Volume 48 Number 06
THEATER Just last night a cordial campfire conversation with a hobgoblin and a menorah tumbled precipitously from the obscenity of rents in the city to the cold hard facts of our existence on this planet. Halloween was not yet over, and the really scary stuff had already returned.
You don’t have to be a librarian to have gathered something of the unlikeness, the arbitrariness, the inconsequence of an individual life measured against the eons of time and the vastness of space — but let’s say you are a librarian. What would get under your skin more than this? Maybe one thing: the fact that in addition to the obvious indifference of the universe, existence comes with the seemingly unnecessary cruelty visited on us by our fellow human beings.
Maybe one more thing, too: a library book returned 113 years overdue.
Both of these unpalatable situations gnaw at the bookish protagonist in Glen Berger’s 2001 play, Underneath the Lintel, currently enjoying a revival courtesy of American Conservatory Theater. Our protagonist, the play’s sole character, is a garrulous but faintly troubled librarian from Holland (played by an endearingly geeky David Strathairn, in trim graying beard and neat but comfy wool suit). In a makeshift lecture in an old rented theater, the librarian-turned-sleuth presents his remarkable findings concerning the possible reality behind an ancient myth. Along the way, we discover a gradual dovetailing of his own increasingly unmoored career and that of his subject: the fabled Wandering Jew, condemned to bear silent witness to history after a show of callousness before a desperate stranger at his door (who turned out to be Christ on the march to Golgotha, wouldn’t you know it).
The play — whose title refers to the upper portion of a doorway, the regretful place from which an ancient cobbler turned his back on his fellow man and our modern-day librarian dismissed the only woman he ever loved — works a tension between competing frameworks. Bounded by our little lives with their precious but small concerns, the play suggests, we too easily miss the bigger picture and stumble accordingly. But even when confronted with the worst of fate, the baleful immensity of history, or our own actions, we also carry on despite all the universe may throw at us.
Of course, the Geary stage is almost as vast as the aforementioned universe. Director Carey Perloff and her actor work hard to see this pocket-sized piece expand as much as possible to fill it. Strathairn’s fastidious and childlike librarian moves nervously, enthusiastically around the stage, scaling a tall freestanding ladder one moment, rummaging around a set of files the next, or stalking the second-tier storage area at the back of scenic designer Nina Ball’s atmospherically dingy, drippy, haze-filled bric-a-brac set.
The only time this nervous energy seems to go too far is in the final moment, when the librarian exits the stage in an awkward physical underscoring of a key line, wandering out who-knows-where. But Berger’s charming mystery, while ultimately affirming, has a haunted, melancholy streak running through it — a creeping pessimism at the edge of the firelight that is its most provoking aspect, and saves it from being purely sentimental.
ONCE UPON A WEEKNIGHT DREARY: ‘GRAND GUIGNOL’
The father of Paris’s Théâtre du Grand Guignol, French playwright Oscar Méténier (1859–1913), rests in pieces — or at least the pieces he left for the stage; naturalistic horror plays that were themselves full of body parts strewn hither and thither. Thither, in this case, has been renamed “the splatter zone” for playwright Carl Grose and director Mitchell Altieri’s macabre comedy homage to the legendary Parisian theater and genre (a specialty of local company Thrillpeddlers, whose own “Shocktoberfest” is also up and running not far away).
But though audiences in the first rows sit dutifully in plastic rain ponchos, the gore and the titillation and the laughs are surprisingly spare. Grand Guignol‘s opening night, moreover, was a rocky horror show, to say the least, plagued by delays, poor acoustics, slippery pacing, slightly inept execution (of executions, and other bloody deeds), and a storyline almost as mangled as the bodies it left in its wake. It has a game cast, however, and while variously successful at projecting their voices above the atmospheric sound design, its members deliver some nicely tailored performances under the circumstances, which are messy in ways intended and otherwise. *
UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL
Extended through Nov 23
Tue-Sat, 8pm (check website for matinees); Sun, 2pm, $20-150
415 Geary, SF
Do you know how damn lucky we are with all the restaurants that open in this city every year? It’s pretty amazeballs. Some are more interesting than others, granted, but this week we have three newbies that deserve a closer look. Go ahead, stare. Winking, also OK. After going through a trial run-soft opening, Nico (3228 Sacramento, SF. www.nicosf.com) has officially opened this week in Laurel Heights. The restaurant is from Nicolas and Andrea Delaroque. French-born Nicolas has quite the resume that includes Manresa, Atelier Crenn, and Coi, plus two casual spots, Le Garage in Sausalito and L’Appart in San Anselmo. The menu is contemporary Cal-French, and expect a full-on wine list to match. The space looks intimate and chic, like it would work really well for your next date night. (Just making suggestions.)
Russian Hill is where you’ll find another neighborhood restaurant. I can hear the residents cheering, options are slim over there. It’s called Stones Throw (1896 Hyde, SF. www.stonesthrowsf.com), and opened Nov. 5. Stones Throw’s team includes Michael Mina vets — like chef Jason Halverson—offering a Cal-American menu with appealing dishes like sunchoke soup with confit egg, green apple, and black walnut ($12), and chestnut ravioli with hen of the woods mushrooms, roasted Brussels sprouts, and truffle sauce ($22). Noice! Some folks from Fat Angel are partnering: you know the beer list will rock, and there’ll be a good selection of wines by the glass, too. The spot’s designed to feel comfortable, the kind of place you could swing by whenever.
And over in SoMa, the AQ team is opening its next spot with an abbreviated name, TBD Restaurant (1077 Mission, SF. www.tbdrestaurant.com). The vibe is very urban camping, with plenty of wood, taxidermy, and camping gear to make you experience the wilds of SoMa in a completely new way. The menu from chef Mark Liberman and sous Alex Phaneuf features ingredients that will either be cooked on the wood-fired grill, hearth, or rotisserie, so your vegetables may have been heated in embers, and that aged beef sirloin is definitely going to bear some grill marks. The beverage options include clever beer-based drinks for an extra outdoorsy kick.
BALLIN’ ON A BUDGET
You like home cooking? You know, deviled eggs, green bean casserole, smoked ribs, and fried chicken? Yeah, that’s the stuff. Chefs Spencer O’Meara and Sarah Buchard of S&S Shack are popping up again at Mission Rock Resort (817 Terry Francois, SF. www.missionrockresort.com) on Tue/12 at 6pm. Tickets are $45 for the full-on feast (but it doesn’t include tip or beverages). Get your ticket now at ss-shack.ticketleap.com.
YOU GOTTA EAT THIS
So, Betelnut (2030 Union, SF. www.betelnutrestaurant.com) on Union Street has been famous for years for its Szechuan green beans and minced chicken lettuce cups. But the new chef, Mario Tolentino, has some new tricks up his long white coat sleeve. One item you’ll definitely want to order off the snacks menu is the char siu pork spring rolls, which will give most iterations in town a run for their money. I’m talking crazy good, deep, complex flavor inside these crisp little bundles of love.
The kitchen marinates boneless pork butt for 24 hours, and then cooks it for 50 minutes, constantly basting the pork to create an amazing candy-like exterior. The meat gets chopped up, and then some rice vermicelli noodles benefit from a bath in the drippings. Wood ear mushrooms, hon shimeji, Thai basil, and cilantro are also in the magic spring roll’s filling. You wrap that baby up in some lettuce, dunk it into the Malaysian-style peanut sauce (which features a hit of tamarind), and you can thank me later — go ahead and finish obliterating that plate o’ delicious that will only put you back $10.75.
[Update: La Luz was in a car accident during its tour and will no longer be playing these shows. The accident totaled the van, destroyed the gear, and band members suffered injuries. To donate, click here]
TOFU AND WHISKEY Sometimes the unexpected can rip you apart. It can gnaw at your insides, leave your stomach in knots, and twist your thoughts into a confused, messy blur. And sometimes, those rare unanticipated moments can inspire you anew. All the hurt and bewilderment and dark emotions reconfigure and morph into a project, such as an album.
La Luz guitarist-vocalist Shana Cleveland felt this molten wave firsthand and the end result is a striking, blackened surf rock album with four-way doo-wop melodies and churling riffs smacking against the seawall. It’s the full-length debut from the Seattle all-lady quartet: It’s Alive (Hardly Art). The group tours to SF this week, opening up for of Montreal (Fri/8-Sat/9, 9pm, $21. Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF. www.slimspresents.com).
It’s Alive was built from death. “When something that dramatic happens, it could either crush you or give you a crazy energy,” Cleveland says. “For me it was like, after I came out of just being really depressed for awhile I was really inspired to….I don’t know exactly how to phrase it. It’s kind of a weird thing to talk about, I guess. It’s so heavy.”
That heavy moment took place May 30, 2012, when a deranged shooter burst into a Seattle café — Café Racer, where Cleveland and her friends routinely hung out — and killed five people. Around the corner from her house, it’s where she first met La Luz bassist Abby Blackwell. On that spring day last year, it’s where her friend Drew Keriakedes (otherwise known as “Shmootzi the Clod”), a vaudeville-style singing circus clown, died, slain in the rampage.
She describes him as always giving open, honest performances that made everyone fall in love with him — that performance style informed her own artistry. And the months after the shooting informed her songwriting. Though she also notes an intuition affected the record.
