Volume 48 Number 23
VISUAL ART Tom Tomorrow’s real name is Dan Perkins. This is important information if you ever happen to call him up, because you will have to squelch the urge to blurt out “Hi, Tom!” when he answers the phone.
“It happens! That’s what I get for coming up with a pen name,” the editorial cartoonist laughs from his home in Connecticut. “When I was starting out, I was in San Francisco running in a little anti-corporate ‘zine called Processed World. A lot of the contributors used pen names, because there was always a sense that you might get blacklisted or boycotted or something if you were associated with it. So I started using this pen name, which was a misremembered version of an old cartoon character. I didn’t quite realize that I was going to have this 25-year career, and would be stuck with this thing!”
He chuckles before adding, “I would also say, even more than the anonymity in the early days, I thought it would be a mnemonic [device]. The cartoon was called This Modern World. It wasn’t about politics so much in those days, it was riffing on technology and consumerism, and ‘Tom Tomorrow’ seemed appropriate to this kind of retro-futurist thing I was doing.”
Longtime Guardian readers need no introduction to Perkins’ work. This Modern World — which satirizes current events with wry humor and laser-sharp intelligence — has appeared weekly in these pages for nearly 20 years; it’s also syndicated in other papers across America. In addition, he’s authored a children’s book and several cartoon anthologies, including 2012’s The World of Tomorrow, which features an introduction by rocker Eddie Vedder (Perkins drew the album art for Pearl Jam’s 2009 Backspacer, which elevated him to a level of fame he never expected: “There are people who have tattooed [my art] on their flesh!”) Last year, he added the prestigious Herblock Prize to his list of cartooning and journalistic accolades. Though he’s East Coast-based these days, he’ll be heading to California next week for events at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco and the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa.
Long before he made his name with This Modern World, Perkins says he was “always drawing little comics and cartoons, as far back as I can remember. I’ve been putting together a new PowerPoint show for this Cartoon Art Museum event, and I’ve actually dug up some of these old cartoons. I have this political cartoon that I drew at the age of 14! It’s terrible [laughs], but it’s kind of funny to show it. It’s about Jimmy Carter! Because when I was 14, Jimmy Carter had just given an interview to Playboy magazine, and was being widely mocked for saying that he had lusted after women in his heart. So here I am at 14, drawing a cartoon about that, which is very funny to me in retrospect.”
As he got older (“like every young cartoonist in the 1980s, I went through a phase of trying to do a Gary Larson rip-off, because The Far Side was at the height of its popularity”), he began combining collage with cartooning “in order to riff on advertising culture and technology and so on,” before circling back to politics.
“I’m just doing this one cartoon — it’s not a comprehensive news source — so each week has to be some mixture of something I’m really interested in; something that maybe, hopefully has a news hook; and something that I have something interesting to say about,” he says. “Something that I can be funny about. It may not always show, but I really don’t want to waste the reader’s time.”
Though he admits George W. Bush was an easier politician to make fun of, the Obama administration has also supplied him with plenty of material. “I have a recurring character named ‘Droney’ — the friendly surveillance drone. I do a lot of stuff on the NSA, and the fact that Guantanamo has not been closed, and so on.”
A veteran of the alt-weekly publishing world, Perkins has a unique perspective on how the industry has changed over the years. “I think the short answer is, alt-weekly cartoonists — and there’s maybe a dozen of us working right now — are truly an endangered species. We came into a certain ecosystem and set our own rhythms around that ecosystem,” he says. “Obviously, between the financial crash in 2008, and the ongoing influence of the Internet, that’s been a more tenuous ground. I’m profoundly grateful to the papers that still run cartoons like mine, but it’s an era of entropy. We’re all kind of just hanging on. I’m not the only content creator ever to point out the fact that it’s tricky to figure out how to make a living online. It’s ironic, because [thanks to the Internet], my reach as a cartoonist has never been greater.” (His semi-joking advice to young cartoonists: “Marry someone with tenure.”)
For his Cartoon Art Museum gig, he’ll be sharing the spotlight with a special guest: one of San Francisco’s famed Doggie Diner heads. “To me, the Doggie Diner heads represent my San Francisco. They represent the San Francisco of artists and pranksters. I have a real affection for them. Sometimes, when I have a dream sequence and I need to convey something strange and surreal, I’ll have a Doggie Diner head say a few words, floating in the background.” *
THE WORLD OF TOMORROW: AN EVENING WITH TOM TOMORROW
Tue/11, 7-9pm, $5
Cartoon Art Museum
655 Mission, SF
March 15, 2pm, free with admission ($5-$10)
Charles M. Schulz Museum
2301 Hardies, Santa Rosa
People who consider themselves fans of prime rib (raises hand) will probably want to check out the version that’s being made at Charles Phan’s brand-new restaurant, The Coachman (1148 Mission, SF. www.coachmansf.com), now open in the former Heaven’s Dog space in SoMa. Nope, no more Chinese food in that location, and Phan’s not doing Vietnamese either.
The menu is actually inspired by English classics done right (long story), but being in California means there’s going to be a seasonal bent too. The family-style menu includes lamb sweetbreads with mint ($12), potted crab ($14), a tasty beef tartare topped fried smelt ($14), carrots, lentils, and parsley dill sauce with smoked date jam ($14). About that prime rib ($26): It’s cooked in a salt crust for eight hours, and comes with a bone marrow jus and horseradish cream (oh yeah).
Chef de cuisine Ross Wunderlich was brought over from one of Phan’s other restaurants, Hard Water. The space was given a bit of an update, but the look isn’t particularly of note. (Plus side: no tacky pub décor.) Besides, you’ll be more focused on the cocktail menu from Erik Adkins, which highlights punches, cups, cobblers, and some farmhouse and rural drinks. You can even have your drink served in a hunting flask — order the Robert Burns’ Hunting Flask for a maximum ye olde adult beverage experience, or order one of two cask-conditioned ales to go with your dinner.
The former Washington Square Bar & Grill, and recently Bottle Cap, is now The Square (1707 Powell, SF. www.thesquaresf.com), from the Sons & Daughters duo, Teague Moriarty and Matt McNamara. This is not their usual composed cuisine style — think American dishes like a kale with ricotta salata, grilled bavette steak, whole roasted crab, a rack of baby back ribs (for two!), and a burger.
The menu ranges from bar snacks to bigger plates ($7–$24). The late hours (Wed–Sun until 1am) are a bonus, and there’s a full bar, with twists on classics like the 7 ‘n’ 7. Plenty of Cali and European wines as well. The 90-seat space is handsome, with a bar, communal table, and plenty of spots saved for walk-ins, so feel free to swing on by.
A couple new coffee spots have opened, starting with the latest location of Sightglass Coffee (3014 20th St., SF. www.sightglasscoffee.com), right next to Central Kitchen and Trick Dog. What’s interesting is it’s operating more like a roastery focused on micro batches: All the coffee served there is roasted in-house, and it’s the only place where you can get those beans (like the Jerboa’s Jump espresso). It has a great vintage look, with warm globe lights, tobacco leather banquettes, marble-topped counters, and touches of a Deco aesthetic throughout. There are some killer baked goods from Piccino, b. Patisserie, and Neighbor Bakehouse, with a bunch of savory options. Hours are Mon-Sat 7am–8pm, Sun 8am–8pm.
There’s a lot of buzz (har) about the latest location of Réveille Coffee (4076 18th St., www.reveillecoffee.com) in the Castro, another coffee-related biz by two brothers, Tommy and Christopher Newbury. There’s a sweet front patio (great people watching or cruising, whatever you’re up to), and the interior has an appealing design that’s clean and upbeat. People are reportedly digging the savory options, from breakfast goods like bull’s-eye breakfast sandwiches (served until a very generous 1pm) to flatbreads, salads, and sandwiches for lunch and into the evening. Open 7am–9pm daily.
BALLIN’ ON A BUDGET
Hot dogs. A bunch of us enjoy our fair share of bacon-covered Mission treats (depends on how much and how late you go out), but there’s a new dog in town: Los Shucos Latin Hot Dogs (3224 1/2 22nd St., www.losshucos.com), from Guatemalan owner Sofia Keck. These street-style puppies are more like a torta, with a griddled bun, your choice of bacon-wrapped sausage or handmade chorizo (they are currently trying to source a vegetarian option), avocado, and imported salsa chapina, a green sauce from Guatemala. Toppings include refried black beans, queso fresco, and scrambled eggs. The dogs range from $5.95 to $7.95, and are as hefty as they are tasty. Woof. Open Sun–Wed 11am–10pm and Thu–Sat 11am–2am.
Marcia Gagliardi is the founder of the weekly tablehopper e-column; subscribe for more at www.tablehopper.com. Get her app: Tablehopper’s Top Late-Night Eats. On Twitter: @tablehopper.
It’s 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon in East Oakland, and on stage in the amphitheater at Castlemont High School, Kev Choice is trying to keep a straight face. Seated behind a keyboard in jeans, a button-down shirt, purple sneakers, and a baseball cap, the musician — who’s been Lauryn Hill’s bandleader, and the go-to keyboard player and sideman for Lyrics Born, Goapele, Michael Franti, Too $hort, and the Coup, among others — is serving as accompaniment today for a slightly different type of artist than usual: There are about 20 of them, for one, performing solo or in small, nervous groups, and they’re all at various stages of puberty.
One young lady sings a respectable SWV cover. Two boys rip wordless electric guitar riffs. Then a young man scream-raps a song about hoes and twerking, to the delight of a dozen or so girls in the front row, and punctuates it by ripping his shirt off — much to the chagrin of his teachers and school administrators (one of whom runs on stage to try to cover him, unsuccessfully, just as the song is coming to a close). In other words, just your average high school talent show.
“I was actually surprised he did that bit,” Choice says of the teenager, laughing, a few hours later. The musician began mentoring at Castlemont just a couple months ago, but he already knows some students pretty well. “He can do other things. He came into class singing one of my songs at me last week. But I think he was maybe trying to impress a certain, you know…demographic.”
As someone who grew up rapping for his friends in the schoolyard, then going home to study Beethoven’s piano sonatas, the pitfalls of trying to appeal to a certain demographic — and the difficulty of not fitting neatly into a given category — is a somewhat familiar topic for Choice. He’s an Oakland native who’s always had one foot firmly in the hip-hop world, and one in the world of academia, classical music, and jazz; it’s a balancing act made all the more delicate by the fact that, regardless of his chops as an emcee or producer, no matter what instruments he plays (and he plays a lot of them), he’s always been known predominantly as a sideman. A talented, hard-working, and in-demand sideman, to be sure, but a sideman nonetheless.
It’s from the side, then, that he’s watched as Oakland has changed around him these past few years. He’s seen First Fridays come and blow up, has quietly observed as rent has nearly doubled around Lake Merritt — where he spent his teenage years, and where he currently lives again — and working-class people move elsewhere. He was there at the Oscar Grant protests, he was in the streets for Trayvon Martin, but he’s not generally one to get on a bullhorn.
All of which is to say that, when Choice’s solo record Oakland Riviera dropped in late January — a warm, lush, ambitious album that swerves fluidly between genres, weaving jazz instrumental interludes named for Oakland streets between tracks of Choice’s dynamic, live-band hip-hop — it sounded distinctly like the work of a man with something to prove. Boasting a guest roster that reads like a who’s who in East Bay music, with rappers from Zion I‘s Zumbi to Mistah F.A.B. to local R&B and jazz greats, the album is a determined step into the limelight, drawing a sprawling yet cohesive map and love letter to the town where Choice grew up — a town that’s changing very quickly or not quickly enough, depending on whom and where you’re asking.
“There’s a lot on this album that I’d been thinking about for a long time, but hadn’t really had the chance to say,” Choice explains during an interview back in his neighborhood, at a shiny new burger joint on Lakeshore Avenue, when I ask about the first track that stood out to me, the upbeat anthem “Shed Light.” It’s built around a John Coltrane tune, with Choice rapping lyrics about the development of Oakland’s Uptown District: “No matter how many fancy restaurants sprout up/the menus don’t cater to the issues around us…tale of two cities, the pretty and the gritty/the welcome and neglected, the prosperous and profitless/we got some issues to address, can’t build up part of the city and neglect the rest.”
