Some thoughts on economics, masculinity, and great journalism: MoJo article on the “men’s rights” movement

This story on the men’s rights movement in the latest issue of Mother Jones deserves a read.

This is the best kind of reporting on a fringe group that, if it is not a hate movement in the strictest definition, is pretty close to crossing the line. It’s thorough and dispassionate. It even draws the reader into the shreds of truth about male insecurity in contemporary America that inspired Warren Farrell’s earlier work on gender, in a way that only ends up emphasizing how off-base his movement is.

For example, male social standing in America is indeed tied to earnings ability, which is one of Farrell’s favorite points. But the dominant ideas about what makes a good man–a breadwinner who performs tasks that rely on physical strength and toughness to bring home the bacon–are out of sync with economic realities. In some cases, this work has been replaced by hand-softening office jobs. In many others, the work hasn’t been replaced at all, as American manufacturing jobs have evaporated over the last decades. In the vacuum, men have clung to vestiges and artifacts of a time when economic and social realities were more in line with valued models of masculinity.

This makes me think of hyper-masculine rhymers N.W.A. (and the 1980s L.A. gangsters they emulated), who frequently dressed as if out for a shift at the local steel mill (accessorized with a couple of gold chains).

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Such manufacturing jobs–which had provided lots of employment for working-class communities in Los Angeles and elsewhere–were fast disappearing in this era. But men who might have been employed in them a generation before kept the same uniform for the streets.

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The loss of these jobs was a major blow to the social fabric and economic situation of these communities (and certainly one of several factors, along with racism and segregation, that contributed to the explosion of gangs in Los Angeles).  Also, men excluded from the labor market felt less powerful, their masculinity diminished. I don’t think I’m being original to point out that there’s probably a link between this and say, N.W.A.’s obsession with masculinity, which often manifested itself in misogynistic lyrics.

It wasn’t just in places like South L.A. where economic shifts contributed to some men feeling as though their masculinity was in crisis. The disconnect between ideal and reality grew just about everywhere. For an example from a completely different kind of media, take a look at the masculinity-appealing Chevy commercials that have changed only a little in the last 20-odd years.

It’s interesting to think about these commercials beamed across America to dads in easy chairs watching the Super Bowl after a long week in the cubicle. The ads’ agriculture-themed brand of manliness is irrelevant to the lives of the vast majority of Americans (fewer than 2 percent of whom work in the sector), but American men still buy the idea.

Without getting into any of these details in MoJo, author Mariah Blake does a great job of alluding to the situation. In the course of her narrative, there might be a moment or two when we’re even tempted into a little bit of sympathy with Farrell in the early days of the formation of his ideology.

But of course, economic changes were only part of why so many American men have felt increasingly less powerful over the last few decades. The bigger reason was that American women were finally making major strides toward throwing off the great burden of oppression, and were gaining a more equal social, political, and economic position. By the end of the article, it’s obvious to the reader that the men’s rights enthusiasts have self-servingly crossed wires on all these issues. And whatever truth there is to some of Farrell’s critiques of the organization of our economy and its relationship to masculinity is overwhelmed by the odious outcomes of the movement he spawned.

Blake takes us to this place of understanding simply through good story-telling. We’re able to see the movement for what it is: organized misogyny with the sheen of intellectual justification. Well done.

A spooky evening walk in Morningside Park (photos)

I just “developed” some photos from a walk I took in Morningside Park in late December. I think they do a good job of capturing the feeling of upper Manhattan parks, particularly in the off-season. They’re a tangled mass of leafless branches overhanging stones and hideouts and raccoon dens and shooting galleries that were better hidden in the summer’s foliage. There’s a bit of a sense of resignation to the grime of accumulated years of intense use by millions of people — despite the fact that New York parks are so drastically improved and better cared for these days.