“It’s weird because a lot of the lyrics I wrote before the shooting happened and then a lot of them I wrote after. But then when I looked back…I kept seeing these weird premonitions. It just seems like the air was really heavy with this insane event and I was sort of channeling this crazy shit that was about to happen. This sounds kind of New Age-y. But when I looked back over the lyrics I was just like, ‘holy shit!’ I think I just felt something in the air.”
That gloom bled into It’s Alive, a record equally inspired by legendary surf guitarist Link Wray, who also lent a darker edge to the style.
“So it’s sort of a haunted album. It’s kind of cool that it’s coming out around Halloween, it seems fitting.”
It’s the band’s first real record, though before it played a single show, it recorded a demo tape called Damp Face. Both were recorded with the group’s friend Johnny Goss, who was living in a trailer park on the outskirts of town at the time. Goss, who “accumulated all this really cool old recording gear,” took a leisurely approach to It’s Alive, hanging out with La Luz and working together to add new vocal overdubs or extra fuzz.
Cleveland describes it as a highly collaborative process between Goss and the rest of La Luz — bassist Blackwell, drummer Marian Li Pino, and keyboardist Alice Sandahl — though she wrote the bulk of the lyrics before they started playing together. Once La Luz came together, the group altered the music and included everyone’s input.
But Cleveland is also comfortable making art on her own. In addition to La Luz, she’s also a poet (she actually majored in poetry at Columbia College in Chicago) and a visual artist, known for drawings and paintings of other bands and singers, often with big retro hairstyles or matching vintage suits.
“I found this record in a thrift store once and someone had done like, a ballpoint pen drawing of Buffalo Springfield. It was tucked inside of the record and I was really fascinated by it..and I kind of became obsessed with it. I’ve [always] been kind of obsessed with bands I guess, because my parents were both in bands too so it’s my whole life.”
Her dad plays in country and blues bands, her mom sings and plays blues harmonica. They met on tour, in fact — her dad was traveling with a band and stopped in her mom’s Colorado town, then she joined him on the road.
Cleveland grew up playing the instruments her parents — since divorced — had strewn around the house in Kalamazoo, Mich. She picked up guitar around 15 and began playing Veruca Salt songs.
After college, Cleveland headed west to LA but says she hated living in the San Fernando Valley. One day her mom brought her a copy of Seattle alt-weekly, The Stranger, and on a whim, she decided to move there.
“I packed up my Oldsmobile and moved. I don’t know if [The Stranger] knows that yet! I kind of want to tell them.”
Seattle became home and she has since ingrained herself in the local music scene, ticking off favorite Seattle acts like Rose Windows — “They’re doing this like, ’60s psych Jefferson Airplane kind of thing, they’re all really amazing players” — blues combo Lonesome Shack, and Pony Time.
For now, La Luz is touring on It’s Alive, and revving up for a first ever European jaunt in early 2014. While the songwriting began on a darker note, Cleveland is now seeing brightness in the future, at least when I pry out her band goals: “I really want to tour with Ty Segall. That’s just a dream of mine because I would like to see him play every night. I hope that happens. I really want to play with Shannon and the Clams too, because we’re all huge fans of theirs. And the Growwlers. We just played with them but I think it’d be fun to play more shows with them in the future too. They’re one of our favorite bands.”
SIX WEEKS RECORDS 20TH ANNIVERSARY
Two decades is a long lifeline for a DIY record label — especially one known for such short songs. Six Weeks Records, founded in ’92 by Athena Kautsch and Jeff Robinson, has distributed dozens of grimy grindcore, breakneck punk, and loud-as-hell hardcore albums from bands around the world. Clearly dedicated to the art of deafening music, the label also publishes the Short, Fast & Loud fanzine. This two-night anniversary fest features acts of the Six Weeks Records family including LA powerviolence legends Despise You, Tokyo’s Slight Slappers, NY’s Magrudergrind, Capitalist Casualties, Backslider, Coke Bust, P.L.F, and more.
Fri/8-Sat/9, 7pm, $17 each ($30 two-day pass). Oakland Metro, 630 Third St, Oakl. www.oaklandmetro.org.
With Matthew Caws of Nada Surf and Juliana Hatfield of guest-starring-angel-on-My So-Called Life fame forming an intricate new pop band together — Minor Alps — it’s clear the ’90s resurgence beats on. The guitar-swelling, melodious new act, which just released debut LP Get There (Barsuk), plays the Independent Mon/11. And with it comes openers Churches, whom we previewed here at the Guardian before. The Nirvana-loving Bay Area band just released two new tracks: “Pretty in Black” and “Goths on the Boardwalk.” Says frontperson Caleb Nichols, “‘Goths on the Boardwalk’ is the culmination of my two years of living in Santa Cruz. It’s been weird — goths everywhere. [It’s] an ode to my love-hate with this place.” The angst continues.
Mon/11, 8pm, $20. Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF. www.theindependentsf.com.
Local Nintendo-blasting electro rock group crashfaster released the track “Beacon,” the first single of its forthcoming sophomore LP, Further, this week. Like its earlier work, “Beacon” is a bouncy, nostalgic, digi-ride through ’80s video game culture, backed by motorcycle revving guitarwork and sound effects, in rock’n’roll chiptune style, which looks good for the rest of Further. Recorded at Different Fur Studios, that new full-length sees release Nov. 19 — but before that there’s a show at DNA Lounge. With Bit Shifter, Trash80, Unwoman.
Nov. 14, 9pm, $15. DNA Lounge, 375 11th St, SF. www.dnalounge.com.
MUSIC Everyone knows the best way to music idolatry is a solid education in the school of rock (or pop, or hip-hop, or goth, Madchester, shoegaze, techno, et. al). And what better way to soak up the sexy, jagged history of music than to work at one of the few brick-and-mortar stores left that sells it exclusively.
Yes, we’re talking about the classic record shop clerk/artist dichotomy. It’s alive and well in San Francisco and the Bay Area beyond. We see it in Andee Connors of Aquarius Records and his bands like A Minor Forest [see full story]. And also bubbling over elsewhere in sound city thanks to still-vibrant music purveyors and lovers of all things sonic:
Perhaps the most well-documented record shop employee is SF’s darling garage rocker Kelley Stoltz, who works at Grooves on Market Street (he has done so for 12 years), and who released his latest full-length, Double Exposure, last month on Third Man Records.
There’s also Amoeba’s Upper Haight location, which is a hotbed of worker-musicians, including Fresh & Onlys bassist Shayde Sartin, whose formerly fuzzy band a few months back released latest EP Soothsaver on Mexican Summer, a shiny vintage pop gem. In that Golden Gate-adjacent mega-shop (which also has locations in Berkeley and LA) there’s also Andrew Kerwin of Trainwreck Riders, Luciano Talpini of Ceiling Eyes, Rory Smith of Death Pajamas, Steve Peacock of Pale Challis, and David James, who plays in many a band (Afrofunk Experience, Beth Custer Ensemble, Curtis Bumpy, David James’s GPS).
Brand-spanking-new record store RS94109 in the Tenderloin is brimming with vinyl dance music — and dance music talent. Twin owners Askander and Sohrab Harooni both make tracks upstairs, while close associate Oliver Vereker is rising through the dark techno ranks with eardrum-challenging DJ sets and hyped new L.I.E.S. label releases “Rosite” and “Fear Eats the Soul.”
The main man behind Explorist International, Chris Dixon, is currently in a few bands, including duo tujurikkuja, and a synthy electronic drone-psych project called Earth Jerks. He’s also finally remixed some Death Sentence: Panda! (remember them?) recordings from 2011 that will probably be released on cassette.
Punk-friendly Thrillhouse Records on the border of the Mission and Bernal hosts staffers who are also members of Apogee Sound Club, Dead Seeds, C’est Dommage, Dead Seeds, Pig DNA, Robocop 3, New Flesh, and Fantasy World.
Oakland’s newest record shop, Stranded, has Sam Lefebvre, a music writer himself who also plays in Pure Bliss and Cold Circuits.
And Rob Fletcher at 1-2-3-4 Go! is in Beasts of Bourbon-influenced rock band MUSK.
Some shops are breeding grounds for bands. Streetlight Records’ San Jose and Santa Cruz locations, for instance, harbor members of nearly a dozen different bands including death metal acts Abnutivum and Infernal Slave (both Matt DeLeon), Churches (Caleb Nichols), Cat & Shout (Cat Johnson), Folivore (Kyle Kessler), and Doctor Nurse (Jeff Brummett). There’s also Stiff Love, which includes four Street Light Santa Cruz co-workers: Raul Medrano, Rey Apodaca, Chelsea Cooper, Cherene Araujo.
Of course, there are plenty more budding musicians behind those shop counters. Do yourself a favor and talk to your local record store clerk. Get the dirt on his or her own musical project then dig deeper through the vinyl crates for the inspirations. And feel free to add your favorites in the comments.
Finally, lest we forget the archetypal, faintly satirical pop culture reference: there’s High Fidelity‘s band of jaded collectors who are also sort-of musicians and DJs on the side. “We’re no longer called Sonic Death Monkey. We’re on the verge of becoming Kathleen Turner Overdrive, but just for tonight, we are Barry Jive and his Uptown Five.”
