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?
There’s something romantic about San Francisco’s summertime fog. Those damp and chilly nights belong only to us, and the atmosphere they create is what dreams are made of. While the rest of the country simultaneously shares the same experience of panting and sweltering, we bundle up in scarves and coats and hoodies and boots just to run to the store. Maybe that’s the real reason San Francisco feels like a bubble. Maybe it’s not just that we’re this bedrock of progressivism and technological innovation. Maybe it’s that, like living inside a shaken snow globe, our lives are defined by the fact that the rest of the world is obscured from us by the mists floating in the air.
I’ve been telling Noah for a while that I’m gonna go visit him at the Fireside Bar (603 Irving, SF. 415-731-6433). We used to work Thursday nights together at the Golden Gate Tap Room until we didn’t anymore, and I’ve been meaning to catch up with him during one of his shifts at the Fireside. Situated at the corner of Seventh and Irving, the Fireside may be the perfect neighborhood bar. It’s got a dive bar feel without being rundown and smelly, the drinks are stiff and cheap, and the regulars are friendly enough. But most importantly it’s got a motherfucking fireplace.
Imagine this: You’ve decided to get out of your regular routine and go explore somewhere else. Maybe you wandered around Golden Gate Park or decided to check out the Inner Sunset. Or you just walked to the end of Upper Haight and decided to keep on going into the unknown. It’s July in San Francisco, and the sun is starting to go down, and you’ve been wandering around all day with someone who makes you feel all warm and gooey inside. Let’s grab a drink, one of you says as your feet start to hurt and your mouth feels parched and the top of the ear where you just kissed your special person is cold to the touch. And then you see the Fireside Bar. While San Francisco summers have been around far longer than the Fireside, it’s weird to imagine one without the other. You think about this as the two of you order drinks before sitting down to make love-eyes at each other near the fireplace.
I first moved to San Francisco in the summertime, and considering I lived in the Upper Haight, the fog was like a visitor who showed up towards the end of each day. My friend Maria lived a block down from me so one night we got drunk at her place and decided to go on an adventure. I grabbed my skateboard, she put on her roller skates and we headed west to explore parts of SF neither of us was familiar with. Cutting through the fog and the shadows of UCSF we eventually found our way to the Fireside, where we stopped for drinks and so Maria could clean up the scrapes she received from falling repeatedly on her skates. We got warm by the fire and then managed to get our drunk asses back to our respective homes without either of us cracking our heads open. It was a romantic night, not in a sexual way, but in a way where we both knew we were two people falling in love with San Francisco and its foggy ways.
I think it’s time I finally get my shit together and go visit Noah. Maybe I need a little fog and the Fireside to remind me of all the reasons I fell in love with this city in the first place.
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 The Fourth of July kicked off a revolution once; could it happen again? Each year in Dolores Park the San Francisco Mime Troupe gives it a shot, kicking off its touring season of free outdoor shows with a musical-comical call to arms — an appeal to popular solidarity against the very real forces of oppression on a holiday gleefully synonymous with keg-tapping.
It’s a task the legendary 55-year-old artist-run collective pursues with passion and its own unique flair: a larger-than-life mix of Italian commedia dell’arte storytelling and American-style melodrama, with a smattering of original songs thrown in for good measure. It’s an eye and ear catching spectacle that this year hits close to home, wading into the conflicts and displacement churned by a rapidly transforming high-tech, high-cost city.
Ripple Effect is set in present-day San Francisco, or just offshore in the bay, in a small tour boat where three women of very different backgrounds reckon with one another. The boat’s captain is an ardent but paranoid Lefty activist (played by Velina Brown). Her passengers are a Vietnamese beautician and all-American immigrant (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro) and a newbie tech worker from small-town Nebraska (Lisa Hori-Garcia) whose popular app landed her a corporate job in the big city.
Against the backdrop of a yawning wealth gap, real estate speculation, an epidemic of evictions, Google bus protests, and diminishing diversity, Ripple Effect‘s three protagonists (all played by longtime Mime Troupe members) explore the tensions that divide them and the common ground beneath them. (The Mime Troupe is also linking the play to a series of community forums, at its Mission studio and after select performances, in which various community leaders will facilitate public dialogue around the show’s themes and the growing divide in the city.)
“It’s always tough because we do tour the shows, so we don’t want to make them too specific to San Francisco,” says Mime Troupe actor-writer Michael Gene Sullivan, who plays several secondary roles in Ripple Effect, including a certain wily CEO. “But we feel like there are so many issues going on within the city that people around the state, really around the country, will be able to relate to — not just housing and how the cities are changing, but also the struggle within the working class, the way people are being pitted against each other while the incredibly rich are getting incredibly richer. It’s just that it’s more pointed here.”
There is precedent for SF-centric plays in past Mime Troupe offerings. In fact, the company’s 1999 show, City For Sale, took on the housing crisis of the last real estate and dot-com bubble. But Sullivan says the issue has also changed. “This show, while it touches on [housing], is much more about a change in the culture of the city. Not just what does it mean to be living in San Francisco, but what is San Francisco now?”
Ripple Effect is a departure in some other ways too. It’s a more concentrated drama, less concerned with a particular impending disaster to push the plot than in the precise relationship between the main characters. “In this show the dilemma is, to a large extent, how the characters see each other,” notes Sullivan. To this end, Sullivan, head writer for the collective since 2000, shared the writing this time around with Bay Area playwrights Eugenie Chan and Tanya Shaffer, each of whom explored specific aspects of the characters’ back stories. The show also sports two directors (Hugo E. Carbajal and Wilma Bonet) and comes with a new musical team: composer-lyricist Ira Marlowe and musical director Michael Bello, who together fill roles covered in recent years by Pat Moran.
The Mime Troupe has not been immune to the financial upheaval shaking the city. Last year, the collective had to launch an emergency fundraising campaign called the Cost of Free to make up for a serious budget shortfall that jeopardized its ability to offer its annual show. Velina Brown, Sullivan’s life partner as well as fellow artist, explains that the 2008 economic downturn had reduced the offerings of arts foundations by as much as 40 percent. “Being already a really lean organization anyway, 40 percent going away is huge.” But where another theater might have folded up shop, the Mime Troupe, with help from its audience, bounced back.
“One of the things that’s helped us over the years with all these ups and downs is that we are a collective,” says Brown. “It’s not all on one or two people and if they feel like that’s it, then that’s it — there’s a larger group of people that have to agree that that’s it before the doors close. We also own our building, and that has definitely saved our behinds. We haven’t had to be at the mercy of a landlord — who says, “Hey, I could get 10 times what you people are paying” — and kicked to the curb.”
“Because we’re a collective it takes people a lot longer to get burned out,” agrees Sullivan. “Because we’re worker-owners of our company we are willing to put in more time, do things for a little less pay, come to meetings when we’re not paid to be there. We do get paid; it’s an [Actors] Equity company. But we have a sense of ownership you don’t get at other places, and that also helps the company in the most difficult times.” *
TABLEHOPPING Sorry (not sorry) but both of these places I’m about to mention have “big” and “belly” and “chubby” in their names, which should be your clue that I’m not going to be telling you about a new salad bar. Whatever, many of you just finished a week of not eating (thanks PRIDE!) and are probably still hurting from the weekend. Let’s do this. First up, Big Chef Tom’s Belly Burgers (1550 Howard, SF. www.bctbellyburgers.com) has opened in SoMa, and if you haven’t had the chance to acquaint yourself with chef Tom Pizzica’s burgers made from 100 percent ground pork belly at events around town, well, you are overdue. This is his first brick-and-mortar spot, which means he gets to rock an expanded menu, with all kinds of creative combos. I would start with the All-American, with rosemary mayo, sliced apple, and sharp cheddar cheese. I also really dug the Banh Baby, Banh one afternoon at Outside Lands, with Vietnamese caramel, sliced jalapeño, hard-boiled egg, and cilantro. Don’t eat pork? No problem, you can sub the porky patty for one made with ground chicken thigh, or a vegetarian version. There are a few sides too (crispy onions, fries, or roasted kale, because hey, it’s California). Good news: beer will be coming in a couple weeks. Open daily 10:30am–9pm.
