Volume 48 Number 16

Volume 48 Number 16 Flip-through Edition

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The secret life of Sylvia Fein

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arts@sfbg.com

VISUAL ART In 2012, I ran down to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for “In Wonderland,” a massive exhibition of women surrealist artists working in the US and Mexico from the 1930s through the ’60s. Among the artists — from big names like Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington to obscure figures like Bridget Tichenor and Julia Thecla — there were only two living participants: Yayoi Kusama and Sylvia Fein. I was familiar with Kusama’s polka dots and happenings, but Sylvia Fein was altogether something else, a figurative painter whose gleaming egg-tempera-on-gesso works from the ’40s and ’50s suggested at once the allegorical portraiture of the Renaissance and the alchemical surrealism of Remedios Varo.

As it happens, Fein lives out near Martinez, and I soon found myself making pilgrimages to her house. Nor was I the only one, and among the people to have sought her out in the wake of “In Wonderland” are curator Travis Wilson and Jasmine Moorhead, owner of Oakland’s Krowswork Gallery. Together Wilson and Moorhead have mounted an ambitious retrospective, “Surreal Nature,” spanning the whole of Fein’s career but particularly emphasizing her output of the last decade, which has never been publicly shown.

Still using egg tempera on gesso, the spry 94-year-old painter continues to create her most astonishing works today, paintings that defy the usual division between abstract and representational; an eye, for example, might float in the middle of an otherwise wholly abstract cosmos, as in Crucial Eye (2011) or Marble Galaxy (2010). And while the catalog to “Surreal Nature” indicates she has rejected such labels as “surrealist” since her mid-20s, Fein has softened her stance somewhat over the ensuing years.

“I really don’t think that’s the word even though we use it all the time,” Fein says. “I think most paintings are surreal because they’re in another dimension. Sur-real, but in the right sense. Because it is above the ordinary.”

 

EARLY SPELLS

Certainly Fein’s career has been anything but ordinary; while studying painting as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the early ’40s, Fein became part of a six-person group of “magic realists” led by Marshall Glasier and including fellow “In Wonderland” artist Gertrude Abercrombie. Along with group member John Wilde, Fein earned a show at the university’s gallery in 1941, a rare honor for undergrads. World War II brought a period of intense anxiety over the fate of her enlisted husband, Bill Scheuber, expressed in such works as The Lady with the White Knight (1942-43), but it was during a stay in Mexico (1944-46) that her art fully flowered.

“I lived in a place where there was no running water and no flushing toilets,” she laughs, relating such elemental conditions to her artistic maturation. “God, that really fit my personality. And here I grew up in Milwaukee!”

In 1947, after her husband’s return from the war, the couple moved to the Bay Area, where Fein would receive an MFA from the University of California, Berkeley, participating in a pre-Beat bohemia that included the likes of dancer Anna Halprin and composer Harry Partch. But her real education, she maintains, was at the hands of art theorist Henry Schaefer-Simmern.

“He’d been brought to teach at Cal and his ideas were so revolutionary that technically they threw him out and he started his own art institute,” Fein recalls. “I was one of his first students, and he was teaching that there was an evolutionary artistic intelligence, that most art begins with scribbles, then it starts to get formation, it evolves into circles and out of circles children make other lines. Not only that, but if you look at the history of the world and primitive societies, you see the same evolutionary things, whether in caves or rocks, scribbles on hides.

“I worked with him for 20 years. He was writing books; I did research for him, and then I did drawings for his books, in ink, of historical subject matter, so it was like I was studying the history of the world all over again then delineating it for him. That’s like a secret part of my life nobody has ever mentioned.”

 

LATE MAGIC

At the same time, Fein managed a successful career as a painter. By the mid-’50s, when monumental abstraction was in, she was working nearly in miniature, painting tiny landscapes and seascapes. Nothing could have been less fashionable, but she still sold well on both coasts. Yet in the early ’70s, she began a 30-year hiatus from painting, as she wrote and self-published two books inspired by her work with Schaefer-Simmern, Heidi’s Horse (1976), an analysis of her daughter’s drawings of horses between the ages of 2 and 16, and First Drawings: Genesis of Visual Thinking (1993), a related account exploring the development of visual logic in children, primitive societies, and other artists. Only in the early 2000s did she return to painting, in time for rediscovery by curator Robert Cozzolino, who staged a show of the ’40s magic realist group, “With Friends,” at the University of Wisconsin in 2005. This show led directly to her inclusion in the 2012 LACMA exhibition.

While both “With Friends” and “In Wonderland” focused on the ’40s and ’50s, “Surreal Nature” is the first opportunity to see Fein’s present work, even as the curators have done an excellent job of contextualizing it in terms of her overall development. One need only juxtapose The Lady with the White Knight with her most recent series of memorial “trees” for her husband Bill — who died in 2013 after some 70 years of marriage — to see how her own version of surrealism has transformed from an image-based style to a more directly experiential art of brushwork and materials.

“It sure is flowering in my late age,” Fein remarks. “I’m so lucky that’s happening. You can’t make yourself do this.” *

SURREAL NATURE

Jan. 18-Feb. 22

Thu-Sat, noon-6pm and by appt.

Krowswork

480 23rd St (side entrance), Oakl.

www.krowswork.com

 

Art-ic blast

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arts@sfbg.com

THEATER New York early last week was as cold as Muazzez. True, I’ve never been to Muazzez, but a reputable source called that asteroid “so cold it is a frozen bull roar,” which sounds about right.

“They lied to me about the reality of things here on Muazzez,” began said source, a nondescript speaker seated at a bare wood desk. “About the foundations of these, their basis, their fundament, the profound bottom of things.”

There’s a glass of water on the desk, some loose paper.

“I am an Abandoned Cigar Factory (or ACF),” he goes on to explain, “groaning in the dunes near the settlement of Culpepper.”

The unexpected narrator at the bare wood desk sat in a bare white room, with the incongruous name of the Chocolate Factory (in fact, a terrific theater in Long Island City). The play, called Muazzez, originated as a collection of short stories (all set on asteroids) by Mac Wellman, a writer better known as a playwright and a leading light of the American experimental scene (and a prolific one too, despite receiving few productions in the Bay Area).

Performed with a forthright, faintly odd, wholly captivating precision by longtime collaborator Steve Mellor, Muazzez (directed by Wellman) is an intoxicating and deceptively subdued flight of language and weirdness whose cumulative power, over the course of its brisk 40 minutes, is hard to describe and harder to shake off. Its surface meanings can seem strange, obscure, dryly amusing, even piffling — still, there are things shifting down below in some grim molten core. It was a feeling similar to that produced by one of James Tate’s poems.

Muazzez set the tone well. Expecting the unexpected became second nature over the course of last week’s sampling of shows from PS 122’s COIL (which presented Muazzez), as well as from the Public Theater’s Under the Radar, and Ben Pryor’s American Realness — all together just three (!) of the lively and significant New York festivals that now swirl each January around the annual meeting of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (or “A-PAP,” as it’s usually pronounced).

Bees are in short supply these days, so better to say the presenting industry’s international confab is a kind of honey pot attracting bears in the performing arts world, by which we mean the artists wrapped in faux fur coats and puffy jackets against the bracing, angry wind and plummeting temperatures of last week’s “arctic blast” (itself just another signal from the larger natural order of things that humanity is wildly off course — or right on target, I guess, depending on your end goal.)

This context heightened the urgency folded into Muazzez‘s extraterrestrial transmission. And there were other, comparable transmissions, including one from the future, articulated in the person and voice of TV’s Captain Kirk. Co-presented by COIL and the New Ohio Theatre, An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk takes place on a stage inhabited by a central flat screen TV on wheels and two larger screens on either side. Onto the center screen comes the iconic image of TV’s starship commander and over-actor par excellence.

Suddenly he speaks — in a funny but vaguely disconcerting stagger of assembled speech bites, culled from the character’s entire lexicon, the actor’s “body” of work. The captain has been commandeered. Someone or something else from beyond (beyond this time and beyond language) is speaking to us through him. The transmission, spelled out on the far screens, comes in segments or “chapters,” and has a philosophical cast: a discussion of the differences between art and science. Its purpose, we are told, is to convey a message to us from the future, which alone knows where we are headed. The message itself (the beautifully written text is by Joe Diebes; the excellent audio-visual scheme by Rob Ramirez) is prefaced and forestalled, in a half-teasing fashion, by a discussion of some basic terms.

