Erick Lyle

Free the free


VISUAL ART It starts with the streets. Walls, the texture of walls, rough and colored in swirls of graffiti letters. Walls you feel you could reach out and touch their cold and grit. Establishing shots — the streets of San Francisco in the dot-com era. The photos are of their times: an unattended shopping cart in the streets appears as early as page three. Soon follows the spray-painted legend, “Don’t let the good times fool you.”

The pictures are inscrutable, their sequence seemingly random. Yet other than the gnomic title (Friendship Between Artists is an Equation of Love and Survival), the only text in Xara Thustra’s self-published new book’s 500 pages is a brief intro from the author insisting that the book is meant to be read from left to right, from top and bottom in the order the photos appear. There are no captions or prompts to lead the viewer. It is the mute gravity of the photos that pulls you in. What is happening here? It’s like finding a box of photos on a trash pile in the Mission — old furniture, clothes out on the curb, a pile of books and CDs. Why is all this stuff in the trash? Did the owners die? Or get evicted? Photos of strangers. You go from one photo to the next and the outline of a missing life starts to appear. What is happening here?

The action moves in and out of the streets, cinematic — the interiors dark, claustrophobic. The streets provide narration. Everything is spray painted. Demand Community Control. Everything bright, everything clean. Everything they build be like fuck you, fuck you, fuck you. Familiar everyday locations have become enlisted as battlegrounds. At the Dolores Park tennis courts, someone has hung a screen on the fence, painted so that it reads “Sink the Ship” in shimmery, see-through letters. A subliminal message to the tennis players visible on the other side? Or a secret signal to an unseen underground army?

Cut to the interior. Some dim locations start to become recognizable: a performance crammed into a corner of Adobe Books, a crowd seen through a doorway at the old Needles and Pens. The images are at times grainy and low res, like bad cell phone photos or surveillance camera footage. Much is shot in indistinct rooms or hallways, tightly cropped. The people in the interiors model homemade clothing or stare back at us from unmade beds. They are dancing in high heels or fucking each other, holding whips and dildos. No one is smiling. Instead they stare defiantly into the camera as if to ask, “Who are you to watch? Which side are you on?” This is not the careless and fashionable hedonism of Ryan McGinley photos. Instead, like the subjects of Nan Goldin photos, the people in these images know how much their search for freedom costs, and who will have to pay.

Meanwhile, the battle in the streets continues. Scum bags dressed as imposter yuppies stand in front of the mall on Market Street, holding handmade signs reading, “The bombs are dropping, lets go shopping!” An effigy of Gavin Newsom burns at 18th and Castro. Back inside, homeless guys from Fifth and Market calmly eat free breakfast at the 949 Market Squat. More drab interiors, more surveillance footage, and then what is happening here? Scenes of naked people grimly carving designs into each other with razors, holding dripping, bleeding arms up to the camera. It must be 2005, I think, when we all started to give up on ever stopping the war and just started hurting each other.

Full disclosure: I am in this book. I might be too close to the people and events depicted to discern whether the images are strictly documentary or whether their arrangement is intended to create a new story. But the juxtapositions, eerie and dreamlike, pack a wallop. In one two page spread, my dead friend, Pete Lum, stairs from the left page into another photograph on the right of an unknown drag queen out front of Aunt Charlie’s on Turk Street. Their eyes seem to meet across the gutter of the book and across time and space, as if sharing a secret the rest of us cannot know.

Ultimately, perhaps the one indisputable narrative of the book is the tremendous progression in Xara Thustra’s artwork, as the early agitprop graffiti by “Heart 101” in support of street protests slowly morphs into a far more ambitious project, an ongoing collaboration with countless others through performance, print, and cinema to abandon protest and instead collectively embody through art the autonomy and ethics of a truly different world. Perhaps inevitably then, Friendship Between Artists is both a monumental achievement and something of an anti-climax. The protests, the willful art world obscurity, the dead friends — what did it all add up to?

I am certain, anyway, that nothing in the book was conceived with the idea that it would one day appear in an art book. Instead, the interventions, experiments, and protests detailed herein, while at times quite joyous, were, as the book’s title suggests, originally part of a deadly serious struggle to keep oppositional culture alive in San Francisco, and for many that struggle now feels lost. But life must go on, and this is no museum piece.

The book’s 500 pages positively overflow with life, salvaging from oblivion the raw, visceral feel of 15 years of ephemeral underground freedom. While some will be haunted by the suspicion that the answer to the above question is “not enough,” the people in these photos stare into the camera and demand we consider instead a hard-earned and far more redemptive possibility: that this isn’t an art project, it’s how we live. This isn’t representation of a different reality, but about being a different reality. And fuck you, anyway, because being free is its own reward.

For an interview with Xara Thustra, visit


Thu/6, 7-9pm, free

Needles and Pens

3252 16th St., SF


‘Fire’ insight: talking with David Wojnarowicz biographer Cynthia Carr


The following interview took place with Cynthia Carr, author of Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (Bloomsbury USA, 624 pp., $35), on an early fall afternoon at the old Odessa Restaurant on Avenue A in the Lower East Side, New York City — one of the few places left where you can still pretend you’re in the LES of Wojnarowicz’s day. Carr will be at the San Francisco Art Institute Wed/3 to discuss her book. Read Erick Lyle’s review of the book here.

San Francisco Bay Guardian Your book is the first real biography of David Wojnarowicz. Up until now, the best book on him I thought was that Semiotext(e) book, David Wojnarowicz: A Definitive History of Five or Six Years on the Lower East Side. Your book has a lot of that same feel, the layers and layers of neighborhood detail. But, of course, your book has the advantage of having all of David’s thoughts and perspective on the same events because you have his journals and his correspondence. How were you able to access all of that material?

Cynthia Carr All of his papers are at Fales Library at NYU — all of his journals and the letters he kept. And I did get letters from quite a few other people, like his boyfriend in Paris, Jean-Pierre. At the beginning of the relationship, David wrote to JP at least every other day and later at least once a week.

When I went to Paris I took a scanner with me and back home I printed them out. The stack was like four inches thick! It was filled with information about what he was doing or working on every day. While the journals from those times are mostly about him going to the piers for sex, which he didn’t tell his boyfriend too much about! [Laughs.] The letters, though, are all about where he was living or where he was working, or … really, most of the time, he was looking for work… I was very fortunate to get that.

SFBG How long have you been working on this?

CC Five years. I started in ’07.

SFBG One of the things I think is really great about the book is how you break down the reporter objectivity and place yourself into the narrative. And I think it works because it’s really a story in a way that only you could tell, because it has the rich detail that could only come from an observer who was really here in this place the whole time. What led you to take this on? What was your inspiration to tell the story of David or of the neighborhood through him?

CC Well, David’s last boyfriend, Tom Rauffenbart, actually mentioned to me that he would really like there to be a book about David and that he thought I should be the person to write it. I had written another book and when that came out in 2006, I wasn’t at the [Village] Voice anymore. I was freelancing, which is rough, as you know. And Tom had mentioned this to me, and I thought maybe I should give it a try, writing a book about David.

I wasn’t sure of all the details of David’s life, but I thought it seemed like a compelling life story. Over the years, too, people had questioned “the mythology,” — I mean, people didn’t believe his childhood stories, so I thought maybe there was a mystery there I could figure out. It was a period of time when I had lived in the same neighborhood as David and this would give me a chance to write about the East Village arts scene, the AIDS crisis, and the culture wars of the 80s all in one book, because he was a central player in all of those things.

SFBG In the end of the book, David approaches you and starts to tell you things about his life before he dies. Do you feel like in some way he knew you were a reporter and he was choosing you to do this book?

CC That might be a little too mystical to get credence, but he did open up to me and reach out. He started calling me to come over a lot. He also chose Amy Scholder who will be on stage with me in San Francisco. She was an editor at City Lights and he got to know her and chose her to edit his journals.

SFBG Those last couple years of his life — even though we know how it ends, that part of the book is so full of suspense Because it was amazing to see someone be so driven to do everything they wanted to die before they died and to actually almost do it all! It was really amazing to see how much art he was able to make across so many different media in such a short time.

CC David had tremendous inner strength and very solid will power that got him through all of this stuff. For the last year or really eight or nine months of his life he actually wasn’t really able to work, but he always talked about it. He always wanted to. I describe him as workaholic who had trouble holding a job. He worked constantly.

There was a trip he went on with Tom and their friend, Anita, near the end of his life that I describe in the book. One day, they find David just lying contentedly in a hammock and Tom says, “Look! He’s not working!” Because David was always working. Like, if he was walking with you on the beach, he’d also the whole time be picking up twigs or shells or driftwood that he thought he could use in a piece. It was like that.

SFBG So obviously you were already pretty far along with this when the latest controversy with David’s art happened at the “Hide/Seek” show at the Smithsonian. What were you thinking when that happened?

CC In a way, I liked that it happened because it drew attention to David and a lot of people didn’t know who he was, so I thought it would be helpful for the book. But in another way, it was shocking that he would get back into the news in this absurd way, which was for about 11 seconds of a film that he didn’t even finish that was completely misinterpreted by everybody. I mean, even the art world people who defended David by saying that the film was about AIDS didn’t have it right.

SFBG It was such a weird déjà vu … I first encountered Wojnarowicz as a teen during the era of that culture war controversy. There was his work, the Piss Christ, Karen Finley, Mapplethorpe, of course. That’s when I first heard about a lot of cool art! But I couldn’t believe it was happening all over again. Like, “Are we still HERE?” Not really, I guess, but they are. It’s really incredible.

CC It shows that David still has the power to be a lightning rod.

SFBG Why do you think that is?

CC David was very blunt in both his imagery and his feelings about things. He didn’t pull any punches. He used powerful symbols that are hard to explain as sound bites, so it’s easy for the Right to pick them up and take them out of context.

SFBG Personally, I’ve always felt like David’s writing is more timeless than his art. Some of the art is so linked to the time and place of the AIDS/culture war era that it sometimes seems dated to me, whereas the writing is this beautiful, timeless narrative of the outlaw in America, the outsider. But it was interesting that those artworks from that time and place are still so triggering, so perhaps they are timeless after all.

CC There are certain themes of his that really live on. His work is in major museums, of course.

SFBG You’re doing this panel tomorrow at the Brooklyn Book Festival. What is it? “The Creative City”?

CC Yeah, I think it’s about the 70s and 80s in NYC…

SFBG Here’s the notice: “The Creative City: The 70’s, 80’s, AND BEYOND”! [Laughs] Beyond? That must be like a blank, white space on the map…

CC Right! [Laughs]

SFBG In the past couple years there has been so much nostalgia for the NYC of the 70s and 80s in books and films. It’s coming from all sides. What do you think accounts for all of the interest in this lost time and place?

CC Well, the city has changed so much and the culture has changed so much. I think people look back to the freedom of that era when there was so much more uncolonized space, even in Manhattan, and it was cheaper to live here so people could just come here and try things. There was room to experiment. You didn’t have to make a lot of money immediately. You could just, say, go to a vacant lot between Avenue B and C and put on a performance with a cast of 30 or 40 people and no one would bother you. I saw many things like that then but there’s no way that could happen today. It’s starting to feel like everything has a stricture on it.

Not everybody looks back with longing for those days, of course. And when I look back with longing, I try to remember how dangerous it was then, because it really was very dangerous here. There was more crime, more rats, more garbage…

SFBG The price of freedom!

CC [Laughs] Right! But it starts to look like this golden age of Bohemia because there’s nothing like it now. Everyone’s so spread out. Williamsburg is completely gentrified. There are artists living all over the city from Red Hook, Brooklyn, all the way up to the Bronx. Also, people are starting out in MFA programs and artists are going to graduate school, so it’s a different way of coming up in the art world. David was so uneducated. I was thinking tomorrow on the panel I would read something about the piers. Not just the sex piers but the two art piers where David sometimes painted and took photos. There you had people making this art in this abandoned space with a total freedom and also working with the knowledge that it was not going to last, that it would be destroyed. David loved that part of it.

SFBG That’s one of the most poignant things about the book. David really identified with this idea that the Empire was falling, that the civilization was in ruins. Like the painting he titled, Some Day All of This Will Be Picturesque Ruins. But then it turned out that it was really just his own civilization or community that would soon crumble and disappear. And now a generation later, the inhabitants of this new Lower East Side are walking around on top of this lost civilization that has disappeared without a trace and is buried just under their feet. Could anyone at that time have imagined that the neighborhood would turn into what we have here today?

CC Oh, I think not. It was clear from as early as 1990 that the neighborhood was undergoing changes. The galleries had to leave because the rents were going up. I lived between Avenue A and B and I heard about someone buying an apartment for $250,000 on my block! I couldn’t believe it. But now you have luxury hotels up in the LES and every old parking lot has a high-priced condo on it. But when you’re younger, I guess, you don’t really think about what things will turn into.

SFBG Do you still live in the neighborhood?

CC Yes, I do. I can’t afford to move! I have a rent-stabilized apartment and have been there since the 70s. When I moved in there was only one bodega between Houston and 14th street on Avenue A – that and the Pyramid Club. Before that I lived between Avenues C and D, and people wouldn’t come over to visit me.

SFBG Where do you think your book fits into this flow of books full of nostalgia for that era, then? To me it’s almost a corrective to the nostalgia, since it’s not romantic at all. It shows the struggle and loss that happened from there to here.

CC I don’t know that those other books really went into what happened in the AIDS crisis. The AIDS epidemic is a shadow that was behind the East Village arts scene the entire time right from the beginning and no one knew it. I found news stories about people coming down with Kaposi’s Syndrome as early as the late 1970s. It was starting to spread then and no one knew it. And the people that died from AIDS were the biggest risk takers, the people who were most creative… the people who had the biggest impact on the arts scene. Losing all those people changed the world for the worse.

SFBG So, the building where David lived his last few years and where he died was his late best friend, Peter Hujar’s loft. Am I right that Hujar’s loft is now that multi- screen movie theater on Second Avenue at 12th?

CC Yeah.

SFBG Have you been to see movies there?

CC Oh yeah! It’s really weird! I haven’t seen a movie there in a few years, but I do think about, about David dying right upstairs. I’ve been told that the loft is now an office space. The first time I went to the theater part of the building was for Charles Ludlum’s memorial service. It was still being converted then from an old Yiddish theater into the cinema multiplex. It’s been a couple years, and I can’t remember what I saw there last, but, sure, I’ve gone to see films there.

SFBG Where was David’s room in the building? It’s such a strange layout for a theater.

