THE WEEKNIGHTER Weekends are for amateurs. Weeknights are for pros. That’s why each week Broke-Ass Stuart (www.brokeassstuart.com) will be exploring a different San Francisco bar, bringing you stories about the places and people who make San Francisco one of the most phenomenal cities in the world. Who wants a drink?
I think it was SF writer Brock Keeling who told me The Lion Pub (2062 Divisdero St, SF. 415-567-6565) used to be a gay bar. Well, I mean he didn’t tell me, I read it on his old site SFist, but you get the point. There was some reference to “remembering when the Lion Pub was a gay bar” and I thought, actually I don’t remember that at all. To me the Lion Pub had always been that place that had the cheese spread and that acted as the Normandy in the Marina’s D-Day-like onslaught of Divisidero. It was the first place over the hill where the waves of guys in collared shirts and gals in uncomfortable shoes had landed before slowly, intrepidly, marching south.
It’s hard to be nostalgic for a something you never experienced, but you can sure as hell romanticize it… not that I’m really doing either. As a straight guy I don’t imagine myself trekking all the way over to Lower Pac Heights to frequent a gay bar, especially when I live close to so many on Folsom Street. But Pete Kane’s recent article in SF Weekly about the death of gay culture in SF got me thinking about the peculiarities of The Lion Pub’s transformation. When the bar switched teams in the early 2000s it must’ve been jarring for the regular patrons. What had been a gay bar since 1971 (according to the Gay Bar History Log on The Cinch’s website) was suddenly being filled with the kind of people who still called their friends “fags” when they were busting their balls.
This was the early 2000s after all, way before Ellen or Michael Sam, and not long after Matthew Shepard. Now I’m not saying for sure that shitty things happened, because I want to believe this is/was the San Francisco we all think it is/was. But what I am saying is that the switch from a gay bar to a Marina bar must’ve been mind-boggling.
But I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t there. [Ed Note: It was weird, but OK. —Ye Olde Marke B.] The first time I visited The Lion Bar was probably in 2006 and I was incredibly impressed. It felt somewhere between a fern bar (its hidden gay legacy peeking through) and a Victorian parlor, it had a disco ball, and most importantly it had free food. I was researching the “free food” section for my book Broke-Ass Stuart’s Guide to Living Cheaply in San Francisco, and someone had tipped me off to the Lion Pub. Rumor was they put out a big cheese spread and even did free sushi on some nights.
So of course I had to go investigate. Walking in that first night I could smell the fresh fruit juice and could spy attractive people milling around. It was bigger than I expected and it wasn’t till I walked around a bit that I found what I was looking for: cheese and crackers! When I asked the barkeep how often they did this, he just kinda shrugged his shoulders and said, “Pretty much whenever they feel like it,” and let it at that.
I haven’t been back to the Lion’s Pub in years but rumor has it that the luminous cheese spread is no more, which bums me out. But maybe next time I’m in the area I’ll pop in anyways for one of its notorious greyhounds — and I’ll try to imagine what it was like back before everything got so straight. I’ll bring my own cheese spread just for old times’ sake.
Stuart Schuffman aka Broke-Ass Stuart is a travel writer, poet, and TV host. You can find his online shenanigans at www.brokeassstuart.com
THEATER This week, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, San Francisco’s Evan Johnson remounts his popular 2013 solo play, Pansy. It’s the story of a disaffected twentysomething gay man who discovers a cache of videocassettes in the basement of his SF apartment building — made by someone who could be considered his doppelganger, a club kid long since felled by AIDS. The play functions in part as a communion between a younger generation of queer San Franciscans and the early era of the AIDS crisis.
Of course, there are those who, in their lives as well as work, continue to bridge the two eras, maintaining a vital link to this fraught but fecund period in SF’s queer/queered history. One of them is the inimitable Justin Vivian Bond. Mx. Bond has long since been based in New York, and yet v (to apply the preferred prefix and pronoun to someone who has gracefully sidestepped the dominant gender binary) grew into an artist here, and has returned to SF many times over the years, including for packed performances produced by Marc Huestis at the Castro Theatre.
Although maybe still most often identified with the cabaret sensation Kiki and Herb — a Tony-nominated, long-running duet with Kenny Mellman, in which Bond excelled as the perennially sloshed Kiki Durane — Bond’s career has hardly slowed since K&H were put to rest more than five years ago. In fact, the output for this internationally acclaimed artist, actor, performer, and singer-songwriter has been impressive: In addition to innumerable musical performances, there are two fine albums, a spunky and poignant memoir about growing up as a trans kid in suburban 1970s Maryland, and a recent turn as the Widow Begbick (singing original songs by Duncan Sheik) in a New York production of Bertolt Brecht’s A Man’s a Man.
A powerfully soulful and charismatic performer, Bond brings Love Is Crazy!, an evening of songs about love in all its aspects, to Feinstein’s at the Nikko this weekend.
SF Bay Guardian In the late 1980s and early ’90s, AIDS made SF a dark place, but it was also a time of exceptional artistic, intellectual, and political ferment. How did that affect the development of your career?
Justin Vivian Bond I majored in theater in college, but I couldn’t really see a place for myself in mainstream theater. At my freshman evaluation they told me I had to butch up; I had to be able to pass as a straight man in order to make a living in the theater. Fortunately, I’ve been able to prove them wrong! But that was sort of a frustrating and unappealing way to live my life.
So I moved to San Francisco. I was going to probably go back to college and get a degree in art history and teach. But instead, I found Theatre Rhinoceros and queer performance and Queer Nation. It was a time when there was a tremendous amount of activism around HIV and AIDS. I worked at A Different Light bookstore, so I was exposed to the greatest queer minds of the day, brilliant writers and artists that would come in there. It was also, looking back now, the golden age of queer publishing. It was when Mike Warner published Fear of a Queer Planet. It was an intellectual and creative surge for queer people. Rick Jacobsen was still alive, and he did the Kiki Gallery [1993–1995]. I worked with him on a show that was written by Christian Huygen called Waiting for Godet, which appropriated Waiting for Godot and made it about two drag queens. It was so much fun, and really exciting. And I was in Hidden: A Gender with Kate Bornstein at Theater Rhinoceros. We toured that around the country — that was my New York stage debut.
I was at the Alice B. Theatre in Seattle when the NEA Four were defunded. Three of the four were at that festival. That was when I decided that I was going to devote my life to queer performance and to having the voices of queer people heard in as many places as possible. That propelled me to stay in the role of Kiki longer than I might have liked to, because it eventually brought me to Carnegie Hall and a Tony nomination on Broadway. [After that] I thought, OK, now I can really start honoring my own creativity, aside from making political statements. Fortunately for me, once I gave up that character and started performing as myself, I feel like things have been going pretty well. And it all started for me in San Francisco, which is why I love it so much.
SFBG Was there always a political dimension to your work?
JVB Having my art spring from a political place — exposed to the queer politics, really the life-or-death politics, that were happening back then — really justified my impulse to be an artist. I’m not saying that everything I’ve ever done has been politically astute or important, but there is a political perspective behind everything I do. That helps me justify asking a bunch of people to pay attention to me. If I didn’t feel like I was actually saying something, I’d probably be embarrassed to be on the stage, really.
SFBG What are the origins of Love Is Crazy!? You took it first to Paris. Was it a show you made specifically for that city?
JVB It kind of evolved. When I was last in San Francisco, actually, I was getting ready to host a benefit for the Lambda Legal Defense [and Education] Fund. Sometimes I’ll just pick a word and put it on my iPod, then let all the songs with that word in them play. That particular day, I had recently become single, so I hit “love,” and this list of songs played. I thought, “I should just write down this list and that could be my next show.” And that’s what I did for a show here in New York called “Mx. Bond’s Summer Camp.” I liked that show but over time I sort of finessed it. Now, not all the songs have the word love in them. Some are songs from both of my records. I was going to Paris, and I decided I wanted to do this Valentine’s Day show in front of the Eiffel Tower. I had a really wonderful time with it, so I decided to tour that show this year. So that’s what it is, craaazy love. And it’s got some good anecdotes in it.
SFBG I’m curious about the origins of your distinctive singing voice.
JVB For Kiki, I sang with a character voice. I started performing Kiki when I was like 28 or 29. I was just coming into my own voice at that time, and I kind of sang in that voice for 15 years. In San Francisco, during the last run of Kiki and Herb, I met this person who I fell in love with, and went on the road with, from San Francisco up to Canada. I kind of got back in touch with my queer roots, and I started writing my own songs, because I needed to find my own voice. It really helped me to get myself into the mindset of what I wanted to say, as opposed to what I wanted to say as this character.
I wrote several songs that were on my record Dendrophile. And I started singing songs that really resonated with me, including “The Golden Age of Hustlers,” which is a song by Bambi Lake and Jonathan Basil, who lives in the Bay Area. It’s about San Francisco and Polk Street. It’s an elemental song for me. And that’s how I started to rediscover my own voice. I had also just been in London; I went to Central Saint Martins College for my MA in scenography, which is like performance installation. One of my teachers was talking about Nina Simone, and how when you hear her sing you hear the life that she’s lived. I set out to try and make my voice reflective of my experience, so that when people hear my singing voice, they’ll sort of know what my life has been like and the world that I inhabit through it. That was my goal. And it really is a very satisfying thing, I have to say.
Now through July 13, a whole bunch of soccer fans are going to be coming into work late (sorry, there’s a 9am game!) or taking long lunches to get those noon games in. Fortunately there are a bunch of places to watch the Cup, in case your boss is getting suspicious of you hanging out in the conference room with your iPad. (For more suggestions, see the Pixel Vision blog at SFBG.com.)
