Monthly Archives: September 2013

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.


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.