Thursday, July 26, 2007

Good Guys, Bad Guys, and True City Living

Photo from Fog City Journal

What the city's political left is engaged in is more of a culture war than a political struggle, since their interest in actual city political issues---housing, homelessness, traffic, gun violence---seems half-hearted, given their superficial treatment of these issues. Take the SF Bay Guardian, for example, where this week Tim Redmond goes Deep by dusting off his Good Guys v. Bad Guys theory of history.

Redmond tells us of his arrival in SF in 1981:

But the spirit of the 1960s was still very much alive. The Summer of Love gets a bit glorified in the retelling, but in the end the part that survived was a spirit of community and rebellion. We were here because we didn't feel like we belonged anywhere else, and as quickly as we could set down roots, we decided it was our city and we wouldn't let the greedheads take it away from us. And it's been an endless battle for the past quarter century, but the bad guys still haven't won...

So the Bad Guys are "the greedheads"? Ironic that Redmond redeploys his cartoon ideology as a preface to the Bay Guardian's annual Best of the Bay edition, which is puffed up with advertising to 217 pages this week. Did the Guardian make any money on this issue? Does Howdy Doody have a wooden dick? At what point does plain money-making become greed and a Good Guy morph into a Bad Guy?

Redmond includes no political specifics in his column. In fact, the Guardian rarely does any in-depth reporting on issues, probably because assigning real reporters to do so would cut into its profit margin. It was left to the corporate SF Chronicle to do the definitive series on homelessness in SF with Kevin Fagan's fine Shame of the City series. 

The Guardian likes to snipe at Mayor Newsom on homelessness but has yet to do a serious, in-depth examination of the programs he's initiated to deal with it, even though homelessness was the defining issue in the 2003 mayoral campaign. The Guardian's candidate, Matt Gonzalez, had little to say about homelessness, though he criticized Newsom for failing to get to the "root causes" of the problem.

Nor has the Guardian done a serious piece on the Planning Department's Better Neighborhoods programs, especially the Market and Octavia Neighborhood Plan, which will rezone thousands of parcels in the heart of the city to encourage housing density under the false "transit corridors" doctrine, including highrises in the Market and Van Ness area that will literally cast shadows on the Civic Center. The Guardian's dissent on the Chris Daly/Aaron Peskin Rincon Hill highrise condos for the rich was comically lame and, in any event, too late and too little to make a difference.

No, it's really the "spirit of community and rebellion" that interests Redmond and the Guardian more than the serious issues facing the city. Check out their voluminous back-of-the-book sections on music and movies for confirmation. And their Best of the Bay edition is essentially a guide to how to be hip/cool in the Bay Area by visiting the right shops, buying the right accessories, and having the right experiences.

Steve Jones, the Guardian's star political reporter, confirms this with his "City Living" piece in the Best of the Bay issue. What, according to Jones, is the big issue confronting the city? It's preserving "true city living."

The Guardian has long embraced true city living, from the Summer of Love and its hordes of hippies to the summer of 2007, when our glorious urban messiness is being threatened by the forces of gentrification, corporatization, homogenization, normalization, and stagnation. Once-radical neighborhoods like the Castro and the Haight are increasingly filled with aging homeowners, some of whom have grown frustrated with aspects of city living they once embraced.

But what was really "radical" about those neighborhoods? The Castro was only populated by gays because they were unwelcome in other neighborhoods in the city. Their living in the Castro didn't imply a radical political ideology. Ditto for the Haight, where the Summer of Love quickly turned into an ugly drug scene dominated by the sale and use of heroin and speed.

For Jones "true city living" evidently involves tolerating people who "pee in your doorway, graffiti your wall, grab your ass, or barf on your shoes. That's city living, and I love it." Jones doesn't mention people shitting and shooting up in doorways, but we take the point: Jones thinks people in the neighborhoods should just accept armies of druggies and the homeless occupying the streets and parks where they live. This is the implication of the Guardian's lack of real concern about homelessness; they see it as something we just have to live with as part of "true city living."