Morningside Park is a particularly good spot to experience this feeling. For one thing, it’s one of the few places in Manhattan where the natural geography really overwhelms the human modifications to the landscape. (Other such places are St. Nicholas, Fort Tryon, Inwood and especially Highbridge Parks.) There’s an escarpment of schist here that prevented the area from being developed in the same way as its surroundings.  It also long served as the fortress-like barrier between Morningside Heights, where Columbia University is located, and central Harlem. This was part of the reason the 1968 protests over the proposed Columbia gym in the park were so energized — the design of the gym would have underlined this separation even more. When I moved to New York in 2007, Morningside Park still felt like a striking geographic barrier between the mostly black, poorer flatlands and the wealthy heights around Columbia. (That distinction has faded somewhat as this portion of Harlem has transformed into trendy, so-called SoHa.)

Walking through the park in early winter, you think of all the many visitors who have passed time in this little geographic anomaly over the last 140 years. My grandfather, for example, grew up across the street on Morningside Avenue and 122nd Street, and supposedly pitched his pup tent in the park for afternoons spent reading Peter Pan. Later, the park gained a reputation for danger, and in its shadows there is still something of the noirish menace of The Warriors’ Central Park fight scene. 

Various details lend the park an air of even deeper mystery: an indiscernible figure on a neglected stairway, a crevice between two flat stones on the castle-like wall that you can imagine leads to a secret passageway, a strange rustle and breaking of twigs somewhere behind a glacier-scoured boulder.

Layered on top of all that are the echoes of the shouts and music of barbecues of countless summers — in the years I’ve been here, people sit on the picnic benches from 8am every summer weekend to reserve spots for parties later in the day.

It all makes for an intriguing if melancholy walk, and a great place to ponder New York’s remarkably dense history of human lives.

Take a look at the rest of the photos below.  Continue reading

The significance of a small tour of the Mission’s gentrification

Buzzfeed ran a video following around Kai, one of the main characters in the pick-up soccer game flap that took on a kind of remarkable life of it’s own last year. Have a look:

I liked the clip. I’m not sure it lives up to the headline Buzzfeed gave it, but I relate to Kai’s sentiments. I’m also a San Francisco native, originally from Bernal Heights, which is a Mission satellite neighborhood. I too pine, oddly, for the days when I fell asleep listening to Hells Angels revving motors and, more sweetly, the sounds of gospel music from the now-defunct church catty-corner from my mother’s house.

But this clip may not do much to convince the unsympathetic about why anyone should care about the kind of change that has now all but taken over San Francisco’s once-working-class and and economically mixed neighborhoods. Let’s not beat around the bush: here’s a sampling of an uncharitable reaction to Kai from another soccer-playing native San Franciscan who was never fully convinced by the whole brouhaha over the pick-up pitch argument.

  • He romanticizes the loud motorcycle bar, give me a break

  • “The wealth is directly related to people’s displacement from their homes” Weak argument. The real issue is the eviction laws (specifically Ellis Act), not wealth/gentrification.

  • He says: “20th & Mission, um…not alot has changed” Hmmm, dude’s already weakened his position

  • “Dia de los Muertos street art juxtaposed with luxury restaurant + luxury condos on top.” Weak again.

  • Turf soccer field: “Not until it got nice did the permits start coming” No shit, no insight here.

  • On Natives vs Tech worker soccer incident: “Instead of deciding to play with us they decided to play on half the field… so there’s still this segregation of people”. No, weak assessment again. When you play pick up soccer you can generally include everyone. Though it’s not all that fun to play with kids so gotta draw a line somewhere. But more so those tech workers came that night to have a team practice. It wasn’t the time to switch to pick up and include everyone in some utopian gesture. So the solution of playing separately but sharing the overall field was a good solution. Not, as we are lead to believe, evidence of class segregation. Its more accurate to say it was evidence of team play vs. pick-up.

  • He says: “If you know something is wrong, you can’t just accept it for what it is. And if there’s a law in place that shouldn’t be in place, change it.”  Finally we get to something good and useful. I support this.

  • Dude has to tighten up his argument and get to the crux if he wants to be a community leader. Otherwise he just ends up railing against vague malevolent forces of change. Don’t get caught on the wrong side of change. Change is going to happen. Don’t resist it, learn how to harness and direct it.