The performance’s sole human figure, meanwhile — other than two-dimensional James T. — is an expressionless Japanese woman (an imposingly restrained Mari Akita) who moves the wheeled screen slowly about the stage, illustrates a point or two with a few simple movements, and, in one deceptively incongruous moment, picks up a microphone to deliver (in subtitled Japanese) a monologue about coming to the United States and falling obsessively into the world of drag queens and female impersonation.

Hilarious yet eerie, playful yet purposeful, oblique yet precise, conceiver-director Phil Soltanoff’s An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk proved a dialectical delight; and in its teasing manner and final indirect plea for some small but profound transcendence, it was, pardon the expression, fascinating.

In another wonderfully estranging but altogether earthbound offering, COIL teamed up with American Realness and New York City Players (the latter seen at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts last February with its co-production of Early Plays by Eugene O’Neill) to co-present writer-director Tina Satter’s offbeat, sharp-footed House of Dance (in association with Satter’s own company, Half Straddle, and the Abrons Art Center).

Set in a small New England tap studio among four fractious, serious, and seriously oddball tap dance competitors (played with a combination of understated delivery and irresistible flair by Jess Barbagallo, Elizabeth DeMent, Jim Fletcher, and Paul Pontrelli), the 60-minute House of Dance trumps the hackneyed pomp of reality television with the heightened banality of its obscure, ego-invested lives — who do in fact dance the hell out of their tap shoes.

These startling moments evoked a real joy too, a flight from obscurity into a greatness no championship trophy could hope to convey — at once so light, so personal, yet communal, it made one realize this piece could only make sense as a live performance. And feel sorry for those people who did not venture out this night, but stayed indoors against the howling cold. *

 

Slice of local soul

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LEFT OF THE DIAL Looking back with the sense of perspective that four and a half decades can provide, the year 1969 seems almost implausibly momentous. The US government instated the draft for Vietnam. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. John and Yoko got in bed and stayed there; Jimi shred the Star-Spangled Banner. And the Mets were really, really good.

In San Francisco, Sly and the Family Stone went into the studio — Pacific High Recording, on a tiny street near the 101 between Market and Mission, to be specific—and emerged with a record that would change the course of funk and soul music forever. Stand! was the fourth album from the Vallejo-bred seven-piece, catapulting into the mainstream a band the likes of which popular music had never seen: Two white folks and five black folks, both men and women, who sang about racism, poverty, peace and violence, sex, and other provocative topics in an honest yet irresistably danceable way. At the wheel was Sly Stone (born Sylvester Stewart), a charismatic sometime-soul DJ for SF radio stations and a musical prodigy of sorts who played the keyboard, guitar, bass and drums by age 11.

The record sold more than 3 million copies, propelled by singles like the title track, “Everyday People,” and “I Want to Take You Higher.” It was the apex of the band’s success. Three months later, they would give one of the best performances of their career at Woodstock, at 3:30am on a Sunday. By the end of 1969, after a move to LA, Sly and other Family Stone members were addicted to cocaine; by 1970, tensions were brewing in the studio and on the road. Despite producing a handful of other critically acclaimed records, drug problems and personal rifts grew steadily, and the band dissolved in 1975.

Still: “There are two types of black music,” wrote Joel Selvin in Sly and the Family Stone: An Oral History. “Black music before Sly Stone, and black music after Sly Stone.”

Of the 100-plus Bay Area musicians participating in “UnderCover Presents: Sly and the Family Stone’s Stand!” Jan. 17-19, it’s safe to say most came of age in the latter era — regardless of ethnicity — with popular music that bore Stone’s influence. For three consecutive nights at the Independent, nine artists from diverse genres will recreate the iconic album from start to finish, with each band performing its own unique arrangement of the track they were assigned. A record of all the performances was produced at San Francisco’s Faultline Studios in the weeks leading up to the show.

UnderCover has been producing large-scale shows like this every few months for the a little over three years, each time honoring an influential album with a different bill of Bay Area bands and a different guest musical director: Past shows have included reinterpretations of Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, and Radiohead’s Kid A. But Stand! represents new ground for a couple reasons: From a technical standpoint, the sheer quantity of musicians participating is daunting, thanks to guest director David Möschler’s 50-person Awesöme Orchestra, a Berkeley-based collective that holds monthly orchestral rehearsals that are free and open to anyone who wants to play.

Perhaps more importantly, this will be the first show honoring a local musician — one whose legacy still commands so much local respect. Recruiting bands who were excited about the chance to honor Sly and the Family Stone, says Möschler, was the easy part.

“If you’re talking innovation, if you’re talking community, if you’re talking Bay Area, that’s Sly,” says Möschler, a Berkeley-based musical director and conductor who comes from the world of orchestra and musical theater. “It was a natural choice.” He pitched Lyz Luke, UnderCover’s director, after being “blown away” by the Joni Mitchell show last January. Möschler said it was time for an Undercover show highlighting an artist of color — and that, while tribute nights to Michael Jackson, Prince and even Stevie Wonder are in no short supply, Sly’s oeuvre seemed to be under-trodden territory.

Why Stand!? “Every song is so powerful and yet so economical. There are these huge political statements — ‘Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,’ ‘Everyday People,’ ‘You Can Make It If You Try’ — but it’s also just extremely good songwriting. And then there’s this 13-minute jam with ‘Sex Machine,'” says Möschler with a laugh. “You can hear that they were at the height of their creative powers as a band.”

Möschler reached out to Bay Area artists that felt like family bands, as Sly’s was. Seemingly impossibly, every artist, from the acclaimed jazz composer/bassist Marcus Shelby to the hip-hop/funk/Latin 10-piece Bayonics, listed a different first choice of song to cover.

“I think we said yes within two minutes,” says Daniel Blum, drummer for the Tumbleweed Wanderers, a folky soul-rock outfit who’ll be performing “Everyday People.” “We were huge fans of the band, but we didn’t want to fall into just covering the song. We played with harmonies, added some signatures of our sound.” Aside from the thrill of reinterpreting Stone’s music, UnderCover presented a rare opportunity to work with a slew of other artists the band respected, said Blum.

“Every show we do, we have artists tell us that they made connections they might never have otherwise, saying ‘You have to keep doing this,'” says Luke. She had the idea for UnderCover late one night three years ago, over drinks at the Latin American Club with Jazz Mafia founder Adam Theis and Classical Revolution’s Charith Premawardhana, then stayed up until morning crafting a dream-team lineup. “Our very first show [a Velvet Underground and Nico night in which Liz Phair and Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins took part], there were musicians running out from backstage just to see the next band, exchanging numbers afterward — they were in awe of each other.”

Theis has since watched the shows evolve as both an organizer and a musician. Though it hasn’t been the case with this show, “More than one previous UnderCover artist has told me that they actually didn’t really dig the song they ended up with at first, but that it brought them to a place where they had to dig and search for what the song meant to them,” says Theis, whose ensemble will be performing “You Can Make It If You Try.” “For me, that’s brought me to new musical places that I never would have gotten to just by staying in my comfort zone.”

Speaking of comfort zones: Nothing’s official, but this may be the first UnderCover show featuring members of the band being honored. Sly Stone famously fell on hard times in the early ’80s, suffering from addiction, financial problems and alleged mental illness; the musician, who is believed to live in Vallejo again, has made public appearances only sporadically since. But at least a few other original members have happily said they’ll be there. And Sly definitely knows about the show, thanks to Jeff Kaliss, a former Chronicle entertainment reporter who in 2008 penned the only authorized biography of the band, including the first in-depth interview with the elusive musician in over two decades. The verdict: Sly supposedly thinks it sounds “very cool.”

“The number of people from Sly’s community who have reached out has been truly amazing,” says Luke. “We’re talking major, famous funk guys going ‘We’re on board, we’ll help you. I think the community was waiting for this. I don’t think I realized what he means to the Bay Area.”

UnderCover Presents Sly & the Family Stone’s “Stand!”

