Volume 48 Number 17

SFMTA approves tech shuttle plan

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The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors approved a pilot program Jan. 21 that allows operators of private commuter shuttles to use public bus stops, something they’ve been doing illegally for years on a very predictable basis.

The program will establish an “approved network” of 200 designated San Francisco stops where private shuttles may pick up and drop off passengers. It will issue permits and identifying placards to the private buses and require them to adhere to certain set of rules, like yielding to Muni buses if they approach the stop at the same time. (There’s already a Curb Priority Law stating that any vehicles not operated by Muni will be fined $271 for blocking a bus zone. But the city has chosen to ignore that law when it comes to private commuter shuttles.)

Finally, the program will charge shuttle operators $1 per stop per day, which seeks to cover the costs of the program implementation and no more. The meeting drew a very high turnout that included the protesters who have been blockading the buses, Google employees, private commuter shuttle drivers, and residents of various San Francisco neighborhoods.

Sup. Scott Wiener said at the meeting he was fully supportive of the pilot program, which was developed over the course of many months in collaboration with tech companies who operate the shuttles.

“These shuttles are providing a valuable service,” Wiener said. He said he was sensitive to widespread “frustration and anxiety” around the high cost of housing and rising evictions, but thought it was unfair to blame tech workers: “We need to stop demonizing these shuttles and these tech workers.”

Then Sup. David Campos addressed the board. “I think it’s really important for us to have a dialogue to find common ground,” Campos said, adding that pushing shuttle riders into private automobiles was not a good outcome. But he also urged the SFMTA board to send the proposal back to the drawing board: “It’s a proposal that simply does not go far enough.”

Campos was also critical of the SFMTA’s process of studying the growing private shuttle problem for years and drafting a proposal in collaboration with members of the tech community, with Campos pointing out, “Public input is being sought after the fact.”

Bus plan ignores real cost

Many community members have criticized the new $1 per stop tech shuttle fee as being too low, but city officials say their hands are tied by a state law prohibiting them from charging any more than that.

Yet under Proposition 218 — the state law that limits local governments’ ability to impose new fees — the city has more discretion about how to calculate “cost recovery” than officials have let on.

“Prop. 218 is part of a legal scheme that doesn’t so much limit how we calculate cost recovery,” San Francisco City Attorney’s Office spokesperson Gabriel Zitrin told us, “but limits the city to cost recovery.”

At the Jan. 21 SFMTA meeting, Project Manager Carli Paine explained how her team had arrived at the $1 per stop, per day fee amount.

“We identified everything it would take to implement this program,” Paine said. After identifying all the program components, the agency “took the number of stop events and came up with a ‘per stop event’ cost…The kinds of costs we included are upfront costs, ongoing program costs.”

Under Prop. 218, however, the SFMTA could determine whether there are other costs associated with allowing private commuter shuttles to use public transportation infrastructure, beyond just the cost of issuing and enforcing permits and placards.

Zitrin said the city can identify any costs not already being recovered elsewhere. If shuttles’ use of public bus stops cause transit delays, for instance, what are the costs associated with those delays? More overtime pay for bus drivers?

Low-income kids getting to school late and missing breakfast? What’s the cost of that?

If rents rise in neighborhoods located along the shuttle routes (and studies show they do), what are the associated costs of that phenomenon? What’s the cost of displacement resulting from those higher rents?

Volume 48 Number 17 Flip-through Edition

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In light and shadow

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arts@sfbg.com

THEATER Last week’s performance of the shadow play Poro Oyna: The Myth of the Aynu, at Fort Mason’s Southside Theater, began with a blessing in disguise.

As members of the cast and of the Aynu community gathered onstage ahead of the performance, four Aynu men in black shirts and traditional headbands and necklaces prepared to sing and dance. As the elder of the four explained, shadow master Larry Reed, founder and longtime artistic director of Shadowlight Productions, had asked if the Aynu folks in attendance could offer a short blessing to start things off.

“I didn’t have a chance to tell Larry, we don’t do blessings,” confessed the man. “But we welcome people. And this is one of our most sacred dance stories; it’s about family,” he explained, adding that, with it, “we welcome you to our part of the world.”

So began a rare, gently moving, and altogether charming encounter three years in the making. Co-produced by Shadowlight and Tokyo-based shadow theater company Urotsutenoyako Bayangans, Poro Oyna: The Myth of the Aynu brought together traditional Aynu artists and musicians with masters of the shadow theater form in the US and Japan to share a mythological world at once distinctive and not so far from our own.

Adapted by OKI and Koyano Tetsuro, and directed by Larry Reed (the Bay Area’s master of a unique and potently cinematic style of modern shadow theater), the Aynu creation myth came to life on a stage and screen populated by a revolving and enrapturing set of images and figures. Some were drawn, some were embodied by actors in masks, some walked out before the screen onto the darkened lip of the stage, like living, breathing, three-dimensional shadows. And just as the imagery contained a surprising set of rich hues amid its black-and-white scheme, the English narration came generously colored with snatches of Japanese and Aynu.

Heavy in the mix was a transporting score created by a wonderful pairing of masterful musicians. Accomplished musician and recording artist OKI (who, in addition to adapting the story, also oversaw the art direction) provided live accompaniment on a pair of tonkori, the traditional plucked stringed instrument of the Aynu people, as well as offering the first springing, playful tones of the night on a mukkuri (a wooden mouth harp). Meanwhile, in entrancing, syncopated rhythms, the four members of the female vocal group Marewrew channeled the traditional Aynu musical form of upopo.

The Aynu (also spelled Ainu) are a small community of people living in Hokaiddo, Japan’s northern and second largest island. Indigenous to this area of morthern Japan as well as to nearby Russia, the Aynu have a culture that stretches back more than 3,000 years. Having faced centuries of oppression, including forced assimilation, their culture remains little known even inside Japan, and their language (which has no written form) is at risk of disappearing entirely, with fewer than 15 native speakers left alive.

A large proportion of these were on hand in the creation and delivery of Poro Oyna. The title, which means “the great story,” refers to the hero’s journey of Aynu Rakkur, the most powerful of all the gods. He is also a god who “smells like a human being,” born (as we see in the opening scene) from the incendiary coupling of his father, the god of thunder, and his mother, a great elm tree. Indeed, Aynu Rakkur is considered the progenitor of the human race.

In ensemble member Kawamura Koheisai’s impressive Balinese-inspired shadow designs, Aynu Rakkur’s shadow self is a black and white portrait of grace and resolve, a noble profile protruding from a finely drawn latticework of hair. He’s tough, goes his own way, and has a sly sense of humor. He lives beside Kaikaiunt, a sacred lake and the source of all life. One day a growling, cockeyed monster with a fearsome under bite and an unpronounceable name (rattled off in a long string of Aynu sibilants actually delighting to the ear) steals the Sun Goddess and plunges the world into darkness and a perpetual sleep from which many humans never awake.

As other lesser gods try and fail to wrest the sun from the clutches of the monster, Aynu Rakkur bides his time, doggedly carving away at something that turns out to be “a bear for a flat screen TV.” Finally taking umbrage at finding his front door pinned down with arrows and spears, he seeks out the monster and the two of them tumble deep down into the Underworld, where they battle for some six years.

The happy ending might have been expected, but it came, under the circumstances, with what felt too like an auspicious beginning.

“The people come back, the sun returns,” rejoices the narrator, “our sacred power is getting stronger every day.” *

www.shadowlightaynuproject.org

 

A comedian cursed

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For those of us who’ve been following Michael Showalter since he was but a flop-haired 20-something on MTV’s The State — where he gave us, among other absurdist treasures, Doug, a rebellious teenager whose cool dad gave him frustratingly little to rebel against — there is no Showalter project too silly, too cranky, too obscure to love. Whether it was Stella, Michael and Michael Have Issues, or, say, the training montage from Wet Hot American Summer that burrowed its way weirdly into your heart, there’s something about the comedian that’s eminently, endearingly watchable.

Ahead of his appearances Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 at SF Sketchfest, we caught up with Showalter as he took a break in the writers’ room of the Rebel Wilson TV show Super Fun Night (he’s a producer) to talk cats, comedy, and what makes him feel like a loser.

San Francisco Bay Guardian: You have several projects going on right now, but the first thing I need to ask about is a male-centric cat ownership guidebook you published last October: Guys Can Be Cat Ladies Too. How many cats do you have?