Next up: Chubby Noodle (2205 Lombard, SF. www.chubbynoodle.com) has opened a second location, but unlike its original location in Amante in North Beach, this 49-seater is a stand-alone in the former Gatip Thai in the Marina. Pete Mrabe (the evil genius behind Don Pisto’s) and biz partner Nick Floulis (Pushback Wines) just finished their grand opening celebration this past weekend, and now they’re open 5pm–12:30am nightly, but potentially closing on Mondays (just double check their hours on their website before you head over). The 12-item menu includes some dim sum (the chicken buns are a fave), chicken noodle soup (a riff on a fried chicken ramen), hot fried snapper, and are you ready for breakfast for dinner? I sure am. They have a hickory-smoked bacon jook with a fried egg, yes! It’s a casual and lively spot, with flavor-packed food that’s well prepared, and budget-friendly too. Look for some wine-based cocktails (they’re better than you’d expect), plus beer and wine on tap, and they’re also going to be one of the first places in the US to have sake on tap.
Brunch is something we do almost too well in this town, and here are three more options for you to add into rotation (especially since all three places serve full liquor). The colorful and cheerful Loló (974 Valencia, SF. www.lolosf.com) in the Mission is now serving brunch Friday (love it!) through Sunday, 11am–4pm. The menu includes chilaquiles with carnitas, a Mexican Benedict, a chorizo scramble, and more. The cocktails are also (almost) too delicious (ditto the cute staff), so watch yourself.
Palm House (2032 Union, SF. www.palmhousesf.com) in Cow Hollow is serving weekend brunch 10:30am–2:30pm. Get into an island Caribbean vibe with tropical breakfasts from around the world, including huevos rancheros; fried eggs revoltillo with plantains, rice, beans, and Puerto Rican spices; and a Cubano. Note: They have boozy slushy drinks.
Over in North Beach, The Square (1707 Powell. SF. www.thesquaresf.com) is serving weekend brunch 10:30am–2pm, with some picks like eggs Benedict with braised greens, Surryano ham, and crispy potato; a wild mushroom omelet; and pancakes with bacon and blueberries. How handy, there’s also a Corpse Reviver No. 2 with gin, lemon, Lillet, and absinthe. You’ll be feeling better in no time — get out of that crypt!
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 How do you address a woman who toured with the Rolling Stones as an opening act, while being chased after by a baby-faced John Lennon? Who had five singles in the Top 40 by the age of 21? Who perfected the beehive hairdo two decades before Amy Winehouse was even born?
“Call me Ronnie,” purrs Ronnie Spector, age 70, on the other end of the line. You can almost hear the hairdo.
The woman who influenced performers like Billy Joel, Patti Smith, and Joey Ramone is calling from a suburb near Danbury, Conn., where she lives with her manager/husband of 30 years, Jonathan Greenfield. Their life is a quiet one. Spector — who, as the lead singer of the Ronettes, perhaps the most iconic girl group of the early ’60s thanks to hits like “Be My Baby,” has been described as the original bad girl of rock ‘n’ roll — likes to read and watch movies. She goes grocery shopping, does a little cooking, goes to Bed, Bath & Beyond. Three times a week she goes to an office and dictates responses to her fan mail to an assistant (she doesn’t like to use the Internet much herself). She doesn’t drink (never has, she says), but she still smokes (Marlboro Reds).
Okay, and every now and then she’ll catch up with her old friend Keith Richards, who lives 15 minutes away.
For the past two years, the ’60s icon has also been on tour again: Her one-woman stage show, “Beyond the Beehive,” chronicles her tumultuous life from childhood onward, punctuated with songs, stories, behind-the-scenes dirt and dishing. She’ll bring elements of that show to the Bay Area July 4 weekend, when she performs at Brick and Mortar Music Hall Sat/5 (in a ridiculously fabulous-sounding evening hosted by Peaches Christ) and at Burger Boogaloo in Oakland’s Mosswood Park Sun/6.
So: Why would someone who’s lived such a full life — not to mention a self-described homebody — put herself through the rigors of a touring stage show at a time in her life when she could be resting on her laurels? Or at least, one might think, just resting?
“Because I love it — it lets all of my emotions out,” says Ronnie, sounding straight-up girlishly, genuinely excited. “When I first started, of course, I was scared to death: I’ve been on stage singing since I was a little girl, but I never had to sit down and talk to an audience. Now, I feel so good after I do that show. I go through the good, the bad, and the ugly. I tell them everything, and I’m nervous every time, but I love it.”
A little like on-stage therapy, no?
“I stopped going to therapy when I started ‘Beehive’!” she cries. “Who needs a psychiatrist? My show is my therapy. The audience loves it, I love it, and I get to tell them things I never got to talk about.
“Because a lot of stories from my life — ooh, if walls could talk…”
FROM HARLEM TO HOLLYWOOD
Born to a Cherokee and African American mother and an Irish father, a drummer, on Aug. 10, 1943, Veronica Bennett grew up in Spanish Harlem, in a large, working-class family that served as her first audience.
“When I was 7 or 8, me and eight of my cousins were in the lobby of our building and I was singing ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ — the sound was great down there, the tall ceilings — and my cousins all started clapping,” she recalls. “And I thought, I got it! From that point on, all I thought about was singing. I didn’t do homework. The teachers were calling my house saying ‘She’s just singing for the class.’ It was all I cared about.” She spent hours singing with her sister, Estelle Bennett, and cousin, Nedra Talley, the trio that would go on to become the Ronettes.
When the girls were young teens, as if to say “Okay, let’s see what you’ve got,” Ronnie and Estelle’s mother, a waitress at a restaurant next door to the Apollo Theater, managed to get the girls a spot on the bill at the legendary venue’s amateur night. They didn’t win that evening’s competition, but the audience applauded (as opposed to throwing tomatoes), and Spector still remembers the feeling. “That was it. It was the toughest crowd in town, and they liked us,” she says.
The rest is show business history: The signature eye makeup and impeccable on-stage style. Hordes of shrieking fans during appearances on American Bandstand. The UK tour on which the girls spent evenings flirting and dancing with the Beatles. Bottles upon bottles of hairspray.
And, of course, the group’s relationship with wunderkind producer Phil Spector, the man responsible for the “wall of sound” instrumentation that makes so many ’60s records sound so beautifully, chart-toppingly lush. “Be My Baby,” a song Brian Wilson has called the best pop song ever made (at 21, he was driving when he first heard it and had to pull over), is considered the first pop record to use a full orchestra, with horns, multiple pianos, and guitars layered generously over each other. Backup singers included Darlene Love and a then-unknown couple named Sonny and Cher.
To be sure, Spector was ahead of his time. But 30 seconds of any Ronettes song will tell you everything you need to know about what made the group stand out from the pack.
As the Time magazine writer Michael Enright once put it: “Ronnie had a weird natural vibrato – almost a tremolo, really – that modulated her little-girl timber into something that penetrated the Wall of Sound like a nail gun. It is an uncanny instrument. Sitting on a ragged couch in my railroad flat, I could hear her through all the arguments on the street, the car alarms, the sirens. She floated above the sound of New York while also being a part of it…stomping her foot on the sidewalk and insisting on being heard.”
It’s that same combination of vulnerability, sex appeal, and determinedly tough-as-nails I’ve-been-through-hell-so-don’t-test-me bravado that still attracts fans to her shows some 50 years later — despite the fact they’ve probably already heard a good chunk of the story.
