Monthly Archives: September 2013

San Francisco space-claiming signs, parking + garden edition

These are some favorite parking and garden items from my “Nagging Signs” collection. Kind of “Portlandia” at first glance, but with that special San Francisco gravelly aftertaste. Organized here from the passive-aggressive to the aggressive. Click to enlarge any image.

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Sidelight on a great post about “Storage Wars”

Just saw Paul Mullins’ post, “Cannibalizing Suburbia: ‘Storage Wars’ and the Ruins of Affluence“, on his Archaeology and Material Culture blog. His post lives up to its wonderful title, and you should go over to his site and read it.

A followup comes to mind based on reading and thinking about ways to live other than in houses. It’s about what Mullins calls “the failures of idealized middle-class materiality”. More specifically, our unstoreable, unaffordable mountains of suburban stuff are fallout from the collapse of an unsustainable myth: what top HUD political appointees used to call “the American dream of homeownership.”

Americans had bought the fiction that a single-family detached house was the only truly mature or respectable way to live.  That fiction was as destructive and unrealistic as an eating disorder. People gave up their savings, their credit, and in some ways their freedom to choose jobs, home towns or leisure activities, all for the American Dream of Homeownership. Looking back, it’s as tragic as the mentality of a teenage girl who, instead of following her own path to adulthood, decides she isn’t normal or even fully real if she doesn’t look, act and live like her models on television.

We’re not all thin, we’re not all beautiful, we don’t all live in New York or Beverly Hills, beauty isn’t the same for everyone, we don’t even all want to live in “little boxes on the hillside“, and a home isn’t always a house.

#LunchingInPublic: tactical urbanism at Trader Joe’s

Joel and I spent a giddy half-hour last May being conjectural planners in the South of Market Trader Joe’s parking garage. Nobody accepted us as planners. We didn’t have the power or intention to build or change anything. We just announced our plans to each other to find out how it felt to do that.

Joel was channeling that long-armed, hard-hatted Capitalist Realist in the Swinerton Builders logo we see all over town. “We’ll put this over there!” (Grand dramatic gesture!) “We’ll put five of those over there — we’ll need to get the cast iron ones — and we’ll bring in the crane through here!” (Points!) “When in doubt, gesture proprietarily.” (Pointing grandly but randomly at some dang thing!) “*That*’ll have to go.”

IMG_0921scaledIt was, if you like, an experiment in “tactical urbanism“. Our experimental conclusion is, the fun’s in the testosterone rush of announcing one’s personal unilateral intentions for other people’s space.

Morally, seriously, I don’t approve. Apart from private property rights, the members of a neighborhood have legal and moral rights to handle any proposal for change through a democratic process where many voices are heard. Just because an idea seems tasty doesn’t mean it will be popular or useful. It’s colonially offensive to walk around exercising the privilege of Adam as though a place were an unmarked empty Eden, naming things and announcing their purposes without consulting anyone else.

In our thought-experiment, our unilateral choice was to create a rooftop cafe/park on the open-air second level of the Ninth and Bryant parking garage. It’s just pavement up there now but it’s mostly in sunshine, whereas the existing cafe areas on the property are downstairs in the murkier air of the ground-floor garage area.

A rooftop cafe in the parking lot wouldn’t necessarily be anyone else’s choice. There are probably sensible reasons, reasons worth hearing, why it’s a bad or foolish idea. For example, the view isn’t the best, the air quality isn’t the best, the parking garage is a popular one where people take all the spaces they can get on both levels, and there’s a cafe already downstairs that has running water and permits and such. But, well, on this day we were pretending to be planners.

Maybe you’ve seen the Ninth and Bryant garage/mall shared by the Trader Joe’s and the Bed, Bath and Beyond and several other shops. It was designed in the days when people viewed South of Market as a forbidding neighborhood. Following the logic of defense against undesirable locals, it adheres to the dumb-wall school of selective welcoming. If you don’t have a reason to go there, and if you don’t in some sense belong there, you’re not likely to wander in by default. You’d think a garage would be ancillary to the shops it serves. But at this hunkered-down little mall, the garage is the centerpiece and is the most visible use until you are actually inside one of the shops.

To get to Trader Joe’s as pedestrian neighbors, which we do several times in a typical week, we have to either walk in alongside the cars on one of two slightly unsafe driveway entrances, or find and enter the sole pedestrian entrance, which is a narrow, minimally signed gap awkwardly located along the Ninth Street wall of the property.

The architectural message is clear: if you are a normal customer you will get here by car.

So, seriously, I don’t like the design of that Ninth and Bryant building, and I think the Trader Joe’s and Bed/Bath stores should be opened up with street-facing entrances and, yes, maybe there should be a rooftop cafe on the upper garage level.

But don’t just listen to me. I don’t live on that block, I’m only a long-term customer. If that corner is to be changed, then the owners and the neighbors and car-driving customers and other pedestrian customers ought to get together and figure out what’s going to work.

Or, alternatively, maybe I’ll just announce that your front yard would make a great place for a public minipark, your garage would make a great place for my startup office, and your home town would be much cuter if it were painted my favorite color, which happens to be marine blue. And so there.

By the way, this post is captioned “#Lunchinginpublic” because, when we went up to that upper garage level and declaimed our plans for it, we were meaning to return for an installment of our irregular “Lunching in Public” feature. (Also here.)  When we Lunch in Public we select a public space, we purchase a picnic lunch as nearby as pleasantly possible, and then we eat lunch in the space and report on the experience. I haven’t written this up sooner because we did mean to come back and buy a Trader Joe’s ready-to-eat lunch downstairs with maybe some coffees from the Peet’s down there, and sit in an upper-level parking space and consume away. But we haven’t gotten around to doing that, and it wouldn’t be as much fun as the announcing-plans stage, and anyway Trader Joe’s might have objected. So I guess I’ll consider the experience complete.