CC Well, he was up on the Third floor. There are windows shaped like Old West tombstones that face 12th street and that was where his kitchen table was, where he sat and worked. Recently, I was thinking that out of all of us who were there taking care of David in those last months, none of us took a picture of the place. I wish now I could remember what all the piles of stuff were, because David was just such a pack rat. There were piles not just of art projects and supplies, but piles of paper, The NY Post — he liked using the tabloids in his collage pieces…

SFBG That Nan Goldin photo in the book is so great. What is he sitting with here? Like are those giant sperm?

CC Yeah, they are sperm — homemade props from his In the Shadow Of Forward Motion performance. And there is his baby elephant skeleton. And some movie posters he must have brought back from Mexico…

SFBG Well, let’s talk about David and San Francisco. For such a noted queer artist and activist, he seems to have surprisingly limited connection with San Francisco. But he did make it to the city a couple of notable times, right?

CC One of his early goals in life was to go to City Lights Books and he actually took a bus all the way across the USA just to go there.

SFBG Well, he’s not the only one. That’s so great!

CC And when he took this early hitchhiking and rail-riding trip in 1976, he went to SF and stayed there at the YMCA in the Tenderloin for awhile. He liked San Francisco.

SFBG Did he also appear at the SF Arts Institute?

CC I believe he performed In the Shadow Of Forward Motion there. But he also did a reading for Close To The Knives in SF at the bookstore, A Different Light. That was the only reading he did for that book tour. His first idea was to drive across the country and do readings here and there, but he just wasn’t feeling well enough. So he decided he would only do one reading and it would be in San Francisco. That same day, he joined in a march about AIDS awareness in SF.

SFBG What do you think is next for you?

CC It might be time for me to move my work out of the East Village. My first book was a collection of my Village Voice articles and now there’s this book, so maybe I’ve told all of my story here. I got so exhausted with this. I really worked every single day except Christmas Day, working around the clock, and I got really depleted. So I’m recovering from all of that work.

SFBG Well, that work really paid off! This book is very special. Is there anything you want to add to this?

CC Well, one thing I’ve noticed is that reviewers tend not to talk about the love stories in the book. The importance of Peter Hujar and Jean Pierre to David. And Tom Rauffenbart. And maybe it’s natural that people focus on the art and the AIDS crisis. But the love stories are to me really important.

SFBG I got that from the book. His life was so improvised. He never reached a place of safety or security where he had the luxury of saying, “OK, here’s what I’m going to do next.” It was like he was reacting all of the time to whatever came up. He had difficulty trusting in the future or in relationships with other people. I think all of that is common with people who have abuse histories and I think you got that across.

CC Yes, he always reacted to stuff. Like he found an obscene drawing on the street where someone had scrawled “Fuck you, faggot fucker!”. So he used it in a painting and based a whole work around the drawing and called it Fuck You Faggot Fucker! He was always responding. The things that troubled him became the subject of his work. That is what inspired him.

David Wojnarowicz: Cynthia Carr and Amy Scholder in Conversation
Wed/3, 7:30pm, free
Lecture Hall
San Francisco Art Institute
800 Chestnut, SF

Downtown development


LIT/VISUAL ARTS The term “Mission School” was coined in these pages by Glen Helfand in 2002 to describe a loose-knit group of artists based around the Mission District who were then just beginning to break through into international art world success. These artists — including Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Chris Johanson, Alicia McCarthy, Rigo 23 and others — made use of found materials and shared an informal aesthetic that was influenced as much by the low rent streets of the city around them as a relaxed, collective Bay Area vibe.

A decade later, it seems safe to say that the Mission School was probably the last major art movement of its kind in this country, and itself the end of an era. For over three decades, significant art and music breakthroughs in this country were linked to specific urban neighborhoods (hip-hop to the South Bronx; Warhol’s Factory to downtown Manhattan, riot grrrl to Olympia, Wash.; grunge to Seattle; Fort Thunder in Providence, RI, etc.) Today, with the rise of the importance of MFA programs as a means to enter the art world, and the lack of locality fostered by the internet, the era of geographic specificity as arts incubator has perhaps passed us for good.

Two new books take us back to those freer, more experimental days at the inception of the SoHo and East Village arts scenes of New York in the 1970s and 80s. 112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970-1974) (Radius Books, 192 pp., $50) is a brief, but invigorating oral history from the early years of what we now know as SoHo. This just-released catalog to last year’s exhibition at Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea brings to life the sense of discovery and improvisation of the nascent neighborhood scene that centered around the legendary pioneering alternative arts space and its north star, the late Gordon Matta-Clark.

In October 1970, when Jeffrey Lew and Matta-Clark opened 112 Greene Street in the storefront of a “rundown former rag picking factory,” the area south of Houston Street was a wasteland of abandoned former textile factories known as Hell’s Hundred Acres. The space, with its lack of heat, and its raw walls, uneven floors, and poor artificial lighting resembled the city then falling apart all around it. The ruins of the city not only influenced the work; sometimes they literally became work.

Alan Saret remembers walking near Canal Street with Matta-Clark one night when a cornice simply fell off a building right in front of them. Saret found some other cornices on the ground nearby and paid the crew of a passing city garbage truck to haul them back to 112 Greene where they became part of a sculpture piece he called Cornices.

Far from the uptown galleries where Manhattan art world power then was consolidated, 112 Greene’s isolation and state of decay fostered a certain kind of “anything goes” artistic freedom and collaborative spirit. For the first opening at 112 Greene, Matta-Clark jackhammered a hole in the basement floor and filled the area with dirt, where he planted a cherry tree that he kept alive all winter with grow lamps. For a later exhibition, George Trakas wanted to do a two-story sculpture, so he simply cut a hole in the floor so his piece could rise up out of the basement into the main floor. The only rule seemed to be that work had to be created on site and could not be made for sale.

Perhaps predictably, with this last rule, the space could barely keep its doors open. Yet, there is a timeless lesson here for those running arts spaces today: the downfall of 112 Greene came ironically only after it finally achieved financial stability. When Lew landed a big NEA grant in 1973, pure art experimentation and spontaneity gradually gave way to formal scheduling and programming guidelines from the funders in DC, who demanded more and more say in the operation of the space. “The excitement that anything could happen waned as paperwork and schedules were enforced,” remembers Lew. The core group of artists slowly drifted away from 112 Greene, just as the original SoHo, too, was beginning to change all around them into the high-end shopping district it is today.

The SoHo model has become a cynical real estate gentrification strategy, as developers create prefab arts — and shopping — neighborhoods in empty warehouse districts across the country from Miami to Portland, Ore. to Brooklyn. But if, say, Bushwick’s art scene feels less like a real place than the shores of a desert island where hundreds of young artists have been randomly washed up by the storms of the global economy, 112 Greene Street reminds us that the first art neighborhoods were formed organically around genuine community. In 1971, Matta-Clark and artist Carol Goodden started an artist-run collective restaurant in SoHo called Food. By all accounts, Food was not some relational aesthetic stunt; it was a well loved and sincere attempt to provide cheap meals, a gathering place, and jobs to artists in the scene.

112 Greene Street ends before Matta-Clark’s untimely death from pancreatic cancer at age 35 in 1978, and before the artist would famously take the work he developed in the ruins of 112 Greene out into the ruins of the city with a practice he dubbed “Anarchitecture.” He took the city as his canvas, transforming raw space by sawing dramatic cuts in the floors and facades of abandoned buildings in the South Bronx and industrial parts of New Jersey. But the charm and dreamy freedom of the era 112 Greene Street depicts comes through in Matta-Clark’s film, Day’s End. In it, Matta-Clark works calmly with a blowtorch, cutting holes in the steel ceiling of an abandoned city pier on the Hudson River (with no apparent fear of getting caught) as the space slowly fills with radiant light.

A decade later, another artist who would die too young, David Wojnarowicz, would also find a wide-open playground in the rotting piers along the river. Wojnarowicz would spend hours at the piers, writing about what he saw there, having sex with strangers, and drawing murals or writing poetry on the crumbling walls. Wojnarowicz delighted in the ruins and saw the piers as a sign that America’s empire was fading away before his eyes. That today we know it was actually only Wojnarowicz’s world that was about to disappear is just one of the many poignant aspects of Cynthia Carr’s beautiful new book, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (Bloomsbury USA, 624 pp., $35), the first comprehensive biography to date of the artist, writer, and activist who died of AIDS at the age of 39 in 1992.

On the run from an abusive father, Wojnarowicz started sleeping with older men for money while living on the streets in his teens. Drawn to other criminals and outlaws, his first published writings were based on interviews he did with street hustlers, travelers, and homeless people he met in skid row waterfront diners and on hitchhiking trips. In the works of Jean Genet, he found a literary moral universe that helped him make sense of his own worldview. One of his earliest surviving works, a collage entitled St. Genet, depicts the French writer wearing a halo in the foreground while in the background, Jesus is tying off to shoot up. While Wojnarowicz would continue to use such blunt religious imagery in his work, the collage resonates in other ways. Carr reports that it was Kathy Acker who first called Wojnarowicz “a saint” when she appeared with him at his final public reading in 1991. The identification of Wojnarowicz’s life and work with the tragic loss of so many daring, outlaw artists to AIDS is so complete that Wojnarowicz has become a patron saint to young queer and activist artists today, his life story surrounded by an aura of myth.

Carr, a former arts reporter for the Village Voice, carefully picks apart myth from fact: Wojnarowicz didn’t actually start selling his body for money at age nine as he often claimed and he also wasn’t a founding member of ACT UP as many people suppose (though he did participate in some ACT UP protests). Yet, the complex and more human Wojnarowicz that Carr leaves us with is no less inspiring a figure — a self-taught artist whose lifelong struggle to make meaningful art out of his own experience, sexuality, and ultimate diagnosis with an incurable disease would almost by chance place him front and center in the story of the AIDS crisis and the great culture wars of the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Carr, a resident of the East Village now for four decades, became friends with Wojnarowicz late in his life, and she refreshingly breaks journalistic “objectivity” to insert her own eyewitness perspective into the narrative at many key junctures. One senses Fire in the Belly is so good precisely because it is a story only Carr could personally tell. Built on years of observation, Fire in the Belly has the ambitious scope and rich detail of a novel, and, more than a biography, is the story of a fabled East Village scene now irrevocably lost.

Wojnarowicz arrived in a gritty East Village where whole blocks had been abandoned to heroin dealers and bricked up tenements. A nihilistic neighborhood arts scene embraced the decay of the streets as an aesthetic, and galleries like Civilian Warfare Studios presented a giddy cocktail of downtown punk and queer culture mixed with the freshly born graffiti and hip-hop scenes of the South Bronx. Carr relates now-famous events like Gracie Mansion’s “Loo Division” show (mounted in the bathroom of her E. Ninth Street walkup), Keith Haring painting on the snow on the street in front of his show at Fun Gallery, and the exploits of the Wrecking Crew — a team including Wojnarowicz and other artists who would binge on acid and stay awake for days, filling galleries with creepy and crazed collaborative installations.

The artists’ isolation would not protect them from the art world for long. Soon, limos were disgorging passengers at openings on the heroin and rat-filled terra incognita east of First Avenue. East Village stalwarts like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Haring became rich and internationally famous, and even Wojnarowicz became a fairly established up-and-coming art star. The rags-to-riches story of the East Village scene might be the same kind of innocent tale of lost Bohemia as that of 112 Greene, were it not for the AIDS crisis shadowing it the whole time. Carr skillfully juxtaposes the narrative of openings and parties with chronological news reports of the then-unknown new disease. Carr describes a party on Fire Island in July 1981: writer Cookie Mueller read a story from the New York Times out loud to the room about a strange, new “gay cancer”. Photographer Nan Goldin, who was present, remembers today, “We all just kind of laughed.”

Carr’s tale picks up suspense after Wojnarowicz himself is diagnosed with AIDS. Over a breathtaking two-year period, Wojanrowicz embarks on an urgent mission to complete every single art project he’d ever hoped to accomplish in the time left to him in life. In the process he almost reluctantly becomes the fiery AIDS activist we remember today. While working on his career retrospective, he also battles the harassment of his landlord who is determined to evict Wojnarowicz and convert his loft in the gentrifying East Village into a cinema multiplex. He struggles to complete his memoir, even as his work becomes the focus of battles over government funding of art. Soon, Republicans denounce the dying man’s work as obscene and anti-Christian on the floors of Congress, and Wojnarowicz becomes a target of conservative Mississippi preacher Reverand Donald Wildmon’s public attacks. Wojnarowicz absorbed these attacks and the era’s stunning homophobia and turned them into what became the most powerful work of his career, the myth of his own life.

Carr’s book stands along with recent work like Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of The Mind as a corrective to the uncritical nostalgia for the lost New York City of the 1970s and 80s that seems to have flowed like a river from Patti Smith’s 2009 memoir, Just Kids. These works unromantically detail what has been lost and then lovingly describe exactly how painfully it was all lost. Yet, perhaps all is not lost. While arts neighborhoods like the ones described in 112 Greene Street and Fire in the Belly seem like a thing of the past, the towering myths left behind by figures like Matta-Clark and Wojanrowicz still bring young artists against all odds to the rehabbed neighborhoods of San Francisco and New York today. Everytime Sara Thustra serves a meal at an opening at Adobe Books on 16th Street or Homonomixxx shuts down a Wells Fargo bank, we walk, if just for a short time, the streets of our old familiar city.

David Wojnarowicz: Cynthia Carr and Amy Scholder in Conversation
Wed/3, 7:30pm, free
Lecture Hall
San Francisco Art Institute
800 Chestnut, SF

Back to the streets


Coronel knew an old man in Granada who said

(who often said):

“I wish I were a foreigner, so that I

Could go home

— Zero Hour, Ernesto Cardenal

I first came into contact with the work of poet Roberto Vargas a couple of years ago, when I saw his face, projected several stories tall, on a wall just off Valencia Street.

I was riding my bike to the Day of the Dead procession when I came across filmmaker Veronica Majano screening historical footage of the old Mission District on the wall of Dog Eared Books. The footage of Vargas was from a movie called Back to the Streets, and it showed a Latino hippie fest in Precita Park circa-1970. Long-haired Chicanos smoked weed and danced and played bongos on the grass while Vargas read from a stage. On today’s Valencia Street, Vargas was a ghost returned from a long-lost Mission, now standing twenty feet tall on the bookstore’s wall, reading a powerful poem that angrily denounced the SFPD for the mysterious death of a Mission Latino youth in police custody.

The film of Vargas was a beautiful snapshot of Latino youth culture in the neighborhood before gang violence and gentrification, like a Mission High School yearbook scene from an exhilarating era of Latino self-determination. In 1970, the Free Los Siete movement was feeding the community at a free breakfast program out of St. Peter’s Church on Alabama Street and had started free clinics and legal aid programs in the Mission. In the years to follow, the neighborhood would see the founding of the Mission Cultural Center and Galeria de la Raza and the inception of many of the neighborhood’s now world-famous mural projects.