A brand new sports bar has opened in the former Tortilla Heights space called San Francisco Athletic Club (1750 Divisadero, SF. 415-923-8989), and partners Miles Palliser and Ezra Berman of the Corner Store, along with Neil Holbrook of Kezar Pub, managed to open it just in time for Soccergeddon! There are 27 televisions, a 20-seat bar, pullout bleachers for big games, and you can even order a bathtub of beer if you’re sitting in one of the four reservable booths (which fit eight to 12). Pace yourself, sporto. Twelve to 16 beers come on tap, and cocktails too. The menu features an SFAC Burger with American cheese, a bacon-wrapped hot dog with caramelized onions and peppers, and Sriracha chili wings. Regular hours are Tue–Fri 11am–10pm, Sat–Sun 9am–10pm, and they’ll be open at 8:30am for the 9am games!
For a little bit of sun and a fun crowd, come to the SoMa Streat Food Park (428 11th St., SF. www.somastreatfoodpark.com), which is showing the matches on big screens for free! You can sit in the beer garden and enjoy Cup-appropriate specials — like Brazil’s Xingu Black Beer — and take your pick of vittles from a rotating roster of food trucks. Check the website for match schedule.
Recently opened Bartlett Hall (242 O’Farrell, SF. www.bartletthallsf.com) will come in handy for downtown workers: it’s open for morning games at 9am, with a bunch of screens and early treats.
Another new place to open is Minas Brazilian (41 Franklin, SF. www.minasbrazilianrestaurant.com) in the former Canto do Brasil space in Hayes Valley. So if you want to watch the games — there are LED screens — and party with some Brazilians (who wouldn’t?), here’s one place to find ’em. There will be plenty of cachaça, $6 caipirinhas during happy hour (5pm–7pm), and everyone’s favorite, pão de queijo (cheese bread). Open for early games; check the Facebook page for updates.
As for where to go to yell “IT-AL-IA!” with the Italians, you’ll want to head to Il Casaro (348 Columbus, SF. www.ilcasarosf.com) in North Beach, which has three TV screens, and lots of seats packed into the small space. The hotspot makes delicious Neapolitan pizzas, but Fri/20 it will be opening early for the 9am game and serving cornetti, bomboloni. You can get a cappuccino too. Forza Azzurri!
Looking for a spot to watch Mexico play? All four Tacolicious (www.tacolicious.com) locations will be showing all matches with Mexico (or USA) for the course of the Cup. When the US plays Germany on Thursday, June 26, Tacolicious will be open at 8:30am and serving brunch! Mmmm, huevos rancheros.
Meanwhile, over in SoMa, Don Ramon’s (225 11th St., SF. www.donramonsrestaurante.com) will be keeping you happy with plenty of food and drink specials, like $5 Micheladas all day. There are two large TVs, and they’re opening 11:30am Tue–Fri and 5pm Sat–Sun.
Also in SoMa is the sporty HQ Public House (24 Willie Mays Plaza, SF. www.publichousesf.com), which boasts multiple screens — just be sure you’re not there when a Giants home game is happening, it could be a little crazy.
The Lower Haight is full of soccer-loving bars, like Mad Dog in the Fog (530 Haight, SF. www.themaddoginthefog.com), Danny Coyle’s (668 Haight, SF. www.dannycoyles.com), or you can head to the Upper Haight to Kezar Pub (770 Stanyan, SF. www.thekezarpub.com). And you’ll definitely find some Brits at the new Gashead Tavern (2351 Mission, SF. www.facebook.com/gasheadtavern) in the Mission. Gashead sports three TVs and one 100-inch projector, and is opening early to serve breakfast sandwiches all week starting at noon, and weekend brunch starting at 11am. Two words: full bar. Score!
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.
LEFT OF THE DIAL First things first: No matter what her lyrics might imply, Kristine Flaherty — the 28-year-old, Illinois-born, Stanford-educated rapper better known as k.flay — is not sniffing glue.
“Nor have I ever, actually,” she says thoughtfully, having folded herself into a chair in the corner of her West Oakland rehearsal space. “I’d just like to state that for the record. People think I’m on drugs because in some of my lyrics I’m in a really dark place…but no. And sniffing glue in particular seems like something you do when you’re 15 and can’t get drugs.”
Her desire to correct that misconception aside, Flaherty’s not exactly known for giving a shit what people think of her. It’s an admirable quality, something that radiates from the musician as part of a natural, understated air of confidence, but one has to imagine it’s been built up over the years for functional purposes: When you’re a young, white, middle-class, private school-bred female rapper whose image mainly involves jeans and sneakers, who went from making beats and rhymes in the dorm as a joke to collaborations with Zion I, Danny Brown, and Grieves, opening spots for Snoop Dogg, and a record deal with RCA, you’re going to hear some unsolicited opinions. About authenticity, about your skills. Your background, your appearance. Your drug preferences.
But it’s been 10 years since k.flay self-released Suburban Rap Queen as a college junior, and if she didn’t have thick skin then, she sure does now. That mixtape sent buzz-waves through the Bay Area hip-hop scene thanks to its energetic amateur’s sense of fun, lyrics about feminism, frat parties, haters, and the joys of eating red meat (she’s said she was listening to a lot of Dizzee Rascal at the time), coupled with a flow and production value that promised big things to come. And come they did, though perhaps not in the order she might have expected.
Life As a Dog, out June 24 (but streamable until then over here), is a debut of a whole other kind. After a decade of EPs, near-constant touring, and prolific appearances as a guest vocalist — a time in which she stole the Bay Area indie hip-hop scene’s heart before up and moving to Brooklyn three years ago — it’s the rapper’s first full-length record, and the most thematically and sonically cohesive work she’s produced. It also showcases growth, a musician fully embracing her love of melody and structure, of pop music and indie-electronic sounds. Gone is the I-don’t-give-a-fuck-what-this-sounds-like shit-talk/talk-singing, and in its place is just plain singing.
Turns out, she’s good at it. The vulnerability in her voice contrasts satisfyingly with the sharp-edged corners of her rapping, which has slowed from its previous freneticism into a more comfortable swagger that gives the whole record a personal, conversational feel. She’s still funny, goofy, approachable, gross — “Suckin’ on a bottle of Jim Beam, wishin’ it was you” goes one of the most sing-songy choruses — but there’s a grownup self-assuredness, and its flip-side, an all-too-familiar grownup’s cynicism. Regardless, her bummed-out hungover days spent walking around the city now sound like they’re actually in step with yours.
And, oh yeah: She managed to finally make this record, after a few years of trying, because in the fall of 2013, she asked if she could please be dropped from RCA.
“I got signed at a time when there was this swirl of female rappers — some electronic, some more pop, more urban, but I think everybody was interested in trying to bring female rappers a little outside of Nicki Minaj into the mainstream,” says Flaherty, who finds herself happily back on her home turf for a bit before heading out on Warped Tour (her mom and stepdad live in Oakland; her former roommates still live in their old place near Alamo Square — the Warped Tour lands here Sat/21). “And I was still figuring out my sound. I think one of my selling points is I was a little electronic, a little indie rock, a little rap, but I think that was actually not a great way to get signed. The goal with being on a major label is to get you on the radio, and I think there was a lot of internal dissent about the way to do that with me.”
She had a vision for putting out a full-length record, but over the course of three years, “it just didn’t seem like that was possible.” So she filled her time with touring — an experience that, she says, wound up informing most of the songs she was able to put out once she got dropped.
“Their heart was in the right place, but I think the structure of a major label system is so opposed to developing artists that don’t fit into a radio format that it’s kind of a battle for everyone, a lose-lose,” she says. “It felt like an ill-advised marriage. Where you’re done, but you’re still cool with, you know, running into them at Walgreens or whatever.”
She headed for LA in January of this year, anchorless as she’d ever been — she didn’t have an apartment, still doesn’t — and started from scratch, material-wise: She’d let go of upwards of 60 songs she’d written while signed to get out of her contract. But left to her own devices, she found that new songs came quickly.
“It was weird to go from lots of opinions [with the label] to literally none except my own,” she says. “I’ve never done a juice cleanse, but in some ways I feel like that’s what it would be like. ‘Oh, I’m back, and it’s just me, and here’s the bare bones of the project.’ Which was great at times, and also scary. But I’ve been mentally and musically in a much better place the past eight months that I’ve been working on this.” You can hear the solitude, the physically empty space around her in these songs, an electric post-breakup air of someone realizing how strong she is on her own.
Another result: The shift toward melody.
“For a while I was very enamored with rapping really fast, almost like when you get a toy or a video game and you want to see what weird stuff you can do,” she says. It took the encouragement of close collaborators for her to try singing more, though she’s always loved pop and melodic hip-hop (like the Kendrick Lamar she was listening to in the car on the way over here). “It’s still a lot scarier for me to sing than rap,” she says. “And I can’t say as much. I have to be pickier. But I think it’s a more comfortable zone for me, to be honest.”
She raised money to make the record through a crowdfunding site that donates 10 percent to charity, tapping into a fan base that already hangs on her every Internet-word, and reached her goal within five days (“The response was awesome … I mean, considering we’re not Reading Rainbow.”). She wrote and recorded in LA, New York, and San Francisco, mixing the record at SF’s Different Fur.
And now? She doesn’t know exactly where she’ll land geographically when the dust settles from promoting this album, but it’s pretty clear the Bay Area will always be home. At the time of this interview in Oakland, she was rehearsing with her sole bandmate and longtime partner in crime, drummer Nick Suhr (who, over the course of this interview, fetches the wifi password and coffee for both of them, and lets Flaherty know he just told a studio employee she was single). She’s chilling before tour starts, and preparing to maybe field some questions about her mental health (or deflect assumptions about drug abuse) once people hear some of her darker lyrics.
Though, “My parents like it,” she says eagerly. “Sometimes they get scared that I’m, like, extremely depressed. One time after I put up a mixtape my brother called me and was like, ‘Are you okay?'” She shrugs. “I tend to want to write when something’s troubling me, whether it’s something in my own life or I’m witnessing something that I don’t understand, that frustrates me as an observer. I never had a diary as a teenager, but I think I use songwriting like that now, and you can definitely hear that on this album.