GAMER There’s something inherently lazy in subtitling your video game sequel Origins. Almost as ubiquitous as games with names ending Revelations, it is a title that means very little outside of indicating that the game in question is a prequel. This specific move into prequel territory comes in the same year that the self-titled Batman comic revisits the vigilante’s first year as a caped superhero with the storyline Zero Year, and features a similarly reckless Batman battling a series of assassins amid a Christmas Eve snowstorm.
It was a good decision to set Batman: Arkham Origins (Warner Bros. Games Montréal/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment; Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, PC) a bit further into Batman’s first year on the beat, considering even a casual fan can recite the details of Batman’s initial transformation from billionaire bachelor to crime-fighting defender of Gotham City in the wake of his parents’ murder. Thankfully, Arkham Origins skips all that and gives people what they want: more of the tempestuous and enduring love-hate relationship between Batman and the Joker. The clown-faced psychopath is an unknown quantity for Batman this early into his crime-fighting career, and the unhinged performance by new voice-actor Troy Baker, following Mark Hamill’s departure from the series in 2011, is the glue that holds Arkham Origins‘ mostly clumsy and contrived narrative together.
Aside from the Joker, the villains of Arkham Origins are less-than-exciting; headlining C-listers like Electrocutioner, Copperhead, and Firefly prove we are well beyond the realm of Christopher Nolan’s film universe. Arkham City (2011) offered a fair number of lesser characters as well, but their inclusion lent the sandbox city a feeling of life and excitement — there was a new story to discover around every corner — and there was a weight to the threats they posed. By comparison, destroying Black Mask’s drug caches or disarming Anarky’s bombs matter little in the grand scheme of the night, and leaves Gotham feeling a smidge emptier than you might remember.
Thankfully, the backbone of Rocksteady Games’ Batman titles proves strong enough to support a less ambitious entry in the series. Cinematic, referential, and fiercely game-y, the Arkham games walk the line between slick Hollywood thrills and narratively incongruous, old school collect-a-thon, and new in-house developer Warner Bros. Games Montréal has done its best to respect the formula. Whether you’re countering a knife-wielding thug or picking off goons from the shadows, being the Batman remains as invigorating as ever, and you certainly get to do plenty of both during the 10-plus hour campaign.
Ultimately, you probably aren’t mistaken if you think Arkham Origins sounds like a quick cash-in to keep insatiable fans happy and to continue making money off a successful franchise. Arkham City‘s great feat was that it was an ambitious expansion of everything that worked in Arkham Asylum; by comparison this is a lateral move for the series. Still, it’s only truly disappointing when you consider the benchmark Arkham Asylum and Arkham City set for comic book adaptations. Five years ago, this would have been the best Batman game ever made. Today, it stands as only a decent one. At least they didn’t get Ben Affleck to play Batman, right? *
FILM Central India’s Gulabi Gang, composed of rural women fighting violence and oppression, has become a popular media subject, and it’s not hard to see why: Not only does it offer an inspiring story, it’s visually compelling, since its members dress in matching, hot-pink saris. Pink Saris, in fact, was the title of documentarian Kim Longinotto’s portrait of the group; it played in the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival. Now, there’s Gulabi Gang, Nishtha Jain’s doc, which screens as part of the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, presented by 3rd i. (A Bollywood narrative, Gulaab Gang, is reportedly in production as well.)
Front and center in Jain’s film is formidable leader Sampat Pal, who speaks loudly and carries a big stick she’s perfectly willing to use. Though the Gulabi Gang’s trademark acts of physical retaliation are only discussed anecdotally, we do get to see the activists sharply criticize corrupt village leaders and dismissive cops. We also tag along as the women circulate among communities recruiting new members. The main plot thread follows Pal as she investigates a woman’s suspicious death — likely a murder, and one that’s being shoddily covered up by her husband and his family. (Later, it’s revealed that the wife was just 15 or 16, having been married off at age 11.)
Pal, who founded the group in 2006, is a skilled agitator, speaking for the voiceless and cannily grabbing whatever platform is available. “The video camera is recording it all,” she declares after visiting a crime scene that’s clearly been tampered with. “Your artistry will be shoved up your asses.”
But though Pal is backed up by fellow activists (Gulabi Gang notes that the group has some 150,000 members), Jain is careful to show that a happy ending is impossible amid an epidemic of violence against women. “Only God knows what happened,” the teen bride’s own father remarks with case-closed dismissiveness. Still, the women press on, and there’s hope to be found in their determination, and in the fact that there’s a trend of women’s rights docs coming out of India lately. Another, Invoking Justice — about women in southern India who’ve formed their own “Jamaat” to handle disputes traditionally settled by men according to Islamic Sharia law — screened at the Center for Asian American Media’s 2013 CAAMfest.
There’s a bit of feminist subtext to be found in Beyond All Boundaries, about India’s obsession with the sport of cricket. Er, ‘scuse me: “It’s not a sport — it’s a religion!” according to a first-act interviewee, hyperbole that starts to feel like fact once Boundaries gets rolling. Sushrut Jain’s doc, shot during the lead-up to the 2011 World Cup, follows three young people who’ve found their identities via cricket: homeless megafan Sudhir, who bicycles (sometimes for weeks) to every India match and coats himself with paint to become a living embodiment of team spirit; 12-year-old cricket prodigy Prithvi, whose skills are his golden ticket out of poverty, and (one hopes) a means to escape his sports-Svengali father; and Akshaya, an 18-year-old with a horrific home life who’s dropped out of school to pursue her dreams of playing professionally.
Reaching cricket’s elite level is no easy pursuit, even for a very talented boy — but for a girl, it’s nearly impossible. (Think of it this way: even in big-budget America, pro teams for women are pretty damn scarce.) And even if Akshaya makes it, whatever pay she earns will be laughably low; a coach interviewed in Boundaries is embarrassed to name the salary range on camera. But she has to try, since cricket is the only bright spot in what’s been a trying life. She seems so deserving that it’s hard to blame the filmmakers for stepping in and paying for medical care when an injury threatens an important try-out session.
Though Prithvi’s story contains some worrisome figures — the rich benefactor who’s funding the boy’s early career ominously notes, “If he doesn’t make it as a cricketer, that would be like a curse to me”; the youngster’s father, who jovially admits he “has to” hit his son from time to time — his future prospects seem brighter than Akshaya’s. Most uplifting is the tale of Sudhir, whose devotion to cricket makes him a misfit in his estranged family, but a hero to fellow supporters who admire his dedication.
Boundaries is more character piece than Cricket 101, but even if you don’t know its rules (seriously, why so many runs?), the language of sports fandom is universal. And in this case, it’s political: “Cricket was one way of showing the colonial rulers that we were your equal,” a sports journalist points out, and indeed the race to the World Cup finals, against long-standing rivals like Pakistan, makes for some highly charged matchups.
Elsewhere in the fest — which celebrates “100 Years of Indian Cinema” as well as offering a “Spotlight on Pakistan” — is a must-see for film history buffs: Celluloid Man, a nearly three-hour portrait of 80-year-old P.K. Nair, “the Henri Langolis of India” who founded the country’s National Film Archive. His is described as an “obsessive passion” (hey, for some it’s cricket, for some it’s film), and Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s doc is an appropriately thorough, affectionate tribute, jammed with clips from movies Nair helped rescue and preserve. *
SF INTERNATIONAL SOUTH ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL: BOLLYWOOD AND BEYOND
Nov 6-16, $10-$125
Various venues, SF and Palo Alto
FILM Beware Canadians — they may walk softly, but they carry a big hockey stick. The country next door has always had a bigger influence on American life than generally thought, especially at the movies. Mary Pickford, the medium’s first superstar, was Canadian; so, a century later, are Ryans Gosling and Reynolds, Jim Carrey, Ellen Page, Rachel McAdams, and Seth Rogen. Canadians have directed a lot of seemingly very American films, from 1982’s Porky’s to this year’s Prisoners.
Now there’s Dallas Buyers Club, the first all-US feature (though not the first English-language one) from Jean-Marc Vallée. He first made a splash in 2005 with C.R.A.Z.Y., which seemed an archetype of the flashy, coming-of-age themed debut feature — even if, in fact, it took him 42 years and three prior features to get there.
Like fellow Quebecker Denis Villeneuve (of Prisoners and 2010’s Incendies), Vallée has evolved beyond flashiness, or maybe since C.R.A.Z.Y. he just hasn’t had a subject that seemed to call for it. Which is not to say Dallas is entirely sober — its characters partake from the gamut of altering substances, over-the-counter and otherwise. But this is a movie about AIDS, so the purely recreational good times must eventually crash to an end.
Which they do pretty quickly. We first meet Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) in 1986, when he’s living one kind of red-blooded American Dream: a Texas good ol’ boy working the rodeo circuit, chasing skirts, partying nonstop. Not feeling quite right, he visits a doctor, who informs him that he is HIV-positive and probably has no more than 30 days left on this mortal plane. His response is “I ain’t no faggot, motherfucker” — and increased partying that he barely survives.
Afterward, he pulls himself together enough to visit somewhere you suspect he’s seldom been before — the public library — and research his options. It appears the only significant treatment drug is AZT, which isn’t even on the market yet; it’s just being tested on patient groups he’d be lucky to be a part of. Being a born hustler disinterested in such formal roadblocks, Ron simply bribes a hospital attendant into raiding its trial supply for him. But Ron discovers the hard way what many first-generation AIDS patients did — that AZT is itself toxic, and in the high doses originally administered could cause much more harm than good to embattled immune systems.
