San Francisco Dreamin’ … on Such a Winter’s Day
I don’t miss San Francisco.
Ok. I miss decent Chinese food. I miss the burritos at El Farolito at Mission and Russia, which truly was a beacon on many an evening. I miss the nachos and margaritas at Taqueria Orale Orale, one of the only things that made it possible to survive two years of temping in the Financial District; and at Mom is Cooking in the Excelsior, when I got a craving closer to home. (Sadly, Mom’s apparently closed a few months after I left San Francisco; I wonder if I was the one keeping the place in business….)
I miss dim sum. I miss the giant burgers at Joe’s Cable Car Restaurant and the slightly suggestive slogan on their logo: “Joe grinds his own fresh chuck daily.”
Even though the burgers cost more than anyone should reasonably have been asking for them (a hallmark of SF restaurants), they were worth it because you could get them with such yummy chocolate shakes. Occasionally I even miss the 28-oz “lattes” that you could buy from cafés and street carts before Starbucks (burn in hell Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegel, Gordon Bowker, and Howard Schultz!) bankrupted small businesses and transformed coffee into yuppie food.
Which brings us to today’s topic. Other than eating, there is something else I miss about San Francisco: there are still radicals there.
Granted, there aren’t many left; and, granted, whatever energy they have is often dissipated by the lack of grass-roots structures that could focus their efforts and, more importantly, by the day-to-day struggle to survive in a city that’s both as expensive and as merciless as New York but with fewer museums and with nary a decent corned beef on rye to be found.
From somewhere or other (I’m now signed up for so many lists and websites that people send me things I never even imagined existed) I recently received “A Critical Re-Examination of an Ultra-Left Effort Against the Gentrification of San Francisco in the Late 1990s,” written by “the artist formerly known as Nestor Makhno,” an activist in the ad hoc SF Mission Yuppie Eradication Project (see their posters below).
You may find it interesting reading. Granted, Makhno’s “Critical Re-Examination” is a rant, it’s in some ways unbalanced and, in others, it’s wacky as hell. But make no mistake. It is also spot-on and authentic, and attention must be paid.
As a stylistic matter, Makhno’s tract leaves me both irritated and nostalgic for those many hours (mis)spent in Crit/Self-Crit, in dissecting movements and protests and actions, in debating strategy and banging each other over the head with schisms and isms and the great, grand, regal hierarchies of visible, invisible, claimed, or earned oppression.
For me, the zenith-moment of those years occurred indisputably in October 1987 at the “Pre-Action Meeting” held at All Soul’s Church in Washington, DC, on the day prior to a massive civil disobedience at the Supreme Court. (The action was planned for the SC as part of the 1987 March on Washington — this was a year after the Hardwick decision, keep in mind, and only a few months after the Supreme Court ruled that the US Olympic Committee had the authority to bar the “Gay Olympics” from using the word “olympics” in the name of its athletic games; the Games’ founder, Tom Waddell, had died the July before the MOW.)
The meeting dragged on for hours and hours, extending into the wee hours of the morning, as we haggled and voted and shouted over every last detail of the “action.” The “consensus” model, I learned during the chew-the-hair-off-your-arms frustration of that long afternoon and evening, essentially meant: If you exhaust people sufficiently, they will eventually give you their consensus.
And yet. We woke up the next day, if we had slept, and created a Civil Disobedience that was a flawless, ingenious, and righteous thing. It had never been done before—not the way we did it—and nothing that came after or that is yet to come can duplicate that first time. I “filed this report” (as the saying goes) from Washington for the Bay Area Reporter, having locked myself in a hotel room with a borrowed Olivetti manual typewriter for an entire day in order to make my deadline, only to find out later that the news editor chose not to print my article.
My final four years in San Francisco — prior to the Great Intercontinental Leap –were spent in the Excelsior District, a neighborhood at the southernmost border of the city that no tourist ever visits. The Excelsior is one of the last working-class areas in San Francisco, a fragile and (alas) temporary holdout against gentrification and real-estate speculation. I lived in a “space” (not quite an apartment) that had been reclaimed from the site of an old Pacific Bell switching station and which was owned and managed by a true bastard: Victor Makras of Makras Realty. We’d need a modern Dante to determine the circle of hell to which Victor deserves to be consigned, but I’m personally partial to the one where they use the meat hooks and acetylene torches.
My studio, which cost $900 a month without utilities (roughly half my monthly earnings at the time), was the most affordable apartment I could find in San Francisco in the years after the dot.com boom – and the dot.com bomb that followed.
When I moved from San Francisco in 1997 to go to New Mexico, I left an apartment (a bit of a hole — though it had character) on Fifth Street that had been built in the 1920s to house the workers who labored in the once-numerous factories in the South of Market area. It cost $450. When I came back four years later, I phoned my ex-landlord to see if anything was available in the building. There was; the rent was now $1,100. SOMA, I learned, had become trendy.
And this is where Nestor Makhno hits it right on the head. The SF Mission Yuppie Eradication Project posters (below) are truly eloquent, and they deserve to be saved … and to be feared.
I can’t add much to what Makhno says other than a hearty “Bravo!” I shared (and share) his sense of appalling rage and consuming disappointment.
I feel, though, that I should comment briefly about the “violence” he advocates: One of the most useful aspects of the MYEP posters is the opportunity they provide to reflect on what we actually mean when we say “violent.” Fuck up someone’s SUV, and you might go to jail. But evict a family from their apartment; force people to live in the terror of not being able to make ends meet; cause them to sacrifice their health care or drive an unsafe car so they can be sure to have enough money to pay the rent; make them send their kids toinferior schools; fail to make needed repairs or to provide adequate heat so a tenant will eventually move (allowing you to raise the rent on an “empty” unit beyond the 4% annual “rent control” limit); push people out of the neighborhood and out of the city so you can make room for those with better incomes – that is not considered violence, and no one sends you to jail for it.
Actually, I wouldn’t really send you to jail, either. I’d take you to meet my friend, Dante.
Posters from the SF Mission Yuppie Eradication Project