“For better or for worse, though, I think it all makes sense together. And it sounds like me. That’s all I could really hope for.”
k.flay will come through the Bay next with the Warped Tour on Sat/21 at the Shoreline; check her Facebook for other dates.
LIT Andy Hall was five years old in 1967, a kid living at the base of Denali, North America’s tallest peak. His father, a National Park Service veteran, took a job overseeing Mount McKinley National Park (as it was then called) just months before a climbing party known as the Wilcox Expedition encountered a freak storm near the summit. Seven of its 12 members died in one of the mountain’s most enduring tragedies.
Hall, who grew up to be the editor and publisher of Alaska magazine, was always haunted by the incident, which he chronicles in Denali’s Howl: The Deadliest Climbing Disaster on America’s Wildest Peak (Dutton, 252pp., $27.95). These days, he lives north of Anchorage in the small community of Chugiak. I called him up to discuss his book, a page-turner that’s as much about memory as it is about mountaineering.
SF Bay Guardian Why did you decide to write a book about the Wilcox Expedition?
Andy Hall I’d been working at a magazine for about 16 years, and I started feeling like I needed a change. I’d been close to this thing because my dad had been the park superintendent, and I’d run into a lot of people who’d been involved in it one way or another. I saw how it affected them still. I thought, “Well, I’ve got a great story sitting right here in my lap.”
At the time I started [writing the book], my dad had died five years prior. Some of the guys who’d been involved were getting up there in age. I thought, if I’m gonna do this, I gotta do it now. There were times I regretted not sitting down and having a formal interview with my dad about it, but I had talked with him enough that I knew what happened, and I knew there was a lot more material I could dig into.
SFBG Beyond the folks in your community, how did you track down your sources?
AH Some of the key players I did already know. But the ones that I really wanted to find were more difficult. For example, I wanted to find Gary Hansen, who’d managed the Alaska Rescue Group, the civilian rescue organization [that had attempted to help the climbers]. He left Alaska in the early 1970s, but I knew he was an architect, and I’d heard he’d gone to California. I’m not a detective, but I just thought: Look for someone who’s licensed in both Alaska and California. He got on the line after I called his office and said, “You found me!” Once I connected with him, he made even more recommendations, and it went on from there.
SFBG How did you extract the truth from the various stories you were being told?
AH Memory was definitely a big player. [Survivors] Joe Wilcox and Howard Snyder had both written books; I read both, and there were conflicts. If I could investigate [discrepancies] in person, I would. Then, there were original letters, documents, and journals, and I read what everybody wrote, but I would go beyond that. In the National Park archives, there were longhand accounts that had been written immediately after the incident.
In my dad’s desk, I found a reel-to-reel tape that had interviews with the would-be rescuers from the Mountaineering Club of Alaska. It was their firsthand account of finding artifacts [from the Wilcox Expedition], and then finding [the first three] bodies. So I had these early-as-possible accounts, and I would compare them to what was written later. Some people maintained a pretty solid account of what happened throughout, while others were less consistent.
In the case of Joe Wilcox, I think he wanted to make sure that people didn’t think the men on his team were incompetent. I don’t think he needed to do that, but I think he really wanted them to be portrayed in a positive light.
SFBG Building off that last thought, Denali’s Howl opens with a section listing each man’s climbing credentials. They weren’t inexperienced by any means. Did clashes within the group lead to their downfall?
AH One of the things I wanted to do with the book was contextualize the climb in the day, in the environment. In the 1960s, climbing was something you did as a group. This wasn’t a guided climb. Joe was the organizer, and he did try to lead, but he wasn’t the guide. Today, a hired guide could look at you and say, “You’re getting the early stages of altitude sickness,” and send you back down the mountain. He’s in charge, and you have no choice.
In this incident, it was a bunch of guys, essentially peers, some of whom had more experience than others, but they were climbing together. There were conflicts, but I don’t think there were any more than in successful climbs — and I don’t think they were the deciding element of the tragedy.
SFBG The book really shows how mountaineering has changed.
AH Denali National Park is now a major destination. There are more climbing rangers on the mountain at this moment, probably, than in the entire park in ’67. Back then, there were an average of about 20 people climbing the mountain in a given year. Today, a couple of thousand summit each year. It’s an industry now. There are satellite phones, [high-tech] weather reports, and a high-altitude helicopter standing by ready to respond. In 1967, these guys went up in what Joe called “the age of self-reliance” — they knew they were up there on their own. *
The Case Against 8 (Ben Cotner and Ryan White, US) This documentary follows the successful fight to have Proposition 8 overturned as unconstitutional and restore legality to gay marriage in California. There’s way too much time spent on the couples chosen as plaintiffs, a Berkeley lesbian pair and two Los Angeles male partners — we get it, they’re nice people — and the decisions to disallow broadcast of the eventual court proceedings means we get laborious recitations of what people have already said on record. Frameline has shown so many documentaries about gay marriage already that festival regulars may find this one covers too much familiar ground at excessive length. (It also doesn’t bother giving much screentime to the anti-gay forces, which might have livened things up a bit.) Still, it’s a duly inspirational tale, with real entertainment value whenever the focus turns to the case’s very unlikely chief lawyers: mild-mannered Ted Olson and boisterous David Boies, the latter a longtime leading conservative attorney who’d argued the other side against Olson in the Bush v. Gore presidential election decision. Nonetheless, he’s all for marriage equality, and these otherwise widely separated figures are great fun to watch as they work, taking considerable pleasure in each other’s company. Thu/19, 7pm, Castro. (Dennis Harvey)
Bad Hair (Mariana Rondón, Venezuela, US) Living in a Caracas tenement, Marta (Samantha Castillo) has no husband, no romance in her life, and now no job after she’s fired from a security company. She turns her frustrations on the older of her two fatherless children, 10-year-old Junior (Samuel Lange Zambrano), whose insistence on straightening his hair like the people he sees on TV strikes her as incipiently gay — and that is something she is not willing to tolerate. Mariana Rondón’s prize-winning feature is a small, subtle drama about the poisoning effects of economic pressure and homophobia within the family unit. It’s also quietly devastating about something you don’t often see in movies: The real-world truth that, sometimes, deep down, parents really don’t love their children. Sat/21, 1:30pm, Roxie. (Harvey)
Floating Skyscrapers (Tomasz Wasilewski, Poland, 2013) Competitive swimmer Kuba (Mateusz Banasiuk) has moved girlfriend Sylwia (Marta Nieradkiewicz) into the Warsaw apartment he shares with his possessive divorced mother (Katarzyna Herman), but the two women don’t get along and Kuba doesn’t seem very committed to the relationship anyway. So Sylwia immediately worries her days are numbered when Kuba — who already indulges in the occasional furtive public gay sex — shows unusual interest in out Michal (Bartosz Gelner). As the two young men grow closer, it becomes clear that this is something neither of the women in Kuba’s life will stand for. Tomasz Wasilewski’s Polish drama has a crisp widescreen look and a minimalist air, with little dialogue articulating emotions the characters are wrestling with. Though its protagonist isn’t particularly likable, the film’s simultaneous confidence and ambivalence lends its eventually depressing progress real punch. Sat/21, 9:30pm, Victoria; June 26, 9:30pm, Roxie. (Harvey)
I Am Happiness On Earth (Julián Hernández, Mexico, 2013) When young dancer Octavio is picked up by well-known filmmaker Emiliano, he’s instantly smitten — not realizing yet that the latter is the kind of serial seducer allergic to fidelity. Rich, famous, and gorgeous, he can have anyone he wants, and he does. That’s about it for story in Julián Hernández’s latest, which features some of his characteristically lush camerawork and poetical romanticism. But it’s one of his weaker efforts, basically turning into one sex scene after another with even less attention to character and plot development than usual. This sexy, aesthetically sensual eye candy sports the odd enchanting moment, as when two men after a quickie are suddenly transfixed by the TV and begin singing a pop ballad along with it, to each other. But Hernández (2006’s Broken Sky, 2003’s A Thousand Peace Clouds Encircle the Sky) is a highly talented filmmaker who here seems to be running out of ideas. Sat/21, 9:30pm, Castro. (Harvey)
The Foxy Merkins (Madeleine Olnek, US, 2013) Writer-director Madeleine Olnek of Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (2011) hits a bit of a sophomore slump with this similarly loopy but less inspired absurdist comedy. Lisa Haas returns as Margaret, a sad-sack new arrival to Manhattan who — apparently like most holders of Women’s Studies degrees — ends up homeless and prostituting herself to a large available client base of better bankrolled lesbians. She gets schooled in the ways of the street and kink-for-pay by veteran Jo (Jackie Monahan), who’s a good business partner if also a somewhat unreliable ally. After a hilarious first half hour or so, the movie runs out of steam but keeps plodding on to diminishing returns, despite scattered moments when Olnek and cast hit the comedic bull’s-eye. She’s got a unique sensibility, at once deadpan and utterly nonsensical, but it’s fragile enough to need a stronger narrative structure to sustain than it gets here to sustain feature length. Sun/22, 9:15pm, Castro. (Harvey)
Winter Journey (Sergei Taramaev and Luba Lvova, Russia, 2013) This stylish Russian drama depicts the paths-crossing and eventual unlikely friendship of two extremely different young men in Moscow. Keanu-looking Eric (Aleksey Frandetti) is a bratty, lieder-singing voice student who escapes pressures at home and school by getting drunk and hanging out with a circle of older gay artistic types. Lyokha (Evgeniy Tkachuk) is homeless and unstable, inclined toward picking fights and stealing stuff. Their not-quite-romance — a bit like a below-zero My Own Private Idaho (1991) with lots of Schubert — isn’t particularly credible, but it’s directed with confident panache by Sergei Taramaev and Luba Lvova, to ultimately quite poignant effect. Mon/23, 9:15pm, Victoria. (Harvey)