Looking at the groovy scene in the park, it was hard to imagine that just a few short years later, Vargas and other kids from the Mission would be fighting alongside the Sandinistas in the jungles and mountains of Nicaragua. Yet the utopian promise of the era’s poetry, art, and youth culture in many ways culminated in the guerrilla war in which Vargas and other poets from San Francisco would fight and ultimately — in 1979 — help defeat the forces of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza.

On Feb. 24, the day of his 70th birthday, Roberto Vargas makes a rare return to San Francisco to perform in a poetry event at the Mission Cultural Center in honor of that Nicaraguan solidarity movement of the 1970s. A video will be shown of footage from that struggle — classic scenes of Vargas and others taking over the Nicaraguan consulate in San Francisco; of the famed nightly candlelight vigils at 24th and Mission BART Plaza in support of the Sandinistas — and Vargas will be reunited on stage to read with old poet friends like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, Alejandro Murguía, and Vargas’ old compañero from San Francisco State University’s Third World Liberation Front, actor Danny Glover. The event is not open to the public. Invitations have been given out and the small MCC theater’s 150 seats have already been filled. Yet the event provides an opportunity to publicly honor Roberto Vargas’ contributions to the Mission, and to reflect on the hopes and dreams of Mission past.



Poetry was a part of Vargas’ world from the beginning. Vargas was born in Nicaragua, but came to the United States when he was a small child. In his 1980 collection of poems Nicaragua Te Canto Besos, Balas, y Sueños, he writes of “living in an offbeat alley called Natoma Street (where I always imagined a lost Mayan city existed beneath the factories).” By the late 1950s, Vargas may have been the first Mission District Latino Beat poet. “I graduated from Mission High School in 1958 and used to hang out in North Beach, going around to see all the poets,” he says. “I met Allen Ginsberg when I was just a 19-year-old kid running around in North Beach. Diane di Prima, Bob Kaufman, Ted Berrigan — all the major poets knew me when I was in my teens.”

After a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps and an attempt at a boxing career that ended with a detached retina (an injury that also helped him avoid the Vietnam-era draft), Vargas went to SF State, where he was heavily active in the student strike of 1968-69. Students walked out of campus and battled riot police while standing on picket lines for five months to demand an ethnic studies program at the university.

In the spirit of the times, Vargas and other poets — including a young Mission Chicano named Alejandro Murguía — joined the Pocho-Che Collective to publish poetry by local Latino poets. The poets went to cut sugar cane in the Venceremos Brigade in Cuba. They put out small poetry chapbooks in the Mission, full of poems that linked Che Guevara’s call for Third World revolution with the experience of the Chicano barrios of the United States in a new vision tropical. In the era after the SF State strike, the city started funding community arts projects in the ghettos. Like all classic zines, the first copies of Pocho-Che were scammed, in this case late at night at Vargas’ new job in the Mission’s Neighborhood Arts Program. In the years to come, the group would eventually publish hardbound books by Vargas, Nina Serrano, and others.

Today, Murguía is a professor in the ethnic studies program at SF State that the strikers fought to originate. He is the author of the American Book Award-winning short story collection This War Called Love (2002) and the memoir The Medicine of Memory (2002). He remembers, “The poetry scene was incipient, very young, and the readings weren’t always very formal. Sometimes they were at community events or protest rallies. But we had contact with Latin America. We knew people who had been in Chile, like Dr. Fernando Alegría.”

Alegría was a poet who had been the cultural attaché to the U.S. under Allende in Washington. Vargas recalls, “Alegría had myself and some other young poets come to Chile and spend a month or two studying with [Pablo] Neruda. But, of course, our plans were canceled by the coup in Chile.”

Murguia remembers the September 1973 coup in Chile that overthrew the popularly elected Socialist democracy of Salvador Allende caused the young poets to organize rare formal readings at Glide Memorial Church in protest. “We had several big ones there,” he says. “There was a broad range of poets — Michael McClure, Fernando Alegría, Jack Hirschman, Bob Kaufman, Janice Mirikitami all read. There was a line going down the block to get in.”

In addition to their mentor, Alegría, Vargas, and Murguía also knew one of their heroes, the Nicaraguan Marxist poet and priest, Ernesto Cardenal. Cardenal lived under the Somoza dictatorship in a sort-of internal exile in a religious artist commune called Solentiname. Vargas wanted to bring Cardenal to read in the United States, but Somoza would not allow the poet, who was critical of the Nicaraguan dictator, to travel outside the country. Vargas went to his old pal Ginsberg for help.

“Because Allen knew me when I was a kid, he helped me with my organizing for Nicaragua,” says Vargas. “Allen was part of PEN, and in 1973 or ’74 he went to the State Department with other writers to put pressure on [Anastasio] Somoza. Eventually Somoza relented and we brought Cardenal to New York for a reading.”

The poetry of Cardenal was a north star to the young Mission poets. Cardenal’s epic 1957-60 masterwork Zero Hour is perhaps the literary foundation of revolution in Nicaragua. Influenced formally by Ezra Pound, Zero Hour weaves a sprawling history of Somozan oppression and U.S. intervention in Nicaragua together with lyrical imagery of Nicaragua’s natural beauty and wildlife. The poem creates a poignant sense that Nicaraguans, unable to enjoy and own these natural riches, had under Somoza become exiles within their own country.

Of particular interest to the young Mission poets, though, was Cardenal’s Homage to the American Indians (1969), a book-length meditation on the glory of Mayan and North American native civilizations. “For us, the work of Cardenal was very important,” says Murguía. “Homage to the American Indians is a continental vision of Native Americans — everything from the San Blas Indians of Panama to the Indians of Omaha to the Indians of Mexico City and Peru.”

In Homage, Cardenal evokes a lost Indian Utopia “so democratic that archaeologists know nothing about their rulers,” where “their pyramids were built with no forced labor, the peak of their civilization did not lead to an empire, and the word wall does not exist in their language.” He writes:

But how to write anew the hieroglyph,

How to paint the jaguar anew,

How to overthrow the tyrants?

How to build our tropical acropolis anew

Cardenal’s poems of this lost glorious past were to Vargas more pointedly a vision of a Latin American utopia that can also be regained in the future. In Cardenal’s work, says Vargas, “There is a longing for the simplicity of that civilization — the creativity, the innocence, the tribalism. Can we get it back after all the dictatorships, after all that capitalism has done? Cardenal showed us what we were, what we had, what we lost.”

Under Cardenal’s influence, the Mission poets turned seeing lost Mayan cities beneath the city’s factories into a literary movement. By 1975, members of Pocho-Che had started a magazine called El Tin Tan with Murguia as editor and Vargas as contributor. El Tin Tan presented a sweeping utopian vision of a borderless invisible Latino republic united culturally and politically under the sign of the palm tree. The poets situated the capital of this world right here in the Mission District.

“To tropicalize the Mission — to see it as a tropical pueblo — was a political act of defiance and self-determination,” says Murguía. “We were saying that we put this particular neighborhood — our pueblo, in a way — not in a context of North American history but in the context of Latin American history. The history of the eastern U.S. doesn’t affect California until 1848 when the first illegal immigrants came to California — not from the South, but from the East.

El Tin Tan,” Murguía continues, “was probably the first magazine that was intercontinental in scope, a combination of politics and literature and art and different trends from the Mission to Mexico City to Argentina and everywhere in between.” He proudly recalls that it ran the first North American essays on Salvadoran poetry, and translated and printed a short story by Nelson Marra, a writer imprisoned by the Uruguayan dictatorship.

Yet for all its international perspective, El Tin Tan remained firmly rooted in the Mission. Columns by Nuyorican poet Victor Hernández Cruz and news of the assassination of Salvadoran guerrilla poet Roque Dalton ran side by side with the first comics by future Galeria de la Raza founder Rene Yáñez, all folded between wildly colorful cover art by neighborhood favorites like the famed Chicano artist Rupert Garcia and the muralist Mike Rios.

“The magazines were colorful — tropical — on the outside, but very political on the inside,” says Murguía. “That was a metaphor for our own work.”

By this time, Vargas had become an Associate Director at the SF Arts Commission. From within City Hall, he started to pump city arts money into the Mission, helping to fund projects like Mike Rios’ mural of the people holding BART on their backs at 24th and Mission BART Plaza and the Balmy Alley Mural Project — art that can still be seen in public today.

Once, Vargas commissioned a Chuy Campesano mural for the Bank of America building at 22nd and Mission. “I read a poem called “Boa” and had the crowd dancing and chanting, Es la Boa, Es la Boa,” says Vargas. “We were trying to say, ‘You made your millions off our farmers, but now you are on our turf in the Mission here in occupied Mexico. So we’ll put hieroglyphics on the walls of your bank like we used to do!’ Someone from the bank tried to take the mic from me and cops came and escorted us out.”

Vargas’s story of the mural’s dedication ceremony captures the bravado of the era. “It was a beautiful time, all of us young and thinking we were going to change the world. We wanted to change the world through culture.”

The poets organized the community to demand a neighborhood’s arts center, too. In 1977, the dream was realized when the City, with pressure from Vargas from within City Hall in the Arts Commission, purchased an old, five-floor furniture store at 24th and Mission to be made into the Mission Cultural Center. Murguia became the center’s first director.

The Mission utopia was becoming a reality for Vargas. In Nicaragua Te Canto, he wrote:

We used to drive

Our lowered down Plymouths and Chevys

On top of the breast of a mountain to

Make love and drink wine… Never

Knowing what was going to happen after

Mission High School

The Mission is now an expression of real culture, a many-faceted being … both plus and minus with the soul of a human rainbow…My people watching slides of Sandino and Nica history … White children wearing guarachas and afros trippin’ down the streets to party. Young Salvadoran poets discussing the assassination of Roque Dalton … The Mission is now an implosion/explosion of human color, of walls being painted by muralistas. There is a collective feeling of compassion for each other Nicas Blacks Chicanos Chilenos Oppressed Indios. The sense of collective survival, histories full of Somozas, Wounded Knees written on the walls.

In Zero Hour, Cardenal wrote of Nicaragua’s trees and birds and lakes, and their call to revolution, as seen from its mountains:

What’s that light way off there? Is it a star?

Its Sandino’s light shining in the black mountain


Vargas, the excited Mission kid, echoed in his work:


Tonight I am sitting on a mountain called Bernal Hill

Tonight I see the flames of America Latina spreading from here …



Perhaps inevitably, the Latin American Utopia Vargas and company created in poetry would seem so tantalizingly close to actualization that they would be forced to pick up the gun and fight for its existence.

When the enormous earthquake of 1972 left Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, in ruins, Nicaraguan refugees flocked to SF’s Mission District. Soon, San Francisco was home to more Nicaraguans than any place on Earth outside of Nicaragua. The family of Anastasio Somoza had controlled Nicaragua with brutal repression for generations. Somoza’s embezzling of relief funds for earthquake victims led to increased revolutionary activity against his rule. Taking their name from Augusto Sandino, a Nicaraguan revolutionary who led resistance against U.S. occupation of Nicaragua in the 1930s, La Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) — or the Sandinistas, as they were popularly known — began guerrilla activities in late 1974 by taking government officials and Somoza relatives hostage in a raid on the house of the minister of agriculture. They received a $2 million ransom and had their communiqué printed in the national newspaper. Thus was born the Sandinista revolution.

In the Mission, Vargas, Murguía, and others were in touch with La Frente, and began organizing Sandinista solidarity rallies to coordinate with La Frente’s actions in Nicaragua. Out of offices in the Mission Cultural Center, along with El Tin Tan, the poets published a newspaper called La Gaceta about the situation in Nicaragua. The paper had a circulation of 5000 copies and was available for free all over the district. The sight of pro-Sandinista rallies at 24th and BART Plaza became so common that the plaza was popularly nicknamed Plaza Sandino.

Vargas organized takeovers of the Nicaraguan consulate in San Francisco and traveled the US, speaking about Nicaragua. Yet, soon, this kind of support didn’t seem like enough. In Cardenal’s poetry, victory was inevitable. Cardenal had written that Indian time was circular, that “history became prophecy,” and that therefore the “empire will always fall.” He had also written, “The hero is reborn when he dies. And the green grass is reborn from the ashes.” In poetry, Vargas and Murguia found inspiration to go to war.

In 1976 and 1977, Mission District residents, in solidarity with the FSLN, began quietly leaving San Francisco to join up with La Frente and pick up the gun in the Sandinista Revolution. Among them were Roberto Vargas and Alejandro Murguía.

“It was very romantic,” says Murguía. “If you grew up in the time after Che’s death, when you had Che’s figure calling for “1,2,3, many Vietnams” and a lot of different armed struggles going on all over Latin America, then it would seem logical, I think, if you were kind of young and crazy, that you would want to participate in some of these situations besides just doing solidarity work or organizing rallies. Also, the coup in Chile crushed our generation’s hope for electoral change in Latin America.”

Today, Murguía tries to situate the poets’ embrace of armed struggle within the spirit of those long ago times, but one senses that Vargas would not hesitate to join a guerrilla war tomorrow morning. When I ask him how the young poets made the leap from verse to bullets, he is incredulous at the question.

“We had to fight! There was no other way!” Vargas says. “We had the historical perspective and as a people we were worthless if we let that situation stand. We had our own books out. But are we really revolutionary poets if we just sit back and collect our laurels?”

Murguía compares the Sandinista war with the Spanish Civil War, when there were many international brigades in which writers had been involved. He suggests the poets went to war because they were poets. “If you knew the situation intimately in Nicaragua and you were reading Cardenal’s poems,” he says, “it was easy to see the connection between poets and political necessity.”

Vargas began organizing small, tight-knit cadres for battle in Nicaragua, recruiting his Sandinista guerrillas right off of the streets of the Mission. “I was secretive and I found them one by one,” he explains. “We were very clandestine and very compartmentalized. We never had more than a dozen people in our committee at once.”

Men who were menial laborers in San Francisco would one day be among the most respected heroes of the Nicaraguan Revolution. “When I recruited Chombo [Walter Ferretti], he was a cook at the Hyatt Regency,” says Vargas. “Later, Chombo would become a head of national security in Nicaragua. Another recruit was a former pilot, so I went to talk to him where he pumped gas at 21st and South Van Ness. That was Commandante Raúl Venerio. After the triumph of 1979, he would become the Chief of the Nicaraguan Air Force.”

