San Francisco has been home to some of the true giants of American literature and poetry, from Jack London and Mark Twain to Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. To honor that past, 12 streets were renamed for these and other writers on Oct. 2, 1988, and there will be a 25th anniversary celebration of that dedication coming up on Oct. 6. So the Guardian worked with writer Nicole Gluckstern, Burrito Justice, and City Lights Bookstore to create this Literary Bike Tour map that attendees will follow that day, starting at 11am at Jack London Street and concluding with a reading at 2pm in Jack Kerouac Alley. So join the festivities or just take the tour on your own.
Volume 47 Number 50
THEATER Sitting in the Exit Café with a can of Guinness and the San Francisco Fringe Festival program is one of life’s modest but absorbing pleasures. For those without much inside knowledge on the lineup (currently encompassing 36 companies and 158 performances), it’s a little like taking a vacation by pitching darts at a wall map. There were several immediate sub-themes to choose from for 2013. I could have picked shows with bananas in the title, for instance. But for whatever reason, I dived into the service and servitude sector.
Of course, the Fringe, now in its 22nd year, is a lottery-based operation, so it is fate’s fingers that pluck these patterns from the cultural whirl. At the same time, you don’t need the I Ching to know that serving the rich is about all that’s left of the economy for most of us, making it hardly surprising to find so many stories of bartenders, wait staff, sex workers, and mermaids-who-are-also-sex-workers floating in the pool.
Things began on a high note with Jill Vice’s witty and deft solo, The Tipped & the Tipsy, which brings the querulous regulars of a skid-row bar to life vividly and with real (quasi-Depression era) charm. Without set or costume changes, Vice (who developed the piece with Dave Dennison and David Ford) proves a protean physical performer, seamlessly inhabiting the oddball outcasts lined up before bartender Candy every day at Happy’s — names as loaded as the clientele. With a love of the underdog and strong writing and acting at its core, Tipsy breezes by, leaving a superlative buzz.
O Best Beloved isn’t about service work, but the theme still crops up in the opening story — “How the Camel Got Her Hump” — an unburdened beast (played by Sam Jackson) whose relaxed work ethic draws negative attention. It’s one of three scheduled children’s tales by Rudyard Kipling (adapted by actor Joan Howard and director Rebecca Longworth), delivered by a rowdy six-person cast of storytellers. This playful piece is somewhat hectic and a bit garbled (in speech that can get lost in the reverberations of the Exit’s main stage). But it’s colorfully worked up (in costuming and properties as well as performances) and no doubt ideal for families or those happy to revel in light insouciance and unyielding silliness.
Sean Andries and Siouxsie Q’s Fish-Girl, meanwhile, has limited charm as a carny fable of doomed love between a nerdy young man (Andries, who also directed) and the freak-show beauty (Q, in sequined tail and half-shell bra) he’s hooked on. Co-creator Siouxsie Q hosts “The Whorecast” podcast showcasing the voices of American sex workers, and the mermaid’s plight takes on literal and metaphoric overtones of sex work. But the bland love story at the center keeps things bathtub shallow, albeit buoyed by a few decent songs belted out by poised songwriter Siouxsie Q to her own accompaniment on the ukulele — that spinet of the well-bred mermaid.
Hard on Fish-Girl‘s floppy heel came The Women of Tu-Na House, completing the evening’s sub-sub-theme of the aquatic erotic. (For cross-referencing purposes: Another bartender’s tale, with fish tails too, stood out in the program but was not seen in time for review: Alexa Fitzpatrick’s sushi-restaurant confessional, Serving Bait to Rich People.) Nancy Eng’s solo is a smart, sassy, and blushingly frank account of the workers at an Asian massage parlor. Although Eng’s characters are not always readily distinct, she marshals an unexpected angle and winning élan in bringing this worthwhile story to life.
Not every show in the Fringe need conform to a surface or sub theme. Dark Porch Theatre’s StormStressLenz brings its own thematic taxonomy with it, in director Martin Schwartz’s uneven but intriguing, vivacious remixing of the work of Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751–1792), the Baltic German author of the proto-Romantic, anti-rational Sturm und Drang school of literature.
Schwartz’s Lenz remix comes across as an alternately cool and hyperactive investigation of the essence of melodrama, employing a fast-changing four-person ensemble (Nathan Tucker, Margery Fairchild, Ryan Hayes, Meg Hurtado) in a series of scenes shorn of their immediate context and aggregated under various section headings (“Love,” “Tricks,” “Sorrow,” etc.) — subheads called out by Schwartz, seated at a table to the left of the stage calmly scrutinizing the action, asking the lighting booth for the odd musical interlude (MC5 one minute, Brahms the next), and bouncing his palm lightly on a desk bell to trigger the beginning and the end of each scene. These range widely and wildly, making for a raucous but tonally patchy hour. The broadest and subtlest range of characters comes from Tucker and Fairchild, who between them suggest some of the darker elements otherwise left out of a largely comic romp. But if the show leaves one wanting more complexity and shading, its eccentric enterprise is still worth a stab, as they say.
Finally, San Francisco dancer and performance maker Cara Rose DeFabio’s admirable solo strikes its own idiosyncratic tone, or rather many of them, in another intriguing investigation, this time of the online afterlife to which we are all increasingly subject — whether willingly or not. After the Tone is a smart and provoking exploration of the intersections of grief, technology, memory, ideology, and individuality that uses DeFabio’s sly narrative persona, movement, video, and audio pastiche, and interactive audience participation (via those celebrated and hated cellphones) to productively turn over a subject too close to most of us to be clearly grasped otherwise. *
SAN FRANCISCO FRINGE FESTIVAL
Through Sept. 21, $12.99 or less
156 Eddy, SF
For a longer version of this review, visit www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision.
At age 65, reggae legend Jimmy Cliff is experiencing perhaps one of the greatest bursts of artistic productivity in all of his five-decade-long and counting career. He’s inspired countless other musicians over the years, including Bay Area punk rocker Tim Armstrong of Rancid and Operation Ivy, who was brought aboard to produce and perform on Cliff’s newest album, last year’s excellent Rebirth. The record includes an outstanding cover of the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton,” which references Cliff’s movie and song “The Harder They Come” in its lyrics — bringing the music full circle, as it were. Don’t miss the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer when he hits the Fillmore stage tonight. (Sean McCourt)
1805 Geary, SF
In addition to appearing in a vast array of television (hello, Singled Out), film, radio, and online productions over the past 20 or so years, Chris Hardwick helped found Nerdist Industries, which has grown from one podcast in 2010 into a vast cross-medium mecca for all that proudly embrace their inner geek. Hardwick comes to the city this weekend with his hilarious stand-up act, and based on his guest spots at recent Wootstock events, he’s sure to riff on both his Nerdist loves, as well other awkward yet uproariously comedic facets of life. (McCourt)
Wed/11-Thu/12, 8pm; Fri/13, 8 and 10:15pm; Sat/14, 7:30 and 9:45pm, $25
Cobb’s Comedy Club
915 Columbus, SF
Secrets like These
While Enrico Labayen is a respected choreographer on his own terms, he also has a curious and generous spirit, opening his Labayen Dance Company to other dance makers. For this program, jam-packed with two of his own world premieres in addition to rep work, he invited Anandha Ray to present her new Quimera Project for which she’ll bring a chorus of up to 30 tribal belly dancers. Additionally, two company members will debut pieces. Laura Bernasconi’s Nourishment and Hunger will draw on ballet, classical Indian Odissi, and acro-yoga. For his new Secrets Like These, Victor Talledos is creating a narrative to music by Diana Krall. Labayen’s small company also offers performance opportunities to dancers from around the world: Daiane Lopes da Silva (Brazil), Sandrine Cassini (France), Talledos (Mexico). (Rita Felciano)
Through Sat/14, 8pm; Sun/15, 3pm, $20–$25.
3153, 17th St, SF
Back in March, when San Francisco filmmaker Doug Wolens was promoting his DIY iTunes hit The Singularity, he explained the meaning of the title: “the point in time when computers become smarter than people.” Some, including futurist Ray Kurzweil (one of the experts interviewed here), say it’s an inevitability — a thought-provoking idea, to say the least. Chat with Wolens in person at tonight’s screening of The Singularity as part of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ “Local Boy Makes Good: New Bay Area Film” series; he’ll also be in residence at the Castro Theatre next week with a trio of his films, rounded out by 2000 environmental-activist profile Butterfly and 1996’s toke-tastic doc Weed. (Cheryl Eddy)
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF
Also Mon/16, screenings begin at noon, $11
429 Castro, SF
“Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind”
Thirty plays in 60 minutes — that might sound like too much even for the most attention span-challenged theatergoers among us. Fortunately, the raucous Neo-Futurists troupe has been putting on the surreal channel surf known as “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” for 25 years in its hometown Chicago, and for 10 in New York — where it’s won a celebrity cult following — so it’s got this thing down to an almost metaphysical science. A night of semi-improv performance (a timer is set and the audience yells out the titles of the plays to be performed from a “menu”) that whiplashes from affecting dramatic to absurdist comedy, with plenty of good-natured silliness thrown in, TMLMTBGB is like a strobe of emotions and situations — plates, buckets, ice cubes, wigs, and stuffed animals usually go flying, as do many preconceived notions of what theater ought to be. (Marke B.)