Her low points are well-documented: the nightmarish marriage to a jealous Phil Spector that, according to her 1989 memoir, involved death threats and the young singer being physically locked in his mansion. Then rehab, which she later said was just a means of escape from her ex-husband (who, it must be mentioned, as of this writing, is five years into a 19-year sentence for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson — after a trial in which at least five female acquaintances recounted him holding them at gunpoint).
Then there was life after Phil. Ronnie burst back onto the charts in 1986 as a guest on Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight” (with her signature whoa-oh-oh-ohs front and center), may or may not have had a brief fling with David Bowie, released a critically acclaimed solo album produced by Joey Ramone, married her second husand, had two kids (not necessarily in that order). In 2000, after a 15-year royalty battle, a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled that Phil Spector owed the Ronettes $2.6 million; despite licensing their songs to everything from commercials to Dirty Dancing over the previous four decades, he’d only ever paid the women $14,000 and change.
And now? She’s an unmistakably happy woman, and she clearly likes to talk. It doesn’t take much to get her going on today’s pop music: “It’s like a circus! You can’t see a show without dancers and lights and booms and bangs. It takes away from rock ‘n’ roll. Everyone has to have ridiculous outfits, and you don’t even know who they are by the time their record comes out. People don’t have an identity! Miley Cyrus gets up there with an [inflatable] penis coming out of her? Hello? What is that?”
“You take away the dancers, you take away the choreographers, and [with a lot of pop stars] you will not see a real artist there,” she says. “And everybody lip-syncs. In my day you didn’t do that; I would never do that. To me, it’s cheating the audience.” (Ronnie’s voice has stayed strong, she says, because she’s never liked parties.)
However: “I do love that today’s women artists [are allowed to] write their own material, which we couldn’t. You look at the artists from the past like me, the pioneers, we ended up with nothing because of royalties. Now, Taylor Swift is one of the richest girls in rock ‘n’ roll.”
She also has nothing but kind words for Amy Winehouse — a singer who owed her obvious debts in the vocal and visual style department, and whose “Back To Black” Ronnie sometimes covers in return (once, in London, with Winehouse trying not to be spotted in the audience). “She was a dirty rock ‘n’ roll singer, her voice was real, and she was real,” she says. “I miss her.”
Aside from not really enjoying Top 40 radio, however, Ronnie says she’s loving life — and you believe her. She talks like a survivor — not just of an abusive marriage, but of a time and a place in pop music that chewed young women up and spit them out with astounding ease.
“To be honest, a lot of the groups I knew 50 years ago are dead or dead broke,” she says. “And I had to fight for my career. I was in court for 15 years.
“But you know what? What goes around comes around,” she says conspiratorially. “Karma’s a bitch, and it’ll bite you right in the ass. He’s in prison, and I’m not. I’m out there singing, having the time of my life, and I have everything I want: My shows, a great husband, everything I wanted back then. Turns out you can have your cake and eat it too.” A hearty laugh.
Hiatus, schmiatus. Less than six months after the prom kings of SF’s garage scene declared they’d be taking an “indefinite” break from playing — inciting local blog warfare, while they were at it, with frontman John Dwyer’s move to LA signalling that the trickle of SF musicians down south had actually become a downpour — Thee Oh Sees dropped Drop, nine tracks of reassuringly heavy, noisy, psyched-out reverb. Fans know their maniacal live show is not to be missed, and BB marks the band’s first public return to our stages (or parks, as the case may be). Can we hug and make up now? Sat/5 (Day 1), 8pm.
Of all the bands riding the current wave of ’90s nostalgia, The Muffs are one we’re a-okay with hearing from again. If you’ve seen Clueless, you probably know their cover of “Kids in America,” but with Kim Shattuck’s rough-hewn, little-girl-gone-bad vocals and charisma at the helm, we’ve always thought they deserved much more. This time last year, Shattuck was playing bass for the Pixies; if getting booted from that band was what it took to produce The Muffs’ first record in 10 years, Whoop De Woo (out July 29 ), we’re fine with that too. Bust out your pink Converse for this one. Sun/6 (Day 2), 6pm.
Aside from maybe hot dog-eating contests and firecracker-related injuries, perhaps nothing says “America” like a barely-clothed adult man throwing himself around on stage in a terrifying bunny mask, a coat made of garbage, and a ball gag. Luckily, we have Nobunny, the endearingly insane alter ego of veteran punk madman Justin Champlin, who promises to make this all-ages affair just a little bit of a darker experience than you’d probably want unaccompanied children to have on their own. Just like our founding fathers would have wanted. Sat/5 (Day 1), 5:15pm.
FILM There’s a T-shirt that’s achieved must-have status in record time, even though as yet it may just be an idea for a T-shirt: A picture of Al Gore gesticulating at the podium, with the words “If you don’t believe in climate change just look at San Francisco … only a few years ago that city was still cool.” Haha. Sob. The temperature drift from cool to tepid (and expensive) registers in a thousand ways, big and small, with the shuttering of cultural venues now a predictable minor-key prelude to the ka-ching symphony of condo construction.
Not yet axed, but with head positioned above the bucket, is the Vortex Room — that SOMA venue so cool you need to know the address (there’s no sign), as if it were a Prohibition speakeasy or something. Spawn of the late, beloved Werepad, the Vortex was threatened with eviction last fall. After a few months of legal skirmishing the landlord backed down, but then served notice again not long afterward. “We are currently fighting it out in, I guess, a battle of resources. They appear to just want to wear us down. This new real estate marketing is just too tempting, I suppose,” says founder Scott Moffett.
Aptly, July’s Film Cult series at the Vortex takes as its theme “Bad Vibrations.” The bounty of five Thursdays this month allows plenty of room for programmer Joe Niem to mine a collection of largely 16mm exploitation obscurities in which “Summer is spelled with a ‘B’.” As in, you know, bummer! — but more about that film title later.
Things kick off with a double dose of female imperilment from the golden age of TV movies. A Vacation in Hell (1979) has one would-be playa (Michael Brandon) arranging a day trip from a Club Med-type resort with four women so he can hit on the dumb blonde (Priscilla Barnes). The others are Andrea Marcovicci as Embittered Neurotic Man-Hating Possible Lesbian, Get Smart!‘s Barbara Feldon as an insecure divorcee still looking for love, and erstwhile Marcia Brady Maureen McCormick as the teenage daughter she’s dragged along as security blanket.
Upon reaching an isolated beach, their inflatable boat gets a puncture. They attempt to dither their way back to civilization cross-country, and in pure idiot panic incur the wrath of a strapping native hunter (Ed Ka’ahea) whom Marcovicci dubs “you murderous savage.” Under the silly, talky circumstances, this ABC Movie of the Week has some surprisingly good acting. Which cannot be said, perhaps thankfully, for the prior year’s Summer of Fear, aka Stranger in Our House. Fully exorcised then-telepic queen Linda Blair plays a seriously bratty SoCal teen who grows suspicious of the freshly orphaned cousin (Lee Purcell) who comes to live with her family, and who in record time goes from twangy wallflower to usurping seductress. This (eventually) Satanic thriller was the first mainstream Hollywood project for a Wes Craven fresh from Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and remains the tamest thing he ever directed — yes, tamer than Meryl Streep inspiring Harlem youth in 1999’s Music of the Heart.
Fear not, stronger meat is ahead. July 10 brings two theatrical horrors, 1980’s Blood Beach and 1976’s Who Can Kill a Child?, aka Island of the Damned. The first is a late entry in the cycle of Jaws (1975) rip-offs, which it winks at by having one character quip, “Just when you thought it as safe to get back in the water, you can’t get to it” — because something unseen is pulling Santa Monica beachgoers down screaming, right through the sand. It turns out to be an all-too-briefly seen monster in this lethargic chiller by the future director of Flowers in the Attic (1987 version, not the recent made-for-Lifetime version), with the highlight being a surprising political speech by John Saxon’s police chief about how taxpayers want the sun and the moon in city services … they just don’t want to pay for it.
