co. approaching the monolithically woozy Loveless aesthetic with a fuller, beefier production sound. Halfway through the record, “new you” blindsided the listener as the cleanest, poppiest song of My Bloody Valentine’s career, seemingly lifted from a party scene in a ’90s teen movie. “in another way” found the band channeling the angular jolt of the Isn’t Anything era, while “wonder 2” suggested a new path forward, blending drum’n’bass-y electronics with Shield’s famed “jet-engine” guitar sound.

Part of mbv‘s appeal stems from its utter disregard for modern trends and developments in the music world. This isn’t the sound of My Bloody Valentine recalibrated for the new millennium; the entire album sounds like it could’ve been recorded and produced in ’96, and as a result, we listeners have no idea what was recorded in the mid-’90s, and what was made last year. The listening experience, especially in that first week after its release, was poignant and affecting, like reuniting with a friend you haven’t seen in two decades, and picking up right where you left off. Few records can make you feel 15 again the first time you press play, and mbv was one of them.

While the band’s recent live dates have incorporated new songs into the mix, many things have remained the same: namely, its infamous closer “You Made Me Realize,” the title track from its first great EP, with a 20-minute, endurance-testing wall of noise tacked on the end. The song’s live rendition has made ears bleed around the world, and remains a hallmark of My Bloody Valentine’s live shows.

Now, in 2013, it’s back, with a followup to Loveless in tow, befitting of that album’s legendary reputation. It’s been a long time coming, but My Bloody Valentine has reemerged to save rock ‘n’ roll all over again. Bring earplugs; it’ll get loud.


With Beachwood Sparks, Lumerians

Fri/23, 8pm, $45

Bill Graham Civic Auditorium

99 Grove, SF

(415) 624-8900



Waiting to connect



Eight years ago, San Francisco almost gave away an enormously lucrative public utility to Google and Earthlink: a citywide Wi-Fi connection. The hastily drawn up plan was championed by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom after a Google executive pitched him on the idea of citywide wireless Internet access at a dinner party.

Google’s Wi-Fi scheme would have blanketed the city with coverage, but it would also have required users to obtain Google accounts to sign in, thereby facilitating the company’s vacuum-like data harvesting practices that suck up everything from search queries and emails to the geographic locations of smartphones and tablets. Google’s Wi-Fi plan would have allowed the tech giant to insert “prioritized placement” of ads and brands into a Wi-Fi user’s feed, limiting choice of content through profit-driven algorithms.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, ACLU of Northern California, Electronic Privacy Information Center, and we at the Bay Guardian all criticized the plan (see “Tech Disconnect,” 11/9/05). Earthlink, Google’s partner in the privatization deal, nearly went bankrupt in 2007 and the company bailed on the Wi-Fi proposal. That was the end of the city’s first Wi-Fi scheme. Thousands of free networks in cafes and hotels popped up in the meantime, leading many to question the purpose of building municipal Wi-Fi.

But municipal Wi-Fi is back. Sup. Mark Farrell and Mayor Ed Lee announced recently that free Wi-Fi is coming to 31 San Francisco parks. Google is involved yet again, but officials in the city’s Department of Technology say that the network will be not be controlled by Google, nor directly susceptible to privacy invasions by the “don’t be evil” company or its affiliates. In short, it will be a public utility.



“I think a lot of the prior debate around free Wi-Fi in San Francisco that never moved forward was because of different questions around business models,” Farrell told us. “To emphasize, this is a free gift [from Google] of financial benefit to the city of San Francisco with no strings attached.”

For the parks, Google has agreed to give a $600,000 contribution to fund Wi-Fi installation and two years of operation. Farrell said this is the company’s only role. There will be no Google hardware or software allowing the company to devour user data or steer traffic.

San Francisco’s reinvigorated push to build out public Wi-Fi comes just as major telecom companies and Internet giants like Google are again targeting large Wi-Fi networks for privatization. In the late 2000s, many tech companies abandoned Wi-Fi services as unprofitable. Telecom companies were busy expanding their cellphone infrastructure.

But thanks to the proliferation and technical advances of smartphones, cellular networks are now choking on megabits of traffic. Telecom companies see Wi-Fi as a means of offloading mobile traffic onto broadband infrastructure. Google and other companies see Wi-Fi networks as vast troves of consumer data, and airwaves on which to advertise.

