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.

 

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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. Continue reading

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 linear 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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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 chattingĀ 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. Continue reading

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.