Fri/17 – Sun/19

The Independent

628 Divisadero, SF

www.theindependentsf.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soft eyes

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cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM Chip Lord first came to public attention as a founding member of art collective Ant Farm (1968-78), which allowed him to explore his interest in alternative architecture via projects like the Cadillac Ranch installation in Amarillo, Texas. He later segued into teaching (at UC Santa Cruz) and video art, with works that include a long-running series examining city spaces. A San Francisco resident, he’ll be at the Exploratorium this week screening a trio of urban-themed works.

SF Bay Guardian Before we get into your Exploratorium screening, I wanted to ask about 2010’s Abscam (Framed), a re-creation of the 1981 FBI surveillance operation that exposed a government bribery scandal. Have you seen American Hustle, which dramatizes the same events?

Chip Lord I did! I enjoyed it. Obviously, it takes liberties with the truth of the Abscam events — but it was done in a very clever way.

SFBG Do you think it got the hotel-room surveillance scene right?

CL No, because when I did my re-enactment I went to the actual room where one of the FBI operations took place, at the Travelodge at [New York’s] Kennedy Airport. What was rather ironic was that the art on the wall was the US Capitol building — I think it had to have been added after the fact by an ironic hotel decorator.

SFBG As a nod to the Congressman who was busted there?

CL Yeah. [Laughs.] But I will say, in terms of the way [American Hustle depicted] the appearance of the video surveillance — that scene was very accurate.

SFBG You have three films screening at the Exploratorium, one of which, Venice Underwater, is making its local debut. You’ve been making city-centric films for over 20 years. What drew you to Venice, Italy, as your latest subject?

CL I had a residency in Venice at the Emily Harvey Foundation in 2008. I’d never been there before, and I was attracted to it as a city where there are no cars — and, of course, knowing that it’s a prime tourist destination. At the time, I didn’t have a high definition camera. I shot a lot of footage in standard definition video, and then I realized that I had to go back and reshoot some of it in HD.

It’s largely an observed film. It has some voice-over, but it’s very minimal. I wanted it to be in the style of Frederick Wiseman, which gives the viewer more responsibility in arriving at its meaning. Not being specifically guided as much.

SFBG When the voice-over happens, it’s like the viewer becomes a tourist for a few minutes. But most of the time, the viewer is observing the tourists. And there are so many of them!

CL The title refers metaphorically to the flood of tourists, which has gone up every year over the past 10 or 15 years. Meanwhile, the residential population is diminishing. Most of the people who work in the tourist industry don’t live in the city; they’re commuting in every day. And the city has been cooperative in allowing more and more buildings to be converted into hotels. It reaches a point at which you wonder: Is it becoming a Disneyland version of itself?

SFBG Did the sheer number of tourists allow you to blend in and film discreetly?

CL That was an advantage, especially on the Rialto Bridge, where everybody has a camera. You can be filming a subject, and they’re not aware of it because it’s just another camera. There’s one sequence with a Japanese couple, and I was kind of stalking them for awhile — intentionally trying to construct a sequence where you would see them wandering and taking pictures and interacting. I think that was a more substantive portrait of the tourist experience in a way.

They did become aware, but they didn’t say anything; a couple of shots, I couldn’t use because the young woman was looking at the camera and sort of giving me a dirty look. At that point, I stopped [filming them].

This type of shooting is a form of people-watching. If you introduce a camera into that equation, it’s very challenging. You want to get close to people, but without changing their normative behavior, and you don’t want to be invading somebody’s privacy. It’s a kind of complicated ethical situation.

SFBG Another film in the program is Une Ville de l’Avenir (2011), which uses clips from Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965). This recontextualizing technique is one you’ve used previously. What do you think it helps achieve?

CL What’s wonderful about Godard’s film is that it’s set in the future and has a very archetypical sci-fi plot, with a Big Brother character. But he shot it in present-day Paris, which was a brilliant idea. He found very good locations. I love that film, but I thought, “Now we’re in the future that was imagined in that film, in a way. It would be interesting to go back and re-imagine some of the locations.” That’s the basic idea. I also book ended it as an airplane movie. So what you’re seeing of Alphaville, you’re seeing on an airplane.

I’m more interested in defining these kinds of public spaces than sticking to the narrative plot of his original film, although I did use music from Alphaville as well — such an evocative score.

SFBG Air travel is a recurring theme in your films, including the final Exploratorium film, In Transit (2011). Have you encountered any post-9/11 artistic challenges?

CL I’ve been told to stop filming many times. [Laughs.] I happened to make the unfortunate choice of spending some time at Kennedy Airport right after the “shoe bomber” had been apprehended. At that point, anybody who took out a camera in an airport was kind of suspect.

But from a larger perspective, air travel is an activity that has become so boring and routine — but it’s still kind of miraculous. I always try to get a window seat, because it can be just amazing to look out the window for an extended period of time. For In Transit, I wanted to capture both of those elements. *

“OFF THE SCREEN: CHIP LORD CITY FILMS”

Thu/16, 7pm, free with museum admission ($19-$25)

Exploratorium

Pier 15, SF

www.exploratorium.edu

 

Bee true

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM It’s January, and our premiere German language film festival, Berlin and Beyond, is back to its rightful place on the cinematic calendar after a year off for regrouping, kicking off the neues Jahr with films from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland — as well as Turkey and France.

It’s not a bad way to begin 2014, unless your resolutions happen to be cutting back on bier and weltschmertz. Even though the B&B selections feel a bit dated — thanks, perhaps, to that one-year hiatus — there are still a few solid picks, including the Oscar-shortlisted Two Lives (2012). The documentary slate also holds plenty of appeal, with films that explore the globally human instincts to interfere, to intervene, and to seek atonement.

Swiss-German-Austrian documentary More Than Honey (2012) offers an alarmingly frank exposé of the ongoing demise of the domesticated honeybee from California to China, and the implications that this population implosion holds for the future of food production. Honey bumbles onscreen like a bee in flight, seemingly directionless yet always with purpose. Director Markus Imhoof weaves his family’s own history of beekeeping with that of modern-day bee husbandry, comparing the techniques of his ancestors with the equally old-school methods employed by elderly Swiss beekeep Fred Jaggi; the industrial-scale beekeeping of “nomadic” John Miller, who transports his bees cross-country each year to pollinate crops from Northern California to North Dakota; and the renegade experimentation with fearsome “killer bees” employed by Arizona-based Fred Terry, who equates Americans’ fear of Africanized bees to our more generalized fear of invasion.

Squeamish masses beware, you will be subjected to extreme close-ups of larval chambers, mid-air bee sex, and ruthless varroa mite infestations, while getting more information about queening, foulbrood, hand pollination, and bee-whispering than you probably realized existed. Like raw honey, the film is both sweet and murky, and the prospects for peaceful cohabitation with a creature driven to possible extinction thanks to our careless treatment of its preferred habitats, which also happen to be where all of our food is grown, don’t appear to be weighted on the side of good news.

One documentary with no less a fascinating premise, albeit a less polished presentation, is Miles and War (2013), which highlights the working life of professional conflict mediators. A side project filmed and directed by Anna Thoma — who has worked as a videographer for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, and therefore had privileged access to three of the Centre’s top mediators — Miles dives into conflict regions, where mediators arrange meetings between warlords or rebel factions and hammer out agreements between them in painstakingly slow increments. Or, as Centre co-founder and former Executive Director Martin Griffiths observes halfway through a negotiation so secret even Anna is not allowed to be in the room, “You need to be a lot more patient than you want to be, because everything is going to take so much longer than it needs to.”

In truth, because mediation is a confidential process, Thoma’s film winds up on the sidelines more often than not, a so-close-yet-so-far teaser of the tense, often solitary downtime between mediations, seemingly composed of endless one-sided phone calls, plane flights, and scheduling blips.

“It’s a life controlled by others,” Griffiths tells Thoma almost ruefully, before slipping away to his secret meeting. “[Waiting] for someone to say yes.”

Another love letter to an institution is Redemption Impossible, aka Unter Menschen (2012), a layered portrait of a group of “retired” lab chimps at Gut Aiderbichl, an Austrian animal sanctuary. After being infected with HIV and hepatitis, the chimps were isolated and experimented on by pharmaceutical company Immuno-AG, for several years, in a bid to discover an AIDS vaccine. When Immuno was taken over by Baxter in 2002, the vaccination trials ended, but the issue of where to send the infected, unsocialized lab chimps became an open controversy. After the chimps were shuffled around in various states of limbo, championed by their self-effacing caretaker Renate Foidl and her small staff of bright-eyed, ponytailed assistants, their care was taken on by GA in 2009, and their conditions increasingly improved upon.

