Volume 48 Number 22
LEFT OF THE DIAL To an ’80s baby, at this point, calling Nickelodeon’s The Adventures of Pete & Pete a cult favorite is a little like thinking your childhood love of The Labyrinth or The Neverending Story is somehow quirky or unique — it goes without saying that they’re excellent, but we’re gonna need a lot of Kool-Aid: These are some pretty big cults we’re dealing with.
Which doesn’t mean, of course, that there wasn’t an air of “giant secret club meeting” at the Sketchfest Pete & Pete reunion that took place at the packed Marines Memorial Theater in 2013. That live show marked, I will admit, the first time I realized how crucial a role music had played in constructing the show’s singularly surreal, hilarious, kid-centered universe. I’d had the show’s jangly, irreverent theme song, “Hey Sandy,” on my iPod for years, and had read about how Polaris — the show’s own house band — was a sort of one-off project for members of the early-R.E.M.-era college-rock band Miracle Legion, which dissolved under a heated label dispute; the show’s creators were simply fans of that band and asked lead singer Mark Mulcahy to chime in. I knew both acts were driven by bright, breezy guitar riffs and Mulcahy’s distinctive, sometimes erratic, Lou Reed-esque vocals.
But it wasn’t until hearing Mulcahy sing a few songs from Polaris’ oeuvre live that — enamored, nostalgic, weirdly emotional — I went home and promptly dove headfirst into his solo work, of which there are four complete albums. If you want to work backward, Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You, released in July of last year after a nearly eight-year hiatus, is a beautiful starting point. It’s a moody, introspective, but clear-thinking and meticulously arranged record, stamped all over with the Mulcahy trademark: Lyrics that veer toward magical realism, the intonation of a less-goofy Jonathan Richman, gently dark witticisms that don’t quite make sense but you understand their feeling in your bones, bleak stories that don’t really seem autobiographical, but then — who can be sure?
Mulcahy can, but he doesn’t owe us an explanation. The gentlest, happiest track on the record, “The Rabbit,” — on which the songwriter sweetly confesses “I’m a sucker for magic/where’s the rabbit?” — is punctuated with sleigh bells; it’s the sound of an artist almost surprising himself with how much hope and curiosity he still has for the world. That’s followed by “Where’s the Indifference Now?,” a bitingly cynical guitar opus about the media’s vulture-like coverage of Heath Ledger’s death. (“You could apply it to Philip Seymour Hoffman now, I guess,” says Mulcahy.) If he often deals in surrealism, his gift is in the human honesty of that contrast, the recognizable sense of home base in the space between those moods.
“I was home most of the day, it’s a snow day,” is the first thing he says, however, when, after a bit of phone tag, I finally reach him at the Massachusetts home he shares with his two young twin daughters. “I’m looking out the window right now at snow, just as far as you can see…so it’s a bit strange to be thinking about playing in San Francisco [for Noise Pop].”
One reason for the extended hiatus: In 2008, Mulcahy’s wife passed away quite suddenly, and he’s been raising the kids on his own ever since. A tribute album to help raise money for the family, Ciao My Shining Star (named for a line in the obituary Mulcahy wrote her), was arranged almost entirely without his knowledge and released in 2009, with artists who happen to be Mulcahy fans — folks like Thom Yorke, Michael Stipe, Dinosaur Jr., Frank Black, The National, Elvis Perkins, and Juliana Hatfield — performing Mulcahy’s songs.
It didn’t make sense to be away from home for long, explains Mulcahy of the break; since the most recent record (which draws its title from a note someone gave him) came out last summer, he’s been navigating the balance between touring and his home life with kids who, he says, are still too young to really understand much about what he does.
“I hadn’t played in such a long time, when I first started again I almost couldn’t believe I was doing it. But it’s felt really nice,” he says of touring so far. “I don’t know how I would do with a month-long thing, but so far it’s just great and really surprising that [the record] has done as well as it has. When I was in Miracle Legion, we always did pretty well, and I kind of assumed I would do that well on my own…I didn’t really put it together until later that it wasn’t a built-in success story. This album, I’m playing shows that are crowded, and it’s just a pleasant surprise to be feeling like I’m back to a point where I was before.” He’s done short stints in Ireland and England, and opened for fellow Bay Staters the Pixies on their tour warm-up in Northampton, MA.
As for the record, which Pitchfork (among others) has called his best solo work yet, the distinct moods of the tracks are at least in part the result of Mulcahy’s studio process: He recorded each song in entirety on its own day, then thought carefully about order and narrative. “I definitely don’t think of anything I write as one song, and I’m not really a big fan of ‘shuffle,'” he says. “I guess I come from the old school of sequencing.” He’s old-school in other ways, he will admit; he doesn’t pay too much attention to what’s currently on the radio. Lou Reed and the ’90s Connecticut indie band Butterflies of Love are first on his tongue when asked what he’s been listening to as of late. He’s no snob, though: “I go easy on guys like him,” is his comment on Bruno Mars. “Pop music…I mean, you take Miley Cyrus. I really thought she was terrible for a long time, I just didn’t get it. And then I really listened to ‘Wrecking Ball,’ and that’s a great song! I’m not gonna hate her just because I’m supposed to.”
And if people still wind up knee-deep in his catalogue because of his most mainstream, cable-televised work, as I did — well, that’s OK too.
“Polaris was a really unexpected twist in my musical career, but it was just a band that existed in your TV,” he says. “We never really played any gigs, which was probably a mistake. To the point where, when we did the Pete & Pete reunion in LA and played with a full band, it was surprising to realize, ‘Wow, we could play shows!’ And it’s funny, I haven’t really found anywhere that wants to book us since then, but we definitely want to do it. I absolutely still enjoy playing those songs.”
Hear that, Bay Area bookers? You could make a lot of ’80s babies very, very happy.
There are a bunch of new openings to cover this week, starting with the new location of ICHI Sushi and NI Bar (3282 Mission, SF. www.ichisushi.com) in Bernal, which is double the size of ICHI’s previous spot — and looking very spiffy. You’ll find a 30-seat sushi counter in the front along with some table seating, plus an omakase counter, which will be reservation only. In the back is the Ni Bar, offering a new menu of izakaya-style dishes and snacks (which includes chef Tim Archuleta’s chicken wings, have you ever had them?), with plenty of sake, shochu, wine, and beer to help get your heat on. Have fun checking out the mural of sushi rules, like don’t use too much soy sauce, if any at all, but you knew that.
Now open in downtown SF is Kin Khao (55 Cyril Magnin, SF. www.kinkhao.com), a 75-seat Thai restaurant in the Parc 55 from Pim Techamuanvivit of Chez Pim fame, with chef de cuisine Michael Gaines (Manresa, Central Kitchen), who has been cooking Thai food with Pim for the past year. Look for authentic dishes made with high-quality and local ingredients and many handmade touches, from the XO sauce to the curries. The menu will make you want to over-order, with dishes like “pretty hot” wings, chilli jam clams with pork belly, chicken fat rice, Dungeness crabmeat and rice noodles in a sauce made with crab fat (yup, more fat!) and seasonal leaf and root vegetables in som sour curry broth with tamarind and fresh red chili. Boom. There’s also a full bar, with cocktails created by the Bon Vivants. Dinner is served nightly 5:30pm–11pm, and lunch is 11am–3:30pm. The bar will open at 5pm for cocktails, and look for late-night bar bites to launch in a few weeks.
There’s a new spot for coffee, café bites, and a rotating schedule of pop-ups at the new Mélange Market (3153 17th St, SF. www.facebook.com/melangemarket) in the ODC building in the Mission. The project is from the AQ team, which includes AQ’s former pastry chef, Maya Erickson. Order your De La Paz coffee along with housemade English muffins for breakfast, while lunch means sandwiches and salads. Fridays has Joshua Wilder Oakley of Tango & Stache popping up with his boozy tacos, like Campari-braised pork belly ones, and salads. Hours are Mon–Fri 8:30am–6pm and Sat 9am–6pm, as well as during ODC performances.
A doughnut pop-up? Uh huh. On Sundays 1pm–6pm, swing by newish bar Beaux (2344 Market, SF.) in the Castro for custom doughnuts by Brian Christie and Reilly Meehan of Bespoke Doughnuts (www.facebook.com/bespokedoughnuts), like lemon and thyme, or another with duck confit, apple, and Roquefort. No, you won’t find chocolate sprinkles, but you will find horchata. And drinks!
It’s almost another month, which means there are even more places to get pizza (the high tide of tomato sauce throughout the city continues). Over in Dogpatch, there’s Long Bridge Pizza Company (2347 Third St, SF. www.longbridgepizza.com), serving a hybrid New York and Neapolitan style, with four options for now: margherita, sausage, a white pie, and pepperoni. Get yourself a small or large, either to go or at one of the tables. Stuff your pie hole. Hours are Mon–Fri 11am–9pm and Sat 12pm–10pm.
And in the Mission, there’s a new and casual joint called Pizza Shop (3104 24th St, SF. 415-824-1840), slinging pies by the slice ($4) or whole ($19, $2 per additional topping). The owner is Thomas Jividen, previously at Bronx Pizza in San Diego, who partnered with Laurie Badger of Golden Boy Pizza (she is running front-of-house operations). Open daily 11am–10pm.
Marcia Gagliardi is the founder of the weekly tablehopper e-column: www.tablehopper.com. Get her app: Tablehopper’s Top Late-Night Eats. On Twitter: @tablehopper.
There are two sides to every road. But ask a long-haul trucker, a traveling salesman, or a pair of wandering minstrels like the Bengsons, and they’ll remind you that those sides converge at the horizon line.
The Bengsons — married musician-songwriters Abigail and Shaun — met randomly through a gig in New York City back in the late aughts. A mutual attraction, immediate and fierce, led them to become engaged within weeks of their first conversation. Both then in their early 20s, with serious and eclectic musical backgrounds, they recall the courtship as a whirlwind of powerful new emotions, bright and dark. Fast on the heels of marriage came five years of traveling across the country as their own band — a sure blend of musical influences that slips across various genres, in a sort of indie folk, neo-vaudevillian, truck stop cabaret, and drive-by rock opera that more or less dovetails with their daily selves. Among much else, living and learning as peripatetic artists and lovers has given them the opportunity to explore the meaning of all those feelings that led to their highly creative, itinerant relationship.
The fruit of that exploration is in the world premiere this week of Hundred Days, a major musical-theatrical venture carefully nurtured by Z Space and three years in the making. Directed by Anne Kauffman and with a book by Bay Area–based playwright Kate E. Ryan — both fully collaborative partners in the project, the Bengsons readily acknowledge — Hundred Days is something like a real-life Once: a true love affair cast through a darkly playful fictional story about Sarah (Abigail Bengson) and Will (Shaun Bengson), two 20somethings who find their powerful new love comes with a serious expiration date.
The production is no mere concert (though it rocks, loudly and well), but every inch a theatrical experience. Ryan provides a complete and involving narrative spine to the at times raucous, at times haunting musical set pieces. Moreover, Hundred Days features a large and talented cast of actors and musicians (including El Beh, Melissa Kaitlyn Carter, Geneva Harrison, Kate Kilbane, Jo Lampert, Amy Lizardo, Dalane Mason, Joshua Pollock, and Reggie D. White); a moody and mercurial set design by Kris Stone (aglow with a sort of post-industrial romanticism courtesy of lighting designer Allen Willner); and choreography by renowned San Francisco dance maker Joe Goode.