Google’s grant for Wi-Fi in San Francisco’s parks comes after months of bad press for the company and the tech sector, including revelations that all of Silicon Valley’s top companies readily cooperated with the NSA’s electronic surveillance programs.

Google also recently paid out $7 million to settle state investigations into its “Wi-Spy” data collection activities: wireless receivers hidden in Google’s Street View vehicles sopped up communications data, including passwords and even email content, from millions of networks in the United States and Europe. Beside Google’s numerous spying scandals, the company has also come under criticism for aggressively avoiding federal taxes, and locally for its impact on San Francisco’s transportation and housing problems.

If the $600,000 gift is designed to bolster Google’s image as a good corporate citizen, it probably also makes good business sense. “Thousands of Googlers live and work in SF,” said Jenna Wandres, a spokesperson for the company replied to our inquiries by email.

Marc Touitou, director of the city’s Department of Technology, told us the park Wi-Fi system will be entirely the city’s, and that no third party corporation will determine who can use the service or under what terms.

“It’s not a Google network, it’s not a Wi-Fi name from Google. It’s a donation, a gesture,” said Touitou. He added that talks with AT&T to let the company roll out a Wi-Fi network for all of Market Street were recently cut off because his office has decided to build the system as a fully municipal network instead.



Touitou’s office has plans to light up free municipal Wi-Fi along the Embarcadero, in the Castro, Noe Valley, and perhaps even on Muni buses in the near future. With the parks, Touitou said the idea is to gain back the confidence of the public, to show that the city can do this on its own. Touitou also said that he hopes the city will budget funds for these Wi-Fi systems so that they’re not reliant on corporate gifts.

“We reserve right to leverage this model where companies can put money in because it’s in their interest,” Touitou said. “They don’t care what name is on the network so long as they can dump their traffic on it.”

A public utility model will allow San Francisco to own and operate Wi-Fi across the city and to allow telecom companies to funnel mobile traffic through the city’s infrastructure, likely for a fee. Touitou said it doesn’t make sense for the city to give away its Wi-Fi infrastructure as it is a limited and increasingly valuable asset.

“The day we sell it would be a sad day,” Touitou added.

He described the city’s two radio towers, 200 buildings, thousands of utility poles, and the fiber optic grid that can connect these as the backbone of a robust municipal wireless network. Telecom and Internet companies will pay to use the infrastructure under this model. Most privacy experts who examined San Francisco’s prior Wi-Fi plans have yet to weigh in on the parks network. Revelations about the NSA’s vast spying programs have consumed the attention of groups like EFF and the ACLU.

Touitou said, however, that the city’s Wi-Fi privacy policies will be strong. “This isn’t a third party network trying to market to you,” explained Touitou. “It’s a city network that wants to facilitate traffic, and we want to have the privacy respected.”

Even as San Francisco plans its next steps with city Wi-Fi, Google is rapidly expanding its own wireless network operations. Already the company controls the citywide Wi-Fi network for Mountain View where the “Googleplex” is located. Google also has Wi-Fi networks scooping up communications in Boston’s South Station and New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. The terms of Google’s Mountain View deal do not limit Google from collecting data, and users are required to sign in with a Google account. Google also recently announced that it will take control over Starbucks’ thousands of Wi-Fi networks, creating a potentially vast trove of consumer data and a marketing platform for both companies. Starbucks has 50 locations in San Francisco.

AT&T, which lost the Starbucks contract to Google, and also lost its bid to take over Market Street’s airwaves, has its own data mining projects that tap the company’s Wi-Fi networks in 30 countries for personal information, and to route telecom traffic.

So even with municipal Wi-Fi, tech and telecom companies will still have ample ability to siphon off communications data straight from wireless networks and hand it to the feds or to advertisers.

Spotlight shone on gentrification in West Oakland and SF


Two stories on the theme of gentrification and displacement — a topic we at the Bay Guardian have expended plenty of ink on — ran in major news outlets recently, showing how intense the Bay Area housing market pressure has become as it continues to be fueled by a rapid growth in high-salaried jobs in big tech.