Michael Showalter: Right now I’m living in LA, and we have four indoor cats here. And then at our place in Brooklyn, there’s a small posse of cats that live in my backyard, that are now being taken care of by the people subletting our place. At any given moment there are between three and six cats back there…so using the law of averages, I’ll say I have seven.

SFBG: Why did the world need a book about how to be a male cat lady?

MS: Basically, I really took to heart the saying “Write what you know.” I looked around me and said “What do you know?” As I was saying that I probably had two cats on my lap. My next book is going to be about drinking coffee.

SFBG: Since it’s premiering at Sundance this week, what can you tell us about They Came Together (in theaters Jan. 24) , the Paul Rudd-Amy Poehler rom-com you made with your usual partner-in-crime David Wain? Do you think it will appease the hordes of Wet Hot American Summer fans who are hungry for a sequel — or prequel, as has been discussed?

MS: I’d say it’s a parody/homage to the romantic comedies of the ’80s and ’90s that myself and David Wain sort of grew up on and loved. It’s a combination send-up/love letter, based in New York. Obviously it’s got a great cast…and yeah, it’s very similar in a lot of ways [to Wet Hot]. It has a lot of the same sensibility to it, the reference points, the sense of humor.

SFBG: Because I have to ask anyway: Is there still a Wet Hot prequel in the works?

MS: Yeah. We’re figuring it out. But I’ve been instructed by David Wain not to talk about it, because we want it to be shrouded in mystery. Like the new Star Wars movie.

SFBG: Fair. Shall we talk about your podcast with Michael Ian Black? How is that kind of writing different from screenwriting or, say, cat books?

MS: Topics! Topics is actually all improvised. Basically the two of us are in character as two guys who take themselves very seriously and think very highly of their own opinions. The main thing with Topics is we try not to tell jokes — we’re just being these characters who are really, really serious about what they’re talking about, but they don’t actually know anything. We just start out with a topic and we improvise for half an hour. [Ed. note — December brought us such topics as “Regret,” “The Middle East,” and “Paranormal Activity.” It’s excellent.]

SFBG: There are some of us for whom The State is still the gold standard in sketch comedy. Do you think it would work on TV right now? There hasn’t really been anything like it since.

MS: You know, I think we were very much a product of our generation. It was Kids in the Hall and The State and the Upright Citizens Brigade…and I think at that time, sketch comedy was still a kind of theatrical thing; it hadn’t yet become so video-based. I don’t know if sketch in that traditional sense is still as viable. But I’m sure another great sketch show will come along, figure out the next thing.

SFBG: As for Sketchfest — of the events you’re scheduled to perform in, I’m most excited about the Uptown Showdown debate on breakfast vs. dinner. Can you say what side you’re on?

MS: (Sighs deeply.) OK, which do you think will win, should win?  

SFBG: I would say breakfast, hands down.  

MS: Yeah. So I am on dinner. I did not choose to be on dinner; dinner was given to me. Here’s the thing: This will be my fourth time competing in Uptown Showdown. The first time was cats vs. dogs. I was on cats, and we lost to dogs. The second time was Christmas vs. Hanukkah. I was on Christmas, and we lost to Hanukkah. The third time, last year, we did the ’80s vs. the ’90s, and I was on the ’80s, and we lost to the ’90s. So this year — dinner vs. breakfast — I already know I’m going to lose, and I’m livid about it. I’m not even joking. I could read you my emails back and forth with [the organizers] where they’re asking me to do this and I’m saying I don’t like it — here, I’ll pull it up. I wrote, “I’m sick and tired of losing at this.” I’m not being facetious. It’s making me feel bad about myself. Like a loser. It really pisses me off.

SFBG: How did this happen, exactly? Who gets to choose? 

MS: Here, let me find this email: “David Wain prefers that his team defend breakfast as the superior meal.” Sure. What’s the point? I know we’ll lose. I have the Uptown Showdown curse.  

SFBG: You sound pretty defeatist about this. Are you even going to prepare?  

MS: Oh, yeah. I mean, don’t get me wrong. When it’s game time, I’ll come to do battle.  

Uptown Showdown: Breakfast vs. Dinner  
Sat/1, 10pm, $30
Marines Memorial Theatre  
609 Sutter, SF
www.sfsketchfest.com


Chillwave’s poster boy grows up

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by Kyle O’Brien

It’s been an adventurous four years for Ernest Greene. In 2009, the musician now known as Washed Out was producing music in his childhood bedroom, considering law school, and planning his wedding. Perry, Ga., is not widely known for its indie/electronica scene, so Greene posted music to his MySpace page and recorded it on a few cassette tapes for road trips. It was a low-key type of thing — until blogs like Pitchfork started paying attention.

This is about the time I became a fan. I was a freshman in college, brand-new to San Francisco, and Washed Out sounded like the future. Most mainstream electronic production at the time seemed made for rappers, or was heavily drum-and-bass influenced. Washed Out was all ’80s influences, hazy, and chilled out. “Retro lo-fi,” “dream-pop,” “synth-pop.” Chillwave is the genre most seem to have settled on — but two EPs, two studio albums, international tours, a deal with Sub Pop, and a Letterman appearance later, Greene doesn’t seem like he’s settling in any other way anytime soon.

“It really took me a couple of years to figure out my own approach to live shows, how to make them happen in a controlled way,” says Greene, 31. He’s currently touring in support of 2013’s Paracosm with a five-piece band (including his wife, Blair, on synth and vocals) — a notable departure from his beginnings as a bedroom artist with a DJ setup. He’ll bring the show to the Fillmore Jan. 28 and 29. “There were a couple of technological breakthroughs I had…where [earlier] some of the things I was doing in the studio, I wasn’t able to figure out how to accomplish live.”

Coming out from behind the computer screen has had its challenges, he says, but he’s committed to creating live music with a band rather than simply pressing play — a move that’s shifted his focus to vocal performance.

“In the studio, I could double my voice 100 times if I wanted to,” he says. “But if we’re on stage and it’s just five of us, by necessity it’s kind of stripped-down, and the live shows definitely have a different vibe because of that.”

“But harmonies have always been a pretty important part of the Washed Out sound,” he says. “When I first started the Washed Out project, actually, I wasn’t really thinking about singing myself — I was going to bring in someone else to sing, and I was just recording myself as a holding place. I didn’t feel like my voice was very good, so part of the process was layering a ton of different vocal takes on top of each other just to make it sound better. After a long period of doing that, it became the sound, and the music was discovered, and it kind of took on a life of its own.” Most of the vocals on the new record are still layered several times over, he says. Vocals, to Greene, are “just an instrument in the mix.”

A longtime friendship with electronic artist Toro Y Moi — Greene and Chaz Bundick met in school in Georgia — has also meant a like-minded artist to bounce ideas off of.

“He’s probably the most talented musician I’ve ever worked with — just a super creative guy,” says Greene. “We were really lucky that we started getting recognition around the same time, and eased into doing this professionally together…I didn’t have any contacts in the music business [starting out], and I remember having phone calls with him where we would catch up, [talk over] what we were going through. I didn’t have that with anyone else.”

“His music just keeps getting better and better,” Greene adds. “Plus all the guys in my band grew up with the dudes in the Toro Y Moi band, so it’s kind of like a big family.”

The first half of 2014 will see Washed Out touring nearly non-stop, including an appearance at Coachella. He’s ready for it. He’s energized by Paracosm, with its warm, lush instrumentation, its constructed sense of escapism — the album’s title itself refers to the concept of a fantasy world. That correlates heavily with the newer record’s vibrant visual art, he says, as opposed to the stark white design of 2011’s Within & Without.

“This newer stuff is a lot more vibrant-feeling, so the colors seem to suit it well,” he says. “It’s all about the music. That will lead the way most of the time.”

Washed Out
With Kisses
Jan 28-29, 8pm $25
Fillmore
1805 Geary, SF

www.thefillmore.com

The good witches of music tech

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esilvers@sfbg.com

LEFT OF THE DIAL When MTV debuted “Video Killed the Radio Star” at 12:01am on Aug. 1, 1981 — the first music video to air on the brand-new, much-buzzed-about network — producers knew exactly what they were doing. Amid all the excitement about the possibilities video technology presented to the music industry, there was an ambivalence, tinged with apprehension from musicians, about what the sea change would mean for artists. The song perfectly captured the current climate, a combination of brave-new-world optimism and flat-out fear of the future.