Who Can Kill a Child? is something else: a beautifully atmospheric Spanish nightmare by underrated Uruguayan Narcisco Ibáñez Serrador, in which two English tourists row to a quaint village off the mainland. When they arrive, however, everyone appears to be gone save a few children — with whom something has gone very, very wrong. Quiet and slow-building, it’s a striking parable that really pays off once ominousness turns to terror at the completely irrational crisis these visitors have stumbled into. Equally memorable and shocking is 1978’s US Blue Sunshine, a tale of a government LSD experimentation that the Vortex (and the Werepad before it) has shown so many times it might as well be its filmic mascot.
The rest of the schedule is obscure even by Vortex standards. English-language 1972 Eurotrash hostage drama Summertime Killer stars Christopher Mitchum, one of two (with sibling Jim) Robert Mitchum offspring who experienced moderate movie fame — despite dad’s oddly dismissive public statements about their B-list careers. Aussie One Night Stand (1984) has New Wave youth in Sydney acting like mildly New Wave cut-ups in a John Hughes movie as they await nuclear holocaust. It’s less fun than it sounds. More fun than it sounds is 1990’s direct-to-video Punk Vacation, in which mildly “punk” miscreants slumming in the sticks wage war against local hicks.
Lastly there’s 1973’s Bummer!, a sobering film about the groupie lifestyle — even before the fat misogynist drummer no one will have sex with goes postal. Offering further proof the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle leads to Hades is Down Beat, a feature so obscure imdb.com doesn’t know it exists. Even the few to note Christian film “pioneer” Ken Anderson’s passing in 2006 made no mention of this 1967 warning against all that was then groovy and ungodly. If and when the Vortex goes away for keeps, who will unearth such treasures for us henceforth? That’s right: Nobody. *
FILM The joke’s been made elsewhere that Begin Again, the latest from writer-director John Carney (2007’s Once), should have been dubbed Twice. There are undeniable similarities. Though Begin Again takes place in New York City, not Dublin, it’s another musical tale of a romantically-challenged artist whose life is changed by a chance encounter. However, unlike Once, Begin Again has an A-list cast, with Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, and Catherine Keener, plus big-name musicians like Adam Levine and CeeLo Green.
Carney eases us into this tale of Big Apple heartbreak and redemption by playing its opening moments multiple times from different perspectives. Jolly busker Steve (scene-stealer James Corden) puts his bummed-out buddy Greta (Knightley) on the spot at an open-mic night, where she croons a song she’s just written about jumping in front of a subway train. (Knightley does her own singing, but careful camerawork ensures we never get a good look at her guitar skills.) Dan (Ruffalo), a down-on-his-luck music-biz professional whose career status is nearly as dismal as his personal life — he’s estranged from his music-journalist wife (Keener) and teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) — happens to stumble into the joint as Greta takes the stage.
He’s enthralled by her performance, and the film does an “earlier that day” rewind to let us know why Dan is so drunk. Truth is, he woke up wasted, to the annoyance of his longtime business partner (Mos Def), who’s laser-focused on keeping their record label profitable (one idea: bands doing “audio commentary” on their own records…ugh). Dan, whose job is in serious danger, dreamily clings to the old-school “fostering talent” model. His ideals may be sky-high, but his dignity’s sloshing at the bottom of the flask he keeps stashed in his aging Jaguar — a status symbol of a lifestyle he hasn’t been able to afford for some time.
After he introduces himself to Greta, certain she’s his ticket to creative rebirth, he’s surprised to learn she’s packing a fully-operational bullshit detector. She also doesn’t take compliments well — “Music is about ears, not eyes,” she insists, when Dan says she has the looks to make it big. But there’s an easy chemistry between them, and once she Googles him and checks his bona fides (Harvard, Grammys), she softens. A little.
We see why Greta is so angry at the world in another rewind. She’s a recent arrival in NYC, tagging along with boyfriend and songwriting partner Dave (Levine). He’s a hotshot rising star who soon morphs into a lying, cheating, trendy facial hair-growing rock ‘n’ roll cliché. (If you have a built-in aversion to the “Moves Like Jagger” singer, this is, needless to say, perfect casting.) These scenes are so overdone — Rob Morrow cameos as a sleazy record-company exec — that Carney’s point of view is abundantly clear: tailoring one’s music to please the basic-bitch demographic and achieving overnight success is bad; while penning personally meaningful tunes and recording them on one’s own terms is good.
Fine. On principle, who doesn’t agree with that? Of course, it’s rad that Greta and Dan decide to take to the streets, NYPD be damned, and record an entire outdoor album with a rag-tag band that signs on thanks to Dan’s fading reputation and, it would seem, Greta’s talent, although for all its emphasis on musical integrity, Begin Again doesn’t bother fleshing out any of the other musician characters. Playing a former client of Dan’s, Green materializes to command a scene or two and undermine the film’s “it shouldn’t be about the money” message, since he sure makes living in a fancy mansion look like a good time.
Another point of contention: Greta never claims to be a great singer, but Knightley’s wispy pipes hardly suggest the glorious potential that perks Dan’s golden ears. Her tunes are forgettable folk-pop, and while some of the same songwriters worked on Begin Again, there’s nothing here that telegraphs the emotional weight of “Falling Slowly,” Once‘s Oscar winner. Begin Again‘s broader themes of music as a healing balm (the film’s original title, as subtle as an anvil to the skull: Can A Song Save Your Life?) are equally generic, illustrated by a scene that has Dan and Greta soothing their sadness by bopping all over the city with a headphone splitter listening to soul jams.
Begin Again strives, with obvious effort, to Make a Statement about an industry struggling to find its identity amid such troubling inventions as revenue-sapping free downloads, YouTube as a career launching pad, and shows like Levine’s own The Voice, which bring instant stardom to artists without the benefit of record-company nurturing. These are worthy issues, but they also make for some heavy-handed dialogue: “We need vision, not gimmicks!”
Fortunately, Begin Again fares better with its explorations of complicated relationships. Nobody does rumpled and wounded better than Ruffalo, and his connections with Keener and Steinfeld feel lived-in and authentic. Knightley has the most obvious character arc, as well as the biggest burden in having to sing — easily the film’s primo curiosity factor, aside from the stunt casting of Levine — but she’s likable as a hipster scorned, determined to figure out her next move even as her world crumbles around her. (Carney does a good job keeping the breakup storyline from getting too maudlin; witness a musical fuck-you drunk dial to Dave’s voice mail, in which an outpouring of emotion is livened up by an impromptu kazoo solo.) It’s also a surprisingly relaxed performance, given her predilection for films like 2012’s overstuffed Anna Karenina. Bonus: despite those wistful song lyrics, she doesn’t end up jumping in front of a train in this one. *
DANCE Visiting from Los Angeles, the Berkeley-born Arianne MacBean introduced the Bay Area to her Big Show Co. via two works. The elaborately titled The People Go Where the Chairs Are dates from 2012; the more condensed present tense was a world premiere. Both pieces intrigued by putting on stage the process the artists go through trying to give life and shape to something inchoate.
For MacBean, for whom language is integral to her dance-making, the challenge was that words both embody but also confine meaning. This intrinsic but probably unsolvable conundrum is at the base of the quirky, often equally funny and poignant People.
Dancers may well recognize themselves in this depiction of the struggle, frustrations, and rewards that the creative process of their practice involves. The rest of us witnessed an amusing, insightful, and lively performance of the process it takes to make an amusing, insightful, and lively performance.
People is more language-based than movement-oriented, and it did suffer from the same disadvantages as many such works. Dancers in general still are not adequately trained to communicate verbally. People’s dancers for the most part did well, but perhaps some unobtrusive body mics might have helped.