Zeroing in on San Francisco, the Los Angeles Times turned an eye toward Mission District gentrification (“San Francisco split by Silicon Valley’s wealth,” Aug. 14) illustrating the growing divide with a succinct comment overheard on a Muni bus: “I don’t know why old people ride Muni. If I were old, I’d just take Uber.”

And a Wall Street Journal article (“Companies spruce up neighborhoods, putting gentrification in overdrive,” Aug. 13) provides an eye-opening account of how REO Homes LLC is seeking to accelerate the gentrification process by “beautifying” West Oakland, an historically African American neighborhood that is home to predominantly low-income and working-class residents.

Minutes from downtown San Francisco via BART, West Oakland is dotted with Victorians and was hit with a wave of foreclosure during the economic crash, destabilizing the lives of many families who lost their homes.

REO is an investment firm helped along by San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer, a well-connected venture capitalist (he even hosted a Democratic Party fundraiser with President Barack Obama at his Pacific Heights mansion earlier this year).

As the Journal’s Robbie Whelan reports, REO has been shelling out top dollar to spruce up not just its holdings, but residences nearby its West Oakland properties. In a rarely seen form of hyper-gentrification, the company has been planting trees, sprucing up homes (for free) of neighbors who aren’t in the market to sell or rent, mending fences, and making other improvements — all in an effort to lure higher-income residents to the neighborhood.

Since 2008, the height of the real-estate market crash, REO has acquired more than 200 homes in Oakland, Whelan reports, mostly in West Oakland. “Most houses cost around $200,000,” he writes, “and [founder Neill Sullivan] said he invests as much $100,000 to fix each one up.”

Real-estate agents have been marketing the sometimes-rough neighborhood to house-hunters as an affordable, nearby alternative to astronomically expensive San Francisco. Now that many people who weren’t able to keep up with mortgage payments have been forced out by foreclosure, things are changing swiftly, as if by magic. Armed with cash, bankers are chasing away the blight and rolling out the welcome mat for up-and-comers who can’t swing that $3,000 one-bedroom in The City. All of which will likely result in further displacement of Oakland residents who are barely holding on as it is. As Oakland City Council member Desley Brooks told the Journal: “I’m not interested in finding housing for San Franciscans who can no longer afford San Francisco. I’m interested in helping people here in Oakland.”

City College’s judges get judged


City College of San Francisco had its accreditation revoked by the Accrediting Commission of Junior and Community Colleges in July, and now the ACCJC is getting a taste of its own medicine — its own existence has been threatened over its treatment of City College.

In an Aug. 13 letter to ACCJC President Barbara Beno, the Department of Education found it out of compliance with the Education Secretary’s regulations governing accrediting agencies, as well as the ACCJC’s own internal rules.

“Therefore, we have determined that in order to avoid initiation of an action to limit, suspend or terminate ACCJC’s recognition, ACCJC must take immediate steps to correct the areas of non-compliance in this letter,” the letter reads.

The DOE found the ACCJC noncompliant in four areas: A conflict of interest because Beno’s husband served on the visiting team that evaluated City College, no clear policies on who should serve on those teams (with the letter noting the teams were stacked with administrators rather than educators), no defined distinction between “deficiencies” and “recommendations” or indication of their severity levels, and failure to give CCSF two years to correct those deficiencies, as ACCJC policies call for.

Ironically, the ACCJC has plenty of time to correct its own shortcomings. “The process in this case is that ACCJC will have an opportunity to provide information about the steps it has taken to come into compliance with the cited criteria in its response to the draft staff analysis of the agency’s petition for renewal of its recognition, which is currently under review,” DOE spokesperson Jane Glickman told the Guardian, noting that there will be a hearing in mid-December, with possible actions ranging from limiting the agency’s authority to giving it another year to come into compliance.

But she said the DOE can’t directly help City College: “The Department does not have the authority to require an agency to change any accreditation decision it has made. The agency (ACCJC) needs to amend its policies and procedures and provide documentation that it follows its amended policies and procedures to demonstrate that it is in compliance with the cited criteria.”

The California Federation of Teachers, which filed the appeal with the DOE, wants the ACCJC to reconsider its sanction of City College in light of these validated concerns over its process.