“I wanted to showcase the beauty of Oakland, and talk about all the possibilities here, but also the struggles,” he says, noting that the record’s name was inspired by traveling to the south of France recently and, upon returning home, wanting to “take people on a trip here, remind people that Oakland is just as beautiful as some of the most beautiful places in the world.”
“The social activism on the album is just a reflection of what I see going on in my city, things I’ve been hearing about for a long time,” he says. “What does gentrification mean? How do we address the crime rate? How does a black man succeed here, or even just escape the violence, escape police harassment? And what can I say and do as an Oakland native to be a positive influence on that?”
At the moment, what he’s not doing very much of is sleeping. Today he has a two-hour break between mentoring at Castlemont (in one of Oakland’s poorest neighborhoods) and a birthday party downtown for the soul singer Jennifer Johns (whom he’s produced, and who guests on his album) that doubles as a fundraiser for the Creating Sustainability campaign, a new project to help build an economic stability plan for the city. When he gets home sometime after 2 am, he’ll do some work on a record a singer just emailed him about producing, practice some lightning-quick Herbie Hancock licks on the piano, and maybe prep for the Black History Month event he’s part of at Laney College the next day.
Last week he was in Atlanta for a Lauryn Hill show; next week he’ll be in the Pacific Northwest on a quick Coup tour. And 10 minutes ago, an elderly woman with glasses interrupted him while he was eating a turkey burger to chastise him for not returning a CD she loaned him a few weeks back.
“I’m so sorry, I’ve been out of town. I promise!” he says, as she smiles and waves him off. “Reverend E — it’s music she wants me to learn for church,” he explains sheepishly after she’s gone. “I need to do that.” Two other neighbors, a middle-aged man with a little boy, and a 20-something kid with a buzz cut, stop to say hi within the span of half an hour. This section of Lakeshore is basically his living room, he admits; he always winds up stopping to talk to folks: “My daughter doesn’t even like walking down the street with me here on a Saturday.”
Of course, should you ever find yourself needing directions in Oakland, he’d be a good person to run into. Kev Choice — real name: Kevin Choice — has spent roughly 30 of his 38 years in this town. One of two boys raised by a single mother, a secretary, in three different Oakland neighborhoods, he was a precocious kid, he says. At Brookfield Elementary in East Oakland, he skipped the first grade after blowing through the workbooks for the year in a month or so.
“I knew how to focus on education, because my mother stressed that was important,” he says. “I caught a little bit of a hard time for that — I was short, and I was smart. But I just knew what I was supposed to do, and I did things fast.”
In seventh grade at Westlake Middle School, an 11-year-old Choice picked piano class as his elective, and within a few months had learned a Muzio Clementi sonata, practicing rigorously and constantly at home, entirely of his own volition. “I think my family was kind of shocked,” he says. “My mom always had music around the house. She liked early Prince, Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross…but here I was playing Bach, Beethoven. Like, where did this come from?”
Still, all he listened to was hip-hop: Run DMC, A Tribe Called Quest, LL Cool J. He started rhyming around age 13, an art form he quickly found brought him a little more respect from his peers than classical piano. He kept them separate, but he kept at both: He was accepted into the competitive Young Musicians Program for teens at UC Berkeley, and joined the jazz band at Skyline High — all of which led to a full scholarship to study piano at Xavier University in New Orleans, where he moved on his own at 17, and where, at his professors’ urging, he dug into jazz history for the first time. “They kind of politely said ‘You suck,'” he recalls. “‘Now go listen to this Thelonious Monk. Really listen.’ And I did. I’d practice eight, 10 hours a day back then. That’s what gave me the foundation I still stand on today.”
After getting his master’s in piano at Southern Illinois University, he landed back in Oakland in 2000, with seven years of rigorous musical education behind him — and zero job prospects. So he started playing cafe and restaurant gigs with a jazz trio here and there. It was at the Java House in Oakland that the bassist from Spearhead first noticed him and suggested he come audition. Shortly afterward, Choice found himself leaving the US for the first time on tour with Michael Franti, playing for stadiums of 10,000 people. Aside from the basics of how to be a touring musician — “pacing yourself, sleeping on a bus” — Choice watched how Franti dedicated himself to causes, how seamlessly he infused his music with activism.
“He inspired people,” says Choice. “That was the first time I saw that you could be socially conscious, be involved in the community, and be a successful artist. You gotta stand behind what you say — you can’t just say shit and not be willing to live it on the day-to-day basis.”
The tour with Spearhead led to a tour with Goapele; the tour with Goapele led to putting together a band for Lyrics Born, after Lyrics Born decided he wanted to rap with a full band in 2006. And the day after he got fired by Lyrics Born (final straw: missing a flight to Hawaii when they were opening for the Black Eyed Peas), Choice got a call from a producer friend, who informed him he was one of three guys who would be auditioning for Lauryn Hill the following afternoon at a studio in Emeryville.
As it turned out, he was the only one of said guys who could keep up with Hill — who entered and exited the audition without saying a word to any of the musicians — when she started playing guitar in an odd time signature. From that point on, Choice was her bandleader for a year and a half, putting together a live band under her orders out of his musician friends around the Bay. She would text him music to learn in the middle of the night, he says. “Go download this, teach the band this by tomorrow.” Once, she flew him to LA, and sent him to a hotel room where there was a box full of studio equipment waiting. Her instructions: Put together a studio, then go to a record store and buy every Bob Marley CD he could find — she wanted to him to re-create the instrumentals for the bulk of Marley’s catalog.
“Which, on the one hand, why am I in this hotel room trying to remake 30 Bob Marley songs?” he says, laughing. “On the other hand, it felt like a mystical guidance kind of test — ‘Once you do this, I know you’re ready.'” This was 2007, and despite overseeing her band during a tour that would make headlines largely for Hill’s antics (some would say meltdowns), Choice maintains she was crucial to his growth, pushing him and exposing him to Ethiopian and other world music.
“She was hard, but she was also really encouraging,” he says. “She’d say, ‘You have what it takes, but you gotta be sharp at all times. And if you wanna be one of the best, you can’t conform to what other people you think you should do.'”
In the years between leaving Hill’s band and putting out this new record, Choice has been taking steps toward center stage: At the helm of the Kev Choice Ensemble, a jazz-funk-hip-hop band he created with the idea of a modern Duke Ellington in mind, on a handful of solo mixtapes, and on a 2009 record, The Power of Choice, a compilation of his recorded work from the previous five years. But Oakland Riviera represents a true premiere for the musician — an unmistakable coming-out by someone who’s been hustling for a solid decade and a half.
“He has an unstoppable work ethic,” says the Coup’s Boots Riley, of his experiences with Choice. “On tour, he’ll have a keyboard and a laptop in his lap, recording music while we drive in the van. And I don’t know when he sleeps, because then he’ll be up ’til five in the morning in the hotel room fiddling away on the keys, nodding off, waking back up a second before his head is going to fall into the desk, blinking his eyes while waking up, rewinding the recording he was working on, and playing for a few more minutes before nodding off again…and sure enough, each day he’ll have posted a new song on Facebook or wherever, often based on whatever’s been happening.”
“I’ve written maybe 100 songs in my career,” adds Riley. “I’m sure Kev Choice has made 100 songs since October.”
If early reviews are any indication, the 15 that made the cut for this album have the potential to take Choice, as an emcee and as a solo artist, to a new level in the public eye. “This album was, I feel like I could be one of the dopest artists out of the Bay Area, so why not just show people?” he says. His personal life was one driving force. Over the last couple years, both his mother and his best friend/former girlfriend passed away — the latter from cancer, at age 34 — and he realized something. “When you lose the closest people to you, you got nothing really left to lose. Why not get this out? Why not go for it all?”
Part of the story he’s apparently been waiting to tell: a loving portrait of a city whose profile is similarly, if problematically, on the rise.
“When people talk about Oakland as the new, hip place to be — it’s always been that,” he says. “Aside from LA, Oakland is the cultural center of the West Coast. There is so much art here. The music, the history, the politics…but when you start seeing Oakland on lists of top destination spots, why are they saying that? Because there’s a certain amount of five-star restaurants now, or cool little hipster bars?” he says, in the few minutes before he has to leave to head toward Uptown, into the heart of them. “That’s starting to get away from the essence of what Oakland really is, which is about the people.”
“At the same time, there are people within 20-mile radius of us right now who are literally scared to come here. ‘Oh, they’ll shoot you over there, they’ll rob you.’ Look, there is a possibility that will happen,” he says. “There’s also a very real possibility that you’ll meet a very intellectual person and have a great conversation, or go to a club and hear some great music, or walk up the street and see people doing capoeira, doing some crazy, creative shit.
“People block out what Oakland is because of their perception, and perception is everything. If you never spend time here, believe me — it’s something entirely different from what you’d expect.”
Photos by Erin Conger
Patrick Brown, sound engineer and owner of the Mission’s Different Fur Studios, is a busy guy — both literally a man about town, as well as on the internets. I’ve started calling him the Santa Claus of social medias — always watchin’ his friends’ web behaviors, good, bad, whatever. He’s consistently first to like posts and favorite tweets, while simultaneously pulling off epic shifts in the studio.
But despite the screen-mediated chatter we had recently traded, I hadn’t actually seen the guy in months. I wanted to interview him: I hoped for secrets, opinions about the SF music biz, and other pertinent wizardry. With this in mind, I got an insider tip from his girlfriend: the promise of dim sum could usually lure him out of the studio.
Our “date” landed on Superbowl Sunday, and we happily avoided sports fans by venturing to Chinatown. Beneath red lanterns and pouring rain, we pulled up barstools at the Buddha Lounge and ordered Lucky beers, listening to “PYT” on the jukebox and watching a regular sway his hips in the doorway.
“Is that some kind of fat joke?” he asked, when I ‘fessed up to the social-media Santa nickname, as he nibbled on the bartender’s gift of microwave popcorn. It was Chinese New Year; a celebratory firecracker screeched in the street.
“I regularly spend 12 hours a day in a room. I can’t be out in the world, but I still want to exchange information out there,” he explained. Social media is his way of showing support while buried beneath work, he said. He links people to projects, and projects to people, patting the community on the back with likes and re-tweets.
In the seven years that he’s owned The Fur — he bought it from the previous owners in 2008, just four years after starting as an intern — it’s become increasingly important for him to extend his love of the music scene beyond the studio. This means showing face at venues, promoting bands, and partnering with brands that share like-minded intent.
“It’s important for people here to be building things versus bashing,” he says, noting the city’s current debate about tech and how it’s affecting the SF music scene. (Brown recently spoke to the issue while seated on a panel of music industry folks at The Chapel, seeming relatively unfazed by the complaints and quandaries.)
“This is all awfully familiar,” he says, recalling his experiences throughout the first dot-com boom — when, much like the current, monetarily-fueled tension, swarms of musicians and sound engineers left for the promised lands of LA and New York. The music biz ached with abandonment.
While things today may appear similar, he insists they’re not the same.
“The culture of San Francisco has changed, but it doesn’t mean the music business is suffering. It may mean musicians are suffering,” he says, adding that this city isn’t particularly fair to a lot of people and industries. “Sure, musicians should be able to make a living, but not everyone is gonna make it. It’s no different with sound engineers. Do you know how many interns I’ve fired? It’s really competitive out there.”
When Brown himself began as an intern at Different Fur in 2004, the SF scene was still recouping from tech deflation. Business was dry, and Brown saw opportunity in the quiet: space to learn, fuck up, and grow. It worked. He took over as studio manager three years later, and then in 2008 he bought the whole damn rig.
“I decided to stay and make my own shit,” he says. “And now I can do whatever I want. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s true.” At the time of our interview, the studio’s calendar was booked through May, sometimes double-booked. Does The Fur hog too much of his time? He scoffs.