Through Sept. 29, 8pm, $15
505 Natoma, SF
Death in June
Extremely depressing neofolk band Death in June is stopping by San Francisco for its long-awaited US tour. Initially starting as a post-punk, industrial project in the 1980s, the band shunned pretty-boy rock ideals, often donning ghoulish masks and costumes on stage. Death in June has given influence to plenty of contemporary bands such as metal band Agalloch and darkwave horde Faun, but the band isn’t without controversy of its own. It’s been known for using a skull, the totenkopf, synonymous with the Nazi movement. Often criticized for using SS insignia, the band has derided any and all accusations of fascism and white supremacy, being active in the British ’80s anti-fascist movement and playing in concerts such as “Rock Against Racism.” So back to the music: the group released Snow Bunker Tapes, guitar-backed versions of Peaceful Snow, on Neuropa this year. Get sad, get creepy, and slump over to the Mezzanine. (Erin Dage)
120 Minutes with oOoOO, DJ Omar, CHAUNCEY_CC
444 Jessie, SF
Autumn Moon Festival
This widely-attended cultural festival is the gold star of Chinatown events, filling its chaotic streets with even more buzz than normal and thousands of additional of people. A myriad of crafts, art, live music, dancers in costume, drumming groups, and curious attendees congregate for a fun and lively weekend each year. The Moon Festival, traditionally celebrated when the moon is said to be at its fullest and brightest of the year, gives families the opportunity to get together while enjoying great food and participating in the Lion and Dragon dances, both of which you don’t want to miss if you plan on attending. The whole weekend is an explosion of color and the perfect chance to learn a little more about Chinese culture. (Hillary Smith)
Through Sun/15, 11am-6pm, free
California and Grant, SF
Atheist Film Festival
The Atheist Film Festival, now in its fifth year, is cheeky enough to refer to itself as “a film festival you can believe in” — which bodes well for the sort of programming one can expect. The fest packs a lot into a single day, including a world premiere (doc Hug an Atheist, about what it means to be an atheist in America today) and acclaimed narratives The Magdalene Sisters (2002) and Creation (2009). Plus, a trio of docs: fake-guru experiment Kumaré (2011); fundamentalism-in-public-schools exposé Sophia Investigates the Good News Club; and The Revisionaries, which won the Best Doc jury prize at the 2013 SF IndieFest. The power of film compels you! (Eddy)
Noon, $12 (festival pass, $45)
3117 16th St, SF
If there’s anything supernatural about the band Magic Trick, it’s in frontperson Tim Cohen’s seeming ability to be in several places at once. Between the Fresh & Onlys, solo projects, and work with other bands, his prolificacy makes you wonder. But more than witchcraft, magic tricks usually involve sleight of hand. With Cohen’s signature deep voice and romantic songwriting, Magic Trick at times directly echoes the Fresh & Onlys. Don’t be fooled: With three added band members and a minimalism that makes the music more contemplative and a little stranger, Magic Trick surprises. See what tricks lie up the record sleeve on the band’s new album, The Glad Birth of Love, which the Chapel will celebrate on Saturday. (Laura Kerry)
With the Range of Light Wilderness, Pure Bliss, Cool Ghouls
777 Valencia, SF
Rock The Bells
The country’s pre-eminent hip-hop festival will coming to the Bay Area this Saturday and Sunday, bringing a large and diverse crew of rap acts. There’s something for every kind of hip-hop head at this festival. For fans of weird rap, there’s Danny Brown, for fans of ratchet rap, there’s Juicy J, for the homers, there’s a E-40-Too $hort duet and IamSu!, and for fans of hologram rap there will be performances from hologram Eazy-E and ODB. For those you taking Caltrain from the city, remember that the train only runs once a hour and takes more than a hour to get to Mountain View. (George McIntire)
Also Sun/15, 11am, $65–$239
One Amphitheatre Pkwy, Mountain View
Darwin Deez is known for nutty antics like bringing a head of cabbage out onto the stage (as a “symbol of frugalness”) and chucking it at the crowd to eat. And his wriggly, emo-pop second album Songs for Imaginative People proved that he hasn’t forgotten about his equally nutty fanbase. His half-joking-totally-serious approach to songwriting garners a very unique brand of follower, the kind of person who likes things weird. The tracks on Songs aren’t as easy to swallow as those on his debut, self-titled album Darwin Deez. Tracks swing by in a cacophony of synthy beats and buzzing electric riffs and Deez’s frequently deadpan voice undeniably weaves through them in a disjointed way — adding a disheveled tone to the album. But from the silly and unpredictable misfit whose greatest obsession may be breakfast food, who’d expect anything else? (Smith)
With Caged Animals, the Soonest
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th St., SF
Composer John Williams has written the scores for some of the most beloved films of all time — pieces of music that has become so interwoven with the onscreen narratives that it’s almost impossible to imagine the movies without them — Star Wars, JAWS, Indiana Jones, Superman, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, and many, many more. Tonight is a rare chance to see the maestro live and in person, conducting the San Francisco Symphony and leading them through some of his greatest works. Friend and frequent collaborator director Steven Spielberg will also appear for part of the program as a special guest host. (McCourt)
Davies Symphony Hall
201 Van Ness Ave., SF
The So So Glos
Did you want to spend a night pogo-ing around like the animal you are? The So So Glos, gritty DIY punks from Brooklyn, have just what the doctor ordered. Literally a band of brothers (the majority of the group is blood-related), the So So Glos lay testament to what hard work and determination can accomplish. Helping establish East Coast all-ages DIY venues such as Market Hotel and “Shea Stadium” (where the band also lives), the group is dedicated to keeping the proverbial DIY scene alive. Often compared to fellow Brooklynites Japanther, the So So Glos are hot off their newest release Blowout. The album has been described “in your face” and hi-fi! Also on the bill is unfortunately-named Diarrhea Planet, and Unstrung. Straight off Burger Records, the Tennessee-based Diarrhea Planet is Southern-fried Ramones worship while SF-based trio Unstrung goes for a more aggressive, punk route. (Dage)
Brick and Mortar Music Hall
1710 Mission, SF
Whew, so many new openings right now, and none are in the Mission, shocking. First up is La Urbana (661 Divisadero, SF. www.laurbanasf.com), bringing a splashy and funky-chic spin on a classic cantina to Divisadero. Executive chef Ben Klein and chef de cuisine Julio Aguilera are offering modern takes on traditional Mexican dishes (entrees hover around $23), so a huarache comes with duck leg, the quesadillas “Tijuana” have smoked goat cheddar and summer vegetables, and braised short ribs feature bone marrow. Que bueño. There’s also quite the selection of mezcals, featuring some small-batch and hard-to-find producers, and it’s worth noting the house margarita has a bacon salt rim. Well then. The design is pretty tight: the lounge (and bathrooms!) are covered in stunning ceramic tiles from Mérida, and behind the 20-seat zinc bar is shelving made of vintage Mexican furniture—it’s all lit up, giving it a dramatic effect. DRAMA! The dining room has room for 60, and it’s lively to say the least (read: loud), with large windows that look out on the street. Modern Mexican — we are so ready for this!
Another spiffy new opening is 1760 (1760 Polk, SF. www.1760sf.com), bringing a much-needed urban restaurant to the Nob Hill-Russian Hill area. It’s quite the seasoned team: co-owners Giancarlo Paterlini and Suzette Gresham (of Acquerello), with wine director Gianpaolo Paterlini, and their chef they snagged from LA, Adam Tortosa. No tablecloths at this location, but you will find a handsome look, with polished concrete floors, a mirrored wall behind the bar, and a communal seating area. You can swing by for a glass of wine and a couple small plates, or reserve a table for a full-on dinner — the menu is designed to be flexible. Dishes will show influences from Asia and Italy, but there’s no (con)fusion going on here, okay? Envision watermelon gazpacho with Dungeness crab, finger lime, and borage; a few pastas, like bucatini, uni, garlic, red pepper, and bread crumb; and a fried duck sandwich? Quack-quack-hello. Dishes will range from $8–$22. The wine list is packing some heat: look for around 250 European and domestic selections. There’s also some serious bar talent: bar manager Christopher Longoria (previously at Aziza). Cheers to all of this.
Lastly, the long-awaited Palmer’s Tavern (2298 Fillmore, SF.) is now open on Upper Fillmore, sporting a Rat Pack look, with booths and barstools upholstered in dark red leather, and a long mahogany bar manned by white-jacketed bartenders. Owners Albert and Klaus Rainer are known for their other establishment, Leopold’s, and have brought on chef Raymond Tamayo. Classics like steak tartare and a burger, plus some summery items, like chilled corn soup and fried squash blossoms are being served.
Coming up this Thu/12 is my second tablehopper singles event, this time for gay fellas who love food and wine (and men, der). If you’re single and like to mingle, join us at the newly remodeled MKT Restaurant–Bar (757 Market, SF. www.mktrestaurantandbar.com) at the Four Seasons. There will be eight courses of very tasty dishes, paired wines from Purple Wine Company, and a cocktail from Charbay. You won’t leave hungry (or sober). It’s like a mash-up of a cocktail party, dinner party, and speed dating with cool people with great taste: just like you. Tickets ($95) and info at tablehopper-gaysingles.eventbrite.com.
YOU GOTTA EAT THIS
So a few issues ago I mentioned the ramen burger at Nombe (2491 Mission, SF. www.nombesf.com), so of course I had to go check that thing out, especially after hearing about the massive lines for it at the SF Street Food Festival. Not a monster-sized burger patty by any means — it’s a mix of Wagyu beef and pork belly — but considering the bun is made of lightly crisp ramen noodles, it can’t get toooo honking or it will lose all structural integrity. Pro tip: don’t let it sit, either. When that burger hits the table (cutely wrapped up in paper), take your Instagram pic and then it’s time to start munching, stat. Go for the umami blast version with miso, shiitake, and blue cheese. The burger is $10, and look for a vegetarian version coming soon.
MUSIC As Urinals folklore goes, the band was formed in 1978 by a group of five UCLA students looking to have a spot in their dorm talent show. Guitarist and vocalist John Talley-Jones recalls the band’s earnest beginnings as an experiment that evolved into something much more. “We were in film school, not approaching it as musicians, but as conceptual artists,” Talley-Jones says. “It was an experiment to see if you put five people with limited music in a room and see what they can do with one quasi guitarist. It was like an art project.”
And 35 years later — save for a decade-long hiatus and a few changes in the lineup — the Urinals are still at it. The group play’s Oakland record shop Stranded’s one-year anniversary party this weekend, and has a new full-length in the works for next year (label yet to be determined).
Coming forth in a time when virtuoso-like musicians were most valued, inexperience and ineptitude were the Urinals’ calling card — from music on down to the etching of a garbled face on its Sex E.P. (Happy Squid Records, 1980) and anthology Negative Capability…Check it Out! (Amphetamine Reptile Records, 1997).
“Carey Southall, a person I worked with at UCLA, drew the illustration using his non-dominant hand,” Talley-Jones says. “It was a metaphor for the Urinals — he was handicapped by not using his dominant hand [and] we were handicapped by our musical capabilities.”
And yet, it’s no question that the Urinals have been deemed influential by today’s music scene, with covers of “Black Hole” by lo-fi punk outfit Grass Widow, “Male Masturbation” covered by noisy punk group No Age, and “I’m a Bug” by hardcore punk group Ceremony. But if one takes notice of all these songs, they are all from early Urinals releases. And Talley-Jones is sure to take notice of this.
“When I think of the Urinals, I see a band that got together in ’78, and developed in the last 35 years,” Talley-Jones says. “Not many people have heard or recognized material past our first few releases.”