Two decades later, a scrappy little Redwood City-based file-sharing startup called Napster would be ordered shut down in federal court. ”It’s time for Napster to stand down and build their business the old-fashioned way — they must get permission first,” said Hilary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, told the New York Times, speaking on behalf of five major record labels that sued the company. And, as everyone knows, that sealed it: Music was never obtained for free on the Internet ever again, all artists were paid fairly for their work, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Funny thing about technological advancement — it only goes one way. The collapse of the record industry over the past decade has given way to a sort of Wild West atmosphere when it comes to the ways musicians, fans, producers, etc. can interact, make art, and do commerce. It has been something of an economic equalizer: Anyone with a Wi-fi connection can throw his latest dubstep/witchhouse cover of “Under the Sea” up on Soundcloud one night, and wake up to a bevy of fans. But most musicians I know would agree that the availability of free or very cheap streaming and downloading services has made it difficult, if not impossible, to make a living from their work the way they might have 30 years ago.

And yet: There are those who would argue that the tech world has more to offer musicians than it might initially seem. In the spirit of our “good tech” issue, I reached out to some local techies who aren’t using their powers for evil.

On the vast playing field of websites and apps that promise to help musicians get their work out into the world — without, ideally, anyone going bankrupt — Bandcamp may have built the most trust among artists, using a straightforward revenue-share model: The company takes 15 percent of sales on digital purchases; 10 percent on merch. Of course, it didn’t hurt when Amanda Palmer decided to forego the traditional album-release route in 2010, releasing her ukulele Radiohead covers album solely on Bandcamp, bringing in $15,000 inside three minutes.

When founder Ethan Diamond launched the site in 2007 — after trying to buy a favorite band’s digital album directly from its website and having “every single technical problem that could go wrong, go wrong” — people were saying “music sales are dead,” recalls the SF resident, a programmer who previously co-founded the webmail service that would become Yahoo! mail. “Within a year or two of the business, you could see that wasn’t true: Even in the digital era, fans actually want to support the artists they love. Right now fans are giving artists $2.8 million every month [through Bandcamp]. We have 50,000 unique artists communicating and marketing directly to their fans…our entire goal is to help artists be successful. That’s really it.”

And no, he doesn’t want to name the band whose technical difficulties inspired the company a few years back — the band members don’t know who they are. And they’re not on Bandcamp yet.

At Zoo Labs, a less-than-year-old nonprofit based out of a recording studio in West Oakland, a handful of heavy hitters from the tech and design worlds asked the question: What happens when you apply a business incubator model — like the well-founded training grounds that typically nurture Silicon Valley startups — to a band? The Zoo Labs Residency, a two-week, all-expenses-paid program for musicians, offers practical skill-building workshops, marketing training, mentorship, and studio time to bands who have a vision but haven’t yet achieved a widespread reach.

“We started talking to musicians about their experiences and how they were managing their careers and accomplishing their projects, and it was really interesting to find that a lot of musicians and producers working in music are having very similar experiences to entrepreneurs in the startup world,” says Anna Acquistapace, a designer who founded the program with Vinitha Watson, an ex-Googler (she opened Google’s first satellite office in India) after the two met in California College of the Arts’ Design Strategy MBA program. Music producer Dan Lawrence (whom — full disclosure — I’ve known since elementary school, at which time he wanted to be a music producer) brought his working knowledge of the local music industry to the team.

“With all of these changes in the [music] industry over the last 10 years, musicians have been forced to take way more control over their marketing channels,” says Acquistapace. “They need to get their own fans, they need to bootstrap their own products in a similar to way to what startups do, whether that means funding albums or demos to pitch to a record label, reaching out to the media…they have to become entrepreneurs, out of necessity. From that, the idea of this artists’ residency-meets-business-incubator or accelerator was born.”

Thus far only one band, an Americana/roots four-piece called the Boston Boys, has completed the residency, participating in a series of workshops and recording sessions tailored specifically to their needs: They took a “sonic branding” class from Oakland producer Jumbo (whose credits include work with Blackalicious, Lyrics Born, and others), learned about music law, met with design professionals and leadership coaches. Meanwhile, recording engineer/producer Damien Lewis recorded the band live in the studio most days in sessions that ran from 2 in the afternoon until 2 in the morning; the two-week period culminates in a live show at the studio.

In total, the program costs about $20,000 per session to run, with much of it underwritten by private investors from Silicon Valley who are simply interested in developing new models for the music industry. “If there’s one thing that people are passionate across the board, it’s music,” says Acquistapace.'”I haven’t really seen any other art form that crosses groups the same way.”

(The application period for its March residency just closed, but look for new programming to launch in February; the Beat Lab, which will open next month, aims to be a combination recording studio/coworking space for musicians of all kinds: www.zoolabs.org)

And in, er, music/tech news of a much lower-tech variety: Tom Temprano, co-owner of Virgil’s Sea Room in the Mission, announced this week that the bar, which occupies the space Nap’s III left behind (both physically and in our hearts), will be bringing back the grand Nap’s tradition of sloppy, gleeful karaoke around the glow of a two-tone screen. Starting Jan. 23, every Thursday night at 9pm will find Nap himself back at home base, MCing the action, with songbooks and harmonicas in tow. Because technology will march forward — video may have killed the radio star — but drunken renditions of Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s “Shoop”? Karaoke, my friends, is forever.

Global tension

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM Though its definition has been stretched hither and yon to accommodate films that might appeal to the same retro-minded audience, film noir is a well you can go to only so many times before risking excess repetition or bottom-scraping. So it’s good news that the latest annual edition of SF-bred Noir City at the Castro Theatre — kicking off Fri/24 — expands its programming to the separate-but-equal terrain of 1940s and ’50s crime melodramas made outside the genre’s traditional home. Dubbed “It’s a Bitter Little World,” Noir City 12 has a smattering of Hollywood titles, but otherwise for the first time ranges far afield, hauling in tough dramas from places like England, Argentina, Germany, and Japan.

The somber post-war mood that spurred noir cinema was, in the US, fomented largely by the trauma and disillusionment suffered by both returning vets and those they came back to. But in many other nations, the damage was more than personal and psychological — people returned to cities reduced to rubble after years of fighting, surviving residents already accustomed to extreme deprivation. Plus, former allies and enemy combatants alike were now regarded with suspicion as they lingered at the war’s end to oversee “reconstruction,” the language and cultural gaps and unfamiliar new lines of authority in turn breeding new avenues of corruption and resistance.

Two films most directly dealing with that atmosphere are double-billed Mon/27. Made in 1946 (though it wasn’t released in some parts of divided, occupied Germany until some time later), The Murderers Are Among Us was the first of the “trümmerfilm,” literally “rubble film” — movies portraying Germans’ struggles with recuperation and loss in the wake of humiliating defeat, not to mention the revelations of heinous Nazi war crimes. Returning home from a concentration camp, Susanne (Hildegard Knef) finds her Berlin apartment already occupied by Hans (Wilhelm Borchert), an embittered, alcoholic physician who no longer practices.

Forced to uneasily cohabit, they try to re-establish some semblance of ordinary life, though that effort is imperiled when former military doctor Hans discovers the superior officer he’d thought dead is in fact alive, well, and prospering — suffering no consequences at all for ordering the massacre of a hundred Polish civilians, including women and children. (Purportedly, occupying Soviet authorities insisted on changing the film’s intended ending, fearing that if Hans actually assassinated the officer, viewers would be tempted toward vigilante justice themselves.)

Duly shot amid a city in ruins, Murderers remains potent stuff, even if it soft-pedals certain aspects: For instance, concentration camp survivor Susanne is as Aryan as can be, the subject of a Jewish Holocaust apparently still being too touchy to mention. Knef (who actually had spent time in a prison camp) became an immediate star, a refreshingly unconventional one who spurned Hollywood offers and shrugged off outrage over a nude sequence (in 1950’s The Sinner) with the memorable observation that such “tumult” was ridiculous coming “five years after Auschwitz!”