When in San Francisco, Venerio later served as the editor of La Gaceta. In Nicaragua, the former gas station attendant became a real hero. “They got an airplane and attacked the National Palace,” says Vargas, laughing. “They hit it and split, and got away — real Mission boys!”

Before heading off to join La Frente, Vargas’ recruits would undergo a regimen of training and political education, an informal boot camp largely hidden in plain sight in the Bay Area.

“It was primitive,” remembers Murguía. “We didn’t really have someone with a military background to train us. We got just guns at pawn shops on Mission Street and practiced shooting at the firing range in Sharp Park down in Pacifica. We worked out with a friend who was a black belt in karate.”

Murguía says the most difficult part of training was the daily pre-dawn run of five laps around Bernal Hill. “We would run up the hill counter-clockwise — because that way is more difficult,” he says, “and we would wear these combat boots we bought at Leed’s Shoes on Mission.”

Besides being a part of physical conditioning, the run was a litmus test of the recruits’ commitment. “Doing activity like that is almost impossible if you’re not really psychologically into it,” says Murguía. “Try running five times around Bernal Hill! You start wondering after your third lap, ‘Goddamn! Why am I doing this?‘ Especially when no one is forcing you to do it!”

When I ask if the daily jog of 10 or 12 Latino men in combat boots on the hill at sunrise did not attract any, uh, attention, Murguía shrugs. “There were less people on the hill in those days,” he says. He recalls that the Mission cadres trained in complete anonymity: “We got money to rent planes and we took turns learning to fly the planes around the Bay Area. Nobody suspected anything because nobody knew anything about Nicaragua then.”

When I try to imagine a phalanx of Sandinistas at dawn on today’s Bernal Hill, surrounded by a crowd of early morning dog walkers, I can’t help but laugh. But the cadre’s training was deadly serious, and Murguía says its value was far more than psychological. “What I discovered when I went to the Southern Front was that our San Francisco cadres were some of the most advanced in the war,” he explains. “We understood the political situation and the tactic of insurrection and we had a minimum of physical conditioning. But some of these other cats, man! They literally just walked in off the street!”

For a time, Murguía remained the director of the Mission Cultural Center, while making regular trips to fight in Nicaragua. In 1977, Vargas resigned from the Arts Commission and went to battle for six or seven months. He and Murguía would spend the next couple of years rotating back and forth from the war front in Nicaragua to their solidarity work in the Mission. Murguía describes his entry into Nicaragua, his stay in various guerrilla safe houses in Costa Rica, and his experiences in the war in his 1991 American Book Award-winning fictionalized memoir, Southern Front.

Though Murguía says the actual military war on the ground was largely a stalemate between the Sandinistas and the Somozas’ National Guard, the Sandinistas were at last able to triumph through international pressure, strategic military victories, and a general strike. Somoza fled in July of 1979, and the Sandinistas entered Managua victorious on July 19 of the same year. Cardenal’s poem “Lights” describes the city as seen from a plane that brought the elder poet into a Managua free from the Somoza family’s rule for the first time in 43 years. In Managua, street graffiti declared, El triunfo de la revolución el triunfo de la poesía.

Vargas and Murguía, however, did not enter Managua with the victorious army. The Southern Front did not go to Managua, and Vargas had recently been sent back to the U.S., to coordinate a simultaneous take over of the Nicaraguan consulates in major U.S. cities from coast to coast to coincide with the victory in Managua.

Vargas’ work for Nicaragua did not end with victory. The Mission High kid now found himself serving in the new revolutionary government as cultural attaché to the United States. “I was jailed in the takeover of the DC consulate,” Vargas says, laughing, “but then I came back several months later to serve there!”

The voluble poet grows uncharacteristically silent when I ask him what it felt like to actually win the war.

“To win?,” he asks, pronouncing the word as if he was hearing it for the very first time. “Well … it’s like taking off a huge load, man. Like taking mountains off your back.” He is silent for a bit and then adds, “But what do you win? You win the right to continue the struggle.”

“To win was to reach the objective of getting rid of the Somoza family once and for all,” Vargas says. “But it was not really a win/lose situation.” Indeed, the Sandinistas inherited a country in ruins and in debt, with an estimated 50,000 war dead, and 600,000 homeless. Nicaragua’s left-wing powers would become an obsession for the Reagan Administration, who for the next ten years offered heavy financial assistance and training to the Contras, a coalition of pro-Somoza and anti-Sandinista guerrillas who fought to overthrow the revolutionary government. The U.S. strangled Nicaragua’s economy with a trade embargo like it employed against Cuba. In reality, for the Sandinistas, the war literally never ended.

“Somoza bombed everything in Nicaragua before he left the country. Reagan was spending — what? — $100 million a year annually against us at that time?” says Vargas. “They spent so much for a decade to destroy our little country.”

Nonetheless, poetry remained in the forefront of the Nicaraguan revolution. Cardenal was named Ministry of Culture, and he instituted poetry workshops across Nicaragua as part of a highly successful literacy campaign that raised literacy from just 12 percent to over 50 percent in the first 6 months of the revolutionary government. Soon, poetry was being written and taught in the tiniest villages and in the fields.

“We tried,” Vargas says bluntly. “We were doing very important land reform, incredible stuff for the economy. But it was dangerous to be a good example. We had the potential, but we had to hold off this enormous power [of the U.S.] for decades. Ultimately, we had to step back so they would not destroy Nicaragua.”

In 1990, Nicaraguan voters, weary of war and economic misery, chose to elect FSLN President Daniel Ortega’s U.S.-backed opponent, Violetta Chamorro, in the presidential election. “We lost the elections,” says Vargas. “But we had to allow them to demonstrate that we were not like Cuba or other revolutions. We lost beautiful young men and women to get that liberty.”

I ask Vargas to consider the successes and failures of the Nicaraguan revolution. He pauses and then seemingly changes the subject, excitedly telling me of the time he brought Ginsberg to meet the Sandinista soldiers. “Ginsberg was fascinated by the Sandinistas,” says Vargas. “And he wanted to see what he had been supporting on my behalf all these years. So I took him to the fighting along the Honduras border in 1984, during the Contra war.”

When Ginsberg went to the war zone, he brought not a rifle but a concertina. “I took him to meet these young soldiers in a trench. They see Allen with the concertina and they were like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ I told them he was a very famous poet. At once, they all started taking bits of paper out of their pockets that they had written poems on and started reading them to Allen. So there we are, with these soldiers in the trench with their rifles reading poetry, and Allen just wailing away on this concertina!”

I think of the strange road from Cardenal’s vision of lost Mayan cities to Vargas’ dreams of a Bernal Hill utopia to Ginsberg listening to soldiers’ poetry in a Nicaraguan trench, and I see that Vargas has answered my question with his own, the question asked by revolutionary poetry.



The lost moment with Ginsberg in the trenches is like a missing chapter out of Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives. Indeed Vargas’ story in many ways embodies that of Bolaño’s exile poet generation, of which he wrote, “They dreamed of a Latin American paradise and died in a Latin American hell.” Except for one crucial difference: Vargas is very much alive and still fighting.

Today, Vargas still puts in a tireless 50-hour work week as a labor organizer for the American Federation of Teachers in San Antonio, TX. During our conversation, he excitedly tells me of an action he is organizing for next month, a march of teachers on the Texas capital to protest budget cuts to education. “I camp out in the teacher’s lounge and talk to them when they are on break,” he says. “I signed up 50 new members last week!”

As he nears 70, the poet shows no signs of slowing down. “I can’t afford to!” he says. “My youngest son is only 17. When I get finished putting him through college, then maybe I can take a break.”

But work seems like more than necessity to Vargas; political struggle is the central theme of his life’s work. “Work, work, work, Erick,” he tells me. “That is what we have to do. I could go back and forth about what went wrong in Nicaragua, but there is more work to do and I have to stay positive. It is all part of the process.”

When Vargas comes back to the Mission Cultural Center this week, he will literally return, full circle, to a building he helped build. “We had no money to hire laborers, so we’d be there with our kids every weekend, building the place,” he remembers.

One of those kids was Vargas’ son, Mission poet Ariel Vargas, who will read in public with his father for the first time this week. “Cardenal baptized him when Ernesto came to bless the new Mission Cultural Center in 1977,” Vargas says. “He had offered to baptize any children who also might be there. In the end, there was a line of families around the block on 24th Street who had brought their children for Ernesto Cardenal to baptize. Ariel had already been there every weekend on his hands and knees sanding those huge gymnasium-like floors with us. The Mission Cultural Center is still there and that is our monument.” As he discusses the Mission, Vargas forgets the problems of the Nicaraguan revolution and begins talking nonstop again at last. He comes back to the stories that started our conversation. “You know, I lived at 110 Mullen on Bernal Hill,” he says, his excitement gathering. “Mike Rios was my neighbor. Rene Yáñez lived on the block. So it was all happening right there! Carlos Santana lived down the block at around 180 Mullen or something. We used to hear him and his band jamming all the time. The Arts Commission had a stage truck and I’d take it out to Precita Park and put the stage down for Carlos to play on.” I think of Cardenal’s vision of the repeating cycle of time, the promise that the empire will always fall and the hero will always be reborn. Much in the Mission has changed. But Vargas, the old poet, still looks out from Bernal Hill today and sees lost cities beneath the surface.















































































































































Lost city


WRITERS ISSUE With its vast divide between the rich and poor, its lusty appetite for sex, and its backroom real estate deals, it would seem that even the boutique and completely gentrified San Francisco of today offers to writers of crime fiction a rich vein of noir opportunity. Yet the lone novelist today determinedly probing the dark side of San Francisco’s endless battle to clean up the streets is Peter Plate. His latest novel, Elegy Written on a Crowded Street (Seven Stories Press, 176 pages, $13.95), is Plate’s ninth in a hardboiled writing career that spans the era of out of control gentrification in San Francisco. With little fanfare or support, against the real life backdrop of police sweeps of the homeless and the start of the dot com boom, Plate has produced a shelf of books that represent a lonely, yet noble and deeply radical literary effort to write noir crime fiction in which not the cops but the criminals are the protagonists.

Plate’s novels are full of delicious hooks. They reliably begin with some of the best premises in noir fiction today. Fogtown (Seven Stories Press, 2004) opens as a crowd of Market Street homeless and down and outers witness the crash of an armored Brinks truck at dawn that temporarily fills the desolate street with crisp, new hundred dollar bills. In Police and Thieves (Seven Stories Press, 1999), Doojie, a small-time Capp Street weed dealer, accidently witnesses the murder of a homeless man by a police officer and spends the rest of the book on the run from the murderous cop who seeks to silence him.

Like Doojie, Plate’s characters are always in the wrong place at the wrong time, unwilling spectators as the city changes around them. The free money in Fogtown offers the Market Street dwellers a tantalizing glimpse of the kind of new carefree life being lived all around them by the rich who have newly arrived to the city. Yet, like the upscale new eateries and clubs popping up everywhere, the money is off limits to them, and those who take the money instantly become, like Doojie, hunted by police. Plate’s strength is in conveying the hopelessness and despair of lone characters pitted in Doestoyevskian battle with societal forces far greater than they are. As they are slowly ground down by this struggle, we feel their terror, incomprehension and paranoia. As the drug dealer and SRO hotel manager, Jeeter, says in Fogtown, “Rights? You don’t have any rights. You have choices. That’s all you have. And you made the wrong one.”

In this context, noir fiction for Plate is protest fiction. A longtime street activist, Plate writes with the gut instincts of a protester, taking his novels right to the barricades where different visions of San Francisco violently clash. One Foot Off The Gutter (Incommunicado, 1995), is a mordant postcard from a Mission District just about to enter its gentrification era in which a homeless cop, a Latino gang member, and a yuppie doctor all covet the same Victorian houses at 21st Street and Folsom. Soon The Rest Will Fall (Seven Stories, 2006) is set in the Trinity Plaza Apartments on Market Street at the height of housing activists’ struggle to save the low income housing from demolition. Plate has so reliably found the pulse of change in the city that at times his work has blurred tragically with reality. Police and Thieves ends with a fire at the Crown Hotel on Valencia Street. Just months after the book’s publication, the real life Crown Hotel burned to the ground.

Since Plate finished his Mission Quartet at the close of the dot-com era, he has turned his attention to San Francisco’s Main Street, Market Street. Recently, in its inaugural issue, the incipient local newspaper San Francisco Public Press reported that one lone real estate speculator owns 62% of the vacant real estate between 5th and 6th on Market Street and that he is willfully leaving those properties vacant until he can make the money he thinks he deserves off of the property. Those uselessly abandoned and boarded up buildings at the very heart of the city are the recurring backdrop for much of Elegy Written On a Crowded Street, perhaps Plate’s darkest and most emotional work to date.

Elegy is not so much a traditional crime fiction thriller, but a lyrical roman noir in which police and thieves battle not each other but the stifling conditions of the city. Plate’s latest evokes Don Carpenter’s 1966 classic Hard Rain Falling (reissued this year by New York Review of Books), an unrelenting work that also took place largely on Market Street. Carpenter’s novel brings to life the old dive 24-hour pool halls and dirty hotel rooms of a 1950s San Francisco where the promise of the Gold Rush American West has faded. The novels’ restless young pool hustlers and small time thieves can only shuttle aimlessly back and forth in the new remote control city, like the 8 Ball, waiting to fall. Elegy’s characters are their descendents, still on Market Street and still waiting.

Down this mean street walks May Jones a tough, hard-drinking bail bondswoman, who is nearing forty with no prospects. Like everyone around her, Jones dreams of escape from the city. Even Jones’ clients are leaving for Portland. “It’s got trees. Good people. Cheap housing,” an erstwhile, young crusty-punk bank robber earnestly tells Jones as she prepares to skip bail. But Jones is condemned to remain, while all around her are the undead ghosts of those already disappeared and the soon to be departed. The cleaned up San Francisco is haunted. The living are exhausted. Jones says to herself, “I have pipelines to the lands of the dead.’

Jones echoes the food stamp caseworker, Charlene Hassler from Plate’s welfare reform novel, Snitch Factory (Incommunicado, 1996). Like Hassler, Jones is being worn down between the insatiable needs of her clients and the treacherous intrigues that surround her job. Jones’ client is Mary Anderson, a pregnant twenty-year-old African-American who has killed her boyfriend, the SFPD’s star snitch on Fillmore Street. By keeping her client out of jail, Jones finds herself on the cops’ shitlist and in fear for her life. As in other Plate novels, a police hunt for Jones ensues. As in other recent Plate novels, after the initial hook, the plot soon becomes murky and this hunt becomes elliptical and hard to follow, perhaps even a bit ridiculous. A plot sideline in which Jones has a brief fling with a dyke she meets at the End Up goes nowhere. The ghosts of Lenin and punk rock legend, Will Shatter make surprise cameos that stretch the reader’s credulity. Yet, Plate’s spot on descriptions of Market Street today and the universe of dread his characters inhabit there remains compelling throughout and one never doubts that the unraveling narrative is what life feels like for his characters. Plate writes with a tightly wound urgency throughout and Elegy makes a persuasive case that what is happening at 5th and Market today is happening to the city as a whole.