Though the first half-hour of the film is a bit slow going — with real-time footage of the laborious, day-to-day care of the chimps, some of whom still live in isolation, too traumatized to be in the same room with their peers — the tale of the cloak-and-dagger intrigue surrounding their illegal importation into Europe adds a crime thriller dimension to the primates’ unfortunate plight. Money and influence, of course, is the root of this evil, and the implicated players represent a broad spectrum of political figures, big pharma, game poachers, and even wildlife conservation organizations.

But ultimately it’s the gradual rehabilitation of the chimps themselves that provides the documentary’s real human interest, and watching them step into the sunlight for the first time in 30 years is a triumphal catharsis.

“To me this does not really ‘make up for things’,” Foidl explains emotionally as she watches the outdoor play space being built after years in the planning stages. “It’s awful what was done to them. It can’t be undone … I don’t think there can be any talk of ‘redemption’.” Perhaps not, but compassion, it would appear, can still command a central role. *

18TH BERLIN AND BEYOND FILM FESTIVAL

Wed/15-Sun/19, $7-$20

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

Mon/20-Tue/21, $10

Goethe-Institut

530 Bush, SF

www.berlinbeyond.com

 

The good foot

0

arts@sfbg.com

DANCE The fourth FRESH Festival sounds like something that might attract foodies. In fact you do need an appetite — for thinking way outside of the box. The participating dancers, musicians, designers, and writers feed on each other’s disciplines to stretch their own thinking about who they are and what they want to do. If sometimes the “how” intrigues more than the “what,” so be it. Watching new modes emerging can be such an upper.

The opening weekend (Jan. 3-4 at Kunst-Stoff Arts) presented three dancer-choreographers who took the audience into what was, for me, terra incognita. The trip was more than worth it. What impressed in Christine Bonansea’s Floaters #1, Sara Shelton Mann’s Hybrid 3, and ALTERNATIVA’s apparition was the clarity of purpose, and how — though by no means “choreographed” — these experiments were steeped in a dancer’s awareness of the body.

Bonansea structured her site-specific film noir Floaters #1 into four loosely connected sections that opened with a murky image of herself that fused with the dancer slithering down a fire escape. Thrown into pitch-black darkness, she trotted around the audience seated center stage. The dancer could have been a speed skater except that her feet hammered out percussive patterns (perhaps done in point shoes). Here Bonansea was present as sound — just like those ominous steps in the night we know from crime flicks. In the most dancerly part of the piece, she put her exceptionally lithe and pliable body into black tights, aviator glasses, and a sequined helmet to metamorphosize into scintillating, indefinable creatures — animals, plants, humans, and robots. And then she simply slipped away.

Mann, with her calm demeanor and smoky voice, sat herself center stage and read a manuscript — a script for a show she is planning — that roamed around a universe of autobiography, natural history, and feelings personal and social. All you could do was follow her along on the ride. And what a pleasure it was, to enter a mind like hers.

For apparition, ALTERNATIVA — Kathleen Hermesdorf, a brilliant performer, and longtime collaborator Albert Mathias — used video technology to play with concepts of reality. Almost like a shaman, Hermesdorf both fought and collaborated with those fragile images. Effects “sliced” her torso into layers, so that her shadow looked more reflective of her humanity than her bodily presence. With a flick of her wrist, she also turned a sewing machine, that ultimate tool of domestication, into a sputtering machine gun. If that was not turning reality inside out, and upside down, I don’t know what is.

 

LIGHTS UP

Across the city at Z Space, scenic and lighting designer Matthew Antaky once more worked his magic with Liss Fain Dance for Fain’s new, intensely private After the Light, inspired by fragments of Virginia Woolf’s writing. Antaky surrounded a square stage space with a series of arbors through which the audience watched the dancers — who, in contrast to the elegant set, wore undershirts, pants, and suspenders (by Mary Domenico). Again we were invited to walk around with the promise of multiple perspectives. Most of us stayed stationary and become visual elements within the set’s graceful arches. The coexistence of an easy formality with casualness, however, set a welcoming tone for another of Fain’s intelligent rethinkings of literary sources.

Excerpts from The Waves (read by Marty Pistone and Val Sinckler) interwove with Dan Wool’s original score; together they generated and commented on the choreography. A few tiny narratives emerged. The heat rose momentarily to party level to the strains of Mendelssohn as the dancers (in their suspenders) remembered ballet phrases. It was a charmingly telling moment, because in the back of Fain’s mind ballet is ever present, though she rarely uses its vocabulary. Hers is a deep but not literal kinship to the tradition.

Once, all six dancers broke into a series of side hops as if engaged in a game. At another spot two people “died” and were mourned with an encircling dance by sister team Shannon Kurashige and Megan Kurashige. But these moments evaporated, leaving no traces — perhaps like memories, perhaps like passing thoughts. My sense, however, is that better familiarity on my part with the text might have yielded more insights on just how Fain used her literary sources.

Her dancers are individualists — wonderful to watch in unisons when circling the stage or hanging on to each other in a chain or a follow-the-leader section. In repeated duets the lanky Jeremiah Crank partnered a short and fierce Carson Stein, while tall Katharine Hawthorne paired with compact Alec Lytton (who promptly flipped her). One of After’s particularly intriguing traits was a plethora of unexpected stops and broken connections, with dancers waiting and watching from the sidelines much like we did. At times you felt that these people knew each other, but their encounters also seemed controlled by serendipity, as if they just happened to bump into each other. *

FRESH FESTIVAL 2014

Through Sun/19

CounterPULSE UnderGround

80 Turk, SF

Kunst-Stoff Arts

1 Grove, SF

www.artsbuildingconsortium.org

 

On the waterfront

6

steve@sfbg.com

Who should decide what gets built on San Francisco’s waterfront: the people or the Mayor’s Office and its political appointees? That’s the question that has been raised by a series of high-profile development proposals that exceed current zoning restrictions, as well as by a new initiative campaign that has just begun gathering signatures.

Officially known as the Voter Approval to Waterfront Development Height Increases initiative, the proposal grew out of the No Wall on the Waterfront campaign that defeated Propositions B and C in November, stopping the controversial 8 Washington luxury condo tower in the process.

“The idea was to have a public process around what we’re going to do with the waterfront,” campaign consultant Jim Stearns told the Guardian.

San Franciscans have been here before. When developers and the Mayor’s Office proposed big hotel projects on the city’s waterfront, voters in 1990 reacted by approving Proposition H. It created a temporary moratorium on new hotels and required the city to create a Waterfront Land Use Plan to regulate new development, which was approved in 1997 and hasn’t been updated since.

It was an important transition point for the city’s iconic waterfront, which was still dominated by industrial and maritime uses when the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989 led to the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway and opening up of shoreline property controlled by the Port of San Francisco.

Ironically, then-Mayor Art Agnos supported a luxury hotel project at Seawall Lot 330 (which is now part of the proposed Warriors Arena project at Piers 30-32) that helped trigger Prop. H. Agnos stayed neutral on that measure and says he was supportive of setting clear development standards for the waterfront.

Today, Agnos is one of the more vocal critics of the Warriors Arena and how the city is managing its waterfront.

“What’s happened in the last three to four years is all those height limits have been abrogated,” Agnos said of the standards set by the WLUP. “With the sudden availability of big money for investment purposes, there is now funding for these mega-developments projects.”

The trio of high-profile projects that would be most directly affected by the initiative are the proposed Warriors Arena, hotel, and condos at Piers 30-32/Seawall Lot 330; a large housing and retail project proposed by the San Francisco Giants at Pier 48/Seawall Lot 337; and a sprawling office, residential, and retail project that Forest City wants to build at Pier 70. Each project violates parts of the WLUP.

“We need to let the people protect the waterfront and current height limits,” Agnos said, “because clearly there is no protection at City Hall.”

 

CAMPAIGN LAUNCH

On a drizzly Saturday, Jan. 11, a few dozen activists crowded into the office at 15 Columbus Avenue, preparing to go collect signatures for the new waterfront initiative. It was a space that was already familiar to many of them from their fall campaign against height increases on the 8 Washington project.