To which I say, Damn, some of those are pretty good points. Most of them are arguable, at the least. There’s really no need to rehash what the soccer pitch row did and didn’t represent — much time spent on that already here and here and here . But there’s one thing I think my friend missed in this reaction: the validity and value of Kai’s memories of the way things were. Here’s what I would say if someone made a video of me standing on my corners pointing at the new high-end businesses (I’m accepting invitations btw):

Some people talk about all the new restaurants and bars and expensive property like it’s just a net gain for the neighborhood. Like things were blighted, and now they’re better. But you have to understand that the Mission wasn’t blighted. That could have been true of somewhere else, but not here. There were a lot of great mom and pop businesses here, and they’ve been replaced by things that cater solely to a luxury market. I’m not saying you can stop that kind of change, but showing the changes can maybe help people relate to the sense of loss we feel — those of us who grew up around here — and think twice before assuming that fancier is better. 

My memories are not fantasies, though the new money seems to mock them. The worst thing about the soccer pitch fight wasn’t who got to play at what time and where. It was that painful moment, when someone off camera throws a “who gives a shit about the neighborhood” into the mix. In that moment, all the weight of “progress” and the power and privilege of new money came down like a giant eraser on the stories, passions, triumphs, and pain of a neighborhood that thought it existed.

Turns out, you don’t matter at all, the new millionaires seem to tell us. Oh, but we’ll hang on to some Dia de los Muertos tchotchkes. That stuff looks kinda cool.

San Francisco: the “threw it on the ground” city?

Nathan Heller has a New Yorker piece about dissatisfaction with the tech industry in San Francisco. I always watch my step around Heller’s work these days, because he’s so damn persuasive – he had me completely won over with the Bay Area tech industry booster article he wrote last October, despite my better instincts. (With some distance, I’m less swayed than I originally was.) And he’s produced another well written, satisfyingly reported piece. It stands out for being descriptive among a crop of prescriptive and polemical essays on the topic, even if one still feels that his sympathies are a bit more on the side of The City’s transformation.

There was one passage I particularly liked, a surprisingly poetic nibble at the conflict between the burgeoning “progress”-oriented culture in SF, and Northern California’s political heritage:

Does a society that regards efficiency and advancement as its civic goal have any true investment in the mechanisms of representative public life? The West Coast radicalism of the twentieth century arose from the revelation that, in moments of extreme frustration or injustice, power could be claimed and wrongs could be corrected by exiting the system.

One implication of the article is that “exiting the system” may no longer be a viable means of claiming power. Which relates, I think, to a complaint I hear from people who visit these days that the city feels like a bubble. That observation may be on target, but at a point in time it was the right kind of bubble – a city that lived on its own terms, and was a true pioneer for counterculture and the rights of marginalized people. A paragon of “think global, act local.”

What people are complaining about when they call San Francisco a bubble these days is something a bit different. In some cases, their annoyance may still have the tinge of an old mainstream, reactionary prejudice against the city. However, I think it is also energized by a feeling that San Francisco is very much part of the system from which it would like to think it stands at a distance. Indeed, it has become something of a capital of that system in a way that—for all its bank towers and corporate law firms—it never fully was in the past. To those critics, it’s a city where aesthetes and other lovers of rare, fine things can enjoy themselves while feeling a bit morally superior.

It’s not really the city’s fault that this has happened. The system it once shunned has overtaken it: global American-style capitalism all but rules the world. What San Francisco has done wrong, however, is fail to recognize the size of the macro forces outside its control. It often still seems like the best-intentioned San Franciscans—those I would agree with on a huge variety of political issues—still believe that simply standing their ground will be enough to get the city through this storm, mostly unchanged. What they can’t seem to see is that they are quickly losing the fight. In failing to adapt, they are allowing the city’s defining values to slip away forever. They may lose their only chance to have the city change on their terms.