And just as people grow and develop, so did the Urinals. In their infancy, the Urinals were known for their raucous, simplistic sound. As the band members matured and learned how to play their instruments, the band reached its adolescent stage, becoming an admittedly post-punk outfit dubbed 100 Flowers for a brief stint during the ’80s and playing shows during the 2000s.
“I remember starting out with the Urinals, feeling that I had to carry on a certain stage persona, mine being theatrically psychotic” Talley-Jones says. “But as time wore on, I grew into my own. When I first started I would be anxious the entire day before the show. After the first few years, that disappeared.”
Though many elements have shifted with the band throughout the years, one thing remains pertinent: DIY ethics. In the age of virtuoso-like butt-rock, Talley-Jones and fellow band mates accepted the fact that two-chord songs seldom lasting more than a minute about just being a bug (“I’m a Bug”) or a hologram (“Hologram”), weren’t exactly a hot commodity. Known for putting out many of their releases on self-owned record label, Happy Squid Records, self-production was a necessity.
Talley-Jones recalls being approached by Vitus Matare, keyboardist for Los Angeles power punk outfit the Last, about recording the Urinals.
“Everything was starting from the ground up,” Talley-Jones says. “Of course Vitus Matare recorded us initially, but following that we taught ourselves how to write, play, and distribute. We had no misapprehension to ever be signed, because what we were doing was not marketable to the masses.”
That being said, the Urinals appreciate doing things on the cheap — that’s why the band is playing this free show with the original lineup (comprised of Talley-Jones, Kjehl Johansen, and Kevin Barrett), in honor of an East Bay record store.
With Meg Baird, Ava Mendoza, Dominique Leon Sat/14, 3pm, free Stranded 6436 Telegraph, Oakl. (510) 858-5977 www.strandedinoakland.com
TOFU AND WHISKEY Before Le Tigre but after the demise of Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna created a mystical lo-fi electropop solo project called Julie Ruin. It was a difficult time for the riot grrrl icon; having recently flown the Pacific Northwest coop for Brooklyn, she let the ache out in song.
More than 15 years after that record and a whirlwind of life changes later (Le Tigre hiatus, Beastie Boy husband), Hanna and a newly assembled band of cohorts — Kathi Wilcox, Kenny Mellman, Carmine Covelli, Sara Landeau — reformed that project as the Julie Ruin. The Julie Ruin released its first group full-length, Run Fast, last week on Dischord.
A dancey new wave record bursting with head-bopping beats, lightning bolt electric guitars, and empowering lyrics, it’s set to be another chant-along feminist anthem album. But it’s a small miracle Run Fast was even made. Before she returned to music, Hanna was laid up with a then-mysterious illness for half a decade and this was her first effort back.
In the midst of a massive media blitz, including a live appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon last week, Hanna and I discussed the Julie Ruin’s new record, struggles with neurological Lyme disease, why Photoshop is better than beer, and her young spirit sister, Tavi Gevinson, feminist teen editor of Rookie Magazine:
SF Bay Guardian Why did you decide to return to an earlier project, but with an entirely new band?
Kathleen Hanna I guess because I was starting from a similar place. I was coming up with loops and melodies and instead of just working on them myself, I brought them to the band and expanded on them. When I listen back to the Julie Ruin solo record, I hear kind of demos more than a fully finished record — which I think is great, and I’m proud of that record — but I was like “what if I start with the same idea but it was totally fleshed out?” So musically that was a big part of the project from me.
Also a big part of the project for me was starting from the same emotional place, of, you know, I was leaving Bikini Kill when I did the Julie Ruin solo project and that was a really big change in my life. And then I’m having this other really big change in my life, which is that I haven’t really made music for [nearly] 10 years. And instead of isolating and making this very private thing in my apartment by myself and feeling like I had to go it all alone, I reached out to my friends and said, “Hey, will you help me?” And luckily they said yes.
SFBG What was it like picking up instruments and working on music again after such a long hiatus?
KH It was great [and] it was weird! It was immediate chemistry with my bandmates. It felt like I was getting back to my old self.
I’d been sick for many years and my illness and kind of taken me out of things. I started doing a lot of archival stuff behind the scenes, but I hadn’t played music. It’s funny that I chose to do it when I was really, really sick but part of the reason was I needed some kind of hope to go on. And I didn’t know if we would record or tour or any of that. I just told them, “I want to play music, do you guys want to meet once a week and see how that goes?”
But a lot of times we couldn’t even meet, because I’d be sick. So it was a very slow process. But when I felt well enough to get to rehearsal I would forget I was sick, I would forget any pain I was in, I would forget I was fatigued. It would all come back to me. It was really important in my recovery process because you become all about the illness, especially an illness like Lyme disease, where there’s so much work you have to do to stay well or to get well, constant pills and IVs and specialist appointments.
I saw footage of Bikini Kill in the movie The Punk Singer that was being made about me, and I felt like I was light years away from that. I could barely walk up the stairs. And then I would write a song with my new band and feel like, “I still am that person.”
SFBG Did battling this disease directly inform any of the tracks on Run Fast?
KH I have a form of Lyme disease that affects my brain, neurological Lyme disease, so during a lot of the record I was having a hard time with language, so I would often say the wrong word. So when I was writing lyrics, I sort of just let that go, I didn’t try to go back, it was so much more stream-of-consciousness than I’ve [ever done]. I was like, why does it have to be a total narrative for every song? Why can’t it be abstract?
There are parts of the record where I just go “blah blah blah!” I would go back and fix that when I was feeling better but people would say to put it back in. It sounds alive, it sounds like you. I let that go.
SFBG How collaborative was the songwriting process for the album?
KH In the very beginning when we were writing I would bring in little loops I had made with me singing over it. And I’d be like, “oh, I really like this melody for a verse.” And then they would be like, let’s have that be the starting point. They really wrote all the music and I wrote the lyrics except for [keyboardist] Kenny [Mellman]’s song, “South Coast Plaza.”
SFBG Where did the album art [of a hot pink stuffed creature] come from, and what is it referencing?
KH That cover was made by artist Allyson Mitchell. I went to an art show and saw some of her pieces…[The creature on the cover] is a “familiar” — you know how a witch has a “familiar?” It’s from a large project called Ladies Sasquatch, of these huge, 10-foot-tall lesbian sasquatches and then each of them has a familiar, like a tiny doll, that goes with it, and that’s what’s on the cover.
SFBG It brought up to me the importance of album covers. People don’t seem to care about cover art as much anymore, but it is something that has always come up in your back catalogue. [Ed. note — I resisted the urge here to tell her I have one of her album covers tattooed on my upper arm]
KH If I haven’t made the actual album cover myself…I’ve been very instrumental. I made all the Bikini Kill covers beside the very last one. I did all the drawings and graphics for the zines. I’ve always been really involved. They’re really important to me because I started as a visual artist, and I’m addicted to Photoshop. Like, instead of going to a bar and drinking beer, I sit at home with Photoshop. If I would’ve had Photoshop in the ’90s, I would have been a total crazy person.
But I think it’s really important to set the tone of the record. There’s something really fun and upbeat about [Run Fast] but then there’s something really sinister lurking behind it, maybe it’s my illness, the fact that Kenny writes a really happy-sounding song about euthanasia, “Party City” is about me confronting death, so it really made sense that we picked this kind of adorable yet creepy character for the cover of the record.
SFBG How did you meet teenage editor Tavi Gevinson, and later end up playing a party for her online magazine, Rookie?
KH I sent her this sweater that someone made for me that said “Feminist” on it. It shrank and I was like, “I don’t know anybody tiny enough to fit in this!” I heard about her before Rookie — I sent it to her and she wore it in stuff [for her previous blog, Style Rookie]. So it was this mutual admiration society. People were giving her shit at the time so I reached out to her. You know, she’s a kid. And she’s doing this amazing work. I just think it’s so important that young people take over culture and create their own. She’s really smart and she really wants to be inclusive.
Playing [Rookie’s] party was like a dream come true. It was kind of our first show and it was only for like, 100 kids at this weird outdoor area in a mall. It was one of the weirdest first shows a band can have.
THE JULIE RUIN
With La Sera
Tue/17, 8pm, $18
333 11th St, SF
LIT A tale of horrors so unbelievable it could only be plucked from real life, Tom Kizzia’s Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier (Crown Publishers, 336 pp., $25) details the saga of self-styled religious fanatic “Papa Pilgrim,” aka Robert Hale, who in 2002 moved his wife and 15 children to McCarthy, a remote Alaska community.
The Pilgrims lived off the land; they followed their patriarch’s interpretation of the Bible with cultlike fervor. Though they gained local fame for their bluegrass band, their greatest notoriety came courtesy of a battle with the National Park Service, thanks to an illegally-bulldozed road and the complications that ensued.
But any folk-hero status was obliterated when the true story of the Pilgrim family — from Robert Hale’s dark past, including the mysterious death of his first wife, to the shocking abuse endured by all of his children, particularly oldest daughter Elishaba — came to light. Homer, AK-based journalist Kizzia had an insider’s advantage when it came to reporting the story, since he owns a cabin near McCarthy and was familiar with the characters that populated the surrounding wilderness. He wrote about the Pilgrim story as it unfolded, and later turned his research and findings into Pilgrim’s Wilderness.
SF Bay Guardian I was just reading your original Anchorage Daily News articles on this story, and the first headline, from June 2003, is “The Pilgrims, a family of inholders in McCarthy, clear 13 miles of national park land.” At what point did you realize this story was more than simply an eccentric rural family’s squabbles with the National Park Service?
Tom Kizzia That first story, I did over the phone, and [Papa Pilgrim’s] patter was so eccentric that I realized it would make a great story to see what this family is like up close. It was really when I got out there that I realized there was a really strange edge to the place.
That was also when I realized that more [information] had to come out before I could say I really understood what the story was. Right at that time, I stumbled onto [Papa Pilgrim’s] past, that he wasn’t this quaint, hillbilly hermit that he was making himself out to be. That raised all sorts of interesting questions as well. But it was years before the family really blew up and anything was known about what had been going on inside.
SFBG It seems like you were the ideal person to write this story — not only were you writing some of the earliest articles about the family, you also own a cabin near McCarthy.
TK [Papa Pilgrim] was such a great manipulator that he played that up, even to me. “I won’t talk to other reporters, but I’ll talk to you.” He always knew how to make you feel puffed up. He was playing me, I could tell. I’ve been a reporter a long time! But I was playing him back, too. If he wanted to play that game, and it was going to get me access, then I played along.
