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August 17 - 21, 1998

Monday, August 17, 1998

Morality players

As you read this, you know what all America has been waiting for months to find out: WHAT DID HE SAY? But as I write, I haven't a clue. For all I know, President Clinton will declare his undying passion for Monica Lewinsky and pull an Edward VIII, abdicating for the sake of "the woman I love." Or perhaps he will produce decisive proof that Kenneth Starr is a North Korean mole, planted several decades ago in order to bring the U.S. government to a standstill just as economies all over Asia start to flounder. On the one hand, I don't really care. I just wish they'd get the whole investigation over with and move on to something else. On the other, I'm dying to know, if only because it will suggest what kinds of new shenanigans we can expect from Washington in the months to come.

During this long weekend, thinking there's nothing like a good long movie to help pass the time, I went to see the summer's blockbuster epic, Saving Private Ryan. Afterward, in a fit of masochism, I decided to go for broke. I rented Schindler's List, with the rationale that spending seven hours in the midst of Steven Spielberg's Second World War might --- like sitting zazen until the conscious mind recedes and the unconscious takes over --- produce an explanation of what's going on now and how we got here.

Spielberg has answered an unspoken challenge posed by Oliver Stone with the production of his own Hollywood version of American history. Since his two films present different aspects of the same war during the same period, it seems fair to consider them as sections of a whole. I can only assume that, somewhere down the line, we will be treated to Part 3: The Home Front, with lots of cheerful women wearing overalls and brightly colored cotton bandannas covering their hair.

These are highly disturbing films, shot in the movie style of the era in which they are set. For people who are already familiar with the incidents (or type of incidents) they portray, they push a whole array of emotional buttons, as any often-and-well-told story does. For younger people, who did not grow up with Movietone News and Life Magazine photos,  much of the subject matter is new, and its impact is devastating. Viewers are immersed in a world gone crazy, where human beings are horribly destroyed by sadistic monsters or more banal but equally effective weapons of war. We see faces, hundreds of them --- caressed gently in Schindler, against a background of minor-keyed strings; spattered before us almost at random in Private Ryan. Sometimes we are given names, shimmering like talismans. But we know nothing about these people. And so they become Everymen and Everywomen, inviting us to slip inside their skins and feel the pathos of their fate.

Each film is given present-day relevance at the end --- Schindler, in a parade of real-life Holocaust survivors (and the actors who portrayed them), passing before the real-life tombstone of Oskar Schindler; Private Ryan, in a fictionalized visit by the former private to the cemetery where his rescuers are buried. The aging James Ryan stands alone, with tears in his eyes, in front of one marker, as his family stands silently, watching, a little in the distance. Doubts descend. Was he worthy of the sacrifices made for him? He turns to his wife and delivers Spielberg's message: "Have I been a good man?" The gently smiling gray-haired woman answers --- "Yes!" --- as mothers and wives have reassured their men throughout the ages.

And yet the question remains. Vincent Canby, writing in the New York Times, describes this film as performing a healing service, wiping "clean the collective American conscience after the trauma of the Vietnam War." But the very same question, about the very same World War II generation, underlay the antiwar protests of the 1960s, and the response then was a pronounced negative. What has been wiped clean is not our conscience but our memory. For what is missing from the film is any sort of factual evidence of what Ryan has actually done with his life. Just as the Jews of Schindler's List exhibit no actions or thoughts beyond their common victimization, so the lives of these American veterans are reduced to a white male bonding experience.

As a result, the question becomes trivial. Without details, without psychological, political and economic underpinnings --- without a knowledge, in veteran British journalist Gitta Sereny's words, of what makes people "capable of doing what they do, or incapable of doing what they didn't do" --- good and evil lose all significance, and all human history blurs into a series of touchy-feely events.

What does this have to do with the man testifying in the Map Room of the White House on Monday afternoon? According to these lights, because he's a persecuted human being, we feel his pain. But not too much. As the first president from the antiwar generation, we expected more of him. We expected he would continue the questioning of motives and accomplishments that his cohorts began. We hoped he would insert a few sharp details --- of universal health care and fair welfare reform, for example --- into the blurred moral landscape of postwar corporate America. Instead, he fell prey to his own worst instincts. No, not his sexual appetites, although they certainly caused problems. But he, like his good friend Spielberg, succumbed to the same mythmaking urge that blinded his elders to reality. He settled for cant and avoided the hard questions. He failed to cut through to the hard answers that would lead to genuine changes. He opted for ratings instead of facts. In mythmaking, my wise friend Moss Roberts says, the fewer facts you have, the better.