Will San Francisco shift from being an activists’ redoubt to being a “threw it on the ground” city? I refer, of course, to the pathetic character portrayed by fellow Bay Area native Andy Samberg:

The reason we don’t respect this hilarious character is not that he’s militant, but because, with his careful hip wardrobe and staid, middle class activities, he is obviously not separate at all from the system he is so angry with.

I hope that doesn’t become a good metaphor for San Francisco in 2014. I’m sure there are those who would argue it already has.

San Francisco as Ghost Town, via @thebolditalic

The Bold Italic recently published this photo essay with pictures of San Francisco photo-shopped, free of cars and people.

The essay is pretty, but I found it incredibly sad. It is perhaps the perfect conceit for this era in San Francisco, when the City can seem more a sterile backdrop for young, monied newcomers than an actual collection of communities. It’s San Francisco as your desktop wallpaper. San Francisco as seen from the Marin Headlands, or as seen from a drone. San Francisco as depicted in infographics and sweet logos with clean lines, San Francisco with neighborhoods efficiently renamed. But rarely the City as its people. We need a Humans of SF. I’m not sure if the artist put these photos together as this sort of a commentary, but it works as such.

The images are so lonely. They remind me of the 1959 film On the Beach, about sailors stuck on a submarine after a nuclear war. Radioactivity is sweeping over the world, and the cities are being emptied one by one.

There’s one sailor from San Francsco, and when the submarine reaches the Bay, he insists on going ashore to his beautiful city even though it means death. Looking at the photo essay, I feel just a little like that sailor.

Roots Music Break: The Midnight Special

One of my favorite Creedence songs has long been “Midnight Special.”

It always captivated me with lyrics that hint at a bigger story. Who is Miss Rosie? Why is her dude locked up? Who is “The Man” who gets mad when you complain about not having pork up in your pan?

I considered it a poetic critique of American life on the margins with some implied narrative that was a little fuzzy around the edges — much like “Proud Mary,” which CCR’s John Fogerty wrote — and didn’t investigate it further. Indeed, why would you need to when you’re too busy banging the dashboard to the beat on the back roads of Northern California?

Then, I discovered this:

That’s famous Louisiana blues man and sometimes jailbird Lead Belly singing with the Golden Gate Quartet, c. 1940.

This version of the song gave me goosebumps. There are additional lyrics that provide tantalizing details about the story. There are new, named characters: Sheriff Rocko (?), Eddie Boone, and “Jumpin little Judy.”

Well jumpin’ little Judy, she was a mighty fine girl
Well Judy brought jumpin’ to this whole round world
Well she brought it in the mornin’, just a while before day
She brought me the news, that my wife was dead
That started me to grievin’, then hollerin’ and a-cryin’
Then I had to give the worry about a been a long time

Putting the lyrics aside for a moment, the immediate conclusion one draws from listening to this rich, earlier version is that CCR, in an all too familiar pattern, took a song from an older African American writer, and brought it to a mass audience (and probably cashed in).

But it turns out to be a bit more complicated than that. As Wikipedia explains, when Alan Lomax first recorded Lead Belly singing the song in 1934 during a stint in Louisiana’s Angola Prison (read its harrowing history), he also assumed Lead Belly was the author. A clue to the contrary lies in the lyrics of the song, which even in Lead Belly’s version tell a sketchy story at best.

Lead Belly wasn’t the author either — though he certainly deserves a huge amount of credit for his moving rendition. “Midnight Special” was a prison song — a folk tune whose lyrics were likely the product of years of circulation in the prisons of the South. There are many other versions besides Lead Belly’s and CCR’s, and not just covers but other prison versions. You can listen to at least one on the Library of Congress website: Burruss Johnson’s “De Funiac Blues,” recorded at the Florida State Penitentiary in 1939.

One of the details of the lyrics to Lead Belly’s version whose meaning we can almost nail down is that the song’s title and refrain likely refer to a train that ran by a prison in Texas, and shone its lights through the windows onto prisoners. That light symbolized escape, either as a route away from the prison, or a route out of this life.