“What we’re doing today is launching the next phase of that campaign,” campaign manager Jon Golinger told the assembled volunteers, calling this space “the center of the fight for San Francisco’s future.”

The campaign must collect at least 9,702 valid signatures by Feb. 3 to qualify for the June election, but Golinger said those involved in the campaign actually have six months to gather signatures if they want to wait for the November election.

Golinger said they would prefer June in order to build off of the momentum of the fall campaign and not get caught up in the more crowded November ballot. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm from the last election to ensure the waterfront gets the protection it needs,” he told us.

As for getting the necessary signatures, Golinger said he isn’t worried, noting that almost two years ago, he and other activists collected twice that many signatures — referendums require 10 percent of those voting in the last mayor’s race, but initiatives need only 5 percent — to challenge just the 8 Washington project.

Here, the stakes are much higher, spanning the entire seven-mile waterfront.

“We want the voters to have a say when a project goes beyond the rules that are in place,” said Sup. David Campos, the first elected official to endorse the measure and the first person to sign Golinger’s petition.

Campos also connected the campaign to the eviction crises and tenant organizing now underway, including the first in a series of Neighborhood Tenants Conventions taking place that day, culminating in a Feb. 8 event adopting a platform. “That struggle is part of this struggle,” Campos said. “We have to make sure we’re working collectively.”

The official proponent of the initiative is Becky Evans, who has been working on issues related to San Francisco’s waterfront for more than 40 years. “I remember walking along the waterfront with Herb Caen back in the ’70s,” she said of the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist for whom the promenade on the Embarcadero is now named.

Evans is a longtime Sierra Club member who also served on the city’s first Commission on the Environment, and she believes the shoreline is a critical intersection between the city’s natural and built environments, one where the citizens have an active interest.

“I think the 8 Washington process — including the petition gathering and the vote — awoke a bunch of people to making a difference in what happens to the city,” Evans told us, calling the waterfront a defining feature of San Francisco. “For many people, our skyline is the bay, not the buildings.”

 

BEYOND THE PLAN

The initiative has few overt critics at this point. Both city and Port officials refused to comment on the measure, citing a City Attorney’s Office memo advising against such electioneering. “I’m incredibly limited as to what I can say,” the Port’s Brad Benson told us.

And none of the spokespeople for the affected development projects wanted to say much. “We’re taking a wait and see attitude,” PJ Johnston, a spokesperson for the Warriors Arena, said when he finally responded to several Guardian inquiries.

“Right now, we’re trying to understand it,” said Staci Slaughter, the senior vice president of communications for the San Francisco Giants, whose proposal for Pier 48 and Seawall Lot 337 includes 3.7 million square feet of residential, commercial, parking, and retail, including the new Anchor Steam Brewery.

That project is just launching its environmental studies, which was the subject of a public scoping meeting on Jan. 13. Slaughter did tell us that “right now, the majority of the site doesn’t have an established height limit,” a reference to the fact that most of the site is zoned for open space with no buildings allowed.

Diane Oshima, associate director of waterfront planning at the Port, told us that during the adoption of the WLUP, “We did not broach the subject of changing any height limits.” But the plan itself says that was because tall buildings weren’t appropriate for the waterfront.

“Maintain existing building height and bulk limitations and encourage building designs that step down to the shoreline,” is the plan’s first design objective. Others include “Improve views of the working waterfront from all perspectives” and “Remove certain piers between Pier 35 and China Basin to create Open Water Basins and to improve Bay views.”

The plan also specifies acceptable uses for its various waterfront properties. Residential isn’t listed as an acceptable use for either Pier 48 or Seawall Lot 337, both of which are slated mostly for open space and maritime uses. Office space and entertainment venues are also not deemed allowable uses on either property, although it does list retail as an allowable use on Pier 48.

By contrast, Piers 30-32 and the adjacent Seawall Lot 330 were envisioned by the plan to allow all the uses proposed for it: “Assembly and Entertainment” and retail on the piers and residential, hotels, and retail on the property across the street — but not at the heights that are being proposed.

The plan calls Pier 70 a “mixed use opportunity area” that allows most uses, but not hotels or residential, despite current plans that call for construction of about 1,000 homes at the site to help fund historic preservation efforts.

Slaughter answered questions about her project’s lack of compliance with the WLUP by saying, “The whole project is going through a community planning process.”

Yet Agnos said that neither that process nor the current makeup of the Port or Mayor’s Office can get the best deal for the public against rich, sophisticated teams of developers, investors, and professional sports franchises.

“They don’t have the expertise for the multi-billion-dollar deals that are in front of them,” Agnos said of the Port of San Francisco. “The new identity for San Francisco’s Port is it has the most valuable land in the country, and maybe the most valuable land in the world.”

Left turn?

27

rebecca@sfbg.com

Dan Siegel, an Oakland civil rights attorney and activist with a long history of working with radical leftist political movements, joined a group of more than 150 supporters in front of Oakland City Hall on Jan. 9 to announce his candidacy for mayor.

With this development, the mayor’s race in Oakland is sure to be closely watched by Bay Area progressives. Siegel’s bid represents a fresh challenge from the left against Mayor Jean Quan at a time when concerns about policing, intensifying gentrification, and economic inequality are on the rise.

Siegel is the latest in a growing list of challengers that includes Joe Tuman, a political science professor who finished fourth in the 2010 mayor’s race; Oakland City Councilmember Libby Schaaf; and Port Commissioner Bryan Parker.

In a campaign kickoff speech emphasizing the ideals of social and economic justice, Siegel laid out a platform designed “to make Oakland a safe city.” But he brought an unusual spin to this oft-touted goal, saying, “We need people to be safe from the despair and hopelessness that comes from poverty and long-term unemployment. We need safety for our tenants from unjust evictions and … gentrification.”

Siegel voiced support for raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. He also called for shuttering Oakland’s recently approved Domain Awareness Center, a controversial surveillance hub that integrates closed circuit cameras, license plate recognition software, and other technological law enforcement tools funded by a $10.9 million grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security.

He spoke about pushing for improvements in public education “to level the playing field between children from affluent backgrounds and children from poor backgrounds,” and described his vision for reorganizing the Oakland Police Department to foster deeper community engagement.

Among Siegel’s supporters are East Bay organizers with a deep history of involvement in social justice campaigns. His campaign co-chair is Walter Reilly, a prominent Oakland National Lawyers Guild attorney who said he’s been involved with civil rights movements for years. “This is a continuation of that struggle,” Reilly told the Bay Guardian, adding that leadership affiliated with “a progressive and class-conscious movement” is sorely needed in Oakland.

Left Coast Communications was tapped as Siegel’s campaign consultant. Siegel’s communications director is Cat Brooks, an instrumental figure in Occupy Oakland and the grassroots movement that arose in response to the fatal BART police shooting of Oscar Grant, whose Onyx Organizing Committee is focused on racial justice issues.

Olga Miranda, an organizer with San Francisco janitors union, SEIU Local 87, also spoke on Siegel’s behalf during the kickoff event. “San Francisco has become for the rich, and we understand that,” she said. “But at the same time, Oakland isn’t even taking care of its own.”

Referencing a recent surge in Oakland housing prices due in part to an influx of renters priced out of San Francisco, she added, “Dan understands that if you live in Oakland, you should be able to stay in Oakland.”

Siegel’s decision to challenge Quan for the Mayor’s Office has attracted particular interest since he previously served as her legal advisor, but their relationship soured after a public disagreement.

In the fall of 2011, when the Occupy Oakland encampment materialized overnight in front of Oakland City Hall, Siegel resigned from his post as Quan’s adviser over a difference in opinion about her handling of the protest movement. Police crackdowns on Occupy, which resulted in violence and the serious injury of veteran Scott Olsen and others, made national headlines that year.

“I thought that the Occupy movement was a great opportunity for this country to really start to understand the issues of inequality in terms of wealth and power,” Siegel told the Bay Guardian when queried about that. “And I thought the mayor should embrace that movement, and become part of it and even become a leader of it. And obviously, that’s not what happened.”

Since then, his relationship with Quan has been “Cool. As in temperature, not like in hip,” he said during an interview. “I don’t want to make this personal. But we have a difference about policy and leadership.”