“I didn’t pick a career where I would make a million dollars and I didn’t pick a 9-to-5,” he says. “I work long hours for crazy people — musicians — and in the process, I’ve become one of those crazy people.”
Brown’s career path followed a nomadic, diverse education: he studied architecture in Paris, English and psychology in New York, and advertising and film in SF. He repeatedly found himself failing, bored, and planning his escape to the next shiny curriculum.
By the time art school had begun to lose its appeal, he’d begun recording a few low-key recording projects with musician friends. The needle dropped: He did a year at SF State for Music Business, following it up with two years at Ex’pression College. He was hooked.
“People always ask me if listening to the same three-minute track for 12 hours on repeat drives me nuts,” he says, shaking his head, and takes a sip of round two: a pink Mai Tai. “I love it. It was my cue — that’s how I knew I actually wanted to be a sound engineer.”
The more diverse his repertoire can be, the better: A long list of recent projects includes an Armenian classical quartet, a dance hall remix, darkwave, and a Brazilian pop group. (“They all inform each other,” he says.) Brown is also a member of the Grammy board, plays host for the Converse Rubbertracks sessions, and occasionally makes music with his buddy Robert Pera as Woof Beats. He loves throwing events, like a recent listening party for the Grouch and Eligh. His latest addition is sound consulting for GitHub, a partnership aimed at creating fruitful connections between music and tech.
To put it lightly, he’s a workhorse. The horse is, of course, the latest Chinese zodiac sign to come into its 12-year rotation and, as a 1978 baby, Brown claims stallion status. The timing is right, too, since 2013 proved rough: Steve Brodsky, one of his closest friends and cohorts, passed away, and two much-loved Fur employees gave their notice. Brown’s mood shift was palpable, the year of grieving slowly eroding his usual sarcastic banter.
But the new year is freshly upon us and there’s already a notable difference in his mood. His hooves are shiny, so to speak — geared up for the gallop ahead.
“This year I want hang time with my girlfriend…I can’t sit in front of a console for 16 hours a day,” he says with conviction, then contradicts it all by admitting he also doesn’t want to work less. He laughs. “I’m not sure how it’s going to work exactly. All I know is that I’m in a better mood about it all.”
FILM It is awkward, no doubt, living in a land whose 20th-century legacy was becoming synonymous with evil — “Nazi,” “Hitler,” and “Holocaust” are still terms we use in describing or comparing the absolute worst human behaviors. Toward the end of Generation War, a three-part TV miniseries being shown here as a two-part movie, one character anticipates the cultural amnesia of peacetime by saying “Soon there will only be Germans and not a single Nazi.” That’s a canny statement in a nearly five-hour soap opera that doesn’t have quite enough of them.
Postwar Germany willed itself not only into economic rehabilitation, but into becoming one of the world’s more politically progressive and socially tolerant societies. (With exceptions, of course.) No doubt part of this was a function of guilt, and younger generations’ determination not to repeat the past. But it must also have been driven by a desire to bury that past as discreetly as possible without actually seeming to do so. Neo-Nazi freaks aside, you won’t likely now meet anyone in Germany who pledged allegiance to Hitler. Nor would you have 30 or 50 years ago. Even (or especially) guards at Auschwitz shared in the selective national amnesia that followed capitulation and the subsequent revelations of war atrocities. It’s understandable, if not entirely to be sympathized with: How do you live publicly with being on the side of the exterminators? You don’t, that’s how. You gradually build up personal distance until it’s a wall scarcely more abstract than the one that came down to reunite Germany in 1989.
Generation War was originally called Our Mothers, Our Fathers, to underline the relevancy of the discussion it’s presumably trying to stir at home — even if for many viewers the war generation would have been their grandparents’. Directed by Philipp Kadelbach and written by Stefan Kolditz, it starts out in dismayingly hackneyed fashion as we’re introduced to our youthful protagonists. Celebrating a birthday in 1941 near the war’s start, when Axis victory seems assured, they pose for a photo you know damn well is going to be the heart-tugging emblem of innocence horribly lost for the next 270 minutes.
There’s true-blue Wilhelm (Volker Bruch), who’s already served one tour of duty to the west, and is now heading to the Eastern front with younger brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling), a dreamy pacifist. In love with Wilhelm but annoyingly reluctant — for years on end — to say so is sugary Charlotte (Miriam Stein), herself headed to the front as a nurse. Staying behind are Greta (Katharina Schüttler), who fancies herself the next Marlene Dietrich, and her boyfriend Viktor (Ludwig Trepte), who can’t convince his willfully oblivious parents that German Jews like themselves are in mortal danger.
Needless to say, all illusions are eventually dashed. Amid the grueling, endless, disastrous campaign against the Soviet Union, Wilhelm is embarrassed by his “cowardly” brother until the latter adapts to pervasive inhumanity by becoming a cold killing machine himself. Charlotte overcomes her squeamishness at the daily hospital carnage while retaining her compassion. Greta does become famous, thanks to the high-ranking Gestapo patron (Mark Waschke) she sleeps with. But the prima donna arrogance she develops proves perilous, and her attempts to get Viktor smuggled out to safety go awry — escaping a train headed to a concentration camp, he joins a group of Polish partisans scarcely less anti-Semitic than the Nazis.
Fast-paced yet never achieving the psychological depth of similarly scaled historical epics, Generation War grows most interesting in its late going, when for all practical purposes the Allies have already won the war (at least in Europe), but Germany continues to self-destruct. Imminent peace provides no relief for protagonists who’ve survived only to find themselves fucked no matter what side they stay on, or surrender to.
That moral and situational complexity is too often missing in a narrative that aims for sympathy via simplicity. None of the protagonists are “really” Nazis — they’re mysteriously free of racial prejudice and other drummed-in ideological points, even if (for a while) they dutifully speak about serving der Fatherland. (Only bad, subsidiary people seem to buy into those concepts; Wilhelm is never shown killing women or children, and the death camps remain off-screen.) The underrated recent film version of The Book Thief (2013) was criticized for soft-pedaling the era, but it was about (and from the viewpoint of) somewhat sheltered Aryan children living in a civilian wartime. Generation War‘s characters are of exactly the age to be fully indoctrinated young zealots, yet none of them seems touched by National Socialist dogma. Even though it’s mid-1941 when we meet them, they act like official anti-Semitism is still a some minor, misguided inconvenience.
Of course such naiveté is designed to maximize their later disillusionment. But War doesn’t even try to approach the serious analysis of national character in something like Ursula Hegi’s great novel Stones from the River, in which we come to understand how time, propaganda, and preyed-upon weaknesses can turn a town of perfectly nice Germans into fascists capable of turning a blind eye toward the Final Solution. Embarrassingly, this shallower fiction tries in the end to pass itself off as truth: Before the closing credits we’re given birth and death dates of principal characters as if they were inspired by real people. (One purportedly lives still.) It’s one thing when some dumb horror movie opens with “Based on a true story” — wanna buy a bridge too? — but in this context, the fib is worse than disingenuous, it’s slimy.
In addition to being hugely popular at home, Generation War stirred considerable controversy (not least among insulted Poles), which is good. “Never forget,” indeed — but for such a big populist cultural event, it’s an awfully soft reminder. If it were one of the 1970s miniseries it recalls, it wouldn’t be relatively hard-hitting Roots, but Rich Man, Poor Man, in which tough sociopolitical issues of postwar America were whipped into sudsy melodrama cloaked in somber self-seriousness. *
GENERATION WAR opens March 14 in San Francisco.
SUPER EGO So a toothy blonde pretend social media exec, a blindingly sequined Latina drag queen, a huge rack of elk antlers with hot-pink panties on them, and a pair of Google Glasses walk into a “punk bar” …
What the holy highballs is happening on our bar scene lately? Rowdy Mission hangout Pop’s Bar closed over the weekend. (Who got all those panties, I wonder?) Last week, 40-year-old Mission gay hangout Esta Noche announced it was shutting down (new owners and a hetero-craft cocktail concept). And then there was that oddball Google Glass kerfuffle at Molotov’s, wherein a social media starlet claims she was the victim of a tech hate crime when the patrons allegedly got in her privacy-violating face.
The Esta Noche situation hits close to my floppy liver’s home most, though. With the recent closures of Marlena’s, Deco, and Ginger’s Trois (and the Transfer, Mister Leeona’s, and practically every gay watering hole on Polk Street shuttering in the past decade), there are hardly any queer bars outside the Castro and SoMa left. Lady, can you pour a fierce cosmo out those Google Glasses of yours? Until then, I won’t have what she’s having. I need my queer space to get sozzled!
There are DJs to love, and then there are DJs to love. Fiercely intelligent yet laidback, shaggy in that classic rave-dude way, Vancouverite Jay Tripwire has been honing his deep, deep techno sound for more than two decades and 200 releases. Like every great DJ wizard, he transforms the records on his tables into other beasts entirely. You just hear differently after his masterly sets. At the Housepitality weekly, he’ll get a warm reception.
Wed/5, 9pm, free before 11 with RSVP at www.housepitalitysf.com/rsvp, $10 after. F8, 1192 Folsom, SF.
The splendid Direct to Earth and Public Works crews bring in Buenos Aires- and Berlin-based Mauricio Barembuem, aka Barem of Minus Records, for some good old fashioned Germano-Latin post-minimal techno swing. Bring a couple pairs of (cute) shoes, because he’ll wear your kitten heels right out.
Fri/7, 9pm-4am, $13–$20. Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. www.publicsf.com
It’s a great weekend for hard-driving and esoteric techno in the Bay. It’s even getting into our more melodic parties, like the monthly Play It Cool, which is showcasing wiggy Brooklyn-based, SF-native “junta rave” purveyor Hound Scales of the Fifth Wall label. The speaker bins, they will explode I think. Jolly good show.
Fri/7, 10pm-3am, $10. Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. www.publicsf.com
Hey, $35 all you can drink from dozens of local spirits concocters, brew houses, and wineries? Plus: cosmic tunes from Cosmic Amanda (she’s cosmic), tarot readings by the zebra-leotarded Dr. Zebrowski, and one last time to party in the glorious Old Mint building before it gets renovated into the SF History Museum? Why am I still asking questions? Our sister-paper SF Weekly’s Drink event is sloshy, superb.
Sat/8, 2pm-5pm, $35 advance. Old Mint, 88 Fifth St, SF. drink2014.strangertickets.com
Please immediately check out the fantastic new Neneh Cherry album, produced by this wide-eared, super-innovative UK genius, who can jet from bright, ecstatic jazziness to haunting bass apocalypse in the blink of a strobe. A trippy treat in store, indeed.
Sat/8, 9pm, $30. Mezzanine, 444 Jessie, SF. www.mezzaninesf.com
Go-go boys are probably my least favorite things at clubs. (We were mercifully mostly free of them until a few years ago: They were “an LA thing” then. Sock’s on the other cock now!). But apparently, once a month, if they are dressed up like leather-fetish puppies, dancing to cutting-edge tunes in cages at the gay biker bar, and being petted by the sexiest characters of the SF queer underground, I’m totally down. I still refuse to say “woof,” though. With DJs Taco Tuesday and Chip Mint, hosted by Blake and Jorge.
Sat/8, 9pm, $7. SF Eagle, 398 12th St, SF. www.sf-eagle.com
VOICES FROM THE LAKE
Hyper-atmospheric ambient techno delight from this duo, composed of acclaimed Italian players Donato Dozzy and Neel. Don’t worry, you’ll still end up dancing. With Jason Kendig, Christina Chartfield, Carlos Souffront, and MossMoss at the As You Like It party.
Sat/8, 9pm-4am, $20–$25. Monarch, 101 Sixth St, SF. www.monarchsf.com
ODC Theater has a good track record of presenting homegrown and visiting companies, some making their local debuts, others having been around for a while. In between these ODC-presented programs — or, increasingly these days, co-presented with other organizations — are slots for artists who want to self-produce, which means that they rent the space for a fixed fee.