Violette (Martin Provost, France, 2013) Taking on another “difficult” woman artist after the excellent 2008 Séraphine (about the folk-art painter), Martin Provost here portrays the unhappy life of Violette Leduc (Emmanuelle Devos), whose fiction and autobiographical writings eventually made her a significant figure in postwar French literature. We first meet her waiting out the war with gay author Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py), one of many unrequited loves, then surviving via the black market trade before she’s “discovered” by such groundbreaking, already-established talents as Jean Genet (Jacques Bonnaffé) and Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain). It is the latter, a loyal supporter who nonetheless retains a chilly emotional distance, who becomes bisexual Violette’s principal obsession over the coming 20 years or so. Devos does her best to portray “a neurotic crazy washed-up old bag” with an “ugly mug” — hardly! — who is perpetually broke, depressed, and awkward, thanks no doubt in part to her mean witch of a mother (Catherine Hiegel). “Screaming and sobbing won’t get you anywhere,” Simone at one point tells her, and indeed Leduc is a bit of a pill. For the most part lacking the visual splendors of Séraphine (this character’s environs weren’t so pastoral), Violette is finely acted and crafted but, like its heroine, hard to love. Note: Frameline is also showing Violette Leduc: In Pursuit of Love, a documentary on the same subject. Mon/23, 9:15pm, Castro. (Harvey)
To Be Takei (Jennifer Kroot, US) The erstwhile and forever Mr. Sulu’s surprisingly high public profile these days no doubt sparked this documentary portrait by SF’s own Jennifer Kroot (2009’s It Came From Kuchar). But she gives it dramatic heft by highlighting the subject’s formative years in World War II Japanese-American internment camps, and finds plenty of verite humor in the everyday byplay between fairly recently “out” gay celebrity George and his longtime life and business partner Brad Altman — the detail-oriented, pessimistic worrywart to his eternally upbeat (if sometimes tactlessly critical) star personality. We get glimpses of them in the fan nerdsphere, on The Howard Stern Show, at Takei’s frequent speaking engagements (on internment and gay rights), and in his latter-day acting career both as perpetual TV guest and a performer in a hopefully Broadway-bound new musical (about internment). Then of course there’s the Star Trek universe, with all surviving major participants heard from, including ebullient Nichelle Nichols, sad-sack Walter Koenig, thoughtfully distanced Leonard Nimoy, and natch, the Shat (who acts like a total asshat, dismissing Takei as somebody he sorta kinda knew professionally 50 years ago.) We also hear from younger Asian American actors who view the subject as a role model, even if some of his actual roles weren’t so trailblazing (like a couple “funny Chinaman” parts in Jerry Lewis movies, and in John Wayne’s 1968 pro-Vietnam War film The Green Berets). Even if you’ve tired of Takei’s ubiquity online and onscreen, this campy but fond tribute is great fun. Tue/24, 6:30pm, Castro. (Harvey)
Back on Board: Greg Louganis (Cheryl Furjanic, US) For most Americans, the words “famous diver” conjure up only one name: Greg Louganis, the charismatic, record-breaking Olympian who dominated the sport in the 1980s. But as Cheryl Furjanic’s doc reveals, athletic perfection did not spell easy livin’ for Louganis. Though he hid the fact that he was gay (and HIV positive) from the public for years, his sexuality was an open secret in the diving world, and likely cost him lucrative endorsement deals. Louganis’ tale is not being shared for the first time (see also: the best-selling autobiography, which became a made-for-TV biopic), but Furjanic goes in deep, revealing Louganis’ considerable financial woes even as he finally finds personal happiness — and recharges his sports career when he’s asked to mentor 2012 Olympians. He’s clearly a good-hearted guy, and it’s hard not to root for him, particularly when we’re treated to so much footage of “the consummate diver” in his prime. He made it look easy, when clearly (in so many ways) it was not. June 25, 4pm, Castro. (Cheryl Eddy)
Regarding Susan Sontag (Nancy Kates, US) This excellent documentary by Nancy D. Kates (2003’s Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin) places more emphasis on the subject’s life — particularly her lesbian relationships — than on the ideas expressed in her work as a novelist, essayist, filmmaker, and cultural theorist. But it’s still a fine overview of a fascinating, often divisive figure. Extremely precocious (she began college at 15), she abandoned an early marriage for freedom in late 1950s Paris, then became a charismatic cultural theorist at the center of all 60s avant-gardisms. Her lovers included playwright Maria Irene Fornes, painter Jasper Johns, choreographer Lucinda Childs, and finally photographer Annie Liebovitz. A terrific diversity of archival footage and contemporary interviewees contribute to this portrait of a very complicated, difficult (both personally and as an artist/intellect) woman perpetually “interested in everything.” June 25, 7pm, Victoria; June 26, 7pm, Elmwood. (Harvey)
Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story (Sandrine Orabona and Mark Herzog, US) “I don’t do anything halfway,” admits Kristin Beck, a 20-year, highly-decorated veteran of the Navy SEALs. During her time in the military, she was known as Christopher — and she admits now, as a trans woman “trying to be the real person that I always knew I was, and always wished I could be,” that her willingness to embrace danger was a coping mechanism as she struggled to realize her true identity. In this moving, well-crafted doc, we follow along as Kristin travels to visit with family (some more accepting than others, and some, like her aging dad, making a heartfelt effort even as they stumble over pronouns and still call her “Chris”) and former Navy colleagues and fellow veterans, many of whom have put aside their initial confusion and embrace Kristin as she is. And who is she? A badass who survived multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, with a wry sense of humor and an easygoing, thoughtful personality, Beck is also an inspiration — an American hero on multiple levels. June 27, 1:30pm, Castro. (Eddy)
Appropriate Behavior (Desiree Akhavan, US) First seen packing her belongings under the malevolent eye of her newly ex–girlfriend, then walking unabashedly down the street with a harness and dildo in hand, Brooklyn-dwelling twentysomething Shirin (played by writer-director Desiree Akhavan) doesn’t seem like a person who has trouble owning her sexuality. And indeed, in the parts of her life that don’t require interacting with her close-knit Iranian American family, Shirin is an out, and outspoken, bisexual. Brash, witty, self-involved, and professionally unmoored, she has a streak of poor impulse control that leads her into situations variously hilarious, awkward, painful, and disastrous. Through a series of flashbacks, Akhavan walks us back through the medium highs and major lows of Shirin’s defunct relationship, while tracking her floundering present-day attempts to wobble back to standing. Akhavan’s first feature, Appropriate Behavior has a comic looseness that occasionally verges on shapelessness, but the stray bits are entertaining too. June 27, 7pm, Castro. (Lynn Rapoport)
Of Girls and Horses (Monika Treut, Germany) A semi-delinquent teenager named Alex (Ceci Chuh) is sent away to work on a horse farm as a sort of last-ditch effort to shift her onto a more salutary path. Under the care of thirtysomething Nina (Vanida Karun), who is taking time apart from urban life in Hamburg, where her girlfriend lives, Alex comes to fall under the quiet spell of the horses, and when another young girl, Kathy (Alissa Wilms), shows up to vacation at the farm with her horse, Alex falls for her as well. Director Monika Treut (1999’s Gendernauts) favors long, lyrical shots of horses grazing or gazing soulfully into the lens, of Nina and Kathy cantering over flat green expanses of countryside, and of Alex forking hay into the stalls. A few small dramas take place, but Of Girls and Horses is more of a sketch than a story, and whether it holds your interest may depend on how many Marguerite Henry horse stories you consumed in your youth. June 27, 9:15pm, Roxie. (Rapoport)
Futuro Beach (Karim Ainouz, Brazil) When two German men globe-trotting on their motorcycles go for a dip off the Brazilian coast, they’re pulled under by the current — only Konrad (Clemens Schick) is saved by local lifeguard Donato (Wagner Moura), his companion lost. The two men console one another with sex. Then in the first of several disorienting jumps forward in time here, suddenly Donato has moved to Europe in order to continue their relationship, leaving his old life (including a dependent mother and younger brother) behind. There are further narrative leaps ahead — director Karim Ainouz (2002’s Madame Satã) is all about bold gestures here, but his visual and sonic assertiveness don’t necessarily fill the blanks in narrative and character development. The resulting exercise in style will leave you either dazzled or emotionally untouched. June 27, 9:30pm, Castro. (Harvey)
Cupcakes (Eytan Fox, Israel, 2013) After a run of politically tinged features, Eytan Fox (2002’s Yossi & Jagger, 2004’s Walk on Water) goes the Almodóvar-lite route with this flyweight comedy about a Eurovision-style song contest. Gay Ofer (Ofer Shechter) and various girlfriends who all live in the same Tel Aviv apartment building decide to enter the Universong competition, becoming Israel’s official entry with improbable ease despite never having performed publicly before. Their mild travails (fighting the creative inference of professional handlers, Ofer’s attempts to drag his boyfriend out of the closet) fill time pleasantly enough before the inevitable triumphant telecast climax. This candy-colored fluff, its mainstreamed camp sensibility predictably reflected in corny vintage hits (“Love Will Keep Us Together,” “You Light Up My Life”), is aptly named — it’s as colorful, easily digested, and about as nutritious as a tray of cupcakes. June 28, 8:30pm, Castro. (Harvey)
I Feel Like Disco (Axel Ranisch, Germany, 2013) When housewife Monika (Christina Grobe) suffers a stroke and falls into a coma she may never come out of, her chubby teenage son Flori (Frithjof Gawenda) and junior high swim coach husband Hanno (Heiko Pinkowski) are forced to depend on each other without mom as a buffer. Things tentatively look up when Flori develops an unlikely friendship — and possibly something more — with dad’s star diver, Romanian émigré Radu (Robert Alexander Baer). Axel Ranisch’s gentle seriocomedy doesn’t make much of an impression for a while, springing few surprises (despite occasional deadpan fantasy sequences) along its moderately amusing path. But as father and son struggle to rise to the occasion of their shared crisis, we grow to like them more — and likewise this ultimately quite disarming feature. June 29, 7pm, Castro. (Harvey) *
Frameline 38, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, runs June 19-29 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St, SF; Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St, SF; and Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, 2966 College, Berk. For tickets (most shows $10-15) and schedule, visit www.frameline.org.For even more Frameline 38 short takes, visit www.sfbg.com.