With Oakland’s second mayoral election under ranked-choice voting, the race could prove fascinating for Bay Area politicos. Also called instant runoff voting, the system allows voters to select their first, second, and third choice candidates. If nobody wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the last-place candidates are eliminated in subsequent rounds and their vote redistributed until one candidate crosses the majority threshold.

Quan, who ran on a progressive platform in 2010, was elected despite winning fewer first-place votes than her centrist opponent, former State Senate President Don Perata. She managed to eke out an electoral victory with a slim margin (51 percent versus Perata’s 49), after voting tallies buoyed her to the top with the momentum of second- and third-place votes, many gleaned from ballots naming Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan as first choice.

Early polling conducted by David Binder Research showed Quan to be in the lead with the ability to garner 32 percent of the vote, as compared with 22 percent for Tuman, who placed second. That’s despite Quan’s incredibly low approval ratings — 54 percent of respondents said they disapproved of her performance in office.

When Schaaf announced her candidacy in November, Robert Gammon of the East Bay Express opined, “Schaaf’s candidacy … likely will make it much more difficult for Quan to win, particularly if no true progressive candidate emerges in the months ahead.” But Siegel’s entry into the race means there is now a clear progressive challenger.

The Guardian endorsed Kaplan as first choice in 2010, and gave Quan a second-place endorsement. While there has been some speculation as to whether Kaplan would run this time around — the David Binder Research poll suggested she would be a formidable opponent to Quan — Kaplan, who is Oakland’s councilmember-at-large, hasn’t filed.

Siegel, meanwhile, cast his decision to run as part of a broader trend. “I feel that not only in Oakland, but across the country, things are really ripe for change,” he told the Guardian.

Indeed, one of the biggest recent national political stories has been the election of Kshama Sawana, a socialist who rose to prominence during the Occupy Wall Street movement, to the Seattle City Council.

“When you have a city like Oakland where so many people are in poverty or on the edge of poverty, or don’t have jobs or face evictions,” Siegel told us, “it’s no wonder that the social contract falls apart. It seems to me that what government should do is elevate the circumstances of all people, and particularly people who are poor and disadvantaged.”

FCC chair gets an earful in Oakland

0

On Jan. 9, the newly appointed chair of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler, visited Oakland’s Preservation Park for a town hall meeting.

It was the first time in more than five years that the head of the FCC engaged in this kind of face-to-face community dialogue in Oakland, Chancellar Williams of Free Press said at the start of the meeting. The event was hosted by the Free Press, the Center for Media Justice, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and the Voices for Internet Freedom Coalition.

Social justice advocates from Oakland and San Francisco greeted Wheeler with a wide variety of concerns, asking him to help close the digital divide and improve access to basic phone and Internet service for low-income people.

Some spoke out about media consolidation, which Williams said has given rise to cost barriers resulting in abysmally low representation of broadcast station ownership by people of color. Others asked Wheeler to address the high cost of telephone calls in immigration detention.

Before people started lining up to share their thoughts with Wheeler, Malkia Cyril, founder and executive director of the Center for Media Justice, captured everyone’s attention by delivering an impassioned speech on issues of media ownership, democracy, and racial inequality.

“Just as our physical bodies serve to preserve our nervous systems,” she began, “the people right here stand beautifully strong in defense of an affordable, accountable, and accessible media.”

New arts high school would cost $240 million

0

Art advocates have tried to move the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts high school to its new home on Van Ness street since 1987. On Jan. 7, the dream moved one step closer, the only barrier is cost.

At a packed San Francisco Board of Education meeting, planners revealed the move’s sticker price, and it’s a big one: $240 million. Board of Education President Rachel Norton’s face sunk into one hand as she heard the news.

“There’s a big challenge going forward,” said David Goldin, chief facilities officer of the San Francisco Unified School District. “I don’t want to minimize that challenge for one minute. But for the first time in a long time, we’re close to having an architectural reality.”

The school is named for one of its founders, artist Ruth Asawa, with deep roots in San Francisco history as an arts and education activist. It has a unique education model: students attend academic classes in the morning, but spend two hours every afternoon learning a specific art discipline.

SotA is currently housed at the old McAteer campus on Twin Peaks, with its sister school, the Academy of Arts and Sciences (disclosure: I taught students video editing at SotA as a contractor until last summer). Collectively they have 1,000 students enrolled.

The cost of moving the school to the site on Van Ness is steep for a number of reasons, SFUSD spokesperson Gentle Blythe told us. SotA’s new home was formerly the High School of Commerce, and was granted historic landmark status — meaning the facade, at the very least, must be preserved. The building needs a seismic retrofit as well.

Most importantly, though, the cost is so high because the new site would be crafted with the arts in mind.

“It’s a high school for the performing arts with non-standard design considerations, including height of ceiling, and sophisticated electronics,” Blythe said. The building will be crafted for dance studios, orchestra rooms, multimedia facilities and more. It’s also not just a school: the district would also build an on-site auditorium that could seat 47,000 attendees.

By comparison, the new Willie Brown Middle School comes is budgeted at $55 million, Blythe told us. But the chief facilities officer said the price to move SotA was comparable to the cost of newer public arts schools in the US.

San Francisco artists came out in force to advocate for the move. First up to the podium to speak was the music director of the San Francisco Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas.

“I’m 10,000 percent behind this idea,” he told the board. “My dream is to do a Big Brothers Big Sisters program with all the grades, to share that vision with younger people.”

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

0

When is a public opinion poll a valid representation of how people feel? That turns out to be a tricky and ever-evolving question, particularly in San Francisco — thanks to its prevalence of tenants and technology — and even more particularly when it concerns the approval rating of Mayor Ed Lee.

Traditionally, the central requirements for public opinion polls to be considered valid is that respondents need to be representative of the larger population and they need to be selected at random. Polls are often skewed when people need to opt-in, as is the case in most online polls.

So the Guardian took issue with claims that 73 percent of voters approve of the job that Mayor Lee is doing, a figure derived from an opt-in online poll focused on “Affordability and Tech” that was conducted by University of San Francisco Professors Corey Cook and David Latterman and released to the San Francisco Chronicle on Dec. 9. That figure quickly wallpapered the comment section of the Guardian’s website as the answer to any criticism of Mayor Lee, his policies, or the city’s eviction and gentrification crises.

“Any survey that relies on the ability and/or availability of respondents to access the Web and choose whether to participate is not representative and therefore not reliable,” is how The New York Times Style Guide explains that newspaper’s refusal to run such polls, a quote we used in our Jan. 10 Politics blog post on the subject, and we quoted an academic making a similar point.

We also interviewed and quoted Latterman discussing the challenges of doing accurate and economical polling in a city with so many renters (64 percent of city residents) and so few telephone landlines. “San Francisco is a more difficult model,” Latterman told us. “So Internet polling has to get better, because phone polling has gotten really expensive.”

So we ran our story dubbing the poll “bogus” — and the next day got angry messages from Cook and Latterman defending the poll and educating us on efforts within academia to craft opt-in online polls that are as credible as traditional telephone polls.

“The author is so quick to dismiss the findings of the study, which is based upon accepted methodology, and which had nothing to do with mayoral approval scores, that he actually misses the entire thrust of the study — that voters in San Francisco are deeply ambivalent about the current environment, concerned about the affordability crisis, and not trusting of local government to come up with a solution,” Cook wrote in a rebuttal we published Jan. 13 on the Politics blog.

Cook told us the survey’s methods are endorsed by the National Science Foundation and peer-reviewed academic papers, including a Harvard University study called “Does Survey Mode Still Matter?” that concludes “a carefully executed opt-in Internet panel produces estimates that are as accurate as a telephone survey.”

That study went to great lengths to create a sample group that was representative of the larger population, while Cook and Latterman both admit that their survey’s respondents had a disproportionate number of homeowners. But they say the results were then weighted to compensate for that and they stand by the accuracy of their work.

Yet Cook also notes that the mayoral approval rating number wasn’t even part of the package they developed from this survey, it was just a finding that they decided to give the Chronicle. “I don’t think the 73 percent means anything,” Cook told us, noting that snapshot in time doesn’t reflect Lee’s actual popularity going forward, despite how Lee supporters focused on it. “The number they use politically is not a meaningful number.”