Fantastical plot aside, it is the weight of the dead that is the true subject of Elegy. The book opens with a dreamy scene, shrouded in fog, in which Jones watches the dead body of one of her former clients as it bobs up and down in the surf, unable to either reach the shore or go under for good. Some policemen have waded into the water to grapple with the dead man and bring him in, but the body proves too difficult to apprehend and the cops are pulled down with the it into the crashing waves. Throughout Elegy, Plate’s characters similarly bob along, paralyzed and unable to take decisive action, only pulling each other down, and as the novel ends, May Jones is more or less back where she started. Sadly, like many of Plate’s recent books, the novel fails to fully satisfy because there is no resolution to the plot. Plate’s characters do not seem changed by their ordeal; they only become more numb. Yet perhaps that is the point. Plate seems to be saying that as long as the city fails to grapple with its own dead, nothing can change, and the city is condemned to go around and around in a sort-of netherworld, reliving its past traumas in new conflicts. “It’s a moment in hell that should be taking place beneath the ground,” Plate writes of a brutal police assault on a drunken derelict in Elegy, and it sums up the whole book. The dead won’t stay buried.

While an elegy is a funeral song, a lamentation for the dead, it also suggests a last word. With Elegy has Plate said all he has to say about San Francisco? One hopes not. Perhaps no writer working today has left such a record of what it feels like to live in the American city in the era of gentrification. Yet, in life as in Plate’s fiction, knowing the truth can take its toll, as Doojie finds out when he is hunted by the police for the truth he alone knows. By the end of Elegy, May Jones has spent so much time wallowing in the murky depths where her clients dwell, that her identification with them is complete and her fate has become inseparable from theirs.

The exhausted tone of Elegy suggests that like Jones, Plate, the lifelong activist and engaged writer, has perhaps stared into the abyss too long. Nonetheless, his nine novels are a significant achievement, the life’s work of a doggedly engaged writer. In each book, I have found scenes that remain unforgettable in my own mind and that have permanently altered my own perceptions of San Francisco and its streets. While Plate’s novels are each flawed in their own way, I love them with the Algren-like compassion he clearly has for his memorable characters, like the homeless cop who lives in his squad car in Gutter, and the ex-con who robs a pot club while dressed like Santa Claus in Soon the Rest Will Fall. Taken as a whole, Plate’s novels offer a compelling and defiant portrait of the psychic toll the disappearance of loved people, places, and opportunity from the city has taken on those left behind.




Clouds and mirrors


Carl Fisher turned a mosquito-plagued, malarial sandbar into Miami Beach, “The Sun and Fun Capital of The World,” in less than a decade — dredging up sea bottom to build the island paradise, an all-American Las Vegas-by-the- Sea, where Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason partied and Richard Nixon received two Republican nominations for president. Art Deco hotels lined the beach, bold as Cadillacs, defiant in the path of hurricanes, their confident Modern lines projecting postwar American power. Morris Lapidus, the architect of the Fontainebleau Hotel, understood that the skin-deep city Fisher conjured out of neon and sunshine was a stage for the leisure fantasies of the ruling class. When his iconic Collins Avenue hotel opened in 1954, Lapidus said he wanted to design a place “where when (people) walk in, they do feel ‘This is what I’ve dreamed of, this is what we saw in the movies.'”

For many years in Miami, that movie was Scarface, as Colombian drug lords shot it out in mall parking lots. A shiny new downtown skyline of banks and condos emerged during a recession economy from the laundered proceeds of drug smuggling. Today the cocaine cowboys have all died, or done their time and moved on. Their descendents are selling art.

Art Basel came to Miami Beach in 2002, and the rise of Miami as an international art world capital neatly coincided with the glory days of the housing bubble. According to Peter Zalewski of, around 23,000 new condo units were built in and around downtown Miami during the Art Basel era — twice the amount built in the 40 previous years. The success of the international art exhibition has inspired a fever dream among city leaders, in which Miami’s skyline and neighborhoods are radically transformed by art world-related real estate development.

Cesar Pelli’s $461 million, 570,000-square-foot Carnival Center for the Performing Arts opened in 2006 in a moribund section of downtown known for its proximity to the faded 1970s-era mall, the Omni. That same year, the Miami Art Museum (MAM) hired as its new director Terence Riley, the former curator for architecture and design at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Heralded in his new city as “the Robert Moses of the new Miami millennium,” Riley initiated the development of Museum Park. This 29-acre complex would be home to new buildings for the Miami Art Museum and the Miami Museum of Science and Planetarium. It was to be built on the site of Miami’s last public waterfront park, Bicentennial Park, long a sort-of autonomous zone for Miami’s homeless residents. While the new MAM is not scheduled for completion until 2013, by 2007, a 50-floor, 200-unit luxury condo development, 10 Museum Park, had already been finished across the street.

Art Basel Miami Beach brings an estimated 40,000 people to Miami each year to look at art, party, and more important, look at celebrities as they look at art and party. The art fair, once dubbed “the planet’s highest concentration of wealth and talent,” generates an estimated $500 million in art sales each year. Yet while Miami leaders seek to present to the world Basel’s image of wealth and glamour, the iconic image of South Florida today has abruptly become the newly built and entirely empty condo development. Zalewski estimates that 40% of the condo units built since 2003 remain unsold. Florida’s foreclosure rate is the second-highest in the nation, and for the first time since World War II, people are leaving Florida faster than they are arriving. Just months before this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach, a New York Times cover story told of the lone occupant in a towering Broward County condo that had gone entirely into foreclosure. As the fair approached, I wondered: can art really save a city like Miami? Or is its reliance on art world money part of the city’s collapse?


At this year’s Art Basel, the glitz was, of course, played down, what with the global economic collapse and Art Basel’s main corporate sponsor, top Swiss bank UBS, now the subject of an FBI probe on charges of helping billionaire clients evade taxes. In the weeks before the opening of the fair, it was announced that the legendary UBS free caviar tent would not be open this year. One could not help but notice that the ice sculptures on the beach itself, hallmarks of the recent boom, were gone, already as fabled as the lost city of Atlantis.

Still, the epic “Arts and Power” issue of Miami magazine hit the stands on time, luxurious full-color spreads on oversize glossy pages. Press from all over the world wrote a month’s worth of previews leading up to the event, and on the day of the VIP vernissage, TV news reporters from all continents were there to dutifully record the arrivals of billionaires, celebrities, and fashion models at the Miami Beach Convention Center. As Art Basel Miami Beach 2009 opened, the floor of the convention center was eerily quiet, with hardly a sound except a hushed, determined whisper a bit like paper money being rubbed together. It seemed to me like everyone was doing her or his part, as if the whole art fair was a sort of performance art piece demonstrating the vigor of the free market in dark times.

This murmur ceased completely, and the air filled with the muted clicking of camera shutters, as Sylvester Stallone passed me on the convention floor. Stallone, too, was stoic, his expression hidden by dark sunglasses at mid-day. He stopped next to me and began to talk to TV news cameras about his own paintings on display, presented by the gallery Gmurzynska. Close-up and in person, clumps of the actor’s face, now just inches from mine, seemed to lay inert and dead like the unfortunate globs of oil paint he had arranged on his own canvasses. Pieces of puffy cheek hung limp and jowly under taut eyebrow skin, Botox and facelifts fighting age for control. For a paparazzi flashbulb moment, I thought I saw in Rambo’s sagging face a metaphor for the doomed efforts to prop up a whole failing way of life.

The Miami Beach Convention Center’s 500,000 square feet had been blocked out into booths and concourses that comprised a pseudo-city of art. As a city, it most resembled some parts of the new Manhattan — crowded yet curiously hollowed out and lifeless, under relentless surveillance, full of nostalgia for its former, more vital self. Groundbreaking art that once had the power to shock, move, or startle — Rauschenberg’s collages, Richard Prince’s Marlboro men, Barbara Krueger’s text block barrages — were presented here as high-priced real estate. In the city of art, time stood still; Matisse, de Kooning, and Duchamp had all retired to the same street. A sailor portrayed in a 2009 life-size portrait by David Hockney seemed to gaze wistfully across the hall toward a 1981 silk-screened print of a dollar sign by Andy Warhol. The life-size portraits by Kehinde Wiley felt just like the city in summer, how the radio of every passing car seems to be blasting the same song. A print of a photo of Warhol and Basquiat together in SoHo stood catty-corner to a 1985 Warhol paining of the text, “Someone Wants To Buy Your Apartment Building.”

I wondered if this city of art offered clues as to the kind of city that developers imagined Miami might become.


Across Biscayne Bay, away from Miami Beach in the city of Miami, the fever dream of art was turning a down-and-out neighborhood in the poorest city in America into an outdoor art mall. Fifteen satellite art fairs and 60 galleries staged simultaneous exhibitions in Miami during the week of Art Basel Miami Beach. Virtually all this art was crammed into about 80 square blocks north of downtown Miami, bisected by North Miami Avenue. The area included Miami’s African American ghetto, Overtown, the warehouse district of the low rent Puerto Rican neighborhood, Wynwood, and the resurgent Miami Design District up to its shifting borders with Little Haiti.

Walking up North Miami Avenue and Northwest Second Avenue the night before the exhibitions began, I could see the usually moribund main drags transforming before my eyes. Warehouses vacant the other 50 weeks of the year were hastily being turned into galleries or party spaces. Solely for Art Basel week, the Lower East Side hipster bar Max Fish had built an exact replica of its Ludlow Street digs in an Overtown storefront. In Wynwood, the paint still appeared wet on a fresh layer of murals and graffiti running up and down the streets.

The modern-day Carl Fisher most perhaps most responsible for dredging this new art world Miami up from the bottom of the sea is Craig Robins. “I transformed the image of my city from Scarface into Art Deco,” is how Robins put it when I talked to him in the Design District offices of his development firm, Dacra. Widely considered to be the person who brought Art Basel to Miami Beach, Robins is, at a youthful 46, the man who perhaps more than anyone embodies the values and tastes of a new Miami where art and real estate have become as inseparable as fun and sun. Robins takes art seriously — he is a major collector of artists like John Baldessari, Elizabeth Peyton, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Richard Tuttle — and he made his name and fortune by restoring the derelict Art Deco motels on his native Miami Beach during the early 1990s into the international high-end tourist destination now known as South Beach. Today Robins is one of the principal owners of the warehouses in the Miami Design District and Wynwood.

With his casual dress, shaved head, and stylish Euro glasses, Robins could easily fit in as one of the German tourists who flock to the discos on the South Beach that he developed. His offices offer a rotating display of the works of art in his collection. Around the time of Art Basel, his staff had installed many works by the SoCal conceptual artist John Baldessari, in honor of Baldessari’s upcoming career retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London. Robins was friendly and projected a relaxed cool; when I’d met him on the convention center floor and asked for an interview, he gave me an affectionate shoulder squeeze and said, “Call my assistant and we’ll hang, OK?” A few days later, he grinned somewhat impishly when I sat down said, “I notice you sat in the Martin Bas chair,” as if it was a Rorschach test. Honestly, it was the only piece of furniture in the design collector’s office that looked dependably functional.

Not surprisingly, Robins was adept at explaining the art theory behind his development projects, and the ways Dacra is bringing art, design, and real estate together “to make Miami a brand name.” He said he learned from the successful preservation of historic buildings in his South Beach projects that consumers were starting to reject the cookie-cutter commodities of the mall and “starting to value unique experiences” made from “a combination of permanent and temporary things.” On the streets of the Design District and Wynwood, Robins sought to bring together restaurants, fashion showrooms, and high-end retail stores, surrounded by parties, international art shows, and public art. “This gives a richness to the experience of Miami,” Robins said. “That is the content that Miami is evolving toward right now.” I thought of Lapidus, the Godfather of Art Deco, and his quote about the Fontainebleau: In Wynwood, Robins wanted to turn not just a hotel lobby but an entire neighborhood into a place where visitors feel they have entered a movie.

Robins grew more excited as he discussed his vision. “With my work at Dacra, I build communities,” he told me. “When we brought Art Basel here, Miami immediately became recognized as a world-class city.”

Others are skeptical. “Miami will always be an attractive place for people to visit in December, but you can’t graft culture onto a city,” says Alan Farago of the widely read blog Eye On Miami. “It’s a mistaken belief that art can be a totem or a symbol of a great city without there being any substance. Miami will continue to be a pretender because there is no investment in local culture beyond building massive edifices like the Performing Arts Center.”

Indeed, the center — now renamed the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center, in honor of a wealthy benefactor — has become perhaps another in a long line of tragicomic failed improvements for the area. Bunker-like, it has been likened by some architecture critics to an upside-down Jacuzzi. Though 20 years in the making and long heralded by boosters as a building that would instantly make Miami a “world-class city,” the center has operated at a deficit and suffered from poor attendance since its opening. The future of Museum Park suddenly turned cloudy a month before the opening of this year’s Art Basel, when Miami Art Museum director Terrence Riley unexpectedly resigned days after unveiling the architects Herzog and de Meuron’s final model for the new buildings. Riley sited a desire to return to private practice as an architect, but online speculation had it that he already knew cash-strapped Miami would ultimately be unable to raise the money to build the museum.

Farago wonders what would change if the city did have the money. “In Miami on one hand, we have public school teachers using their own salaries to buy art supplies for their students,” he says. “Then we have these one-off art events and a performing arts center that brings us road shows of Rent, Annie, and 101 Dalmatians.”

When I asked Robins what lasting benefits Art Basel provided to the community, he cited a roster of new restaurants opened by star chefs and fashion showrooms. “It encourages people to come down here year-round,” he said. It was clear that Robins was discussing amenities designed for tourists, or for a speculative community of future residents who might be enticed to come to Miami.

I suggested that there were actually two different communities in Wynwood with potentially opposing interests. I told Robins I’d attended a community meeting held by the activist groups Power University and the Miami Workers Center. There, Wynwood residents discussed how their rents had doubled, how the city continued to neglect the facilities at Roberto Clemente Park, and how the increased presence of police escorting the art patrons to the new galleries had made them feel like they didn’t belong in their own neighborhood.