He ends up in a Mexican clinic run by a disgraced American physician (Griffin Dunne) who doesn’t have to bother with the more stringent drug regulations up north, and in any case recommends a regime consisting mostly of vitamins and herbal treatments. Reasonably hale again after three months, Woodroof realizes a commercial opportunity here: He can smuggle such variably legal supplies in bulk to those who’ll pay any price for some hope back home in Texas. Yes, they’re mostly fay-guts. But a buck is a buck.
Finding he’s viewed with high suspicion peddling his wares to a plague-embattled gay community, he acquires as liaison and business partner Rayon (Jared Leto), a willowy cross-dresser in the Candy Darling mode who won’t tolerate his homophobia, but requires considerable tolerance for his/her non medicinal drug usage. When the authorities keep cracking down on their trade, savvy Ron takes a cue from gay activists in Manhattan and creates a law-evading “buyers club,” in which members pay monthly dues rather than paying directly for pharmaceutical goods.
It’s a tale that the scenarists (Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack) and director steep in deep Texan atmospherics (even if they had to shoot in Louisiana, presumably for tax-break purposes), like 2011’s memorable McConaughey-featuring true story Bernie. Largely through his friendship of necessity with Rayon (and his own shunning by old friends who gay-bait the second his health news gets out), the actor’s character here develops a certain broader-minded tolerance — a softening of prejudice that is the film’s major emotional arc. (There’s also a developing quasi-romance with Jennifer Garner as a sympathetic doc, but that feels somewhat gratuitous, partly because Garner is the kind of not-bad actress who nevertheless seldom brings authenticity to the table.) Much has been made of the extreme weight loss McConaughey and Leto undertook to play their roles. In Leto’s case, the transformation is impressive all around; in the McConaughey’s, he isn’t doing anything he hasn’t done variations on before, though it’s admirable how he refuses to make this protagonist any more charming than needed to get business done. We’re meant to buy that Woodroof eventually redeems himself in heart as well as deeds. But the line that rings truest is when he snaps “We’re not running a goddamn charity!” in turning down desperate HIV-positive men short on their subscription fees. Only self-preservation forces him out of his manly-man’s world of unsafe sex with shady ladies, among other high-risk behaviors. The therapies that save his own skin are shared with others (at least at first) only for the sake of the bottom line.
But then, plenty of innovators and benefactors of mankind have been cutthroat profiteers — look at Edison, for instance. While it takes itself seriously when and where it ought, Dallas Buyers Club is a movie by a Canadian whose frequent, entertaining jauntiness is based in that most American value of get-rich-quick entrepreneurship. *
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB opens Fri/8 in San Francisco.
Guy Gerber is blowing his nose. A lot. He’s also trying to talk to me, through a massive hangover, over the phone from NYC. His chopped-up vocal snippets, mashed into long expulsions of compressed air, spiked with a woman’s giggle, rustling sheets, and clanking bottles somewhere in the background of his room, could almost be one of his driving, hypnotic, yet always surprisingly human, techno tracks. Good lord, even this protean dance music creator’s phlegmatic exudations are musical.
Honk. “We played somewhere in Brooklyn for Halloween last night, you know, in these ridiculous outfits. And then there were mischiefs,” he says. Brooklyn is a temporary homebase for the constantly on-the-go Supplement Fact label honcho — he’s opening a warehouse club in Williamsburg called Verboten soon — but the hyperactive Israeli underground star, ever restless in style and spirit, can’t stay in one place for long. He’ll be performing a hybrid live-DJ set this weekend at Public Works (Fri/8, 9:30-3:30, $16 advance, 161 Erie, SF. www.publicsf.com).
Appropriately for someone who came to techno via Joy Division and My Bloody Valentine, Gerber’s sonic imprint is as peripatetic as his ever-touring lifestyle: from moody, psychedelic electronic grooves and introspective Visionquest-style tech-house to the large-screen, crisply atmospheric “emotive” techno slices like “Stoppage Time” and “Timing” that made his name in the late 2000s. This year has been banner: Gerber was one of the major forces in Ibiza pushing back against EDM commercialization with his deep and surreal Wisdom of the Glove parties; his captivatingly intelligent September BBC Radio1 Essential Mix (my favorite mix of the year so far) refines and expands his dreamy post-minimal sound; and new releases with Clarian (“Claire”) and Dixon (“No Distance”) are gorgeous.
And then there’s that fabled collaboration with P. Diddy(!), 11:11, that may finally see the light of day. “I think Puff Daddy’s at the point where he’s finally ready to release something this deep to the world, and I just keep taking us deeper and weirder. But he completely trusts me,” the hyperproductive Gerber, who can toss off enough quality tunes to fill a stream in a blink, says about the long-delayed album. (The 2011 Jamie Jones remix of 11:11 leak “Tourist Trap” is what I wish pop music sounded like.)
On top of that, there’s the burden/privilege of being the only major Israeli DJ on the underground techno circuit. “It gets lonely. Techno’s supposed to be this global thing and I’m all over the world, even back in Tel Aviv a lot, which is great, but it feels like I’m the only one,” he says. “I’m proud to represent Israel, though of course I don’t agree with everything. I feel I want to represent less the country than the region, which shares these values of love and family while always being honest with their emotions. Sometimes too honest,” he laughs.
And what about the future? Has he composed three tracks and planned another tour while we’re talking on the phone? “Marke, right now my only concern is to get past this hangover.” Honk.
Karl O’Connor aka Regis and Juan Mendez aka Silent Servant dive into synthy darkness with this stunning live collaborative project, with roots in the 1990s. In Aeternum Vale and Veronica Vasicka round out this Minimal Wave label showcase at the new Surface Tension party.
Fri/8, 10pm, $15. Project One Gallery, 251 Rhode Island, SF. st001.eventbrite.com/
BEARS LOVE HONEY
There is a thing called Bear Pride Week going on right now; in typical fashion this Honey Soundsystem party both lauds and gooses the concept, with striking Berlin techno-soul DJ/singer Virginia and randy Roman DJ Hugo Sanchez of Alien Alien.
Fri/8, 10pm-4am, $15 advance. Beatbox, 314 11th St, SF. bearslovehoney.eventbrite.com
Time once again for this insanely fun Balkan-themed stomp and whirl, where you’ll hear more time-signatures in one night (mostly all at once) than you’ll hear all year. DJ Zeljko leads the mad charge, with the Inspector Gadje brass band and Jill Parker’s bellydancers in tow. Arrive early.
Sat/9, 9pm, $15. Balancoire, 2565 Mission, SF. kafanabalkan.eventbrite.com
No words to describe my love for the genius Guyanese godfather of dub. The prof’s about to school us, too — his “Roots of Dubstep” tour digs deep, deep into his 30-year DJ and recording career to show what’s what. At the excellent Dub Mission weekly.
Sun/10, 9pm, $15–$20. Elbo Room, 647 Valencia, SF. www.dubmissionsf.com
SF ALBUM PROJECT
Every two months a wonderfully inventive, theatrical troupe of drag queens performs an entire album you’d never think would benefit from drag treatment (OK Computer, Parade) — but it works! Next up: Roxy Music by Roxy Music.
Sun/10, doors at 8pm, $15. The Chapel, 777 Valencia, SF. www.thechapelsf.com
DANCE When ODC opened its new theater in 2010, Brenda Way’s Architecture of Light celebrated the building’s bones and its potential for dance. This past weekend, the Los Angeles-based Rosanna Gamson/World Wide took over the whole complex for Layla Means Night, a feast of non-linear storytelling through dance, narrative, music, design, food, and drink. For this incarnation, the company brought richly detailed sets and costumes, excellent dancer-actors, and a first-rate trio of Persian musicians. They also made fine use of ODC Dance Jam’s teen dancers, whose poise and competence should be the envy of many a professional.
That said, not everything worked: A physical spelling of the difference between Arabic and Roman script fell flat. A solo for a caged bride in a white shift felt like filler. The celebratory finale looked thrown together. And the piece was slow getting off the ground.
Layla is a 70-minute work about power, specifically feminine power, inspired by Scheherazade, the heroine of 1,001 Nights, the collection of Middle Eastern and Indian folk tales, with which the heroine kept herself alive one more night because the king wanted to hear one more story. While she saves herself and other potential brides, the work does not address her transformative power to turn the king into a loving human being. (That was left to Alonzo King’s 2009 Scheherazade.) Gamson structured Layla into a number of distinct episodes whose sequences you watched according to your assigned group: men, women, or mixed. Just like a tourist, you followed a guide, traipsing up and down the theater’s three floors. While waiting to be admitted to the next attraction, you could catch aural cues of what other people were seeing. It certainly raised your curiosity, something this Scheherazade has also learned.
Layla‘s episodes formed a marvelously rich tapestry, the details of which constantly elicited admiration. Even though the jumbling of sequences felt distracting, they ultimately coalesced into a loosely structured but convincing theatrical experience. You can’t ask for much more.
Initially, young women offered to wash your hands, or offered a mimosa. Dominating this congeniality was an implacable Carin Noland, whose cleaver came down (on oranges) with the inevitability of a clock. Later, when you heard a rooster crow? Down came that ax. Gamson’s six women dancers, in blood red shifts, wove through the evening in almost Grahamesque modern dance, softened by a liquid use of the torso and the eloquent hands. You saw them as shadows, peering through drapes or striding and howling.