The remodeled theater, with its upgraded technical facilities, can accommodate not only dance, but musical and language-based performances. It has become a flexible, desirable venue in a city that has too few of them. Yet if I read history correctly, a kind of open-door policy has always been part of ODC’s mission, even during its more modest times — as in 1976, when it bought what used to be a hardware store and before that a stable.
Bianca Cabrera’s two-year-old East Bay-based troupe Blind Tiger Society (the name comes from a Prohibition-era speakeasy) is the latest of these self-producing independents to take advantage of what ODC Theater has to offer.
Though Cabrera has shown work locally in small studio settings, the world premiere of the hourlong The Aftermath Affair is the company’s most ambitious effort yet. Sixteen women, some clearly more technically trained than others, threw themselves with considerable energy and commitment into fast-paced unisons, scurrying on the tips of their toes one moment, and then entangling themselves head over heels, only to then freeze into identical sculptural poses.
By far the most intriguing aspect of what was a decidedly odd affair was Cabrera’s attempt to create her own language from disparate sources. With a background in cabaret and musical theater, in addition to modern dance and ballet, she has a lot to draw on. While her vocabulary doesn’t yet cohere into a flexible enough tool, the yanking together or simple juxtaposing of elements from modern dance, cabaret, contact improvisation, and even ballet was intriguing in the way it tried to break down easy categorizations and perceptual barriers.
Cabrera’s dancers make good use of strong upper-body movements with articulated necks and shoulders, perhaps borrowed from belly dancing. Much of the movement for the many duets and small ensembles, however, was crystallized out of contact improvisation, with its give and taking of weight, supporting each other, and allowing a movement thread to run its course. Despite their robust physicality, these encounters were so formalized that sometimes they felt regimented. The plain beige-brown costumes, which looked like uniforms, probably didn’t help. Fortunately, several of the solos communicated a controlled but enthusiastic sense of being in the moment.
Contrasting with earthbound sequences were formal unisons of lines: diagonals, wedges, parallels, intersections, and overlappings that could have come from Broadway or movie musicals. To see a kick line of 16 pairs of (more or less) unison legs advance downstage was really most unusual.
A finely developed tactile sense proved an essential ingredient to Aftermath. Hands were everywhere. The dancers contacted each other with their fingers, exploring each other’s bodies and their own as if wanting to access some hidden knowledge. They wrapped arms tightly around themselves and held their hands over their pelvis as if trying to hold something in. Yet all of this was curiously clinical, devoid of any erotic implications.
Some the imagery also recalled wildlife observations on the National Geographic channel, in which animals sniff each other out and make tentative physical contact only to retreat again. When some of the dancers scurried back and forth across the stage on tiptoes, I thought of sandpipers trying to escape approaching waves.
Toward the end, pallor drops on Aftermath like fog with a sense of impending doom. The dancers plopped to the ground, rolled like logs, and then mechanically turned like the hands of a clock. I couldn’t quite see a connection to the rest of this worthwhile though not entirely successful endeavor.
Ben Juodvalkis’ dramatic and colorful score gave Aftermath its backbone. Cabrera, however, should have hired a lighting designer. Making such primitive use of the theater’s excellent facilities was a waste.
Independent productions at ODC resume with Gamelan Sekar Jaya (April 4-5) and Company C (April 25-May 5). Immediately on the horizon are three co-presentations. March 6-8, as the last lineup of this year’s Black Choreographers Festival, Robert Moses’ Kin has a double bill: as part of the company’s 2014 “BY Series,” Bliss Kohlmeyer, Dexandro Montalvo, and Gregory Dawson set works for the Kin dancers; for Draft, Moses choreographed for 10 guest performers.
March 21-22 brings Israeli dancers Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor, in Two Room Apartment, their adaptation of what was considered a highly erotic duet by the husband and wife team Liat Dror and Nir Ben-Gal.
And joined by guest artist and former Sweet Honey of the Rock member Ysaye M. Barnwell, Eric Kupers’ Dandelion Dancetheater will reprise his double bill Tongues/Gather March 26. *
LIT “Everywhere the gay narrative in this country is about freedom, but the reality doesn’t match up. I’m interested in exploring the corners that aren’t free — from bullied queer children killing themselves to the elaborate social prisons we concoct for ourselves online,” Randall Mann told me. “The landscape is definitely changing, but I’m not convinced that the most exciting, most pressing thing is to slap a smiley face over everything and post about ‘look how awesome my life is.’ I think it diminishes the present and the past.”
That may seem like a cynical take on the spurty arc of gay liberation. And a quick glance at Mann’s latest book Straight Razor (Persea Books), prickling with darkness, insecurity, suicide, longing, and Smear the Queer, probably bears that observation out. But the thrilling poems in Mann’s third volume are tenderly, uncannily, often hilariously on point when it comes to how we live our gay life now: the blundered hookups, halfhearted experiments, weird ghosts of old behaviors, buried childhoods, shady exchanges, unbelievable luck, the precarious balance of living at once in the glaring political spotlight and the throbbing shadows of history.
Or, as Mann exclaims with either surprise or sarcasm (or both) in “Teaser”:
Look at us — we’re smarter
Than our hair!
Mann and I met in the Castro near his house, at a posh wine bar in that increasingly upscale, mainstream neighborhood — a scrubbing that sometimes renders Mann’s gritty lines (As I skipped out this morning,/ skipping down Castro Street,/ the queens upon the asphalt/ were racks of hanging meat) into totems of nostalgia, no matter how recent they were written. But his electric language is so of the moment it carries the past into a timeless, shared present, as in one of my favorite poems from the collection, eerie AIDS-survivor ode “The Afterparty”:
I hover over the caviar, between
two spray-on queens, their asides –
eye cream, Pac Heights, microderm –
winningly vulgar. And when someone turns
the beat around, pure disco,
we’re dated, we’re done for…
“Our walls are crumbling, but that also means we’re losing our queer space,” said the soft-spoken but impassioned Mann, who spent his childhood in Florida before moving here in the late 1990s. “Gay people are shifting from a very defined identity to an unknown, and we’re performing this shift very much on a public stage. I’m fascinated by the way we construct and perform our identities — but at the same time we’re always undercutting ourselves. That moment or mode of undercutting, of self-effacement, is the poetic moment I always find myself seeking out.”
The pivotal moment of undercutting, when the straight razor is lifted, provides much of the humor in the book, as in the wonderful “Blind Date at the Blue Plate,” in which Mann, in “Striped shirt, skinny jeans, new-old Chucks/ I am sporting the usual bankruptcies” awaits a possible mate by reliving his entire sexual past — who doesn’t? — finally wishing he could redo it all, “much richer, cleaner,/ yet still dark, dark, dark./ A Michael Haneke shot-by-shot remake of my life.” One guesses the date won’t top that.
Mann’s poems are direct and structural — he was enthralled by formal-leaning Modernist icons Bishop, Moore, Auden, Lowell, and Stevens in college, rather than the shaggy Beats or the hyper-experimental Language Poets most young poets his age were obsessing over. His biggest influence is the great gay poet Thom Gunn, who died in the Haight 10 years ago next month. Gunn cheekily set strict forms and an Elizabethan wit against often-raunchy contemporary subject matter. (His Man With Night Sweats is an AIDS-era monument.)
Mann’s not after that kind of irony; for him, “Structure is something erotic to me, it leads me places that free verse doesn’t, it gives me a definition that I can surmount, a path to take and sometimes step off from.” His loose forms and half-rhymes become a metaphor for a community that’s redefining itself against its past even as it clings to its history. One shiver-inducing poem, the horror-porn-meets-Judy-Garland riff “Fantasy Suite,” is literally an invert — the first half of the poem is repeated in the second half in reverse order.
“Structure also gives me a sort of permission to speak about the unspeakable,” Mann told me, in context of the Straight Razor poem that’s getting the most attention, “September Elegies.” That poem, heartbreaking yet hardly mawkish, is dedicated to Seth Walsh, Justin Aaberg, Billy Lucas, and Tyler Clementi, four young people who killed themselves after being bullied about their sexuality.
“I had to be very careful with that one, but I couldn’t be silent. I didn’t want to capitalize on or cheapen their deaths with useless sentiment, but I was driven to honor them in some way. I found that the repetition of their ages — 13, 15, 18 — and their final social media messages (“jumping off the gw bridge sorry”), those secondhand details, it became a kind of incantation, of bringing them back into our world,” Mann said.
“The words turn and turn on themselves,” Mann says in that poem — just like we turn on ourselves and each other, and the world still turns on us.
I’m a little punchy after all the lines
and torture-lite. And since this isn’t glitter underneath
my nails, pass me an emery board and the strip brush –
I’ll meet you out front, by the STD truck.
We’ll get Ray-Banned, and torch
a Castro twink, or three. And kee kee.
Enough with the ritual attachments. I prefer the steel
implication, the gash in the erstwhile
model’s face, the snip of the top chef’s tongue.
Your assignment is to lurk, but not
like that shower goblin at the gym. No. Like a cemetery
wildflower at Badlands. Like monogamy.
No use now for embarrassment,
The administration will exempt each one of us
with a bathwater apology, an errata list…
“Errata” by Randall Mann, from Straight Razor, copyright © 2013 by Randall Mann. Reprinted by permission of Persea Books, New York.
Amid the political turmoil in the city around evictions of longtime San Franciscans, tech workers and progressive political activists are beginning to come together to brainstorm ways to address displacement.
Tech workers have started to attend meetings meant to spark conversation between the two opposing groups, hosted by local restaurant Casa Sanchez. Those interviewed by hyperlocal website Mission Local described the dinners as “heavy and charged,” with blame for the housing crisis pointing to all sides.
Last week, Tech Workers Against Displacement Happy Hour was the latest opportunity for the two communities to come together and talk. But can tech workers become effective partners in the search for solutions to the affordable housing crisis? The happy hour was promising, but it exposed some of the obstacles.
The happy hour was partially organized by a politician running for office (Sup. David Campos, who is now running for the California Assembly), but was mostly the brainchild of two unlikely allies: SEIU labor representative Gus Feldman and Rolla Selbak, an employee at a multinational tech giant that she asked us not to name.
And therein lies one of the challenges: Will the well-paid tech workers be willing to rise up and challenge the corporate and capitalist interests that have overheated the local economy and fed the displacement crisis, the very forces that have allowed them to afford skyrocketing local rents?
Virgil’s Sea Room was an apt choice for the happy hour. Five months ago and just a few blocks away on 24th Street, hundreds marched in the “Our Mission No Eviction” protest, where 71-year-old Mission muralist Rene Yanez told a tale of an artistic, vibrant Mission District in danger of losing its Latino population and its character.
The night was a mostly positive exercise in bridge-building, though it started under a blanket of tension. Activists spoke of the housing crisis at a microphone to an audience of nearly 200 tech workers and activists. Sparks flew and some left early, unhappy with what they called “activist lecturing.”
At Tech Workers Against Displacement Happy Hour, just starting up. Can tech and activists come together to help SF? pic.twitter.com/nindzM1L3B
— Joe Fitz Rodriguez (@FitzTheReporter) February 26, 2014
But as the empty beer cans grew in number, many tech workers came up to the microphone, and even more still mingled with the housing activists in the crowd. Riders of corporate buses figuratively (and maybe literally) clinked glasses with Erin McElroy, one of the leaders in the Heart of the City protests that have blockaded Google buses.
Yet most tech workers didn’t want to come out of the closet and identify with this nascent movement. Seeing a reporter with a notepad in hand, they shrank away. Those that did speak identified themselves in hushed tones accompanied by furtive glances. One man who identified himself as a tech worker laid down some rockin’ slam poetry at the microphone. When we told him we tweeted his performance, the tall, broad-shouldered techie flew into a panic.
“Please, please, please, you have to delete it. They can’t know I was here,” he told the Guardian, with panic in his eyes and sweat dripping down his forehead. He wasn’t alone in his worry.
One verified Google employee the Guardian initially spoke with on Twitter mingled with activists as well. “We’re not so different, we all want the same thing,” he told us. But even he was adamant that he not be identified.