Its 1948 co-feature Berlin Express, directed by Jacques Tourneur (of 1942’s Cat People and other horror classics) was a Hollywood production shot on location in Europe, with a multinational cast playing various figures traveling on a train from Paris to the German capital. When one who’d been an important German anti-Nazi resistance figure is killed en route, lingering wartime animosities are overcome to solve the crime — the tentative friendships among them a simple metaphor for the cooperation required among nations to rebuild after catastrophic conflict.

Less politically tilted, but also dealing with a devastated, immediately-postwar landscape, are Akira Kurosawa’s first two collaborations with dynamic star Toshiro Mifune, screening Sun/26. Mifune plays a seriously ill crook in 1948’s Drunken Angel, then crosses over to play a no-less-edgy junior member of the police force in the following year’s Stray Dog. His protagonist in that film is mortified when the revolver he’s issued is stolen on a tram, then used to commit a series of crimes. His obsessive pursuit of the weapon takes him deep into a remarkably seedy makeshift Tokyo of shanty towns, prostitution, and black markets, everyone flop-sweating amid oppressive summer heat.

Other films examine more ordinary, already-entrenched corruption in post-war power structures: Spanish Death of a Cyclist (1955) and Norwegian Death is a Caress (1949) find members of the social elite going to murderous lengths to hide their infidelities; two excellent British dramas from 1947, It Always Rains on Sunday and the Graham Greene-derived Brighton Rock, are bleak slices of lower-class lives driven to crime and desperation; florid Mexican melodrama Victims of Sin (1951) puts its glamorous heroine (blond Cuban Ninon Sevilla) through a mill of sexual hypocrisies and hot “African” dance numbers.

Noir City 12’s US titles, aptly, focus mostly on international criminal and romantic intrigue: Anthony Mann’s 1949 Border Incident involves Mexican immigrant-worker exploitation; the “exotic” settings are billed up front in 1947’s Singapore (Fred MacMurray, Ava Gardner), 1952’s Macao (Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell), and 1942’s The Shanghai Gesture (Gene Tierney, Victor Mature). The latter two films were both directed by Josef von Sternberg, though only willfully camp Gesture fully recaptured the sensuous aesthetic excesses of his 1930s Dietrich vehicles.

Just one title here is strictly all-American, but it’s an important one: Too Late for Tears is an independently produced 1949 “B” potboiler that fell into the public domain and has only been seen for years in inferior prints. The festival’s Film Noir Foundation is premiering its own painstaking 35mm restoration of this little gem by subsequent sci-fi specialist Byron Haskin (1953’s The War of the Worlds, 1964’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars), wherein velvet voiced LA housewife Lizabeth Scott discovers a mighty capacity for greed, deception, and even murder once a bag full of stolen cash accidentally falls into her hands. *

NOIR CITY 12

Jan 24-Feb 2, $10 (“Passport” pass, $120)

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

www.noircity.com

 

Death and life

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cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM This week, the African Film Festival National Traveling Series touches down at the Pacific Film Archive, bearing seven features and a number of shorts. The only film to have previous local distribution is Andrew Dosunmu’s Mother of George, about a Nigerian couple living in Brooklyn whose marriage is tested when the wife — played by Walking Dead badass Danai Gurira; her husband is Jim Jarmusch muse Isaach De Bankolé — fails to become pregnant with the son her in-laws demand. The gorgeous photography earned Bradford Young (who also lensed Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) a cinematography prize at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and, appealing cast aside, his work is the main reason to catch George on the big screen.

The strongest film in the festival is the one that closes it: David Tosh Gitonga’s crime drama Nairobi Half Life, submitted by Kenya as its first Best Foreign Language Film contender last year. Though it didn’t make the Oscar shortlist (frankly, it was a tough year for foreign films, with Amour claiming all major accolades), it’s easy to see why it made the cut. It’s the not-unfamiliar tale of a rural dreamer named Mwas (the charismatic Joseph Wairimu) who sets out to pursue an acting career in the big city (“where the devil lives,” according to his mother). His improv skills are on point, but he is completely gullible, which makes him a prime target as soon as he arrives in “Nairobbery.”

Urban life offers many hard lessons, whether it’s Mwas finding his place in the gang he joins as a means of survival, or overcoming the snooty dismissals of the professional actors he enounters at theatrical auditions. In both realms, he gets in over his head, but he’s a quick thinker and a talented hustler, which gives him an edge his opponents tend to underestimate. If Nairobi Half Life‘s script leans a little heavily on Mwas being caught between two worlds (alternate title suggestion: Nairobi Double Life), its energy is infectious and its presentation is polished — props to producer Tom Twyker (1998’s Run Lola Run, 2012’s Cloud Atlas), whose One Fine Day Film Workshop guided its making.

Director Lonesome Solo’s more rough-hewn and downbeat Burn It Up Djassa also weaves a tale of desperation that culminates in violence, this time in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast’s largest metropolis. Again, there’s a conflicted young man at its center: Tony, or Dabagaou” (as he’s known in the ‘hood), whose rise from cigarette seller to killer on the run is shared via a streetwise narrator who lays down story beats like a hip-hop version of Shakespeare; his scenes are the most cinematic amid what feels like an otherwise largely improvised effort. And indeed, Burn It Up Djassa builds to a tragedy of Bardian proportions. You’ll see it coming, but it’s wrenching nonetheless.

Death is the main character in Alain Gomis’ Dakar-set Tey, or “today,” which takes place in a world that resembles ours but with one key supernatural difference: Those who are about to die are given 24-hour advance notice. One morning, seemingly healthy fortysomething Satché wakes up with the grim knowledge that this is his last day. By the same mysterious power, those closest to him — his family, friends, a bitter former lover, and his wife (though not, it seems, his young children) — are also made aware. Though there’s a certain amount of wailing from his older relatives, Satché accepts his fate, drifting through a day that begins with a sort of living funeral, in which both praise and criticism are lobbed at him, and leads into a raucous street parade and hang time with friends.

As the day grows longer, it turns more melancholy; he visits the man who’ll be preparing his corpse for burial, who reminds Satché he’s lucky to know when his time is up so he has a chance to say his good-byes. But Tey isn’t a total bummer of a movie — it has a dreamy quality and moments of humor, as when Satché shows up late to a ceremony held in his honor, but can’t find anything to eat or drink at the completely pillaged catering table. That this dead man walking is played by American slam poet Saul Williams (though Satché is Senegalese) adds to his inherent outsider vibe. The ticking clock breaks down any forced politeness in his encounters, particularly with his wife, which gives us an idea of what he like was before he knew he was about to die.

End-of-life issues also dominate Akosua Adoma Owusu’s Kwaku Ananse, one of three films composing “Between Cultures: Recent African Shorts” (the other two, Faisal Goes West and the Quvenzhané Wallis-starring Boneshaker, were not available for preview; among the features, Damien Ounouri’s documentary Fidaï, a portrait of his Algerian freedom-fighting great uncle, was also unfortunately unavailable). Kwaku Ananse casts the West African trickster character, Anansi (Americans know him from classic children’s book Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti), as its main character’s recently-deceased father. The young woman has come to his Ghanan village for his funeral, and to confront the second family he was keeping on the side. The 25-minute work slowly becomes more fairy tale-like as it progresses, anchored by a solemn but fiery performance by lovely star Jojo Abot.

Elsewhere in the fest, a mockumentary from Cameroon (banned in Cameroon, not coincidentally) about what would happen if the president suddenly disappeared (Le Président) is paired with short Nigerian doc Fuelling Poverty; both examine deep-seated corruption in troubled, post-colonial economies. And for a completely different audience (ages seven and up) is Rémi Bezançon and Jean-Christophe Lie’s Zarafa, the animated story of a young boy who escapes slavery in Africa and becomes enmeshed in the remarkable, mostly true story of the first giraffe to take up residence in France. *

AFRICAN FILM FESTIVAL 2014

Jan. 25-Feb. 26, $5.50-$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

bampfa.berkeley.edu

 

Vanishing point

2

arts@sfbg.com

DANCE Sitting at her large desk overlooking the intersection of Mission and 24th Street, Krissy Keefer speaks eloquently and movingly about the genesis of Hemorrhage: An Ablution of Hope and Despair, the latest work for her 10-woman Dance Brigade Company.