But at its heart are a body of songs of surprising force and subtlety, in dynamic arrangements that showcase both the Bengsons’ hard-won skills as musicians and composers, as well as their exhilarating ability to convey a rare sense of emotional honesty, of uncensored feeling, in their work. Before a recent rehearsal ahead of the show’s first previews, the couple sat down and shared musings on the journey that brought them here.
SF Bay Guardian You’ve described your courtship as being a kind of existential crisis, in that it suddenly put life in an unsettling new perspective.
Shaun Bengson It did start to feel incredibly short.
Abigail Bengson It’s life’s irony that in rushing to live life fully you do collide more quickly with the end of it. Rushing towards life is inevitably rushing towards death. That’s true of everybody. In the play, we put a timer on it, to help us talk about it in a more concrete way. But that’s just how we feel every day anyway [laughs] It’s just sort of the situation.
SB They’re such big feelings, it’s taken a really long time to sort them out and figure out what’s going on there — a lot of the wonder, and also the neurosis and the fear — all of that is where the show came from.
AB The more we’ve unpacked what was initially just an enormous feeling of life and dread in one package, the more we’ve discovered how ordinary that is. I’d say that’s been my primary comfort. In that moment I felt like, “I am struck by lighting. I am going to die.” My experience of life is no longer separate from my experience of death. I’m finding that that is true for so many people.
Any big love, not necessarily for a spouse, but for a child or for a parent, can have that same effect of making life an emergency and making death feel near. But also, in living with that breath in my throat for long enough, I’ve started to be able to soften into that and say, “OK, so now we make a sandwich.” I mean, how do we live in an ordinary way in the face of this thing that feels so enormous? Why is it all we’re thinking about all the time? I don’t know. I guess that’s why we ended up writing all those songs about it.
SFBG And that led you out on the road. How did five years of traveling, your day-to-day life on the road, actually come about?
SB We were living in an apartment in Brooklyn, and I had one year left on my teaching contract. We were playing in our band and working on the show. At the end of my school year, I still had the whole summer [paid]. At the same time, our very dear friend David was going back to South Africa, so he said, “You can stay in my house for the summer.” So we had these two months when we’d still have money from my teaching gig and we’d have a place to live. So we went and lived in the Berkshires for a couple of months, finished a show and set up tour dates, and left from there. We thought maybe we’d go back—maybe I could go back to teaching, if things didn’t work.
AB I never felt that. [Shaun laughs.]
SFBG It felt right to leave?
SB It felt really good. It felt like such a relief.
AB It felt honest. It felt right. True to the way I think and what I am. It meant our life became, you know, gas money and Taco Bell, but it also became playing a lot of shows, doing a lot of service work in different places and learning a lot through that. We got to be students again in that sense, by putting ourselves in situations that were intensely uncomfortable over and over again, and writing music about them. It was a little songwriting boot camp of our own design. And we were getting to know each other’s styles and how we would write. I also feel, like, thank god we were married. I don’t know how you could be a musician and not marry a musician.
SFBG You hit the road five years ago and haven’t turned back. Was there a point early on where you hesitated? Were there any gigs that made you think again?
AB The first crappy gig I remember being really educational — and making me want to do it more even, though it was painful — was when we were at this biker bar…
SB Oh, yeah, this was in the Valley outside of Los Angeles. What was it called? Something like—it’s not Topanga. Tujunga? Is that place?
AB Fact-check all of this, we’re totally full of crap. [Fact check: Sunland-Tujunga sits in northeastern Los Angeles.] But we were playing this bar. Everybody was angry looking, a lot of shaved heads. I was [looking around the room, thinking], “What is going on with you?” Scared. So we got up and we played all the songs that we had written to date that were the most ferocious and aggressive and loud — and then we were kind of running out of those. So at the very end of the night we played this one song. It’s actually about a woman we knew well, whose daughter had passed away, and her struggling with that. And we sang for her and about that, in the moment sort of ready to get booed.
Then, when the set ended, this pack of — now, I know, lovely gentlemen, but at the time, terrifying — figures came towards me, and were weeping. They just said, “That one. Wish you had played more like that.” And I was like, “Fuck, me too.” I mean, I love those aggressive songs, too, they’re a big part of what we do, but it was such a lesson in prejudice for me — that I had judged what they would like, and assumed that it wouldn’t be anything honest for me.
SB It’s the lesson I’m still constantly learning. It takes so much more courage to be actually genuine in a moment. If I’m not careful, my tendency can be to play towards what I perceive people’s expectations are for the event, versus when we try to play the songs we most want to play and are most “us.”
AB But I also think it’s incredible training to play in rooms that are not receptive at first. Because part of the task then is to create the space where people can lean forward. I feel it was one of the best trainings for me. Play somewhere where they wish you were just playing Lynyrd Skynyrd. Where they wish you were a DJ. That’s the best place to go.
SFBG Have you two every attempted anything on the scale of Hundred Days before?
SB and AB No.
AB That was part of why we called it an opera at first. Because opera, they say, is the most collaborative art form — that you need every possible kind of artist to come in and make it happen. And that’s what Z Space has done, is allow for that.
SB It’s been really amazing.
AB It’s been a dream. *
Through April 6, $10-$100
Previews Wed/26, 7pm; Thu/27-Fri/28, 8pm; opens Sat/1, 8pm
Runs Wed and Sun, 7pm; Thu-Sat, 8pm
450 Florida, SF
In a world populated by all too many singer-songwriters, where guitar ballads seem to have exhausted all their possibilities, Mark Kozelek continues to confound and disarm audiences. From his harmonically rich open-tunings, to his spacious, deeply resonant vocals, there’s a lush quality to Kozelek’s recorded output that’s rarely found in such unadorned, acoustically driven music. It’s no wonder, then, that his formative recordings with Red House Painters in the ’90s made room for a singer-songwriter’s approach on the 4AD label, defined by its densely-layered, heavily electronic atmospherics.
Kozelek’s subsequent recordings as Sun Kil Moon have gradually pared the layers down further. Ghosts of the Great Highway (2003) traded the dreamy, slowcore tendencies of the Red House Painters’ discography for a more physical, earthbound approach, reflected in its overarching theme of boxers throughout history. Its 14-minute opus, “Duk Koo Kim” remains Kozelek’s most full-bodied, musically vibrant work to date. April (2008) leaned more heavily on extended compositions, maintaining the luminous, shimmering quality of his previous work, despite its starker instrumentation. With the introduction of his own label, Caldo Verde Records, Kozelek — who’ll be performing at Noise Pop March 1 — was given the leeway to pursue other avenues, from full albums of AC/DC and Modest Mouse covers to a collection of live releases that continues to grow with jam band-worthy prolificacy.
The release of Admiral Fell Promises (2010) marked a significant turning point in Kozelek’s career, with a nylon-string acoustic guitar providing its sole instrumentation, while 2012’s Among the Leaves announced a jarring shift in his lyrical style, finding inspiration in an off-the-cuff, stream-of-consciousness approach, a focus on the mundane, and a tendency towards blunt honesty: most infamously, deriding his audience as a bunch of “guys in tennis shoes.” These past couple records have found Kozelek in a transitional period, grasping for something slightly beyond his reach and, as a result, they weren’t as deeply satisfying or rewarding as his best work.
With the release of this year’s Benji, however, all is forgiven. Here, the desolate instrumentation and frank lyricism of his recent output is instilled with a greater sense of purpose. It’s Kozelek’s most autobiographical work to date, as well as his saddest. Death looms over each song. Good people die in freak accidents before their time, while criminals die of old age. Despite his determination to “find some poetry to make some sense of this, and give some deeper meaning,” as stated on the record’s opening track “Carissa,” the banalities found on Among the Leaves continue to show themselves. Panera Bread is mentioned at least twice, while a trip to Berkeley’s Greek Theatre can’t be recounted without a reference to the back pain-inducing walk up that steep hill.
This thematic balance between tragedy, profundity, and the utterly mundane brings the listener into Kozelek’s thought process in the rawest, most unrefined way imaginable. His lyrical style here is jarringly straightforward, approaching character studies with blunt language, and little need for metaphor. Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska is an obvious comparison, in its bleakly worded yet ultimately dignified portrayals of humanity at its messiest and most desperate.
“Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” tells the story of the California serial killer dying on his own terms, while “Pray for Newtown” eulogizes shooting victims who met their ends too soon. “Dogs” explores the dark side of young love, in all its humiliation and emotional turmoil, with startling intimacy and brutal honesty. The boomer-rock of “I Love My Dad” mercifully, yet briefly, lightens the mood, while the record’s 10-minute centerpiece, “I Saw the Film the Song Remains the Same” strikes a gorgeous balance between the central themes of brooding meditations on death, and casual observations of life.
“The way this song drifts in and out of different realities and memories is a lot like the movies,” Kozelek wrote in a recent piece for the New York Times, “weaving documentary, imagination and memory throughout, always coming back to the music.”
“I loved the thunder of John Bonham’s drums,” Kozelek sings, describing his experience watching Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same at the theater as a teenager, “but even more I liked ‘No Quarter”s low Fender Rhodes hum.” In reflecting upon his preference for Zeppelin’s balladry over its rock pyrotechnics, he draws a connection to the melancholy that has defined his life from a young age. From the deaths of relatives and mere acquaintances that continue to haunt him, to his first record deal, with the similarly downcast 4AD label that helped reinforce his identity, Kozelek expands on one small anecdote to encompass the profundities of life, with a deftness of prose that his entire career has seemingly been working toward.
In spite of occasional contributions from singer-songwriter Will Oldham, former Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, and Advance Base keyboardist Owen Ashworth, Kozelek’s nylon-string fingerpicking remains squarely at the heart of this record, along with the ever-increasing rasp of his voice. More than any album in Kozelek’s deep catalog, Benji lends itself intuitively to his solo live strategy, making this coming Saturday’s Noise Pop appearance at the Great American Music Hall absolutely essential to understanding the inspiration and motivation behind one of the Bay Area’s finest living songwriters.
Noise Pop: An Evening with Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon & Red House Painters
Sat/1, 8pm, $28
Great American Music Hall
859 O’Farrell, SF
As she stares down the remainder of what’s sure to be the busiest year of her career, Angel Olsen’s new digs are helping calm any potentially frayed nerves.
“It’s so mellow here, and people just don’t give a shit,” says the indie-folk singer about her new home of Asheville, N.C. “They build campfires and go to softball games or DJ nights. It’s nice after so much traveling to go somewhere that’s not a huge city.”
For example: Chicago, where Olsen spent the previous seven years developing a devoted following for her striking vocals and emotional songwriting. Although she cherishes the city for helping her hone her craft, the move to a smaller, more rural home was long overdue. It makes sense, then, that Burn Your Fire For No Witness, her excellent second full-length, was born in the spirit of her new surroundings.
Strange Cacti, Olsen’s 2010 debut EP, was a lo-fi and spare batch of songs built entirely upon simple guitar strumming and loads of reverb. The biggest draw, however, was her voice, with its distinctive blend of influences: echoes of Roy Orbison’s pained runs and Patsy Cline’s plaintive twang, among others. She upped the ante for her first LP, 2012’s Half Way Home, enlisting the help of Emmett Kelly (The Cairo Gang), who fleshed things out with bass, drums and a cleaner production sound. By the time she was beginning work for Burn Your Fire For No Witness, the collaborative bug had fully taken hold.