One software engineer from a rideshare company, Eric Butler, did not want his company named. When asked why he came out to talk to housing activists despite his concern, he said, “The issue of displacement hits everyone.”
In recognition of that, the communities of the Mission and San Francisco that night called for tech workers to advocate for change from the inside, where they carry the most leverage and the most power. But that hasn’t happened yet, at least not publicly.
“They want to talk, but their bosses have ordered them not to,” McElroy told us. “It’s pretty intense.”
The tech workers could be the city’s strongest allies, if only they would challenge their employers and those invested in their companies. Already, a few tech workers are joining in solidarity.
IN BOTH CAMPS
Kelsey Gilmore-Innis lives in the Excelsior District and works at a tech startup. “I’m part of the system,” she told us. But she’s also a San Francisco native.
“My friends are SF native dirtbags who freestyle rap at any party, anywhere,” Gilmore-Innis, 27, said of her San Francisco roots. And like many of us, she had an eviction story to tell.
“We weren’t formally evicted, but were bought out, a precursor to the formal eviction processes. Eventually our whole block in Bernal Heights was replaced,” she said.
Her experience with eviction galvanized her. Though she has one foot in the tech camp, her other foot is firmly in the world of activism.
The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project targets serial real-estate speculators responsible for the evictions of long-term San Franciscans in the effort to make a buck, and in her off hours Gilmore-Innis works side by side with McElroy, the project’s rabble-rousing leader.
To tech workers, that may sound like an Uber employee working side by side with a cabbie. But for Gilmore-Innis, it’s a part of her San Franciscan heritage. She’s proud of one of San Francisco’s rich activist history, speaking fondly of inheriting the legacy of Harry Bridges, leader the historic 1934 General Strike in San Francisco.
She channels activism in a uniquely technological way, gathering campaign finance data for the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, aiming to build a searchable database to track money from shady real estate speculators flowing into San Francisco elections.
It’s public knowledge for public gain, a sentiment tech workers inspired with their fight for net neutrality and internet freedom. But that’s a fight tech workers are familiar with. Eviction may not be in their realm of experience.
“I’ve been evicted and know people who were evicted. I think the grand majority [of tech workers] thinks it’s an abstract plight. It’s not real to them,” she told us.
Maybe she’s right, but not every tech worker is at a billion-dollar corporation. For some in the startup world, displacement is all too personal.
ART AND TECH
Matt Conn was one of the many new tech workers in the city who’s built a startup from the ground up. His former company, Root Music, cashed in big, raising over $20 million and morphing into BandPage. Conn is now CEO and founder of the video game company MidBoss. He and a few others created the first LGBT video game convention, “GaymerX,” which drew national attention from the gaming and mainstream press. Put simply: he’s made it.
But just a few years ago, Conn often slept on BART trains. And no, we’re not talking the occasional nap. This was life.
“I would get on really early in the morning and ride it four or five hours. You get on at Powell and you get a really good nap for $1.50. When I first came out to the West Coast, I knew I wanted to be here. I ran out of money, and it was a cost-effective way to stay in San Francisco,” he told the Guardian.
Now he’s calling out the tech industry’s practices through MidBoss’ new game “Read Only Memories,” a science fiction game featuring a journalist as protagonist who is trying to save a kidnapped friend from a shadowy tech company.
In Conn’s game, cyberpunk future San Francisco will be a frightening free-for-all grab for people’s data, even more so than now. It also features many queer characters throughout, an effort to show a future where the LGBTQ community is accepted in everyday life.
Like many San Franciscan artists before him, his game allegorically challenges the city’s future, showcasing a highly gentrified city from Chinatown to “New Candlestick” — a not too subtle jab at the city’s culture war today.
Conn has been there. He’s lived displacement. Is that why he’ll speak out against tech where others won’t? His answer was different than the one Gillmore-Innis gave us.
GaymerX Presents Read Only Memories, Adventure Game Throwback With Queer Sensibilities pic.twitter.com/tDF6xNZITu
— Eddie Garou (@EddieGarou) November 13, 2013
“It’s a culture that’s very cult-like in a way, where people don’t want to focus on the negative,” he explained. His company is now crowdfunded, but that wasn’t always the case. “At BandPage, we had multiple investors who also represented Netflix and other big names. I had to be careful in public not to knock something one of our investors had a holding in. You don’t want to be ‘that guy.'”
It all goes back to the money, he said.
“For most, like Google, their money came from billionaire and multi-millionaire venture capitalists. No one wants to be the one speaking out against them,” he said.
He may have a point. The powerful venture capitalist Ron Conway, “The Godfather of Silicon Valley,” is ever-present at Mayor Ed Lee’s side. That’s power in the tech world and the municipal one. Maybe it takes a bigger player in the tech industry to “come out,” to inspire tech workers to push for egalitarian values.
CHANGING THE CONVERSATION
In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff , head of one of the largest tech companies in the city, echoed sentiments made by every activist who’s ever blocked a Google bus.
“(Speculators) are using the Ellis Act during this unbelievable boom time to toss everyday residents out of their homes,” he said. “I think it’s unfair and I think it has to change. I think these buses — which if you hang out in the Mission, [they come] every five minutes — they’ve got to be massively regulated… (and) we need to get the tech community giving back more aggressively.”
As a native San Franciscan, he has reason to be invested in this place, and reason to call for change. Maybe some will listen. In fact, some of the biggest players may be starting to get the message.
Google’s $6.8 million donation to Free Muni For Youth may stall talks about permanent funding, City Hall insiders told us, but at least its heart seemed to be in the right place. Conway pledged to form working groups that may bring computer coding education into SFUSD schools, though no formal plans have been announced. Last week tech companies joined in the fight for Ellis Act eviction reform on the state level.
One of the organizers of the Tech Workers Against Displacement Happy Hour, Rolla Selbak, said she may host another one just like it, or help someone else do it. The demand is high.
Tech workers and activists expressed ardent interest in another night just like it on the group’s Facebook page. Others wrote into the San Francisco Chronicle to lambast its negative slant to the event, saying the event led to frank and honest discussions.
Though we spoke with her at some length, Selbak encapsulated the night best in a piece she wrote for the Huffington Post the day we went to press.
“By the end of the night, it was very apparent that the imaginary divide between fictional groups had melted, and we all saw each other as simply people, working together to bring change,” she wrote. “A tech worker and an activist walked into a bar… and it was awesome. You should try it, too.”
It’s a bombshell police scandal befitting San Francisco’s restive mood, dropping at a time when simmering class tensions have been making national news, and one more example of how the poor are getting trammeled by those with power.
As politicians and tech titans were trying to make the gritty central city more welcoming to corporations and their workers three years ago, a half-dozen plain-clothed police officers were allegedly abusing poor people, illegally busting into their rooms, stealing anything that had value, forcing criminals to sell stolen drugs for them, and repeatedly telling lies in police reports.
When the targets of these abuses complained to the authorities, they were dismissed or ignored. Only when Public Defender Jeff Adachi and his investigators found and publicly revealed damning video surveillance from the targeted single-room occupancy hotels did federal authorities launch an investigation.
Adachi held press conferences in March and May of 2011 showing officers brutalizing SRO residents and leaving their rooms with laptops and other valuables that were never booked as evidence. When Greg Suhr was sworn in as police chief in April 2011, he put the officers on administrative duties, forced some to give up their weapons, changed department policies to deter cops from barging into people’s rooms without warrants or probable cause, and cooperated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the case.
That investigation resulted in federal grand jury indictments that were unsealed on Feb. 27, charging six SFPD cops with a variety of serious charges, including civil rights violations and conspiracies, theft, extortion, drug conspiracies, and falsification of records.
They are Officers Arshad Razzak, Richard Yick, and Raul Eric Elias, who worked in Southern Station, dealing with residents of SoMa SROs; and Sgt. Ian Furminger, Officer Edmond Robles, and Reynaldo Vargas (who Suhr says was dismissed from SFPD for unrelated reasons as the investigation got underway), who worked in Mission Station, where the drug conspiracy allegedly took place, on top of shakedowns in Mission District SROs.
All defendants are facing more than 20 years in prison (except Elias, who faces 10 years for civil rights conspiracy and one year for deprivation of rights under color of law). The Southern Station defendants are also facing $250,000 in fines. The Mission Station defendants face $1 million in fines on the drug conspiracy charges, which allegedly involved having informants sell a few pounds worth of marijuana seized by police.
Attorney Michael Rains, who represents Razzak and has been designated by the San Francisco Police Officers Association as a spokesperson for the others, told the Guardian that all the defendants had difficult undercover jobs in the murky world of informants and drug dealers.
“There was sloppiness in the reporting [in officials police reports], but sloppiness doesn’t rise to the level of criminal activity,” Rains told us, questioning the credibility of witnesses who have criminal records and the reliability and context of the video evidence.
But Suhr strongly condemned the behavior outlined in the criminal complaints, telling reporters that other SFPD officers connected to the case may still face disciplinary action and that, “My officers know I will not have dishonest cops among us.”
He called the indictments a serious blow to the SFPD, appearing to choke up with emotion.
“Our department is shaken,” Suhr, who has been with the SFPD more than 30 years, told reporters. “This is as serious a matter as I’ve ever encountered in the Police Department.”
Yet Suhr also distanced himself from scandal, telling reporters, “This conduct occurred before my time as chief.”
Most of the alleged crimes happened under former Police Chief and current District Attorney George Gascón shortly before he made that transition, one in which critics at the time raised concerns about whether he could be an effective watchdog of SFPD misconduct. That conflict of interest was what sent this case to the feds.
“It is extremely disappointing that the officers violated the trust of the community and tarnished the reputation of all the hard working men and women in uniform,” Gascón said in a press release.
During a brief press conference that afternoon, Gascón denied responsibility for the misconduct: “Anytime you have a large organization, you are going to have people who operate outside the boundaries of what is acceptable.”
Asked by the Guardian when he became aware of allegations that his officers were abusing SRO residents, he said, “We became aware at the same time everyone else did, when the videos came out.”
Gascón’s Press Secretary Alex Bastian cut the press availability off after 10 minutes so Gascón could prepare for his State of Public Safety speech that afternoon, but Bastian told the Guardian he would get answers to our questions about the office’s police accountability record.
“When appropriate, we ensure the integrity of the system is not compromised by referring cases to other prosecuting agencies. In the abundance of caution, when this case was brought to my attention, I referred the case to the federal authorities to safeguard a thorough investigation and guarantee maximum consequences,” Gascón said in a prepared response, while Bastian ignored our requests for more responsive answers to our questions.
But Adachi says these indictments are just the tip of the police misconduct iceberg, charging that police officers routinely lie in police reports and in court to justify illegal searches and other abuses of defendants who are poor or have drug problems, knowing that judges and juries tend to believe cops over criminals.
“The indictments today are a victory for ordinary San Franciscans,” Adachi told reporters, emphasizing that in addition to personally profiting from the shakedowns, these officers were also submitting false testimony in perhaps hundreds of cases, including about 100 that his office has gotten dismissed. “These allegations not only involve violations of the constitutional rights of our clients, but also lying on police records that were used to send individuals to prison based on the testimony of these officers.”
Residents and employees of the Henry Hotel, one of four SROs involved in this case, told the Guardian that the indictments are a rare repudiation of police mistreatment of SRO residents, which they say continues to the day.
“A lot of these people need help. They need guidance. They need a program. They need somebody to motivate them to go to their programs, not a fucking cop who keeps harassing them,” Jessie Demmings, a manager at the 132-room Henry Hotel on Sixth Street, told the Guardian. “They try to take that one step to go forward and then when you come outside you get greeted by a fucking cop having a bad day.”
Even though new SFPD policies prohibit officers from using passkeys to enter people’s rooms without a warrant, Demmings said it still happens. “The reason why we give the passkey is because they always threaten we’re gonna kick in the door, we gonna have a batting ram come and bust the door in,” he said.
Adachi cited his office’s long history of cases in which “officers were barging into rooms without warrants and they were lying about it in police reports.”