Keefer is a dancer-choreographer-activist who has always enthusiastically plowed into the morass of the social, environmental, and political concerns of the day. Her works are issue-oriented, theatrically savvy, and entertaining, not least because of her sense of humor. Keefer may be deadly serious about her art, but she doesn’t take herself all that seriously.

But on a recent Saturday afternoon, as her crew prepared the main theater for a rehearsal of Hemorrhage, you couldn’t help but notice a note of fatigue, even despair, in her passionate takedown of the types of disasters that drain us of our humanity with ever-increasing frequency.

Keefer admits to being a news junkie. She has her ear to the ground, not just locally; she’s in tune with Midwest farmers who can’t plant crops because of the drought, multi-millionaire Chinese who leave their fellow citizens behind, and the survivors of Fukushima and Hurricane Sandy. Where are they, she wonders, how do people survive? “If you pay attention, you live with hope and despair. You obsess with hope, but what you feel underneath is actually despair. If you are not feeling some kind of despair, you are not paying attention.”

But couldn’t the increased flood of disaster information be the result of our sensationalist 24/7 news cycle? She doesn’t think so, believing instead that violent upheavals have actually become more frequent: “What we have done to the environment, [for instance], is completely despairing.” Included in her indictment are not only the governmental, corporate, and financial forces that act out of self-interest, but also a progressive movement that she believes has not acted strongly and decisively enough.

But Keefer’s major preoccupation at the moment is what she calls the “the corporate monsters — the last robber barons,” who are destroying a culture she has helped build. She lives and works in the Mission, and raised her daughter there. In the last 12 years, Dance Mission Theater has become a community institution, offering classes for adults and children, and providing affordable rehearsal and performance space. These days, when she looks through her office window and sees all those Silicon Valley-bound buses swarming past, she wants to pull out her hair.

“I feel very protective of the culture that we have created in San Francisco. You put layer upon layer on it, from the longshoremen, the Beat poets, the Black Panthers, the hippies, the gay and lesbian solidarity movement, feminism, the immigrant communities. It’s like layers of cheesecloth that you lay down, and this is the culture that came out of it. I participated in that, I am dedicated to it, and I am devastated by its being pulled apart.” Mincing no words, she adds, “It’s one of the cultures that keeps our country from sliding into fascism.”

So Keefer is stepping into the trenches as she always has done: as an artist. Walking into the theater, you realize this is the messiest set she (with Kate Boyd) has ever created. It’s one big junk pile, taking over half the theater and filling the bleachers from top to bottom. It makes you think of the outskirts of Mumbai and Manila, where thousands of people try to eke a living from whatever they can salvage. Where did Dance Brigade get the wheel drums, broken crock pots, fans, at least one bathtub, lace curtains, suitcases, Christmas tree ornaments, and enough body parts to reassemble several automobiles?

“We went to a wrecking yard,” Keefer laughs. “They deliver.”

Thinking of herself and her dancers as having been exiled from their city, as so many people have recently been, she envisioned Hemorrhage as a work about having to live on the edges. “Women always are more vulnerable during catastrophes,” she says, “because they take care of the children.”

For the script, she drew on her own writing but also that of fellow San Franciscans Rebecca Solnit (Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism) and performer-activist Guillermo Gómez-Peña, shaping it as a running monologue — a rant, a poem, a meditation, a political manifesto — that runs through the piece and ties it together.

And what do her nine women performers, most of whom have been part of Dance Brigade for close to 20 years, contribute? They sing, they shout, they play the drums, they dance; fiercely, proudly, unstoppably, full of hope, and full of despair. *

HEMORRHAGE: AN ABLUTION OF HOPE AND DESPAIR

Through Feb. 8

Opens Fri/24, 8pm; Thu-Sat, 8pm (Feb 8, shows at 4 and 7pm); Sun, 6pm, $20-$25

Dance Mission Theater

3316 24th St, SF

www.dancemission.com

 

Tenant battle brewing

44

rebecca@sfbg.com

Benito Santiago, 63, was born and raised in San Francisco. But now that he’s received an eviction notice from the apartment he’s lived in since 1977, he isn’t sure what the future holds.

“This is roots for me,” Santiago told us. “I have more affinity for San Francisco than the Philippines,” his family’s place of origin.

He works part-time with disabled youth enrolled in San Francisco public schools. “The idea that I built a rapport with these students here … to be put in a position where I wouldn’t be able to work with them, I’m a little saddened and depressed by it,” he said. “If I’m homeless, I can’t be taking care of these kids. I mean — it’s a worst-case scenario.”

He’s been exploring alternative housing options, and trying to stay positive. He says he’s even trying to “change the rate of vibration” of the real estate speculators seeking to oust him as part of his pre-dawn meditation and ritualistic movement practice, a routine he developed to mitigate the chronic pain he dealt with after being hit by an automobile when he was crossing the street in 1980.

“Hopefully, they can have some compassion,” he said.

Santiago is hoping to get a temporary extension to stave off his eviction, and he’s been looking into publicly subsidized below-market rate apartments. But rent for even the most affordable of those places would eat up 75 percent of his monthly income, he said. Unless he can find an affordable arrangement somewhere, he might end up having to leave the city.

 

GROWING MOVEMENT

Santiago has been a part of a growing movement underway in San Francisco to reform the Ellis Act and introduce meaningful legislation at the local level to protect the city’s renters.

In recent weeks, the San Francisco Anti Displacement Coalition, made up of a wide range of organizations including the San Francisco Tenants Union, has hosted a series of neighborhood tenant conventions to solicit ideas that will be boiled down at a citywide tenants’ gathering scheduled for Feb. 8. At that meeting, organizers plan to hash out a strategy and possibly solicit ideas for a ballot initiative.

The tenant conventions are happening on a parallel track with efforts to reform the Ellis Act, which allows landlords to remove apartments from the rental market and evict tenants.

“Our goal is to ban the use of the Ellis Act in certain circumstances,” explained Dean Preston of Tenants Together, a nonprofit focused on strengthening the rights of renters.

“More than half of Ellis Acts are performed by people who bought the properties within the past six months,” he told us. “Their whole purpose is to buy it and kick everyone out. It was supposed to be for long-term landlords to get out of the business” of being landlords, he added. Instead, “it’s being completely abused.”

Sen. Mark Leno is working with Mayor Ed Lee on a response that would seek to lessen the impact the Ellis Act has had in San Francisco. Meanwhile, Assemblymember Tom Ammiano is spearheading a separate effort.

“At this time, he’s not really ready to say which avenue he’s taking” in terms of a legislative strategy, said Carlos Alcalá, Ammiano’s communications director. “Because that can rule out that avenue.”

Preston said he’s been through waves of evictions before, but the organizing now taking place has been especially effective at drawing attention to the issue. Oftentimes, “the speculators are not from within the city or even within the state,” he pointed out. “That has fueled a lot of activism and courage.”

For Santiago, the organizing has given him heart during a difficult time. “I’m hearing a lot of sad stories,” he said, “and I am not alone.”

Positive starts

1

marke@sfbg.com

GOOD TECH Like Tabasco sauce, Lady Gaga, and the color teal, technology in itself is neither good nor bad — it’s all in how you use it. (Indeed, you could argue that those first three examples are technological feats in their own right: Just don’t use too much, please!) And while battles rightly rage about how the Bay Area’s tech industry is reweaving our social fabric, creating and applying technology is an art in itself, albeit one that can have huge economic and political impact.

It can be difficult to see past the whizbang gizmos, marketing dazzle, and glowing dollar signs of how technology is normally presented to us. But in this issue we wanted to take a deeper look at some of the ways technology is impacting or enhancing Bay Area life, and highlight some of its possibilities in addressing some of the city’s real problems (no, not parking or hailing a cab). For all the talk about sharing economies and communal interaction, there’s still a huge gulf between what’s considered “innovation” and what actually offers a path toward civic solutions.

Important questions still hang in the air (beyond the environmental and labor impacts of manufacturing such technologies): How can innovation be better applied to help city infrastructure and social services? How can we integrate startup energy into city policy-making and government transparency? Can the effects of “disruption” be assessed using other indicators beyond market value? In what ways can we ameliorate the knee-jerk resistance to innovation from all sides when it comes to addressing the explosion of homelessness, hunger, and child poverty in the Bay Area? Can we develop new “inputs” or ways of including all Bay Area voices in the conversation about how technology is transforming the way we live?