“The new material I was writing was different than what I’d done previously,” she says. “It was more electric and I had a vision for a louder sound with more going on between the singing. The idea was to create an album that sounded not just like Angel Olsen, but that sounded like a band.”
In putting together a group, Olsen looked to a pair of musicians she’d worked with during her Half Way Home tour. Joshua Jaeger and Stewart Bronaugh are strong and tactful in their contributions, adding color with keyboards, pounding drums and something entirely new to Olsen’s music — distorted guitars. The new approach molded her songwriting in unexpected ways.
“Working with the band and experimenting with my voice made me interested in making music that can breathe, instead of it continually being so focused on the words,” she says. “I can see people being concerned that the sound is coming from a producer or someone else making the changes, but really I’ve just been changing myself.”
Of course, for someone used to shaping her music on her own, having extra hands in the studio took some getting used to.
“I suddenly felt a lot of pressure by having all these people now involved in what I was doing, so I wanted to be very particular about my choices,” she says.
Luckily it didn’t take long for her to build a strong relationship with producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, The Walkmen, Rogue Wave). Songs were arranged and rearranged until everyone was happy with the result.
For all the bells and whistles, however, the standout of Burn Your Fire For No Witness is still Olsen’s vocals. Whether singing a stripped-down acoustic ballad (“Enemy”), belting out pop hooks (“Hi-Five”) or pulling off haunting restraint (“White Fire”), she’s never sounded more self-assured. The rubber-band vocal flexibility allows her to shade the album’s 11 tracks in a variety of moods that still work harmoniously as a whole.
“I wanted to take what I’d learned with Strange Cacti being so lo-fi and with Half Way Home being kind of dry, with no reverb or affect, and use both those sounds and apply them to each song depending on what it called for,” she says.
Like many singer-songwriters who have transitioned to the full band format, Angel Olsen is kicking off the next stage of her career. It’s a rare treat, however, to see it handled with such surefooted poise.
“When you’re with a band, you can listen back and after the show talk about what parts you like or what parts need work,” she says. “When you’re on your own you don’t experience it that way. So the whole idea of sharing it with people has been really fun and interesting.”
With Cian Nugent
Mon/3, 8pm, $15
Great American Music Hall
859 O’Farrell, SF
LIT True-crime fans will know the name Harold Schechter: the prolific author and Queens College professor has written books on such nefarious characters as H.H. Holmes, Albert Fish, and Ed Gein, as well as mystery novels centered around Edgar Allan Poe. His latest is The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, The Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation (Amazon Publishing/New Harvest, 386 pp., $24 hardcover, $9.99 eBook). It tells the disturbing story of Robert Irwin, a talented yet deeply troubled sculptor who slaughtered three people, including the mother and glamorous sister of a woman he was obsessed with, in 1937 New York City.
The killings — which took place in an upscale neighborhood that was, oddly, no stranger to violence — seized the public’s imagination, and the police investigation and Irwin’s trial were exhaustively covered by the tabloid media. Though the case has largely been forgotten today, the story still makes for undeniably compelling reading. I called up Schechter to learn more.
SF Bay Guardian How did you come across the story of Robert Irwin?
Harold Schechter For my last book — Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of — I was looking at crimes that had generated a lot of publicity in their time, but had since faded from public memory. The Irwin case was one that I became fascinated with. I wrote an entry on it in that book, but the more I looked into it, the more substantial a subject it seemed.
Originally, [The Mad Sculptor] was just going to be about the Irwin case, but then I kept coming across references to these other tabloid-sensation crimes that had occurred in the same neighborhood, Beekman Place, in the span of 18 months. So that became the book.
SFBG What transforms a crime into a “tabloid-sensation” crime?
HS I just came across this really interesting quote from a well-known book that was published in the 1930s. The person said, referring to [1922’s highly publicized] Hall-Mills murder case, “The Hall-Mills case had all the elements needing to satisfy an exacting public taste for the sensational. It was grisly, it was dramatic, it involved wealth and respectability. It had just the right amount of sex interest, and in addition, it took place close to the great metropolitan nerve center of the American press.”
When I write my books, I look for crimes that have a certain kind of story to them. It’s not just the gruesomeness of the murder, or the number of murders. Some of the most famous crimes in American history, like the Leopold and Loeb case, just involved one single murder. But it had colorful characters involved, plus that combination of money, violence, and sex. In the case of Robert Irwin, the mere fact that the tabloids could call him “The Mad Sculptor” made it immediately gripping. It conjures up all of these horror-movie elements.
SFBG Other than newspapers, what were your research sources?
HS The psychiatrist who treated [Irwin], Fredric Wertham, was another thing that attracted me to the case. I’ve been interested in him for many years, partly because of his connection to the comic-book industry. [Wertham wrote 1954’s The Seduction of the Innocent, which accused comic books of contributing to juvenile delinquency.] Also, the second true-crime book I ever wrote was Deranged, about cannibal pedophile Albert Fish, and Wertham had been his psychiatrist, too.
When Wertham died [in 1981], his wife donated all of his papers to the Library of Congress with the stipulation that they not be made available to scholars for, I think, 25 years. But just when I started to work on the Irwin book, Wertham’s papers became available. There’s a tremendous amount of material in his archives, so that was a very important source. And then, you know, the New York Public Library, and different New York archives and historical societies.
SFBG One unusual aspect of the Irwin case was that victim Veronica Gedeon had modeled for true-crime magazines, like Inside Detective.
HS I was aware of those magazines, but I didn’t quite realize how many there were. There were dozens of these lurid pulp detective magazines and true crime magazines, and they always had very sensationalistic painted covers, generally of scantily clad women being threatened in various ways. But the articles themselves were often quite well-researched and skillfully written, and they were all lavishly illustrated, including some actual crime-scene photographs, and dramatizations of them.
Ronnie Gedeon had posed in a bunch of them, always wearing a negligee or whatever, about to be strangled or shot. And of course, all of the tabloids kept pointing out that there were all of these premonitions of her murder in those photographs. Again, you can’t beat that combination of sex, violence, the trendy neighborhood, this madman who was a sculptor, an artist. It was just, as I say in my book, a kind of perfect storm of prurience.
SFBG The Mad Sculptor is both true-crime book and history lesson. It really gives a good sense of what NYC life was like at the time.
HS I see my books really as social histories. I feel very strongly that you can learn as much about a cultural moment from the particular crimes that the public is obsessed with as you can from looking at what movies are popular, or what heroes are worshipped. The Manson case tells you as much about the 1960s as the Beatles do. The Leopold and Loeb case tells you a great deal about the underlying fears and anxieties of the 1920s.
SFBG Your books always have such great titles: Fiend, Deviant, Bestial. What’s the naming process like?
HS I started with Deviant, about Ed Gein. At the time, I chose it because I’d been doing a lot of thinking about horror fiction and horror movies. The narrative structure of so much horror has to do with somebody who’s kind of following the straight and narrow path, and then just takes the wrong turn, like in [the Gein-inspired] Psycho. Horror is often about deviating from your usual path and ending up in some nightmarish world. So Deviant was chosen for that reason.
Then, for some reason, I got it into my head that it would be cool to write a trilogy of books that begin with the letter “D.” Partly maybe because there were so many creepy “D” words. So I wrote Deranged, then Depraved. At that point I kind of ran out of “D” words, but I had already established this one-word thing, so I did Fiend and Bestial and Fatal.
At that point, I was starting to get away from just writing about serial killers. So when I wrote my book The Devil’s Gentleman, I kind of abandoned the one-word title. But I have to say, I’ve always been kind of proud of my ability to come up with cool titles! Of course, The Mad Sculptor — sometimes they name themselves. *
FILM Two of the most deep-rooted national-character-defining American tropes are a) that we are a profoundly self-reliant people, and b) the Horatio Alger myth that anyone can go from “rags to riches” if they have a good heart and a tireless work ethic.
Despite their enduring popularity, neither has aged very well in terms of real-world application of late. Globalization has moved offshore many of the jobs and services that corporatization had already removed from the small businesses that sustained smaller communities. And the Horatio Alger myth? Please. It was a highly effective weapon of mass distraction 150 years ago, and it’s even more so now.
As the musical chairs of sustainable life in our society are steadily winnowed, hope continues to be pegged on education — where funding for music classes went away long ago, and probably chairs are next — because, really, what else is out there for most people? But public K-12 gets worse and worse, while higher education gets ever more expensive and less valuable. (Of course, without it you’re even more screwed.) Recent years’ legislated focus on test scores has helped make lower education grindingly tedious for most students at a time when they more desperately need to succeed at it than ever to have any chance at an adulthood that doesn’t pledge allegiance to Sam Walton (and food stamps). Even if there were money for it, who is interested in innovating (rather than just privatizing) public education?
If You Build It is a documentary about two people who, in fact, are actively interested in just that: Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller are partners in Project H Design, which runs Studio H, a program that draws on their architecture and design training to train middle-to-high schoolers in those disciplines while hopefully bettering their personal futures and communities as a whole. They get a chance to put their ideals (and curriculum) into practice when they’re hired for a year by Chip Zullinger, the “visionary” new superintendent of schools in Bertie County, North Carolina’s poorest. It’s so badly off that the opening of a Domino’s Pizza in county seat Windsor represents a major boon to area employment. There’s “no reason to stay here” for local youth, no opportunity and little hope of any developing, making Bertie a perfect laboratory for H’s experiment in ground-up community self-improvement.
But this “design bootcamp” has barely begun when Zullinger is canned by the school board for unspecified “numerous disagreements,” and all his new projects are immediately shut down. In desperation, Pilloton and Miller offer to continue without salaries (foundation grants are in place to cover their basic equipment and materials), so they’re given the go-ahead. Why not? They’re a freebie, now.
The 10 junior class members who’ve signed up are a racial mix. Expecting “a class where we’d make little toys or somethin’,” they’re instead challenged to figure out the basic tenets of design themselves in a series of increasingly complex, locally relevant projects. The first is to create individual boards for “cornholing” — something that hereabouts does not mean what you’re thinking right now, being more a sort of beanbag-toss game — the next constructing idiosyncratic chicken coops. (This is taken seriously enough that chickens are kept in the shop studio in order to study their behaviors and preferences.) Finally, there’s a competition to design a downtown farmers market building — something the area badly needs, as there’s no outlet for local produce and the sole available supermarket’s monopoly allows it to price-gouge.
For the students — despite varying discipline, some admittedly due to the oppressively hot weather during actual market construction — Studio H is a complete win, empowering and inspiring, engaging like nothing else available at school. The completed market is, it seems, a triumph, generating new businesses and jobs even outside its own roof. Yet even after a successful second academic year, the school board again declines to budget salaries for Pilloton and Miller. Maybe, as the latter learned after building a “gift” house in Detroit that ended up abandoned and trashed, people simply can’t appreciate, feel a sense of ownership or responsibility toward something they’ve been given for free.
At least that’s the lesson suggested by Patrick Creadon’s documentary. But for a movie about a program that in turn is about rebuilding communities, If You Build It doesn’t really seem interested in this particular community. Of course we get the usual establishing shots indicating that, yes, this is a certifiable Hicksville. But we never hear from school board members, from Zullinger after he’s fired, or from parents aside from the grateful ones of Project H students. When we see kids passively digesting various curricula at computer monitors (even phys ed is partly online), we’re left to assume this is simply a matter of bad, even stupid adult judgment: Can’t they see these teenagers are dangerously unengaged?