As we walked into the theater, performers blocked the stage into a set of overlapping squares. Somewhere off stage, a pianist plinked down isolated notes. One of the dancers wrote down an Alcoholics Anonymous-style 12-step scenario, whose items were erased as accomplished throughout the evening.
As the lights went down, each dancer grabbed a folding chair; rather than being shaped into a “dance,” the chairs were used to bring about collisions, bad feelings, and chaos. So they started over, chattering heatedly about finding an inspiration. Pina Bausch tops the list; however, she is dead. Something like “the dance” will have to do. This brainstorming session about meaning, inspiration, essence, and genuineness was hilarious, and yet almost unbearable to sit through.
Concrete suggestions fall flat. Angelina Attwell demonstrates “a dance I once saw;” it was fierce and left her spent, which scared the rest of them. Later, she had an I-hate-dance moment in which, assisted by her colleagues, the chairs started flying and crashing around her. All joined Max Eugene’s free-for-all, but they could never actually put a “joyous” dance on stage. Eugene’s lack of comprehension and his colleague’s disdain of spontaneous expression spoke volumes about ingrained attitudes in the dance world.
Genevieve Carson’s witty monologue, shadowed by gesticulating males, took on how choreographers use dancers’ contributions to fill transitions. It probably struck a nerve among the dancers in the audience.
Smaller, quieter moments didn’t need language. Challenged to be “genuine,” Eugene simply stood and looked into the audience until his fearful colleagues joined him. There was also a point when the audience was supposed to “participate,” and the dancers leaned on chairs, whispering, inviting us but knowing full well that nobody would step up.
In the serious yet entertaining People we see the dancers both as performers and the people they are, or at least the personas they assumed. Their bravery, their struggle, their anger, and their sense of being in this together despite the odds was something that spoke clearly and effectively.
present tense was a much quieter but also more tightly constructed work in which each moment seemed full of portent. The title, as an intermission discussion between choreographer MacBean and ODC Deputy Director Christy Bolingbroke pointed out, refers to the present moment, but also to the intense presence that is required in a performance.
Verbal language entered here as fragmentary phrases or single words, which acquired meaning in the way they are spoken, screamed, thrown about, casually chained to each other. At one point they simply disappeared into sound that is part of pure physical frustration.
In the opening passage, both Eugene and Carson seemed encased in their own worlds. He stood, and in Butoh-like fashion incrementally opened his arms and shifted his balance ever so slowly. You had to keep looking to see the moves. In contrast, the robotic Carson jerked herself like a mechanical doll onto the ground and up again. Attwell and Brad Culver slowly worked their way across the stage on their backs. The contrast between vertical and horizontal planes suggested a self-contained space that changed very slowly. But then these isolated beings tried to connect, and raced around trying to catch a hand like a lifeline. In twos, they were restrained even as they reached out. That section went on too long. Despite the constant shifting of partners, these parts did not accumulate. More effective was they way they shouted fragments, or single words that would make a sentence, at each other. It all started with Attwell’s silent scream. *
STREET FIGHT With most city officials supporting the accommodation of private transit in some form, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is now vetting where tech workers should board and egress the private corporate commuter buses that ply the 101 and I-280 between San Francisco and Silicon Valley suburbs. A list of proposed bus stops was circulated in June, and the first round of bus stop proposals is set for approval in August.
Short of a proper environmental study, which is the subject of ongoing litigation, the list deserves more scrutiny and deliberation because certain areas of the city — such as Hayes Street in the Western Addition and 18th Street in the Mission — might be effectively made into Google Bus sewers.
I hope SFMTA is open to reconsidering some of these proposed bus stops.
Rather than jamming oversized interstate highway-scale coaches on human-scaled, walkable, and bikeable streets with important Muni routes, SFMTA ought to steer them where they are more appropriate: on the wider, car-oriented streets that bifurcate the city.
For example, the current proposal for private commuter buses in the Western Addition is to have these mammoth and incongruent buses running on Hayes Street using Muni stops at Clayton, Steiner, Laguna, and Buchanan.
This is bad news for passengers on the 21-Hayes, a key neighborhood-serving electric trolley bus that has gotten short shrift in the city planning process. With 12,500 boardings daily, the 21-Hayes is often at capacity every morning before it crosses Van Ness.
Just last week, I was on a packed 21 that was blocked (illegally) by a huge corporate bus on Hayes. With an already dense and slow traffic situation, this added at least 30 seconds to the trip before the 21 could access its stop. Repeat that multiple times in the morning and afternoon and you can see that this will be a mess. It’s not worth the dollar the SFMTA collects for such stops, that’s for sure.
Concentrating the private buses on the 21 line (or the 33 in the Mission) will block Muni where Muni is already slow, unreliable, and overcrowded. It will also diminish walkability and bicycle safety on Hayes and other streets identified in the current list (including the commercial corridors on Divisadero and 18th Street in the Mission.)
Rather than streets such as Hayes, SFTMA should redirect the private buses to the multilane, one-way couplet on Fell and Oak streets, only one block south. Along the corridor, SFMTA could collaborate with the private systems to establish new bus stops (red paint) at Clayton, Masonic, Divisadaro, Fillmore, and near Octavia. This scheme would limit clunky turn movements onto neighborhood streets by oversized buses and contribute to traffic calming.
In the mornings, the buses would pick up passengers on Oak Street, starting along the Panhandle, then travel towards Octavia Boulevard before swinging onto the freeway southbound. In the evenings the buses would exit the freeway at Octavia, and stop at drop-off hubs on Fell, between Octavia and Laguna, and then stop incrementally toward Golden Gate Park.
Additionally, the city needs to consider a space for the underpaid, nonunionized drivers to pull over and rest before and after long segments of freeway driving. We want these buses to be safe.
Similar arrangements should be made to spare 18th Street in the Mission from reverting to a Google bus sewer, with emphasis on private corporate bus stops on South Van Ness or Guerrero-San Jose. Surely there are other examples in other parts of the city.
The urgent affordable housing crisis aside, this could be a win-win from a transportation perspective. Tech workers would no longer get blamed for blocking Muni and they can know that while waiting for their bus, they are contributing to calming erstwhile hazardous streets.
There’s a lot of opportunity to combine these new bus stops with traffic calming at dangerous intersections such as Fell and Masonic or Oak and Octavia, all without mucking up Muni or diminishing the walkable human scale of nearby neighborhood commercial streets. And hey, since this is all a “pilot program,” no pesky and expensive EIR is needed — right?
Thinking long-term, this scheme could be a template to jumpstart making this ridiculous private transit system into a regional public bus system modeled on AC transit or Golden Gate Transit, a service open to all. Our car-centric streets are ripe for express bus service and this would help relieve parallel lines like the N-Judah, while enabling the city to attain its aspiration of 30 percent mode share on transit.
And for Mayor Ed Lee and pro-tech-bus members of the Board of Supervisors, it helps with their “vision zero” rhetoric of increasing pedestrian safety because placing the buses on car-centric one-way couplets can help calm traffic.
With a little cajoling by the mayor, he could get his tech sponsors to underwrite streetscape and beautification at the bus stops along these kinds of streets.
After all, Mayor Lee needs to find the money, because last month he betrayed pedestrian and bicycle safety and Muni when he abandoned support for increasing the Vehicle License Fee locally this fall, all the while misleading the public about the important role of Sunday metering. Perhaps it’s time for a tax or license fee on the ad hoc private transit system?
Speaking of vision zero, Sup. Eric Mar deserves hearty thanks for proposing to reduce speed limits citywide. This is one of the most effective ideas to come from the progressive wing of the Board of Supervisors in a long time and should be implemented yesterday. Higher speeds maim and kill, and the faster cars go the more voracious the appetite for both fuel and urban space.