And why can’t we Kickstart Muni, anyway?

Lately, there’s been some movement toward addressing some of these concerns, especially when it comes to art and culture. The huge, forthcoming 5M project on Mission plans to not only house Yahoo, but also Intersection for the Arts and SF Made, explicitly integrating local arts and businesses into the start-up incubator template. A recent forum hosted by music app WillCall on how tech can better support the local music and nightlife industry packed the Public Works nightclub. Proposals to help teach more coding in schools and make government more transparent are gaining steam.

Of course, it’s always wise to maintain a healthy skepticism about the latest shiny thing, and to realize the limits of technology — often it can’t even clean up its own mess — and especially the people behind it. But it’s also important to keep pushing the conversation about technology’s role in civic engagement forward in positive, thought-provoking, even spicy new directions.

 

Judging hackers

9

joe@sfbg.com

The Bay Guardian is happy to announce a partnership with BeMyApp, CloudCamp, Hewlett Packard, and Intel in launching a hackathon for societal benefit. I will be one of the judges of their CloudCamp Social Good Hackathon the weekend of Jan. 24.

The hackathon is a contest tasking programmers and designers with creating apps that could change their city, state, country, or the world. Teams will craft those changes around health, fitness, the environment, and education. The Guardian has always been solutions based, and we hope to work with tech to help solve the problems of San Francisco’s rising displacement and inequality together.

Entrance in the hackathon is free, though space is limited. The first and second prizes are $5,000 and $4,000, respectively. Hackers will strut their ones and zeroes at Impact Hub San Francisco, which is housed in the bottom floor of the San Francisco Chronicle Building on Fifth and Mission.

Kalina Machlis, community manager at BeMyApp, said the Guardian was a natural choice to partner with them due to our often critical stance on the tech community: We’d keep them honest. She also hoped it would help build ties with a media community that can be critical of the tech industry.

“It’s a good way for you to see there are positive things happening in the tech world,” she told us. And though no one app can solve all of San Francisco’s social ills, we hope this can be a first step toward harnessing tech for the good of all the city’s residents.

Be advised, you don’t necessarily need to be a tech head to join in. Just bring your ideas, Machlis told us. “Our initial idea for beginning the company was to bring together people who don’t have technical skills with people who design and code,” she said.

We’re looking forward to bringing a bit of Guardian fire to a hub of techies who want to change the world. For every Greg Gopman spewing hatred, no doubt there are tech-savvy folk who care about the less fortunate around them. We want to meet those socially conscious hackers.

By the people

3

rebecca@sfbg.com

A growing number of people seem to be convinced that “civic innovation” is sexy.

Tech-oriented events at San Francisco City Hall, like hackathons for improving government services, have become increasingly common. App developers are gaga over the idea of revolutionizing government through software, and the concept is gaining momentum.

To borrow an analogy referenced in an essay by tech publisher Tim O’Reilly, some software purveyors are moving away from the idea of government as a vending machine: “When we don’t get what we expect, our ‘participation’ is limited to protest—essentially, shaking the vending machine.”

Instead, they’re latching onto the idea of government as an open platform that citizens can tinker with.

That’s exciting. Can it lead to a government that is more responsive to the people, as enthusiasts predict? Can we really hack away the ineffective and irresponsive parts of the public sector?

Or is some of this just hype and libertarian idealism from a cash-drenched tech sector seeking business opportunities and greater political influence?

 

HACK THE LAW

Sup. Mark Farrell recently proposed doing away with an outmoded and widely disregarded law disallowing bicycle storage in garages. The legislative tweak matters because it was spurred by feedback submitted through a new website, SanFranciscoCode.org.

Operated by a private nonprofit organization called the OpenGov Foundation, the website presents an interactive, online version of the city’s municipal code with an open platform where anyone can easily comb through the thicket of city laws and leave comments on specific sections, using the software as a magnifying glass.

Farrell touted the website — launched in partnership with Mayor Ed Lee’s Office of Civic Innovation last September — as a tool that could spur “a more transparent and accountable city government.”

“I see this leading to better engagement,” said Jess Montejano, Farrell’s legislative aide. Seamus Kraft, executive director of the OpenGov Foundation, has been compiling all the comments submitted via SanFranciscoCode.org, and recently sent a memo with all user feedback to each member of the Board of Supervisors.

“Our mission is to put as much public information into the public’s hands as possible,” Kraft said, “so that people can access their laws the way they deserve in 2013.”

The idea that a law would be changed instantly based on public comments is a new take on an old concept, with shades of being enamored by that shiny new thing. After all, many supervisors have a habit of turning their backs, or very obviously zoning out, during public comment sessions at weekly board meetings.

Yet anyone with an Internet connection can run with this new portal for citizen engagement. How about a reinvigorated response to San Francisco’s Sit/Lie Ordinance? A torrent of online commentary about the public nudity ban? Not everyone has the same idea about what it means to fix a broken law.

In some respects, City Hall appears to be lending itself out as a laboratory in which to test the wide-ranging theories of civic innovators. Mayor Lee has greeted the technology sector with arms wide open, and empowered the Office of Civic Innovation to foster tech-fueled government fine-tuning.

With the rise of amply funded organizations such as Code for America, droves of programmers stand at the ready, eager to chip in and do their part to help transport the public sector out of the analog ages.

A recent brigade of Code for America fellows partnered with the city’s Department Health and Human Services to create an app that automatically notifies food stamp recipients via text when they are about to be automatically dis-enrolled. The idea is to give recipients advance notice so they can take steps to renew their enrollment.

Other initiatives, such as the Department of Public Health’s release of an open data set to reveal housing inspection records, can arm citizens with useful knowledge — like empowering apartment hunters to spot a slumlord from a mile away.

The use of tech for transparency holds potential: What if each and every public record — down to every last email, calendar appointment, or police report — were instantly uploaded to a publicly accessible database, easy to locate, and fully searchable? Would that be a check against corruption?

Ron Bouganim, a San Francisco-based venture capitalist and mentor to the very Code for America teams industriously improving city government through technology, recently filed paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission to create GovTech. It’s a new kind of venture capital fund, specifically devoted to fostering companies looking to find their way in the “civic innovation” sector.

Bouganim laid out the dynamics driving the civic innovation trend: First, “2008-2009 was like a nuclear bomb,” he explained. “The financial crisis was a cataclysmic event. The money is not coming back, ever.”

 

THE NEW NORMAL?

This new normal, characterized by dramatically depleted public-sector finances, has helped make government more open to working with startups instead of trusted brands like IBM, Bouganim said, since startups can help government “do more with less.”

Bouganim also said adoption of cloud computing has changed the game. Whereas governments were initially hesitant to move their data to the cloud, the recent migration has made it possible for companies seeking government contracts to price below the “procurement threshold,” a price point that triggers a long public approval process before a purchase can go through. Now that technology has helped software developers slice through red tape, startups are flooding in, eager to land public sector contracts.

The city’s Entrepreneurship in Residence webpage (entrepreneur.sfgov.org), which markets a program rolled out by the Office of Civic Innovation, says it all. Sporting a gleaming picture of San Francisco City Hall, it bears the caption: “Develop products & services for the $142 billion public sector market.”

Bouganim wasn’t willing to say much in the way of GovTech’s plans, but he mentioned that his accelerator provides mentorship for startups that are paired with government agencies, and hinted that his initial investments would lead to “a dramatic impact on government savings.”

An underlying goal of the whole civic innovation movement, Bouganim added, “is to fundamentally change this concept that government is over there, and I am over here. We the people are the government, we’ve just lost touch with it.”

Bouganim responded to the Guardian’s call within 15 minutes, mentioning he was in London. “I wanted to get back to you so you didn’t think I was ignoring you,” he said, “because that would be awful.”

But the well-compensated public servants at the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation evidently had no such compunction. The Bay Guardian placed multiple calls to that office for this story, only to be met with radio silence.

And that’s a quandary. One cannot trumpet lofty goals of citizen engagement while habitually walling off government critics, and still expect to be taken seriously. And therein lies the rub with civic innovation: Even if technology is neutral, politics will never be so.

Hey whistleblowers

6

rebecca@sfbg.com

The San Francisco Bay Guardian newsroom is tapping some high-tech tools to continue its journalistic mission.