The lyrics are a fragmentary story for a reason — they are fragments, of the lives of many long-suffering Southern men from the early part of the 20th century, assembled in a song that displays them like a kaleidoscope.

Knowing all this, the song feels like a bit of alternative history, arising from the masses of those who didn’t have the ability to write a more formal version. Maybe my original interpretation wasn’t so far off after all.

Valley Fever: A poetic interpretation

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Valley Fever is a nasty, sometimes incurable and even deadly fungal infection that afflicts hundreds of thousands of people , as I learned in an article in this week’s New Yorker, by Dana Goodyear.  It is particularly prevalent in the American West, thrives in dry, dusty environments, and takes its name from the Central Valley of California, where it first gained notoriety and continues to be a major problem. Now I finally understand all the lyrics to Bakersfieldian Merle Haggard’s “Tulare Dust.”

Reading Goodyear’s piece, and in light of what I know of the history of this part of the country, I can’t help but feeling like Valley Fever is a kind of retribution for our torture of a rich land, a kind of fuku a la Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Or a Godzilla — a sleeping monster awakened by the hubris of man.

Of course, if you pressed me on it at all, I’d back down on this story right away. The facts are more complex, it’s unproveable, it’s a mystic theory at best if not downright superstitious, and it doesn’t do much for the thousands suffering debilitating symptoms from cocci infection to ruminate from afar on the big historical arc of Valley Fever’s emergence.

Still, if you will indulge me, here is my poetic recipe for how to summon up Valley Fever:

1. Arrive to a rich land unknown to your people. Chase its denizens into the hills and pay thugs to kill those who evade capture.

2. In the valley (now mostly vacant from humans) that John Muir described as “like a lake of pure sunshine, forty or fifty miles wide, five hundred miles long, one rich furred garden of yellow Compositae,” decide you will make a farming empire. To this end, drain the biggest fresh water lake west of the Mississippi.  Tulare Lake was the terminus of the southernmost salmon run in the United States, a vast wetland of tule marshes and grizzly bears that served as a stopover for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds. By 1899, after about five decades of intensive diversion for agriculture, it was gone.

3. Don’t stop there. Dam every tributary to keep the damn thing dry.

4. Divvy up the vast fertile valley bottom — one of the most productive areas in the United States — among a handful of rich mega-farmers who use their sway to get government-subsidized water rights. These farmers’ monopoly on water and land will keep the waves of migrant laborers who come from Oklahoma, Texas, the middle South, and later Mexico and Central America, indigent and landless.

5. But then the soil becomes exhausted, the people desperate. Drought grips the land. The inland sea is now a desert. The earth  has become saline.  Dust storms punish the grim towns.

6. As they become untenable, convert the cotton farms and orchards to prison yards, sewage dumps from distant cities, and bleak tract developments promising a simulacrum of suburban paradise, tidy faux-bucolic neighborhoods that end abruptly at empty fields and cement walls on the edges of freeways.

7. Reap the whirlwind, quite literally. Unleashed in the dust at the bottom of the lake, stirred up by plowing, drought, and construction, are deadly fungal spores that infiltrate every nook and cranny, riding high on billowing clouds of Tulare dust.

A compelling moral narrative? I think so.

Here’s the extended reading list that brought me to this version of events:

The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of A Secret American Empire, by Mark Arax.

Cadillac Desert: The American West Its Disappearing Waterby Marc Reisner.

Ishi Rediscovered by Robert Burrill.

Indian Summer: Traditional Life Among the Choinunme Indians of California’s San Joaquin Valley, by Thomas Jefferson Mayfield.

“Showdown at Tejon Ranch,” by Edward Humes in California Lawyer Magazine, June 2007.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.

Help me complete my list of Central California history reading in the comments, please.

SF’s techie communes: hippies minus the politics?

An SFGate.com article from a couple of months ago, about communal living among techies in San Francisco, caught my eye recently. Have a look.

