Monthly Archives: October 2013

The taming of Pier 70’s ghosts

IMG_0357detailTwice I’ve had the thrill of crossing the Spanish-French border under European Union law. Once at Hendaye, once at Portbou. There are no border guards now. No papers to show. You just go on through. If you’ve read and heard about the history of border crossings there, it’s like undercounting stair steps in the dark: you reach out a toe, feeling for that one more step down, and instead you find bizarrely solid ground.

Without meaning to suggest equivalence, I had a distant echo of that feeling today at the gate shown here. It was, until recently, the gate to San Francisco’s main city car impound yard. For the last ten years it was run by the Auto Return company. Before then it was run by the legendary City Tow.

An earlier post here tells some stories about ghosts that, metaphorically speaking, haunt Pier 70. Out of those stories, the ones I know best had to do with this gate. For too many poor people who lived in vehicles in San Francisco, this was where their homes were stored after towng and then, too often, crushed.

Today it was possible simply to walk through. No questions, no papers. It’s no longer the tow yard. It’s a property being prepared for redevelopment, in part by assigning it a more manageable identity as simply the former Union Iron Works plant.

Today Pier 70 was hosting a family Halloween event combined with a “sneak peek” at the art creations for this evening’s “Ghost Ship” dance party event. For the afternoon event, admission was free.

Unexpectedly to me, the event had the effect of a healing ceremony. The tow yard had been a hypermasculine environment where painful dispossessions happened. Now the developer had begun to soften the place by hosting an event there for children. It had a healing effect simply to see families receive and accept the assurance that children could be safe there, that none would make them afraid. Or rather, that “scary” Halloween decorations and costumes, brought to the place for a ritual Halloween celebration, might frighten children for a moment or two at most — that the “scary” genuinely belonging to the place was now becoming safely encapsulated in quotation marks, was on its way into the manageable realm of fable.

I take this all a bit personally because I used to be a volunteer advocate, mostly during the City Tow era, for people who lived in RVs and vans and trucks and cars. Because of San Francisco’s campaign to gentrify its eastern waterfront, these wheeled homes were towed often, mainly by the book but often for tiny offenses that wouldn’t have caused trouble for sleeker vehicles in less “transitional” neighborhoods.

Towing is only merely a nuisance if you can afford to redeem your car the same day and you are allowed to do so. It is a life-changing devastating dispossession if, for one reason or another, you can’t get your vehicle back and in it is everything you own.

This gate is where a gruff security man would open the gate just slightly to look at your pass. In the City Tow era, at least, it felt more than a little bit Soviet.

If you were lucky what you had to show the guard was a voucher. A voucher meant you had won your informal hearing at the police tow desk at 850 Bryant downtown, and/or you had paid required storage fees at the privately run tow company desk nearby. That meant you had the right to walk down the earthen ramp behind this gate, and after checking your vehicle for damage or theft, to start up your vehicle — if it would start — and drive it back up the ramp to freedom.

If you were less lucky, either you couldn’t afford the tow fees or the police refused to release your vehicle for any price, but at least you had been authorized to approach the gate with a permission slip to enter. It would allow you to check your vehicle’s condition (the condition was not always as last seen) and to recover property from inside of it (supposing said property was still there). Sometimes vehicle owners came here with friends’ cars, or with whatever kind of handtruck or cart they could bring, to cart away everything they could of all they owned.

Today all the vehicles were gone. Today, in their place, J&I entered the gate and saw, in the former car yard below, a children’s Halloween carnival.


Tough to believe: a bouncy castle. Pumpkins. A hay maze. Among them also, artily macabre Halloween decorations for the grownups’ $50-a-head night-time party.


The monstrous barn at the back of the lot, Building 12, was formerly used for indoor vehicle storage. In the City Tow days at least, if a vehicle had been put in there it probably wasn’t going anywhere else any time soon.


Probably it had been ten years since I’d been in through that big open doorway. Before, you needed a guard’s permission to go in. Today it stood unguarded.

“Lasciate ogni speranza” no more. Just a simple ruin, already easier to see in terms of its older history as a factory floor, already losing its capacity to strike dread.


This next picture, emphasizing the beams and rafters, is most like the storage barn as it occupied my mind’s eye. Of course before it was full of cars and vans and RVs and miscellaneous scavenged junk. Very full.


The artistic variation on a carousel shown below was genuinely, disturbingly macabre. But, again, when we tell stories or make art about the fictitiously horrifying, isn’t that how we get a handle on the genuinely dreadful?