Working in partnership with a group of technologists who dislike government corruption just as much as we do, we’re launching a new web-based system to enable sources to anonymously submit documents directly to our news staff.

The system offers better safeguards for protecting sources’ identities than conventional email can offer.

Powered by a software system called SecureDrop, the system is designed to protect the identities of whistleblowers if they wish to share information without fear of retaliation.

If the documents we receive contain newsworthy information that can be independently verified, we’ll use it as the basis for our reporting.

Since this is an experiment, we have no idea what will land in our SecureDrop folder — but it creates the potential for us to partner with sources in breaking significant news items.

The SecureDrop program originated with the late Aaron Swartz, who developed it in collaboration with Wired Editor Kevin Poulson. Swartz was an Internet activist and programmer known for hashing out inventive ways to fight corruption and promote transparency. He’s remembered, among other things, for cofounding Reddit, the online news site; and for founding Demand Progress, an online activism group known for its 2012 campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act.

Now, SecureDrop is managed by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 2012 that is “dedicated to helping support and defend public-interest journalism focused on exposing mismanagement, corruption, and law-breaking in government.”

Files submitted to the Guardian through the SecureDrop system will remain encrypted until they are securely downloaded. This means there’s no way for a third party to view their contents and trace them back to the sender.

Sources’ actual identities will never be revealed, and they’ll be identified to our news staff only through randomly generated code names.

Of course, whistleblowers desiring to keep their identities unknown always have the option of putting some documents into an unmarked envelope and dropping it in the mail.

But by submitting documents through SecureDrop, sources will have the ability to send high volumes of information that would be logistically difficult to print out or send. The program also enables sources to communicate with journalists in real time without revealing their actual identities.

Stay tuned. In coming weeks, the Guardian will publish a clip-out guide with instructions on how to submit documents to our news staff using SecureDrop. Sending encrypted files to journalists begins with downloading the Tor Browser Bundle, a system that makes online activity invisible to third parties.

Nickels and dimes… or transit for our times?

14

STREET FIGHT Much has been written about the so-called “Google buses” and San Francisco’s latest round of gentrification. It’s a horrible mess and the city’s trifling $1 charge per bus stop will do little to address the broader structural problem that these buses lay bare.

Ordinary people cannot ride them, nor do the people who clean and cook for the tech world. Like tour buses, they are clunky and inappropriate for many neighborhood streets. While they do substitute for some car trips, an ad hoc private transit system does not reflect the kind of thoughtful regional planning needed to truly reduce car use in the Bay Area.

But the controversy over the private commuter buses does show that there is great potential for a public regional express bus system. Consider that in 1980, 9 percent of commuters in San Francisco left the city every day to go to work. In 2010, outbound commuters approached 25 percent. Owing to regional political fragmentation, Muni cannot provide intercounty service and thus is not the travel mode of choice for many of these commuters. And although Caltrain and BART offer some regional service, the sprawling locations of suburban firms often make regional rail impractical or at the very least time-consuming owing to unavoidable multiple transfers to local buses.

So in noteworthy ways, the rise of private transit is an immediate reaction to poor regional transit connections. Yet rather than sidestepping failed regional planning by encouraging an inequitable, two-tiered, private system, we need to expand and regionalize the existing public bus systems. San Francisco’s mayor and Board of Supervisors have seats at the table of regional planning and ought to use the controversy over private buses as an opportunity to kickstart the implementation of a regional public bus system accessible to all.

For example, something like AC Transit’s Transbay routes should be extended through San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, perhaps operated by BART or Caltrain as part of the next iteration of Plan Bay Area. This network would use reallocated express lanes on 101 and I-280 and use transit priority lanes on arterials like 19th Avenue in San Francisco and El Camino Real in San Mateo. Regional property assessments on the corporations and developers, in part already possible within the existing BART district (one should be created for Caltrain), could be used to fund such a system. Congestion charging on 101 and I-280 should also be deployed and those funds used for electrifying Caltrain and developing the parallel and complementary regional bus system.

Of course there will be opposition to a regional public bus system as there already is to progressive regional planning. Transit-connected, walkable communities in the South Bay, for example, have been made all but illegal by decades of conservative middle and upper class, anti-density, anti-tax homeowners in suburban localities. As recently as last year, this Tea Party-style conservative politics dampened Plan Bay Area, resulting in a weak regional housing plan with an underfunded and lackluster transit vision. This conservative approach stifles our collective sense of what is possible and the fear-mongering has rendered regional planners virtually impotent. Yet it can and must be overcome.

Some progressives may find it convenient (and in some cases justifiable) to target tech workers right now, but they could also direct energy into shaping the next round of Plan Bay Area. Remember that Plan Bay Area is a living document, a work in progress. The current version of the plan, weak on transit funding, has been subdued by a loud, irrational mob of Tea Party cranks bent on sabotaging anything that hints of progressive ideas. Plan Bay Area is also stifled by a regional business class that wants to keep the status quo and that is comfortable with the neoliberal model of private transit.

So while a smattering of dedicated and hard-working progressive transit activists showed up and attempted to shape Plan Bay Area last year, in the coming years the plan needs a broader progressive movement — including transit, housing, social justice, and environmental activists — to demand a more visionary regional transportation plan that connects all of the Bay Area. I am hopeful that this would not only steer regional planning in a progressive direction, but many of the tech workers who are now on the private buses would gladly join in the cause.

 

THE POLITICS OF SUNDAY PARKING

Speaking of hopeful, last month the SFMTA reported that Sunday metering, implemented last January, is a resounding success. Switching-on the meters doubled parking availability on Sundays, which is invariably what small businesses, most of which are open on Sunday, want to see.

Sunday meters increased the number of cars using city-owned garages and decreased the time cars circled in search of parking from an average of four minutes to two — de-cluttering streets in commercial districts. While this might seem like a boon to drivers, it also means less pollution, safer conditions for pedestrians and cyclists, less delay for Muni, and a much needed enhancement of revenue for operating public transit.

So it is mystifying that such success would be ignored by Mayor Ed Lee, who instead has proposed to discontinue Sunday metering. This is doubly confusing because, based on existing travel behavior to many commercial districts, 25 percent of people arrived by driving, while 31 percent took transit and 25 percent walked. So what the mayor is effectively saying to the pedestrian and transit-using majority is you matter little. What does matter is the few whining motorists who called him to complain about being “nickel and dimed.”

The mayor talks a good game when saying he is truly concerned about pedestrian and cyclist safety, and insisting that he wants to fix Muni. But gutting a reliable source of operating funds and pandering to car drivers who will dangerously circle for parking is inconsistent.

Lee says money isn’t an issue because his proposed General Obligation bond (which must be approved by voters) will patch the lost revenue from Sunday metering. But the GO bond will incur further debt and only fund existing capital needs, while parking meters provide a debt-free steady revenue stream for Muni. It’s also slightly misleading because the bond would not cover Muni operations, while revenue from Sunday metering does pay for operations.

The mayor’s pandering also put the SFMTA Board of Directors, which has been working out parking management and Muni finance, on the spot. Ultimately, it has to vote to preserve or scrap Sunday metering in the coming months. Now the directors have to decide if they support transit-first or the mayor’s pandering.

Unfortunately, when it comes to parking policy, the way that the Board of Supervisors has behaved lately suggests it will either jump on the mayor’s bandwagon and pander to motorists or cower in silence as good public policy is trashed. Not a good situation at City Hall, where transit riders seem to be routinely thrown under the bus by the political establishment.

Street Fight is a monthly column by Jason Henderson, an urban geography professor at San Francisco State University.

Protect pedestrians

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More than 50 public commenters spoke at the Jan. 16 joint Police Commission and Board of Supervisors Neighborhood Services and Safety Committee meeting, and all sounded one message loud and clear: Drivers can maim and kill pedestrians with near impunity in San Francisco, and that must end.

"I’m here very simply to urge you to end the carnage on our streets," said Natalie Burdick of the nonprofit Walk SF. "These crimes cost the city millions annually, and untold value in terms of squandered human capital."

Pedestrian deaths reached a high last year, with 21 killed in traffic collisions. Sup. Eric Mar highlighted the lack of funding in Mayor Ed Lee’s Pedestrian Strategy, which has a funding gap of $5-18 million. But SFPD’s failure to cite motorists was the main criticism.