FILM Clad in his signature cape and cowl, Batman has been taking to the streets in the darkness of night and fighting crime in the imaginations of comic-book fans for 75 years.
Thanks to the Christopher Nolan film trilogy, the public has gotten used to the idea of the character being dark and brooding and living in a gritty, more realistic world. But it was Tim Burton’s eye-popping Batman, starring Michael Keaton, that first ushered in a modern vision of the Dark Knight, 25 years ago this week on June 23, 1989. That summer, Batman unleashed in a wave of pop-culture Batmania. No matter where you turned, you’d see the Bat-Signal on a T-shirt, hear “Batdance” on the radio, or catch yourself muttering one of Jack Nicholson’s iconic Joker quips.
Sam Hamm, who wrote the story for Batman and co-wrote the script with the late Warren Skaaren, is a San Francisco resident.
“I grew up reading comic books — I was completely saturated with the stuff. A few years ago, I was cleaning out some old boxes, and I came across a picture of myself when I was probably five years old, wearing a cowboy hat and reading a copy of Batman. So in that photograph somebody had encapsulated my entire future. Obviously, it was my destiny,” laughs Hamm.
By the mid-1980s, an early script for a Batman film had been kicking around at Warner Bros. for several years. Hamm had started working for the company on some different projects around that time; one day, while waiting for a meeting, he saw the script on a shelf and started reading it.
“It was very much the same structural model as Superman,” he recalls. “I was reading it, and thinking, ‘No, this is not the way.’ It [was] explaining all this stuff you don’t have to explain. It’s basically just a guy who puts on a suit and goes out and kicks ass — but why would a rich guy go out and do that every night? That, it seemed to me, was the interesting part of the story. It wasn’t how this guy came to be, it was why this guy came to be — that’s the central mystery of the movie.”
After lobbying for about six months, he was asked by Tim Burton, who was attached to direct at the point, to share his ideas for a new story.
“I said, ‘Okay, here’s the deal — you don’t start with Batman. It’s the origin of the Joker that you start out with, and Batman is the mystery. I have this feeling that Batman is really depressed, and he has to keep on going out and doing this stuff because he’s reenacting this mess with his parents.'”
Hamm’s vision was a drastic departure from the campy 1960s television show that mainstream culture most closely identified the character with at the time, but the filmmakers quickly decided that it was the direction they wanted to take.
“We started with the idea that Batman is bat-shit crazy. He goes out and does this, but then meets a girl, and starts thinking, ‘What would it be like if I had a normal life? I’ve never thought of having a normal life.’ So the progress of the story is that he starts to go sane, and what does that do to the weird sort of lifestyle decision that he’s made?”
That approach clearly resonated with fans around the world. Looking back decades later, Hamm has fond memories of being part of the phenomenon.
“It was wild. There was a huge buzz around it,” he says. “I would be driving around San Francisco, and there was a house in Noe Valley where the guy had painted the logo on his garage. They put a Bat-signal on Zeitgeist! It was quite bizarre to feel you were a part of that.” *
SUPER EGO Fellow freakazoids, I’m disturbed. There’s an alarming new microtrend in nightlife: daylife. More specifically: morninglife. Halp!
First NYC’s Daybreakerparty hit our shores a couple weeks ago, enticing hundreds of people to line up outside Audio at 8am for two hours of pre-work dancing ($15-$20) that apparently involved giant jellyfish costumes, a brass band (just to make sure you were awake?), and Four Barrel coffee — no alcohol here. I didn’t make it, because fuck that. But I was intrigued! Daybreaker’s AM disc jockey DJ Bradley P is a quality cutie, and the after-vids were rad. I’m waiting to hear if more are in the works.
Now comes Morning Gloryville from London (Wednesday, June 25, 6:30am-10:30am, $20. Heron Arts, 7 Heron, SF. www.morninggloryville.com), which places itself at the nexus of Burning Man, Ministry of Sound, and 24-Hour Fitness. Kind of a spiritual neon-flashmob throwdown, with wigs, massages, and smoothies. “Rave your way into the day!” It looks real cute. And exhausting.
I should have seen this coming the moment fluorescent Fitbits and post-ironic ’80s “Get Physical” dance routines started hitting the dance floors. Of course, SF has a long, glorious, deranged history of morning parties, from 6am Sunday Church at the End Up in the ’70s to recent blasts at North Beach’s Monroe and our own occasional Morning Glory party. I’ve loved dancing in the wee hours ever since I hung out in West Berlin in the ’80s and discovered high school kids hit the clubs before going to school.
But this new wave is just so darn wholesome — complete with slick marketing campaigns, relentless cheerfulness, and franchise ambitions. Despite my liver’s squeaky pleas, I’m not quite ready to come over to the “nightlife as workout routine” side, let alone sans cocktails. At least not yet. Yes, this fantastic ass came from tripping the light fantastic four-six nights a week. But these massive biceps? Grasping my vodkas, dear. Perhaps one day I’ll see the light.
Sound Department continues to delve monthly into the more thought-provoking side of electronic music. This 11th installment features Berlin multi-layerist Baikal, who’s been building a body of impeccable (yet quite danceable) tech-work.
New show “Gorgeous” at the Asian Art Museum challenges and redefines the notion of beauty in “Eastern” art: Fantastic-sounding opening party makes it all come to life, with deep techno tunes from Dr. Sleep and Robot Hustle, bounce jams from DavO and Natalie Nuxx, vogue extravaganza from House of Nu Benetton, milky tea, fresh nail designs, full bar, and an afterparty at the Stud.
Based-goth monthly funhole 120 Minutes presents this brilliant, trip-hoppy Ninja Tuner, drifting on gorgeous, post-glitch waves to the darker side.
Fri/20, 10pm, $8–$10. Elbo Room, 647 Valencia, SF. www.elbo.com
Maestro of that muscular quasi-minimal Ibiza sound — and not bad to look at, either — Mr. Dice blew me away last time he touched down, a couple years back. He’ll be on the 1015 system this time: All aboard the silver spaceship.
Here’s a “flashback” night for ya: Master at Work and Latin house legend. He’ll be stretching back into his roots with some Afrobeat, samba, disco, and soul at Mighty. With old school heroes David Harness and Jayvi Velasco.
“Join us for wild brass, abandon, and reverberating floors” — you can say that again, as this whirling, stomping Balkan delight returns to its Rickshaw Stop home. DJ Zeljko, Fanfare Zambaleta live band, Elizabeth Strong, and the Foxglove Sweethearts belly dancers bring gypsy joy to an adoring crowd.
The superfly UK whiz kid with a knack for connecting dance music history dots continues to thrill in the spotlight. She’s headlining a powerhouse night featuring NYC early-’90s fantasist Kim Ann Foxman, Alex Arnout, Young Marco, Bells & Whistles, and more at the As You Like It party.
Sat/21, 9pm-5am, $20–$25 advance. Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. www.ayli-sf.com
The classic Sunday weekly ran at now-closed Otis Lounge for more than seven years — now it’s at Monarch and sweeter than ever. This week’s ace tech-house guest Peter Blick helps break things in.
DANCE The 36th annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival opened with an ambitious agenda: presenting India’s eight classical dances in one program. Yet this first weekend — EDF continues at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through June 28 — didn’t quite meet the high expectations the festival had set for itself.
In part, this was because a shadow fell on the show. Last week, great kathakali practitioner K.P. Kunhiraman, who was to make his farewell appearance, died unexpectedly in India. With his wife, Katherine Kunhiraman, he had directed Kalanjali: Dances of India, one of the Bay Area’s oldest Indian dance schools, teaching both folk and classical Indian dance.
While bringing these classic forms together was a noble idea, EDF should have presented them on equal footing. This is particularly true because while bharatanatyam, kathak, and to a lesser extent odissi and kuchipudi are well known to Bay Area audiences, kathakali, manipuri, mohiniattam, and sattriya may have been unfamiliar even to many of the Southeast Asian families who attended the festival.
Performed by guest artists from out of town, these new-to-us genres were set to music that came out of loudspeakers. For a first exposure to an art, which so intimately depends on instruments and the human voice, recorded music was a disservice to both the practitioners and the audience.
One only had to look and listen to tabla player Samrat Kakkeri (and his colleagues) with the first-rate Chitresh Das Dance Company, which closed the program, to realize that the subtle give-and-take that flows between dancers and musicians should not be given up to expediency. No wonder the Chitresh dancers managed the intricacies of the multiple rhythmic patterns in Das’ kathak yoga with such confidence and joy. Many dance genres do just fine with unrelated music or no music at all. Indian dance, as this program proved, does not.
Also, while some of the less familiar dance forms might have been given more stage time — some others could easily have been shortened. What intrigued most in these first EDF appearances was how little use was made of the sophisticated rhythms that we have come to know as Indian dance.
More drama than dance, kathakali’s spectacular performances can last all night. The excellent Sunanda Nair gave us a glimpse of a work in which an evil demon — in the shape of a seductive woman, wouldn’t you know — gets her comeuppance from baby Krishna. She returned later in an example of mohiniattam which highlighted articulate arms and feathery hands. It was thrilling to see how her torso contrasted with her legs planted into wide plies, from which she smoothly sank into and rose from the ground.