The middle class rediscovers life beyond the picket fence

It’s not out of the blue, this belated discovery by the SF Chronicle that rational people sometimes live in vehicles.

Yesterday I had some bitter fun here at the expense of the paper’s startling news feature, “These Young SF Professionals Choose To Live in RVs“. As I wrote yesterday, the article is a symptom of the exceptionalist free pass that San Francisco lately accords young “entrepreneurs” when it comes to breaking inconvenient laws.

But there’s a deeper trend going on too. When a newspaper derives as much income as the Chronicle does from real estate and high-society advertising, and yet it finds the RV housing option to be no longer beneath its notice, it follows that something new is up with American housing patterns.

What’s up is, urban reflux has brought back respectability to old-fashioned housing compromises. Post-industrial cities, with San Francisco in the lead, are replacing their factory and shipping employment centers with clean-aired, socially insulated tech campuses. The types and class characteristics of the work are new but the housing demands created by high-density urban workplaces are familiar. They’re leading young working people, newly separated from more rural (or suburban) families and too busy for elaborate housekeeping, to look for economical, compact homes and cheap, quick meals near their workplaces. Naturally, also, to seek out community and amusement as well as places to live, eat and work.

So, OK, the notion of long-term living in vehicles may be a little bit new for non-itinerant, middle-class people. But RV living, as it exists now, is part of a whole intermediate category of semi-communal, semi-permanent housing, also including residential hotel living, that has been there all along but is only now resurfacing in middle-class awareness.

As political scientist Leonard Feldman has argued, these ways of living were denigrated in the 20th century under a politically inflected ideology of real estate that set up the suburban single-family home as ideal symbol of complete respectable adult citizenship.

Now the home mortgage crash has dented the ideology of the stand-alone house as sign of competent middle-class adulthood. Bunkhouse arrangements are becoming mentionable again, as in this feature on San Francisco’s Noisebridge (h/t to Ben Brumfield) or last year’s New York Times report on “hacker hostels”. Middle-class professionals, in moving back downtown, are returning to downtown ways of life that their great-grandparents would have found familiar.

By this point anyone who knows Paul Groth’s work on residential hotels will have seen his imprint in what I’m writing here. After dipping into his stuff in the past, I’ve gotten around to reading the whole of his 1994 book, Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States. (Wonderfully, the whole thing is available as a free PDF download from the University of California Press.) Groth demonstrates that hotel living had — and has — and will have again — as many social strata as life in houses. He walks right down the scale from “palace hotel” suites at the likes of the Waldorf-Astoria, through many levels of middle- and working-class respectability, down to shelter-standard flophouses for laborers and ex-laborers who, he notes, have been falsely labeled as “homeless” for a century. Along the way he notes many layers of living standards that would have been middle-class choices at the turn of the last century.

As Groth explains, there’s nothing new about residential hotel living, nor roommate arrangements for both economy and companionship, nor compact housekeeping setups in alcoves behind office or storefront spaces, nor the kinds of hotplate/washbasin makeshifts that become necessary in RVs. It’s just that, for the post-WWII middle class, these choices became temporarily unthinkable. Now they’re rethinkable.

Unfortunately, the poor people who occupied hotels and RVs in San Francisco for so many years are now being turfed out to go and live in the emptying inner suburbs, bereft of the high budgets for maintenance, transportation and policing that make suburban living tolerable. Now that inner cities are the rage, crud-suburban life is the new chronically-ignored hardship story. The transportation problems there, especially, are going to be hell in the next few decades.

But one cheer, I suppose, for the renewed realization that you don’t have to maintain an isolated nuclear family establishment in a high-maintenance stand-alone house to be a full-sized adult member of society.

And another cheer, I suppose, for the Chronicle, for being on it.

If San Francisco RVers Learn To Code will they be safe from arrest?

This morning’s San Francisco Chronicle has discovered vehicular residency as a cute alternative to conventional housing in San Francisco. That is, our paper of record has discovered that some tech entrepreneurs live in RVs. So, although this mode of housing remains formally as illicit as ever, suddenly it must be OK.

The story was trending on Hacker News today as though it were a brand-new stroke of brilliance. One fanboy gushed, “That’s what I like about the mind of an entrepreneur- the ability & desire to innovate.”

Time was, we could count on the law in its majestic equality to forbid the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges — whether under blankets, under cardboard and pallets, in tents, or in RVs.

Now it seems that if you Learn To Code and live in an RV, you can have a free pass from absurd laws. In fact, you’ll get cred points for your creative cheekiness — as though nobody had thought of cutting the same corners before you did. Continue reading

It isn’t even past

I’m nearly sure that part of this Tule Lake area farmhouse complex is made from sections of barracks out of the nearby Segregation Center. That’s possibly not true for the house in front, or anyway not all of it, because barrack sections were typically 20 feet wide. But the unpainted shed at the back of the property, on the left side of the photo — it has the look.

IMG_1497detailPicture me driving down a road near Tule Lake muttering “Barrack… barrack… potato shed… nah, too modern… no, look at that row of five chimney pots, it’s a barrack…” Picture long-suffering spouse waiting for the part where we take a nice walk in the mountains very far away from the barracks.

I posted a couple of better recycled-barrack pictures two years ago on the Lodging in Public blog here.