Cases of police abuse are handled by the city’s Office of Citizen Complaints, but its work is shrouded in secrecy, thanks to the California Peace Officers Bill of Rights, and officers rarely face serious consequences for their actions.
“We do have complaints with regard to the conduct within the SROs and we have made policy recommendations to the chief,” OCC Director Joyce Hicks told reporters at the SFPD press conference. She called the indictments “extra serious because it implicates the Fourth Amendment and people’s rights.”
Adachi said that after revealing the videos in 2011, he persuaded Mayor Ed Lee to fund two positions in his office investigating police misconduct, but the Mayor’s Office defunded those positions after a year and ignored Adachi’s calls to restore them (as well as Bay Guardian calls for comment on the issue).
“We felt like the public needs to know about this,” Adachi said of the behavior revealed by the federal investigation. “What happened today is significant, and I think it will have deterrent effect.”
Sabrina Rubakovic and Brian McMahon contributed to this report.
No coal for Oakland Port
A company that operates a coal mine in Colorado has been looking to ship its fossil fuel products to Asia via the Port of Oakland.
A coalition of environmental organizations sounded the alarm that the Board of Port Commissioners was considering a lease proposal from Bowie Resource Partners to operate a coal export facility at Oakland’s Charles P. Howard Terminal.
Another proposal submitted for consideration, from California Capital Group/ Kinder Morgan/ MetroPorts, could also lead to coal exports, said Jess Dervin-Ackerman, conservation organizer for the Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club.
“We’ve really reduced our use of coal in this country, but that means we’ve just been sending it to Asia,” Dervin-Ackerman noted.
In addition to the global concerns about exacerbating climate change by shipping coal to be burned in power plants in Asia, where there are weaker environmental protections, environmentalists are worried that Oakland neighborhoods could be impacted by pollution from rail operations and fine coal dust that could leave airborne traces behind as it is transported to the marine terminals.
Bowie proposed to ship not only coal, but petroleum coke, a pulverized fossil fuel that is illegal to burn in California. Already 128,000 barrels of this product, called petcoke for short, are shipped daily from throughout the state.
Port of Oakland staff, however, has recommended rejecting the proposals from both entities.
“Staff believes that Bowie’s proposed use and operation of the property raises environmental concerns related to the handling of commodities such as coal. Environmental concerns about handling commodities such as coal stem primarily from issues of fugitive dust and climate change,” a staff report noted. “Port staff believes that operations such as those proposed by Bowie conflict with recently adopted Port policies and programs intended to create or support environmental sustainability.”
In the face of opposition from environmentalists and the staff, the board voted against the proposals on Feb. 27. (Rebecca Bowe)
Register your bike
A new program registering San Francisco bicycles and their owners enrolled just over 500 bicyclists in its first two weeks, a small success story in the effort to reunite riders with their stolen bicycles.
The program in question is Safe Bikes, a joint venture between the SFPD and SF Safe. Cyclists can log onto its website, register their bike’s make and model, and when victims report a bike theft to police they can be reunited with their two-wheeled friend just as easily. There are 75,000 bike riders a day in San Francisco, according to the Budget and Legislative Analyst’s office, a buffet of tantalizing goods for bike thieves.
More than 500 bikes are a small dent in that number, but for only a two-week start it isn’t too bad. Safe Bikes Manager Morgan St. Clair said it’s only just begun its outreach. Next month, it plans to host an event at Twitter headquarters, where it will give away 50 Kryptonite locks, funded by the San Francisco Police Officers Association.
“We’ve only gone to three bike shops so far,” she said. But in the coming months St. Clair and her team of 15 volunteers have a city full of shops they plan to visit.
An estimated 4,000 bicycles were stolen from riders in 2012, though only 812 were reported to police. St. Clair said there is a perception problem.
“They think the police department isn’t doing anything and say ‘oh, what the heck,’ and don’t think they’ll ever get it back,” she said. “We’re trying to change that mentality.”
In fact, the SFPD has been a strong driver of getting bikes back into the hands of owners, mostly at the behest of Officer Matt Friedman. He runs @SFbiketheft, a Twitter handle that tries to recover stolen bicycles and link them to owners.
“We really want people to report more bicycle thefts,” St. Clair said. And to have those reports be effective, people need to register their bikes. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez)
Newsom misses the train
As California struggles to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and meet the long-term transportation needs of a growing population, officials from Gov. Jerry Brown to Mayor Ed Lee have steadfastly supported the embattled California High-Speed Rail Project, which Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently withdrew his support from. California now has until July 1 to find funds to match the federal grants.
It’s not exactly surprising that this calculating and politically ambitious centrist would cave in to conservatives like this, particularly as Newsom tries to set himself up to succeed Brown in four years. But it’s a sharp contrast to more principled politicians like Brown, and to those trying to create the transportation system future generations will need, as President Barack Obama took a step toward doing by announcing new federal transportation funding.
US Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox is also taking part in the three-day High Speed Rail Summit, sponsored by the United State High-Speed Rail Association, that began Feb. 25 in Washington DC. Its theme was Full Speed Ahead.
“Secretary Foxx’s experience at the local level as mayor of Charlotte is extremely valuable for shaping national transportation policy. We look forward to working with the Secretary to advance high speed rail in America across party lines,” USHSRA President and CEO Andy Kunz said in a press release.
While Newsom’s new tack may play well with myopic, penny-pinching, car-dependent moderate and conservative voters, many of his allies and constituents were furious with his about-face on a project that promises to get riders from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles in less than three hours.
Among those unhappy is San Francisco resident Peter Nasatir, who forwarded the Guardian a letter that he sent to Newsom’s office, which concluded, “High-speed rail is coming. The economy demands it, the environment demands it, and Central Valley population growth demands it. You may get some votes from moderates in the short run, but in the long run, you have positioned yourself as the most prominent person in the state to be on the wrong side of history.” (Steven T. Jones)
App for homelessness
Mayor Ed Lee, Sup. Jane Kim, and representatives from tech firm Zendesk gathered at St. Anthony’s in the Tenderloin Feb. 28 to announce the launch of a new smartphone tool, Link-SF, to help homeless and low-income people access services.
Zendesk is a customer-service software company near Sixth and Market streets. It was the first tech company to move into mid-Market in 2011 and take advantage of the city’s Central Market Payroll Tax Exclusion Zone (aka the “Twitter tax break”), a controversial bid to attract tech companies to an area that has historically had the city’s highest concentration of poverty.
Financially speaking, Zendesk is doing quite well. In 2012, it raised $60 million in new funding and hired 160 new employees. That same year, the city’s Central Market tax exclusion resulted in about $1.9 million in forgone revenues that the city would have otherwise collected from 14 companies that took advantage of the payroll-tax exclusion zone. Zendesk has 350 San Francisco employees, and Public Affairs Director Tiffany Maleshefski told the Bay Guardian that the company has contributed a collective 1,400 hours of volunteer service to uphold the company’s end of a community benefit agreement deal with the city, a requirement for those receiving the local tax breaks. “Link-SF was part of the community benefit agreement,” Maleshefski confirmed. The smartphone app, designed for use by homeless and low-income people seeking services, provides data on food, shelter, medical, or employment assistance programs. “It’s empowering for the users.” (Rebecca Bowe) RIP, Bush Man II San Francisco has lost one of its own. Gregory Jacobs passed away of heart failure on Feb. 23. He’s less known by his full name, but better known by his moniker, “The Bush Man.” No, he’s not the original Bush Man. That would be David Johnson, who’d been there for 36 years, compared to Jacobs’ 30. Little matter. Jacobs was a San Franciscan through and through. Like many San Franciscans, he came here from somewhere else, in his case the “somewhere else” was Arkansas. But Jacobs was known and loved here in the city. The man was dedicated to his work: sitting along Jefferson street and spooking tourists by shouting “boo!” from behind two large and bushy tree branches. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez)
Earlier this month, San Francisco’s Office of Economic Analysis waded into the debate over whether the city should beef up its policy restricting the spread of chain stores. In a new study, the OEA concludes that the city’s regulations are harming the local economy and that adding additional restrictions would only do more damage. But this sweeping conclusion, hailed by proponents of formula retail, rests on a deeply flawed analysis. The study is riddled with data problems so significant as to nullify its conclusions.
San Francisco is the only city of any significant size where “formula” businesses, defined as retail stores or restaurants that have 10 or more outlets, must obtain a special permit to locate in a neighborhood business district. The law’s impact, in one sense at least, is readily apparent: Independent businesses account for about two-thirds of the retail square footage and market share in San Francisco, compared to only about one-quarter nationally. Although chains have been gaining ground in San Francisco, the city far outstrips New York, Chicago, and other major cities in the sheer numbers of homegrown grocers, bookstores, hardware stores, and other unique businesses that line its streets.
San Francisco’s policy has gaps, however, which have prompted a slew of recent proposals to amend the law. Members of the Board of Supervisors have proposed a variety of changes, such as extending the policy to cover more commercial districts (it only applies in neighborhood business districts) and broadening the definition of what counts as a formula business.
The OEA presents its study as an injection of hard economic data into this policy debate. There are three pieces to its analysis. Let’s take each in turn.
First, the OEA reports that chains provide more jobs than independent retailers do. It presents U.S. Census data showing that retailers with fewer than 10 outlets employ 3.2 workers per $1 million in sales, while chains (10 or more outlets) employ 4.3 people.
One major problem with this statistic is that the OEA includes car dealerships. Retail studies generally exclude the auto sector, because car dealers differ in fundamental ways from other retailers and car sales account for such a large chunk of consumer spending that they can skew one’s results. The OEA’s analysis is a classic example of this. Because the vast majority of car dealerships are independently owned and employ relatively few people per $1 million in sales, by including them, the OEA drags down the employment figure for local retailers overall.
If you take out car dealers, which are not subject to San Francisco’s formula business policy anyway, and also remove “non-store” retailers, a category that includes enterprises like heating oil dealers and mail order houses, a different picture emerges. Retailers with fewer than 10 outlets employ 5.3 people per $1 million in sales, compared to only 4.5 for those with 10 or more locations.
The actual difference is even a bit more than this, because chains handle their own distribution, employing people to work in warehouses, while independents typically rely on other businesses for this. And, of course, a portion of the jobs chain stores create are not local jobs; they are housed back at corporate headquarters. The OEA fails to mention either of these fairly obvious caveats.
The superior ability of non-formula businesses to create jobs is notably evident across many of the categories that generate most of the city’s formula business applications, including clothing, grocery, and casual dining. The only exception is drugstores, a category in which chains appear to be supporting more jobs. But even this may not be a true exception, since most independent pharmacies focus almost exclusively on medicine, while chain drugstores are hybrid convenience stores, employing people to ring up sales of cigarettes and greeting cards.
The second and third pieces of the OEA’s analysis are linked together. The study concedes that, compared to chains, independents circulate more of their revenue in the local area, creating additional economic activity and jobs. But, it contends, prices at chains are 17 percent lower; enough, according to the OEA’s math, to outweigh the economic benefits of this recirculation.
On the lighter side of this seesaw calculation sits the OEA’s estimate of how much money local retailers circulate in the city’s economy. This estimate is notably smaller than what other studies have found. When I asked Dan Houston, a principal with Civic Economics, why his firm’s studies show that independent businesses have a bigger impact, he pointed to two areas where his firm’s figures differ from the OEA’s. One is labor.
“We’re finding that local wages and operating income [at independent businesses] are much bigger, closer to 25 percent [of expenses] rather than the 15 percent the OEA finds,” said Houston.
The other is spending on inventory. Civic Economics has found that independent retailers and restaurants source some of their goods locally, whereas the OEA assumes that all of this spending leaves the area.
Sitting on the heavier side of the OEA’s seesaw is its conclusion that chains charge lower prices. As definitive as its 17 percent figure sounds and as pivotal as it is to the study’s math, it is a highly questionable number. It’s based on a limited sampling of prices in which large swaths of the retail sector, including apparel stores and restaurants, were excluded.
“I just hate to see a statistic like that being used when it is so limited in what was being measured,” said Matt Cunningham, another principal at Civic Economics.