Balancing these particular images of female power was ODC’s teen Dance Jam. Lined up in a countdown of brides, they stepped into individual solos until they hit the floor and a communal handclap substituted for the ax falling. In the finale, they looked fresh and yet so professional in folkloric-inspired couple and circle dances. In another section, an overlapping trio of similar gestures in what looked like a cage looked less convincing.
In her confrontation with the King (a fierce C. Derrick Jones III), Gabrielle Rhodeen’s Scheherazade posed straightforward questions about sex that were both alluring and cleverly manipulative. Her white costume looked like a mixture of wedding dress and boudoir gown. If Layla had a single dramatic highpoint, it would have been the explosive cat-and-mouse game between these two dueling characters.
Layla is a piece that asks the audience to make decisions. Did you really want to accept a slice of orange when you knew where it came from? Two of the gorgeous sets — one a tent-like red hexagonal, the other a fragile, white paper cylinder — had slits in them. You had to step up and look in. Did this make you a voyeur? For me it did. I think this was Gamson’s way of making the audience not only participate in but also become complicit in the action.
Perhaps Layla’s most uncomfortable section involved our all-women’s group walking into the theater proper. The men were seated and blindfolded while the teen dancers whispered into their ears. It was creepy. Again, did we become participants in whatever was going on by watching this?
The ongoing offering of food and drink — appealing to the sense of taste, something not usually satisfied in the theater — was another way in which Gamson tried to pull the audience into her work. It raised, of course, the question on just how willing an audience member was to step out of his or her observer role.
A gorgeously laid out banquet table was used very little. It’s where Gamson asked for an account of a life-changing moment after having recounted a seminal one in her own life. She wanted us to share. Only one did (in writing). Nor did anybody follow the invitation to enter the final celebratory dance. Maybe there’s a reason why we have performers and observers: They need each other, but don’t necessarily want to change roles. *
BART continues to stonewall important questions about whether it was training scab drivers to break the recent strike by its unions when its trainee-driven train killed two workers on Oct. 19 — a stance made possible by the failure of the mainstream media to connect the dots or correct the anti-union bias that characterized its coverage of this long labor impasse.
Local journalists have failed to highlight the connection between that tragedy and the subsequent decision by the district to suddenly soften its stance and sweeten its offer, within hours of the National Transportation Safety Board revealing that a trainee was driving and that BART’s “maintenance run” story was a deception.
Local media outlets did dutifully report that a trainee was driving, but they failed to point out to readers and viewers the significance of that disclosure or ask the district whether the training was intended to break the strike and whether that plan fed the district’s hardline bargaining stance.
We have asked those questions of the district, and when we got misleading obfuscations, we asked again and again, and our questions are still being largely ignored. And here’s why they matter: Because if the district was planning to run trains during the strike, it reinforces the unions’ contention that the district forced a strike that it was preparing to break, a plan that became untenable when two people died, just as the unions warned might happen if the district ran trains without experienced drivers.
BART spokesperson Alicia Trost did finally confirm to us that, “BART has been training some non-union employees to operate limited passenger train service in the event of an extended strike if so authorized by the Board of Directors,” but she and BART Board President Tom Radulovich have each ignored our follow-up questions and requests to discuss this is greater detail.
This should be a huge scandal, the kind of thing that might force General Manager Grace Crunican to resign and BART directors to lose their seats — except for the fact that the media are ignoring this simple, obvious narrative and failing to do their job.
The East Bay Express, a rare exception on the local media landscape, published an excellent article on Oct. 30 about how the San Francisco Chronicle and Bay Area News Group (which includes the Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, and San Jose Mercury News) misled the public about the BART standoff.
Not only have these daily newspapers written some truly atrociously anti-worker editorials, but even the supposedly objective news stories have been clearly biased in their emphasis and omissions, including the current failure to demand accountability.
But this could backfire considering the truth will probably come out eventually, even if it’s long after the media spotlight has moved on. NTSB investigations can take up to a year, but they are remarkably thorough and it will probably eventually discuss why these drivers were being trained.
The Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment announced on Oct. 29 that it will also hold a hearing to “get to the bottom” of the tragedy, and one can only hope that someone on that committee will grill the district about its intentions in running that ill-fated train and conducting new driver training just one day into the latest strike.
The board members of a local Filipino heritage organization, with ties to a high-profile eviction defense battle at San Francisco’s International Hotel in the late 1970s, have declined to an accept an award that San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee had planned to extend to them as part of a Filipino American History celebration because they are angry about a growing trend of senior evictions.
In a written statement sent to the media by board member Tony Robles, the Manilatown Heritage Foundation explained that it couldn’t accept the award as long as “elders are being preyed upon, evicted and given a de facto death sentence thereof.”
The Manilatown Heritage Foundation board members were informed by Board of Supervisors President David Chiu that Lee had planned to recognize the I-Hotel as part of an annual cultural history celebration at City Hall, the statement noted.
“Part of the occasion was to honor the I-Hotel and its many tenants and activists for its contribution to Filipino American history,” board members explained.
In 1976, the I-Hotel was targeted for demolition, prompting a historic eviction defense battle led by housing activists who rallied to the defense of the impacted tenants. As a young attorney who worked with the Asian Law Caucus, Ed Lee was involved in that fight — as an activist defending tenants’ rights to stay. He frequently referred to this chapter of his personal history while running for mayor in 2011, to demonstrate his sensitivity to concerns about affordable housing.
But now that Lee is well into his mayoral term, a surge of evictions of low-income seniors is worsening on his watch. Tenant defense organizations such as Eviction Free San Francisco are showing up outside landlords’ homes and offices to protest eviction notices that threaten to push low-income seniors with few options out of the city.
“The I-Hotel fight was for dignity and it lived by the premise that housing is a human right,” the group’s statement explained. “The fight for the I-Hotel galvanized the community around the fight for affordable housing, particularly for seniors who sacrificed much and on whose shoulders we stand. The fight included tenants, elders, activists, artists and students who recognized that the real estate developers and financial interests were out of control—power unchecked.”
Danielle Evans, director of Women’s Services at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, likes to tell the story of a woman who managed to turn over a new leaf after spending a year in a residential support program.
The client was found on the streets of San Francisco, pregnant, after an overdose. She was over 40, had never graduated from high school, and had a string of drug offenses on her rap sheet. She had multiple children who had been given up for adoption, and she was homeless.
But after getting emergency treatment at San Francisco General Hospital and entering substance abuse counseling and transitional housing from there, she was able to overcome her drug addiction, regain custody of her daughter from Child Protective Services, and enroll in a vocational program for janitorial work.
The woman was aided through a yearlong stay at Cameo House, a transitional home for homeless pregnant women and new moms run by CJCJ. After living there with her daughter while getting pointers on parenting from the staff, she’s now working toward her GED and has a goal of landing a job — something she’s never had.
“I’m like, look where you came from and where you are today,” Evans reflected. The client’s daughter is now a healthy two-year-old, Evans said, and “she is so motivated to be a good mom.”
It’s not a typical narrative. A recent event hosted by New America Media focused on the personal stories of Bay Area youth who’ve grown up with parents entangled in the criminal justice system. More often, those parent-child relationships are strained or nonexistent, especially in cases where parents are far away from home, serving out prison sentences.
CHILDREN OF REENTRY
For many, having a parent behind bars has the potential of becoming a vicious cycle, but new realizations about how harmful that childhood experience can be are giving rise to a new way of thinking about how to deal with parents in the criminal justice system.
New approaches include alternatives to incarceration, something that’s gaining momentum in this era of prison overcrowding and realignment, which has shifted some responsibility of housing inmates from the state to California counties.
Children of incarcerated parents are three times as likely as their peers to wind up in the criminal justice system, Jessica Flintoff, director of the Reentry Division at San Francisco’s Adult Probation Department, said at the New America Media forum in downtown San Francisco. Some policies that the county has embraced are designed to factor in long-term youth impacts, at the time when key decisions are being made about their parents’ fates.
The event featured a series of short films and multimedia projects spotlighting the experiences of youth and their formerly incarcerated parents, with a focus on what happened when the parents returned home.
Young producers, working with the nonprofit Silicon Valley DeBug and community newspaper Richmond Pulse, created the projects through hours of interviews in which parents and kids divulged intensely personal details about their experiences. The idea behind the Children of Reentry media project was to open up a conversation that kids with incarcerated parents often shy away from, because of an associated stigma.
The project conveyed intimate narratives about an experience that an estimated 2.7 million children of incarcerated parents are familiar with nationwide: A son who got to know his father in a prison visitation room; a mother who gave birth to her daughter in prison only to be separated until completing her sentence; a father who barely knew his daughter before her 21st birthday because he’d been in prison for the duration of her childhood.
WHAT DO KIDS NEED?
In San Francisco, the mission of the San Francisco Adult Probation Department explicitly includes a goal of “breaking the intergenerational cycle of incarceration,” Flintoff explained at the forum.
The city tries to take a child’s needs into account before the parent is sentenced, she said. Under this system, a deputy probation officer is required to conduct an investigation into the needs of the affected children, and even maps out a genogram of the convicted person’s familial ties, to convey to a judge what kind of situation the child will wind up in once their parent is imprisoned.
