Monthly Archives: September 2013

The mystery Dwan building of Brannan Street: who has a right to pick a use?

IMG_0139scaledOdd to notice my own sense of relief at seeing a contractor’s sign in the window of the Dwan Elevator building.

This is the single-story paneled utility building that has hunkered mysteriously for years opposite the Concourse Exhibition Center at Eighth and Brannan. A boat sat on the warehouse floor inside these windows for a long time. An RV sat on the pavement outside. Nobody seemed to be using either.

IMG_0140scaledAround the Dwan building, over the years, condos were built. An REI store moved in. Major offices of Adobe and Zynga and Pinterest moved in. The Concourse Center started booking fancier gigs. And the Dwan Elevator building just sat there. Much of it providing dead garage space at what must have been among the highest opportunity costs of any real property in the city.

So the odd part is, I’ve caught myself feeling there was some kind of moral failing in the stasis of this property. As though the owner had a duty to let the property be developed. Not necessarily because it ought to house people, as in the case of the long-vacant Hugo Hotel on Sixth Street — though of course, any property could conceivably house people. No, just because it seemed to be going to waste.

I don’t know where that impulse comes from exactly — the feeling that there’s a moral call to turn a property toward what city planners used to call its Highest And Best Use. Whether it’s granting deference to The Market as arbiter of value, or on the contrary feeling a collectivist impulse that says in some sense all resources are shared. Or whether it’s part of the generic human urge against entropy. The urge to see a thing or person be of use whether profitably or not.

Whoever owned or owns the Dwan building has, and had, a legal right to leave it unused. Also, I suppose, a moral one. I certainly wouldn’t want Highest and Best Use thinking applied to my own home, which is in a South of Market apartment building that some people might not view as being dense enough.

So why the sense of relief at seeing that the Dwan property will now wake up and become something else?


San Francisco, blissfully unaware of the America’s Cup

IMG_0093detailOnly visible sign of the America’s Cup at Fort Point today was a sign warning people off a little triangle of beach. Maybe for the sake of the bird life? Earlier, while walking over Pacific Heights, we saw a couple of big sails moving smoothly on the water below, surrounded by escort boats and a helicopter. Almost as if they were under arrest.

Four more races left according to the Chron. And our city, wonderfully, has yet to pay any attention. This place is, wonderfully, not Newport.

Meanwhile, San Franciscans spent a perfectly normal beautiful Sunday minding their own business on the waterfront.

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A timely Grapes of Wrath 75th anniversary road trip

The Steinbeck Center is sponsoring an anniversary road trip by three artists in honor of The Grapes of Wrath. All the way from Oklahoma to Bakersfield.

Wonder if the slot machines are still rigged?

(Talk about timely: just after I posted this, another tour came across my Twitter feed. It’s part of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers campaign for one cent more per pound from the Publix grocery chain.)

11th Street and the borders of the respectable city

I’d been meaning to post a photo of the picket-fence minipark at Butter. It’s a classic of nostalgic apples-and-oranges irony, subjecting the nightclub block of post-industrial 11th Street to a rural/suburban standard of quaint. The point of the fence is heightened, not weakened, by its resemblance to a stage set when viewed from the side. It’s there to say, only half as a joke, “Well, we’re trying to live up to the American ideal here, but just look at the poor materials available to us.” It fits Butter’s only-half-joking offer of nostalgia cuisine: microwaved, fatty American suburban standards “just like your babysitter used to make.”

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This past weekend a fire damaged the warehouse building two doors away, heightening the visible contrast between rural/suburban ideals and the ugly side of urban life. Neighborhood organizer Jim Meko reported tartly on his site that the damaged building has its own history in the 15-year-plus running dispute over the future of 11th Street. That debate has mainly concerned whether the street shall remain exclusively for entertainment and business uses or whether residential development can coexist with either. As Jim notes, given current economic pressures the fire is likely to hasten the upward economic climb of 11th Street no matter how the damaged property is rebuilt. Tech is already very much on that block. Heroku, for example, has offices in the big brick Jackson Brewery building on the corner.

Suburban residential expectations made their first appearance South of Market with the Web 1.0 tech influx and loft boom. Condo conversions changed the neighborhood radically during that time, peaking between 1998 and the Nasdaq plunge of 2000. Noise and other factors perceived as nuisances were the initial wedge issues between older and newer uses South of Market.

Fundamentally, these disputes had to do with whether South of Market, then being renamed “SoMa”, was inside or outside the respectable city.

It had been presumed for years that South of Market took in the businesses and people rejected from more manicured city neighborhoods: loud or rude entertainment sites; immigrants and others who faced discrimination elsewhere; poverty services; loud or noxious factories; meat packers with their smells; auto body shops with their paint fumes; bus yards and delivery garages; latterly, artists’ and artisans’ studios.