“We are gratified that the U.S. Dept. of Education agreed with us that the process was deeply flawed, and we call on the ACCJC to rescind its unprecedented decision to deny accreditation to CCSF,” CFT President Joshua Pechthalt, wrote in a press release.

But ACCJC Vice President of Policy and Research Krista Johns told us that DOE’s concerns were narrow and shouldn’t affect its actions against City College:”The overall result of the US Department [of Education]’s analysis and study of the documents presented by the CFT about the ACCJC really affirmed that we are in compliance to a very large degree with all of the many regulations that touch on accreditors.”

But it’s still an open question whether the DOE’s findings will affect the decision to revoke City College’s accreditation and turn control over the institution to a state-appointed special trustee.

“We’re still analyzing the letter. There’s a lot in there,” Paul Feist, spokesperson for the State Community College Chancellor’s Office, told us. “I don’t know if it could say there is any reprieve [for City College]. Regardless, there are a number of problems with City College that need fixing.”

But even a cursory analysis of the letter reveals something that raises suspicions about the integrity of the entire process: the DOE letter raises concerns about why the ACCJC chose to go beyond its own policies to sock it to City College.

The college’s appeal ultimately is in the hands of the new Super Trustee of City College, Bob Agrella, who acts with all of the powers of the college’s now defunct board. But Agrella has, in past interviews, agreed with the way the ACCJC is run.

“I think the way the commission operates is okay,” he told City College’s newspaper, The Guardsman. “I’ve dealt with their policies and operating procedures at other institutions where I worked that were dealing with addressing accreditation problems—not to the same degree as here at City College—and the process worked there.”

But Karen Saginor, the ex-City College academic senate president, said the DOE criticism of the process should be taken into account in the appeal of the accreditation revocation decision.

“It’s pretty exciting, that letter,” Saginor told the Guardian. “It’s recognition from an important authority that there are irregularities in the process that put us on show cause. We’ve been saying ‘it wasn’t fair.’ And we’ve been told ‘its a totally fair process, you’re just not happy because you don’t like the result.’ Now we have an important authority verifying what we’ve been saying.”

Canned again



In the newest of the city’s recycle-pocalypse saga, two Safeway recycling centers are shuttering their services, further narrowing the places in San Francisco where consumers can get their can and bottle deposits back from the government.

The Japantown Safeway on Geary Boulevard already evicted its team of recyclers, and the Safeway at Church and Market streets will soon follow suit.

Early media reports suggested the services would soon be replaced by reverse vending machines, but Safeway spokesperson Wendy Gutshall told the Guardian it’s still exploring all of its options.

“In San Francisco, it is easy to recycle with curbside recycling,” she told us. “The vending machines are a relatively new option and we have been testing them in other locations.”

Safeway has two options for those locations, in lieu of a recycling center: Pay a state-mandated fee to offset a lack of recycling, or to use the reverse vending machines.

The vending machines are a growing problem for San Francisco consumers, advocates say, because they process only one can or bottle at a time, making it nearly impossible for consumers who bring bags full of recyclables to process their buyback in a timely manner.

Ed Dunn, the executive director of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council, which formerly oversaw the recycling center at Kezar Gardens in Golden Gate Park, thinks this is a trend that may not stop.

“This wave of closures will trigger (more closures) in in-store recycling across the northern half of the City,” he said. And the numbers back that up. There were 30 recycling centers in San Francisco as recently as 1990, and the state agency Cal Recycle shows there are now only 20 — an unspecified number of which are recycling vending machines.

Cal Recycle said only two of them are vending machines, but a visit to some of the sites revealed there are more than two, and that there may be a discrepancy in its data.

Safeway’s option of just paying the fee is a growing trend, Cal Recycle said. As recycling centers in San Francisco go the way of the dodo, consumers and small businesses feel the pinch. The lack of recycling centers triggers state laws requiring local businesses to pay fees of up to $100 a day if they don’t provide buyback when a nearby recycling center closes.

Supermarkets who make more than $2 million annually, like the two aforementioned Safeways, serve as “convenience zones,” mandated by California law. Those zones cover a half-mile radius around a supermarket that are convenient places for consumers to bring their recyclables to get back their five or ten cents per can or bottle.