"The fact is these statistics have been consistent that two-thirds of pedestrian accidents are the fault of the driver," Sup. Scott Wiener said at the outset of the meeting. "It’s the fact of the situation."

State of the City: spin over substance

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It was maddening to watch Mayor Ed Lee deliver his annual State of the City address on Jan. 17. This was pure politics, from the staged backdrop of housing construction at Hunters Point Shipyard to the use of “regular people” props to the slate of vague and contradictory promises he made.

“This place, the shipyard, links our proud past to an even more promising future,” was how Lee began his hour-plus, invite-only address.

Later, he touted the housing construction being done there by Lennar Urban as emblematic of both his promise to bring 30,000 new housing units online by 2020 — the cornerstone to what he called his “affordability agenda” — and the opposition to unfettered development that he is pledging to overcome.

“A great example is the place we’re standing right now. This took us too long,” Lee said after decrying the “easy slogans and scapegoating” by progressive activists who place demands on developers.

But that implication was bullshit. As we’ve reported, progressive and community activists have long encouraged Lennar Urban (which has a close relationship to Lee) to speed up development on this public land that it was given almost a decade ago, particularly the long-promised affordable housing, rather than waiting for the real estate market to heat up.

That was just one of many examples of misleading and unsupported claims in a speech that might have sounded good to the uninformed listener, but which greatly misrepresented the current realities and challenges in San Francisco.

For example, Lee called for greater investments in the public transit system while acknowledging that his proposal to ask voters this November to increase the vehicle license fee isn’t polling well. And yet even before that vote takes place, Lee wants to extend free Muni for youth and repeal the policy of charging for parking meters on Sundays without explaining how he’ll pay for that $10 million per year proposal.

Lee also glossed over the fact that he hasn’t provided funding for the SFMTA’s severely underfunded bicycle or pedestrian safety programs, yet he still said, “I support the goals of Vision Zero to eliminate traffic deaths in our city.”

Again, nice sentiment, but one disconnected from how he’s choosing to spend taxpayer money and use city resources. And if Lee can somehow achieve his huge new housing development push, Muni and other critical infrastructure will only be pushed to the breaking point faster.

Even with his call to increase the city’s minimum wage — something that “will lift thousands of people out of poverty” — he shied away from his previous suggestion that $15 per hour would be appropriate and said that he needed to consult with the business community first: “We’ll seek consensus around a significant minimum wage increase.”

But Mayor Lee wants you to focus on his words more than his actions, including his identification with renters who “worry that speculators looking to make a buck in a hot market will force them out.”

Yet there’s little in his agenda to protect those vulnerable renters, except for his vague promise to try to do so, and to go lobby in Sacramento for reforms to the Ellis Act.

Lee also noted the “bone dry winter” we’re having and how, “It reminds us that the threat of climate change is real.” Yet none of the programs he mentions for addressing that challenge would be as effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions as the CleanPowerSF program that Lee and his appointees are blocking, while offering no other plan for building renewable energy capacity.

Far from trying to beef up local public sector resources that vulnerable populations increasingly need, Lee said, “Affordability is also about having a city government taxpayers can afford.”

Manhattanization revisited

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joe@sfbg.com

The housing crisis is spurring pro-development arguments that threaten to hasten the “Manhattanization of San Francisco,” a buzzphrase from another era that led to local controls on high-rise development.

The city is getting richer and less diverse, and the unaddressed displacement of longtime residents has fueled populist outrage. Now, politicians are finally getting the message, but some are offering solutions that may reopen old civic wounds.

They say that the answer to the housing affordability crisis is to build massive amounts of new housing, and to build it higher and more densely than city codes and processes currently allow.

Sup. Scott Wiener wrote a scathing indictment of the city’s alleged aversion to housing production in the San Francisco Chronicle on Jan. 13, slamming a planning process that he says slows necessary construction.

“This disconnect — saying that we need more housing while arbitrarily finding reasons to kill or water down projects that provide that housing — is having profound effects on our city and its beautiful diversity, economic and otherwise,” Wiener wrote.

Though he mentioned affordable housing, the need to build all kinds of housing was the crux of his argument. It’s the same kind of developer-friendly rhetoric that whips people into a frenzy with faux common sense: build more, and the market will take care of everyone.

But there are flaws to that simplistic argument. Housing advocates (and Guardian editorials) have long argued that market rate units — the median price of which just surpassed $1 million — don’t trickle down to maintain the city’s economic diversity. More supply may help, but with insatiable demand for housing here, it won’t help much with affordability for the working class.

The next day, Wiener introduced legislation to loosen density requirements when developers build below-market-rate housing units on site, creating an incentive to build more of the units that affordable housing advocates say are most valuable.

“Long term, I’m concerned about young persons that can come here,” he told the Guardian. “It’s not just about building more housing.”

Pushing a pro-development agenda while playing lip service to an affordable housing push is all the rage in San Francisco nowadays, with Mayor Ed Lee calling for building 30,000 new housing units by 2020, supporting the rapid growth calls by SPUR, Housing Action Coalition, and other pro-growth groups.

But Peter Cohen, co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, says supply and demand logic doesn’t apply to the San Francisco housing market for a number of reasons.

He pointed to a paper by CCHO cohort Calvin Welch, who teaches a class on the politics of housing development at USF and SFSU. Welch cites data from the City Controller’s Office showing that when San Francisco increases supply, the market responds by raising the average housing price. Contrary to all the supply and demand claims, when we produce more, things get more expensive.

Why?

“In classic economic theory prices are set by supply and demand only when the market is ‘competitive’ when neither consumers nor suppliers have the ‘market power’ to set the price by themselves,” Welch wrote. “Clearly, that is not the case in San Francisco…of the City’s 47 square miles, only 13 square miles is available for housing uses.”

“There is no ‘free land’ in San Francisco,” he wrote. “The owners have total ‘market power’ over its price.”

But that’s the kind of complex argument that has a tough time penetrating the public consciousness. The idea isn’t as catchy as “supply and demand.”

“I think frankly this whole thing about build, build, build — it’s an easy answer to something that’s complex,” Cohen told us. “It resonates. It sounds like the easy path to sound like you know what you’re talking about.”

That simplistic thinking is dangerous, though, because San Francisco is quickly becoming Manhattanized. Since 2002, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg rezoned over 37 percent of New York City, according to The New York Times, causing the construction frenzy many are seeking for San Francisco.

Bloomberg added 40,000 buildings in his time as mayor, but that boom had mixed results. It arguably hastened the Big Apple’s gentrification, especially in Manhattan, one of the few US locales denser than San Francisco.

From 2000 to 2010, Manhattan’s ranks of white people swelled by 58,000. During the same period, the wealthy home of Wall Street lost 29,000 African Americans and 14,000 Latinos. More alarming is the income disparity there.

From 1990 to 2010, the city that never sleeps, and its neighborhoods, increasingly became a land of have and have-nots. Census maps showed that while 1990 Manhattan had economic diversity, now the median income hovers over $75,000 for most blocks of that famous borough.

Articles from the Times and NYC-based housing advocacy organizations frequently describe Manhattan as a haven of wealthy white yuppies. Sound familiar?

San Francisco is quickly following suit. The same census maps that show the swell of wealth in Manhattan show a swell of wealthy folk in San Francisco.

BMR housing set-asides help, and Mayor Lee has promised to ramp up BMR production, calling for about 10,000 units by the year 2020. But any serious increase in housing production carries its own cost in a city where public transit and other vital infrastructure are already underfunded and would need serious new investments.

In his Jan. 17 State of the City speech, Mayor Lee warned against demonizing the tech industry or with pitting one group against another. “San Francisco changes us more than any group of newcomers will change San Francisco,” he said to the invite-only crowd.

The difference now is the wealth that threatens to gentrify San Francisco’s weird soul, the one we’ve hung onto since a man named Joshua Norton declared himself Emperor of the United States and was hailed as a San Franciscan icon.

“Manhattanization” is not just a buzz term or a scare tactic: It’s representative of a specific set of zoning and construction policies that many San Franciscans are now advocating for, which will change the demographics and politics of this city, whether we like it or not.

San Francisco’s chief economist addresses supply and demand in terms of housing — it’d take over 100,000 new housing units to make a dent in housing prices in San Francisco.