Robins, who had been very loose and calm during the first 45 minutes of our talk, became visibly upset. He launched into a sustained rant. “Well, look, active communities are a good thing,” he said, shaking his head. “But just because a community is active doesn’t mean it is rational. You go and sit in these meetings and half the people are nuts. Half are just there because they are miserable people and they have some soapbox to go and rant about all these things that they think they have some entitlement to attack government about when they never do anything themselves for anyone. I find that 20 percent of these people are totally irrational, mean-spirited people who would never agree with anyone about anything good.”

“What kind of people do you mean?” I asked.

“People who feel disenfranchised! They’re very angry. They have psychological problems and they want a forum to vent. I’m not implying we should stifle democracy — I’m a big believer in it! I’m saying these people should not be taken seriously by enlightened people!”

Robins rose to look at a clock on his desk. Not surprisingly, our time was up. I politely excused myself to the restroom. When I returned it was like no tantrum had ever happened. Robins’ impish grin even returned as I asked him to pose for a photo in front of one of his Baldessari prints. I had him stand in front of Cigar Smoke to Match Clouds That are Different (By Sight/ First Version), a 1972-3 triptych of photos. As the artist looks into a mirror at clouds over his shoulder in the sky, he blows out a mouthful of twisting cigar smoke, trying to match their elusive shape in the air.


Out on the streets of Wynwood, it was still mostly quiet, expectant, but the scene at David Lynch’s art opening gave one a sense of what the coming weekend would be like. Lynch was presenting photos from a book of staged stills he is releasing with a CD of music by Danger Mouse. Hundreds of hipsters, mostly locals, guzzled free booze and gawked when new Miami resident Iggy Pop showed up, shirtless as usual, in a Miami Vice-style blue blazer. As I watched the Godfather of Punk pose for pictures with his arm around Danger Mouse, I thought of the city of art, the Jackson Pollacks and Donald Judds together at last, on the convention center floor. I had the eerie feeling that the Internet had come to life.

I left the opening and walked at random through the streets of Wynwood at 2:00 a.m. While looking at murals and thinking about the changes Art Basel had wrought, I unexpectedly came upon a small street party of people I knew. The side street intersection was lit up like a stage with an enormous floodlight. Street artist SWOON stood high on a scissor lift, painting a mural on a warehouse wall, while below a couple of kids dressed like old tramps wrestled with a big, brown stuffed bear.

The bear split open, and thousands of tiny white particles of stuffing poured out into a warm Miami breeze, swirling high into the air and reflecting the glow from the floodlight. I ran to join the kids, who were now playing and laughing in the sudden snowstorm. A guy I recognized from Brooklyn rode by on a tall bike. Bay Area artist Monica Canilao went careening by on a scooter with no helmet. A cop drove by and smiled and waved. Guys from Overtown with cornrows and gold teeth were laying out a spread of huge chicken legs on a flaming grill. Some punk kids from Brooklyn sat on the curb, drinking beer. A girl in the group laid her head on a boy’s shoulder as they all watched SWOON work.

For a second, I flashed back to the Stallone scene earlier in the day, back on the convention floor. Here, in this intersection, I had found something living and breathing. This could be the real city of art. But I also knew the SWOON mural was commissioned by Jeffrey Deitch. I stood and watched the painting and the dancing and laughing and eating in the fake December snowstorm and contemplated what the city would be like if we all had the free time, resources, and permission to take to the streets and transform the city any way we pleased. Was this a window to a different world where anything might be possible?

Or was it just art?

The second half of this essay will run in the Jan. 27 Guardian. *
































































































































































Vanishing points


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ESSAY/REVIEW There is a wry but hilarious scene near the very end of Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 912 pages; $30), in which a French literary critic finds a German writer, Archimboldi, lodging at what the critic calls "a home for vanished writers." After checking into a room at the large estate, the elderly vanished writer wanders the grounds, meeting with the other vanished authors, residents whom Archimboldi finds friendly but increasingly eccentric. Gradually it dawns on Archimboldi that all is not as it seems. Walking back to the entrance gate, he sees, without surprise, a sign announcing that the estate is the "Mercier Clinic and Rest Home — Neurological Center." The home for vanished writers is an insane asylum.

As we enter the Obama era, with all its promise of "change," I’ve found it impossible to read 2666 without being haunted by the memory of those who vanished into the lunatic asylum of the long George W. Bush years — not just the nameless and unlucky left to rot in the Bush administration’s secret torture cells throughout the world, but also those who disappeared right here at home. For instance, a guy I worked with a couple of years ago. One day he was training me on the job, and a week or so later he was in a federal prison, labeled a "terrorist" — which in his case meant that he edited a Web site called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty.

There were other ghosts, those who vanished after refusing to speak to grand juries. They were rumored to have gone over the border, or back to the land, or who knows where, their very names now superstitiously verboten to speak out loud, lest we bring the heat down on ourselves. Now that Obama is here and everybody is eager for "change," who will remember the once-bright hopes and dreams of the generation that beat the World Trade Organization in Seattle at the dawn of this decade — the hopes that would later be chased down and gassed and beaten by riot police under cover of media blackout in the streets of Miami, St. Paul, or countless other cities? Of course, there were the suicides and overdoses, and other kinds of disappearances, different but related, too: the abandoned novels, or the guitars taken to the pawnshop. Three people in my community jumped off bridges. Only one survived. The human toll of the Bush years in my life has been enormous.

Watching the celebrations in the streets of the Mission District on election night in November, I could tell all of this was soon to be trivia. I saw a virtually all-white crowd of completely wasted people take over the intersection at 19th and Valencia, shouting "Obama!" and dancing in the street. In one way, this scene was touching: the spontaneous gathering was a product of the true feelings of human hope that people have for a better world. Yet the moment already had the scripted feel of something self-conscious or mediated, like the Pepsi ad campaign it would soon become. I had a sinking realization: those of us who have spent eight years battling the post-9/11 mantra of Everything Is Different Now were now going to soon be up against a new era of, well, Everything Is Different Now.

The narratives we tell ourselves about our country are important. Just when a Truth and Reconciliation Committee is most needed to write a detailed narrative of the Bush era’s torture, spying, illegal war, and swindling, I could already see the opportunity for that kind of change slipping away into the blackout amnesia aftermaths of the street parties taking place all across the nation. The election of a president of the United States from among the ranks of the nation’s most oppressed minorities has offered the country a new triumphant storyline. We have symbolically redeemed our sins against civilian casualties and third world workers, without too much painful self-examination. I could see that Obama’s brand of change was really so seductive because it offered a chance to change the subject.

Like Ronald Reagan, elected while the U.S. was mired in recession and post-Vietnam soul-searching, Barack Obama developed campaign narratives that made the U.S. feel good about itself again. Obama guessed correctly that national morale is low partially because we don’t want to deal with the nameless guilt we feel from the atrocities Bush and company committed in our names. Accordingly, he stated during his campaign that he would not pursue criminal prosecution of members of the Bush administration. Nor has Obama questioned the preposterous idea that we can win either a War on Terror or the war in Afghanistan. If you think about it, "Yes We Can" — his campaign’s appeal to good old American can-do spirit — isn’t far off in substance from Bush’s faith-based convictions about U.S. power. Both Bush’s crusade to make democracy flower in the desert of Iraq and Obama’s notion that the auto industry could save itself — and the planet! — with electric cars are fantasies that appeal to our sense of pride about being the richest and most powerful.

When a country that is owned by China and is getting its ass kicked simultaneously by ragged guerilla armies in two of the most impoverished and backward parts of the world keeps finding new ways to tell itself that it’s the richest and most powerful country, it is in deep trouble.

When political leaders and journalists seek to generate false narratives for our consumption and comfort, the difficult task of remembering the truth falls to literature.

Roberto Bolaño completed 2666 in 2003, shortly before he died, too poor to receive a liver transplant, at the age of 50. Born in Chile, Bolaño counted himself a member of "the generation who believed in a Latin American paradise and died in a Latin American hell," and was himself something of a vanished writer. Briefly jailed during the 1973 coup in which Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrew the popularly elected socialist government of Salvador Allende, Bolaño wandered in exile from Mexico City to Spain, working variously as a janitor and a dishwasher, entering obscure literary competitions advertised on the backs of magazines, while his generation was consumed by Pinochet’s secret prisons and torture cells.

Fittingly, disappearance is perhaps the main action of characters in Bolaño’s works, from the vanished fascist poet and skywriter in 1996’s Distant Star (published in English by New Directions in 2004) to the entire romantic generation of doomed Mexican poets and radicals followed across the span of decades and continents to its vanishing point in a desert of crushed hopes in 1998’s The Savage Detectives (published in English by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2007). In 2666, the terminally ill Bolaño wrote as if in an urgent race against the moment of his own departure, unwilling to leave anything out, as if he wanted to save an entire lost underworld from banishment. Taking on every genre from detective noir to the war novel to romantic comedy in an exhilarating, nearly 1,000-page race to the finish, the book is Bolaño’s epic of the disappeared.

The periphery of 2666 teems with Bolaño’s archetypal lost and doomed, a host of minor characters including a former Black Panther leader turned barbecue cook, various Russian writers purged by Stalin during World War II, a Spanish poet living out his days in an asylum, and an acclaimed British painter who cuts off his own hand. There are the usual obscure literary critics and lost novelists, and we even briefly meet an elderly African American man who calls himself "the last Communist in Brooklyn." This last communist could speak for all of Bolaño’s lost and departed when he explains why he presses on: "Someone has to keep the cell alive."

The book’s action, however, centers upon the unsolved serial killings of hundreds of women in the fictional Mexican border city of Santa Teresa during the late 1990s, events based on real-life unsolved killings in Juarez, Mexico. The majority of the women murdered in Juarez were workers at the new factories along the border with the United States, the unregulated maquiladoras that have sprung up in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In the book’s longest section, "The Part about the Crimes," we learn the names, one by one, of 111 of these murdered women. In terse, police-blotter language, Bolaño describes the crime scenes — the girls’ clothing, their disappearances, and the police investigators’ attempts to construct the last hours of their lives. Their bodies are discovered slashed, stabbed, bound, gagged, and always raped, in ditches, landfills, alleys, or along the side of the highway. Seen from these vantage points, Bolaño’s Santa Teresa is a disjointed place, seemingly patched together from snatches of barely remembered nightmares. Shantytowns and illegal toxic dumps spring up everywhere in "the shadow of the horizon of the maquiladoras." It is a city that is "endless," "growing by the second," a new type of urban zone in a Latin America that has become a laboratory for free trade policy experiments. It is a city made unmappable by globalization.

Bolaño clearly intends the reader to see the disappearances as the inevitable byproduct of the cheapness of life in the maquiladora economy, yet the killings also eerily evoke the disappearances in fascist 1970s Chile and Argentina. These murders are an open secret, virtually ignored by the media. Residents almost superstitiously refer to them only as "the crimes." The Santa Teresa police respond to the killings with a staggering indifference and ineptitude that might suggest complicity. The maquiladoras are ominous, hulking windowless buildings often in the center of town, not unlike the torture cells once hidden in plain sight in Buenos Aires (Bolaño even names one of them EMSA, an obvious play on Argentina’s most notorious concentration camp, ESMA), and many of the women’s bodies are discovered in an illegal garbage dump called El Chile. 2666 suggests that the unrestrained capitalism of the free-trade era is the ideological descendent of the 1970s South America state repression from which Bolaño fled, and that the killings in Santa Teresa are in part a recreation of the Pinochet-era disappearances.

While the scenes Bolaño describes are grisly, his language is clinical, the cold camera eye of the lone detective gathering evidence. The collective impact of story after story starts to accrue into its own profoundly moral force. By giving name and face to hundreds of disappeared women, Bolaño suggests that literature is a political response, a way to make wrongs right by bearing witness. While it would certainly be a mistake to read 2666 strictly as a political tract, Bolaño explicitly ties writing to justice in a rambling digression about the African slave trade. A Mexican investigator of the killings points out that it was not recorded into history if a slave ship’s human cargo perished on the way to Virginia, but that it would be huge news in colonial America if there was even a single killing in white society: "What happened to (the whites) was legible, you could say. It could be written." For Bolaño, the search for justice is partially about who can be seen in print.

At a literary conference in Seville six months before his death, Bolaño joked that his literary stock might rise posthumously. Sure enough, Bolaño the man has, ironically, vanished after his untimely death, lost in the fog of fame in the English-speaking world. Mainstream critics call his work "labyrinthine" — perhaps English-language critics’ stock adjective for Latin American writers — in a rush to "discover" a new Borges. Bolaño was a high-school dropout who bragged of discovering literature by shoplifting books. He claimed to be a former heroin addict who hung out with the FMLN in El Salvador. His genius deserves comparison to the great Borges, but it’s safe to say that, unlike Borges, a literary lapdog of Argentina’s generals, Bolaño would never have addressed the military leaders of the fascist Argentine coup as "gentlemen." Bolaño wrote without a net, over the abyss of atrocity into which his generation vanished. He did so in an effort to make a literature that recorded for all time where the bodies were buried. As a female reporter in 2666 says, "No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them."

The dangers of believing false narratives should be evident by now. In the wake of our current financial collapse, it is now widely understood that the U.S.’s sense of itself as the richest and most powerful nation in the world has been kept artificially afloat in the recent past by the import of cheap goods and credit from China. These cheap goods are manufactured under labor and environmental conditions much like those of Bolaño’s maquiladoras — conditions we tell ourselves we would never allow here at home, yet which are vital to our economic survival. Dealings with China have, instead, spread repressive tactics in reverse back to corporations from the United States, such as when Google memorably agreed to remove all reference to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre from its Google China site.

There is a crucial difference between hope and self-delusion. In its dogged search for uncomfortable truth, 2666 creates a hard-won hope that is different from the way in which that word manifests on the campaign trail. It respects the hope that truth matters, that staring it down can provide the shock of self-awareness that makes real change possible.

In the meantime, there is the hope of literature itself. In 2666, Bolaño devotes a scene to one of his disappeared characters, a Spanish poet who lives out his days in an insane asylum in the countryside. The poet’s doctor — who in a classically deadpan Bolaño twist tells us he is also the poet’s biographer — reflects on the asylum the poet has vanished into. "Someday we will all finally leave (the asylum) and this noble institution will stand abandoned," he says. "But in the meantime, it is my duty to collect information, dates, names. To confirm stories." *

Erick Lyle is the author of On The Lower Frequencies: A Secret History of The City, out now on Soft Skull Press.