On the other hand, maybe Bertie County simply doesn’t have money for more than a bare minimum of on-site teaching staff. Maybe the supe’s innovations didn’t fly with the board because they meant cutting other essential programs. Who knows? We don’t, because that kind of key info isn’t here. Nor, really, is much character insight — we see little of the students’ lives outside class, and the Studio H duo (partners personally as well as professionally) come off a bit colorlessly, because they’re not viewed very fully, either.
Despite these flaws, If You Build It nonetheless demonstrates how public education still has near-infinite potential to shape lives and whole communities for the better — at least if it pretty much does a full 180 from the direction it’s been headed in for some time. Pilloton and Miller are currently doing their thing at a charter school right here, in Berkeley. That’s great, but also somewhat disappointing, because it’s precisely places like Bertie County that need their like so much more critically, and are drastically less likely to get it. *
IF YOU BUILD IT opens Fri/28 in Bay Area theaters.
SUPER EGO “If people want to accuse me of being a heteronormative queer assimilationist, they can come to my traveling amateur porn film festival and say it to my face!”
That’s Dan Savage — spunky sex columnist, “It Gets Better” maestro, and editor of Seattle’s the Stranger — calling me on the way to the airport. He’s flying the friendly skies for the nationwide Hump Tour (coming Fri/28 and Sat/1 to the Roxie Theater in SF, humptour.strangertickets.com), which is giving the Stranger’s notorious — and notoriously successful — annual homemade skin flick competition more, er, exposure.
In fact, the Hump Tour reminds me a little of the hilarious Sodomy Bus from Michael Moore’s 1990s TV show, filling the hills and crevices of America with resounding squeals and joyful bangs. Of course, the Sodomy Bus deliberately targeted anti-gay areas to make a political point — back when sodomy was still illegal, remember then? Whereas the Hump Tour projects handcrafted erotica with titles like Rumpy Pumpy (“an animated starter with funny, floppy dicks”), D&D Orgy (“roll for experience as the dungeon master’s fantasy game gets extremely real”) and Go Fuck Yourself (“one man time travels to save the world and fuck himself. Then things get complicated”) onto big screens in major cities with a side of popcorn. You can’t get more cuddly-quaint than that, no?
“I’m actually kind of worried about coming to San Francisco, though,” Savage said with an emphatic laugh. “Here I am, with my monogamish husband, editing this severely liberal paper and writing a sex column, my schedule full of porn, and I always feel like I’m going to be attacked for not being radical enough for SF, because I spoke out for same-sex marriage and other things.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him how much things have changed here — our overheated scandal du jour is over a queer club in Oakland politely asking straight people not to come because it’s too crowded, sigh.
So, what are the benefits of touring the country with a suitcase full of funny, irreverent, poignant, crude, and sweet stag films? “I’m at the point now where I’ve been writing about sex for so long that people mob me after each screening to say how they grew up reading me, how they would sneak my column into their bedroom, how I convinced them to try some things. And now I’ve enticed them to come see some porn with their friends and family. That’s kind of funny.”
Meanwhile, his stacked hubby has become a fixture on Seattle’s underground queer dance scene — does Dan ever hit the dance floor with him? “I usually hide in my room and write. It would never work if we were into the same things. You need some difference for that spark that makes you want to screw each other rather than just be each other.”
We’ll forgive you, Dan. Just keep the smut coming.
Techno heartthrob Matthew Dear’s dirtier, funkier alter ego Audion steps back into the limelight with what’s said to be an insane visual experience for this tour. (The team behind Amon Tobin’s mindblowing ISAM tour designed it.)
Wed/26, doors at 7pm, show at 8pm, $20, all ages. Mighty, 119 Utah, SF. www.mighty119.com
Dark south London dubstep visionaries Mala and Coki drop in for Noisepop to school the kids on beautiful angst and swooping boom. With Chicago juke kingpin DJ Rashad.
Thu/27, 10pm, $17.50–$20. 1015 Folsom, SF. www.1015.com
Danny’s been spinning for 30 years and has become the elder statesperson when it comes to dance music in America. But the mixes! Oh, the mixes. He’s a master of creating a roiling, huge-room groove, bending the sound of each track toward a glimmering whole. Most DJs give you crap about how they “take you on a journey” — Danny actually delivers. A four-hour set with Nikita and John Kaberna supporting.
Fri/28, 9pm-4am, $25–$30. Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. www.publicsf.com
Wickedly good NYC house player headlines a Rong label showcase with local heads Corey Black of 40 Thieves, Jeffrey Sfire of Ghostly International, and — woot! — DJ Ken Vulsion, finally out of retirement and ready to enchant.
Fri/28, 9pm-3am, $10. F8, 1192 Folsom, SF. www.feightsf.com
This is a monthly Riot Grrrl tribute night at the bear bar. So perfect. February’s installment celebrates Carrie Brownstein, right after the new “Portlandia” season debuts, and we think how happy we are for her success, but please get on that Sleater-Kinney reunion already. With DJs Crowderism and Jimmy Swear.
Fri/28, 8pm, free. Lone Star Saloon, 1354 Harrison, SF. www.lonestarsf.com
The magic techno man from LA is a smooth, smart beast on decks, laying on the pulsing rhythms and subterranean energy. He’s at the Night Moves party with Shiny Objects and Brother in Arms, the nifty new “slo-mo deep house” collab from hometown heroes Deejay Theory and J-Boogie.
Fri/28, 9pm-4am, $20. Monarch, 101 Sixth St, SF. www.monarchsf.com
Killer broken bass sounds at this regular party, bringing Low End Theory’s DJ Nobody and IZWID Records’ Esgar to the tables, along with the heady Slayers Club crew supporting. It’s a release party for one of my favorite local basshead Joe Mousepad’s new EP, too.
Fri/28, 9pm-3am, $5–$10. Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. www.publicsf.com
You could do way worse than to jam out to “World Destruction,” this hip-hop god’s legendary 1984 collaboration with the Sex Pistols’ John Lydon, while you’re applying your mascara in the evening. Or do the dip to “Planet Rock” when you take it off the next morning. Zulu Nation has you covered round the clock.
Sat/1, 10:30pm, $26, 18+. Yoshi’s SF,1330 Fillmore, SF. www.yoshis.com
It’s rare for a member of the tech elite to sit down with the Bay Guardian for candid discussion on how the region’s burgeoning technology industry is impacting San Francisco. Despite our frequent attempts to obtain comment from Silicon Valley venture capitalist Ron Conway, for instance, the billionaire investor never seems to have a free moment to chat.
So when we received an unexpected invitation to interview Randi Zuckerberg, CEO of Zuckerberg Media and former marketing executive at Facebook (founded by tech mogul Mark Zuckerberg, her brother), we took the opportunity.
Zuckerberg is a friend of Conway’s; early on in her book, Dot Complicated (HarperOne, 2013), she relates an anecdote of how he relied upon her to secure VIP seating for MC Hammer when she was arranging a live-streamed address by President Barack Obama in Silicon Valley in 2011.
In addition to being a singer, a mom, and a supporter of the Jewish community (the night of our interview, she spoke at a “friend-raiser” for Birthright Israel, which sponsors trips to Israel for Jewish young adults), Zuckerberg’s focus is on promoting “tech-life balance” — which can pretty much be summed up as not spending so much time on Facebook.
Jim Henson Productions recently purchased rights to air an animated series based on her children’s book, Dot, about a tech-savvy little girl who discovers that life sans digital devices can be fun. Zuckerberg also aims to encourage young women to go into tech.
In the early days at Facebook, when the social media arena was extremely male-dominated, “I would show up for meetings and people would expect that Randi was a guy,” she reflected.
As important of an issue as gender imbalance in Silicon Valley may be, it nevertheless takes a back burner to San Francisco’s most pressing issue du jour: the mounting tension between its tech set and long-term residents, those facing of soaring rents and witnessing neighborhood gentrification unfold at a rapid clip.
We asked Zuckerberg what she thought about the city’s gentrification and affordability crisis. “I’m really glad the conversation is starting, because it has to,” she told us. “There definitely is a real problem in the city. There have been a few members of the tech community who have come out with not-so-desirable responses,” she continued, referencing derisive comments made by Y Combinator entrepreneur Peter Shih and AngelHack CEO Greg Gopman, “and that’s definitely not representative of how the community as a whole feels.”
Zuckerberg recently visited Glide Memorial, once of the city’s largest homeless services centers. “That really opened my eyes a lot, spending that day there,” she said. “It’s changed my own view: I should be doing more, I can be doing more.”
Asked what in particular could be done, Zuckerberg said, “I do think that there are a lot of ways that tech can help. … How could we take all of these new, seamless, web and Munchery-type food delivery services, and make sure that the excess that’s being cooked is being delivered to families in need?” she said, referencing a startup that cooks and delivers healthy cuisine. “I think the same tech that’s dividing the community groups can bring them together.”
As for the tech bus protests that made international headlines, “it’s not those people riding the buses that are the ones who are making so much money and having this wealth disparity,” she said, saying the anger was misdirected.
But Zuckerberg added that she thought people working in tech should take the responsibility to become more aware of the city’s economic divide. “I would really encourage people in tech: maybe, instead of taking that fancy trip to Napa as an off-site, go volunteer in a soup kitchen. Go do something like that — to really understand what it’s like for people who have not won the ‘uterus lottery,’ like the rest of us have.”
YOGA Being suspended upside down in an aerial yoga swing in Peaceful Warrior position, transitioning into Happy Buddha as I reached for the Quantum Playground to deepen my stretch, I gained a new perspective on the world — and the ongoing evolution of yoga in the Bay Area.
Innovation and the cross-pollination of various ideas and practices are as quintessential to the Bay Area as yoga and other mindful approaches to self-improvement and secular spirituality. So it makes sense that local yoga teachers and entrepreneurs are developing new twists on a timeless art.
My yoga practice began in 2001, and I was fortunate to have an instructor who emphasized that yoga is about breathing more than stretching or exercise. It’s about being present and maintaining that presence through the pain of life and its contortions. Inhale to lengthen, exhale to deepen; breathe in, breathe out, repeat indefinitely.
When aerial yoga instructor Jen Healy first hung me upside down in her San Rafael home and “Healyng Sanctuary” while we were dating in 2012, that focus on breathing was essential just to keep my lunch down (or up, in this case). Yoga can have that disorienting quality, particuarly in the inverted postures.
And then I worked through it, finding a new world opened up on the other side where previous limits yielded to new openness and flexibility. It can be playful, as in Healy’s Aerial Yoga Play swings and teacher trainings; or the partner-based AcroYoga that emerged here about 10 years ago.
“You get to play your way to a healthier and happier state of being,” Healy says, calling her swings and jungle-gym-like Quantum Playground she built tools for “awakening the courageous inner child.”
Or the new approaches to yoga can cultivate a deeper sense of self-awareness, purpose, and integration of our mental, emotional, and physical bodies, as instructor Dina Amsterdam strives for with her InnerYoga approach.
“Yoga is about finding balance. We are walking around so out of balance as a culture,” Amsterdam says, describing her teachings as helping people better understand their inner landscape “so they can discover what is out of balance within them…InnerYoga is not a style, it’s an approach to life.”
San Francisco’s progressive, humanist values have also helped project yogic teachings onto the sociopolitical scene through groups such as Off the Mat, Into the World (OTM), with the mission “to use the power of yoga to inspire conscious, sustainable activism and ignite grassroots social change.”