It was kind of fun to talk about that in the book, just as one of many small sub-themes — that back-and-forth that goes on between subject and journalist. And I asked myself later, did I go too easy on him when I was up at his wilderness lair? Should I have asked tougher questions?
But I think you could reasonably say that was a somewhat perilous situation to be in. You don’t necessarily want to be too in-your-face when you’re out in the wilderness with the guy. Plus, I knew that he had a phone, so I could call him later if I found out more — which I did. And indeed, those phone conversations got testier and testier.
SFBG I had never heard the term “inholder” — people who own property within National Park Service land — before I read your book. Why do communities like McCarthy sometimes have antagonistic feelings toward the Park Service?
TK It’s a big thing in the West. I’d heard about these kinds of frictions just growing up and reading about Western history — and in Alaska, it was being played out in the modern day.
It was partly a holdover from the 1970s, when the debate was going on over what the creation of these new parks in Alaska was going to mean to the local lifestyle. For a lot of people, it was the coming of government to a rural area that had very little government before. It was, “We used to be able to do what we want, and now there’s someone telling us we have to do things a certain way.” That put people off.
But the parks in Alaska were created, in a way, to try to allow that rural lifestyle to continue. A lot of that impetus came out of a desire to protect the Alaska native cultures, and their hunting and fishing traditions. Congress chose to provide those rights for all rural Alaskans, native and non-native. And as a consequence, you end up with families like the Pilgrims moving out into the bush and taking advantage of those opportunities.
SFBG I kept wondering why, if Papa Pilgrim really wanted to keep his family isolated, he picked so many fights with the Park Service.
TK As we came to understand only much later, he thrived on having external enemies. So the park, and its bureaucracy, made a convenient enemy for him; he could rally his family and, for awhile, others in the community, to defend him.
But I puzzled at that: If you really want to be isolated, why build a road to your doorstep? There’s a contradiction there. But that’s sort of the great American contradiction, too — the great story of Western expansion. Building up your valley, and then trying to keep it to yourself.
SFBG Pilgrim’s daughter Elishaba, who suffered the most abuse, emerges as sort of the hero of the story. At what point did she open up to you?
TK It was really in the latter parts of my research where she became comfortable telling me her story. I think it had partly to do with her coming forward in church fellowship settings and talking about her experiences, and realizing what it meant to others to hear what she had been through and how she had come out of it.
And she also realized that even within a non-Christian setting, it’s helpful for victims of domestic violence to realize that you can get out, even from the most desperate situation that you could imagine — which would be her situation, not only physically, but also mentally and psychologically. She was trapped by her sense of her soul being in peril if she rebelled. But she found the strength to do it. *
Sept. 18, 7pm, free
301 Castro, Mtn. View
Sept. 19, 7pm, free
51 Tamal Vista, Corte Madera
FILM It still boggles the mind that perhaps the most important single figure in the socio-religiously conservative Italy’s artistic media of the 1960s through the mid-’70s — an extraordinarily fertile period, particularly for cinema — was an openly queer Marxist atheist and relentless church critic. Pier Paolo Pasolini stirred innumerable controversies during his life, ending prematurely in his alleged 1975 murder by a teenage hustler. (Conspiracy theories still swirl around its actually being a political or organized-crime assassination.)
He was an acclaimed poet, novelist, screenwriter, director, playwright, painter, political commentator, and public intellectual. In several of those roles he was pilloried — and prosecuted — for obscenity. What seemed pornographic to some at the time now, for the most part, looks simply like heightened, gritty social realism, and frank acknowledgement that sexuality (and morality) comes in all shades. Yet one must admit: Arguably no filmmaker outside the realm of actual porn put so much dick (often uncut, and occasionally erect) right there onscreen.
Pasolini’s film work has a lingering rep as being somewhat rough sledding, in both themes and technique. Certainly he was no extravagant cinematic stylist on the level of Antonioni, Visconti, Fellini, and Bertolucci (though he contributed as a writer to films by the latter two), the other leading Italian auteurs of the time. But it’s surprising how pleasurable on many levels his features look today, as showcased in a traveling retrospective getting its Bay Area exposure at the Castro Theatre, Roxie Theater, and Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive through Oct. 31.
The two San Francisco dates highlight the three periods of Pasolini’s cinema; the PFA’s more extensive survey (ending with 1975’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom for Halloween, the kind of programmatic coup de grace that leaves you suspended between “genius!” and “WTF?”) running weeks longer. While there are overlaps, the latter provides berth for his neorealist classic feature debut Accatone (1961), shorts, and several documentaries including 1964’s seldom-revived Love Meetings, in which PPP himself interviews Italians about their sexual attitudes — from asking not-so-young kids how babies are born (“the stork brings them”) to grilling adults about gender double-standards regarding marital virginity. Then there’s 1969’s bizarre Pigsty, which put leading 1960s Euro-art-cine weirdos Pierre Clémenti and Jean-Pierre Léaud in separate threads of a two-pronged experimental narrative. It was weird enough to forgo US release until 1974.
There are also such baffling, shit-stirring features as Hawks and Sparrows (1966), an existential comedy suspended between Beckett and A Hard Day’s Night (1964); plus 1968 shocker Teorema, in which Terence Stamp’s mysterious bisexual visitor liberates and destroys a repressed bourgeoisie Italian family.
This weekend’s Castro-Roxie showcases the extent to which Pasolini was a cinematic populist — however inadvertently for such a radical thinker. His “trilogy of life” brought to the screen bawdy medieval stories by Boccaccio (1971’s The Decameron), Chaucer (1972’s Canterbury Tales) and unknown legend scribers (1974’s Arabian Nights.) All were originally rated X. The first is a bawdy delight; the last is a gorgeously melancholic, serpentine lineup of seriocomic stories-within-stories. Canterbury is a mixed bag, as Pasolini had problems structuring it editorially and was despondent over longtime protégé and lover Ninetto Davoli — who was 15 when they first met — leaving him for a woman. Nonetheless, he gave Davoli a big part in the wonderful Nights, albeit one in which his hapless character is finally castrated by angry women. (Touché.)
With their unprecedented amounts of full nudity, offering up sexuality (and normal, imperfect bodies) as something simply natural rather than prurient, each portion of this “phallocentric” trio was instantly notorious. The films became his greatest commercial successes — though curiously he later abjured them, partly out of guilt that so many actors’ “innocent bodies [had] been violated, manipulated, and enslaved by consumerist power.” Who but Pasolini would be depressed by having hits?
That shift from comparative joie de vivre back to bleak commentary on social injustice resulted in unintended swansong Salò, a grueling depiction of classist sadism that usefully transfers the Marquis de Sade’s infamous Bastille-written 1785 120 Days of Sodom to the bitter end of Italy’s World War II-losing fascist era. While in the literary original aristocratic children were kidnapped to be abused by decadent church and secular power mongers, here it’s pointedly spawn of the anti-fascist peasant underclass (all actors assuredly 18-or-plus to avoid prosecution).
The characters forced into ever-escalating sexual and violent degradations to survive, no mercy is spared. Salò remains banned in several countries, notably Asian and Middle Eastern ones. Its largely naked, helpless “young victim” cast (who apparently thoroughly enjoyed the filming, having no idea just how fucked up the material was) proved Pasolini’s last instance of drafting nonprofessionals who struck his eye. As a showcase for such raw talent, it was second only to a film he’d made a decade earlier: 1964’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, a gritty, black-and-white riposte to the garish CinemaScope Biblical epics of the era. Ironically, that film by a Commie atheist fag remains one of the cinematic depictions of Christ most highly regarded by believers.
Nearly all these movies featured his favorite discoveries Davoli and Franco Citti, the former an endearing comic goofball, the latter a smoldering hunk usually cast as amoral evildoer. Both enjoyed long careers after their mentor died. Their very different types of screen charisma remain high among the delights that Pasolini’s cinema offers today. Davoli will be on hand at the Castro and Roxie screenings. Given his guileless, antic persona in the films, it’s a fair bet he’ll be a riot in person. *
PIER PAOLO PASOLINI
Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF
Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St, SF
Sept. 20-Oct. 31, $5.50-$9.50
Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk.
SUPER EGO Yoga! Soon it will rule us all. One day in the not-far-off future, some fiendish grand yogi — probably of the bikram variety, because that shit’s hard — will activate a switch and, just like the Silver Shamrock masks in Halloween III, yoga mats throughout the world will possess their users, causing them to become malevolent zombies: slim, fit, chai-sippin’, gluten-free zombies, arising to force the rest of us into tortuous poses like Brown Lotus, Reverse Pavanamuktasana, and the Downward Dougie.
Yep, robot yoga zombies will dominate. Until then, though, let’s dance wildly in the beautiful wilderness, and do some killer yoga too, at this year’s Symbiosis Gathering festival, Sept. 19-23 in Oakdale (www.symbiosisgathering.com). Now in its eighth year, Symbiosis has come to represent a pagan synergy of spiritual confluence and rave-y bliss — including a rigorous, optional yoga program featuring dozens of yoga teachers.
“Symbiosis is an art project. We have no corporate sponsors, incredible workshops, art, yoga, dance, organic food, ceremony, healers, and masseuses. We are a full spectrum experience,” producer Kevin KoChen told me via email.
“Our workshop lineups are like a sustainability conference in a festival. And there’s so much more,” KoChen continued. “Saul Williams will be performing a spoken word session, we have improv troupes from Chicago’s legendary Second City company, and our stage designs are epic-themed art projects rather than just a skeleton of truss. The Vau de Vire Society will be flying high, premiering the Edwardian Ball Roadshow: people will be costumed and hilarious, like another dimension where Jules Verne teams up with cowboys and aliens.
“So the event is not defined solely by musical lineup.” But what a musical lineup! Seriously freaking out on an underground and bass-fanatic tip: Lunice, Hudson Mowhawke, Mount Kimbie, Lee Foss, The Coup, Body Language, Christian Martin, Polica, Thugfucker, Chet Faker, Max Cooper, Samo Sound Boy and tons more like An-Ten-Nae, STS9, and Shpongle’s Simon Posford that indeed span the spectrum from boundary-crossing experimental to more expected spiritual-burner.
“Our lineups are like a fine wine; better with age. We love the edge of what’s next,” KoChen says.
Symbiosis boldly and baldly reaches for that connection between the musical and the mystical: “Music is transcendent and the universal language. Our team has travelled overseas for Eclipse Festivals, the Boom Festival, Rainbow Serpent, Universo Parallelo — and dancing to music with people who don’t speak your language can be a beautiful experience,” KoChen says.