It only takes a slight adjustment of these wobbly figures to produce the opposite conclusion: that formula businesses do more economic harm than good. All one has to do to tip the OEA’s seesaw in the other direction is to assume a slightly larger recirculation of revenue on the part of independents and a slightly lower price advantage on the part of chains. (Just dropping the price difference to 14 percent will do it.)
Perhaps the worst aspect of the OEA’s study is that it seems to float in space, untethered to what’s actually happening on the ground. Many of the chains that are clamoring to open in the city’s neighborhoods are high-end retailers whose products carry a price premium. Their arrival typically drives up commercial rents, making it harder for businesses that sell basic low-margin goods to survive.
Nor does the OEA attempt to situate its analysis in the context of several peer-reviewed studies that don’t just model the potential impacts of corporate consolidation, but actually track them. In a study published in Economic Development Quarterly, for example, economists Stephan Goetz and David Fleming report that counties that have a larger share of their economy in the hands of locally owned businesses have experienced higher median household income growth than places dominated by large corporations.
The OEA’s study will not be the city’s only analytical look at its formula business policy. The Planning Department has commissioned its own study, preliminary findings of which were released this week. Among other useful statistics, the draft notes that most formula business applications are approved and fully one-quarter of the retail space in the city’s neighborhoods is now occupied by chains, which suggests the permitting process is not as unfriendly to formula businesses as the law’s opponents contend.
Still, this figure is much smaller than in San Francisco’s more centralized commercial districts, which are not covered by the policy. Here, the chains’ share of the available square footage stands at 53 percent and growing.
Stacy Mitchell is a senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and author of Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses.
The San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner are the city’s largest mainstream newspapers, but their reporting staffs have been gutted by layoffs over the last couple decades, leaving hyperlocal blogs and community newspapers to fill the reporting gaps. But now it appears the hyperlocal blogs, a good source of neighborhood news, are also facing hard times.
A memo released last week revealed a striking split that could affect media coverage in the Mission District: hyperlocal news site Mission Local is being dropped by its main fiscal sponsor, the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
“It’s now time for Mission Local to take the next step and re-launch itself as an independent, stand-alone media operation,” J-School Dean Edward Wasserman wrote in a department-wide memo. “That means ending its role in the J-School’s curriculum.”
Mission Local is a journalism lab for the UC Berkeley graduate students, covering everything in the Mission District from the Tamale Lady to Google bus riders. It’s popular in the neighborhood, reaching as many as 100,000 unique visitors a month. In keeping with its locale, the website is available in English and Spanish.
The UC Berkeley graduate students serve as the site’s reporters and a little bit of everything else, from advertising sales to audience-building. That was a problem, Wasserman wrote.
“That’s not really what we do,” he wrote. “Those are specialized areas, and the J-School doesn’t have the instructional capacity to teach them to a Berkeley standard of excellence.”
But the main issue seems to be cost. “It’s an expensive undertaking,” he wrote. This and other hyperlocal sites were initially funded with grants from the Ford Foundation, but UC Berkeley started picking up the tab when they ran out, among other fundraising avenues.
Lydia Chavez, a professor at the J-School and the head of Mission Local, told the Guardian she disagreed with Wasserman’s decision, and with his reasoning.
“To be clear, I would have preferred to have Mission Local and the other hyper locals at the core of the school’s curriculum,” she said. And as for cost, she contests that Mission Local raised many funds on its own — Mission Local’s cost to UC Berkeley was minimal, she said.
But tales of Mission Local’s demise would be exaggerated. Alex Mullaney is the editor in chief of the Ingleside Light, a neighborhood paper in the Ingleside District. He speculated that Mission Local’s financial independence may thin out the staff, but it could help it find its footing editorially.
“I think it’s probably best for the publication,” Mullaney told us. “It could gain permanent staffers rather than students, who are fleeting.”
Mullaney’s paper is a testament to the power having a permanent presence in the neighborhood. Walking in the Ingleside district, he waves at shop owners he knows, and walking into The Ave Bar for him is like a homecoming, as bartenders and patrons alike give him warm, drunken hellos.
Most local papers are similarly embedded in their communities, sometimes leading to stories that are picked up by larger papers. The Ingleside Light was the first to report on the rise of Internet gambling cafes, and subsequent rise in crime, in the Excelsior. The Examiner later picked up the story, publishing the neighborhood’s plight to the city at large.
Eventually the SFPD moved in and broke up one of the largest gambling Internet cafes, Net Stop, a victory for the neighborhood.
It’s safe to say Mullaney has his thumb on the pulse of the Ingleside, but although he partners with City College and San Francisco State students, he has two stable freelancers.
Similarly entrenched in their neighborhood, the West Side Observer ran a column from Laguna Honda Hospital whistleblower Derek Kerr for years, who famously outed money scandals there. The Central City Extra in the Tenderloin continues to report on the conflicts and successes of Twitter’s new presence in the area.
Though neighborhood papers have always been part of the city, the past few years have seen a rise in financially independent hyperlocal neighborhood blogs, whose ranks Mission Local will now join. From Haighteration to Mission Mission, Richmond Blog SF to Castro Biscuit, they cover almost every nook and cranny of San Francisco. Even a Muni line has exclusive coverage in the form of the N-Judah Chronicles.
Roy McKenzie, 31, is a web developer who runs Castro Biscuit. Though the blog had humble beginnings, lately it’s taken on heavy stories such as Sup. Scott Wiener’s campaign funding, alleging he took big bucks from developers with interest in evicting tenants.
“When I wrote that I thought I’d get some blowback. The money is dirty not in that it’s being laundered, but it’s tied to people who are tainted through evictions,” McKenzie said. Castro Biscuit first took off with his early and extensive coverage of the Castro nudist controversy. McKenzie says he covers stories he feels will be on everyone’s lips, which he susses out through his love of the Castro.
“This is my neighborhood, I live here, and it’s more interesting than you think,” he said.
Mission Local does the same. It spent over a year fact checking the Chronicle’s coverage of Mission vacancies, exploring the arguments for and against opening a new outlet of the chain American Apparel in the neighborhood.
Castro Biscuit though isn’t McKenzie’s main job, but a hobby, he said, which doesn’t spell financial wonders for Mission Local.
Perhaps a better comparison would be the Mission’s El Tecolote, which fundraises through its parent nonprofit, Accion Latina. It holds art gallery openings, fundraisers, and parties throughout the Mission, and even in the backyard patio of its newsroom on 24th street.
Chavez reported nationally for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, but feels equally protective of the Mission neighborhood as McKenzie does of the Castro. She told us she isn’t willing to walk away from Mission Local despite any funding challenges.
“The Mission is now ground zero for so much that is happening in the city and the country that if I walked away from it now,” she told the Guardian, “it would be like walking away from a terrific story.”
If one Googled “etiquette for wearing Google Glass” last week, the top search result was news of an incident involving Sarah Slocum, a social media consultant who achieved overnight international fame for winding up in a bar fight.
It started Feb. 22 when Slocum popped into the Lower Haight bar Molotov’s sometime before last call. She was wearing Google Glass, a wearable computer that can surf the web, live stream, and record through a computerized prism positioned on a set of glasses in front of the right eye.
Some of those present at Molotov’s — known for its cheap Pabst Blue Ribbon and punk overtones — reacted angrily to her gadget, telling her to take it off because they thought she was recording. Based on what she wrote on Facebook, she didn’t begin to film until after receiving the unwanted attention.
Conflict ensued. San Francisco Police Department spokesperson Albie Esparza said, “one of the suspects grabbed the Google Glass off her face,” according to the police report, “and she ran out of the bar in pursuit. She retrieved the Google Glass,” only to discover later that her purse had been stolen.
Based on two separate eyewitness accounts, a male patron did yank the wearable computer off her face, but gave it back to her; that prompted Slocum’s male companion to throw a punch at him and the two wound up in a tussle on the hood of a car.
Conflicting accounts aside, the incident made international news — likely because San Francisco has already earned a reputation as being ground zero for popular backlash against the tech sector and the dramatic economic shifts that have accompanied its rise.
“What makes this story special,” Slocum wrote on her Facebook page, “is that no one has experienced a hate crime or been targeted for a hate crime, which is what it was, for wearing Google Glass.” (Actually, the legal definition of “hate crime” only covers criminal acts motivated by bias against a victim’s race, religion, ethnic origin, disability, or sexual orientation.) Slocum did not respond to Bay Guardian requests for comment.
“I get you,” one of Slocum’s friends wrote on her Facebook page as the bar fight was mushrooming to epic proportions by the hour. “But when you cross boundaries you can’t complain if the natives fight back! Are you aware of what it’s like to try and LIVE in SF nowadays? What the techies have done to the city and the culture?”
While many have interpreted the now-infamous incident as yet another sign of simmering class tension in a city where neighborhoods are undergoing rapid gentrification, a separate issue will likely cause more flare-ups, particularly as Glass trickles into the mainstream.
Walk into a bar with a computer that doubles as a recording device mounted squarely on your face and you are going to push people’s buttons, so to speak.
Glass users could easily wind up in legal hot water. Just as quickly, anyone a Glass user encounters while using the device to record could unwittingly wind up on the Internet.
In California, it’s illegal to record a private conversation without all parties’ consent. The computerized prism of Glass lights up when it is recording, so third parties can tell if a user is filming because his or her eyeball will be illuminated.
Even so (or if someone hacks his or her way around the light feature), it might not be totally obvious to others whether a Glass user is recording. Not everyone knows what the light means, and the device will remain fixed on the user’s face whether it’s in use or not.
“Google Glass does not change any of the technology-neutral laws regulating wiretapping,” notes Chris Hoofnagle, an attorney at the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California Berkeley. “So for instance, a Glass user who records a conversation without the permission of everyone present will have violated California Penal Law 530, which requires actual or implied ‘all party’ consent. This is the case even if the conversation is in public, so long as the participants have some expectation of privacy in the conversation.”
A few weeks ago, Google published a set of guidelines formulated with input from its “Explorer” community, a group of Glass beta testers that is more than 10,000 strong (Glass, which costs $1,500 for Explorers, is not yet available for retail).
Someone who is “creepy or rude” while wearing Glass, according to these guidelines, is considered to be a “Glasshole.” To wit: “Standing alone in the corner of a room staring at people while recording them through Glass is not going to win you any friends,” Google explains, apparently for the benefit of those socially maladapted Explorers who could not piece this together on their own.
But the guidelines are just that, and it’s not as if Google reserves any right to deny service to people who behave like Glassholes. Google’s stance is that Glass functions almost exactly like a smartphone, with the only difference being that it is positioned on the face instead of held in the hand for a liberating experience of hands-free technology. (There’s another key difference: Any time content is captured via Glass, it is automatically backed up to the cloud, meaning it’s instantly copied onto a server somewhere. Cellphones can do the same, or just store content offline like any other camera.)
As the manufacturer, Google’s line is that it should not be held to account for how people decide to use it — on the contrary, since Explorers are considered by Google to be in a “living laboratory,” early adopters are encouraged to imagine wide-ranging uses for it. Laws ought to govern behavior rather than technology, the Google narrative goes, so there’s no reason why the company should take on any more responsibility for the ramifications that Glass may cause than the manufacturer of a camera or smartphone assumes for its products.
Nor does Google go out of its way to point Explorers to California Penal Law 530, or any other sort of legal safeguard designed to protect privacy.
Yet privacy is the lightning rod at the heart of the Glass controversy — the bar fights would have never started if it weren’t for people feeling that their personal boundaries were being violated. Unlike a secretive government dragnet surveillance program quietly logging all of society’s digital communications, Glass is right in people’s faces, with its built-in recording capability, so the very presence of the device is enough to rankle passersby.
Technically speaking, Google Glass could be used to check email, surf the web, translate a sign in a foreign language, receive step-by-step instructions for a recipe, live-stream a private exchange about a trade secret, or record some VIP snorting coke from across the room.