A new local company called YOL is trying to marry that sense of activism with the yoga retreats to exotic locales that have become so popular, creating trips that combine yoga and meditation with volunteer work on service projects.
“I do think it’s part of yoga’s evolution,” says YOL co-founder David Cherner. “It’s taking that good feeling you get from yoga and channeling it into giving to someone else.”
A DAY TO BREATHE
In this hustle-bustle world of ours, it feels grounding and luxurious to take a full day to breathe, to meditate, and to practice yoga. Retreats of a day to a week have become big in the yoga world, but my first one was Feb. 23 at Amsterdam’s home near Mt. Tamalpais.
“Yoga in the United States, particularly in the Bay Area, became very focused on the physical component,” says Amsterdam, who instead strives “to really make self-awareness and connection to essence the primary purpose of yoga.”
She developed her InnerYoga approach in 2008 during the economic crash — since then graduating 36 teachers who now employ her approach — using the mindful evolution of her own practice to meet the growing anxiety and imbalance she saw in the community.
“What I was most effective at teaching is what people were really needing,” Amsterdam said. “My classes slowed way down.”
I met Amsterdam through the YinYoga classes that she teaches at Yoga Tree, classes that involve holding postures for extended periods of time — from a few minutes up to a half-hour — which can open up both joints and deep emotions as practioners breathe through their resistance.
But Amsterdam says that YinYoga is just part of InnerYoga, which involves active and passive poses, meditation, and teachings and exercises designed to connect yoga with a mindful approach to life. Its four foundations are “awareness, kindness, breath, and ease.”
“I’m teaching people self-care practices both on the mat and off the mat,” Amsterdam said.
That idea was the basis for OTM, which is “in the business of creating leaders and helping leaders connect to their passions,” says Rebecca Rogers, who splits her professional time between teaching yoga and working for OTM on its seva fundraising campaigns.
“When you slow things down, you have more time to make choices,” Rogers said, describing the notion of mindfulness that yoga helps create. “A big part of mindfulness is the ability to tune into the world.”
That bridge between the yoga and political worlds will be tested this year as yogini and renowned author Marianne Williamson runs for Congress in Southern California, promoting mindfulness, a campaign that OTM’s Yoga Votes project is supporting.
Between the connections to self and to the world, AcroYoga is a hybrid of yoga, acrobatics, and Thai massage, a fluid practice where partners use one another for pressure or as a plaform for poses.
“I don’t think there’s enough safe touch in the world, so AcroYoga allows that,” says Tyler Blank, who discovered the practice in 2004 and became one of its first certified teachers.
Later, in Hawaii, Blank discovered the concept of ecstatic dance — with its “contact improv” techniques that are similar to AcroYoga — and brought it to the Bay Area, where its twice-weekly events in Oakland have grown in popularity.
“I realized we could take partner yoga and start to dance with it very slowly,” Blank said. “I think yoga is evolving into dance.”
However yoga evolves, the Bay Area is likely to be at the center of that process.
Prolonged warm-weather droughts seem a normal part of California life, but the intensity of drought impacts — shrinking snowpack, intense wildfires, crop failures, and the devastation of wildlife habitat and fisheries — is likely accentuated by global warming.
So it’s not enough to simply save water. In this drought, our sense of urgency about global warming should be ramped up. The science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, respected scientists like James Hansen, and even the World Bank (historically no friend to radical ecologists) all stress that droughts will get worse unless greenhouse gas emissions peak in the next decade.
The science is clear. If we are to avoid a disastrous future of ecological upheaval, violence, and forced mass migrations of hundreds of millions of people (many of whom produce the least amount of carbon emissions) then we must dramatically reduce emissions now, and we must do it in a globally fair and equitable way. And to be fair and equitable, we must reduce driving. Here’s why.
Globally, transportation is the fastest growing sector of greenhouse emissions, owing in large measure to the expansion of global automobility. Presently 500 million passenger cars are in use (approximately one-third of them in the United States), but by 2030, this figure is expected to reach 1 billion worldwide.
This increase in automobility will contribute substantially to the “trillionth ton” of cumulative carbon emissions, which is an emissions threshold signaling global climate catastrophe. Today we are more than halfway there (556 billion tons). At current rates of consumption, including America’s ownership of 800 cars and trucks per 1,000 persons, we hit the trillionth ton in 28 years.
To avoid this, we must keep as much fossil fuel as possible in the ground. Because the United States is disproportionately responsible for at least 27 percent of the cumulative carbon emissions since industrialization, and has a disproportionate number of cars compared to the rest of the world, we in the United States have a particular responsibility to keep carbon in the ground.
If China, which has produced 10 percent of global emissions so far, had the same per capita car ownership rate as the United States, there would be over 500 million more cars, doubling the current worldwide rate. This would be madness. It would be worse than building the Keystone pipeline, which is what Hansen called “game over” for the global climate because it’s a spigot into the sticky, tarlike oils in Alberta which, if fully tapped, would be a carbon time bomb.
Ask yourself this: If China (and possibly India) successfully copy American-style driving, how much tar sands would that require? What kind of world would that look like? And if Americans (and especially environmentalists) expect the global middle class in China and India to stand aside while we keep on driving, that is stark, crass, and inequitable.
Many well-meaning environmentalists and progressives think that driving a Prius or buying an electric car will be adequate in mitigating this conundrum. They must reconsider. There is no “green” car when a global middle class replicates American driving patterns.
If the world’s fleet of gasoline-powered automobiles magically shifts to electric, hydrogen fuel cells, or biofuels, the change will draw resources away from industrial, residential, and food systems, or it will have to involve an entirely new layer of energy production (more tar sands). Massive quantities of coal and petroleum will be needed to scale-up to wind turbines, solar panels, nuclear, and other arrays of energy, as well as for all the new “clean cars.”
Are environmentalists still planning to drive around the Bay Area while waiting for this magic? I sure hope not.
In these global warming days, with drought on everyone’s mind, we must avoid wasting precious water washing cars, and we must reallocate street space with fewer cars in mind. A critical piece of the puzzle is to prioritize public transit and bicycles over automobiles by building exclusive transit and bicycle lanes, remove the lanes and curbside parking available to cars, install signal prioritization for transit and bicycles at intersections, queue-jumping so that transit can bypasses traffic stalled at intersections, restrictions on turns for automobiles, and transit stop improvements including bus stop bulb-outs and amenities.
Reconfigured streets must furthermore exclude car-oriented land uses like more off-street parking in the 92,000 new housing units projected for San Francisco by Plan Bay Area. These units, whatever size or income, should be completely car-free. And this must include removal of existing parking beneath homes, replacing garages with housing and returning the privatized curb cut to the public.
VISIONS FOR HAIGHT
In many respects, the Haight Street corridor is a model for the kind of global warming mitigation strategy the rest of America should follow. The corridor has high density, transit dependent, and car-free households (over 30 percent in the Upper Haight and almost 50 percent in the Lower Haight/Hayes Valley) It has several walkable neighborhood commercial districts, as well as several hundred units of new housing (some of which are below market rate) under construction in Hayes Valley. Almost 25,000 passengers take the Haight buses (6-Parnassus and 71-Haight Noriega) daily, making it one of the busiest combined transit corridors in the city.
But the buses are crowded and often stuck in traffic, so the SFMTA has plans to improve service by increasing frequency, converting more of the existing route into faster “limited” service whereby some buses stop only at key points and removing the “jog” at Laguna and Page which adds delay to the inbound buses.
As I’ve written before, the Muni staff has a good plan known as the Transit Effectiveness Project, with a modest reallocation of street space for higher transit reliability, attracting more ridership, and potentially enabling San Franciscans to conveniently reduce driving to half of all trips by 2018 (it was at 62 percent in 2012). But on both ends of Haight Street, the city has fumbled. While not a disaster, hopefully Muni can learn some lessons and tweak the plans.
On the eastern end, Muni will shift buses off Page Street, converting a short segment of Haight back to two-way. The new two-way Haight includes a transit-only lane between Laguna and Gough/Market streets, which will dramatically improve travel times and reliability. Part of it will enable buses to bypass queues of cars making the right turn from Haight onto Octavia.
Where this scheme falls short is in the plans to simply give former bus stops on Page to private cars for parking. A more progressive plan would instead use the space to help make room for needed bicycle improvements on Page between Laguna and Market. Nearby are multiple housing construction sites where curbside parking has been temporarily removed — such as at the 55 Laguna site. The city has a great opportunity to innovate with transit-first policies at all of these construction sites.
Instead of turning space over to private cars when construction concludes, the city could instead build more bus lanes, pedestrian space, curbside car sharing, and bicycle space. The city could also return some of the space to parking, but only in exchange for parking removal upstream, such as at Haight and Fillmore, where bus stop improvements are sorely needed.
Throughout the city, there are block-by-block opportunities like these, where the city can help the climate instead of giving away parking. As the city discontinues bus stops and sees more housing construction, the policy should be to use curbside space for bicycles, pedestrians, or curbside car share — not simply giving it away to private car parking.
Meanwhile, at the other end of Haight, the city has also fumbled in proposing to reroute the 6-Parnassus, an important electric trolley bus line, off the Frederick-Cole-Parnassus segment. Bus riders in the Upper Haight are incensed. At a recent public meeting, a crowd of 90 people balked at the cut. Muni planners defended the proposal, arguing that ridership is low in the hilly segment above, and that a less productive segment would be shifted to the more crowded Haight Street.
This might seem logical but it may also be shortsighted, especially since the existing segment has overhead trolley wires. Drought notwithstanding, the electric trolley buses are the greenest motorized mobility in San Francisco, propelled by hydroelectricity from Hetch Hetchy.
Taking a longer and more progressive view, it might be useful to think of the debate over the 6-Parnassus this way: If the city is hoping to wean motorists from their cars by achieving the laudable goal of having 30 percent of all trips in the city by transit (up from 17 percent today), cutting service, even in relatively low ridership routes, is counterproductive. It raises the question: Is the ridership level low because the service was poor to begin with, including such irritating factors as less frequency, less reliability, or fewer hours of service? What would ridership levels look like if these less-crowded routes had high frequency, all-day and late-night service with high reliability?
Moreover, what would demand for these routes look like if parking were substantially reduced throughout the city while car-travel lanes were removed, creating space for bicycle lanes and transit lanes? Or what if there were a regional gasoline tax, a congestion charge, or other measures that priced automobility closer to its real social cost, thus producing higher demand for transit?
Surely, reducing the footprint of transit service, however inefficient that service might seem now, is not creating a template necessary for carrying 1.4 million daily passengers in the future, which is what it would take to reach significant emissions reduction goals and 30 percent mode share. Removing segments like the 6-Parnassus on Frederick will only make it harder to rebuild and accomplish that goal. And for political expediency it will also make it harder for Mayor Ed Lee to sell his transportation funding ballot proposals to progressive voters in November.
Muni planners ought to ditch the proposal to reroute the 6-Parnassus, and instead focus on maximizing improved reliability and transit efficiency on the other end of Haight Street by removing parking and prioritizing transit and bicycling on Haight and Page respectively.
Thinking globally about climate change means acting locally, on the streets of San Francisco.
Street Fight is a monthly column by Jason Henderson, a professor at San Francisco State University’s Department of Geography and Environment.
At least 720 San Francisco businesses oppose the controversial Sugary Beverage Tax proposed for the November ballot, according to the proposed ballot measure’s opponents. But a Guardian investigation shows that claim is overstated.
