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Thursday, May 22, 1997



Willie Redux

It shouldn't be surprising that the first significant perforation of the breastplate shielding Willie Brown's eminence would be the stadium-mall proposal. The deal-making involved in Propositions D and F is of the ambitious scope favored by Brown, and the likely failure of these shoddy ballot measures will inevitably induce a serious shift in the public's perception of his leadership.

Brown is consequently fast disassociating himself from his prior statement that the June 3 vote on the stadium will be a measure of how well the voters trust him. This has been a project where much mayoral ego has been expended, and Brown is understandably traversing a fallback route to ensure that an electoral catastrophe does not swell the ledger of negative ratings he has unexpectedly received since he took office.

Would that this could be, as they used to say when bell bottoms were in fashion, a learning experience for Brown. Unfortunately, it's been that long since Brown espoused any ideas that merited our attention, and on those occasions since when he has proceeded with genuine vision -- his position on low-income housing in the Presidio, as a recent example -- it has been a result of considerable public pressure. Otherwise his policy enthusiasms are static corporate issue of the type neoliberal political valets are happy to effect in the name of progress. Brown's sense of himself in that dynamic is, of course, as the nonpareil political arbitrageur and a thinker of uncommon discernment. His avowed taste for "big thinking," as by now this 49ers campaign he has crafted should suggest to him, entails qualitatively little to boast about insofar as the public understands the concept. Appropriate to an authentically progressive and sophisticated community is mindfulness about scale and sustainability; big thoughts are thus defined rather more figuratively, and what is of value in the grand and the imposing isn't affectation and meretriciousness.

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The personal style Brown has embodied since his speakership tenure in the 1980s forms the substantive basis for his approach to local government. On the managerial level, it is the cloakroom fixer of yore practicing the art of legislative possibility, and unfortunately those inherent limitations and the overarching commercial influences which dictate them suffuse the way Brown has addressed urban issues. Disturbingly and all too frequently with him, there is the impression that glitzy high-profile visibility is an end in itself, as if flash actually constituted a program. One increasingly senses about Brown that the clothes, in effect, wear the man.

His public persona is that of someone who crows confidently about understanding the nuances and symbolic projection of the city and who touts and epitomizes its diverse mosaic. But that is understandable, because his proselytizing could just as easily be standard Chamber of Commerce boilerplate. It is the commonly disseminated warp and woof about our distinctive enclave, one which beckons to the tourists and cloaks underlying divisiveness under the one-big-family rhetorical tent.

The reality is that Brown is working at cross-purposes with his electorate, and his hubris lies in his inability to recognize it. I've gone on at length in the past about the way Sacramento changed Brown into a corporate hireling, and how bringing that new demeanor back to San Francisco would ill serve him. In less than a decade he went from a street-corner champion of working people and the poor to someone who could glibly announce that his dealings with his constituents consisted of staying out of their way at Kmart.

Propositions D and F are uncomfortably illustrative of that conversion. A couple of months ago I characterized the stadium mall as an exercise in retail apartheid, a shortsighted quick fix of the sort the corporate ethos currently specializes in, which will result in increased marginalization and isolation for the residents of Bayview-Hunters Point. Brown's insistence on including a mall with the stadium rather than have the 49ers build and privately finance only a stadium is a sterling example of neoliberalism's subsumption by regnant corporatism. Today's breed of politicians crawl in gratitude for the chance to pursue low-paying retail and entertainment-related job creation, rather than exhibit the spine necessary to demand and foster long-term development partnerships with companies and labor unions. In Brown's case, a little imagination and a bit of his former activist mettle could probably have brought DeBartolo on board to fashion a sustainable joint commercial proposal for the Third Street Corridor which could have anchored the rebirth of that area. For starters, community workers I've spoken with have emphasized the opportunity the city has to contract with junior colleges to train technicians for Mission Bay's proposed UC Medical center and the expected relocation of a number of Peninsula biotech firms. An industrial park complex situated near the site, with the prospect of eventually generating real service and subsidiary employment paying real money, is of course not the type of package which yields the instantaneous applause Brown craves. And so, instead, he has opted for a generic mall in a retail outback.

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Clearly, neither his friends nor many others in the city are suddenly apt to forsake their neighborhood and downtown outlets to shop out there, and it is doubtful that San Mateo residents will make a habit of doing so once the novelty wears off and they can again avail themselves of similar stores in their own locales. Brown has offered some twaddle to the effect that this is a continuation of the long-standing racist neglect of Bayview-Hunters Point. It's an interesting theorem, especially when consideration is given to the fact that few of the area's residents can recall being visited by the likes of Willie Mays, McCovey or O.J. Simpson, either at the height of their careers or any other time.