Ironies: a small family house and a steel school bus, both characteristic of the adjacent Dogpatch neighborhood before its redevelopment, both repurposed as art installations, both here.


The next picture below shows the northwest corner of the barn — that’s the back left as you would have entered before, after getting permission at the old lower-level guard shack.

I wrote mistakenly earlier that the cars inside the barn were simply lined up as in a parking lot. A conversation since then has refreshed my memory. Actually, as you went back in the barn, the vehicles got more crowded together. Removing a car or RV from the back of the barn became correspondingly difficult. And unlikely.

So that made a big difference, today, to see the back of the barn emptied out and opened up. In preparation for the night-time dance event, huge signs reading “EXIT” had been posted over all of the barn’s big open doors. Those were wonderful signs to see.


I genuinely felt lighter seeing the remembered Barn Of Vehicular Doom ventilated and put to use for a ritual celebration that purposefully made light of scary things.

Injustices are still happening to people living in vehicles of course, but not here. This particular place has begun to heal.

I felt relieved to be walking back up that ramp, and going freely back out that gate onto 22nd Street, and not leaving anything behind. Not on this day. Not at this place.



Ghosts and cats of Pier 70

There are feral kitty pictures at the end of this post. You can scroll on down there now if you like. But before I join you there, I’m going to tell some ghost stories about Pier 70.Dogpatch Ghost ship

First, a generic ghost story for the vehicular dead:

One day years ago I got chatting on the phone with a City Tow dispatcher. It seemed worth asking how she dealt with sexism from the drivers. Not difficult, she said. She had control of the jobs. If a guy gave her trouble she sent him out on a tough job, like an awkward dolly tow. Or an ugly job, like one with a dead body.

A dead body? Well, yes, she said. There are car crashes, and sometimes foul play, and sometimes people just die and get found long after it happens.

Words to that effect, I mean. It has been a long time since the actual conversation. The point is, it was an introduction to the knowledge that tow yards are fateful places.

I don’t believe in ghosts. Not literally. Not your actual ectoplasm. I do believe architecture and memories can haunt a place. That’s arguably what people mean when they talk about haunting, really: memories of the dead, anxiety over past lives’ unfinished business, pride or regret over their stories, social memory of why a place frames local continuing lives in its own particular way.

But ghosts — several particular ghosts — came to mind when I ran into a mention on the Dogpatch Howler‘s Twitter about a “Ghost Ship” coming to Pier 70.

I’m not even sure it matters that the occasion at hand sounds more cute or trendy than numinous. What it’s about, really, is, a Halloween-themed party-throwing posse has gotten permission to build a grand “Big Art” pirate ship in one of the barnlike former plant buildings at Pier 70, a place known as Building 12. They’ll do a kids’ party on the side but the main event will be an adults-only $50-per-ticket Halloween club night.

This “Ghost Ship” operation turns out to have its own story: it’s a group of club promoters and Burning Man types seeking refuge from the city’s Castro Halloween crackdowns. Bringing with them, I presume, their own fraught collection of tensions and grievances, their own individually earned senses of the macabre, their own dead. A ghost-themed party is a way of mourning one’s dead too. However goofy the decor may be, it’s still a kind of wake, isn’t it?

For those who haven’t seen Pier 70, it’s the former Union Iron Works plant off 20th and Illinois Streets. You might think of a pier as a dock to fish from. Not this. It’s a monster chunk of ex-industrial landscape sticking out on fill and pilings into San Francisco Bay.

I imagine it already had ghosts when it closed as a steel plant and became ghostly itself. Work with steel is not safe, nor easy. I don’t know the stories but surely they’re out there.

And then it became the tow yard. Or rather, part of it did.

IMG_0305scaledCars and trucks and RVs towed by the City and County of San Francisco used to fill maybe half of Pier 70’s weedy lots and broken-windowed barn-warehouse buildings. At first the tow contractor was City Tow. Then tales of corruption and laxity at Pier 70 began to spread and, slowly, to be noticed. In 2003 the SF Chronicle and the city caught up with the scandal, and the contract changed over to Auto Return. Auto Return continued to use some of the same storage areas until recently. But when I called there today, a dispatcher said no more impounded vehicles are stored at Pier 70 — she said they’re all down in Bayshore these days.

Part of the rest of Pier 70 has been a functioning ship repair yard all along. Otherwise — vacant lots, workshops, studios, metal recycling, other industrial uses.