Some businesses were listed with the consent of employees who couldn’t speak for the business, not their owners, and some businesses listed aren’t even open anymore.
The measure is opposed by Unfair Beverage Taxes: Coalition for an Affordable City, which is funded by the American Beverage Association and fronted by public relations firm BMWL and Partners. They have been trying to enlist allies from local restaurants and liquor stores, trying to show the community is against the Sugary Beverage Tax.
The ABA is funded primarily by Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo, and they certainly have cause to worry about a measure that aims to reduce consumption of sodas and other sugary drinks to help curb obesity, using a 2 cent per ounce tax on sugary beverages sold in San Francisco.
The resolution to place the measure on the fall ballot is sponsored by Sups. Scott Wiener, Eric Mar, Malia Cohen, John Avalos, and David Chiu.
The estimated $31 million in taxes collected would go to the SFUSD to fund physical education for kids and active and healthy living programs in the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department and the Department of Public Health.
We called over 70 of the businesses on the list of opposition to the tax in San Francisco. Not all of the businesses responded to our calls, nor were owners easily available, and some of the businesses listed did not have English-speaking staff available to talk.
Update 2/26: Want to see the list for yourself? Click here for the PDF of the opposition list to the Sugary Beverage Tax sent to us by Affordable City.
But about 20 of the businesses did respond, and what they told us calls into question the veracity of the opposition list.
Mohammed Iqbal, owner of All Nite Pizza on Third Street, said he only learned about the Sugary Beverage Tax only after we called. Following up later, he said he found that one of his employees signed onto the list.
“We’re not really sure about the tax, we’d rather stay out of it,” Iqbal told us.
Swanky coffee and wine bar Ma’Velous, a spot popular with City Hall politicos, was also on the list. The owner’s wife, Lean Chow, told us opposition canvassers presented the tax in a one-sided way, and she wasn’t told her signature would place the business onto an opposition list.
“We didn’t get the full details,” she told us in a phone interview. “We also didn’t know the taxes would go towards education.” Her husband owns the coffee bar, and she said they are both fully in support of the beverage tax.
Noe’s Bar and the formerly co-owned Basso’s restaurant are also on the opposition list, but both businesses are permanently closed, according to their Yelp listings and county business data, which we confirmed with phone calls.
Most of the store owners we talked to who did confirm they were on the opposition list said they were not told the funding would go to schools, activities in parks, or public health. Some said they were actively misinformed.
Aijez Ghani, the owner of the restaurant Alhamra, told us, “The one gentleman come, and he say in favor or against? I said in favor.”
When we asked him if he knew he was on the opposition list, Ghani said, “I think it was a mistake. But I am totally in favor of the tax, 100 percent. They’re going to spend money on the schools, the health of kids, and health is more important than business.”
Chuck Finnie, who runs the opposition group for BMWL, invited us up to his firm to inspect the signatures for the opposition list. Along the office walls were dozens of silver and gold award statues from the American Association of Political Consultants “Pollies” awards. One was a 2013 Overall Campaign win for No on N, when the firm trounced the Sugary Beverage Tax in Richmond.
Finnie suspected that the Guardian was sniffing around the list at the behest of Wiener, who Finnie said had raised concerns about the list’s credibility at various meetings in the business community.
“I was a journalist for 20 years, and this is bullshit,” the ex-San Francisco Chronicle investigative reporter and city editor told us. “The gloves are off.”
On the table was a large bin of records. Each business had a sheet with, supposedly, an owner’s name and contact information. We found one listing Mohammed Iqbal, of All Night Pizza, but Iqbal told us the signature was from an employee whose English was not good. Chow was also in there representing Ma’Velous, even though her husband, Philip Ma, is the only registered owner in county records.
As for the closed businesses, Noe’s Bar only closed three weeks ago, but Finnie and his associate Nick Panagopoulos (a former City Hall staffer) said they comb through the opposition list for mistakes every week, showing the Guardian a list of 12 businesses that were removed due to errors in the outreach process.
“I’m responsible for this coalition we’re building, and I’m serious about our political organizing,” Panagopoulos told us, saying he’s rigorous about the standards his organizers use, but that “they’re human beings, so there may be mistakes.”
But Wiener isn’t buying it.
“When I first saw this list, it looked fishy to me,” he wrote to the Guardian in an email, saying his office found irregularities similar to what we found, but from different businesses. “I’m concerned that, given this start to the campaign, the beverage industry is going to flood San Francisco with enormous amounts of money spreading misinformation. This kind of tactic isn’t acceptable.”
Francisco Alvarado, Bryan Augustus, and Brian McMahon contributed to this story.
Google bus plan challenged
San Francisco activists and labor filed an appeal of the controversial commuter shuttle (aka, the Google buses) pilot program with the Board of Supervisors on Feb. 19, alleging it was pushed through without a proper environmental review.
The appeal was filed by a coalition of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, SEIU 1021, The League of Pissed Off Voters, and Sara Shortt of the Housing Rights Committee.
The shuttles, mostly to Silicon Valley tech firms, pick up passengers at Muni bus stops. The use of public bus stops would incur a $271 fine for private autos, and often do, but the shuttles have largely received a free pass from the city. Last month, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency approved a pilot plan hatched behind closed doors that allows use of 200 bus stops by the private shuttles, charging only $1 per stop, per day.
The appeal alleges that the program needed review under the California Environmental Quality Act, which asks for projects to be analyzed for, among other things, land use, housing, and public health impacts.
“CEQA actually identifies displacement as an environmental impact,” attorney Richard Drury, who filed the appeal on behalf of the coalition, told us. “Almost no one knows that. Honestly I didn’t know that, until I started researching all of this.”
If the Board of Supervisors doesn’t back the appeal, there may be a court battle on the environmental impact of the shuttle stops, which increase rents and home prices nearby.
Paul Rose, spokesperson for the SFMTA, responded to the complaint in an email to the Guardian.
“We developed this pilot proposal to help ensure the most efficient transportation network possible by reducing Muni delays and further reducing congestion on our roadways,” Rose wrote. “We are confident that the CEQA clearance is appropriate and will be upheld.” (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez)
Library cracks down on the homeless
The way homeless residents are treated in San Francisco has come under scrutiny lately, with recent reports of homeless individuals being sprayed with hoses by Department of Public Works staff who started doing early-morning sidewalk cleanings nearby Twitter’s mid-Market headquarters.
This week, much discussion has been focused on homeless individuals’ use of the city’s Main Library — and while library administrators say they are just trying to make the facility safe and enjoyable for everyone, advocates have voiced concern that the homeless are being unfairly targeted.
“We want people to use the library from all walks of life,” library spokesperson Michelle Jeffers told the Guardian, saying a new set of proposed policies is not meant to be directed at homeless people in particular.
But it’s difficult to imagine who else would be bathing in the restrooms, for instance, or bringing a shopping cart into the library.
There is even a line in the code of conduct policy that forbids emitting “strong or pervasive odors.” While the policy notes that this could mean perfume, it could also mean body odor.
At a recent meeting, the San Francisco Library Commission considered bulking up security staff and imposing stricter penalties for these violations and others, such as sleeping in the library, asking for money, or bringing carts or luggage into the building.
Under proposed revisions to the library’s “Code of Conduct,” patrons could face tougher penalties for such offenses. (Rebecca Bowe)
Kelly runs in D10
After being narrowly edged out in the race for the District 10 seat on the Board of Supervisors four years ago, Potrero Hill political activist Tony Kelly launch his campaign for the seat Feb. 19, challenging incumbent Malia Cohen.
In 2010, after former Sup. Sophie Maxwell was termed out, the D10 race was a wide open contest that had low voter turnout and the squirreliest ranked-choice voting ending that the city has seen. On election night, former BART director Lynette Sweet finished first, followed by Kelly, a third place tie between Cohen and Marlene Tran, and Potrero Hill View publisher Steve Moss in fourth.
But the strong negative campaigning between Sweet and Moss, the leading fundraisers in the race, allowed the likable but then relatively unknown Cohen to vault into the lead on the strength of second- and third-place votes, finishing a few hundred votes in front of Kelly, who came in second.
Cohen has had an unremarkable tenure on the board, spearheading few significant legislative pushes and being an ideological mixed bag on key votes. But she’ll likely retain the support of African American leaders and voters in Bayview and Hunters Point, and enjoy the always significant advantage of incumbency.
Kelly hopes to turn that advantage into a disadvantage, tying Cohen to City Hall economic development policies that have caused gentrification and displacement. “Too many San Franciscans face an uphill battle, especially here in District 10,” Kelly said in a statement announcing his candidacy. “Our district is part of one of the richest cities in the richest state in the richest country in the world, and yet our neighborhoods are home to the highest unemployment rates in the City, our homeowners are at risk of foreclosure, and our tenants at risk of evictions. This is unacceptable, and we must do better.” (Steven T. Jones)
Obamacare vs. HealthySF
Thousands of Healthy San Francisco enrollees will soon face a dilemma.
Federal health care reform will hold them to the “individual mandate,” a requirement to obtain health insurance — but Healthy San Francisco doesn’t count. Roughly 70 percent of uninsured San Franciscans currently rely upon the city-administered program, created by San Francisco’s Health Care Security Ordinance, to access medical care.
Anyone who doesn’t satisfy the individual mandate will be made to fork over $95 as a penalty — but that noncompliance fee will skyrocket to $625 in 2015.
Meanwhile, people who are eligible for subsidized health insurance under the Affordable Care Act will automatically become ineligible for Healthy San Francisco under current rules, according to San Francisco Department of Public Health Deputy Director of Health Colleen Chawla.
The prospect of becoming suddenly ineligible for Healthy San Francisco will leave thousands of residents in the bind of being unable to rely on the system they now use to access care, while also being unable to afford the new insurance option — and so far, city officials have found no clear resolution to this dilemma.
Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, who authored the legislation that created Healthy San Francisco as a member of the Board of Supervisors, admonished the Department of Public Health last week for turning away enrollees, conveying to program participants that only those who are undocumented would be eligible to remain in Healthy San Francisco. On Feb. 18, the San Francisco Health Commission approved a temporary solution, signing off on a resolution that creates a “transition period” allowing Healthy San Francisco enrollees to remain in the program until the end of the 2014. (Rebecca Bowe)
SF has fastest growing wealth gap
San Francisco has the second highest gap between the rich and the poor in the United States, according to a new study from the Brookings Institution. The study looked at US Census data across different income levels and ranked cities for not only the widening chasm between the rich and the poor, but also the speed at which that gap increased. Though San Francisco has the second widest income inequality gap (second to Atlanta, where the poor are poorer, but the rich far less rich than here), it’s tops in terms of the speed at which the wealthy are pulling away from the rest of us, the study found. “Not surprisingly, San Francisco experienced the largest increase in its ratio from 2007 to 2012,” the Brookings Institution reported. “Income for its typical 20th-percentile household dropped $4,000 during that period, while income for its typical 95th-percentile household soared by $28,000. No other city saw nearly as large an increase in its rich households’ incomes.” (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez)
Update: Just a day after the release of this article, advocacy group POWER announced that Google pledged to pay for Free Muni For Youth for two years. “This validates both the success and necessity of the Free Muni for Youth program,”said Bob Allen, leader in the FreeMuni for Youth coalition, in a press release. “We need tech companies in San Francisco and throughout the region to work with the community to support more community-driven solutions to the displacement crisis.”