A quick reaction that is a bit too long for a tweet: I have to say I like the way these techies think about living spaces, and I like the echoes of San Francisco values in the arrangements they are pursuing. But I find it interesting that just about all their reasons for doing this — at least the quoted ones — involve them being better entrepreneurs, more “successful,” and more efficient. Political consciousness doesn’t seem to come into it, especially in any kind of more largely critical way about the economic and social status quo of America. I’m sure they all have perfectly liberal impulses on an issue-by-issue basis, but the political revolutionary impulse is missing. Technology is the ideology.

Which makes them very different from hippies indeed.

John Steinbeck’s lessons for a gentrifying San Francisco

Sidewalk graffiti on San Bruno Avenue, San Francisco. "SFC" stands for "Sucka Free City."

Sidewalk graffiti on San Bruno Avenue, San Francisco. “SFC” stands for “Sucka Free City.”

Writing about San Francisco’s changing neighborhoods — a gentrification crisis according to some, a renaissance according to others — has  become quite the fashion in recent months and weeks. I can only assume many of these journalists were inspired by my devastating analysis of census data earlier this month.

The subject has been especially popular of late, but change in San Francisco is nothing new. Even change from the tech boom(s), while reaching a fever pitch in the last couple of years, has been going on since the 1990s. And many of us who feel so pained by the loss and/or change of the City’s vibrant communities would do well to remember the variety of incarnations it has been through in the last century and a half, right up until recent decades. When my parents moved to Bernal Heights in the late 1970s, my dad remembers going to a community meeting at St. Kevin’s church on Cortland, in which some participants said they were uncomfortable that many of their new neighbors were gay. At the time, Bernal was a very ethnically mixed neighborhood, with an especially large number of Latinos. My dad reminded people at the meeting of the backlash many Latinos faced a generation before when they moved into the largely Irish Mission. The meeting took a different course at that point, he says.

Change is the only constant in San Francisco, to use an unavoidable cliché, and the City has distinguished itself by its ability to embrace it, while maintaining some sense of continuity.

Sara Brody has some interesting thoughts on this over at The Bold Italic, though I take small issue with the headline, “Don’t Let Gentrification Push You Out of SF,” since in many cases it is only the most privileged vestiges of San Francisco’s old communities that actually have a choice about “letting” gentrification push them out. Most who have moved, at least the renters, left not as a matter of taste because they couldn’t afford it any more. Involuntary movement is a tragedy, always.

That being said, though, Brody raises some excellent points, the most important one for me being the uselessness of bitterness. Bitterness about change is part of an essential paradox of San Francisco, a city more liberal and welcoming than almost any, but with a deep and almost conservative devotion to its history. This paradox is almost never resolved. I’ve met descendants of old-time Irish San Franciscans who moved out of the City in the 1960s and still lament how it will never be the same. On the other hand, there are others who stayed if they could, remained involved in the new communities, and maybe even started calling Eureka Valley the Castro. (For a good account of these diverging reactions, read The Mayor of Castro Street)

So, to get to the (damn) point of this post: I just read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, the account of a 1960 cross-country trip the native northern Californian, then resident in New York, took around America with his dog. A significant section deals with his reflections on the Bay, noting what was still there, and reminiscing about what wasn’t any longer. Time and again, I found wisdom in Steinbeck’s observations that is deeply relevant — even enlightening — for considering our current times in San Francisco. He is a gentle curmudgeon, one who honors the past while accepting the inevitability of change, especially in our fast-paced times. I think he provides a model for how to relate to the changes in the City. Here are a few excerpts, mostly from his time in Northern California.

On change in mid-century America:

Even while I protest the assembly-line production of our food, our songs, our language, and eventually our souls, I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days. Mother’s cooking was with rare exceptions poor, the good unpasteurized milk touched only by flies and bits of manure crawled with bacteria, the healthy old-time life was riddled with aches, sudden death from unknown causes, and that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance. It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better. But it is true that we have exchanged corpulence for starvation, and either one will kill us. The lines of change are down. We, or at least I, can have no conception of human life and human thought in a hundred years or fifty years. Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know. The sad ones are those who waste their energy in trying to hold it back, for they can only feel bitterness in loss and no joy in gain.