The flip side of that accusation is more germane. There was a time in the mayor's life when the struggle for black equality was one of inclusion and participation, a battle for a niche within the centripetal orbit of downtown. Brown's choice of associates in recent years has obviously dispensed that effort to the recesses of faint memory, as this latest manifestation of multiracial economic and social balkanization of Bayview-Hunters Point attests. Put plainly, the proposal Brown has concocted abets the general malfeasance: The fragmentation of America bleeding into an already isolated and moribund pocket of the city, holding out to young people the tinny emblems and baroque notions of contemporary belonging: minimum-wage subsistence, chain stores, the overpriced clothing lines of so-called role models, the manly aura of Arnold and Van Damme distilled through cineplex surroundsound and wide screens. How long do you think it will take before the grass creases the cement, the tumbleweeds kite and local residents catch the blame for this travesty? Even Willie Brown understands that the poor retain their scapegoat status. The pity is that at this point in his heralded career he couldn't tell you why.

--Copyright John Hutchison 1997



Remember Me As You Pass By

Monday, May 26, 1997. Memorial Day. A day set aside to honor the men and women who died serving the United States in the armed forces. How will you observe it?

The people in the Washington, D.C., area have put together a variety of treats worthy of an old-fashioned church social. You can open the festivities on Sunday evening with a musical appetizer presented by the National Symphony Orchestra on the west lawn of the Capitol. (Or stay home and savor it -- without the evening scent of warm grass and the whine of mosquitoes -- on PBS.) On Monday morning, if you like syrup with your waffles, you can visit Arlington National Cemetery, where President Clinton will lay a wreath and lead a speechifying delegation in an event carefully planned down to the last sound bite; to ensure comfortable public participation, according to the announcement in DC City Pages, "parking will be available at the Visitors' Center, with Tourmobiles to take you to the ceremonies." Or if you prefer an ambivalent sweet-and-sour relish, drive over to Fredericksburg, Virginia, and attend two rituals in the same morning, one at the Confederate cemetery at 10:00, the other at the national cemetery at 11:00. Then whiz back to the nation's capital and drop by the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial for a third helping of oratory, laced this time with military music. And finish with a fine concoction of band and jazz concerts that will keep you pleasantly occupied until bedtime.

Too much theme-park cotton candy with this all-American apple pie? Do as millions of other people do and simply enjoy the delights of the long weekend. From sea to shining sea, the country is filled with delicacies waiting to be sampled. Enter a 4.4-mile race across the Florida panhandle (sponsored by Eglin Air Force Base) or the Western Regional Footbag Championships at Stanford (sponsored by Adidas). Join the clamor of five hundred boys' and girls' soccer teams at a tournament in northern Virginia. Whoop and holler at the poetry recitations and country music of the Cowboy Heritage Festival in Dodge City, Kansas. Mellow out at the Deadhead Heaven Festival in Purchase, New York. Swizzle and swish in drag queen heaven with The "Lady" Bunny and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at San Francisco's Wigstock West. Quite a smorgasbord! But what happened to the guests of honor?

I suspect it wasn't very different back in 1868, when Memorial Day -- Decoration Day, they called it then -- was instituted as an official version of the informal mourning rituals that had appeared at the end of the Civil War. Bereaved families continued to visit gravesites privately, and for many years Southerners ignored the proclamation completely and observed their own separate day. As time went on, the parades of aging veterans grew more and more bedraggled: uniforms became snug, and marching formations loosened. Then another war came along, and another, to refill the ranks. I wonder, though, if the day was ever really much comfort to a woman who had lost a husband or a man who had lost a son.

But still, the war dead were invited to the party and provided with seats at the table. It is only the veterans of wars after World War II -- the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War -- who are kept outside. They hover near the door, these specters of indeterminate wars in strange lands, as eager as their predecessors to join us. On this national day of commemoration, we don't remember them. Like people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we see them only in flashes, against a numb background of emotional detachment. Memory has become a tool for storing information, not a means of re-creating lives and loves that would otherwise be lost.

And so they are lost. The loss is ours. If we cannot feel the passions and the fears that led our young men and women to risk their lives on the battlefield -- and our leaders to demand that risk -- we will never care deeply enough to prevent similar destructive actions in the future. In the 1860s, the Civil War scorched the lives of this country's people as problems of race and class, which had been stirred into the melting pot at the beginning, reached the boiling point. The problems were never solved. After the war, they were simply poured into a larger pot with a tighter-fitting lid and left to bubble on the stove. The demonstrations that tore apart the country in the 1960s, which focused on a war that was scorching jungles far across the Pacific, arose from a recognition that these centuries-old problems were still with us. Again, there were no solutions after the war. The people who might have found them simply walked away from the stove, leaving the pot simmering.

In many Asian countries at certain times of the year -- in Japan during o-bon, in August -- the dead return to earth for a brief visit. For the members of their families, who are charged with making them feel welcome, it is a time to reconnect with the past and reevaluate the present. The United States, too, has many ghosts (contrary to the Chinese characterization). The spirits of those who gave their lives for their country return on Memorial Day, at the end of May. Some become demons, lurking like muggers in the dark alleys of our nightmares, reminding us of promises unkept. Some -- hungrier ones -- sit on street corners, asking for spare change. As you prepare your hamburgers and potato salad this weekend, add a little rosemary, for remembrance.

--Copyright Betsey Culp 1997

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