Mostly, ten IMG_0295scaledto 15 years ago, as a volunteer legal advocate, I knew Pier 70 as the place vehicular residents went to recover their RVs or vans after city police had them towed as part of a development-driven campaign against campers. Or if they couldn’t recover their homes, they went to Pier 70 to salvage their possessions — or, once in a while, to recover pets towed inside of their vehicles. Especially cats. When a tow truck comes, a dog will announce itself and get taken to Animal Control. A cat, often as not, will hide. I know of one for certain that escaped from its owner’s RV in the tow yard and never came back to him.

An impounded and crushed RV, one that was somebody’s home, that the owner intended to keep — does an RV leave a ghost behind?

That whole Pier 70 area used to be a backwater. You didn’t go there unless you worked there, or knew someone there, or wanted to buy or beg back your vehicle and/or its contents, or wanted to buy someone else’s impounded car at auction, the bad karma be damned. Or had a serious jones for history or photography. Ruin porn wasn’t the general fashion yet.

There were also different kinds of thieves and unofficial presences at Pier 70. In the City Tow era the fences around the impound lots were reputedly porous. I’ve even seen a 1999 police report describing a druggy party of campers allegedly found sitting at ease in a long-term encampment *inside of* a storage building then leased by City Tow.

Somewhere around that time — I forget which year — a security guard at the shipyard told me that he worried about the foolhardy metal monsters who climbed up in the rusting mobile dry docks moored alongside the pier. One day, he said, someone’s going to cut the wrong thing at random in there and get mushed. I don’t know if it happened to anyone, but can we take a spare moment, here, to think of the stupid risks taken and the stupid or painful reasons for taking them and the lost valued possessions from the cars and the entropic cynicism of such thefts and — I don’t know — the brokenness of it all?

I don’t know anyone in Dogpatch anymore. Everyone I knew there had to move. Some got into stable housing. Some are dead. Some I don’t know what happened to them.

And now Pier 70 is on its way to becoming the next Cannery Row. With similar ironies given its former role in the former pre-gentrification Dogpatch neighborhood.

Not to say Dogpatch and Cannery Row were the same by any means: Dogpatch hadn’t been actually crowded with industrial workers in many, many years. But it was a place on the edge of a bigger town that had a little live-and-let-live to it for a while. There was this tiny remaining breath of the Gold Rush there. My husband used to say all the people I knew in Dogpatch seemed to have one name and all the dogs seemed to have three.

With all this as background, my mind caught on the idea of a “Ghost Ship” sailing in to Pier 70. Kept coming back to it for a couple of days. Who or what would be on that ship?

One train of thought went to “When The Ship Comes In,” Bob Dylan’s fierce Brecht-inspired fantasy of triumph by the unrespected.

Another thought went to a too-real ghost story: recently I heard of the death of an ex-client, younger than me, as a result of a dragged-out sequence of hellishness that started in RVs on the Dogpatch and Bayview waterfront. (The flip side of the live-and-let-live was, sometimes people died of it.) Her unquiet spirit would stand high in the rigging of any ship of ghosts that came to Dogpatch. With others mourned but not named here.

So I’m almost up to the part with the cat pictures now.

Wendy MacNaughton’s wonderful cartoon report on Pier 70 had suggested some cats were still living out there. I decided to walk over and look for them. Also to ask which was the “Building 12” where the announcement said the Ghost Ship would be built.

As it happened I didn’t locate Building 12 until I came home from that walk. Today, looking at the developer’s map online, I figured out Building 12 is the monster industrial barn at the back of the old open City Tow impound lot. I’m pretty sure City Tow used that barn as a roofed additional storage area. If so, I was in there at least once to help someone inspect a towed vehicle. My memory is of cars and trucks lined up as in any parking lot, but framed and overhung by something older that was built for heavier use. Shadows, broken windows, rust. A kind of place you try to touch nothing for fear of tetanus and spiders. They’ve probably cleaned it up since.
This past Monday, when I showed up, the security guard at the shipyard entrance thought Building 12 might be the Noonan Building out at the end of the drive. I walked out there and found out it wasn’t. (I think on the map the Noonan is Building 11. Still not sure.)
IMG_0308detailAs I say, I didn’t ever get to Building 12. Instead I was lucky to stumble on the Pier 70 cats’ dinnertime. As I walked up, two people were filling big plastic bowls with kibble and canned Friskies. Cats were coming in for dinner out of a big vacant lot full of concrete rubble and wild fennel. As in Wendy MacNaughton’s report that the stray cats of Pier 70 are “Fed daily by Sylvia and Robert.”

The cats don’t look “stray” exactly. They look like they live there. Nobody told them it isn’t a real place to live.