But when large supermarkets like Safeway apply for exemptions with the state at a cost of $100 a day, or $36,000 a year, the burden of recycling falls onto each one of the businesses in a half mile radius around those supermarkets.

That liquor store on the corner? They have to pay people for their bags of recycling, or pay the same fees as the Safeway. Many businesses can’t afford either option, said Regina Dick-Endrizzi, the director of city’s Office of Small Business. That, and they don’t have the space available to put the reverse vending machines as an “out.”

“When you’re a transit-first city, it’s harder. This law was really written for suburbia,” she told the Guardian. “We’re getting denser.”

San Francisco’s density means Safeway’s decision can affect many local businesses. If a convenience zone in Santa Rosa closed, for instance, maybe five businesses would be affected — and they’d have plenty of space in a parking lot to deal with recycling.

But when the Haight Ashbury recycling center closed down, more than 50 businesses were affected.

The state bill was crafted in 1986, which makes it outdated in a number of ways, Dick-Endrizzi said. But the convenience zone requirements need to be amended on a state level, meaning a fix could be months or years away. “This is not going to be a quick solve,” she said.

In the meantime, stores must apply for exemptions, which are numbering too many in San Francisco at this point, said Mark Oldfield, communications director for Cal Recycle.

“The point of the convenience zones to have places for people to recycle,” he told us. “If they’re all exemptions, there’s no place for convenience.”

But even when supermarkets put in recycling machines, consumers and the city still lose out, critics say.

Kevin Drew, the zero waste coordinator at the city’s SF Environment, brought the problem to the Small Business Commission in December. “I’ve heard concerns from homeowners and consumers saying ‘There’s not a place to take my bottles and cans, I’ve got to drive there, and there’s a huge long line when I get there.'”

That’s the rub: When many San Franciscans think of people who collect bottles and cans, they think of the homeless, maybe vagrants, certainly poor, who take them from our curbside bins and trash cans. But even if you don’t identify with those folks, they’re not the only ones depending on these recycling centers.

“My experience in going to the centers and seeing what happens is that where there are certainly is a robust group of scavengers and poachers,” Drew told the Small Business Commission. “There’s a steady flow of people from a restaurant, people coming with kids… You’d be surprised.”

He said that of the $18 million a year in recycling San Francisco produces, two-thirds of that comes from recycling centers. So if you think “everyone” uses curbside recycling, think again. The Guardian’s research bears out the idea that there are still regular folks using recycling centers. As we covered the city’s closure of the Haight Ashbury Recycling Center (see “Canned,” 12/4/12), we met families, kids who brought in recycling for their allowance, bar and restaurant owners who wanted to make money back instead of paying for curbside recycling, and yes, vagrants. One of the customers we talked to was Kristy Zeng, a 30-year-old immigrant from China who worked with her 62-year-old mother to support the family with recycling revenues. “People look at her and say she’s too old [to get another job],” Zeng said. Finally, there’s the impact to the city to consider. Anyone who has ever been in Dolores Park on a sunny afternoon understands the role that recyclers play in keeping San Francisco clean and providing an elegant way for the poor to earn a living. With Safeway’s decision, both benefits are being diminished.

Can we get an amen?


OPINION Senior and Disability Action recently learned of the outcome of the case of the elder who was killed in a collision with a bicyclist in the city’s Castro District. The victim, 71 year old Sutchi Hui, was walking across the intersection of Castro and Market Streets with his wife when he was struck by 34 year old Chris Bucchere, a self-described “entrepreneur, software developer, founder and CEO of Social Collective Inc.”

Our organization has been involved in the issue of pedestrian safety, advocating for improvements on the city streets, corridors and areas that pose safety risks for seniors, people with disabilities and the public in general. The tragic incident that took Mr. Hui’s life emphasizes the need for better pedestrian safety and the need to hold bicyclists accountable for their actions.

Seniors have related stories of being run over or in near misses with bicycles speeding through crosswalks or sidewalks. One member of SDA recalls an incident at Critical Mass where a senior was driving a car with 2 kids in the backseat. The biker repeatedly kicked the elder’s car, verbally berating him and frightening the children.