Harsh policing driven by social rejection had pushed the gay bathhouses and related gay leather culture to South of Market. After the bathhouses were closed, their places were often taken by other institutions viewed as being difficult neighbors. As this report of a local history tour explains, the former Club Baths at 8th and Howard became the Episcopal Sanctuary shelter and the Sutro Baths became the 1015 Folsom club.

That all changed — or rather, began to change — with the late-1990s loft boom. Condo buyers began to arrive from suburban upbringings, bringing with them suburban standards regarding noise and nuisance. Existing business owners and rent-controlled tenants feared new residential uses, not from fear of new housing per se, but from fear of monied, politically able newbies enforcing rights to quiet enjoyment of their premises — rights that, legally speaking, they did often possess.

Considering the history of noise South of Market, many past residents would have found it laughable to suggest that clubs harboring loud music and noisy drunks should preclude people from making their homes on the same block. Our own apartment, quiet now, is near a condo-converted warehouse that used to be a furniture factory. The landlord who originally rented to us had lived in our unit when part of its price was tolerance for bandsaw noise amplified by concrete walls.

Suburban ideas of neighborly duty have moved into South of Market to stay — at least, compared with late-1990s conditions, I’d say they have. I benefit from them personally. I can work at home undisturbed day or night, except when the yuppies in the converted furniture factory get to partying. But I continue to wonder if these currently applied noise and nuisance standards are any more suited to our dense downtown area than Butter’s comical picket fence.

A thing people forget in their nostalgia: that picket fence had Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly standing behind it, shouting at him. Tom (or anyway, his author) ran away to San Francisco to escape her.

Ou sont les neiges de Buena Vista Park? (Apologies to @pmadonna.)

These buried benches in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park cry out for a story-caption in the style of Paul Madonna’s All Over Coffee. I even have a dim feeling he drew these for one of his panels. (His picture would have been better — he’s a brilliant artist, I’m an indifferent photographer.) So I hope he won’t mind my borrowing his style to tell a story of my own about this place.IMG_0055detail

In the 1990s, which is already long ago, I met a man who came to San Francisco long before that, in 1970. He landed first where this picture is, in Buena Vista Park. He was there for three days —  good days — before someone told him he wasn’t in Golden Gate Park. He said it with remembered mischief in his voice. A welcome, I’m imagining. A party with hospitable strangers. Inadvisable states of mind that must have been pleasant at the time.

This man had problems at the time I knew him. For all I know his problems may have started right there and then. But he and others made Buena Vista Park something more than it is now. That’s worth remembering, good and bad together. Especially now they’re closing Golden Gate Park every night.

Maybe you know Buena Vista Park already. In case not: it’s the steep wooded oasis between the Upper Haight, known in legend as the Haight-Ashbury, and the Lower Haight, a less showy, tougher-rooted survival of San Francisco’s abused Western Addition and Fillmore districts.

Walking westward from the Transbay Terminal or the old Greyhound station on Seventh Street, the man who got here in 1970 would have climbed the tiring lower Haight Street hill to find Buena Vista Park at the top of the steepest slope. If he walked directly from Seventh to Market to Haight, and from there west along the whole length of Haight Street, then I suppose Buena Vista Park would have been the first big patch of greenery for him since the station. After that, if he’d ventured briefly farther west from Buena Vista Park, there would have been lots of distractions to keep him from finishing the busy mile or so of the Upper Haight business district before Haight Street’s dead-end at the main bulk of Golden Gate Park. I can see his mistake. Eh, Golden Gate Park is where you find it. Or anyway, reputedly, it was.

Buena Vista Park has been up and down, these past forty-fifty years. Bad drug-related things happened there for a while. It’s a contested space. It’s hard to police and nervous-making to walk in alone because of the same landscaping features that, security aside, would welcome the visitor with a sense of privacy. I guess that explains the unfriendly state of this space with the benches. Beautiful park, though. Lovely Edwardian and Deco buildings all around it.

IMG_0059detailI titled this post out of Villon, but with a slight blush I’ll admit thinking a Tolkien verse best conveys the feeling I got from those benches sitting unused and half buried in mulch. It’s from Treebeard’s lament for “the willow-meads of Tasarinan”. The old forest-guardian, looking back at past sunny days, speaks with resignation of his own dark, diminished, embattled woods: “Where the roots are long / and the years lie thicker than the leaves.”

