Shaking the city

Pub date May 31, 2011
WriterBen Terrall

LIT Activist, writer, and fast-talking leftist public intellectual Chris Carlsson, cofounder of the monthly bike happening Critical Mass, spearheads the online local history repository Shaping San Francisco. I recently spoke with Carlsson about Shaping SF and his associated projects, including three collections of cultural and political essays published by City Lights Books, the most recent of which, Ten Years that Shook the City: San Francisco 1968-1978, will be released June 15.

Carlsson began work on Shaping SF — a multimedia digital history project — in 1994 with co-conspirators from his often hilarious dissident magazine Processed World.

Reclaiming San Francisco: History , Politics, Culture, edited by James Brook, Carlsson, and Nancy Peters, was published in conjunction with the first CD and kiosk release of Shaping SF in early 1998. The collection of essays sets the tone for what would become, in Carlsson’s words, “an ongoing series of contrarian history anthologies about San Francisco.”

The second book in the series, The Political Edge (2004), examines cultural and political dynamics behind the popular mobilization to elect Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez, a surprisingly close mayoral race that Gavin Newsom won in part with massive support from the San Francisco Chronicle and the national Democratic Party.

Carlsson says Ten Years that Shook the City continues his work “to counter our amnesiac culture.” More specifically, the book takes on the argument that the 1960s were filled with experiments that didn’t work out. Carlsson told me that evidence to the contrary “has systematically been flushed down the toilet” by mainstream commentators.

The book begins with a remembrance of the 1968 San Francisco State College strike, but in his introduction Carlsson writes: “From today’s organic food and community gardening movements to environmental justice, gay rights, and other social identity movements, neighborhood anti-gentrification efforts, and much more, the 1970s are the years when transformative social values burrowed deeply into society.”

In more than 30 years of activism, he also has crossed paths with many who became contributors to the series. Carlsson recalls when he attended an anti-nuclear rally in 1979 and was handed a flyer from a group called the “Union of Concerned Commies.” The leaflet featured a drawing of the White House with nuclear cooling towers on either wing, done by veteran underground cartoonist Jay Kinney. Kinney contributed one of the most entertaining pieces in Ten Years, a short history of underground comix (in a move below mainstream radar, “comics” became “comix”).

Former Guardian staffer Rachel Brahinsky contributed a heart-wrenching look at the (ongoing) African American exodus from the City by the Bay in the wake of the neighborhood-destroying process officially called “urban renewal.” In the chapter that follows Brahinsky’s, veteran organizer Calvin Welch describes further tenant victories in the creation of what he refers to as “the community housing movement.”

Carlsson’s chapter, “Ecology Emerges,” parallels a series of green history talks of the same name held this year at Counterpulse, Shaping SF’s home base at 1310 Mission St. Carlsson links the 1990s emergence of the environmental justice movement to David Brower, especially the more radical work Brower began when he left the Sierra Club and cofounded Friends of the Earth in 1969. Brower felt Greens should be antiwar, and was keen on making connections between movements. The ecologically-minded individuals and groupings Carlsson highlights also shared a disinterest in becoming a permanent cheering section for Democrats, working instead to keep pressure building from below.

I asked Carlsson for his take on the Obama administration’s announced plans to allow the mining of millions, possibly billions, of tons of coal on public lands.

“Obama was supported from the beginning by Big Finance an Big Coal,” Carlsson responded. He has never shown any indication he is anything but their front man. His lack of imagination on the energy crisis, the economic crisis, the military-empire crisis, and the social crisis is nothing less than remarkable.”


Thurs/2, 7 p.m., free

City Lights Bookstore

261 Columbus, SF

(415) 362-8193