IMG_0311detailSylvia Ortiz gave me her card: she and Robert Shipman used to have a workshop on Pier 70 for their custom furniture business. Now their shop is in Oakland but they come back to feed the cats.

I said they must get a lot of looky-lous like me on Pier 70. With kind obliquity, she answered that it must be one of the most photographed places in the city.

She’s worried about the cats of course. She says their numbers on Pier 70 have increased as development has closed in all around. Now the vacant-lot space on Pier 70 itself is to be built up. Where will the cats go then?


She said they try to arrange to keep the cats spayed and fixed. There were a few kittens with their mother. Three kittens I think. Adorable of course.



FYI, developers: This beast is on your side.

Truth be told, I think the developers will be needing the cats. Maybe they can arrive at some arrangement about what simply has to be a bodacious rat situation.

In our own neighborhood, South of Market, we lived next to a warehouse while it was being gut-rehabbed and condo-converted. The mice and rats came over to our apartment and all our neighbors’ apartments. I would shudder to begin to estimate the sheer tonnage of mouse and rat life contained in the pilings and buildings and vacant lots and remaining rotting vehicles of Pier 70.

I hope, though not with much hope, that the developers will reach a mutually beneficial settlement with the cats.

I hope the hounded-out former campers and dogs of Dogpatch will get their due in public memory if not in life.

I hope the Ghost Ship people have a nice Halloween party.

I’m still trying to imagine the day when Pier 70’s ship comes in.


OK, here’s a chart of San Francisco rent rate estimates.

[Update: here’s a direct link to the chart if you want to skip the explanation.]

Everybody knows San Francisco rents are rising — right? So, OK, then, how high are they now, when did they start climbing so fiercely, and how much have they risen per year?

I thought it would be easy to answer those questions until I tried to make a point about them in an argument on Twitter. Then, in looking for statistics, I found to my surprise that we have a shortage of reliable, publicly posted figures organized to show year-over-year increases in San Francisco citywide average rents.

My easy, incomplete first step was to scrape and post HUD’s problematically low “Fair Market Rent” estimates for the San Francisco area, which includes Marin and San Mateo Counties. Then I found a 2000-2013 chart from a private source, — but Mark Hogan, who I was arguing with when this started, noted fairly enough that the sample sizes for that chart are awfully small.

So I put together a more serious attempt at charting a lot of different Web sites’ answers. I’ll be maintaining it for some time to come on my weblog. At this link, also permanently linked above at “SF Rent History Chart,” is a table containing claims about San Francisco citywide average rents. Many of the sources linked here also give figures by neighborhood but that’s too much detail to keep track of in a chart.

For figures on evictions, the canonical source is the San Francisco Rent Board. Except even these figures aren’t conclusive. The Rent Board only reports eviction notices, not completed move-outs. And as Hogan noted, a lot of unchosen tenant turnover happens through privately negotiated buyouts that don’t appear on formal court records.

I’ll be updating the chart from time to time and welcome any suggestions on format, accuracy, data sources, or anything else about the chart. Hope this effort is helpful.

San Francisco HUD FMR history since 2000

At the bottom of this post is a list of HUD “Fair Market Rents” (FMRs) for two-bedroom apartments in a three-county region centered on San Francisco for the years 2000 through 2014. Provided as a public service because I was having trouble finding an online chart of San Francisco rent rates over the past ten years.

I still can’t find a chart of San Francisco apartment asking prices year over year, so if anyone knows of one could you kindly provide a link? Not wanted for any specific project, so please don’t anyone put yourself out, but it sure would be great to have as a reference.

[UPDATE late Oct. 14, 2013: Here’s a chart of average rental rates, presumably at or near market rate, for 2000-2013 from Trends are slightly different for 1BR and 2BR units. Average SF city rents range from just under $1600 for a 1BR at the lowest (surprisingly to me, that’s shown as being in 2004) and leaping to over $3000 for a 2BR as of 2012. Which, if you compare it with the list at the bottom of this post, goes to show why tenants with Section 8 vouchers have such a terribly difficult time finding a San Francisco landlord willing to accept Section 8 compensation at FMR rates. Also, last month CurbedSF reported figures from the Zumper service showing average San Francisco rents of $2713 for a 1BR and $4075 (!!) for a 2BR.]

FMRs are a problematic measure of actual San Francisco rents for a ton of reasons, including that the San Francisco FMR area includes San Mateo and Marin Counties and that there have been bureaucratic changes over the years in the formulas used. For example, the drop from 2004 to 2005 seems to have been a result of “rebenchmarking” rather than actual economic change. Also, the FMR is based in large part on actual rents people are paying, which because of San Francisco rent control is hugely different from current asking rents for new tenancies.

