Category Archives: Architectural legacies

Worrying about jitneys

Monday’s Twitter Urbanism Bone to Pick was about Lyft reinventing the bus line. If the Lyft “shuttle” wasn’t a public bus exactly, then — as suggested by Tarin Towers and Ed Parillon among others — it sounded a lot like a private jitney. A really exclusive kind of private jitney. As Jeremy B. Merrill wrote, “it’s a bus route that excludes people without a smartphone or plastic money.”

I’ve been bellyaching for a while about how jitney services might do harm in the wrong hands, especially if they’re not taken up as nonprofit or public services. Because if unscrupulous van route operators are just out for profit at all costs, they may find extortion pinch points in the expulsion of poor, disabled and aging people from conveniently walkable center cities to low-density, service-deprived places like Vallejo or Tracy.

The cheap housing is now where transit isn’t. The people being cast out by rich cities are often carless or unable to drive. Some with mobility impairments. Some getting by on narrow margins of safety, with low tolerances for paperwork and administrative fuss. To get to the supermarket, the doctor, the Social Security office, the senior lunch program — ex-urban expellees will have to travel long, inconvenient routes: timing trips according to bus schedules, changing routes by way of lonely bus benches, asking rides from family, neighbors and caregivers.

So if there’s a good paratransit service, great. If there’s a nonprofit public health shuttle, especially with light case management such as appointment reminders, that’s lovely. If there’s a nice person with a van who doesn’t charge too much, great. But if there’s a hard-souled greedhead running a fleet of vans, charging what the market will bear? It would be too easy for someone like that to cause too much harm.

Hence the worry about jitneys. Looking at results from this Twitter search link, I see I’ve been repetitive about it, going back to some thoughts on my old blog in October 2012.

So, I won’t repeat myself further here except to say, this is an issue to watch.

 

What was going on at the Whitcomb Hotel

IMG_3625detailThe Whitcomb Hotel is one of these grand-old-lady buildings with a past that’s often forgotten or, at best, remembered selectively. One less remembered fact is that it served as West Coast headquarters for the systematic exclusion and incarceration of Japanese Americans from the West Coast, beginning in 1942.

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Whitcomb Hotel, side view

In a way the Whitcomb’s story is reminiscent of the history at Moscow’s Metropol. It’s not so dramatic — the Metropol was besieged for six days in 1917 and later hosted many of Lenin’s speeches — but there’s something parallel in the buildings’ 20th-century histories as hotels and head offices by turns. Both buildings are huge old piles created at the turn of the last century to serve as respectable long-term residences and meeting places as well as for overnight stays. Each has been an administrative center for painful and harmful official decisions, has outlasted a period of badly faded elegance, and today serves tourists and business travelers who may know little about previous occupants.

Above is a picture of the Whitcomb building seen in profile from Eighth Street, just to show how very far the Whitcomb extends into the block from its broad Market Street facade.

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Whitcomb Hotel, front view

The easiest part to find of the Whitcomb’s history has to do with its very first years. Under construction following the 1906 earthquake, it was converted at city officials’ request to a “substitute city hall”. Despite its conversion to a hotel in 1916, “the original jail cells are located in the basement”.

You have to use search terms specific to the incarceration of Japanese Americans to arrive at the building’s story during World War II.

The Whitcomb housed the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA) and the War Relocation Authority (WRA) beginning in March 1942. As the Densho Encyclopedia recounts, both entities were concerned with the tracking and detention of Japanese Americans and administration of their confinement. Placing special restrictions on previously free people; bringing the restricted people, mainly by bus, to “assembly centers”; sending the assembly center inmates, mainly by train, to remote inland concentration camps. Keeping them there under guard. Setting conditions for their departure.

There are frequent references to the Whitcomb in a well-known official account of Japanese Americans’ incarceration: Lt. General J.L. DeWitt’s “Japanese evacuation from the West Coast, 1942: final report.” For example, it recounts with bland approval, “Almost overnight the Office for Emergency Management acquired office space in the Whitcomb Hotel, supplied and equipped these offices, and engaged qualified personnel to meet the requirements of the Director.”

A site of conscience in the neighborhood

The Whitcomb Hotel is in my neighborhood. It’s part of the faded elegance, now re-burnishing, at the corner of Eighth and Market Streets in San Francisco. For years we all knew it as the Ramada; now it has reverted to its old name. IMG_9412 Siting memo Whitcomb_detail

In Denver, at the National Archives, it was jolting to find the Whitcomb’s familiar name and address printed in the letterheads of routine but chilling memoranda about the creation of concentration camps.