The sentencing then takes this background information into account. “The criminal justice system is a series of decisions,” Flintoff said. “We can make different decisions at every turn.”
The impact of parental incarceration on youth has been a hot topic lately. In August, a White House conference was devoted to understanding the problem, which is fueled by an American incarceration rate that’s four times higher than it was in the 1970s.
Research has yielded sobering data. According to the American Bar Foundation, which hosted the White House conference, roughly half of all inmates serving time in U.S. prisons are parents. Communities of color are disproportionately impacted — nationwide, one in four black children has had a parent behind bars at some point. These youth tend to have a tougher time once they reach adulthood, with typically lower rates of academic achievement, decreased chances of graduating from college, and a higher percentage facing unemployment.
“I feel like I saw both of my parents in each video,” Mailee Wang said after the series of short film screenings, tearing up a little. Wang, whose mother and father each spent time in prison, is now program director at Project WHAT! (We’re Here And Talking), an initiative run by local nonprofit Community Works that aims to assist these impacted youth.
“Having a prison mentality is real,” she added. “How do you lock somebody up, and keep them from their kids, and release them, and expect that prison mentality to turn off? It’s chaos when the person returns home. People talk about family reunification, but what does that look like?”
SERVICES INSTEAD OF PRISON
Meanwhile, a new partnership between San Francisco and CJCJ seeks to eliminate the traumatizing effect of parental incarceration by swapping out time behind bars for a different rehabilitative approach. That option involves sending would-be inmates to Cameo House, the transitional home that already helps homeless moms to get on track as providers for their young kids.
Housed in an 11-unit Victorian in the Mission, the center offers group therapy, parenting classes, training for job seekers, and other kinds of support services to help put women in the position of being able to provide for their kids. Cameo House contracts with the Department of U.S. Housing and Urban Development to provide the services, and receives local funding and assistance from private donors.
Under this alternative, pregnant women or mothers with children under six who are facing prison or jail time could be placed in Cameo House instead of being made to spend time behind bars away from their kids.
“It’s an option on the table, where before it was, ‘you’re going to county jail, and there is no other option,'” Evans said. “But we’re saying, ‘hey, let’s try this. Let’s intervene where intervention is needed. Let’s not re-traumatize this family.'”
OPINION I have great respect for Recreation & Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg, my colleague Sup. Scott Wiener, and my constituents and friends who support the parks closure legislation. I certainly share their concerns about damage to our parks. But I do not think this law is the appropriate means to address it.
I have six fundamental problems with the legislation.
My first concern is the impact this could have on our neighborhoods. There are an estimated 7,350 homeless youth and adults in San Francisco. Many find a shelter bed; some wind up in jail or a hospital. Over 4,300 people, though, have nowhere to sleep.
As the supervisor for District 5, it would be irresponsible for me not to think about this, not to consider what will happen if homeless people are evicted from the parks and wind up sleeping on the doorsteps of my constituents in the Haight, Inner Sunset, or Buena Vista. This would be unjust for the homeless and worse for the neighborhoods.
Second, we have an enforcement problem, not a regulation problem. The Park Code already prohibits: camping, sleeping between 8pm-8am, dumping, drinking (in most parks), being under the influence, damaging the parks, or making loud, “unreasonable” noises.
Unfortunately, at night there are only two or three park patrol officers on the beat for all 220 parks across 3,500 acres.
We can’t enforce the codes we have. Rather than adding a broad, redundant code, I would like targeted improvements to the codes and their enforcement.
Third, it could cost more to enforce this law than we would actually save. Vandalism is distributed all over the park system and does not all occur between midnight and 5am. A dramatic increase in officers could decrease vandalism, but that would cost more than any savings realized.
Fourth, I am sympathetic to the almost-Libertarian argument made by some constituents that: “My tax dollars pay for those parks and if I want to use them at 4am, that is my prerogative.”
Firefighters and others who work late shifts should be allowed to walk their dogs in the park when they get off work. Whenever I raise this point, I am told by the law’s supporters, “Oh it won’t be enforced against them.”
This is exactly the problem, and my fifth concern — that this law will be selectively enforced. If it’s not intended to target the homeless, the firefighter, or the well-groomed neighbor, who is the law designed to target? Suspicious looking people? Teenagers? Young men in hooded sweatshirts?
Lastly, I think there are perfectly legitimate reasons to use the parks at night, and I don’t think our government should be admonishing us otherwise.
Acts can be criminal. Vandalism, dumping, drug use — those are acts. I am not comfortable preemptively criminalizing a person’s presence, or everyone’s presence, in order to deter the few who commit those acts. I am not comfortable limiting everyone’s freedom in order to deter those who abuse that freedom.
But frankly, I am also not comfortable with how politically charged the issue of homelessness has become in San Francisco. Whether this particular law passes or fails, 7,350 people will wake up tomorrow morning not knowing where they will sleep tomorrow night.
We must be creative, unconventional. For example, we could repurpose fallow city buildings as temporary shelters. Would this idea be received as an opportunity or an insult? I hope the former, but I suspect the latter.
We have a political climate in this city which, for a variety of reasons, seems to default to the status quo on homelessness. Well, we need change. We need to acknowledge that not every call for service is a “handout,” nor every call for enforcement a “criminalization.”
Relegating 4,300 people to a cold spot of concrete or grass every night is not compassion; working creatively to change it is not malice. It is leadership. And it is exactly what we need.
London Breed is the District 5 supervisor. The board was scheduled to make its first of two votes on Wiener’s legislation Nov. 5 after our press time. Visit www.sfbg.com/politics for the latest.
San Francisco’s overheating housing market has polarized the city. While progressive activists push to protect rent-controlled apartments and encourage construction of new below-market-rate housing, moderates, Realtors, and developers say any new housing helps keep prices in check, calling on the city to build 5,000 units per year.
But there is a hidden side to the housing issue in San Francisco, one that offers both complex challenges and enormous potential as a source of housing for low-income city residents, and it’s getting a fresh look with desperate eyes.
Secondary units — also known as granny flats or in-law housing — dot the city by the thousands, and are for the most part illegal. They’re tucked behind garages, in basements, or in backyards, most of them single serving sized and largely ignored.
Such units are legal under California law, and the reasons they’re quasi-legal in San Francisco are complex. It mostly boils down to the fact that often these units aren’t up to Building or Planning codes, but there have also been decisions to deliberately limit density in some neighborhoods, sometimes driven by concerns about more competition for street parking spaces.
Tenants in such units can be reluctant to report housing code violations for fear of losing cheap apartments in this rapidly gentrifying city, even if that means living in substandard housing. And the owners of those units often can’t afford to bring them up to code or pay the fines. It remains an underground industry with few watchdogs.
Caught between conflicting realities of housing shortages, poverty, and safety, the city has largely turned a blind eye to in-law units, adopting what housing advocates call a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy around inspecting in-law units. Now that may change.
Board of Supervisors President David Chiu and Sup. Scott Wiener have plans in the works that could spur development of secondary units in the city. San Francisco has been there and done that though, and the bodies of failed past granny flat campaigns litter the political wasteland.
“In-law legalization has been for a lot of housing advocates the holy grail, but for a lot of politicians, it’s been a third rail,” said Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, a nonprofit group that advocates for a more walkable, livable San Francisco.
Despite the many failed jump starts over the years, Radulovich sees hope in the prospects of legalizing more secondary units because “it’s a good, cheap, and green way to add housing.”
So what’s different now? First off, unlike past efforts, the politicians involved are taking some small but significant steps.
Wiener’s plan could directly spur the creation of new secondary units, but it’s limited to only the Castro District. It basically lifts caps on the number of units that can be built in a single residence, waiving some density and other Planning Code requirements.
Wiener views his plan as a pilot program. “I decided to try a more limited geographic area to show that it can work,” he told us, saying that the past failed campaigns tried to force the issue citywide.
The Castro is a prime candidate for more affordable housing. The neighborhood has many tenants who are single, Wiener said. And as gentrification slammed the Castro, the vulnerable were hurt as well. Jeremy Mykaels, a 17-year Castro tenant living with AIDS, recently fought back an Ellis Act eviction that would have cost him his home.
“I am not looking for pity,” Mykaels wrote on his website, addressing his eviction. “I just want to shed a light on a growing problem in this city for many senior and disabled tenants like myself.”
Wiener’s office declined to say how many secondary units could be built. But as he introduced the legislation to the Board of Supervisors on Oct. 22, he said that many longtime residents in the Castro, in terms of housing, “are living on the edge.”
Castro residents like Mykaels have lived under rent control for years, and once folks like him are pushed out, they often can’t afford to stay in the city.
Fair market rent in the Castro for a two-bedroom apartment is $3,295 a month, according to the Department of Public Health. According to its rental affordability map, a tenant would need 6.2 full-time minimum wage jobs to afford to live there.
“It’s a neighborhood in desperate need of additional housing options,” Wiener said.
Enter in-law units, which are often more affordable. Though there have been no citywide studies of their affordability, a study this year by the Asian Law Caucus, “Our Hidden Communities,” said the average cost of those units in the Excelsior neighborhood is between $1,000–$1,249 a month, way below average rents.
Wiener’s legislation was turned over to the Land Use and Economic Development Committee, where it will be evaluated for impacts to the neighborhood. The supervisors will hear it again in 30 days.