“Music is a bridge that can be crossed by a smile, and connection and community is something in this world that is missing. While we have more Facebook friends but less relationships, we may have more timesavers but we may have less peak experiences with the people we love. Symbiosis is our attempt to facilitate a peak experience.”
One of the acts I’m most stoked about at the Symbiosis fest is GODS ROBOTS, a duo who mixes classical Indian with contemporary bass music to gorgeous effect. (It’s also appearing in the city on Thu/19, 10pm, $10, 1192 Folsom, SF. www.beatchurchsf.com).
Composed of ethereally beautiful carnatic vocalist ShriiK and SF’s own Janaka Selekta of the much-missed Worldly parties, the “intergalactic San Francisco-Mumbai” act has been honing its sound from Lower Haight to Sri Lanka with a 1970s-style dub soundsystem set-up, and is pretty huge right now on the subcontinent, with a Sony India deal and big following. Indian classical musicians Alam Khan on the sarod and Suhail Yusuf Khan on sarangi are also part of the band (www.facebook.com/godsrobots).
“Our goal is to bring different worlds and cultural ideas together to create music and performance that is so cohesive that you do not see the seams,” Selekta told me. Sounds like a perfectly symbiotic proposition to me.
Vandana Shiva on biotechnology Goldman Theater, David Brower Center, 2150 Allston, Berk. www.kpfa.org. 7:30pm, free. Join world-renowned environmental philosopher and author Vandana Shiva for a forum on the biotechnology industry. Shiva will illuminate the corporate assault on biological and cultural diversity, in conversation with Gopal Dayaneni of Movement Generation: Justice and Ecology Project. She’ll help concerned activists to connect the dots: What is the East Bay “Green Corridor,” who’s behind it, and what are the implications for communities here and around the globe?
Oil and unions in Iraq SEIU 1021 office, 350 Rhode Island, SF. 1021.seiu.org. 6:30pm, free. Listen as Hassan Juma’a Awad, president of the Iraq Federation of Oil Unions, shares his experience in struggling for basic labor rights for Iraqi workers. Iraq’s public sector workers (including the oil sector) lack the legal right to organize or engage in collective bargaining, more than a decade after the end of the dictatorship. Earlier this year, Hassan faced criminal charges in retaliation for worker strikes, and was accused of undermining Iraq’s economy.
North by Northwest bike ride Velo Rouge Cafe, 798 Arguello, SF. 1:30pm, free. Interested in street design, bikeways, traffic calming, and other kinds of improvements along San Francisco city streets? Join a group of cyclists on this afternoon ride to learn about the history and current projects that shape the streets on which we walk and bike. This ride will feature a series of stops and information about how the 2009 Bike Plan and other ongoing projects are shaping the northwestern parts of San Francisco.
Mexican Independence Day 2940 16th St., SF. Livingwage-sf.org. 7pm, $10–$15. Join the San Francisco Living Wage Coalition for a concert and celebration of Mexican Independence Day. “Songs of Healing for Juarez” will provide an emergency benefit concert for Las Hormigas, an organization that has been working to address violence and poverty in Ciudad Juarez. The concert will feature Diana Gameros, Francisco Herrera and other guests, as well as a live art auction. For more information, call (415) 863-1225.
Jill Stein on movements vs. money Unite Here Local 2, 209 Golden Gate, SF. 6-9pm, free. Jill Stein, the Green Party Presidential Candidate of 2012, will discuss the creation and intent of The Green Shadow Cabinet, an organization that includes nearly 100 prominent community and labor leaders, physicians, cultural workers, veterans and others with the goal of providing an ongoing opposition and alternative voice to dysfunctional Washington, DC politics. Stein will speak on current political dynamics and strategies for creating good jobs, ending student debt, cultivating democracy and breathing new life into the environmental movement. Hosted by OccupyForum.
EDITORIAL Corporations and chain stores are crafty, and they can always find creative ways to get around whatever barriers that cities and counties erect to protect their local small businesses. And such barriers are important because most large corporations enjoy economies of scale, the ability to absorb sustained losses while gaining market share, and other unfair competitive advantages.
San Francisco voters and legislators have approved and expanded so-called formula retail legislative protections over the last decade, requiring stores with 11 or more locations that want to open in neighborhood commercial districts to obtain a conditional use permit, allowing the public to weigh in and city officials to reject disfavored projects.
But as we observed in last month’s saga involving chain store men’s clothier Jack Spade’s planned move into the old Adobe Bookstore space on 16th Street near Valencia, it’s still too easy for deep-pocketed corporations to make stealthy inroads into some of San Francisco’s most beloved and sensitive commercial districts.
First, Jack Spade disguised its corporate connections in pulling a building permit, then it won over the zoning administrator by claiming only 10 stores (despite the fact that it’s a national chain owned by Fifth & Pacific, aka Liz Claiborne, which also has a string of Kate Spade women’s clothing stores), and then, even when activists and small businesses won the argument and a 3-2 vote by the Board of Appeals on Aug. 21, that wasn’t the supermajority needed to overturn the flawed decision.
As they say in the neighborhood: That shit ain’t right.
Clearly, something needs to change because Jack Spade isn’t the first, and it won’t be the last, corporate-owned chain store that wants to move into the Mission and other gentrifying commercial districts in the city, including Western SoMa (where development forces have been unleashed by the city’s approval of its local area plan earlier this year), Hayes Valley, Polk Gulch, and the Divisidero corridor.
And when one deep-pocketed chain store moves in — a corporation that is willing to invest early in an up-and-coming neighborhood — it creates a strong upward pressure on commercial rents that forces out small businesses, nonprofits, and community-based organizations. And then residential rents follow suit.
Only governmental and political will can break this pattern, and it’s a pattern that must be broken if San Francisco is going to retain its economic vitality. Study after study shows that small businesses circulate their revenues within the community instead of siphoning them off to Wall Street and the corporate headquarters, and that helps the overall local economy.
Flawed ideas about consumer choice and the supposed wisdom of the supposedly free market shouldn’t distract San Francisco and other cities from focusing their economic development efforts on local small businesses, a sympathetic symbol that gets disingenuously trotted out in the rhetoric of Mayor Ed Lee and his allies even as he stacks the Small Business Commission with bankers and right-wing ideologues.
Now, with the Board of Supervisors back from its summer recess, is the time to redouble our efforts to resist corporate dominance. That should include support for Sup. Eric Mar’s legislation to change the metrics for what’s considered “formula retail,” support for Sup. London Breed’s efforts to expand protections in Hayes Valley and Sup. Jane Kim’s similar efforts along Market Street, and consideration of changing the vote threshold for the Board of Appeals and giving neighborhoods more tools to resist stores like Jack Spade.
Nothing less than the soul and face of San Francisco is at stake, and it’s up to all of us to fight for it and not be fooled by self-serving and simplistic “jobs” rhetoric. We need to call a Spade a Spade, and a corporation a corporation, and defend what makes San Francisco special: real, local people serving real, local people, not the interests of Wall Street.
Exploratorium layoffs raise questions
A round of recent layoffs at the Exploratorium in San Francisco has taken the museum staff by surprise and sparked questions about the institution’s focus, an unexpected turn of events on the heels of the institution’s splashy reopening at its refurbished 330,000 square foot facility along The Embarcadero.
In mid-August, just a few months after the Exploratorium opened the doors at Piers 15/17, some 80 full-time-equivalent positions were eliminated without warning. The cuts included 35 layoffs, 35 positions that went unfilled, and eight reductions from full time to part time, according to spokesperson Leslie Patterson, a 14-year Exploratorium employee who was among those affected. The total staff is composed of 290 full-time-equivalent positions, according to its website.
Roughly three quarters of the impacted staff members are represented by SEIU Local 1021, and union members are now gearing up to launch a social media campaign in response to the sudden staffing cuts, featuring the community-minded vision of founder Frank Oppenheimer, with the hashtag #ourcommunitymuseum.
Officially, the cuts were made to solve a budget shortfall created when attendance at the new facility failed to reach anticipated levels. “They had very, very aggressive projections for attendance,” noted Eric Socolofsky, an exhibit developer who has been representing unionized museum staff at the negotiating table.
“We worked so hard to get in these doors and open this place,” Socolofsky said of the new waterfront spot. “People have given so much,” but in the weeks since layoff notices were issued without warning, “there’s a lot of disillusionment.”
Patterson emphasized that “our crowds have grown” since the new facility opened, despite the uncertain financial picture. June attendance was triple that of June in the previous year, she said, but the overall attendance figures still failed to hit necessary targets. “We needed to reduce the workforce to offset a budget gap,” she said.
Yet several museum employees told the Guardian that there is more to the sudden staff reduction than just solving a simple budget gap. There appears to be a reorganization effort afoot to promote business development, Socolofsky said, and that has some staff members concerned about a shift in priorities that could detract from efforts geared particularly for Bay Area patrons.
Socolofsky said more energy had been going toward “client services,” or contracting with outside institutions to build exhibits, and rent or sell portable exhibits developed at the Exploratorium. And even as the layoff notices have been issued, the Exploratorium is hiring for a dozen or so new positions.
“One of our concerns is that it’s moving toward a profit model,” Socolofsky said, adding that it was his understanding that some positions had been eliminated because they did not fit into the new organizational structure.
Its board of directors includes representatives from prominent businesses including Google, Twitter, eBay, Bechtel, Disney, PG&E, and a host of prominent venture capital firms with investments in the tech sector. Exploratorium Board Chairman George Cogan is a director at Bain & Company, Inc., a firm that specializes in restructuring, which gained notoriety during the 2012 presidential election due to GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s history of involvement there.
“It just seems like the pendulum has swung more toward the business aspect,” said David Barker, a graphic designer with the Exploratorium’s Institutional Media Group who was forced into an early retirement as a consequence of the staffing cuts.
Pamela Winfrey, a senior artist who started working at the museum in 1979 and just had her hours scaled back, said the Exploratorium has always felt like a family. “I think there are new directions in the wind as well as a budget shortfall,” Winfrey said. “It’s a complicated picture.”
And across the board, she added, the Exploratorium must contend with the fact that there’s a steadily eroding pool of funding for arts and science. “Funders are really having to think about whether they want to feed starving children,” she said, “or feed the mind.” (Rebecca Bowe)
Prisoners end hunger strike
Bay Area legislators Tom Ammiano (D-SF) and Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) — who chair the Assembly and Senate Public Safety Committees, respectively — played pivotal roles in the Sept. 5 decision by California prison inmates to end their hunger strike (see “Hungry for reform, July 3) after 60 days.