Sohini Ray’s snippet of manipuri, however, disappointed because it looked stiff, and didn’t really develop those wonderfully gentle whipping turns that make the dancers look prayer wheels. She communicated much better in what seemed a more folkloric form of manipuri in which leaping, running, and turning on the knees conversed with a dual head drum.
Intriguing in its use of unisons and rolling wrists, sattriya — performed by two women, one in pants — conveyed the gently rocking geniality of two friends on the road. I have to assume that the one with a hat was Lord Krishna. For those familiar with the mudras, Indian dance’s gestural language, they were so beautifully clear that they were easy to follow. I recognized three for sure: a welcoming gesture, shooting an arrow, and riding a horse.
In its first appearance at the EDF, San Francisco’s Nava Dance Theatre proved itself a fresh, spunky, and musically-aware bharatanatyam company. In its piece, a love-struck young man (a dreamily handsome Arun Mathai) was comforted by a bevy of young maidens. A spectacular, theatrically savvy soloist, Bhavajan Kumar, may yet do for bharatanatyam what Joaquín Cortés did for flamenco.
In their celebratory kuchipudi — bharatanatytam’s younger, looser sister — the nine young women of San Jose’s Natyalaya school of dance handled the rigors of their geometries with considerable grace. Maybe one day we’ll see them perform to live music.
Charming, yet very serious in odissi were Maya Lochana Devalcheruvu (age 11) and Akhil Shrinivasan (10). Young as they are, they already showed odissi’s curved body position and light footwork. With good stage presence, they knew what they were aiming for. The duo then welcomed Sujata Mohapatra, an exquisite odissi dancer light but firm on her feet, floating on her toes, and her rippling neck enhancing the facial expressions.
Though in mourning, Kalanjali: Dances of India performed Tillana, the final section in a bharatanatyam performance, for which the dancers pull together everything they learned. These women probably did. *
Programmers-in-training line the work tables at HackReactor, a software engineering boot camp many in the tech community call a “university disruptor” due to its speed in training coders. Those hunched over computers are typing their way toward a goal: joining the ranks of the 12-week course’s alumni, now employed at tech companies like Adobe, Beats Audio, Pandora, and Hipmunk. But walk past the rows of intensely driven (yet casually dressed) engineers and you’ll also encounter the program’s unlikely new trainees: San Francisco high school students.
Tech company HackReactor and nonprofit Mission Bit are co-training San Francisco Unified School District students for the summer, and throwing them into the trenches with pre-professional engineers.
Soon, these students will be proficient coder kids.
The free program is a new extension of Mission Bit’s after-school coding classes, offered this year at Mission High School, a SFUSD public school, and Lick Wilmerding High School, which is private. The semester program is paid for by tech companies: mainly WeChat (Tencent America), with in-kind sponsors including Salesforce, HackReactor, DeNA, Brightroll, AdRoll, Rackspace, co.lab, and Tagged. The summer program is fully paid for by HackReactor.
It also comes at a crossroads for San Francisco: Its communities of color are being priced out just as its tech industry is searching for ways to enroll more diverse workers.
Though many pin the displacement problem on the rising cost of housing, there’s also another less-spoken-of culprit: Local tech companies draw many applicants from around the world to fill jobs instead of hiring local residents.
This may be due in part to lack of trained prospective employees locally.
There’s a broken education pipeline between local schools and the tech sector, both sides admit. The new effort by Mission Bit and HackReactor may be a first step towards plugging the leak. If the program is successful, subsequent iterations may establish the first stable pathway to technology sector jobs for San Francisco students.
Though the intern program is still in its beta phase, it shows much promise, and comes at a dire time for the city.
The summer coding program may hold solutions for three problems that coexist simultaneously: displacement of communities of color, the tech sector’s shocking lack of diversity, and the SFUSD training gap.
The city’s Mission District, often pointed to as tech workers’ most desired neighborhood, saw 1,400 Latinos leave between 1990 and 2011, while its white population grew by over 2,900, according to a recent study by Causa Justa, Just Cause.
The tech industry has a complementary problem: Google recently revealed its employees are 70 percent men and 61 percent white. Just five percent of Google’s workforce is black or Hispanic. Though the Asian population is 30 percent of its workforce, that’s still out of line with the significant Asian presence in the Bay Area.
Sources tell us Google puts heavy effort into diversity recruitment and likely had better percentages than the rest of the industry. Google claimed in myriad news reports that potential employees of color were difficult to find.
But SFUSD’s 52,000 students are 25 percent Latino, 41 percent Asian and 10 percent African American, so why not recruit students from our diverse local public schools, bolstering San Francisco’s flailing middle class at the same time?
That brings us to our last problem. Until recently, the SFUSD only taught computer science in three of its 17 high schools: Balboa, Galileo, and Lowell. There’s a tech training gap in San Francisco, making the leap for SFUSD students to the tech sector all the less likely.
The SFUSD is now taking steps to rectify this, but the change will take time.
“SFUSD sees teaching coding, digital literacy and computer science as critical to preparing our students for success,” SFUSD spokesperson Gentle Blythe told the Guardian. “We have a long-term plan in place for how we are phasing in teaching computer science, including coding, throughout a student’s K-12 career.”
SFUSD launched computer science courses in two additional schools last year: Wallenberg and Washington. More are on the way, Blythe said. Other schools host coding tutoring programs. One organization, Code.org, led a “day of code” where thousands of SFUSD students to tried a hand at rudimentary programming exercises.
But in order to really tackle the gap, SFUSD teachers and students will need hands-on training with coders and software engineers. That’s where Mission Bit and HackReactor come in.
Tyson Daugherty founded Mission Bit after a startling realization: San Francisco schools weren’t prepared to teach his children how to enter the tech industry.
Daugherty was on the business side of tech, starting his first company in 1999. After moving to the city he wanted schools where his children, ages 5 and 2, could one day train to join his industry.
“I became incredibly frustrated with what I was finding in public schools,” he said, sitting with us in HackReactor’s Market Street office. “These kids are learning fundamental material in science and math, but there’s a disconnection to application and purpose.”
Mission Bit was born, with a simple objective of increasing coding education in local schools.
Gisela’s Lowell High School classes were rigorous, she said, but while programming her first game she relearned physics all over again.
“I’m making a game where each player has a ball, they bounce against each other to bounce the player into the hole,” she told us. Her technical mentor, Kwyn Alice Meagher, gave her a physics crash course to get the ball to bounce just right.
“[In school] I learned the logic of physics but not the application,” Gisela said. “Now that I understand the purpose of learning it, I’m figuring it all out.”
Once students “graduate” Mission Bit it’s time to join the workforce. Gisela and two other students jumped to an internship at HackReactor, where they’re putting their coding knowledge to practical use.
Isaac Zimmern, a graduating Lowell senior, is one of those other students. He celebrated working side by side with mentors while he programmed, inspiring him to pursue computer science in college.
And though Gisela and Zimmern are both from Lowell, many schools were represented in Mission Bit’s program. In one office a group of about a dozen students sat at computers, programming Android phones to play a simple game resembling “Doodle Jump.”
They hailed from a myriad of schools: Raoul Wallenberg, Balboa, Lowell and more. Douglas Mejia, 18, let us see his “Doodle Jump” clone. Its theme music popped on loud, singing “I ain’t sayin’ she’s a gold digger, but she ain’t messin’ with a broke — — -,” and on-screen Kanye West hopped from platform to platform.
Mejia smiled proudly as he showed us his game. He said he wasn’t interested in making games while in school, but Mission Bit turned him into a believer. Now he’ll study computer science at the University of San Francisco.
Mission Bit’s class body is 8 percent African American, 24 percent Latino, and over 50 percent Asian, according to the company’s internal data (that’s in line with SFUSD’s own demographics). Nearly half of the students come from the south side of San Francisco, around the Ingleside District.
The program is still small, but Daugherty says it’s designed with scalability in mind. There’s potential for these students to one day not only fill tech’s diversity gap, but to allow tech jobs to be filled by San Franciscans, born and raised.
But Daugherty says such goals are secondary. The focus is on the students.
“The industry has a very specific agenda about where they want their engineers diversified,” he said. “If this is where our students want to go, we’ll support them. But there are other paths to take.”
Students can use their programming skills in many jobs and industries, he said, not just tech.
Still, the students will have an opportunity to visit local tech companies Square, AirBnb and others, meeting engineers who one day may be peers. Daugherty calls these people “touch points,” making social contacts for mentorships and job seeking that blue-collar SFUSD students may not have themselves.
Ultimately, the program “lets you get programming skills without going through the money filtering step of a university,” said Anthony Phillips, CEO of Hack Reactor. Counter to the belief in pure meritocracy many in tech swear to, Phillips acknowledged he had help: his brother, a Twitter employee. When Phillips first learned code and started to fumble, his brother told him “you’re so smart, but so dumb. Just keep doing it.”
So Phillips aims to do the same for the students at HackReactor. He’s like a coach in the corner for new boxers taking their aim at advanced coding skills.
“Not everyone has someone there that can say, ‘just keep doing it,'” Phillips said.
Since we at the Bay Guardian published a story flagging Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s odd behavior of stonewalling a developer who had basic questions about a high-pressure gas pipeline running beneath his Bernal Heights building lot (see “Bernal blows up,” May 20), we’ve heard from others concerned about the company’s practices regarding safety.
PG&E has undertaken a massive pipeline improvement project to correct the underlying problems that led to a disastrous 2010 natural gas explosion in San Bruno, which destroyed a neighborhood, killed eight people, and injured 58 others.
But the repairs have been complicated by a number of factors, including inaccuracies in records that provide a foundation for the whole undertaking. Meanwhile, a fascinating document obtained by the Bay Guardian raises troubling questions about whether state regulators are taking seriously PG&E’s shortcomings in this endeavor.