Senior and Disability Action was dismayed by the breezy attitude of the cyclist, who, after the collision that claimed Mr. Hui’s life, lamented the loss of his bike helmet in a blog:

“In closing, I want to dedicate this story to my late helmet. She died in heroic fashion today as my head slammed into the tarmac…may she die knowing that because she committed the ultimate sacrifice, her rider can live and ride one. Can I get an amen? Amen”

Really? The cyclist was travelling in excess of 35 miles an hour. Witnesses saw him go through three red lights. It was announced that Mr. Bucchere’s punishment will be 3 years probation and 1000 hours of community service. This was the second fatality involving a cyclist in a year. The cyclist in the other fatality was sentenced to 500 hours of community service—at the Bike Coalition. Where will Mr. Bucchere do his community service? Will he have to look an elder in the face, or come into contact with a community of color, or a community of elders? Or will he use his race and class privilege to sacrifice somehow to a community that has lost much in the way of housing and services—from communities that have subsidized the lives of folks such as himself?

We all must adhere to the rules of the road; the rules apply to both motorists as well as cyclists. We recognize that there are cyclists that follow the rules of the road. But this case was egregious, not only in the loss of life, but in the arrogance of the cyclist, who was using an app that gauged his speed and overall performance on the road, offering a prize as an incentive. The metaphors are striking—plowing through an area as if one has the God-given right and too bad if you happen to be in my way. Mr. Bucchere’s actions in the aftermath is evincive of the race and class privilege that has permeated the city, where some lives are evidently worth more than others.

Can we get an amen?


Editor’s Note: On Aug. 15, Bucchere was formally sentenced to 1000 hours of community service and three years probation.

Protect local power and control


EDITORIAL There’s a growing stench of political corruption — or, at the very least, hidden agendas aimed at subverting popular will in favor of entrenched corporate interests — emanating from the Mayor’s Office these days. And it’s undermining projects and institutions that are vital to the future of San Francisco.

In the last week, a pair of important developments illuminated the shady way business gets done in San Francisco. The first instance concerned City College of San Francisco, which had its accreditation rashly revoked last month, prompting Mayor Ed Lee to enthusiastically support the disbanding of the locally elected Board of Trustees and the takeover of City College by state-appointed outsiders bent on shutting down community-based facilities and classes.

While Lee and the San Francisco Chronicle have been cheerleading this loss of local control and the corporatist agenda behind it — CCSF was criticized for resisting the narrowing of its mission to focus on job training and college prep — we at the Guardian have questioned this process and the motives behind it.

In a cover story (“Who killed City College?” July 9), editorial (“Why democracy matters,” July 23), and other coverage, we’ve highlighted how the attack on CCSF is part of national movement to focus schools on job training rather than broad-based education, and questioned the haste with which CCSF’s local leadership was usurped.

Critics mocked these concerns, as they did those of the California Federation of Teachers, which formally challenged the actions by the Accrediting Commission of Community and Junior Colleges, with Lee and others saying that we need to just accept the death threats against CCSF and do whatever these outsiders are asking.

So on Aug. 13, when the US Department of Education sustained the CFT appeal and found the ACCJC in violation of federal regulations and its own internal standards in its approach to City College, it validated our concerns and called into question Lee’s hair-trigger abandonment of City College’s local leaders.

Frankly, we’re puzzled by Lee’s approach to City College — from his appointment of right-wing ideologue Rodrigo Santos as a trustee last year (who subsequently got trounced in the election) to his resistance to helping the college before the state takeover — but we suspect it’s connected to Lee’s focus on “jobs, jobs, jobs” to the exclusion of other issues and values.

But Lee only counts private sector jobs, not those created to serve the public interest like the thousands of jobs that would be created by CleanPowerSF, a program that Lee opposes and that his appointees to the SF Public Utilities Commission are actively subverting.

As we report in this issue, CleanPowerSF is a renewable energy program approved last year by a veto-proof majority on the Board of Supervisors, but it’s being blocked by the SFPUC’s refusal to approve the rates and sign the contracts, with commissioners raising concerns that go well beyond their purview at this point.

It’s time for Mayor Lee to start serving the people of San Francisco instead of the corporate titans and political benefactors who elevated this loyal career bureaucrat into the big chair in Room 200.