The legislators called for legislative hearings to consider implementing some of the reforms that the prisoners and their supporters have been calling for, including changes to solitary confinement policies that critics say amount to illegal torture under international law.
“I’m happy that no one had to die in order to bring attention to these conditions,” Ammiano said. “The prisoners’ decision to take meals should be a relief to CDCR and the Brown administration, as well as to those who support the strikers.”
The question now is whether the legislative hearings, set for next month, can persuade the executive branch to finally take action, despite the fact that both Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation have taken a hard line on prison issues, even resisting federal court orders to reduce the population in the severely overcrowded prison system and to improve substandard health care.
Ammiano spokesperson Carlos Alcala told the Guardian that the end of the hunger strike could help end that stalemate: “Mr. Ammiano is hopeful that CDCR’s intransigence has been directed at negotiating under the hunger strike pressure, but that they will now be open to making some changes that are meaningful.”
CRCR head Jeffrey Beard issued a public statement saying, “We are pleased this dangerous strike has been called off before any inmates became seriously ill.”
Issac Ontiveros of the Oakland-based California Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity group said the hunger strike generated international attention and support, waking the public up to horrific conditions in the prisons and putting pressure on the CDCR to implement reforms.
“Their demands are legitimate and they are pointing out human rights violations in California’s prisons,” Ontiveros told the Guardian, noting that Amnesty International and a long list of other groups are putting pressure on California to reform its prison practices. “What made them call off the strike was the political gains that they made…It was a thoughtful civil rights strategy.” (Steven T. Jones)
SFPD handling of cyclist fatalities probed
In the wake of revelations of shoddy and insensitive police work related to the Aug. 14 death of 24-year-old bicyclist Amelie Le Moullac, who was run over by a commercial truck driver who turned right across her path as she rode in a bike lane on Folsom Street at Sixth Street, Sup. Jane Kim has called for a hearing on how the SFPD investigates cyclist fatalities.
The issue has lit up the Bay Guardian website with hundreds of reader comments after we wrote a series of blog posts and an editorial (“Anti-cyclist bias must stop,” Aug. 28), revealing that SFPD failed to obtain video of the crash even as its Sgt. Richard Ernst showed up at an Aug. 21 memorial to Le Moullac to denigrate cyclists and make unfounded statements about the fatal collision.
Police Chief Greg Suhr later apologized for Ernst’s behavior and the flawed investigation and said that surveillance video unearthed by cycling activists led to the conclusion by a police investigation that the driver who killed Le Moullac was at fault, according to Bay City News and SF Appeal, which also reported on Kim’s call for a hearing. “We’re really thankful to Jane for bringing this forward,” San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Director Leah Shahum told the Guardian, saying she hopes the hearing results in changes to how the SFPD investigates cyclist fatalities. “We want to make sure there is ongoing accountability.” Meanwhile, as the San Francisco Examiner reported Sept. 5, Le Moullac’s family has filed a civil lawsuit against the driver who killed her, Gilberto Oriheaula Alcantar, as well as the company that he was driving for, Daylight Foods Inc., alleging that he was negligent in driving too fast and failing to pull into the bike lane before making a right turn from Folsom onto Sixth Street. (Steven T. Jones)
(Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new monthly transportation column by Jason Henderson, an urban geography professor at San Francisco State University and the author of Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco (UMass Press, 2013). Onward!)
San Francisco is in a mobility stalemate that is becoming increasingly inequitable.
In this supposedly “transit-first” city, the political establishment can’t bring itself to just say “no” to vocal minorities of over-entitled motorists. In the process, it is breaking decades-old promises to improve Muni, enhance bicycling, and make the city more walkable — creating dysfunction on the streets of San Francisco.
This dynamic is on vivid display in several planning initiatives now underway, including the SFMTA’s Transit Effectiveness Project (for which public comments on the EIR are due Sept. 17) and the overly complicated efforts to establish Bus Rapid Transit on Van Ness Avenue and Geary Boulevard and cycletracks on Polk Street.
In each case, officials are dancing around the sensitivities of a handful of motorists and merchants — even to the point of ignoring actual data showing that San Franciscans just aren’t as dependent on the automobile as some believe. For example, studies show 85 percent of people arrive to the Polk Street corridor without a car.
Not only does this disconnect leave San Franciscans stuck in traffic, it is making our city less equitable for car-free households (which make up 30 percent of the city), as well as bicyclists and transit passengers who own cars but use them sparingly.
On Van Ness Avenue, buses crawl along at 5.2 miles per hour, on average. Mixing with cars slows buses, causes bunching and irregular reliability for the 16,000 passengers boarding along this two-mile corridor, and the 38,000 who ride the 47 & 49 routes daily.
Half of the households on Van Ness between Market and Lombard are car-free, yet they have poor transit service and are saturated with other people’s car traffic and pollution.
Franklin and Gough are car sewers and Van Ness is not much better, as the city historically prioritized moving cars over all else. Now the city plans to modernize the corridor by creating bus-only lanes in the middle of Van Ness, providing extensive pedestrian improvements and landscaping, and large, visible bus stops that dignify the transit experience.
Buses will be faster and more efficient, carrying 36 percent more people than each mixed traffic lane and cutting operating costs by 30 percent. Giving a lane to buses will also smooth traffic flow for cars and trucks, because buses would no longer be shifting in and out of mixed traffic in the third outside lane, a classic win-win solution.
But for the plan to work, it also comes with a tradeoff of limiting left turns from Van Ness (except at Broadway) and removing 105 parking spaces, causing a small minority of car activists to howl.
Yet these are the sorts of tradeoffs it takes to become a functional city. Will San Francisco prioritize the wishes of a few dozen drivers over tens of thousands of transit riders? That’s the choice, along this and other key corridors.
On the 5-Fulton, it now takes 50 minutes to go from the Transbay Terminal to Ocean Beach, about the same time it takes to get from San Francisco to Pittsburgh/Bay Point on BART. During rush hour, the buses are often jam-packed, so the 20,000 daily passengers on that line receive less than dignified service.
Muni proposes to fix the 5-Fulton with a practical, modest approach to re-allocate street space. By reworking bus stops and removing some curbside parking, the 5-Fulton pilot proposal will improve reliability and make the bus 10 minutes faster, and add 20 to 30 percent more capacity to the route during rush hour.
Improving the 5-Fulton would relieve traffic on the parallel Fell and Oak corridor. Like Van Ness BRT, this is the transit we were promised when the Central Freeway was removed and the city approved massive amounts of new housing in its place.
The 5-Fulton pilot is critical for the 60 percent of households in the Western Addition that are car-free, and the project would remove just 30 parking spaces. Assume that each of those parking spaces turns over four times per day (a generous assumption considering that cars sit for days in some parking spaces), that’s 120 car owners. Compare that to the 20,000 bus passengers on the 5-Fulton, and we start to see the glaring inequities in the effort to preserve street parking.
At two recent public meetings on improving the 5-Fulton, motorists predictably protested the lost parking. Like the “Save Polk” debacle that sank cycletracks on that street, some of the opponents of the 5-Fulton plan tried to block the Fell-Oak bicycle improvements last year and are currently trying to sink safety improvements on Masonic.
The city will likely bend over backward to placate these motorists. Already it has considered introducing angled parking, as was done at the Panhandle on Baker, to ensure no motorist is inconvenienced. But that makes no sense given the goals that the city has set for itself of 30 percent of all trips by transit and 20 percent of all trips by bicycle in the next decade.
The city should consider the tens of thousands of car-free households and hundreds of thousands of transit passengers before caving in to the automobile extremists.
If the city caves to a minority of parking enthusiasts, as it did on Polk Street, there really is no hope for improving Muni for the majority. Ask any parent, rewarding whiners only leads to more whining — and in this case, more gridlock.
ON THE MOVE The epic Pacific Crest Trail winds 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, through sun-roasted desert expanse and snow-covered mountain pass, past rushing waterfalls and over wildflower-studded Alpine plateau, roughly tracing the Sierras and Cascades, always out of sight of civilization. It takes most hikers roughly half a year to make the whole trip, an isolating, immersive communion with nature that foregrounds self-reliance, endurance, and more than a little ingenuity when it comes to where you’re going to sleep and what you’re going to eat.
On June 21, Alex Falcioni, a massage therapist and teacher, took to the 1,230-mile leg of the trail running from Tuolumne Meadow, Yosemite, to Portland. In high heels.
“I’d always dreamed of doing the trail — but the most I could take off would be three months, so I knew I couldn’t do the whole thing” he told me over a “beat-up” phone from Ashland, hitchhiking his way back to the Bay Area after completing his high-heeled hike on Aug. 31st at Cascade Locks, Ore. “And then I heard that my dear friend Sarah had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was having trouble covering her medical bills, so I decided to make the hike a fundraiser.
“I needed a gimmick, though, to draw attention. And that’s where the pumps came in — it really just came to me one day. I’d start in Yosemite, and wear the pumps to Portland. Mostly for the alliteration, ha ha.”
Falcioni’s project, Pumps 2 Portland, was partly inspired by Hiking26, a 2012 performance art piece by Ron Ulrich, who completed the entire PCT wearing 26 wedding dresses along the way. So far, Falcioni has managed to raise over $2,500. (Interested parties can still donate and read firsthand about Falcioni’s adventures at www.pumps2portland.com.)
The first obvious question: What kind of pumps were they? “Oh, a strappy white pair of size-12 slingbacks from a drag queen shoe store. They’re completely destroyed,” Falcioni said. “My toes look like little Vienna sausages. But my calves are rocks.”
The second obvious question: Come on, did he really wear high heels the whole time?
Falcioni laughs. “No way! There are ascents up to 10,000 feet and sometimes I felt afraid for my life in hiking shoes. Plus, often ‘trail’ is a relative word — it’s not like clicking down a paved sidewalk. But I wore them when I could, and I strapped them on my backpack for all the other hikers to see when I couldn’t.
“They were there to keep me inspired and add a little spark when the trail got so monotonous it was like sensory deprivation — like, ‘if I see another Ponderosa pine I’m going to go insane!'” With the heels it all became a outdoor runway.
“The pumps really opened doors, too,” Falcioni continued. “People I’d encounter on the trail would ask about them and that would help along a conversation. Or when I’d go into town… One of the ways you survive the trail is to mail food ahead for yourself. (You learn little tricks, like mixing spicy ramen with a spoonful of peanut butter equals Thai food!) So I’d have to go down into towns to pick that up, and I hadn’t bathed in a week — same shirt, same pants, covered in dirt and smoke. But showing off these huge pumps.