With reduced speed, the motorist would still be able to drive, just more slowly, perhaps with less convenience than now. But over time the options of cycling, of walkable shopping, and improved public transit would synchronize more seamlessly as car space is ceded to separated cycletracks and transit lanes.
My suggestion is to make the city navigable by car at no greater than 15 miles per hour, a speed deemed not only to be comfortable on calmed pedestrian streets, but also to minimize injury and fatalities when there are collisions. Ultimately, our efforts to curb global warming, reduce injury and death from automobility, and make the city more livable obliges us to slow down, so looking at speeds is a step forward.
Street Fight is a monthly column by Jason Henderson, a geography professor at San Francisco State University and the author of Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco.
OPINION This week, San Franciscans learned that they will not be able to rely on Sacramento to fix the housing crisis. State lawmakers voted down Senate Bill 1439, which would have stopped speculators from using the Ellis Act to evict and convert buildings to upscale offices and TICs. One Assembly Democrat said that San Franciscans were “exaggerating the problem.” That same day, my office received Ellis Act eviction notices for 21 tenants from an artist building at 16th and Mission streets. The building has a new buyer, and it will soon be a high-end commercial space.
I was a tenant rights attorney during the first dot-com boom, and without question, this new housing crisis is much worse. The gentrification is more widespread and permanent. This time around, the evicted teachers, musicians, and artists are not simply moving down the street to smaller units, they are being priced out of San Francisco altogether.
We need to decide now, as San Franciscans, what we want our city to feel like in a decade. Here are five things I believe we need to do now to address the crisis:
1. Collaborate with tech leaders, rather than vilify them. I have been as guilty as the next person in blaming and berating big tech, ignoring the fact that many of my neighbors, clients, and friends are long-time San Franciscans who work in the tech industry. Enough blaming. We need to somehow bring tech to the table to help create large-scale solutions to the housing crisis. It may not be easy to do.
Earlier this year, Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, criticized tech companies for being “stingy” in giving to their communities, and I have heard nonprofit fundraisers echo this. If true, we need to find out why. On the other side, our healthy anti-corporate, ‘us and them’ mindset, which is deeply rooted in San Francisco’s political tradition, is not serving us in collaboratively addressing the housing crisis.
While there are a handful of high-profile examples of tech workers wrongfully displacing tenants, tech workers are not the real problem. It is true that tech money drives up prices, but the real villains are the predatory speculators who are profiting from our shared crisis. The bottom line is, like it or not, tech is here to stay, and tech leaders have the resources to fund the arts, help our schools, and yes, help us address the housing crisis.
2. Stop illegal mergers of multi-unit buildings into single-family mansions. It is not enough to have regulations in place to prevent mergers. Real estate speculators are merging units surreptitiously, without permits. The Department of Building Inspection needs to actively police projects. And all San Francisco residents need to share in the responsibility of ensuring that speculators are not doing major construction without permits in our neighborhoods.
3. Support legislation to stop landlords from renting their units as hotel rooms. It is estimated that more than a 1,000 units in San Francisco are being rented out full-time for short-term corporate or tourist use. We need a law to get these units back into the permanent housing stock.
4. Donate to the Community Land Trust and the Community Arts Stabilization Trust. Community land trusts are buying property to permanently preserve residential housing and art space. We need to do more to support these organizations. Other cities do a much better job than San Francisco in partnering with corporations to preserve culture.
5. Support an anti-speculation tax. Tenant activists have introduced an anti-speculation tax designed to stop real estate flipping. Our office sees the same LLCs flip properties time and time again.
Ultimately it is up to all San Franciscans to embrace this cause if we hope to preserve the diverse and complex character of our city. One thing is sure: We cannot wait to add our voices, or it will be too late.
Warning! This is just a friendly reminder that your petroleum habit is hurting us all.
Berkeley’s Community Environmental Advisory Commission recently approved the concept of stickers to be placed on gas pump handles that warn drivers that greenhouse gases such as those emitted from automobile tailpipes contribute to global warming. If it makes sense to warn that cigarette smoking increases the likelihood of developing lung cancer, then hey, why not remind drivers that by using fossil fuels, they’re increasing the planet’s temperature and volatility.
The campaign is led by 350 Bay Area, a grassroots environmental organization affiliated with 350.org, a global climate movement. The name reflects its main goal: follow scientists’ warnings to reduce the amount of C02 in the atmosphere from its current level of 392 parts per million to below 350 ppm, a crucial threshold of climate instability.
While Berkeley has gained the most political traction for 350 Bay Area’s “Beyond the Pump” campaign, 350 Bay Area is also working on getting San Francisco to adopt the gas pump stickers and other planet-saving tactics.
Since last year, advocates with 350 Bay Area worked in collaboration with Sup. John Avalos on a 10-Point Climate Action Work Plan that was officially adopted in April. This plan commits the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050. The group has also been in contact with Avalos and his legislative aide Jeremy Pollack about sponsoring an ordinance to place the warning stickers on gas pumps in San Francisco.
“I think it’s great. We need reminders about the impact of fossil fuels on an individual basis,” Avalos told the Guardian. “We have choices, and this is a great way to build awareness of those choices.”
Avalos said that his office has already started looking into the idea of putting stickers on gas pumps. Right now, he’s still waiting on enough research to ensure the stickers can pass legal muster against any challenges by the petroleum industry.
“Hopefully it will work out. The City Attorney is looking into it, and we’re waiting to see what happens with Berkeley,” Pollack told the Guardian. “We tried something similar with warnings about cell phone radiations, but the court struck it down.”
He’s referring to the nearly three years of legal battles with the mobile phone industry group CTIA over a San Francisco law passed in 2011 that had required every store selling cell phones in the city to display the specific absorption rate of radiation expected from each phone model.
CTIA took San Francisco all the way to the 9th Circuit US Court of Appeals, saying the law interfered with their free speech rights. And, it won. Finally, last May, San Francisco gave in and killed the warning law. Those legal battles are not something San Francisco is likely to forget, no matter what environment-happy warning labels come along.
Yet the San Francisco public might not mind a gentle push. According to a recent poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 77 percent of San Franciscans think that residents should be doing more to address climate change. The stickers could serve as a gentle push in that direction, and though Avalos is confident his city will get stickers eventually, it looks like Berkeley residents will get their warnings first.
“We’re not going to stop at Berkeley,” Jack Lucero Fleck, 350 Bay Area Steering Committee member, told us. “Right now, there’s no clues in gas stations that fossil fuels might be a problem. But advertising works. That’s why corporations spend billions on it. The human mind can’t ignore it.”
The campaign — the only one in the country with political fraction — is parallel to a Toronto campaign called Our Horizon. But unlike the stark, graphic warnings in Canada, 350 Bay Area takes heed from failed attempts by the US Food and Drug Administration to pursue graphic cigarette warning labels.
Right now, thanks to tobacco advocates who’ve aggressively protected their free speech rights, warnings on US cigarette packaging are tame. But if you go to Canada for a smoke, you’ll find packaging that reads, “This is what dying of lung cancer looks like,” followed by the image of an emancipated, corpse-like body. The least graphic image is of a gentle crib, but even that’s followed by information about the connection between smoking and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Berkeley could opt for similar, hardcore carbon emission warning graphics (picture it now: baby polar bears balancing on ice, fish washed up on shores, massive dust clouds about to drown villages), but 350 Bay Area is more mindful of the legal fallout that would likely follow.
Instead, the Berkeley warning sticker samplers are downright peppy. In hot pink, the sticker shouts, “Global warming alert!” followed by a pastel blue that informs drivers, with the gentle nudge of a concerned parent, “Burning gasoline emits C02. The City of Berkeley cares about global warming.” Then there’s a picture of a cute little car emitting a cloud of murky C02.
“We wanted the language to be careful and the facts noncontroversial,” 350 Bay Area Campaign Manager Jamie Brooks told us. “We have to be as gentle as possible. It’s tough love.”
