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Thursday, March 20, 1997

The View from Down Here

To see what is in front of one's nose, Orwell once remarked, needs a constant struggle. It's as good a credo for the journalistic craft as has been stated in the past sixty years, and concisely appropriate to our epoch's blighted narrative. However redundant and obvious the suggestion, anyone engaged in gathering the news should still recite a daily breviary of acknowledgement: The governing classes and their assortment of persuaders have been dutiful and proficient in seeing to it that it hasn't been easy for us.

The wonder is how an Orwell might fare at our weekly mayoral Press Availability sessions. Given the old scribe's vitae, my guess is that he might find his task somewhat disconcerting. At a glance, the difference between a caudillo and a corporate neoliberal reveals the latter to be at least approachable, though perhaps only nominally; and comparatively benign, if only abstractly. While the former usually entrusts aides-de-camp with the dissemination of policy details, the neoliberal is frequently prone to view his staff as treacherous. Similarly comical grandiosity may be exhibited by both functionaries, though on those occasions when the despot grants an audience, badgering testiness would be uncharacteristic of him, as would any demand for financial tribute in exchange for access, since those reporting on his utterances would, by necessity, already be accomplices.

But why risk accusations of facileness when the actual facts about Mayor Brown's stumbling political astigmatism will suffice. A tally of his guidance since January, when a local poll's results revealed the public's misgivings about his first-year performance, could stand as a primer for heedlessness. Brown's sudden enchantment with the idea of bringing a Home Depot outlet into the city further aggravated small business owners' fears of an erosion of their customer base. He again evidenced his ardor for mega-stores which purvey anti-unionism and labor penury by his oleaginous fandango at the opening ceremony for the downtown Nike store. Brown's familiar mantra -- "I think big. Always." -- is the bellowing of the literalist, and should have braced us to expect the edifice complex characteristic of that breed. Our assuming that the globalist misinterpretation of the notion of progress was something Brown himself might be immune to was delusory. The changeover in his selection of friends in recent years ought to have been a hint. In effusively championing the economic viability of Eddie DeBartolo's stadium/mall chimera, Brown confirms his turnabout. His allegiances are to the size-queen mindset of corporate/political morphology, and by now it is foolhardy to believe otherwise. Despite (and, indeed, as a consequence of) growing fiscal evidence to the contrary, his cabal will go hoarse in heralding the 49ers proposal as exemplary of the city's solutions to its most inveterate problems.

Brown increasingly finds himself stuck, as befits believers in the bottom line. It's the hyperopia of the clear-cutting genus, preening about the spoils and reproachful about reminders that there are no trees left standing. Clearly this isn't the same Willie Brown who used to lead workshops in the Fillmore in the 1960s with OEO community organizers like me. The community's concerns at the time were basic: Do you concede your status as an inner-city colony and gratefully accept the table scraps, the "services" of the Great Society? Or do you instead organize for greater participation, for power? Then as now, the gist of that choice is stark: Further isolation, or real inclusion. These days Brown's answer has become expediently inverted as he attempts to foist his retail apartheid package upon the residents of Hunter's Point. More pertinently less Trojan horse than white elephant, when the 49ers "upscale" mall revenue expectations fail because Charlotte Maillard proteges and boomer households will continue shopping elsewhere, the city's increased share of the stadium costs will be blamed on those same Hunter's Point residents.

Increased marginalization ultimately yields Bantustans, not permanent jobs and neighborhood sustainability. A substantive alternative to the blithe neoliberal quick-fix would emphasize development of the Third Street corridor, and utilize the aggregate of bio-tech firms which are planning to relocate around the new UC Medical center in Mission Bay. Bayview-Hunter's Point is well disposed to offer service industries to those medical/research facilities. If DeBartolo can build malls, he could ostensibly build mini industrial parks for that very purpose. It might be a bit of a stretch for this self-described sportsman-public citizen, although his confederate, the Willie Brown the city thought it knew by dint of his renown, was elected to be a peerless prod in such circumstances.


Brown has proved loath to suffer messengers bearing ill tidings, as he again reminded us with his gruesomely stupid demand for a $5,000 "participation fee" from reporters accompanying him on his forthcoming trip to China (our reportage about his Paris trip was terribly churlish, we're told). That he truly hasn't borne up well under the stress of media scrutiny is attested by his availing himself of the quality-of-life concerns of his wealthy friends as a convenient nudge to remove unappealing free-standing news racks from the streets (these are the same folks who intend to shop in Hunter's Point?). Brown's proposal that the vending machines of the French firm JCDecaux supplant individual racks is an effort to consolidate and manipulate press access, and also presumably closes the fulsome "eyesore issue" and ameliorates queasiness among local Francophile aesthetes.

Small publications dependent on street visibility are obviously threatened, as are their advertisers. This publication long ago acquired news racks and will purchase more, eventually incorporating advertising into its print and Internet editions. It is heartening to know that the barrister class is quick to slaver at the anticipation of a fight when First Amendment and allied restraint-of-trade issues are palpably in peril.

You would be correct to assume that reporters who would accept imprisonment rather than betray an anonymous source would stand up for their livelihoods by chaining themselves to news racks as they're carted away. You could equally count on seeing inexpensive carton-like cardboard "fanny pack" news racks (manufactured by a number of companies) wrapped around trees, phone poles and lampposts. Torn down, they can be replaced in the 10 seconds it takes to assemble them. First principles in this trade fortunately engender the rare collegiality, and the prospect of urban guerrilla media warfare here would summon the circus of national coverage to which we've grown accustomed. Chauvinism swells with the familiar foretaste of such spectacle: Brokaw, after a night ogled and feted at Moose's, intones anchorishly, " Mayor Willie Brown, considered something of an avatar for urban America ..."

One would hope Brown realizes he has enough problems as it is. Yet he appears resolved on enjoining his fly posturing and fatmouth bromides with governance by star-chamber (perhaps the mayor's people now prefer the phrase En cachette). It doesn't require Orwellian powers of analysis to decode this tendency. Silencing nemeses is a recipe for implosion, and this guy's compaction will be grisly. Those consequences are perhaps better parsed colloquially. Mr. Mayor, you're a football analyst of some note. Persist in this effort and we'll be on you like a fumble.

Copyright John Hutchison 1997
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