 --- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

Wednesday, August 19, 1998

Rearranging the furniture

They say that you can tell when a woman's in a bad mood because she either shows up with a new hair style or begins to move the furniture around. I must have been in a major funk recently, because I've started redoing downtown San Francisco. I'm sorry if I've stepped on some toes at the Planning Department, but here's what I've come up with.

Despite her grumpiness, a woman is never capricious when she suggests that the couch would look better along the north wall. She has suddenly realized that the change in position would ease the flow of traffic through the living room, or encourage conversation there, or just plain look better. That's the point, too, with the proposals that follow.

In this city of neighborhoods, each with its own distinctive culture, it's along the boundaries that problems are likely to arise. One solution has been to isolate the areas, like Bay View--Hunters Point, that don't seem to fit. Another is to create an imaginary wall that closes them off from the surrounding territories, as in the case of the Tenderloin. But what happens when the people of one neighborhood begin to spill over into another? How do you create a smooth interface that brings out the best qualities of both?

Take a look first at a success story --- U.N. Plaza. Every Wednesday and Sunday, the area becomes a farmers' market, lined with tables piled high with fresh produce. On Friday at noon, it turns into a concert hall, and Public Works is looking for ways to fill the space during the rest of the week. Here the atmosphere is warm and welcoming. Here, at least so far, street people in faded sweatshirts mingle with expensively dressed office workers. Every imaginable language can be heard, as young mothers from the Tenderloin stand elbow to elbow with grandmothers from Pacific Heights.

Now travel a couple of blocks west, to the park in front of City Hall. People on business in the Civic Center have erected an invisible fence around the area. They tend to walk quickly along its perimeter, collars turned up against the wind, shoulders hunched forward to avoid looking at the groups of men clustered in the center. Why not knock it down and invite the passersby to enter? Most of the people hanging out on the grass will enjoy the added company; the drug dealers may feel a little conspicuous.

First of all, extend U.N. Plaza out along Fulton. Yes, about 50 metered parking places will be wiped out in the process, but the block running between the new library and the soon-to-be Asian Art Museum --- a rather silly one, with a huge monument smack dab in the middle --- will become a true gateway to the official city. Then reconfigure the sidewalks in the park itself. Create diagonal walkways, encouraging people to take shortcuts through the now-ominous middle. Don't evict the present occupants --- where would they go? Instead, bring the rest of the city to them.

Similar situations exist wherever the Tenderloin overflows onto Market Street or restaurants and theaters draw affluent visitors inside its poorer precincts. At its best --- say, near the cable car turnaround on Powell --- San Francisco shines, in all its wonderful variety. There are street vendors and chess players and preachers and panhandlers, all jumbled together in a spotlessly clean area. And the tourists love it.

But travel a few blocks away from the department stores and the shiny new offices, and everything changes. There's the same mixture of people, but they've lost their charm. Why? They're walking through filth, and Willie Brown's jolly green zambonis just move the stuff around. Somebody has got to come out every day to sweep up the debris, the brown leaves, yellow napkins, soggy newspapers and oily sandwich wrappings cluttering the sidewalks. According to city ordinance, "somebody" means the merchants in the area, who must know that clean sidewalks attract more customers. But perhaps they've decided to sacrifice short-term profits and wait for the descent of real blight, which will allow them to clear the street of untidy people along with the trash?
The situation is a little different when outsiders travel into the Tenderloin, because we can't expect the neighborhood to change its character to suit their whims. In any case, San Francisco's long history of not-quite-respectable establishments is one of its charms, and even Aunt Susie from Des Moines should not be surprised to pass an adult video store on the way to Stomp. But grungy, urine-soaked streets should be not any more acceptable on Turk than they are on Maiden Lane.

For most visitors, however, the most disturbing sight on these streets is not the litter but the people. It isn't pleasant to have to step over someone who has passed out in his own vomit. But most of the men and women who take up space on the sidewalk are simply talking with friends or dozing in the afternoon sun. Residents of SROs and shelters have no living rooms of their own, and the few parks nearby are already full. The shame --- and what makes them look so derelict --- is that they have to sit on the sidewalks rather than sitting on something like civilized human beings. Walk past any construction site at lunchtime, and you'll discover that the workers have perched on anything they can find --- plastic milk crates, cement blocks --- rather than sprawling than the ground. Would it bankrupt the city to come up with some benches --- even some cracker barrels --- for areas that have become de facto village greens?

A little rearranging, a lot of cleaning. Even for a novice like me, that wasn't too difficult. The only problem is that redecorating can become habit-forming. I can't wait to move on to something really hard, like Yerba Buena and the city's new drawing room south of Market.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

Friday, August 21, 1998

Mission possible

Once upon a time, a giant created a special place, which he called the Garden of the Good Herbs. He filled it with birds and flowers, and invited all the people of the city to enjoy its quiet pleasures. Every day they gathered there, relaxing beside its gently cascading waterfalls or eating their lunches beneath the shady trees. Children romped around its whimsical statues, and tired workers regained their strength in its warm sunshine.