One sticker sampler reads, “The State of California has determined that global warming caused by C02 emissions poses a serious threat to the economic well-being, public health, natural resources, and the environment of California.”
You can’t really argue with that, it’s even enshrined in California law. Plus, the stickers aren’t anywhere near the gruesome Canadian samples that show famine in deserts and unhappy kids suffering from smog-induced asthma.
Berkeley City Council member Kriss Worthington, who sponsored the council item in support of the stickers, said, “We made sure we had language that wasn’t questionable and that it wasn’t pre-emptive to state or federal law. The language in the stickers is language already law in the state of California.”
Sure enough, the California Global Warming Solutions Act, adopted in 2006 as Assembly Bill 32, already states that emissions are harmful to humans and the environment.
Yet Western States Petroleum Association’s President Catherine H. Reheis-Boyd isn’t pleased. She issued what Brooks called a “love letter” to the advisory committee. Just as tobacco lobbyists argued that cigarette warnings are forced — and therefore not free — speech, Rheis-Boyd ignores the global warming debate and instead focuses on the US Constitution.
“Far less restrictive means exist to disseminate this information to the general public without imposing onerous restrictions on businesses and forcing unwanted speech in violation of the First Amendment,” she wrote.
Reheis-Boyd goes on to appeal to Berkeley’s history in the Free Speech Movement: “Perhaps no city in our nation has as rich a tradition in the exercise of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech as the City of Berkeley.” She also accuses 350 Bay Area of advancing messages that are not “purely factual” but a “policy determination by the State of California.”
This is true; the stickers do reflect policy determination from AB 32, which mandates the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and that’s why they’re likely to stick.
Besides, the stickers will likely only appeal to global warning believers; they’re meant to remind drivers that there are ways to curb their appetite for gas, such as by choosing public transit or other alternatives modes of transportation. The campaign’s technical advisor, Dr. Kirk R. Smith, said, “The cigarette analogy isn’t perfect, because gas is only one factor in climate change. But individual decisions are important.”
The question is whether or not such peppy stickers can get drivers thinking about the implications of their transportation choices.
The campaign in Berkeley isn’t done yet. After the Energy Commission votes in July, the sticker proposal will head to the Berkeley City Council in September. And from there, 350 Bay Area will see if those in San Francisco might like some friendly warning stickers on their gas pumps.
EDITORIAL As we reported two weeks ago (“Breaking the chains,” June 17), the San Francisco Planning Commission will soon consider rival measures to modify the city’s decade-old policies regulating chain stores (aka formula retail businesses) and giving neighborhoods the ability to reject them. This should be viewed as a chance to strengthen protections, not to weaken them at a time when small businesses need all the help they can get.
There are a number of important reforms in both the formula retail proposal by Sup. Eric Mar and the one developed by the Planning Department in coordination with the Mayor’s Office. Both expand on the types of businesses covered by the regulations, they close key loopholes, and they require more detailed economic studies to give the public and policymakers more information on how chain stores impact neighborhood commercial districts.
But in exchange for those protections, the Planning Department measure also makes concessions that are unacceptable and inconsistent with the formula retail standards that voters adopted through Prop. G in 2006. Specifically, planners are making the dubious claim that they have the authority to increase the threshold of what’s considered a chain from 11 stores now up to 20 stores, unilaterally rejecting a compromise number negotiated at the time between progressive leaders and the business community.
The logic offered for that change is equally questionable. The planners and backers of the change in the Mayor’s Office and business community say local businesses that grow beyond 11 outlets — such as Philz Coffee, Lee’s Deli, and San Francisco Soup Company — shouldn’t be “punished for their success” by enduring a lengthy and expensive conditional use permit process.
But gathering information and letting the community have a voice isn’t punishment. Larger businesses have more resources to go through the approval process, and the city rarely rejects formula retail applications anyway. Planners argue that the conditional use process is onerous and can take six months or more — but that’s an argument for reforming the process, not bypassing it. The Mayor’s Office should devote more resources to hiring more Planning Department staff to speed up this process, raising the fees on applicants to do so if necessary.
The Planning Department proposal also makes no effort to determine who owns the business that want to open here, allowing corporations to create endless subsidiaries and spinoffs to bypass the formula retail controls, something the city already has seen with the controversial Jack Spade application in the Mission District and other projects.
Corporations can be wily and predatory as the seek to endlessly expand into new markets, and if San Francisco’s nationally recognized controls are to have any relevance, they’ll need to adapt to changing circumstances. That means we need to strengthen and not weaken them.
As City College of San Francisco struggles to loosen the noose around its neck, this week its accreditors are slated to offer the college a new way out. But some skeptics are sounding the alarm: it’s a trap.
The Accrediting Commission of Community and Junior Colleges is scheduled to vote on and announce a newly revised version of its “restoration policy,” which some journalists have called City College’s salvation.
“Huge CCSF Win: College Won’t Close,” one San Francisco Chronicle headline read. Bay Area TV stations and others echoed the jubilant headline, saying City College was saved. Chancellor Art Tyler told the Chronicle he would “absolutely” apply for restoration status. But many are calling the restoration policy a poor choice for the college’s future.
The college’s faculty union isn’t the only one worried. A report released this month by the California State Auditor shows ACCJC has operated against its own bylaws and without full transparency in threatening CCSF’s accreditation.
“To allow community colleges flexibility in choosing an accreditor,” the state auditor’s report wrote, “the chancellor’s office should remove language from its regulations naming the commission as the sole accreditor of California community colleges while maintaining the requirement that community colleges be accredited.”
In the staid and stuffy bureaucratic language, the auditor essentially wrote the accreditor group was so dysfunctional it should be closed. The 75-plus page report scathingly tears down ACCJC staff, board selection, decisions, and policies. There are few areas in which they did not find fault.
“The report draws conclusions about accreditation without the necessary context and facts related to institutional evaluations,” ACCJC President Barbara Beno told the Guardian via email. “ACCJC is reviewed and approved by the United States Department of Education and its recognition was renewed in January 2014. That is the appropriate body to review the ACCJC’s practices.”
The DOE found many faults with the accreditors as well, but the scope of its review was limited to complaints made by the unions. The auditor viewed the accreditors in a fuller context, alleging the ACCJC decided to terminate CCSF’s accreditation “after allowing only one year to come into compliance,” while simultaneously allowing 15 other colleges two years and another six institutions to up to five years to reach compliance.
Such accusations of bias are also alleged in City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s lawsuit against ACCJC, charging CCSF was targeted with harsher penalties due to its political views.
Meanwhile, a closer look at restoration status shows it’s less like a lifeline and more like a tightrope suspended over flames.
The policy would give CCSF two years to come into compliance with all of the so-called “defects” ACCJC identified. If the college addresses these issues in two years, the commission would rescind the notice to terminate the college’s accreditation.
But buried in the legalese is a frightening clause noting that if CCSF isn’t found to comply with everything, “the termination implementation will be reactivated and the effective date will be immediate,” with “no further right to request a review or appeal in this matter.”
Beno said she heard the college community’s concerns around these clauses, during a two-week public comment period regarding the proposed policy that ended June 25.
“The Commission received a good deal of feedback,” she wrote, saying a revised “final version” of the restoration policy has been sent to the commissioners, who will vote remotely over the next week. “If it is approved, the ACCJC will post the final policy on its web page, the policy will be effective immediately.”
But the auditor found Beno hasn’t followed existing bylaws. This has long been an open secret in the community college world that’s referenced to in a 2010 public letter from the former California Community College Chancellor Jack Scott to the Department of Education. His immediate successor, Brice Harris (who also served on the ACCJC as a commissioner for seven years), did not heed this knowledge. He trusted Beno.