“That not only got the attention of the Trail Angels — people who dedicate themselves to opening their homes and helping out PCT hikers — but of random strangers, too. I made so many real friendships, had so many actual conversations about real things in these places of enormous beauty. Not to mention some free showers.
“It was an incredible experience to just put yourself out there at the mercy of nature, other people, and even yourself. I’d urge anyone to do it, giant man-heels or no.”
Nevertheless: Hey, Rupaul — I think we have your next location for Drag Race.
The Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 ravaged the Bay Area, killed 63 people and caused over $6 billion in property damage. The top deck of the Bay Bridge’s eastern span collapsed, spurring flurried repairs.
But when the crews were done, a new guardian for the Bay Bridge emerged: a small, steel troll, welded underneath the upper deck. He was a mystery to many, but not to all.
The good luck charm was crafted from the wreckage of the section collapsed by the earthquake by an iron worker who himself wishes to be in the shadows, much like his creation. The 18-inch-tall troll sports corkscrew horns and a long snaking tongue, his arms set permanently around a wrench, forever tightening (or loosening?) a Bay Bridge bolt. Shortly after he was birthed, iron workers rushed to affix him underneath the repaired eastern span before the top brass had a chance to nix the idea.
The troll stood snarling ever since. For more than 20 years, he’s been visible only to construction crews and passing boats, but he’s garnered a following (and even a Facebook group). To many, he’s the reason the eastern span managed to last the 20-year wait for a new bridge, wreck-free.
With the new span finally finished it came time for the bridge’s unofficial mascot to retire, and he’s vanished as mysteriously as he appeared.
Enter the outrage.
Bill Roan, an ironworker, sent a petition to Gov. Jerry Brown demanding to know the troll’s whereabouts.
“We the free and independent citizens of the Great State of California, request, no, demand, the immediate release of a fellow citizen, known simply as the Bay Bridge Troll who was unjustly evicted from its home and deprived of its livelihood,” the petition wrote. “Condemned not by a jury of its peers, but by a handful of bureaucratics [sic].”
We asked John Goodwin, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, if he knew the troll’s whereabouts. He was cryptic.
“Trolls appear magically,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t being shuttled safe house to safe house.”
Some of the iron workers, it turns out, are like mother hens to the troll. They all want a turn at guarding the creature that protected the bridge, and their lives, for so long. “It’s like the Stanley Cup or something,” Goodwin said.
Ultimately, the old troll will have a place of honor at a museum near the bridge that should be completed in about six months, Goodwin told us.
But with the old troll going out, who would protect the new Bay Bridge eastern span?
A group called the “Troll Bridge Program Oversight Committee,” with members from Caltrans, the Bay Area Toll Authority, and the California Transportation Commission, came up with an answer: make a new one.
In their report “For Whom the Troll Dwells,” they say why: “While no causal relationship can be established between the presence of the Bay Bridge troll and the absence of any earthquake-related interruptions to the Bay Bridge’s service during the past 24 years, the correlation cannot be denied,” the report states. “Following the Latin principle, Primum non nocere, (First, do no harm), the Project Management Team further recommends that another troll statue be created to guard the Bay Bridge.”
And now, with a new span, a new troll will take up the mantle of protecting the bridge. Constructed by a new anonymous artisan, the new troll has smaller horns, with a sledgehammer in one hand and a blowtorch in the other. He was even present for the grand opening of the bridge for a photo op.
But, many have wondered, aren’t trolls evil creatures?
For ironworker and troll folklorist John Robinson, that’s simply not so.
“Now trolls feature prominently in Scandinavian folklore and particularly in Norwegian folklore and can be friendly or harmful depending on how you treat them,” he told the Guardian. “Think of Shakespeare; you ever seen a Midsummer Night’s Dream? They go into the forest with creatures, and the character Puck is a trickster.”
To Robinson, trolls can be helpful or harmful, based on what you want from them or expect from them.
Let’s all then hope the new troll protects our bridge, and the lives of the workers who maintain it, for many decades to come.
By Rebecca Bowe
There’s a great scene in The Big Lebowski that my friend reminded me of when I lamented that the San Francisco Police Department didn’t seem to care that my car had been stolen.
Of course they don’t, silly, this friend responded with a hearty laugh. It’s like when The Dude asks a Los Angeles cop whether there are any “leads” on the whereabouts of his stolen car (along with the briefcase full of money inside).
“I’ll just check with the boys down at the crime lab,” the cop responds, a grin spreading across his face. “They’ve got four more detectives working on the case. They’ve got us working in shifts!” Then he bursts into peals of laughter.
When a San Francisco police officer arrived to take a report three hours after my initial call reporting a stolen vehicle, he seemed sympathetic. And he was totally honest: “We’re not going to look for it,” he assured me. “But we’ll let you know if we find it.”
Fair enough, I thought. It was a Saturday night in San Francisco. The SFPD probably had bigger problems on its hands, like shootings or armed robberies or naked acrobats. Clearly, the last thing SFPD was going to focus on was ferreting out my poor little mid-’90s Honda Civic.
Car theft, it turns out, is extremely common in San Francisco. Crime stats provided by SFPD show that from March 1 to Aug. 31 of 2013, a grand total of 2,784 cars were either stolen or almost stolen in San Francisco (the stats include attempted theft). The Ingleside District was the most heavily impacted, while the Mission and the Bayview weren’t far behind.
Why do people drive off with other people’s cars? “Suspects that steal cars have used them for other crimes,” SFPD spokesperson Gordon Shyy explained. “There are also suspects that steal cars simply to ‘joy ride.'”
Another lesson learned the hard way: If you think your car will not be stolen just because it looks like crap, you are mistaken. Shyy said that, nationwide, Hondas made in the 1990s are the most stolen vehicles.
“The reason being that the ignition is worn out over time, and a shaved key or other similar apparatus can be used to start the vehicle easily,” he explained.
Becoming a victim of car theft was an eye-opening experience. For one, it appears that the closed circuit cameras blanketing my neighborhood were basically functioning as seagull perches, taken out of commission the day before for maintenance. So those expensive-looking security cameras served neither as a deterrent for car theft, nor a crime-fighting tool. At least I can rest easy in the knowledge that Big Brother has not, in fact, been recording my every movement.
SFPD stats show just 139 vehicles were stolen and recovered from March 1 to Aug. 31, roughly 5 percent of the total stolen (or almost stolen) in the same time frame. I got lucky, mine was recovered.
SFPD gave me just 20 minutes to retrieve it before calling for a tow truck, notifying me that my Honda had been located as I was on Muni. Looking for an exercise in futility? Promise that you’ll be somewhere in 20 minutes, and then rely on Muni to get there.
But here’s where faith in humanity was restored. Not only did the officers agree to accommodate me by staying put until I could get there, but a random fellow bus passenger — by the name of Carma (for real!) — offered me a lift.
And just as I got to the place where my Civic had been found, a neighbor who lived in an apartment just above the street popped his head out the window to ask if it was my car. I told him it was, and he said it had been sitting there abandoned for days, so he’d phoned the police. Lesson learned: Forget surveillance cameras. If your car gets stolen, just hope somebody out there is paying attention.
By Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez
You’re on Muni’s underground line, the train stalled just shy of your stop, just stuck there, the light at the end of the tunnel right in front of you. It’s a frustrating feeling, right?
With more than six years worth of delays in three major transit overhauls — the Van Ness, Geary and Geneva Bus Rapid Transit Projects — it’s beginning to feel just like that.
The projects are designed to speed up the most trafficked transit routes in the city by making the buses run like trains. For the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit, the 47 and 49 would drive in dedicated bus-only lanes shuttling riders north and south, reducing travel time by a third, according to project estimates.
Van Ness BRT was initially announced in 2004 with a planned unveiling of 2012. Eight years later, the new debut is set for 2018. The Geary Project is even worse, with a completion date slated for 2020.
The Van Ness BRT is finally getting its wheels turning this month, with the Environmental Impact Report set to be approved by a number of governmental bodies: the Van Ness BRT Citizen’s Advisory Committee, the Transit Authority board, and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority.
Why the hell has this bus project taken nearly a decade to start its engine? As is customary in politics, fingers are pointed at all sides.
At a citizen’s meeting for the Van Ness BRT on Sept. 4, two angry factions gathered in the Old First Church Fellowship Hall on Van Ness. The SFMTA’s spokesperson for the project, Lulu Feliciano, wrapped up her presentation to the crowd of about 100, and that’s when they pounced.
“Van Ness’ three lanes will be limited to two, but it’s a highway, isn’t it?” asked Carole Holt, owner of Russian Hill Upholstery. “Why do cars have no consideration?” She told the Guardian she worried her customers from Marin would have trouble getting to her store.
Another Polk Street activist, Kelly Gerber, walked right up to Feliciano’s face and gestured with his hand like an angry schoolteacher. “Why has no one ever heard of this?” he bellowed, telling us he opposes the loss of parking spaces.
Ironically, transit planners say car traffic would move faster, partially because of the elimination of all left turns along Van Ness except Broadway.
“They’re just angry and zooming in on every little detail,” Mario Tanez, spokesperson for the SF Transit Riders Union, said of BRT’s opponents.
The mostly younger crowd of transit activists showed up in equal force to counter the Polk Street merchants, hoping to stem the tide of NIMBYism.
“We’re the generation that will actually see these improvements,” Teo Wickland told us. He’s an urban planning student who hopes to see Muni running on time.
Feliciano said the project was complicated by having to coordinate multiple city agencies, all with their own goals.
Instead of digging up the same stretch of concrete a dozen times in a decade, San Francisco tries to include as many agencies as possible when cement is broken in any part of the city, she said. Since the Van Ness project is a two-mile stretch between Lombard and Mission streets, many are involved.
Graphic by Brooke Robertson
Peter Gabancho, the project manager for Van Ness BRT, said that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission will put in new water lines, institute a rainwater catch system, and do sewer work. The Department of Public Works plans to repave, and the SFMTA will replace overhead bus lines and light poles.
When asked how much the city would save by combining work, he couldn’t give an exact dollar amount but said it was in the tens of millions, at least.
He also said that the process requires community meetings at many steps in the process. City officials visited Mexico City to see how they planned and built its BRT in just three years, and Gabancho said it’s because that city didn’t really consult the community.