Space-claiming signs #3: this may be San Francisco’s champion sidewalk-planter nag

San Francisco sidewalk planters surrounding trees take a lot of abuse. Result: lots of more and less charming Keep Off The Plants signs. This one, spotted on Irving Street yesterday, may be the champion. Possibly in the “Shut Up” category as well. The text on the square at the top reads, “Welcome! Please talk quietly. Neighbors hear almost everything. No Smoking. Much appreciated, Your Neighbors.”Image

Space-claiming signs #2: new vs old Valencia Street style

The signs here are within two blocks of each other on fast-changing Valencia Street. Both are nagging reminders to respect shared auditory space. Both have that San Francisco acerbity. But they’re reflecting and addressing different social styles. Dog Eared Books at left, Tacolicious at right. Would Dog Eared readers stand for the mock-parental tone of “use your inside voice”? (Click to enlarge either image.)


Why “Unquiet Titles”?

I’m trying a change in the title of this weblog, to “Unquiet Titles.” It’s based primarily on a notion, first taught to me in law school by the brilliant Prof. Jo Carrillo, that ownership of land is always a relative matter.

There’s nothing simple about “fee simple” and nothing tenuous about the rootedness that comes with a long-term rental tenancy or the customary use of a public space. Formally and informally, rights to take up space follow either from negotiated understandings with others or from outright unilateral displacement.

No space, really, is “abandoned”, “neglected”, or “derelict”. Any space looking that way has kinetic energy bound up in it: it is being kept inactive because of some definite intention or tension. For example, as Mark Ellinger has noted, San Francisco’s long-unoccupied Hugo Hotel on Sixth Street, best known for its “Defenestration” art installation, was sometimes called “abandoned” during the long years of bitter behind-the-scenes conflict over its future use. No one ever let go of that building voluntarily.

“Unquiet” has to do with the haunting imposed by prior uses of land. I don’t for a moment believe in ghosts nor the supernatural. I do, however, believe that architectural legacies, and the way people feel about them, “haunt” properties in entirely earthly ways.

At Tule Lake, for example, the town of Newell is haunted by the architectural legacy of its founding permanent structures, which were the barracks and utility buildings of the Tule Lake Segregation Center incarceration site. For example, some of the buildings where people live are too close together for comfort, because that’s how the inmates’ barracks were built during World War II. Worse, the waste pipes under houses have tended to back up because the wartime drainage system — still in use as of 2006, and I think probably still — was built for the communal washhouses and latrines of a prison camp, not for individual free households’ private plumbing systems. I know at least one person who believes that Tule Lake houses literal unquiet spirits. I don’t agree about that, but I do know that one legacy of the wartime camp has been unquiet drainpipes.

Inconsiderate construction, redlining, love or the lack of it — they all leave marks on a landscape. History never really goes away.

The fire this time, seen from I-5

The sun went blood red over Interstate 5 yesterday. The unnerving red of it doesn’t come out in the photos below but I hope they convey some of the surreal imposition of twilight by smoke in an otherwise blue sky.

These pictures are from yesterday evening along I-5 in IMG_2094scaledCalifornia’s northern Central Valley. They show smoke from what, from the map, must have been the Clover Fire. This fire has burned 6,700 acres — more then ten square miles — in farm country southwest of Redding, California. Places with bumptious pioneer names that are tragic to read in the local papers’ fire news: Happy Valley; Clear Creek.

Between 6 and 7 p.m., with sunset not due until 7:28 p.m., the sun looked hard bright red most of the way from Redding to Willows. Different reds: like a drop of blood from a papercut, like cherry soda, like a stop sign.

All around it was a layer of smoke.IMG_2096scaled Smoke filling the lower half of the sky while all above it was blue. We could see the shadow of the smoke stretching several more miles out to the east of the highway. It had a reddish tint all along the far edge.

Our car’s thermometer lolloped up and down from 97F-ish down IMG_2100scaledto 84, 85, then up to 94 and back down again. We thought it had to do with the depth of the smoke shadow.

At places where the thickest smoke crossed the sun, our view to the west from the highway looked like a pretty good facsimile of Hell.

OK, this concludes my attempt to write like Jimmy Breslin. Don’t worry, I won’t make a habit of it. What made me write this way is, it was shocking.

Which is tIMG_2106detailo say, sometimes you get walloped upside the head with the fact of climate change. Hard enough that you have to think about it.

Nel Mezzo: is a midlife Ph.D. worth it?


The midlife return to grad school fits what may be a universal rhythm. You learn a profession, you learn how to live, you form independent judgements. You get a sense how some kinds of stories are going to come out.

Rather than assist or apprentice to others, you want to apply your own understanding to the world. In the case of service or advocacy work, you want to “stop pulling people out of the river, go upstream, and find out who’s pushing them in.”

Lived experience and the independence of mind that comes with age aren’t enough. Try to get by without more, and you risk becoming a crank. There’s a need for a backbone, a framework, a methodology, a way of testing one’s own conclusions against accepted knowledge. Hence why not a return to academia?

Sadly, reports like the first item in this Edge of the American West column make me wonder if the midlife return to grad school is still a sensible choice.