Jones is evidently angry that his "true city living" is being threatened by people who don't accept the notion that squalor on city streets is something cool that they have to accept:

But if you want to shut down our party or expect us to dance around your delicate sensibilities, we're gonna have to fight. And guess what? We'll win. There are more of us in this crazy town than there are of you...and we aren't afraid. We dodge SUVs on bicycles, brush past ranting lunatics, stand tall against cops in riot gear, pierce painful parts, bring strange people home to do unspeakable things, cavort with revolutionaries, and take way too many drugs. So there's no way we're caving in to the NIMBYs, the conservatives, or the complainers who want to banish our beloved chaos.

One wonders who Jones thinks he's writing for. This reads like it was written by a 17-year-old trying to impress his girl with how radical he is. Jones mentions some fun stuff he likes to do: Critical Mass---of course!---and watching movies in Dolores Park, bonfires on Ocean Beach, a pillow fight in Justin Herman Plaza, and the How Weird Street Faire. All of these events are officially sanctioned in SF, so what's the beef? The only thing Jones mentions that is being officially discouraged is the annual Halloween party in the Castro.

But the most astonishing theme in the goofy piece is that Jones seems to be convinced that he and his friends are clever and adorable:

Last Halloween I donned a beard and stovepipe hat and joined the Party Party's Abe Lincoln brigades as they cruised the Castro. Why Abe? Why not? Two dozen Abes strolled past the phalanxes of cops on overtime whose presence the nervous Nellies had urged...whooping it up until the party was shut down at the ridiculously early hour of 10:30 p.m. and city water trucks chased the partyers away, a sight that almost made us weep---and provoked the crowd into a state of restless frustration.

If city living "is about keeping the party going," why not go somewhere else and party on Halloween while striving to be clever? Why does it have to be in the Castro, where the residents---including gays---are evidently tired of having their neighborhood turned into a drunken mob scene every Halloween? Interesting, too, that would-be street-fighter Jones mentions Party Party, Ted Strawser's cutesy anti-Newsom website, which, like others of its ilk, is anonymous. Nowhere on the site will you find Strawser's name. Look out, naysayers: These guys are tough, and they're ready to fight!

It's the combination of self-righteousness and smugness that's surprising. Doesn't the Guardian have an adult who can evaluate copy before it's published? Jones finishes his piece with a couple of sentences that, if we didn't know better, could be read as parody: "We know that it's the rest of the country that's the problem, not us. Luckily, there are a million things to do in this beautiful and bountiful city while we wait for the rest of the world to catch up."

The rest of the country needs to catch up to a mentality that thinks pissing in doorways is cool? Here's one thing you could do as a journalist, Steve: try to write seriously about the real issues the city faces.

More on Steve Jones

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Muni's contempt for its passengers

Riding the 21 Hayes bus recently on a brilliant Summer morning up the hill past Alamo Square, I tried to glimpse the famous postcard view of downtown SF. On this particular bus, however, neither I nor the other passengers---mostly tourists---could see anything but a blur of dots because an advertisement covered the windows of the bus. Hard to say what the tourists thought. Probably that this was an example of a tacky American insistence on turning everything into a money-making opportunity, and they would be right.

But the victims of this vulgarity are not only tourists but plebes like me who regularly ride Muni in the city. The assumption seems to be that Muni passengers aren't entitled to an unimpeded view of their beautiful city. Elitism anyone? 

I still haven't received a response from Muni to the inquiry below, but let's stipulate that Muni makes a lot of money on these ads. Nothing wrong with that, since Muni is chronically short of money. But can't they at least keep the windows free so that we proles can see our beautiful city while we ride the bus in our allegedly Transit First city?

Sent: Monday, July 02, 2007
To: Lynch, Maggie
Subject: Signs on Muni Buses


Could you give me some information on those signs that cover the sides of Muni buses? How much does Muni get from the advertisers? How long do the contracts run? Does Muni get more for the ads that cover windows? I find the latter particularly vexing, since they make it impossible for passengers to get a clear view of their beautiful city. I'm going to write a blog item on the subject and would like to get as much solid info as I can. Your input would be helpful.

Rob Anderson

Maggie Lynch responds: "Checking on the details now…"

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