“We can’t do business like that in San Francisco and I don’t think we want to do that in San Francisco,” he said.
All of that governmental insanity had a member of the Geary BRT’s Citizen Advisory Council calling it quits in a fury — he even wrote about it in his blog.
“What I’ve seen in the past six years has been a severe disappointment during which I have lost trust in America’s regulatory framework to enact effective transit improvements,” Kieran Farr, the CEO and co-founder of VidCaster, wrote. He described the process as fraught with starts and restarts, slips and delays, mostly due to a lack of leadership. And that’s the rub: There is no point person on this project with strong political will, according the SFTRU. “The mayor is not saying this is high priority,” Tanez told us. “He’s at all the Central Subway events, but getting political clout behind this by writing to our supervisors is the only way to do this.” The Van Ness project runs through the districts of Sups. Mark Farrell and David Chiu, who were both unavailable at press time. The SFMTA is slated to approve the Van Ness BRT EIR on Tue/17 at 1pm in City Hall, Room 400.
By Steven T. Jones
Pedaling onto the Bay Bridge over the weekend, I was suspended between our industrial past and sleek present. But my ride into the future was abruptly stopped just before I reached the island.
All the experts say we should all just be happy with the world’s longest bike and pedestrian pier, and it certainly is a wondrous thing to behold, this spacious and beautiful two-mile path that pasted big grins on the dozens of faces that I rode past on its sunny first Friday in operation.
But just as the duality of riding between the old Bay Bridge and the new invoked myriad metaphors, so too did the fact that my fellow taxpayers and I just spent $6.4 billion on a bridge from Oakland to San Francisco built almost exclusively for the private automobile.
Is this the future we’ve embraced? Are global warming, economic equity, and collective responsibility such distant abstractions that we can fill this beautiful new bridge with people sitting alone in expensive, deadly, polluting, space-hogging machines?
I looked into their work-weary eyes as I rode my bicycle out from Oakland with a few of my friends during rush hour, on a path wide enough to facilitate conversations among a pair of cyclists in each direction and strolling pedestrians, six abreast. It was lovely, like we had finally arrived in the civilized, people-powered present that we Guardianistas have been working toward for decades.
And then it ended, a vivid reminder that we’re not there yet.
SHARING THE ROAD
The past is blocking our progress, literally and metaphorically, at least for now.
The old Bay Bridge stands between the stubbed-off end of the new bike/pedestrian path and its intended touchdown spot on natural Yerba Buena Island, the conjoined twin of the artificial Treasure Island, where developers dream of building high-rise condo towers buffered against the rising sea.
Officials tell the Guardian that the path will likely be completed in early 2015, after the old bridge comes down. Then, we’ll be able to ride our bikes onto the island and cruise our way to the west side, with its beautiful views of our beloved city, San Francisco, shimmering just out of reach.
Next month, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission will release its latest study of how to complete the ride/walk, examining the placement of pathways balanced on either side of the Bay Bridge’s western span, their added weight compensated for with lighter decks for the cars, all at a cost approaching a billion bucks, with a capital B.
“Everything about this is going to be hard,” MTC spokesperson John Goodwin told me when I asked about allowing cyclists and pedestrians onto the Bay Bridge’s western span, citing an array of engineering, financial, and political obstacles.
“It’s a 10-year project even if a local billionaire decides to put up the money,” Goodwin said, noting that there is no public funding identified for the project except for maybe raising automobile tolls again, which would be a tough sell to voters for a bike and pedestrian project. “It’s an uphill climb and I’m not sure it will ever reach its intended goal.”
But completing this journey is really only as difficult as we make it. Just ask local activist/author Chris Carlsson, who says that he and some of his buddies could fix the problem in a day for a few thousand dollars. All we need to do it take the righthand lane, install some barriers, done.
“The bridge is more malleable than people treat it as and we need to have this discussion publicly,” Carlsson, a founder of Critical Mass and author of Nowtopia, told us. “Let’s solve this problem today. The idea that they would open this bridge without completing this path is insulting.”
To Carlsson and others of his radical ilk, this is an equity issue, and the opening of a car-only bridge is symbolic of our societal myopia. To believers in the automotive status quo, the idea of giving up one of five traffic lanes for the final, two-mile-long descent into San Francisco makes their heads explode.
“That’s just wildly unrealistic,” Goodwin said of Carlsson’s idea, even instituted on a temporary basis, noting that the Bay Bridge handles more than 270,000 cars per day, by far the busiest state-run bridge in California.
To many modern minds, automobiles are essential to our personal freedom and economic vitality — bikes are toys, public transit is for the poor, walking is what you do in your neighborhood or on the treadmill at the gym — but San Francisco is a voter-approved “transit-first” city that supposedly gives each of these modes priority over cars.
“The idea that the five lanes of automobile traffic is inviolable is ridiculous,” Carlsson said, calling it a relic from the days before the freeway revolts of the 1950s and ’60s, when San Franciscans rejected the conception of The City as just another stop along the fast and efficient interstate highway system.
In fact, it was that cars-first vision — before it was rejected by a populist revolt — that helped lead officials to remove the passenger trains that operated on the lower decks of this New Deal/WPA bridge for its first 17 years of life, turning the whole Bay Bridge over to cars, trucks, and the occasional bus.
The era of unfettered automobility had begun, and the idea that capitalism/industrialism and the health of our world might someday, somehow come into conflict with one another also seemed wildly unrealistic.
BRIDGING THE GAP
The Bay Bridge was my bridge growing up in the East Bay, our link to the big city that I traversed while safely cocooned in the backseat of my parents’ car, windows up, car filled with what we’d later call secondhand smoke, buffered against the wilds of West Oakland as we launched over the bay.
Today, my perspective has changed and so has my access through the old industrial waterfront, which has been opened up to all by a pair of new paths leading bikers and hikers to the bridge, both short rides from the West Oakland BART station.
One starts on Maritime Street, near the Port of Oakland and the remnants of the old railyard on what the Realtors have started calling Oakland Point; the other starts on Shellmound Street right across from Ikea, best accessed from West Oakland along 40th Street, where crews were in the process of placing tall cones to protect the bike lane as we rode past.
After the trails merge, it proceeds past the yards for the government agencies set up to serve the motoring public: CalTrans and its freeway maintenance facilities, and the California Highway Patrol, which has doubled its local bicycle brigade (which had worked just the Golden Gate Bridge) to police the new path.
“Best job in the world,” a smiling Officer Sean Wilkenfeld told me as he arrived at the end of the Bay Bridge path, where a couple dozen people stood watching the new Bay Bridge and the old, which took on a ghostly feel as we hovered next to its newfound lifelessness.
Personally, I really like the new Bay Bridge, with its elegant modern architecture and unobstructed bay views. But some of the friends and strangers that I chatted up there at the end of the line disagreed, singing the praises of the old, industrial, seismically unsound original.
“The new bridge is beautiful, but in some ways I like the old bridge better because you can see its functionality,” Joel Fajans, a physics professor at UC Berkeley, told me.
Conversation among the cyclists turned to our beautiful new path and its untimely end. “What a dream come true to have a bike path on the Bay Bridge. I already wrote to my representatives about completing the route to San Francisco,” said Kurt Vogler, a 47-year-old environmental consultant from Oakland who rode the bridge with Fajans.
That was the phrase that everyone used, this notion of completion, conveying the sense that we’re somehow stuck between where we were and where we should be, suspended between the old and the new, waiting to catch up.
“I think it’s beautiful. It’s an engineering marvel, a miracle,” Garris Shipon, a engineer from Berkeley, said halfway through his bike ride on the Bay Bridge. “I’m glad they launched with a bike path at all, and I hope they finish it because I’d love to ride all the way across.”
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay and Golden Gate bridges were built at the same time, started in 1933. But the Bay Bridge — the industrial, utilitarian bridge connecting The City to its biggest, most diverse nearby population centers — was done first. The tall, pretty one — with its Art Deco flourishes and tourist appeal — took longer.
On its opening day, the Golden Gate Bridge was filled with pedestrians, while the Bay Bridge hosted its first traffic jam as it was unveiled, “with every auto owner in the Bay Region, seemingly, trying to crowd his machine onto the great bridge,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
It’s been the same story ever since, with cyclists and walkers crowding onto the Golden Gate daily, salty winds howling through their hair, while travelers on the Bay are caged behind steel and glass.
But not anymore. In fact, it’s far more pleasant to ride on the Bay than the Golden Gate, where the bike path is narrow and cluttered. Now, it’s the golden one that seems to belong to another age, with the Bay Bridge designed to be personally experienced.
“It’s really a spectacular excursion,” Renee Rivera, executive director of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, told me. “I was taken by surprise by what fun it is to be on a bike on that bridge.”
But the stirring sensation of riding or walking the Bay Bridge only accentuates its main shortcoming; at least the noisy, harrowing Golden Gate Bridge goes all the way across.
“We just spent $6 billion on that,” Fajans said, gesturing to the new Bay Bridge, “and you’re saying we can’t spend a little more to complete the bike lane? That’s not fair.”
Goodwin and others say that motorists paid for the new Bay Bridge with their tolls, but Fajans calls bullshit, noting that BART passengers pay more than drivers for a round trip across the bay without buying exclusive access in the future.
In this age of austerity, with government funding for transportation projects drying up and people reluctant to raise their own tolls or taxes, it’s hard to do what’s needed. That’s one reason cycling advocates take what they can get, such as an expensive western span proposal with one of two paths reserved for maintenance vehicles to smooth the automotive flow.
“If we have to sell it to the public to increase tolls, we’ll have to show that it benefits everyone,” Rivera said.
Completing this path, somehow, is a top priority for the cyclists.
“It was a little tough to get people’s attention on the western span for the last couple years, but now is the time,” Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, told us.
Neither director seems willing to embrace Carlsson’s radical approach of simply seizing a lane.
“Like Chris, we feel strongly about equity on the bridge,” Rivera said. “At the same time, it needs to function smoothly as a bridge and I would be concerned about it bottlenecking at Treasure Island.”
Carlsson rejects the neoliberal approach of begging for scraps as we ride into a future that simply can’t continue to be dominated by automobiles. He says the Bay Pier must not rest there for another decade.
“Both bike coalitions have a resistance to appearing anti-car,” Carlsson says, “so they aren’t willing to say the obvious thing.”
Carlsson talks about the Bay Bridge as part of the free Shaping San Francisco lecture series at 7:30pm, Sept. 11, Eric Quezada Center for Culture and Politics, 518 Valencia, SF.