Armed love


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REVIEW The struggle of young, white activists aspiring to the authenticity, confrontational stance, and street credibility of groups like the Black Panthers has generated some of the most enduring myths and storylines of the 1960s. Among these ’60s groups, perhaps the least documented is New York City’s mythical Motherfuckers, the "street gang with an analysis." Former Motherfucker and current Berkeley activist Osha Neumann’s colorful but uneven memoir Up Against the Wall Motherfucker (Seven Stories Press, 240 pages, $16.95) is the first book-length treatment of the so-called "group with the unspeakable name."

Much like the Diggers (members of the San Francisco Mime Troup who left the stage in 1966 to act out revolutionary change in the streets), the Motherfuckers got their start in art. In January 1967, Neumann attended a meeting for "Angry Arts Week," which called for Lower East Side artists to make politically engaged work against the war in Vietnam. There, he met anarchist painter Ben Morea. Morea and his art group Black Mask had been responsible for a series of actions that brought the heavy street vibe of the Black Panthers to the art world, including an announced "shut down" of the Museum of Modern Art that ended with riot cops ringing the museum. From Angry Arts Week evolved a new group with Morea and Neumann at its core that took its name from a poem by Leroi Jones.

A product of the tenements and rat-infested streets around Tompkins Square Park, the Motherfuckers roamed the Lower East Side in leather jackets, carrying knives and handing out manifestoes. Their political identity, worldview, and brutal tactics were all neatly encapsulated by their first action in January 1968. During a garbage strike in the Lower East Side, they gathered rotten trash from the streets and took it uptown to dump on the steps of Lincoln Center, where they handed out flyers that read, "We propose a cultural exchange: garbage for garbage." Similarly to the Diggers out west, UAW/MF operated a Free Store, and held regular free community feasts for hippies and dropouts. But the Motherfuckers also taught free karate classes; eventually, they stockpiled guns. As Neumann puts it today, "We didn’t fuck around."

Preaching "flower power but with thorns," the group’s politics of escalation anticipated today’s Black Bloc. At the October 1967 march on the Pentagon, while Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies were linking arms and chanting to "levitate the Pentagon," Morea and company tore down a chain-link fence, battled with federal marshalls, and fought their way inside. Although Neumann now mostly dismisses the Motherfuckers’ tactics as macho and ineffective, he skillfully evokes the paranoid, volatile time and place in which they made total sense. Unfortunately for the reader, the group disbands midway through the book, and the back half is devoted to deadly dull soul-searching about the meaning of the ’60s.

Assessing the Motherfuckers’ legacy, Neumann writes, "It is easy to dismiss (their) politics as nothing more than childish tantrums and to profess that a baleful acceptance of the status quo is more ‘mature.’ It is more difficult to disentangle, delicately, as one would a bird caught in a net, the genuinely radical and uncompromising elements in this politics from those which are self-defeating." Though Neumann never satisfyingly solves this challenge for readers or himself, perhaps that’s the point. The group that started out as artists ultimately ended where they began, leaving behind a myth with an irreducible riddle at its core that is perhaps best considered as art. *

Looking in at outsider art


Midway through I’m Like This Every Day, friends of underground musician Peter Stubb debate whether or not Stubb is actually a werewolf. Such is the unverifiable quality of Stubb’s legend. Since the early 1990s, between trips to the state mental hospital in Georgia, Stubb has made nearly 100 rare but highly sought after home-recorded cassette tapes of his often catchy, but lyrically death-obsessed, violent, and sad acoustic music. Stubb’s lo-fi tapes, some available only in editions of one or two, have the eerie, timeless, and deeply lonesome feel of old Alan Lomax field recordings. When director Mitchell Powers goes to the haunted, piney, Civil War blood-soaked hills of northwest Georgia, he finds that Stubb’s story shares some of the epic and tragic quality of the old bluesmen at the crossroads.

As the film opens, we see home video footage of a young and fresh-faced Stubb looking into the camera and saying, "Music is basically my life." The first shot of contemporary Stubb is of just his arm, lined from wrist to elbow with scars from self-inflicted knife slashes, as he strums the guitar. The story of the rough years in between is told chronologically by interviews with Stubb and childhood friends from defeated, dead-end factory town Dalton, Ga. — known as "the carpet capital of the world." Along the way we learn tales of Stubb painting his own child in blood and fucking a can of cranberry sauce during the making of his classic "Blueberry Masturbator" tape, while we meet characters like a shirtless, neck-tattooed friend of Stubb’s named Number Two, who cheerfully makes his screen debut trying to piss into his own mouth with one hand while carrying a tall can of Steel Reserve in the other.

Yet when Stubb’s ex-wife remembers fondly, "No one had ever sang to me like that before," it is achingly sweet. The film is so compelling because debut director Powers never sensationalizes these characters, but instead presents their stories with generosity and warmth. By refusing to diagnose Stubb or dismiss him as mentally ill, Powers suggests that the struggle to stare down our demons is one we all share. In only 19 minutes, Powers’ sympathetic short probes the uncomfortable border between being an artist and being insane. Stubb’s friends speak of him with reverence, awe, and a loving acceptance: "Peter gets obsessed with these shadow demons that inhabit his body," explains Number Two, with suddenly sober conviction. "And the only way he can get them out is to cut them out."


Sat/18, 5 p.m.; Oct 22, 9:30 p.m., $10.50

Roxie, 3117 16th St, SF

THE SEVENTH SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY FESTIVAL runs Oct. 17–Nov. 6 at the Roxie, 3117 16th St, SF and the Shattuck, 2230 Shattuck, Berk. For tickets (most shows $10.50) and more information, visit>.

The yard sticks


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I hopped my first freight train in the spring of 1993, outside a small central Florida town. My first train sat behind a drive-in theater along old Highway 301, among the pines sometimes seen in old photos of turpentine camps and prison work crews. Under a Southern moon, I battled mosquitoes and listened to a chorus of swamp frogs that must have been heard by the very men who built the railroad. I waited impatiently on the porch of a grainer car, as if it were the threshold of adulthood, for the train to carry me somewhere else.

As the ’90s ushered in a new era of gentrified, cookie-cutter, chain-store cities, I crisscrossed the country several times on freight trains. Today, I still think about that place in Florida outside of time, and when I’m sick of computers and phones and NPR news, I find myself heading to the train yard. In recent works that seem eerily timed to headlines announcing an impending US financial collapse, the writer William T. Vollmann and the photographer Mike Brodie have headed there too. This resurgence of interest in train-hopping stories might be a barometer of public dissatisfaction.

The somewhere else I thought I wanted to go on that first train ride probably looked a lot like the romantic universe encapsulated in the Polaroid photos of train-hopping friends taken by Mike Brodie, a.k.a. the Polaroid Kidd. Brodie’s photos, posted on his Web site, Ridin’ Dirty Face (, depict a hobotopia where packs of grubby kids (and dogs!) play music, share food, and forage in the ruins of postindustrial America, traveling from town to town on freight trains and homemade river rafts. Everyone’s good looking and no one appears to be over 25.

As my first train left the yard that long-ago day, I sang some words by Johnny Cash because at 19 I wished my life were an epic country song. Similarly, the subjects of Brodie’s pictures wear suspenders and fedoras and patched-up oversize suit coats, as if they’ve walked out of newsreels from the Great Depression. In Brodie’s version of somewhere else, though, the Depression is glamorous. One of the most charming — and possibly most emblematic — photos in his current show at SF Camerawork depicts a young woman standing in the doorway of a rickety shack, a yard full of chickens pecking at her feet. At first glance, the image seems lifted straight from Walker Evans’ classic photos of 1930s austerity in his 1941 collaboration with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But in Brodie’s photo, the light is sensual, the mood somehow humid — it’s summertime — and the woman is, incongruously, wearing a beaded ballroom gown.

Brodie’s photos might depict a wish for a world uncomplicated by money or its absence — an aesthetic nostalgia for a time when no one had any money, and everyone had, perhaps, more integrity without it. Yet these images of romanticized destitution have, quite ironically, become high-priced art objects. Frankly, I find it creepy that art collectors will pay top dollar for highly aesthetic portraits of cute — and apparently penniless — teenage punk waifs staring guilelessly from dirt-smudged faces into the camera. Brodie’s photos have become valuable just as the country stands on the edge of the kind of Great Depression they romanticize. The winner at age 22 of the 2008 Baum Award for Emerging American Photographers, Brodie is highly talented. But the buzz about his subjects suggests that the weary art world is willing to go to as great lengths as the train-hopping kids in a search for authenticity. The Great Depression to come is on some level longed for.

Brodie seems motivated by a sincere desire to celebrate his community. "I just want to spend the next couple of years traveling around, following the warm weather, and documenting the train-hopping youth of America," he said in one recent interview. The joy of young friendship and the camaraderie of the road come through in his work. One soon-to-be-classic photo captures three train-hoppers from the waist down on a moving train: three sets of rolled-up trousers exposing dirty legs hang off the train, with the gravel rail bed and tracks below a blur. Near the center of the image, a can of beans with a spoon sticking out of it is being passed to someone whose hand reaches down from the upper right. It’s sort of a tramp reenactment of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, and the meeting of the hands on the can gives the photo an emotional punch. Though the young legs look straight out of The Little Rascals, the image is timeless, as poignant and enduring as summer itself.

When Brodie photos like this one escape from the self-consciousness of staged portraiture, they effortlessly capture the exhilaration of being young and on a freight train with your whole life seemingly ahead of you. The picture in this show of the kid hanging off the back of a moving train by one tattooed arm may be bought, but the middle-finger salute he triumphantly gives to the camera says the joke is on the collector who pays for it.

That the kid giving the finger will likely one day resemble William T. Vollmann in the new train-hopping memoir Riding Toward Everywhere (Ecco Press, 288 pages, $26.95) is a joke — played by time — on all of us. As the book begins, Vollmann finds himself nearing 50, recovering from a broken pelvis, and too hobbled to catch moving freights. Without even a fedora, he humbly cowers around the perimeter of a train yard carrying his only fashion accessory, a trusty orange bucket ("One could sit on it, carry things in it, and piss into it"), while contemputf8g his life’s narrowing options: "I hope that as what I get diminishes thanks to old age, erotic rejection, financial loss, or authority’s love taps, I will continue to receive it gratefully."

Like a veteran pitcher who has lost some zip on his fastball, Vollmann gets by on guts, his vitality flowing from an ornery and uncompromising hatred of authority that isn’t matched by young Brodie. "The activities described in this book are criminally American," he states in a disclaimer. In an increasingly controlled and uptight America, where "year by year the Good Germans march deeper into (your) life," Vollmann holds onto the hope that a freight train can still help him find a hole in the net.

Riding Toward Everywhere includes 20 or so pages of photos by Vollmann. In sharp contrast to Brodie’s, none feature anything you could really call pretty — except perhaps a snapshot of a friendly waitress in Wyoming, whose inclusion here only underscores the loneliness and desperation he finds on the rails. Vollmann’s camera finds cardboard camps in the weeds, toothless tramps, stern rail cops, and racist graffiti under rail bridges. For him, the train yard represents a collection of failed possibilities. In a boxcar heading from Salinas to Oakland, he finds an old hobo moniker from La Grande, Ore., written on the wall and spends the long boxcar night contemputf8g a woman from there whom he’d loved — and what might have been if they’d stayed together. In the morning light through the boxcar doors, looking out over "cornfields and the half-constructed houses of our ever-swarming California," he mourns "not merely my past but the vanished American West itself, where I would have homesteaded with my pioneer bride."

Well versed in the lore of rail-hopping, Vollmann goes to such places as Spokane, Wash., and Laramie, Wyo., in search of the hobo jungles of today’s American West. However, where proud Wobblies and tramps once cooked up a mulligan stew and waited to catch out, he finds a police lineup of blown-out drunks and SSI recipients. Though free to roam the rails under that big Western sky, they seem as herded and docile as those last few sad bison living out their days at the end of Golden Gate Park.

As in his last book, Poor People (Harper Perennial, 464 pages, $16.95), Vollmann records somewhat incoherent interviews with these subjects, an approach that stands in for sociology. While the elliptical conversations do give a somewhat impressionistic take on what life on the rails is like, Riding Toward Everywhere‘s subjects are hardly representative. Like Brodie, Vollmann is in thrall to a particular aesthetic. He’s committed to sensationalizing the ugliest aspects of the rails, to obsessing over swastika tags and crude drawings of women’s genitalia scrawled by bums on boxcar walls.

While spending much of Riding Toward Everywhere looking for the Freight Train Riders of America, a half-mythical hobo gang whose members supposedly will "kill you for $5 in food stamps," Vollmann fails to mention possibly the largest population on the West Coast train lines — undocumented Latino farmworkers. In my own experience hopping trains, I’ve shared food, water, and a sweet sense of humanity beyond language with such laborers. (Just last October, when I got off a train that stopped at the bridge over the American River in Vollmann’s hometown, Sacramento, I looked back to see five Latino guys carrying their belongings in Safeway plastic bags, scurrying up the embankment to get on the train before it started moving again toward Stockton.) Their presence on the rails is so great that I’d venture to say that if train cops actually tried to stop them from riding, an apple would cost five bucks, because there’d be no one left to pick them.

Still, despite self-consciously labeling himself a "fauxbeau," the 2005 National Book Award winner gets most details of train hopping right. Insider safety tips — don’t forget to put a rail spike in the boxcar door so it can’t slam shut on you! — are well represented, and Vollmann is especially good on the sights, sounds, and feelings of actually being on a train. He captures perfectly that indescribably victorious moment when your train is finally leaving the yard and it starts to accelerate just as you pass the cursed patch of weeds and litter where you’ve been hiding from the yard bull for 24 hours. Riding Toward Everywhere is most enlivening when this old pro simply lies back and describes what he sees out of his boxcar door.

Unfortunately, it turns out Vollmann doesn’t have even a relatively short book’s worth of train-hopping stories. After the excitement of a handful of train rides described early in the book, he pads the page count by dusting off other writers from the past and their takes on the road. Jack Kerouac, Jack London, and Ernest Hemingway are, predictably, quoted at length. Mark Twain’s raft on the Mississippi makes a guest appearance. Riding Toward Everywhere, it turns out, is a lot like a freight-train ride itself: in the beginning it’s really exciting and feels like it could lead anywhere, but after a while it starts moving so slowly that you can’t wait to get off!

Yet Vollmann’s book still has something to say about the search for real freedom — about its elusiveness and the price of trying to find it. "And we flee in search of last summer or next summer," he writes, "but there’s no harm in it if we know all the time it’s only a shadow show." Somewhere between the eternal search for next summer and the eternal search for last summer is the real ache Vollmann feels in his bones as he struggles to climb aboard a boxcar. In the years between the kid that Brodie photographs hanging off the back of a speeding freight train and the incoherent drunk living by the tracks that Vollmann interviews, there are cherished bits of freedom. They’re snatched from razor-wired train yards and robot train cops: a view through a boxcar door of elk at sunrise, or the taste of cold water from a trackside creek in the middle of nowhere Montana. These experiences are so rare and true that mere images of them are worth thousands in galleries.