Established in 1905, PG&E is California’s largest utility company. It wields tremendous political influence, particularly in San Francisco, where it’s headquartered. But the utility giant has been in hot water lately. It was indicted by federal authorities on charges of criminal negligence earlier this year in connection with the San Bruno explosion, and may soon face additional charges in a superseding indictment, the company noted in a recent regulatory filing.
PG&E’s safety upgrade project, known as the Pipeline Safety Enhancement Plan, was launched to address the underlying problems that led to the unanticipated pipeline rupture and explosion in San Bruno. That disaster brought the powerful utility under intense scrutiny, exposing a deeper pattern of negligence and sloppy record-keeping. The PSEP was rolled out as a corrective measure, in response to regulatory demands.
The detailed PSEP outlined how the utility would go about strength testing, replacing, and retrofitting its vast network of natural gas transmission pipelines, which comprise 6,750 miles traversing the utility’s Northern California service territory. The hefty document was submitted for CPUC approval in 2011.
However, things haven’t gone exactly as planned. Phase I of this plan was supposed to have been completed by the end of 2014 — but that’s now behind schedule, and some of the original targets have been revised.
The Bay Guardian attempted to contact both PG&E and the CPUC for this story, but did not receive responses. However, regulatory filings reveal quite a lot about the company’s progress.
A comparison of the work PG&E proposed to complete in 2011, versus what it reported having completed as of March 31, 2014, demonstrates how the massive safety upgrade project has shifted over time.
In a document submitted to the CPUC on May 22, PG&E reported that it had completed 541 miles of strength testing, as compared with 780 miles of strength testing originally proposed to be completed by the end of 2014. PG&E said it had replaced 105 miles of pipeline, as compared with the 186 miles of pipeline replacement it initially said would be done by the end of the year. It also reported installing 141 automated valves — but in 2011, PG&E told regulators that by the end of Phase I, “228 gas shut-off valves will be replaced, automated, and upgraded to enable PG&E to remotely or automatically shut off the flow of gas in the event of a pipe rupture.”
In hefty technical documents, PG&E provides reasons for why some of the targets have shifted, often the result of new information coming to light. In a June 6 CPUC filing, PG&E noted that nine scheduled pipeline replacement projects included in Phase I likely would not be completed by the end of the year, as originally planned.
This formal acknowledgement of a delay seems to substantiate the account of a Guardian source familiar with the pipeline safety upgrade work, who asked not to be identified. Work crews hired by PG&E contractors and subcontractors to perform the safety upgrades have found themselves in a holding pattern of waiting to be called out to job sites, our source said, despite the extensive planned work.
The utility typically sends work crews out to perform maintenance work during spring and summer months, so it can be wrapped up in time for winter, when there’s higher demand for gas heating.
The cost of these upgrades is shared between PG&E shareholders and revenues collected from utility customers.
A major obstacle to the goal of improving safety has yet to be resolved: PG&E’s pipeline records still aren’t in order, despite a major push to iron out data in the wake of San Bruno.
Since these records are the foundation for making safety upgrade decisions, these informational gaps threaten to undermine the project. The implications of this glaring problem are outlined in a CPUC document obtained by the Bay Guardian which was circulated on an internal “service list,” but not made publicly available.
First, some background: In October 2013, PG&E submitted an update to its PSEP plan to the CPUC, which included reporting on its effort to collect and analyze pipeline records. The regulatory agency’s Safety and Enforcement Division conducted an audit of this reported progress.
The audit, which made headlines when it was released in April, commended PG&E for its work but also noted, “PG&E does not have traceable, verifiable, and complete records for every pipeline component in its transmission system.” The audit also found errors in the work papers submitted by the company to back up its claims. Nevertheless, the Safety and Enforcement Division concluded, “no imminent safety concerns arose” from the findings.
But this proclamation isn’t the final word on the matter. The Office of Ratepayer Advocates is a small division within the CPUC, which functions as a watchdog looking out for the interests of utility customers. Its comments on the audit tell quite a different story, raising questions about why the enforcement division didn’t seem to place much weight on its own findings.
In its comments, reflected in the document that was circulated internally, the ORA sharply questioned the Safety and Enforcement Division’s overarching conclusion. It should “reflect the actual findings of the audit,” the ORA wrote, recommending that the Safety Division “define what is meant by … ‘no imminent safety concerns.’
“In common language,” the ORA went on, “this would be interpreted to mean there is no situation that puts the public in immediate risk of death or serious physical harm. If that is the meaning, please confirm. If not, please clarify the meaning.”
The ORA goes on to note that such a statement is “contradicted by findings within the body of the report,” and that “it is difficult to understand how the SED Report could reach this conclusion.”
The Safety Division’s audit “documents errors that ORA would define as safety risks,” the ORA notes, such as the discovery of a pipeline that has a maximum operating pressure nearly 20 percent higher than it should be, based on the pipeline feature data, or the discovery that PG&E had been “inappropriately operating a pipeline with a reduced margin of safety.”
PG&E responded to the Safety Division’s audit, and “they view their report as final,” noted ORA spokesperson Nathaniel Skinner. As far as addressing the problems uncovered in the audit, “It’s unclear to us what the next step is for the Safety and Enforcement Division.”
OPINION Every year, around 3,500 formal eviction lawsuits are filed against residential tenants in San Francisco Superior Court. Contrary to popular belief, the eviction lawsuit — known as an “unlawful detainer” — is one of the fastest moving cases in the entire civil system. While we’ve all heard anecdotes about how it can take years to remove San Francisco tenants from their homes, tenants sued for eviction experience civil litigation at warp speed.
More than a third of those sued for eviction miss the five-day window the law provides to file a response with the court. In 2013, 1,294 of the tenant households that were sued for eviction in the city missed that deadline to respond. The strong tenant protections found in San Francisco’s Rent Ordinance and California law don’t mean much to those who miss their five-day deadline: Sheriff’s deputies clear the property just a few weeks after the case is filed if you don’t respond. So much for due process.
Securing tenants due process rights in San Francisco has been our job at the Eviction Defense Collaborative (EDC) since 1996. At our drop-in legal clinic, our team of attorneys and volunteers assist over 94 percent of all tenants who respond to their eviction lawsuit in San Francisco each year. Although our office is open Monday through Friday to help tenants respond to the lawsuit on time, nine out of 10 tenants sued for eviction represent themselves for the duration of their case. Over 90 percent of landlords can afford to hire expert, aggressive attorneys to evict their tenants — very few tenants can afford to hire a private attorney to defend their homes.
Unsurprisingly, tenants agree to move out in most eviction lawsuits — around four out of five tenants sued for eviction will settle the case with an agreement to leave their homes. And who could blame them? The choice of conducting a jury trial against a licensed attorney is not an appealing — or realistic — choice for a self-represented tenant. Without an attorney to stand up and fight for your rights at trial, those rights remain the empty, meaningless promises of the pay-to-play American legal system.
Of course, tenants who get represented by attorneys can win eviction cases — exactly the reason we started our Trial Project at EDC last year. Since the Trial Project launched, EDC staff attorneys have represented a small percentage of tenants facing the prospect of a jury trial on their own. Through the hard work of EDC staff attorneys (who on average earn less than $50,000 a year), the Trial Project enjoyed another jury trial victory in May. While very few eviction cases reach a verdict, this was EDC’s third trial victory in the past year.
This particular jury verdict saved the home of a Spanish-speaking couple who has lived in the Mission District for the past 19 years. They have young children who attend the local public schools and attend church in the neighborhood. This family has limited income and would certainly have had to leave of San Francisco if it was evicted, uprooting the children and leaving behind its community.
The landlord had accused the family of not paying the rent — even though the family had repeatedly tried to pay. The jury agreed with the tenant, finding that the conditions on the property were so bad that the landlord wasn’t entitled to the rent being demanded. The jury actually followed the law, and reduced the tenants’ rent.
The heroes in this case are the tenants — their courage in standing up for their home and their civil rights is inspiring, and should be a lesson to tenants across the city. We need tenants in San Francisco to push back against this current wave of displacement and we’re here to help.
Tyler Macmillan is a tenants’ rights attorney and the executive director of the Eviction Defense Collaborative, a nonprofit legal services clinic in the Tenderloin. Any tenant sued for eviction can drop into EDC at 995 Market St., #1200 (at Sixth Street) Mon-Fri, 9:30-11:30am and 1-3pm.
EDITORIAL Members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who try to identify with both the progressive movement and business-oriented Mayor Ed Lee — most notably, Sups. David Chiu and Jane Kim — engaged in a strange bit of self-congratulations during their June 10 meeting, patting themselves on the back for a trio of “progressive” reforms.
Yet in each case, the measures are weaker than they should be and too long overdue — and they have their full implementation delayed for years, while the needs of the people they aim to serve are immediate. What Kim and Chiu presented as a demonstration of political effectiveness on behalf of needy constituents is actually just the opposite. It is political cowardice and not political courage.
The best of the trio of approvals was a measure by Sup. David Campos that finally closes the loophole that allows employers to satisfy their employee healthcare mandate by creating healthcare savings accounts, which they make difficult to use and then pocket the money that remains.
This should have been enacted three years ago when Campos first won approval for it, only to see Lee veto it and Chiu sponsor a watered-down alternative that didn’t address the problem. Even now, in order to win over Sups. Mark Farrell and London Breed to attain a veto-proof majority, Campos had to delay full implementation until 2017.
“I also want to commend Sup. Campos for finding compromise,” Chiu said before joining the inevitable majority, a snide dig at his Assembly race opponent that only served to reinforce Campos’ campaign trail points that Chiu’s compromises are often just sellouts to downtown interests. This watered-down version, albeit better than the last watered-down version, also won unanimous approval.
Another kumbaya moment came with the introduction of a consensus ballot measure for increasing the minimum wage in San Francisco, with the Mayor’s Office and business community finally agreeing with the campaign by labor and progressive groups to increase the minimum wage to $15 — but delaying that implementation to 2018. How much displacement and economic hardship will San Franciscans experience between now than then?