[Added 2/14/14: See my rent chart page for notes from Daniel Pelletiere saying FMRs are not, however, an average of current rents.]

But I was looking for at least some quick measure of rent changes year by year, and the list below is better than nothing.

See, this morning on Twitter I got in one of these inconclusive San Francisco arguments about whether massive market-rate apartment construction would reduce San Francisco rents. Most of the thread is here.

It started with an Atlantic Cities op-ed in which SPUR director Gabriel Metcalf argued San Francisco needs a program of 5000 new units per year. To which I retorted basically that all units aren’t alike and the ravenous high-end demand for San Francisco apartments doesn’t look satiable enough to leave enough affordable units for everyone else. Which, I ended up admitting, is pretty fatalistic although reality-based.

So the smart woman who posts as @EC wrote this:

— EC (@EC) October 14, 2013

And I wanted to answer her by looking at the trend in rents as opposed to house prices in the San Francisco area for that 2008-2009 post-bubble period. And I thought that would be easy to find with a simple Google search, and, weirdly, it wasn’t easy at all.

So as a partial and inadequate substitute, here’s a list of year-by-year San Francisco FMRs since 2000 as scraped from the HUD data portal. For what it’s worth, it shows no rent rate decrease across the years 2008 and 2009, but I kind of doubt that settles the question.

HUD “Fair Market Rents”,
San Francisco Metro FMR Area (SF, Marin, San Mateo Counties)

All compressed links below are to HUD FMR database subpages for the San Francisco metro area.

2014 FMR two-bedroom: $1,956
Source: (Search for San Francisco FMR in drop-down menu)

2013 FMR two-bedroom: $1,795

2012 FMR two-bedroom:  $1,905

2011 FMR two-bedroom: $1,833

2010 FMR two-bedroom: $1,760

2009 FMR two-bedroom:  $1,658

2008 FMR two-bedroom: $1,592

2007 FMR two-bedroom:  $1,551

2006 FMR two-bedroom: $1,536

2005 FMR two-bedroom: $1,539

2004 FMR two-bedroom: $1,775

2003 FMR two-bedroom: $1,940

2002 FMR two-bedroom: $1,747

2001 FMR two-bedroom: $1,459

2000 FMR two-bedroom: $1,362

Mission District Transition: every-flavor beans, one by one?

Erie Alley looked good from under the freeway yesterday. Seems like a lot of the paintings are visible. The storage yard in front might have been more cleared out than usual.


Same day, this is how the front wall looked in the Mission Dispatch food truck court on Bryant St:
IMG_0146scaledThe Mission Dispatch self-description says:

“It’s about the people, it’s about community. It’s a place where artists, designers, and others converge in a nice, sheltered, outdoor space under the sun, to meet new people, try new food, share ideas, and collaborate.”IMG_0146detail

There’s an homage on the site to the former city sign shop where the food trucks stand now. Plenty of respect expressed there for continuity from the past. Plenty of respect for street-made aesthetics too — it’s a food truck garage, after all. Plenty of respect, certainly, for creativity within the frame that the host space provides.

But on the wall outside is one of the more firmly phrased anti-graffiti signs out there. And that wall remains painted one color, unbroken.

It is of course a property owner’s right not to give in to graffiti.

Except, every property owner who diligently paints over tags doesn’t put up a sign like that. A point is being made about staking out a private property’s public face. Why?

So, OK, I don’t know if there is some particular graffiti conflict going on involving that block. If so, my own outsider’s ignorance is showing.

But I’m going to guess something else is going on there. I think it’s an aspect of the prevailing newer aesthetic to see one thing at a time: one food truck at a time, one news story, one blog post, one tweet. Pick one thing at a time out of the jumble, set it off in a frame, guard its integrity against encroachment, appreciate it with undivided if possibly brief attention.

On or off the Web, no matter how big or small a thing is, each thing gets its own capsule. Whether it’s Twitter or a food-truck court or a magazine or a clothing shop or a restaurant menu, a mix of things is a selection of discrete items offered to a consumer in a framing context that’s like a bowl of every-flavor jellybeans, each with its own separately encapsulated flavor — not like a “melting pot”, nor a stew, nor a patchwork, nor a garden.

Maybe because attention to one single thing is terribly valuable amid the firehose spray of data? Because, online, the effects of jumble can feel more like nuisance than serendipity?

How much does it matter that money is involved in setting things off one by one, away from jumble?

Are unplanned, unchosen kinds of synthesis important for creativity? In what proportion to the whole?