One housing advocate thinks Wiener is thinking too small and needs to expand his vision.
“I think Wiener’s proposal is creating a patchwork of regulation, but this will create a mess, which the board is accomplished at doing,” Saul Bloom, head of Arc Ecology, told the Guardian. He thinks a citywide proposal to legalize in-law units is the only way go to — because the city is in a housing crisis right now, he said, and we don’t have time for just a pilot.
One big advantage is the units are far cheaper to construct than traditional houses or condominiums. Bloom notes the Lennar Urban will be spending about $400,000 for each of the thousands of homes it will build at Hunters Point Shipyard and surrounding areas, but that small secondary units can be built in existing neighborhoods for $75,000 to $200,000 each.
“We’re not expanding units in affordable housing through existing strategies,” Bloom said, and he’s right.
San Francisco has mostly built about 1,500 new housing units a year, which is much less than needed to keep up with demand, according to San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) and the Housing Action Coalition.
To keep up with the frantic demand, San Francisco would need to build 5,000 new units a year, the groups argue. If the city could keep up with demand for housing, the price of housing itself could go down — meaning lower rents for everyone.
“If we want to actually make the city affordable for most people — a place where a young person or an immigrant can move to pursue their dreams, a place a parent can raise kids and not have to spend every minute at work — we have to fix the supply problem,” SPUR Executive Director Gabriel Metcalf wrote in a recent article for The Atlantic (“The San Francisco Exodus,” Oct. 14).
Yet progressive housing activists have long said that the city can’t build its way to affordability, arguing that demand for market rate units is essentially insatiable, and that what the city needs to do is build housing specifically for low-income residents.
Bloom put out a study from Arc Ecology, suggesting that if just 5 percent of the city’s 100,000 single family homes converted their excess space into in-law units, an additional 5,000 affordable rentals would spread across town.
Wiener’s proposal looks at making new units in just a slice of the city, but another proposal will look at the issue citywide. Chiu’s legislation seeks to take that sea of hidden and unlawful granny flats and bring them up to code, but it wouldn’t look to build new ones.
“The big picture is that we’re exploring legalizing existing [in-law] units that are illegal, to make sure they become safe and protect residents there,” said Amy Chan, an aide in Chiu’s office.
UP TO CODE
Safety isn’t the only consideration, as this could also help the housing supply in the city, those involved told the Guardian. Often these in-law units are rented out to friends and family, and once up to code they’d open up to the market.
But safety is important because these units also often lack city permits because they’re dangerously constructed. Sometimes that can lead to death.
“A lot of time (the units) may not have proper egress for an emergency,” said Dan Lowrey, deputy director of inspection services at the Department of Building Inspection. “We just had a fire last month where three people died because of that.”
Lowrey is part of Chiu’s workgroup that’s navigating the complexities of his new legislation. Just how do you make these units legal? There’s a number of challenges, he said.
When looking at a unit, housing inspectors have a checklist to look through, and some of it is real garden variety stuff. Smoke detectors? Check. Proper floor covering? Check. Those are easy. The real challenge is when there are ceilings that are too low, hallways not wide enough to navigate in an emergency, or the unit has no windows from which to escape in a fire.
That’s when you have an in-law apartment that requires total reconstruction to be brought up to code, a straight up illegal unit. As the law stands now, the only recourse for the city in that case is to evict the people living there.
“That’s the challenge, what do we do with the [in-law apartments] that can’t be legalized?” said Bill Strawn, a spokesperson for DBI. Those are some of the questions that Chiu’s workgroup is tackling now.
The good news, he said, is that there are a good number of units that are up to the Building Code, but not the Planning Code — that’s a much easier hurdle to clear.
The Planning Code basically separates neighborhoods of the city into zones for one, two, or three families in a housing unit. This looks at the amount of available free space, sunlight, air, and parking. With those lifted, many units could be more easily converted to living use.
But finding the units that aren’t up to code is important, said Omar Calimbas, a senior staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus.
He led the “Our Hidden Communities” study that revealed 33 percent of homes in the Excelsior district contained in-law units, far above the city’s estimates.
His team went door to door and found out for itself. What Calimbas saw was that those living in unregulated units often lived in substandard conditions with nowhere to go for help.
There are some units with no heating, he said. Other times the in-law unit is in a basement barely renovated for use as a living space. Sometimes the bathrooms and shower are really tiny cubes. There are mold and dampness problems.
“You’re living in a space that doesn’t make you feel protected from the elements,” he said. And when the units are made without permits, tenants feel they can’t go to the city for help.
To put it in a nutshell, they are in dire need of regulation. Calimbas is also working with Chiu on his legislation to do just that. But ultimately, each of the two ordinances around secondary units takes small bites out of the housing pie.
Bloom is calling for the city to move aggressively on this issue. “We’re rapidly becoming a more expensive city to live in, more and more so every year.” As more and more San Franciscans are priced out of their homes, time may soon run out.
A whopping 8 percent of the population is colorblind. This not only means that approximately 26 million people in the United States have never seen the subtle color variation of a sunset, but that many of the motorists on our roadways are following traffic signs based on memorization of light placement.
So far, options to offset color vision deficiency, or CVD, have been limited. Most work-arounds use single filters of solid red or purple hues to provide a contrast. That allows those with CVD to detect differences in color, but not without a heavy red or purple saturation over everything they see.
EnChroma, a small, Berkeley-based company, has now created a product that allows wearers with CVD to see full, untinted colors — and it all happened quite accidentally during an Ultimate Frisbee tournament.
EnChroma Vice President Dr. Don McPherson, an avid Frisbee fan, first came up with the idea for CVD-offsetting glasses while creating safety eyewear for laser surgeries. The glasses being provided surgeons at the time were, as McPherson puts it, “terrible. They distorted the vision so much that surgeons would learn to adapt [during operations] based on the morphology,” much like CVD-afflicted drivers with the shape of stop signs. That’s not the most reassuring thought.
So McPherson and Bay Glass Research, his company at the time, created a thousand-dollar pair of protective glasses with filters designed for the exact formula of the laser wavelengths. This gave the wearer what he calls “true color” and “heightened confidence” during surgeries.
“But [the surgeons] kept stealing the eyewear and using them as sunglasses,” explained McPhereson. “So I started wearing them [outside the lab].”
McPhereson noticed his color vision improve in the sunshine with the laser surgery eyewear. But he didn’t realize their full potential until, while warming up with a color blind friend before an Ultimate Frisbee tournament in Santa Cruz, his friend exclaimed that with the glasses he could see the field’s orange cones so brightly they looked “fluorescent.”
An inspired McPherson wrangled a National Institute of Health grant and recruited mathematician Andrew Schmeder to create one of the most comprehensive mappings of the human ocular system in the world using the computer modeling program Mathmatica.
After countless clinical tests held at their Berkeley laboratory, McPhereson and Schmeder created the Super Color Enhancing (SCE) lenses used in their CVD glasses. The lenses have a microns-thick layer of more than 100 different filters laid atop each other in what’s called a dielectric stack. This allows for precise wavelengths of light, determined to the decimal by the computerized model, to be filtered through to the wearer.
“You might not see anything right away if you have really strong color vision deficiency,” Schmeder noted. In clinical trials, those who worked in graphic design fields or anywhere that required one with CVD to overcome absent colors, it took up to days of wearing the SCE lenses before noticing color.
“Most people with color blindness have learned to deal with it in such a way that they question what we can bring to them,” said EnChroma Marketing head Kat Dykes.
But the SCE sunglasses, which retail for $600, offer much more than just color vision to wearers on sunny days. The glasses can actually retrain your brain over time to see color more intricately.
“It’s like if you’re a chef and you go to culinary school, your senses of taste and smell get better” explained McPherson, who says he has “super color vision” after wearing the Enchroma lenses for the last 10 years.
Additionally, the SCE lenses have allowed CVD wearers to now “think” with a full color palate like a multi-linguist dreaming in a foreign tongue. “When I think of an apple, I see something red in my brain,” a patient told McPherson. “He’d never seen red before and now he’s thinking with it.”
By the end of the year, EnChroma will release pediatric lenses made of durable trivex, not glass as they’ve been producing so far. This will present an opportunity to examine color correction in the human eye from a young age as well as expand the rather skeletal collection of eyewear produced by the Berkeley company.
Right now EnChroma has their two types of adult SCE glasses (for the most prominent conditions of colorblindness), SCE glasses for those with normal vision (no one on staff at EnChroma is actually colorblind), and extreme solar protection glasses which not only enhance colors, but keep ultraviolet and blue light from damaging the eyeballs. www.enchroma.com
EDITORIAL This week’s dismal election in San Francisco is a symptom of deeper problems in our political system, both here and across the country. It isn’t voter apathy that caused what is expected to be record low turnout at the polls. It was an understandable loss of faith in an electoral system dominated by money and insider political games. And that’s what we need to address before the next election.
Three of the four officeholders on the Nov. 5 had no opposition, while Dist. 4 Sup. Katy Tang had only token opposition from someone new to town with no relevant experience. Why would these important, coveted, well-paying jobs have no applicants? Because the cost of admission is just too high, and it looks to many observers like the fix is in.