The funding though is promised only for two years, and when that timeframe is up the question will still remain — will Muni’s operating budget pay for something Mayor Ed Lee could find funding for elsewhere? Additionally, Google hasn’t announced funding for free Muni for seniors or the disabled, another program up for consideration in the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s new budget. That may change if and when it is approved by the SFMTA for the next budget year.
“I think it’s a positive step in the right direction,” Superivsor David Campos, the sponsor of Free Muni For Youth, told us. “But there are still questions about what it means in terms of the long term future of the program. It’s only a two year gift.”
“We have asked for a meeting with Google and the mayor’s office and the coalition to talk about long term plans, to find out more information about what this means.”
There’s a tie that binds all Muni riders. From the well-heeled Marina dwellers who ride the 45 Union to Bayview denizens who board the T-Third Sunnydale line, we’ve all heard the same words broadcast during sleepy morning commutes.
“Please pay your fare share.”
The play on words (also seen on Muni enforcement signage) would be cute if it didn’t perfectly represent how Muni riders may now be stiffed. A slew of new budget ideas hit the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors last week (Feb. 18), and who will pay for it all is an open question.
The first blow to riders is a proposed single-ride fare hike from the current $2 to $2.25.
Other proposals include expanding the Free Muni for Youth program, rolling out a new program offering free Muni for seniors and the disabled, and a fare hike to $6 for the historic F streetcar.
The odorous price jumps (and costly but promising giveaways) are moving forward against a backdrop of a Muni surplus of $22 million, which the board has until April to decide how to use, and a controversial decision by Mayor Ed Lee to make a U-turn on charging for parking on Sundays.
The meter decision would deprive Muni of millions of dollars.
“We’re not proposing anything here, just presenting what we can do,” SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin told the SFMTA board at City Hall last week.
There’s still time to change the SFMTA board’s mind on the proposals between now and final approval of the budget in April. But who will end up paying for a better Muni?
FARE HIKES NOT FOUGHT
In 2010, the SFMTA instituted a policy to raise Muni fares along with inflation and a number of other economic factors, essentially putting them on autopilot. The SFMTA board still has to approve the fee hikes, which may rise across the board.
One-time fares may jump to $2.25. Muni’s monthly passes would see an increase by $2 next year and more the following year. The “M” monthly pass will be $70 and the “A” pass (which allows Muni riders to ride BART inside San Francisco) will be $81.
Muni needs the money, Reiskin said.
“To not have (fares) escalate as fuel and health care costs increase, you can’t just leave one chunk of your revenues flat,” he told the Guardian. Muni’s operating budget will expand from $864 million this year to $958 million in 2016. “Salary and benefit growth is the biggest driver of that,” Reiskin said.
Mario Tanev, spokesperson for the San Francisco Transit Riders Union, said the hike was expected.
“We’re not necessarily against the inflation increase,” he said. “But though the parking fines SFMTA levies are inflation adjusted, other rates (against drivers) are not. There are many things in our society that disincentivize transit and incentivize driving.”
Drivers enjoy heavy subsidies to their lifestyle on the federal, state, and local levels, from parking lot construction, the cost of gasoline, and now it seems, renewed free Sunday parking meters. The new fare increases are hitting transit riders just as the mayor is poised to yank funding from Muni to put in the pockets of drivers.
When the paid Sunday meter pilot began in early 2013, it was a rare flip in a city that often treats Muni like a piggy bank: money was floated from drivers and dropped onto the laps of transit.
A report from SFMTA issued December 2013 hailed it as a success for drivers as well: Finding parking spaces in commercial areas on Sundays became 15 percent easier, the study found, and the time an average driver spent circling for a space decreased by minutes.
Even some in the business community call it a success, since a higher parking turnover translates to more customers shopping.
Jim Lazarus, senior vice president of public policy at the Chamber of Commerce, is a supporter of the paid Sunday meters. “You can drive into merchant areas now where you couldn’t before,” he told us.
Eliminating Sunday meter fees would punch a $9.6 million hole in Muni’s budget next year, by SFMTA’s account.
The timing couldn’t be worse. On the flip side the Free Muni for Youth program, which targets low-income youth in San Francisco, may expand next year at an estimated cost of about $3.6 million, and a program to offer free Muni for the elderly and disabled would cost between $4 and $6 million — close to the same the same amount that would be lost by the meter giveback.
BOOSTING SAN FRANCISCO FAMILIES
“As an 18-year-old in high school it was a struggle to get to school, it was a struggle to find 75 cents or two dollars to get home,” Tina Sataraka, 19, told the SFMTA board last week. As a Balboa High School student, Sataraka had a 30-minute commute from the Bayview. She’s not alone.
A study by the San Francisco Budget & Legislative Analyst’s office found that 31,000 youth who faced similar financial hurdles had signed up for the Free Muni for Youth pilot program, a resounding success in a city where the youth population is dwindling. Authored by Sup. David Campos, the program may redefine “youth” to include 18-year-olds, who are often still in high school.
But initial grant funding for the program has dried up, so now Muni will foot the bill.
Not one to say “I told you so,” Sup. Scott Wiener said there were reasons for objecting to the program a year ago.
“My biggest, fundamental objection to the program was less that they were giving free fares to kids, and more that they were taking it out of Muni’s operating budget,” Wiener told us. “They need to find a way to pay for it, perhaps from the General Fund, and not just taking the easy and lazy way out.”
The Budget & Legislative Analyst recommended several options for alternative funding: special taxes on private shuttle buses (Google buses), or an increased vehicle license fee specially earmarked for the youth bus program. So far, Mayor Ed Lee hasn’t shown an interest.
“There haven’t been discussions of having the Board of Supervisors fund free Muni for youth,” Reiskin told us. The same goes for the mayor. And though Reiskin was cautious and political about the possibility of Sunday meters becoming free again, he didn’t sound happy about it.
“As for what’s behind [the mayor’s] call for free Sunday parking, that didn’t come from us,” Reiskin told us. “That came from him.”
Mayor Lee’s office didn’t answer our emails, but politicos, including Wiener and Chronicle bromance Matier and Ross, indicated the mayor may be reversing on Sunday parking meters to appease the driving voter electorate.
There are two measures up on the November ballot, and one is aimed right at drivers’ wallets.
The two measures, a $1 billion vehicle license fee hike, and a $500 million transportation bond, are both aimed at shoring up the SFMTA’s capital budget. An October poll paid for by the mayor showed 44 percent of San Franciscans in favor of a vehicle fee hike, and 50 percent against, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Reiskin said the loss of those two ballot measures would be crippling to Muni’s future.
“The improvements we’re trying to make to make Muni more reliable, more attractive, those won’t happen. This is our funding source for that,” he said.
The mayor is busy smoothing the potholes towards the bonds’ success in the November election, but it seems he’s willing to pile costs onto Muni and its riders to do it.
Correction 2/26: An editing error led to the erroneous calculation of Free Muni For Youth at near $9 million. Free Muni For Youth is only estimated to cost the SFMTA $3.6 million. It is the combination of Free Muni For Youth and free Muni for the disabled and elderly that equal about $9 million.
San Francisco is facing an eviction crisis, a reality that politicians of all ideological stripes have finally begun to address. It was good to see our two best representatives to the California Legislature introduce bills to reform the Ellis Act in the last week, but these will be empty gestures unless the political class and its allies in the technology industry and the larger business community step up and offer strong support for the effort.
This is a small but difficult first step in addressing the displacement that is hurting the city’s diversity and driving out its working class. San Francisco is one of the few cities in the California that has rent control, which the Ellis Act was designed by landlords and the real estate industry to subvert.
So the political dynamics of reforming the Ellis Act are difficult in Sacramento, and it will take business community support to get this done. Twitter and other SF-based tech companies have gotten big local tax breaks to stay here, while Google and other Silicon Valley companies use San Francisco to house their high-paid employees, both feeding the frenzy of real estate speculation behind the current eviction epidemic.
This is their chance to show that they want to be a part of San Francisco’s community, rather than just seeing this city as a resource to exploit for their own ends.
In introducing his Senate Bill 1439 outside a Chinatown apartment building on Feb. 24, Sen. Mark Leno cited city figures showing that more than 300 apartments were cleared of residents using the Ellis Act in 2013, more than half of those involving landlords who owned the building for less than a year, half of those for less than six months.
“These are not the landlords the Ellis Act was designed to help,” Mayor Ed Lee said in support of SB 1439.
Leno’s bill would require landlords to own a building for at least five years before using the Ellis Act to evict tenants. Assemblymember Tom Ammiano also introduced a bill on Feb. 21, Assembly Bill 2405, which would allow San Francisco voters or the Board of Supervisors to declare a moratorium on Ellis Act evictions if city affordable housing goals aren’t met.
Both are small, sensible reforms that would easily pass in a society less consumed by greed than ours is now. Tech leaders should welcome the opportunity to show they understand what’s happening in this city and have compassion for those being displaced, rather than tacitly supporting the real estate speculators.
But it’s also just a first step. The Ellis Act needs to be repealed, not just reformed. More than 1,000 rent control units have been lost in San Francisco in the last two years, affordable housing converted into speculators’ profits. This must end, or the righteous populist anger that is consuming the city will only get worse.
VISUAL ART/YOGA I attended my first yoga class in 2000, at the Mindful Body on California Street. I’d arrived by way of much prodding from a journalism colleague who thought yoga might help with an increasingly debilitating chronic pain condition I’d mysteriously developed. A Brooklyn-raised fiery gym rat in my early 20s, I had just moved to San Francisco and simply couldn’t fathom doing this New-Agey exercise routine. I’d also recently been to India (to see the country — not to learn yoga), and I’d resented the hippie Westerners who seemed to be eagerly consuming yoga study, but staying clear of the places where starvation and disease had riddled the practice’s homeland.
With all of this emotional baggage — and an additional few suitcases that I’ll leave unpacked for the moment — I put on a pair of old blue leggings and an oversized T-shirt, and dragged myself to yoga class. And then I went back again.
It was a good workout. But, more significantly, by the time each class was midway through, my pain would temporarily disappear. Plus, the practice made me feel a way no native New Yorker ever expects to feel: peaceful. I committed myself to yoga harder and faster than I had to anything in years. It was doing something to me, changing me in some way.
Now it’s 2014; I’ve become a yoga teacher. And tonight I’m at the opening party for the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco’s “Yoga: The Art of Transformation,” the first ever comprehensive art exhibit on yoga’s history. Upstairs, yoga teacher-rapper-celebrity-activist MC Yogi is performing his signature ditty “Ganesh is Fresh” to a crowd of fans, some dressed in colorful spandex yoga clothes, others in traditional Indian garb, and still others in contemporary SF duds. Downstairs, some people are engaged in high-level philosophical discussion about the winding path of yoga history, while others are learning AcroYoga maneuvers, drinking “all-natural, gluten-free” margaritas, or striking yoga poses for Instagram-able photos in the museum entranceway.
From an anthropological perspective, it’s quite the scene. And though I’m intimate with my own personal trajectory, there’s a bigger question at hand. How did we all get here?
Though many of us have been taught (or have simply assumed) that ancient Indian sages were waking up at dawn to do sun salutations, we now know that this was likely not the case. Recent scholarly research tell us that the yoga we practice today in our heated, hard wood-floored, lavender-smelling classrooms is a new breed of practice, most of which was developed in the last century. So, what is the origin of this practice?