He met her for coffee, he talked to her on the phone. These interactions led him to believe replacing the college’s leadership would appease Beno, he said in his declaration (under penalty of perjury) in Herrera’s lawsuit against the ACCJC.
So on July 3, 2013, Harris released a video announcing he stripped the college’s elected Board of Trustees of all of its powers and promoted Special Trustee Bob Agrella to take its place. The college community was in an uproar, but Harris maintained publicly it was the right thing to do.
Privately, he received an email from Beno. “Dear Brice, Beautiful job,” she wrote to him, about his decision to whack the board. “The college may survive, with the right leadership.”
Harris wrote in his declaration: “Based on this email, which was consistent with all my prior interactions with Dr. Beno, I believed that City College could maintain its accreditation… if City College took extraordinary steps to comply with the ACCJC’s recommendations.”
But the accreditors did just the opposite. Just this month, it denied CCSF’s accreditation appeal, telling the college they it not review any evidence of progress it made after they voted to terminate its accreditation. This took Harris by surprise.
“If I had known on July 8, 2013, that the rules of the commission were later going to be interpreted to preclude any progress made by City College after June 2013,” he wrote in his declaration, “I would not have asked the Board of Governors to take the extraordinary step of setting aside the locally elected Board of Trustees.”
Harris was burned by the ACCJC. Now City College faces the choice to trust Beno and the accreditors again.
Above, California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris explains why he pushed state entities to remove the City College’s Board of Trustees and replace them with Special Trustee Bob Agrella. Should City College of San Francisco trust the ACCJC?
Not many plays feature an all-Latino cast, let alone all El Salvadoran. But Paul Flores’ Placasplaced brown actors and a brown experience center stage. The 2012 production explored a father and ex-gang member’s struggle, leading his son out of a hard life of drugs, violence, and perhaps death.
“You had older generations coming to see the play right alongside their grandkids,” Flores told the Guardian. The play’s premiere venue packed its 500-seat capacity, and sold out seven out of its eight nights in San Francisco. “We tapped a community thirsty to hear its stories told.”
Placas is the kind of creative work not being funded often enough by the city’s largest arts grant organization, critics are saying. At a contentious San Francisco Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee hearing on June 20, artists told supervisors that programs serving diverse communities were severely underfunded, and alleged the city’s major arts funder, Grants for the Arts, awards money disproportionately to art forms favored by white audiences.
Spurred by public outcry and city studies, Sups. Eric Mar and London Breed recommended the transfer of $400,000 in unused funding from GFTA to another city arts funder, the Cultural Equity Grants (which funded Placas), to direct arts money to people of color.
The transfer won’t be approved until it goes before the full Board of Supervisors next month. But as San Francisco studio and housing rents soar, Mar said this was vital to keeping diverse artists in the city.
“I think the crisis for arts groups now is many of them are being displaced,” he told the Guardian. “How can the city subsidize groups with low rent or free rent, and how could we support small groups [to prevent them from] being displaced?”
Above is a PDF of the Budget Legislative Analyst’s report, as it breaks down lack of funding to diverse programs. The report has relevant sections highlighted.
The Guardian reached out to City Administrator Naomi Kelly for comment (her office ultimately directs arts grants funding). She was unavailable for an interview before we went to press, but her spokesperson Bill Barnes told us, “I don’t think we should be in a position of having governments regulate artistic content.”
But in a way, the government already does. The GFTA funding is made up of city dollars, and for decades its funding priorities have scarcely changed, favoring many of the largest mainstream organizations.
GFTA funds many arts organizations, but a recent report by the Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office found it awarded about 70 percent of grants to organizations with mostly white artists who mostly cater to white audiences. The San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Ballet, San Francisco Opera, City Arts, the Exploratorium, the Museum of Modern Art, and the American Conservatory Theater received over one-third of GFTA funding over the past five years, the report found.
“The Bay [Area] will soon be 70 percent people of color,” Andrew Wood, director of the SF International Arts Festival, told the Guardian. “Why invest so heavily in organizations that are such a minority of the population?”
Taken on its face, the findings show a stark divide between funding for smaller, struggling minority arts groups and large, independently funded arts groups with predominantly white patrons. The report divided the diversity of GFTA arts funding into three categories: people of color (Asians, African Americans, and Latinos), ethnic minorities (Arab/Middle Eastern/Jewish), and LGBT organizations. The funding for these categories remained steady at about 20, 2, and 5 percent of arts funding, respectively, since 1989.
The lack of funding is one thing, but critics say the pattern indicates an outright dismissal of the broader community. In a mass email entitled “The State of the Arts in San Francisco” sent to the arts community from a group calling itself Arts Town Hall Organizing Committee said the outcry against critiques of GFTA’s diversity funding was “advanced by fringe members of the arts community.”
Realizing it called Black, Asian, and Latino artists a “fringe community,” the San Francisco Arts Alliance (a signatory to the email comprised of San Francisco’s symphony, opera, and other GFTA funded organizations) quickly backpedaled. It said the email was sent on their behalf by the public relations firm Barnes Mosher Whitehurst Lauter & Partners, a group that often runs astroturf campaigns for mainstream organizations.
One reason for GFTA’s inability to fund diverse arts groups may be a lack of trying: The BLA found the GFTA “does not have a definition or criteria for granting funds to people of color organizations.”
This color blindness is a problem, Wood told us. “[The money] the city invests in the War Memorial Opera House compared to the Bayview Opera House, also city owned, is completely out of whack,” he said. The Bayview Opera House was one among six “cultural institutions” to receive a portion of a $400,000 GFTA award, according to the organization’s 2013/14 annual report. Conversely, GFTA awarded the San Francisco Opera $653,000 the same year.
“They’re two different universes,” Wood said.
Allocating more funding for the Cultural Equity Grants was an oft-mentioned method for better supporting disadvantaged artists, the report found, even though GFTA and CEG share many of the same grantees.
Some say the report’s numbers don’t add up. San Francisco Arts Commission Director of Cultural Affairs Tom DeCaigny, a longtime local artist, disagreed with how the BLA defined which groups were white, ethnic, or otherwise.
“The methodology in the report assigns people an identity, and I know some of our grantees were referred to as white when they’re not,” DeCaigny told the Guardian. “We would want to see organizations self identify.”
Those faults undermine the value of the BLA’s findings, although he said, “I’m hesitant to comment on the value of that report.”
But some in the arts community felt DeCaigny’s opinion aligns suspiciously closely to the mayor’s priorities: funding the preferred arts organizations of his wealthy donors (like the symphony). We reached out to the San Francisco Symphony for comment but its representatives told us it would be unable to respond before our deadline.
DeCaigny defended the symphony, noting its annual Lunar New Year and Day of the Dead concerts serve diverse audiences. For the economically disadvantaged, he said, the symphony offers free concerts open to the public in Dolores Park, and that the symphony’s “artists are very diverse.”
DeCaigny pointed out the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra’s youth programs (shown above) are notably very diverse.
The donors are mostly white, he said, “but that’s true in other sectors as well. It has more to do with how wealth is distributed in our society.”
But Flores, Placas’ director, explained the need for ethnically diverse art was not just about who consumes it, but what message the art is sending to the audience. Nothing revealed this more, he said, then when he took Placas on tour across the United States. While in New York City, he conducted an informal poll.
“I asked ‘when I say San Francisco, what do you think of?’ They said the 49ers, the San Francisco Giants, the Golden Gate Bridge. They didn’t think gangs, pupusa, cumbia,” he said. That’s why Placas, which told the story of gang life among San Francisco Salvadorans, had such impact in the city and even beyond its borders.
“I love telling stories about San Francisco,” Flores told us. “The symphony doesn’t do that, the opera doesn’t do that. What does that? Locally generated art.”
The Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance committee is tentatively slated to hold a hearing on allegations made in the BLA report on July 16.
Jasper Scherer contributed to this report.
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