Tang and Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu were each appointed to their posts by Mayor Ed Lee, and it is because of that connection that they were able to raise nearly $200,000 each, the most in this field of experienced office-holders. They also unfairly benefited from the power of incumbency, which can be formidable (as Lee knows, given that he was appointed mayor on the condition that he wouldn’t run for office, breaking that pledge and spending millions of dollars to win the 2011 mayor’s race).
We need a better system, one that the power brokers who put Lee into office can’t game as easily as they do. Maybe we should hold special elections for each vacancy, with shorter campaigns requiring less fundraising and thus opening up the field. Alternatively, we could make all appointees temporary caretakers and prohibit them from immediately running for a full term.
We should also limit how much developers can spend on political campaigns pushing their projects. The $2 million that Pacific Waterfront Partners just spent selling the 8 Washington luxury condo project to voters — particularly the deceptions and limits on reviews by the Planning Department in Prop. B — was obscene and unfair. But it was a smart investment on seeking profits of more than 50 times that figure.
In the post-Citizens United world, where money equals speech, there are legal barriers to doing what needs to be done. But we need to be creative and aggressive at pushing for political reform, from public financing, spending caps, and greater disclosure on campaigns to reforming the City Charter to end our strong mayor form of government, from his appointments to commissions and elective offices to the unchecked power that he has to control the spending of public money.
If we want to woo voters back to the polls, we need to give them something to vote for, and a package of political reforms would be a good place to start.
UPDATE: This editorial was corrected to fix a misspelling of Katy Tang’s last name.
The route to Wine Country was chock-full of gamblers on Nov. 5. They came in cars and limos. And they came on buses, just like hundreds of San Franciscans do every evening, many of them older Asian and Latino immigrants hoping to win big — or at least enjoy a diversion and a few free drinks.
But this day was a little different. It was the grand opening of Graton Resort & Casino, which is closer to San Francisco than the other casinos, both in distance and in its pro-labor progressive values.
Normally, Northern California tribes and even Harrah’s in Reno pay private bus companies to bring Bay Area customers to their doors. Graton hasn’t contracted these services yet, but the buses came anyway.
“Graton’s not paying us,” said Rocio Medrano, coordinator at Kenny Express, which planned to send three buses from Mission and 15th streets — where buses to various casinos line up every evening — to the opening. “But we had to go. Everyone was so excited.”
FADA Tours, which leaves from Kearny and Sacramento streets, sent six buses, every seat sold out in advance. Xin Jing Service dispatched three buses from downtown Oakland. Walter Wooden, a driver at Xin Jing, gave the same reason for the not-so-chartered bus service as Medrano: “The people want to go.”
Graton’s counting on it. California’s newest casino has steep profit projections, based largely on its proximity to the Bay Area. “Winning Just Got Closer,” Graton’s homepage screams. Next to the purple slogan, a map shows directions from San Francisco to the casino’s Rohnert Park address.
Odds are, most of the estimated 10,000 people who are swarming Graton in its opening days didn’t take home much winnings. But for a 1,300-person Native American tribe, and an Oakland-based labor union, winning really just got closer.
RARE UNION CASINOS
“Graton is very important,” said Marty Bennett, research and policy analyst at UNITE HERE Local 2850. “Now that it’s open, our organizing drive will begin soon.”
The 2,000-member local represents food service, hotel, and gaming workers, mostly in the East Bay. In a recent campaign, it organized a strike of 180 food service workers at Oakland International Airport. Its only current North Bay location is the Petaluma Sheraton, but Graton is poised to become its newest shop.
The likely unionization of Graton stems from an agreement signed in 2003 by Local 2850 and the tribal chairman who made Graton happen, Greg Sarris. The agreement guarantees card check neutrality, the union’s preferred way of organizing.
The other path to unionization is a secret ballot election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). But these elections are generally announced months before their dates, and notoriously offer a window of time for management to harass and intimidate workers.
The difference between card check and secret ballots is “night and day,” according to Wei-Ling Huber, president of Local 2850.
“It’s not even close. In a secret ballot election that’s run by the NLRB, about 50 percent of all organizing drives include termination of organizers,” Huber said.
If Graton workers vote to unionize with a card check, it could grow Local 2850’s 2,000-person membership by more than 50 percent. Huber said that about 1,200 of Graton’s 2,200 workers have jobs that would be represented by UNITE HERE, including bartenders, servers, and cleaning staff.
“It’s incredibly exciting,” Huber said. “The office is definitely abuzz.”
So is the Las Vegas office of Station Casinos. Members of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria own the casino, but Station has the contract to manage it. And it’s a lucrative property. Graton is projected to bring in $300 to $400 million in its first year.
Station spokesperson Lori Nelson told us by email the company is “excited to welcome residents from the Bay Area as we invite them all out to check out the newest entertainment destination created just for them.”
Nelson emphasized that Graton is targeting Bay Area customers.
“In fact, our advertising campaign that’s been on the air and on billboards the past few weeks even reads ‘From Bay to Play in 43 Minutes,'” Nelson wrote.
That “43 minutes” can be more like a couple hours on traffic congested days such as opening day. But increased congestion aside, Graton’s location 50 miles from San Francisco is a jackpot for Station. It was also key to the leverage Sarris had when he hired Station to manage Graton, using that leverage to require a worker-friendly operation.
When Sarris was looking to hire a management company, he invited representatives from the many interested firms to his living room, pitting them against each other.
“I did create what I like to call a cock fight,” Sarris tells us.
Sarris’ conditions were audacious. He wanted full tribal control of the development board, a LEED-certified green building, and $200 million upfront. But the condition that made most companies back down, he said, was his demand for living wages and benefits right off the bat, and the option for workers to unionize once the casino opened.
“The union thing was a deal breaker for everyone else. Station even had a problem with it,” Sarris said. “But it was my way or the highway on that one.”
In Las Vegas, Culinary Union Local 226 — a UNITE HERE affiliate — has been waging a campaign against Station since 2010. Its website devoted to Station workers’ struggle includes a list of 88 instances of alleged unfair labor practices committed by Station and calls the company called “rabidly anti-union.”
But in Rohnert Park, UNITE HERE and Station have been working together.
“We’re optimistic that our relationship here can be very different,” said Huber. “I think that the tribe has had a really positive influence on bringing us together in California in a way that is not the case in Las Vegas.”
At Sarris’ urging, the casino was built with 100 percent union labor. It created about 700 jobs. And Jack Buckhorn, president of the North Bay Labor Council, said that 75 percent of people hired to build Graton were Sonoma County residents.
“These were long-term jobs. It really helped out as we’re recovering from this great recession,” Buckhorn said. “These were all really good jobs.”
That 75 percent local hire rate is impressive compared to some construction projects with similar price tags in San Francisco. After neighborhood activism, the $1.5 billion UCSF Mission Bay Hospital has maintained a rate of 20 percent local hire. And the Golden State Warriors have been praised for its promise of 25 percent local hire for construction of its proposed arena on Piers 30-32.
Sarris says that his commitment to good working conditions at Graton is rooted in history.
“I believe in dignity in the workplace,” Sarris said. “Let’s not forget the way we labored in kitchens and fields with low wages and no benefits.”
Workers’ rights are just one part of the vision Graton’s tribal council has for the casino, which also includes a bevy of social programs, more than $25 million annually for parks and open spaces in Sonoma County, and an organic farm.
“We see Graton as a means to an end,” said Joanne Campbell, a 12-year tribal council member.
With Graton’s opening, Sarris isn’t just the leader of a tribe that’s about to get rich. He has influence in Sonoma County, and he says he intends to use it to fight injustice.
The Oct. 22 death of 13-year-old Santa Rosa boy Andy Lopez at the hands of Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus sparked weeks of protests in Santa Rosa, including a march Oct. 29 attended by hundreds from the East Bay and San Francisco.
“There was a 13-year old boy who was just shot up here. We now have the power to put people in and out of office, and we will,” Sarris said in a conversation last week. He declined to specify which officials might be a target of such a campaign, but said that “it’s not just police and sheriffs, it’s elected officials.”
“We can elect a spotted Chihuahua into office if we want,” Sarris said. “Look at all the money we’re going to have.”
KEEPING THE TURKEY
Sarris reiterated those ideas at a Nov. 3 meeting of the North Bay Organizing Project that was focused on Lopez. He then presented Lopez’s family with a check for $8,000.
“From day one, the only reason I got into it is to create something here that will benefit Indian and non-Indian alike,” Sarris said. “I’m especially concerned about people of color.”
After the genocide of Native Americans and centuries of oppression that followed, getting wealth back into indigenous communities is a complicated task. And with Graton, Sarris may achieve it for a tribe made up of descendants of those who first populated Novato, Marshall, Tomales, San Rafael, Petaluma, Bodega, and Sebastopol.
“It’s Thanksgiving again. But this time, we’re keeping the turkey,” Sarris said. “We’ll share it, but we’re keeping it.”
The people slogging up 101 this week were financing more than a glitzy new casino. Graton’s profits could fund serious progressive causes in Sonoma County. But first, its Bay Area customers will need to empty their pockets.
Someone has to lose for the house to win. Which demographics will most frequent Graton remains to be seen. One indication could be the clientele of Kenny Express.
“The seniors that are retired, they go on a daily basis. We also have people who work during the day and take the bus at night,” Medrano said. “They’re mostly Filipino, Hispanic, Chinese.”