In town until May 25, this gorgeous 135-piece sprawling exhibit — which includes towering Tantric stone goddesses, colorful renderings of intricate yogic energy systems, and exciting film footage of 1930s yoga masters — offers some answers. Originally created by art historian Debra Diamond for the Sackler and Freer Galleries at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, the exhibit’s just arrived to town amid great enthusiasm. “San Francisco has such a long rich history with yoga,” says Qamar Adamjee, in a recent phone conversation, who, along with Jeff Durham, curated the local presentation of the exhibit. “It was a no-brainer to bring the exhibit here.”
Though yoga’s origin is typically thought to go back at least 2,500 years, the exhibit’s scope is from 100 CE to the 1940s; the museum, along with a board of local yoga advisers, also created supplemental content, like a California yoga timeline, and supplemental programming, including talks with local luminaries. “It’s important to have a sense of where you came from,” says senior yoga teacher Judith Hanson Lasater, founder of both the Iyengar Yoga Institute in San Francisco and Yoga Journal magazine, and one of the exhibit’s advisers, told me over the phone. “That helps us define who we are.”
The art here is laid out by topic, less than it is chronologically, because yoga’s history did not develop in a straight line; different aspects of the practice appeared in different places at different times. “When talking about the exhibit, I like to use the word histories instead of history,” says Adamjee. “While we associate yoga as primarily a Hindu practice, its history is actually shared by three main religious systems of ancient India: Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism.” She adds that connections to Islam and Sufism are also seen in the exhibit. “This multiplicity is what makes it so fascinating and rich.” It’s important to remember, too, that this is yoga’s history as depicted primarily by visual art, not by texts — and that the story could change (and likely will) as new findings surface. Yoga research is currently one of the fastest growing fields in South Asian studies.
But for now, our journey begins not where some might expect — say, with a serene yogi practicing Tree Pose by a river bank — but with practices of extreme austerity in the name of enlightenment.
In modern yoga culture, we use the practice to help heal the body — I know I did. But some of the earliest yogis had a different point of view. Well-preserved stone sculptures from the first millennium depict worshippers starving themselves in the hopes of being released from the cycle of reincarnation. (Mortal life here was viewed as pure suffering and these devotees were hoping not to come back again.) An emaciated, pre-enlightenment Buddha is depicted here, too, in an intricate ivory carving from 700-800 CE.
A thousand years later, the art becomes more sophisticated and more focused on deity worship, but practices of austerity and self-mortification remain. For instance, detailed paintings with tiny strokes show devotees of Shiva uncomfortably hanging themselves upside down from trees, or standing or sitting in one position for years. In the mid-late 1800s, photographs begin to appear showing Indian ascetics doing extreme things: lying on a bed of nails, wearing an irremovable contraption around one’s neck, even piercing one’s penis with a heavy metal object.
The images themselves are hard for our soft Western eyes to endure, but even less palatable is the story behind them. With the British invasion, the rights of wandering ascetics were restricted, so they moved from forests into cities, where they were forced financially to parade their devotional practices to local audiences for a quick rupee. Many of the photographs on display were shot by professional British photographers, and were then turned into postcards that the photographers sold for great profit throughout Europe. Non-yogi locals took note that money could be made from Europeans by staging tricks, and it soon became hard to tell who was a true ascetic, and who was a random yoga hack laying on a bed of nails for cash.
Though yoga was initially seen as a practice of bodily transcendence, some practitioners decided that, so long as they were in their bodies, it might be useful to score some superhuman psychic and physical abilities. During the Tantric era, these yogis are believed to have used practices like mantra, visualization, and goddess worship (sometimes occurring at cremation grounds) to channel these powers.
One of the exhibit highlights is a room filled with striking stone goddesses from this time. The slate-gray statues of worship, which date from 900-975 CE, show large-breasted, small-waisted female yogis (yoginis) complete with fangs and pet snakes, holding cups meant for liquor or blood. Today the word “yogini” is used when simply referring to female practitioners, but these original figures were fierce and to be feared. (They were also sculpted with perfect bods, offering an interesting parallel to the depictions of female practitioners in modern day yoga magazines.)
Later on, in 1830, Indian watercolor and gold paintings show the mystical use of yogic superpowers: to win battles by creating a flood where enemies are charging forth, and to magically fly through the sky. Of course, a hundred years later, the West chimes in, and starts making a mockery of yogic powers in the cinema and in profitable magic shows like “Koringa, the Female Yogi.”
MINING THE FLOW
Throughout the early years, we see all manners of meditators, perhaps practicing classical yoga (as handed down by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras), often sitting with legs in a lotus-like position, gazing up or inward toward a third eye. But as the years pass, the physical body starts to take more prominence, in the Tantra and Hatha Yoga traditions, as a tool on the yogic path of self-realization. One treasure here is a 10-page excerpt from an early 1600s Muslim Sufi book called Bahr al-hayat (Ocean of Life), said to contain the earliest illustrated renderings of physical yoga poses. Most of the poses shown here are seats like lotus pose, but there is one drawing of a guy rocking a headstand.
Around the 1700-1800s, intricate Tantric renderings of the energetic yoga body, including the chakras (energy centers), appear. A total must-see: a watercolor scroll that contains detailed, gold-laced drawings of Ganesh and his two wives (at the root chakra), and Shiva and Shakti joined together (in the crown chakra).
In the final gallery, we come into the 20th century. Yoga made its big debut in the US when Swami Vivekananda, who practiced Raja Yoga, based on Hindu philosophy and meditation, made a speech about yoga at the first World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893. Seven years later, he set up the Vedanta Society in San Francisco to offer his teachings. (Many of his materials are displayed here.) The early 1900s is also where we begin to see evidence of the more athletic yoga practice most of us do today. This new form came about as prominent Indian yoga teachers began to blend ancient postures and energetic techniques with strength-training exercises that had been brought in by their British invaders.
A mesmerizing video shows T. Krishnamacharya (often considered the grandfather of modern day yoga) and his young disciple BKS Iyengar performing expertly executed postures in smooth, rhythmic flows — now things are really starting to look familiar. Displayed here are also numerous books promoting yoga as a way to improve one’s health, including a book by Indian bodybuilder Raja of Aundh called Surya Namaskars (The Ten-Point Way to Health). According to the exhibit, this text from the 1920s is where our beloved sun salutations were initially birthed.
While the new physical fitness-form of yoga may have looked different than its predecessors of seated meditation, goddess worship, and self-mortification, it required the same intense attention and dedication. It arrived to the US on the tails of Vivekananda’s yoga, so by the mid-1900s, West Coasters already had different practices from which to choose.
Yoga caught on quickly here in San Francisco. By 1955, Walt and Magana Baptiste (parents of famed modern-day yogi Baron Baptiste) had founded the Center for Physical Culture, one of SF’s first bona fide yoga studios. The 1970s saw the opening of Integral Yoga and the Iyengar Yoga Institute in San Francisco, as well as the birth of Yoga Journal magazine. Yoga soon became not only a practice, but a business and a lifestyle. Over the years, Americans here and throughout the country started blending various yoga teachings, shaping the practice to address our cultural, health, fitness, community, commercial, and varied spiritual (or anti-spiritual) needs and interests. Today, San Francisco is one of the world’s most booming yoga communities. Every offering one can imagine exists here: from contemplative retreats to sweaty flow classes to corporate yoga, ecstatic chanting, naked yoga, scholarly study, and yoga therapeutics.
IN THE NOW
The exhibit helps us get a sense of where the practice came from — but it still begs the question of what yoga actually is. Is yoga a practice of transcending the body in an effort to attain enlightenment? Is it a way of gaining supernatural powers so you can beat your opponents at war? Is it a seated meditation practice focused on stilling the mind, or a physical fitness routine designed to rid the body of impurities? Is it something you do on the weekends in your Lululemon leggings to feel good before going for mimosas at a hipster brunch spot?
“The exhibit forces some interesting self-reflection about our beliefs,” says Kaitlin Quistgaard, the former longtime editor of Yoga Journal magazine, in a phone conversation. “What do we actually know to be true about yoga?” Quistgaard was part of the advisory board that helped to create the exhibit’s supplementary content. “For me, the thing that ties it all together is self-awareness. Through any yoga practice, even one that would seem completely physical, there’s a process of coming to know yourself.” She adds that it’s the development of this deeper awareness that can enable us to lead more connected and fulfilling lives.
In the same vein, Adamjee reflects that one of the key aspects uniting all of the yoga paths over the years is the “radical insight that human beings possess the ability to transcend our own suffering.” Looking back at my own path, it’s easy to see the truth in this. Whether a yogi is engaged in intense physical or energetic practices, deep meditation, scholarly pursuit, or singing the names of Indian gods, the goal has always been — through devotion and attentive awareness — to find peace. To experience, if only briefly, that delicious taste of freedom.
As a writer and practitioner, I love the study of yogic history. But there is also a part of me that knows that the history is not as important as our actual practice — what we do each day, how we show up to our lives. As any yoga devotee will tell you, the past and the future don’t really exist; all we can ever really know is this very moment.
“Yoga will live on,” says Adamjee, somewhat wistfully. “But it will become something different. We are just another moment in that long timeline.”
YOGA: THE ART OF TRANSFORMATION
Through May 25
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco
200 Larkin, SF.
(See next page for more details)
HAS YOGA SOLD OUT?
Yoga started as a spiritual discipline. Now, it’s reportedly a $27 billion dollarindustry in the US with an estimated 15 million practitioners, not to mention high fashion clothing, expensive yoga vacations, and “yogalebrity” teachers. Some say that commercialization is just what the practice had to do to survive in a capitalist culture. Others, like Indian American graphic artist Chiraag Bhakta, find the face of modern day yoga disturbing. Bhakta’s art installation, #WhitePeopleDoingYoga, will be on view at the Asian Art Museum as a supplement to the larger yoga exhibit, March 26-May 25.
A 13-by-30-foot wall of Western yoga marketing materials (from the 1960s-80s), it includes book covers, advertisements, and album covers that depict white folks promoting yoga for all kinds of spiritual, dietary, and fitness purposes, wearing everything from canary yellow leotards to traditional Indian garb. The idea of putting all of this ephemera on one wall, he says, is to give the viewer a feeling of being suffocated — which is how the onslaught of these images have made him feel. “It’s fascinating to me that this ancient practice from my culture is being mined and then appropriated and commodified, while removing everyone that looks like me,” he adds. “The philosophy of yoga is the dissolution of one’s ego — and the irony is that there’s so much ego being attached to all of this.”
Bhakta’s exhibit is part of *Pardon My Hindi, a project he created to explore first generation Indian American identity using humor and serious social commentary. Bhakta admits that he himself practices yoga at studios in the Bay Area, and he’s not against the popularization of the practice. He simply questions the way in which it’s being done. “My goal is just to bring this discussion to the table,” he says.
The museum is offering some amazing activities during the show’s run. Highlights include storytelling, dance, and yoga, as well as lectures by yoga luminaries. Among the scheduled speakers are Senior Iyengar teacher Manouso Manos, director of UCSF’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine Dr. Margaret Chesney, curators Debra Diamond and Qamar Adamjee, AcroYoga co-founder Jenny Sauer-Klein, mindfulness educator Meena Srinivasan, Google’s Gopi Kallayil, graphic designer Chiraag Bhakta, and yoga historian Eric Shaw. For the full list of events, go to www.asianart.org/exhibitions_index/yoga-related-events.
Karen Macklin is a writer and yoga teacher living in San Francisco. Find out more about her at www.karenmacklin.com .