The holes in the net are rare these days. I think often of my first train ride from that place out of time. It is a place seen in my favorite photo from Brodie’s exhibition at SF Camerawork. Through a rear window, it catches seven kids in the back of a pickup truck rolling down a flat Middle American prairie road at dusk. Hair is blowing all around in the wind, but one guy on the left is bent over in cool concentration, rolling a smoke, as warm yellow sunlight the very color of nostalgia floods the image. Whether you’re Mike Brodie, 22, or William Vollmann, 48, or myself, just now 35, you can’t help it; you want to live in this photo forever.


Through May 24

SF Camerawork

657 Mission, second floor, SF

(415) 512-2020,

More train hoppin’ in this issue:

>>The end of the line
Trainspotting America with James Benning’s RR

>>Time travel ticket
Excerpts from a book that is Mostly True

>>What is Who is Bozo Texino?
“I hear you callin’, baby, but you ain’t gettin’ me. Not today, anyhow.”

After the ruins


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ESSAY In a journal entry dated Dec. 27, 1835, from his 1840 book Two Years before the Mast, student-turned-seafarer Richard Henry Dana recorded his first impressions of the area we know as the City, while his ship, The Alert, traveled through the Golden Gate:

We passed directly under the high cliff on which the presidio is built … from whence we could see large and beautifully wooded islands and the mouths of several small rivers … hundreds of red deer, and [a] stag, with his high branching antlers, were bounding about, looking at us for a moment and then starting off …

Dana arrived in the Bay Area after one era had ended and before another began. Until the coming of the Spaniards a generation earlier, some 10,000 people, members of around 40 separate tribes, lived between Big Sur and San Francisco, in the densest Native American population north of Mexico. Despite the existence among them of as many as 12 different languages, the people collectively referred to now as the Ohlone lived in relative peace for some 4,500 years.

On his first visit, Dana predicted that the Bay Area would be at the center of California’s prosperity. When he returned more than 30 years later in 1868, he discovered that his hotel was built on landfill that had been dumped where The Alert first landed.

Then in middle age, Dana wrote, "The past was real. The present all about me was unreal." Making his way through the crowded streets where the new city he’d predicted was being built, he remarked, "[I] seemed to myself like one who moved in ‘worlds not realized.’" Thus Dana became one of the first to articulate the peculiar San Franciscan combination of nostalgia for a lost past and despair over an unrealized future.

The past and future are always alive here. On his first visit, Dana wrote in his notebook about the great city to come. But like many residents of SF today, he slept on the cold, hard ground.

In George Stewart’s 1949 science fiction classic Earth Abides, a mysterious disease has killed 99 percent of the Earth’s population; the main character, Ish, roams the City and East Bay until he finds a wife. Stewart’s book ends in a Twilight Zone scenario, as an old, feeble Ish — now the last living pre-plague American — watches in dismay while his illiterate offspring hunt and frolic like the Ohlone, wearing animal skins and fashioning arrowheads from bottle caps.

After a wildfire, Ish notices that a library has been spared. All the information is still in there, he thinks. "But available to whom?"

Perhaps the knowledge Ish once begged his children to learn can be found in 1970’s The Last Whole Earth Catalog. Its 450-plus yellowing Road Atlas–size pages contain terse recommendations of publications about plant identification, organic gardens, windmills, vegetable dyes, edible mushrooms, goat husbandry, and childbirth, while also sharing the fundamentals of yoga, rock climbing, making music with computers, space colonization, and — of course! — the teachings of Buckminster Fuller.

The initial Whole Earth Catalog sought to reconcile Americans’ love of nature and technology. In Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (University Press of Kansas, 303 pages, $34.95), author Andrew Kirk credits its creator, Stewart Brand, with bringing a sense of optimism to environmentalism. A character in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Brand embodied the cultural intersection of acid and Apple at mid-1960s Stanford University. Kirk examines Brand’s 1965 "America Needs Indians" festival, his three-day Trips Festival in 1966, and his time riding the bus as one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.

Counterculture Green correctly suggests that Brand’s utopian lifestyle has a hold on our imagination. But Brand was a leader of the counterculture, not a revolutionary. He believed that the market economy, not political change, would usher in a better world. While today’s market — at the behest of individuals — has started to demand renewable energy or sustainable growth, it also has brought us the SUV, suburban sprawl, and the highest fuel prices in history. Apple may empower the individual — or want consumers to believe it does — but at 29, Silicon Valley has the highest concentration of Superfund sites in the country.

Brand deserves credit for intuiting the peculiar "machine in the garden" Bay Area we live in today, a place perhaps more "California Über Alles" than utopian. It’s far from the postmarket SF envisioned in Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel Ecotopia, which is set in 1999, nearly 20 years after Northern California, Oregon, and Washington have seceded from the United States to form the titular nation. A colleague of Brand’s, Callenbach bases his society on ideas from the Whole Earth Catalog, but for one major difference — Ecotopia comes into being not through the free market but through an environmental revolution. (I won’t spoil it, but here’s a hint: it starts in Bolinas!)

While Callenbach’s future sometimes resembles a mixture of the Haight Street Fair and Critical Mass, there are twists. Ancient creeks have been unearthed, and on Market Street there is a "charming series of little falls, with water gurgling and splashing, and channels lined with rocks, trees, bamboos and ferns." Ecotopians have instituted a 20-hour work week that involves dismantling dystopian relics such as gas stations. There is a surplus of food produced close to home. Materials that do not decompose are no longer used. This new world is no wilderness — it reconciles civilization and nature. Yet perhaps its most radical idea is that humans can create a utopia without help from a plague, apocalyptic war, or earthquake.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake leveled 4.7 square miles — or 508 city blocks. It destroyed 28,188 structures, including City Hall, the Hall of Justice, the Hall of Records, the County Jail, the Main Library, five police stations, and more than 40 schools. Yet strangely, many apocalyptic tomes — including recent ones such as the speculative nonfiction best-seller The World Without Us and the born-again Christian Left Behind series — are reluctant to imagine a totally destroyed San Francisco.

In contrast, Chris Carlsson’s 2004 utopian novel, After the Deluge (Full Enjoyment Books, 288 page, $13.95), suggests the City is at its most charming when at least partially in ruins, like the old cities of Europe. In Carlsson’s post-economic SF of 2157, rising sea levels from global warming submerge much of the Financial District, yet the City adapts by serving old skyscrapers — now converted into housing — with a network of canals.

After the Deluge‘s vision of reduced work, free bikes, and creeks unearthed from beneath streets borrows from Callenbach’s Ecotopia. Yet Carlsson seems to have his most fun imagining a city transformed by ruins: take a subtle comment on the Federal Building at Seventh and Market streets. In Carlsson’s map of SF circa 2157, the monstrosity that some call the Death Star is simply labeled "The Ruins."

Similarly, the photographs in After the Ruins 1906 and 2006: Rephotographing the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire (University of California Press, 134 pages, $24.95) appear to delight in the City’s impermanence. Mark Klett presents famous images of the smoldering city in 1906 alongside carefully shot contemporary photographs from the same vantage points. Cleverly, these images are arranged in a manner that suggests the ruins aren’t just the past but also an inevitable future.

The aftermaths of SF’s earthquakes are often described in utopian terms, as if cracks in the landscape revealed the possibility of a better world. In After the Ruins, a 1906 quake survivor remembers cooperation not seen since the days of the Ohlone:

A spirit of good nature and helpfulness prevailed and cheerfulness was common. The old and feeble were tenderly aided. Food was voluntarily divided. No one richer, none poorer than his fellow man.

In an essay accompanying After the Ruins, Rebecca Solnit recollects the 1989 earthquake similarly:

The night of the quake, the liquor store across the street held a small barbecue … I talked to the neighbors. I walked around and visited people. That night the powerless city lay for the first time in many years under a sky whose stars weren’t drowned out by electric lights.

Greta Snider’s classic early ’90s punk and bike zine Mudflap tells of a utopia for bicyclists created by the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. Until torn down, a closed-off section of damaged Interstate 280 became a bike superhighway where one could ride above the City without fear of cars. Earthquakes are seen to have utopian potential in SF, because, like protests or Critical Mass, they stop traffic. In 1991, Gulf War protestors stormed the Bay Bridge, shutting down traffic on the span for the first time since the 1989 quake. Perhaps in tribute to the utopian possibilities of both events, William Gibson’s 1993 book Virtual Light imagines a postquake-damaged Bay Bridge as a home for squatter shanties and black market stalls.

Carlsson’s new nonfiction book, Nowtopia (AK Press, 288 pages, $18.95), explores new communities springing up in the margins of capitalist society. Subtitled How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-Lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today, it looks for seeds of post-economic utopia in places such as the SF Bike Kitchen and the Open Source software movement. According to Carlsson, these communities "manifest the efforts of humans to transcend their lives as wage-slaves. They embrace a culture that rejects the market, money, and business. Engaging in technology in creative and experimental ways, the Nowtopians are involved in a guerilla war over the direction of society."

A founder of Critical Mass, Carlsson praises the biofuels movement and bicycle culture for promoting self-sufficiency through tools. With its optimism and endorsement of technology, Nowtopia occasionally evokes the Whole Earth Catalog. Yet unlike Brand’s tome, it focuses on class and how people perform work in today’s society. Carlsson finds that in their yearning for community, people will gladly perform hours of unpaid labor on behalf of something they love that they believe betters the world.

Within today’s SF, Carlsson cites Alemany Farm as an example of nowtopia. Volunteers took over an abandoned SF League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG) farm next to the Alemany Projects, farming it for several years before the City gave them official permission. "Instead of traditional political forms like unions or parties, people are coming together in practical projects," Carlsson writes. "They aren’t waiting for an institutional change from on-high, but are getting on with building the new world in the shell of the old."

Ironically, the only literature that truly envisions the complete destruction of large areas of the City are the postwar plans of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. In 1956, it began the first of two projects in the Fillmore, slashing the neighborhood in two with a widened Geary Boulevard and demolishing over 60 square blocks of housing. Some 17,500 African American and Japanese American people saw their homes bulldozed.

With their dreams of "urban renewal," the heads of SF-based corporate giants such as Standard Oil, Bechtel, Del Monte, Southern Pacific, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America reimagined the City as a utopia for big business. The language of a Wells Fargo report from the ’60s evokes the notebooks of Dana: "Geographically, San Francisco is a natural gateway for this country’s ocean-going and airborne commerce with the Pacific area nations." Likewise, Prologue for Action, a 1966 report from the San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association, might have been written by dystopian visionary Philip K. Dick:

If SF decides to compete effectively with other cities for new "clean" industries and new corporate power, its population will move closer to "standard White Anglo-Saxon Protestant" characteristics. As automation increases the need for unskilled labor will decrease…. The population will tend to range from lower middle-class through upper-class…. Selection of a population’s composition might be undemocratic. Influence on it, however, is legal and desirable.

This dream of turning San Francisco into a perfect world for business required that much of the existing city be destroyed. First, the colorful Produce District along the waterfront was removed in 1959, its warmth and human buzz replaced by the four identical modern hulks of the Embarcadero Center. Beginning in 1966, some 87 acres of land south of Market — including 4,000 housing units — were bulldozed to make way for office blocks, luxury hotels, and the Moscone Center.

The dark logic of the Redevelopment Agency’s plans are projected into the future in the profoundly bleak science fiction of Richard Paul Russo’s Carlucci series from the ’90s. Russo’s books are set in a 21st-century SF entirely segregated by class and health. The Tenderloin is walled off into an area where drug-addicted and diseased residents kill each other or await death from AIDS or worse. Access to all neighborhoods is restricted and even the series’ hero, stereotypical good cop Frank Carlucci, submits to a full body search in order to enter the Financial District because he lacks the necessary chip implant to be waved through checkpoints.

Russo’s nightmares have their real side today, and many dreams found in Ecotopia and the Whole Earth Catalog — composting, recycling, widespread bicycling, urban gardening, free access to information via the Internet, Green building design — have also come to pass. (There is even a growing movement to unearth creeks like the Hayes River, which runs under City Hall.) Pat Murphy’s 1989 novel, The City Not Long After, imagines these opposing visions of the city will continue even after a plague wipes out all but one-thousandth of SF’s population. In Murphy’s book, those still alive turn the City into a backdrop for elaborate art projects, weaving ribbon and lace from Macy’s across downtown streets and painting the Golden Gate Bridge blue. This artists’ utopia is threatened when an army of survivors from Sacramento marches into SF. But the last forces of America, unlike the dot-com invaders of the ’90s, prove no match for the artists, who use direct action tactics and magic to rout Sacramento in an epic showdown at Civic Center Plaza.

In Carlsson’s After the Deluge, several people enter a bar called New Spec’s on Fulton Street. The walls are covered with old SF ephemera. One character explains to Eric, a newcomer, "Its all about nostalgia, a false nostalgia." Was the City a better place before the war, before the earthquakes, or before it was even the City? So many utopian visions of the future evoke a simpler past that one wonders if believing in one is the same as longing for the other. It’s a question that would make sense, once again, to Philip K. Dick.

Perhaps no fiction about a future SF captures utopian yearning as well as Dick’s decidedly dystopian works, because his stories, though full of futuristic gadgets, are really about the ways human characters relate to them. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) is set in a radically depopulated postwar SF of 2021. The air is filled with radioactive dust and the streets are hauntingly empty as humans race to colonize Mars. Main character Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter assigned to "retire" humanlike androids, yet he’s mostly concerned about his electric sheep. Because there are almost no animals left on Earth, owning a fake one helps a striver like Deckard keep up appearances.

In 1962’s The Man in the High Castle, Dick imagines life in SF after the Nazis and Japanese have won World War II. Nostalgia haunts this story, too. Protagonist R. Childan makes his living selling rare prewar Americana to rich Japanese collectors. Not much has changed in this alternate SF, though. Market Street is still a place of "shooting galleries [and] cheap nightclubs with photos of middle-aged blondes holding their nipples between their wrinkled fingers and leering." While most utopian futures look to the past, Dick’s dystopian futures are all eerily about the present.

So how does Mr. Childan deal with the pain of living in a world where Nazis have won the war? How else? "To inspire himself, he lit up a marijuana cigarette," Dick writes, "excellent Land-O-Smiles brand."

Erick Lyle is the editor of Scam magazine. His book, On the Lower Frequencies: A Secret History of the City, is out now on Soft Skull Press.


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