This one, for example, in April 1942. (Image at right.) On the WRA’s Whitcomb Hotel letterhead, WRA Regional Director E.R. Fryer writes to John C. Page in the Commissioner’s office at the Bureau of Reclamation. He mentions as a “problem” the “free agent” status of Japanese Americans in inland Grant County, Washington, outside the coastal military zone as of that time. He notes the WRA is considering two Bureau of Reclamation sites for camp sites: the Black Canyon project in Idaho and the “Tule Lake Project in Siskiyou, County, California” (sic). (Click to enlarge the document image.) In fact the WRA placed three of its ten large camps on Reclamation lands. One was the Tule Lake camp — which, to be technically correct, was in the Tule Lake Unit of the Klamath Project, just over the Siskiyou County line into Modoc County. The other Reclamation sites were the northernmost inland camps, Minidoka and Heart Mountain.

IMG_9413 - War Civ Control Admin 1231 Mkt_detailThis memo (at left) is on WCCA letterhead at the Whitcomb’s 1231 Market Street address. It’s a cover letter transmitting statistics on the West Coast Japanese American population. “Unfortunately similar data for alien Germans and Italians are not available.”

The letterhead gives a phone number for the WCCA: “KLondike 2-2611.” Lots of local-government phone numbers and some South of Market private phones still use that “KLondike” prefix of “55”.

Once you know what to search for, more significant WRA and WCCA memoranda sent to or from the Whitcomb Hotel are easy to find. This collection of scanned documents is at the Online Archive of California. It opens with a memo from WRA director Milton Eisenhower at the Whitcomb in late March 1942 complaining of disorder “due to the fact that a large number of agencies had their fingers in the pie, and without any great amount of over-all planning as to what was going to be done with the Japanese after they were evacuated.”

A fine old conflict, a funny old world

The officials who were dictating memos that would send their neighbors to camps in the desert were part of a larger bustle that arrived on Market Street with the start of the war. They may have felt their work was analogous to that of other wartime bureaucracies. Or not. Reportedly Milton Eisenhower couldn’t sleep at night while he headed the WRA, and eventually he declined to continue the work. His successor, Dillon Myer, claimed to have slept perfectly well.

As shown in the photo below, looking west along Market, the Whitcomb is separated by just one large building from the former Furniture Mart, now Twitter headquarters. During World War II, the Mart building, which is also a blocky stone-faced Deco monster of a place, housed branches of the Office of Price Administration and the War Labor Board.
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At the Mart building, OPA employed Jessica Mitford, Doris Brin, and many others to enforce price restrictions for the duration. Mitford’s husband Bob Treuhaft was with the War Labor Board. In her second memoir, A Fine Old Conflict, Mitford gives a typically jaunty account of battling the Apartment House Owners’ Association over rent controls and innocently trampling the Fourth Amendment in a records search at a machine shop. She also recounts  physically tackling an Examiner photographer who meant to report on her status as a minor celebrity.

Ironies multiply here.

Jessica Mitford’s claim to fame at the time was being sister-in-law to the imprisoned head of the English Fascists, Oswald Mosley. Her family relation to an actual enemy leader (of whom she however disapproved fiercely) did not produce any restriction on her personal freedom of movement or residence — though her generic “alien” status did cause a brief hitch in her U.S. government employment.

Meanwhile, many in Jessica Mitford’s personal circle were Communist Party members or supporters.  Despite the Mosley business, the Communists let her join up.

Meanwhile the CP chose to suspend all of its Japanese American members after Pearl Harbor. Even devoted Communist waterfront organizer Karl Yoneda was suspended.

Yoneda writes in his memoir, Ganbatte, that he and other members who had been expelled for their ancestry “decided that this was not the time to register a protest” because they felt the “urgent priority” was to join the CP’s part of the war effort against overseas fascism. Later he realized he should have protested at once. Yoneda was threatened by some fellow inmates in Manzanar over his left-wing politics — where the FBI, unlike the CP, fully endorsed his loyalty. He got out of the camp system into the U.S. Military Intelligence Service, where he served with distinction.

A Fine Old Conflict, as far as it goes, gives a vivid picture of the “war work” world on Market Street, and of left-wing activists’ political environment during the war. Yet it doesn’t mention what was going on just a block away at the Whitcomb Hotel.