What Cook found more significant is the “tepid support” for Lee indicated by the poll, including the 86 percent that expressed concern about affordability in the city, a concern that cuts across all demographic groups. Most respondents had little faith in City Hall to address the problem and many felt the tech industry should be doing more to help, particularly companies that have received tax breaks.

Safety Scramble

1

joe@sfbg.com

On New Year’s Eve, six-year-old Sofia Liu was struck and killed when a driver using the Uber rideshare app allegedly failed to yield to her and her family as they progressed through a crosswalk. The girl’s mother and brother survived, but their tear-stained faces were soon all over news networks in heartbreaking reports of their loss. No less sad, 86-year-old Zhen Guang Ng was struck and killed that same night by a driver who allegedly failed to stop at a stop sign in the Crocker-Amazon district. These incidents aren’t isolated.

In 2012, 16 pedestrians were killed in vehicle collisions in San Francisco. That number jumped to 21 in 2013, according to the SFPD, and the new year has brought new collisions and more pedestrian deaths.

Already, the SFPD and other city agencies are scrambling for political cover, and advocacy groups are rushing in to call for changes they say will save lives. On Jan. 16, myriad groups will try to sell their version of safer city streets at a joint meeting between the Board of Supervisors’ Neighborhood Services & Safety Committee and the city’s Police Commission.

As the debate continues to unfold, the road to pedestrian safety looks to be bumpy, and the first pitfall may be the Police Department itself.

Enforcement

At the Jan. 8 Police Commission hearing, the SFPD played defense.

A host of groups were calling out the cops: Cabbies wanted more enforcement against rideshare drivers, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition wanted more incident tracking. Nobody seemed happy with the current state of affairs around pedestrian safety.

Cmdr. Mikail Ali, tall and broad shouldered, approached the podium to give what amounted to the SFPD’s rebuttal. His presentation boiled down to this: Fewer cops equals fewer traffic citations, and fewer citations are dangerous.

“We did see a decrease in traffic citations issued last year,” Ali said. On the screens around the room, he displayed a chart showing two sloping red lines, one representing police staffing levels and another representing total citations. The charts showed a drop of 127 officers, and 20,000 fewer traffic citations, 2012-2013.

All told, the SFPD had 1,644 officers and issued 87,629 traffic citations last year.

But the idea that bringing on more cops is the only effective strategy for pedestrian safety seemed out of sync with a different aspect of Ali’s presentation, in which he conveyed a plan to “Focus on Five.”

Under that plan, police station captains are urged to boost traffic enforcement around the five intersections in their districts that have been identified as most dangerous. Though Ali said the approach was showing progress, the SFPD has yet to release data on how this enforcement approach has played out.

“Right now we don’t have full transparency into their reporting,” said Natalie Burdick of Walk SF, a pedestrian advocacy nonprofit. “We do have data showing they are issuing citations. What we don’t know yet … is has there been an increase in citations from Focus on Five?”

To be fair, it’s a new program, but data is key to many efforts geared toward improving pedestrian safety. The SFPD’s data shows that Focus on Five represents 22 percent of their citations, but it’s still unknown where they occurred and what incidents spurred the citations.

The Bike Coalition also wants more enforcement data from the SFPD.

“We’re hearing a lot of incidents go unreported,” said Leah Shahum, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition. Incidents that normally don’t get written up, like an accident that only results in a bruise or a scrape, are just as important to record, she said, because thorough reports can help identify problem intersections. “Without solid, good accounting to show where things are happening, we’re not going to necessarily see change,” she said.

But that would require a cultural shift in the SFPD, Shahum said. For now, the police seem as interested in blaming the pedestrians as they do the drivers.

Victim blaming

The first shots fired by the SFPD on pedestrian safety amounted to a public relations gaffe.

“YOU’VE BEEN HIT BY A CAR! … It’s little comfort to know you had the right of way, while you recover from serious injury in the hospital,” reads an SFPD flyer, the message typed next to a picture of a chalk outline on pavement. “Distracted walking is one BIG reason pedestrians get hit by vehicles,” it continues. To emphasize the point, the chalk outline is wearing headphones connected to an iPhone.

Streetsblog San Francisco reporter Aaron Bialick, in his article about the flyers, responded to them thusly: “The SFPD has gone off the deep end with this one, folks.”

His response is understandable. With a choice of two perpetrators, one walking across the street, and another behind the wheel of a two-ton steel killing machine, one would think the latter would be the obvious target. Shahum thinks the problem goes deeper than bad messaging, saying the SFPD’s enforcement is skewed.

“We’ve seen some officers not knowing people’s rights when walking or biking. We’ve seen ‘blame the pedestrians’ from police, in the media,” she said. “We’re hearing things like ‘you should’ve been riding on the sidewalk,’ [showing] a really basic lack of understanding” about regulations cyclists must adhere to.

This issue came to a head when Sgt. Richard Ernst pulled up to a streetside memorial for cyclist Amelie Le Moullac, who died in a fatal collision last August, to lecture those gathered on bicycle safety.

As Guardian Editor Steven T. Jones noted in his article at the time, “apparently Ernst didn’t stop at denouncing Le Moullac for causing her own death, in front of people who are still mourning that death. Shahum said Ernst also blamed the other two bicyclist deaths in SF this year on the cyclists, and on ‘you people’ in the SFBC for not teaching cyclists how to avoid cars.”

Still, Shahum sees potential for change. “This is the area where I think we’re seeing the most promises from them,” she said.

At the Police Commission meeting, Ali noted the challenges police face when assessing traffic collisions. Training officers in the methods to deduce how a collision occurred is no easy task.

“It requires a high degree of science,” Ali said. “Geometry, physics, basic mathematics. Its not just about getting facts from people, but making conclusions from physical evidence.”

Chief Greg Suhr expressed confidence that the new recruits to come out of the academy were abreast of the latest techniques, and commissioners said they may use the need for traffic enforcement as a call to the mayor to help bring more officers into the SFPD’s ranks.

Enforcement and police culture are just some ways pedestrian safety needs to be addressed. Walk SF, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and the SFPD all will present their cases at the joint meeting on Thu/16. But as many of them would note, many of these promises have been made before.

Slow momentum

“We’re going to re-engineer streets around at least five schools and two areas that have the highest levels of concentration of senior injuries every year,” Mayor Ed Lee said at a press conference, responding to pedestrian deaths that rocked San Francisco.

No, this wasn’t after the New Year’s Eve fatalities. It was last April, when the mayor trumpeted an ambitious program to make the strets of San Francisco safer.

The San Francisco Pedestrian Strategy identifies 44 miles of the city’s most dangerous streets and intersections in need of upgrades. The goal was to improve five miles of city streets a year, with bulb outs (for better pedestrian visibility), raised crosswalks, new crossing signals, new traffic lights, and narrowing lanes.

One of the high priority intersections identified for improvements was Polk and Ellis — where Sofia Liu was killed on New Year’s Eve.

safetymap

A map of high priority corridors — the most dangerous streets for pedestrians in San Francisco.

That intersection hasn’t yet seen upgrades under the Pedestrian Strategy, Burdick of Walk SF told us.

“Any one or combination of the safety benefits of bulb-outs (or other improvements) could definitely have been the difference between life and death for Sofia,” she said. Walk SF works with city agencies to try to make sure these changes are happening, but she says the city hasn’t been transparent about the effort.

“We know there’s been some progress, but we don’t yet know if we’re doing enough each year to account for getting something done,” she said.

To get a sense of the city’s progress on this front, the Guardian contacted the Planning Department, which referred us to the Municipal Transportation Agency. The MTA did not respond before press time.

“That’s another thing at the hearing with the board (and Police Commission) we’ll be pushing,” Burdick said. “For engineering enforcement work to happen, it’s got to be paid for.”

According to public records outlining the city’s Pedestrian Strategy, the plan needs $65 million a year to hit proposed targets. The lion’s share, more than half, would go toward infrastructure improvements.

Burdick called that amount into question, saying the city had only allocated $17 million. A Pedestrian Strategy report confirmed that the program faces a $5-18 million a year funding gap.

Enforcement, a culture of victim blaming and inadequate funding all pose major challenges to pedestrian safety in San Francisco. Hopefully the joint Board of Supervisors and Police Commission meeting will finally result in some answers.

The joint Board of Supervisors’ Neighborhood Services & Safety Committee and Police Commission meeting will be held Thursday, Jan. 16, at 5pm, Room 250.