It could even be used in conjunction with facial-recognition software, though Google officially prohibited this use after congressional representatives expressed concern about that. Nevertheless, a facial recognition app has reportedly been developed and can be “side loaded” for use, by reconfiguring the device — and as things stand, there’s no real consequence for using the prohibited software.
“Can you imagine,” says John Mardikian, owner of Telegraph, an Oakland bar that recently imposed a ban on Google Glass, “if someone recorded everything you ever said when you were drunk?”
Telegraph was the site of yet another showdown over Glass earlier this year. It culminated on an Oakland Art Murmur night when Matt Hunt, a 23-year-old Glass Explorer who had been helping Mardikian with web and social media for his bar, was physically escorted out by security after a confrontation with a bartender, Billy Agan, who’d told him to stop wearing the Google Glass. (This was before Telegraph imposed the ban.)
There are conflicting accounts over just what happened, involving messy allegations of homophobic language and assault on the one side, and defamation and unauthorized use of social media accounts on the other, all of which is refuted by opposing parties. The sordid affair transpired between people who had existing personal ties and has since spiraled into a civil lawsuit, but the one clear outcome is that a ban on Google Glass is now in effect at Telegraph.
“I don’t want it here because it’s anti-community,” Mardikian explained. “I want people to feel comfortable when they are here.” He viewed the Molotov’s incident as confirmation that banning Glass was the right choice, since allowing it appears to invite unwanted headaches.
For his part, Hunt said he rarely uses the camera function because it’s low quality and he has no interest in recording people. He said he supports business owners’ rights to ban Glass, but views it as shortsighted. “Wearable technology is the technology of the future,” Hunt says. “What are you going to do when everybody is wearing them?”
Hunt said he welcomes the privacy debate, but believes it’s rooted in misunderstanding about Glass. “I want privacy as much as you do,” he said, “and I feel terrible sometimes that people think the NSA is watching them through my eyes. … Something I hear all the time is, there’s a camera on your face, and therefore it’s in my face. But what about cellphones? Surveillance cameras? Where do you draw the line?”
“Our department is shaken,” Police Chief Greg Suhr said last week when federal indictments of six cops who had been menacing and taking advantage of poor people were unsealed (see “Crooked cops,” page 13). But it was stirring for those of us who believe in social justice and government transparency to finally see action taken, three years after seeing damning video footage of cops stealing the few belongings that some people have.
Too often, widely witnessed cases of police misconduct simply slip into a black hole, shielded from public accountability by the overly broad Peace Officers Bill of Rights, which protects even the most egregious serial offenders from responsibility for their actions.
Suhr said other cops will face disciplinary action for connections to or awareness of the indicted crimes, and the ongoing investigation will go wherever it leads — but not into the command staff, as Suhr definitively said in response to a direct question from the Guardian. That’s not good enough.
District Attorney George Gascón — who was police chief during many of the crimes — and his commanders need to be asked the classic cover-up question: What did you know and when did you know it? Because Gascón’s answer to us that he learned of problems in the SROs only when Public Defender Jeff Adachi released the videos just doesn’t ring true.
Police mistreatment of single-occupancy hotels and other poor people has been well-known. It’s been going on for years, and it continues to this day — as our reporters found from simply asking around at the Henry Hotel. We’re happy with Suhr’s reforms of SRO procedures and his decision to place cameras on more cops, but that doesn’t solve the police accountability problem.
City leaders have chosen to funnel tech firms into the poorest parts of town, with the unseemly encouragement of attorney and political climber Randy Shaw, whose Tenderloin Housing Clinic runs many SROs under city contracts. And it’s been done with increased police pressure on the poor, including a new police substation built to appease and entice Twitter.
Those of us who criticized the decision to make the top cop into the top prosecutor were right that it would compromise police accountability efforts, which are almost non-existent in today’s District Attorney’s Office, even as the city aggressively works to “clean up” the Tenderloin and parts of town with high concentrations of poor people, such as 16th and Mission.
Adachi has been the hero behind these indictments, and he needs to be rewarded by the Mayor’s Office with more funding for the police accountability unit he seeks. We can’t wait three years for the feds to bring our crooked cops to justice in every case. If the DA’s Office can’t or won’t hold officers accountable, then the city should help the Public Defenders Office play that role. The overworked Office of Citizen Complaints should also get more funding from the city’s current budget surplus.
This city has broken trust with the people who need its help the most, and it’s time to repair that damage.
By all accounts, Tez Anderson shouldn’t be alive today. When he contracted HIV in 1981, doctors gave him only two years to live. Somehow, he managed to outlast that prognosis by three decades.
“People ask me how I’m still here, and honestly, I don’t know,” he told the Guardian during an interview in his small office above Harvey’s Restaurant in the Castro. “I would get these little reprieves — two more years here and there — and I just got used to living like that.”
Muscular and energetic, Anderson has a surprisingly light-hearted demeanor for someone who has lived with death for his entire adult life, but there’s no denying that he has been through a severe and sustained trauma.
By 1992, AIDS had killed more residents of San Francisco than all four major wars of the 20th century combined. As a result, Anderson watched an entire generation of his friends — people whom he cared for and loved — succumb to the virus.
The loss has taken its toll. For years, Anderson suffered from severe anxiety, deep depression, and rage. At times he even considered suicide. While driving the windy hills of San Francisco, Anderson would occasionally imagine letting go of his steering wheel, sending his car careening down the hill.
“I was planning it out so that it would look like an accident,” he said. “I didn’t want people to be hurt by the fact that I killed myself.”
Like Anderson, many AIDS survivors suffer emotional ailments akin to post-traumatic stress disorder or survivor’s guilt. Walt Odets, a Berkeley-based psychologist who has worked with hundreds of gay men who lived through the AIDS epidemic, is convinced that a mental health crisis is unfolding among long-term HIV survivors.
“There’s an inability to live with vitality, to live with richness, to get up in the morning and feel like you have a future, if only for the day,” he told us. “We’re losing a lot of vital lives over this.”
Anderson believes that many AIDS survivors have a definable psychological syndrome. Last January he decided to give it a name: AIDS Survivor Syndrome, or ASS for short (the acronym was intentional). He and two friends, Michael Siever and Matt Sharp, have since formed the group Let’s Kick ASS.
Every Tuesday, they host a meditation class, and on Saturdays they convene at the Church Street Café for coffee and conversation. On the third Wednesday of each month, the group puts on large workshops and forums.
Just like during the 1980s and 1990s, when HIV-positive people built a social movement around AIDS, Let’s Kick ASS is trying to unite the community in the face of hardship.
“There’s nothing that will take away or fully heal this wound,” said Gregg Cassin, who has had HIV since the 1980s and works closely with Let’s Kick ASS. “But as we learned from the early days of the epidemic, coming together as a community is where the healing takes place.”
On a warm evening last September, Anderson hustled to set up tables and chairs in a large event space at the LGBT center on the outskirts of the Castro. It was the first town hall meeting for Let’s Kick ASS, and he had no idea what to expect. At most, he thought that 50 people would show up.
At around 6:30pm the first guests started to arrive. Then a few more people trickled into the room. By 7pm, every seat in the house was taken, and people were wedging into any available nook and cranny. Some of the attendees hadn’t seen each other in years and were hugging each other.
“I was blown away by how many people wanted to hear about the group,” Anderson recalled. “It felt like a class reunion.”
In the end about 200 people — almost all HIV-positive men over the age of 50 — came to the town hall. People shared stories from the past and discussed how to support each other in the future. Siever noted that many of those who came to the meeting had lost touch with the broader gay community.
“We opened up a space for them to come together that needed to be opened up, but wasn’t there anymore,” he said. “It was, and still is, amazing.”
It may seem odd that only now, more than 30 years after the Center for Disease Control first reported HIV in the United States, survivors are showing symptoms of severe emotional trauma. But such a delay isn’t uncommon; it wasn’t, for example, until the mid-1960s that psychologists first noticed “survivor guilt” among those who lived through the Holocaust.
“Many people believe that after a huge disaster, whether it’s AIDS or something else, it takes about two decades for people to finally get to a place where they’re ready to process and heal,” said Robert Grant, who has studied AIDS since 1982 and is now a researcher at UCSF’s Gladstone Institute. “People are just now starting to figure out what happened to them.”
Processing such a massive loss can cause a host of psychological ailments. Last year the San Francisco AIDS Foundation started a group for aging gay men called the 50-Plus Network. When asked what their “biggest issue” was, an overwhelming majority of the participants said social isolation.
“If you have strong connections with people and they keep dying, pretty soon you pull back,” said Jeff Liephart, senior director of programs and services at the SF AIDS Foundation. “The unconscious sense is, ‘if I create a new relationship, they’re just going to die too’.”
Along with feelings of isolation, Liephart said many AIDS survivors are bewildered by the fact that they survived the epidemic. Being HIV-positive during the crisis years was like knowing you had a time bomb inside of you that could go off at any moment.
“If you’re in a life-threatening situation like that you can’t process stuff,” he explained. “Your brain just won’t let you do it.”
Anderson has spent over three decades fighting HIV. In 1993 — just prior to being diagnosed with AIDS — he had his first opportunistic infection and came down with pneumocystis pneumonia. Several years later his T-cell count dropped to 12, a dangerously low level. Today, Anderson suffers from severe neuropathy in his hands and feet and is technically disabled.
Still, he has the virus more-or-less under control, and in 2005 he decided that AIDS wasn’t going to kill him in the immediate future. This seemingly positive insight triggered a full-blown psychological crisis.
While working on a movie production with an ex-boyfriend (Anderson co-wrote the screenplay for the 2006 movie The Night Listener starring Robin Williams) he became noticeably agitated and was quick to get into verbal altercations. Within a year he had pushed away most of his friends.
Anderson partially attributes his self-destructive behavior to the realization that he might live into old age, a thought he never considered during his entire adult life.
“I spent so many years planning my own funeral, preparing everyone around me for my death, and I never planned for my future,” he explained. “Being so intimate with death does something to your head. It makes you unable to make long term plans.”
Only now, at age 53, is Anderson getting ready to live a full life. When asked about retirement, he let out a chuckle. He has no 401(K), Roth IRA, or contingency plan. Many of his HIV-positive friends over 50 are in a similar predicament, but he’s optimistic that if they come together, they’ll be able to figure out a solution.
Over half of the people with AIDS in San Francisco are older than 50. As a result, AIDS service providers in the city have started paying much more attention to the mental and physical health ailments unique to long-term survivors. In 2012 UCSF started the Silver Project, which offers medical and social services to older people with HIV. The AIDS Foundation runs the 50-Plus Network, and the Alliance Health Project has been running a support group for gay men over 50 for the past five years.
These organizations all do similar work to Let’s Kick ASS, but Anderson believes his group is different in one fundamental way: It’s a nonhierarchical grassroots effort focused on peer-to-peer support. This philosophy was apparent at a recent Let’s Kick ASS town hall meeting, where a group of about two dozen men — mostly older, gay, and white — sat in a circle and shared why they had come to the event.
“I’ve put all of my experiences into a box, and I’m here to open up that box,” one man said. “I’m here to find my community again,” another added. Anderson was quiet throughout most of the meeting, but he chimed in a few times. At one point, he reminded everyone in the room that the space belonged to them.
“We have 20 years until the real curtains fall,” he said, “and we have a chance to make those next 20 years amazing.”
After Anderson made his comments, he sat down, crossed his arms, and listened closely as the group continued sharing its stories. The man, who had recently contemplated suicide, now has a new appetite for life.
“I read Joseph Campbell a while ago, and I remember him saying, ‘follow your bliss’, find that thing that you’re passionate about and do it whatever it takes,” he said. “I’ve found my passion, and now I’m not angry, I’m not depressed, I’m not anxious, I have a happy home life. I’ve found my passion, and I have a community again.”
On March 15, Lets Kick ASS is hosting a benefit at the Castro Theatre, where actress Rita Moreno will be interviewed on stage after the screening of her film, Putting on the Ritz. The group is also planning the first National HIV/AIDS Long-Term Survivors Awareness Day on June 5.