Chiu and Kim also sang the praises of Lee for finally agreeing to finally keep his word and support a local increase in the vehicle license fee to fund safer and smoother streets and more money for Muni. But rather than this year as promised, that measure will be on the November 2016 ballot, pushing it back from prosperous to uncertain times.
At the June 12 Guardian community forum, Sup. Scott Wiener said he may still move forward with his proposed charter amendment to give Muni more general fund money until the local VLF is approved, and we strongly urge him to so do.
“Justice delayed is justice denied” is a legal maxim that this board full of lawyers is certainly familiar with. Their delays of crucial reforms are disgraceful and damaging to the city, and for them to congratulate themselves for doing so is insulting.
San Franciscans have always been wary of chain stores, more so than residents of any other major US city, none of which have taken on the ever-expanding national corporations and their homogenizing impact on local communities as strongly as San Francisco.
In the decade since San Francisco first adopted trail-blazing controls on what it calls “formula retail” businesses, those restrictions have only gotten tighter for various commercial districts around the city as elected supervisors seek to prevent big companies from taking over key storefronts from local shopkeepers.
But now, as the Planning Department and Mayor’s Office push a new set of formula retail regulations that they say standardizes and expands the analysis and controls for chain stores throughout the city, neighborhood groups and small business advocates are decrying aspects of the proposal that actually weaken those controls.
Most controversial is the proposal to almost double the number of outlets that a company can have before it is considered a formula retail business, going from up to 11 stores now up to 20 under the proposal, which was approved by the Small Business Commission last week and heads to the Planning Commission next month.
Opposition is particularly strong in North Beach, one of two neighborhood commercial districts that have an outright ban on formula retail business (Hayes Valley is the other) and where residents are organizing to fight the proposal at the Board of Supervisors and at the ballot if necessary.
“The Planning Department proposal to redefine what a chain store is flies in the face of the voters’ will and 10 years of successful chain store policy,” Aaron Peskin, the former Board of Supervisors president from North Beach who sponsored the ordinance banning chains there, told the Guardian.
The citywide voters he refers to are those who approved Prop. G by a wide margin in 2006, defining formula retail business as having 11 or more outlets with common branding and merchandise and requiring that they obtain a conditional use permit before opening in most neighborhood commercial districts, thus giving local residents a vehicle to stop those projects.
Although Prop. G allows the city to update its standards and definitions regarding formula retail, Peskin and others said throwing out the negotiated number of 11 outlets undercuts “the fundamental underpinning of the formula retail controls.”
The Planning Department proposal also does nothing to prevent big national chains from creating spin-offs to circumvent the controls, a growing trend that raised controversy in the last few years, including when Gap subsidiary Athleta opened a store on Fillmore Street and when Liz Claiborne owner Fifth & Pacific Companies tried to open a Jack Spade store in the Mission District.
Those two controversial provisions in the Planning Department proposal aren’t in rival legislation by Sup. Eric Mar, who has long been a champion of expanding controls on chain stores. Both the Mar and Planning Department legislation will go before the Planning Commission on July 17, and they could be either merged or move forward as rival proposals.
“We’re hoping this legislation moves forward as quickly as we can,” Mar told us. “We’re losing neighborhood character in many areas.”
For all the indignant opposition to the Planning Department proposal expressed at the June 9 Small Business Commission meeting, where mayoral appointees led that body’s 4-2 vote approving the measure, the planners who developed it say they’re actually trying to expand the controls on chain stores.
Senior Policy Advisor AnMarie Rodgers and Project Manager Kanishka Burns sat down with the Guardian to go through details of the proposal and a May study it was based on, “San Francisco Formula Retail Economic Analysis,” by Strategic Economics, as well as an earlier study by the Controller’s Office.
“Our department is super committed to encouraging the diversity of neighborhood commercial districts,” Rodgers told us, acknowledging that small businesses often need protection from deep-pocketed corporations that can pay higher rents and enjoy other competitive advantages over mom-and-pop stores.
Rodgers cited studies showing that local small businesses circulate more of their revenues in the city than big chains, boosting the local economy. That’s one reason why the Planning Department proposal expands formula retail controls to include the categories business and professional services (including Kinko’s and H&R Block), limited financial services (including street front ATMs and small banking outlets), and fringe financial (such as check-cashing and payday loan outlets).
The new controls would also count a company’s outlets in other countries and locations that have been leased but not yet opened, it would expand some of the neighborhoods subject to formula retail controls, and it would require formula retail businesses to minimize their signage on the street, improve their pedestrian access, and fund more detailed analysis on their impacts on the local economy. Big box stores, in particular, would be required to submit to even more detailed economic impact studies.
Many of these same provisions are included in the Mar legislation, which also goes further in including gyms, gas stations, smoke shops, strip clubs, massage establishments, and various automotive businesses under the formula retail controls. Like the Planning Department measure, Mar’s also requires more data for formula retail applicants.
“We want to make chains fund economic impact statements before they go into the neighborhoods,” Mar said, noting how those studies will allow city officials to make better decisions about whether to approve formula retail applications.
Stacy Mitchell is the senior researcher for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an organization that has been working with San Francisco on its formula retail controls since their inception. She applauds the city’s current efforts to create more comprehensive guidelines and to require more economic analysis.
“San Francisco doesn’t have a good mechanism for fully evaluating the economic impact of these proposals,” Mitchell told us, calling the Planning Department and Mar efforts “a really good place to start the conversation.”
But Mitchell said that she doesn’t want to weigh in on what specific number of outlets may be right, saying city officials just need to decide, “What is the right balance and mix and how do we want to handle it?”
Rodgers told us the Planning Department legislation will expand the number of businesses that fall under formula retail controls, even as the threshold is raised to 20 outlets, although she couldn’t quantify exactly how much.
But critics are focusing on aspects of the proposal that loosen current restrictions, noting how that cuts against the trend in recent years of supervisors seeking to tighten restrictions in their districts, creating a hodgepodge of legislation that the Planning Department was trying to overcome with comprehensive new legislation.
WHAT’S A CHAIN?
The Planning Department’s new threshold and the arguments being made to support it rely heavily on making the case that three specific homegrown companies should be excluded from formula retail protections: Philz Coffee (with 14 stores), Lee’s Deli (13 outlets), and San Francisco Soup Company (16 locations).
“Right now, we would treat Philz the same way we treat Starbucks,” Burns said, noting that Starbucks has more than 20,000 outlets.
“Can’t you cut a break to the businesses that started here?” was a question that Rodgers says helped shape development on the regulations. The Strategic study found that about 5 percent of the retail establishments in the city had 11 to 20 outlets, while another 4 percent had 21-50 outlets. “We’re just trying to find the sweet spot.”
Yet Peskin said the change doesn’t make sense, and it’s just a way to give special treatment to a handful of local companies with political connections, and which have more resources to go through the conditional use process than a true small business.
“They’re basically finding another way to satisfy San Francisco Soup Company, a stalwart member of the Chamber of Commerce,” Peskin said.
Asked how she can seemingly circumvent the will of the voters, Rodgers told us, “It was a voter initiative, but it says the Planning Commission will establish further details.” In fact, Prop. G simply relies on the formula retail definitions that had already been adopted by ordinance started with a measure by then-President Matt Gonzalez in 2004.
But Peskin said the proposal to increase the threshold to 20 is an affront to popular local controls on chain stores, one that has little chance of becoming law.
“I don’t think the Board of Supervisors is crazy enough to go and undo one of the most successful pieces of legislation from the early part of this century. And if they do, then the voters won’t stand for it,” Peskin said, pledging to personally work on the campaign to protect existing formula retail controls.
Mar also said he will defend the current threshold. “The 11 that was written into the legislation was the result of a compromise,” Mar said, noting that Gonzalez initially placed the threshold at four stores and compromised with the business community on 11. “We’re going to do our best to work with our coalition to hold it to 11.”
Mar was also critical of the Planning Department proposal for not looking at corporate ownership of subsidiaries, something that his legislation does, stating that companies with a 50 percent or more ownership stake in an outlet get included in the formula retail designation.
“Our proposal has been attacked by people who think we’re over-regulating and those who think we’re under-regulating,” Rodgers told us.
Yet as the June 9 Small Business Commission hearing made clear, supporters of the proposal predictably came from the same business groups that have opposed formula retail controls from the very beginning: San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, San Francisco Association of Realtors, and San Francisco Building Owners and Managers Association.
Representatives from each of those three groups were the only people who spoke in favor of the proposal, each of them declaring it a “balanced” and “data-driven” compromise that they support, even as they argued for loosening the restrictions even more. But the vast majority of speakers were neighborhood activists critical of the proposal.
“Going from 11 to 20 makes no sense at all. Who picked out this number?” Susan Landry, owner of Animal Connection in the Marina District, told the commission. “Please have a conscience and vote for independent businesses.”
But Small Business Commissioner Kathleen Dooley said the vote was just the latest example of a commission stacked with mayoral appointees (including two bankers) doing the bidding of downtown rather than advocating for small business interests.
“Nine supervisors have tightened up the restrictions in their districts, but the Planning Department has gone the opposite way,” Dooley told us. “The irony was it all started with the protests [of chain applicants skirting local controls], but the Planning Department turned it on its head to loosen the restrictions.”
Yet the planners involved on the proposal call that a simplistic view that discounts the comprehensive nature of the new policy, which they say could serve as a model for other cities.
“I think they’ll all catch up to us,” Rodgers said of the other big US cities that have become to explore formula retail controls as local small businesses struggle against competition from chain stores. “We are a national leader on this and we want to get it right.”
Mitchell agreed: “There are lots of conversations going on around the country about how to meet this challenge, and people are watching what San Francisco does.”
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