 

End poverty and create wealth with public banks

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By Ken Walden

OPINION How would you like to increase your spending power by 10 times (or more), relieve student debt by more than 90 percent, increase Social Security benefits, lower taxes, increase pay for teachers, and lower loan amounts for homes and small business to 1-2 percent?

I’ll bet I have your attention. I’m sure you think this is crazy talk, but this is based on a movement that is already happening. It’s the public banking movement.

In 1950s, the buying power of the dollar was over 10 times what it is today. That means you were able to buy 10 times the amount of goods and services with a dollar compared to what you can now.

What happened? Why is it so hard for most people to just barely get by these days? And why are so many are not getting by at all?

First, let’s review how money is created. Did you know the money we have in circulation today is created out of thin air? Most of it is just an entry in a computer system. A small percent is printed dollar bills like you have in your wallet or purse, and a very small percentage is metal coins.

Money is simply trusted as being worth what it says on the bill, coin, or computer screen. Did you also know that money for loans is created this way as well?

When you take out a loan from a bank (for a home loan, a student loan, a business loan, a car loan, etc.), the money that the bank loans you (with interest charges) is not taken from other people’s deposits. It is made (mostly) out of thin air. It is simply an entry in their computer system … that’s it.

Most people think they are borrowing money that is deposited into the bank by other people, but this is not true.

Here is quote from Robert Anderson, the secretary of the US Treasury in 1959, on this topic: “When a bank makes a loan, it simply adds to the borrower’s deposit account in the bank by the amount of the loan. The money is not taken from anyone else’s deposits: it was not previously paid in to the bank by anyone. It’s new money, created by the bank for the use of the borrower.”

Why is this a problem? Let’s look at how much interest we’re paying on a variety of loans. If you buy a house for $500,000 in 30 years at an average interest rate, you will pay an additional $580,000 in interest on money the bank made from thin air. With a public bank you, would pay less than half this amount.

On public projects like bridges, roads and schools, 30-50 percent of the cost is interest. The new span of the Bay Bridge that was just opened at a cost of $7 billion, the interest on this project is estimated to be an additional $7 billion. It’s estimated that the cost of almost everything you buy is increased by 35-40 percent because of interest.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.

The solution to the problem is a public bank. With public banks, these billions of dollars of profit (via interest) are recycled back into the public treasury instead of funneled off to private banks.

If you think this is some theoretical fantasy you should know that San Francisco is currently looking at creating a public bank, 20 states are also considering them, and North Dakota has had a public bank for over 90 years. This is not a new idea.

It’s impossible to give you an in-depth overview in a short article so please go to our website (www.whattheworldcouldbe.com) and on the ‘Solutions’ page click on the box titled ‘Creating Jobs, Student Debt Relief, & the New Green Economy’.

Public banks have the possibility to dramatically change our lives for the better and you can help.

Ken Walden is director of What the World Could Be.

Confronting the speculators

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rebecca@sfbg.com

A group of tenant advocates has upped the ante in the ongoing protest movement against San Francisco evictions, publicizing the names, photographs, property ownership, and corporate affiliations of a dozen landlords and speculators they’ve deemed “serial evictors.”

The Anti Eviction Mapping Project, a volunteer-led effort that snagged headlines last fall when it released data visualizations charting long-term displacement in San Francisco, released its Dirty Dozen list Jan. 10.

The project spotlights property owners who’ve moved to evict tenants under the Ellis Act, a controversial state law that allows landlords to oust tenants even if they aren’t in violation of lease terms. In practice, the Ellis Act tends to be waged against longtime residents with low monthly rental payments, frequently impacting elderly or low-income tenants who benefit from rent control.

The Anti Eviction Mapping Project’s list gets up close and personal, publishing details such as landlord’s cell phone numbers, home addresses, and histories of legal entanglement.

It’s an edgy use of public records that seems to raise a slew of questions about free speech, privacy, and the use of information sharing and public shaming as a protest tactic in the digital age.

Erin McElroy, a volunteer and lead organizer of the project, said the goal was to spotlight landlords “who are disproportionately impacting senior and disabled tenants,” and to raise public awareness about “people who are making millions at the expense of tenants.”

She added that there is a budding effort to push for Ellis Act reform in Sacramento, and noted that a goal of this project was to fuel that statewide effort by providing easily accessible information.

Among those individuals named on the Dirty Dozen list was David McCloskey of Urban Green Investments, a company that owns more than 15 San Francisco properties. Urban Green has been a frequent target of San Francisco housing activists, in part due to the company’s ongoing attempt to evict Mary Elizabeth Phillips, a Dolores Street tenant who will turn 98 in April.

Another landlord who made the list, Elba Borgen, has also attracted past attention from tenant activists due to her history of pursuing Ellis Act evictions at six different San Francisco properties. A tenant currently residing in a 10th Avenue property, where Borgen’s LLC has filed for eviction, is 90 years old and suffering from Alzheimer’s, according to an interview with her daughter Vivian Montesdeoca posted to the mapping project website.

The Bay Guardian‘s efforts to reach landlords who were spotlighted on the Dirty Dozen list were largely unsuccessful. We did manage to contact Tom Iveli, president of Norcal Ventures, who spoke briefly before excusing himself, saying he had to take another call. Iveli clearly wasn’t aware that he and his business partner Bob Sigmund had been singled out.

McElroy said the Dirty Dozen list was the product of an in-depth research project which entailed filtering through property records, San Francisco Rent Board data, and information gleaned from the website Corporation Wiki.

The Anti Eviction Mapping Project initiative has attracted around 15 volunteers and will be partnering with Stanford University students to produce an oral history project showcasing the narratives of San Francisco tenants facing eviction, McElroy said.

Some of the same activists involved in recent high-profile blockades of tech buses were also part of the Anti Eviction Mapping Project effort.

“We’re not, you know, anti-tech by any means,” said McElroy. “We’re anti- speculative real estate,” and wary of policies like the Ellis Act and city government’s tendency to give deep-pocketed corporations a free pass, regardless of the consequences.

“It’s that linkage that is kind of the crux of the issue,” she added.

What “Google bus” really means

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EDITORIAL In recent years, “Google bus” has become a term that encompasses more than just the shuttles that one corporation uses to transport its workers from San Francisco down to the Silicon Valley. It has taken on a symbolic meaning representing the technology sector’s desire to shield itself from the infrastructure, values, and responsibilities that most citizens choose to share.

These are the very things that motivate many of us to live here, finding that community spirit in such a beautiful, world-class city. More than just the great restaurants and bars, its vistas and artistic offerings, San Francisco represents an experiment in modern urbanism and cultural development.

It is this collision and collusion of disparate yet public-spirited cultures that gave birth to the region’s great economic and social movements, from gay rights and environmentalism to groundbreaking academic research and the creation of the Internet economy.

The antithesis of this idea of creative collaboration is to consider San Francisco just 49 square miles of valuable real estate, to be used and developed as the highest bidder sees fit, as some tech titans seem to believe. It’s ironic that an industry based on creating online communities would place so little value on engaging with its physical community.

The proposed $1 per bus stop use, and $50 per docking that new exclusive Google ferry is paying, is a privatization of public space that barely covers the city’s costs. The tech industry should be doing much more just to counteract its negative impacts on the city’s economy, let alone actually being good corporate citizens of this region.

A new report called for by the Mayor’s Office says Muni needs a $10 billion investment over the next 15 years just to maintain current service levels. A big chunk of that should come from the wealthy corporations in our community through a downtown transit assessment district and higher fees on Silicon Valley companies that are using us as a bedroom community.

San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit has been developing a critique of the Google bus since her initial shot last February in the London Review of Books, answering a subsequent techie/enviro criticism published in Grist with a Jan. 7 article in Guernica called “Resisting Monoculture.”

“And thus come the well-paid engineers to San Francisco, and thus go the longtime activists, idealists, artists, teachers, plumbers, all the less-well-paid people,” she writes, citing surveys that the buses allow Silicon Valley workers to live in San Francisco when they otherwise wouldn’t.

That’s the issue. The only thing green about Google buses are the piles of money their riders and their bosses are keeping from the city we all share. Segregated buses have never been a good idea, but if these companies insist on them, that should come with a higher price tag.