You wonder who heard what, who knew what, who said what, who spoke up quietly off the record, who consciously chose not to object. What could have been different. Why.

In search of Brautigan’s Cleveland Wrecking Yard

When Richard Brautigan went Trout Fishing in America he told a tale of riding the Number 15 bus — that means, south on Third Street along San Francisco’s southeast waterfront — to the Cleveland Wrecking Yard where they had a trout stream for sale by the foot. Fictional-sounding kind of geography to the place. Part of it is an outdoor storage yard but it also has a front show window. And then it seems to have a second story too since “the waterfalls are upstairs in the used plumbing department.”

So it turns out the Cleveland Wrecking Yard was real, and (if you ask me) the funny geography may be explained by the real thing having existed on two properties. The erudite Brautigan.net fan site says Brautigan really did help a friend buy a used window at the Cleveland Wrecking Yard in 1958. As location it gives: “2800 3rd Street; Quint Street” and, on second reference, “a demolition business on Quint Street”. That has to mean two different places. The Third Street address is a few blocks north of Islais Creek near the San Francisco Bay waterfront. All of Quint Street is farther inland (i.e. west) and definitely south of the creek.

The 2800 – 3rd Street address does seem to be right. The good offices of the SF Public Library and the Internet Archive have combined to place a 1958 San Francisco city directory online. Page 599 of it notes several businesses under “Cleveland”, including not only the “Cleveland Vibrator Co.” (no kidding), but also “Cleveland Wrecking Co. Chas H. Rose v-pres bldg 2800 3d.” As shown at this Google Street View link, a long two-story building at the Third Street address has been fixed up a lot but you can still see how, presuming suspension of the laws of physics, someone might have laid out a 60-foot waterfall horizontally along its second floor.

On the other hand, the city directory page for Quint Street doesn’t mention “Cleveland” at all. Pity.

Just a guess but maybe the Cleveland Wrecking showroom for customers could have been on hard-bitten but businesslike Third Street while the same company could have used a storage yard over on Quint for large, awkward and less popular items. A likely place for such a yard, on Quint, could have been somewhere around Davidson Street in the jumble of wrecking, auto and scrap yards on the south bank of Islais Creek.

This would fit the part in Brautigan’s story where the yard manager gives directions to an area where “what’s left of the animals” are on display as possible extras to go with the stream: “You’ll see a bunch of our trucks parked on a road by the railroad tracks. Turn right on the road and follow it down past the piles of lumber…” Sounds about right.

There’s still a yard where you can buy a salvaged window frame (if not a trout stream) just a few blocks east of Quint and Davidson along that south bank of Islais Creek. It’s Building Resources, out there on Amador north of the postal complex.

[Added: Brautigan’s fictional tale of animals in storage on Quint Street isn’t all that far-fetched either. Mike Garza, who ran a junkyard right near Quint and Davidson, had 13 Barbados blackbelly sheep, all rams, seized from his property in 2004. He briefly faced criminal charges but they were dropped on his agreement to move the sheep to a pasture in Sonoma County.]

It’s exciting to know the real locations involved. Especially that Brautigan may have picked up the unique industrial-backwater atmosphere of that Quint and Davidson auto-yard district.

On the other hand, knowing the facts is bad for a nice conjecture I had going.

I had started out to write this post by wondering if the trout stream for sale “by the foot length” might have been stacked up in its sections of “ten, fifteen, twenty feet, etc.” in Building 2 at Pier 70. I still think Building 2 looks like the kind of place even now I’m sure that it wasn’t. It has the old Dogpatch/Bayview warehouse-world feeling, only parts of which are quaint enough to qualify for preservation.

IMG_0449scaledYou get to Building 2 by way of the Delancey Street Movers lot. Apparently it’s still in use just like it says on the box: by Paul’s Cost Less, AKA Cost/Less Inventories. Some beautiful last-century language in those sigIMG_0454detail2ns painted on the wall.

The signs are very pre-Amazon, pre-eBay.

The signs say:

“Salvors and Appraisers”

“Wholesalers * Jobbers * Salvor”

“Parking for Scooters Only”

“Promotional Items”

“Flea-Market Venders Welcome” (sic)

Brautigan’s text just kind of fits those signs. Frexample: “‘Sir,’ the salesman said, ‘I wouldn’t want you to think that we would ever sell a murky trout stream here. We always make sure they’re running crystal clear before we even think about moving them.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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?

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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.

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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.

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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, apartmentratings.com — 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.

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.