Along two sides of the garden, the giant hung a three-dimensional tapestry, a panorama of colorful structures in every imaginable style. A visitor seated on one of the broad benches that ringed the highest hill could look out at a tiny brick church and laugh at the way its pointed tower and sloping wings were repeated in the shape of the enormous glass hotel next door. Or turn to the right and see a motley congregation: A pink obelisk. A mauve tower bearing four clocks, two no longer working. A zebra-striped phallus surrounded by red bricks. A yellow ocher rectangle trimmed with curlicues and flourishes. Across the street, a smaller version, with one wall cut by a black-and-white arrow pointing up, labeled --- appropriately --- SKY. An elegant white fairytale palace, rising high above the rest, its red-and-white flag fluttering bravely in the wind. And peeping from behind them all, a rounded turret atop a tiny building shaped like a piece of wedding cake.

But to the left loomed only the monolithic monster Metreon.

For the giant was not the sole guardian of this happy valley. It was populated by a host of creatures skilled in magic, all bent on carving out territories of their own.

And so an ambitious warlock had begun to construct a mighty monument along one side of the garden, blocking out the rich tapestry the giant had suspended behind it and casting a cold shadow on the grassy slope below. It pointed like a dirty finger behind the garden to other, larger edifices, each with its own peculiar power.

Spanning the street in back of the garden was a huge white fortress. Day after day, without fail, it lured thousands of unsuspecting people inside --- computer wizards, sellers of strange wares, physicians and doctors of the mind. It obviously bewitched them for some mysterious purpose, because they were all convinced, when looking at its entrance, that they had never left the airport. Even more odd, they often believed it was their unsightly airport at home that they had never left, for in the midst of this land of year-round flowers, the only plants to meet their eyes were desiccated green hedges and street lights shaped like palm fronds.

Nearby, the children had their own enchanted castle, which rose high above the sidewalk like the Potala Palace in Tibet. A glass-enclosed carousel protruded from one corner so that, as the merry tots went 'round, they could look down on the gridlock of cars and buses in the street below. The outside walls were pale --- blackberry and seafoam. Strange colors for kids, perhaps designed to lull them into early adulthood. Strange colors for Baghdad-by-the Bay. Strange place, all in all. But in time, optimistic observers were heard to murmur, perhaps its forbidding facade would be softened by landscaping. Lots of landscaping.
And so the story goes. An airy tale, signifying little, it would seem, unless you've wandered south of Market recently. But still, an idle concoction, easy to dismiss as superstructural musings of no particular importance? I don't think so.

For the past 25 years, urban geographers like David Harvey have argued with increasing vehemence that it matters how we use city space. Especially in the postindustrial society of the United States, political and economic power often appears in cultural garb, and elements such as architecture acquire multi-layered meanings. Cityscapes are where it all --- history, society, space --- comes together. They provide the site where we can limit or augment the thrust toward inequality that naturally accompanies free markets and their urban planning accomplices.

It may be too late to change the Yerba Buena story, but the sorcerers are starting to weave other spells as well. Mission Bay --- the 300-acre project south of China Basin that will occupy builders and developers for decades --- comes next, with Michael Yaki scheduled to officially introduce the plans on Monday, August 24, at the Board of Supervisors meeting. Then a two-month-long whirlwind of meetings and hearings by Yaki's Economic Development Committee, the Planning Commission and the Redevelopment Agency will descend on the Civic Center, with EIRs, OPAs and other runic documents swirling in their wake.

The process is dauntingly complex, but a sturdy band of dedicated dragon-slayers known as the Mission Bay Citizens Advisory Committee has been working for years to unravel it. These are the heirs to the groups of citizens, evoked by sociologist Chester Hartman in The Transformation of San Francisco, who organized in the early 1980s to impose limits on another rampaging development spree. Now they're learning how to turn development to our benefit as well as that of Catellus. And indeed, they've succeeded. Or at least, they've made a start, as the newly opened Mission Bay Visitor Center (255 Channel St.; open Monday -- Friday, 9:00 -- 6:00) makes abundantly clear. They'd be the first to say, however, that many problems --- city problems such as affordable housing, transportation, parking, sewage disposal and open space --- remain unsolved.

From a distance, Mission Bay seems to be a heroic saga, a grand project buoyed high by ambitious goals. At closer range, though, it's very down-to-earth. It seeks to define the way everyday life will be lived within its space. The way we will live everyday life within its space. It's a good place to begin the construction of a new, more just future.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

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