And on returning to northern California:

I find it difficult to write about my native place, northern California. It should be the easiest, because I knew that strip angled against the Pacific better than any place in the world. But I find it not one thing but many–one printed over another until the whole thing blurs. What it is is warped with memory of what it was and that with what happened there to me, the whole bundle wracked until objectiveness is nigh impossible. This four-lane concrete highway slashed with speeding cars I remember as a narrow twisting mountain road where the wood teams moved, drawn by steady mules. They signaled their coming with the high, sweet jangle of hame bells. This was a little little town, a general store under a tree and a blacksmith shop and a bench in front on which to sit and listen to the clang of hammer on anvil. Now little houses, each one like the next, particularly since they try to be different, spread for a mile in all directions. That was a woody hill with live oaks dark green against the parched grass where the coyotes sang on moonlit nights. The top is shaved off and a television relay station lunges at the sky and feeds a nervous picture to thousands of tiny houses clustered like aphids beside the roads.

And isn’t this the typical complaint? I have never resisted change, even when it has been called progress, and yet I felt resentment toward the strangers swamping what I thought of as my country with noise and clutter and the inevitable rings of junk. And of course these new people will resent newer people. I remember how when I was a child we responded to the natural dislike of the stranger. We who were born here and our parents also felt a strange superiority over newcomers, barbarians, forestieri, and they, the foreigners, resented us…. And we were an outrage to the Spanish-Mexicans and they in their turn on the Indians. Could that be why the sequoias make folks nervous? Those natives were grown trees when a political execution took place on Golgotha. They were well toward middle age when Caesar destroyed the Roman republic in the process of saving it. To the sequoias everyone is a stranger, a barbarian.

And on returning to San Francisco:

When I was a child growing up in Salinas we called San Francisco “the City.” Of course it was the only city we knew, but I still think of it as the City, and so does everyone else who has ever associated with it. A strange and exclusive word is “city.” Besides San Francsico, only small sections of London and Rome stay in the mind as the City. New Yorkers say they are going to town. Paris has no title but Paris. Mexico City is the Capital.

Once I knew the City very well, spent my attic days there, while others were being a lost generation in Paris. I fledged in San Francisco, climbed its hills, slept in its parks, worked on its docks, marched and shouted in its revolts. In a way I felt I owned the City as much as it owned me.

San Francisco put on a show for me. I saw her across the bay from the great road that bypasses Sausalito and enters the Golden Gate Bridge. The afternoon sun painted her white and gold–rising on her hills like a noble city in a happy dream. A city on hills has it over flat-land places. New York makes its own hills with craning buildings, but this gold and white acropolis rising wave on wave against the blue of the Pacific sky was a stunning thing, a painted thing like a picture of a medieval Italian city which can never have existed. I stopped in a parking place to look at her and the necklace bridge over the entrance from the sea that led to her. Over the green higher hills to the south, the evening fog rolled like herds of sheep coming to cote in the golden city. I’ve never seen her more lovely. When I was a child and we were going to the City, I couldn’t sleep for several nights before, out of bursting excitement. She leaves a mark.

And my favorite of all, as we wrap our heads around a city that will be changing, no matter what:

It remained the City I remembered, so confident of its greatness that it can afford to be kind. It had been kind to me in the days of my poverty and it did not resent my temporary solvency.

5 Pointz is long gone

A sad scene greeted New Yorkers this morning. This …

5 Pointz Biggie

5 Pointz Biggie

… had turned into this (photo from the LICPost):

Yes indeed, after a drawn-out battle that seemed pulled from the pages of a break dance movie script (except without the happy ending), world famous Long Island City graffiti installation 5 Pointz is long gone. The owner of the building, who had reportedly done nothing with it for 20 years besides allowing the artists to squat there (so I was told during a tour), is tearing it down to make way for these glorious luxury condominiums. (Photo from Atlantic Cities.)

I only found out about the place a couple of years ago, and it has surprised and delighted each of my NYC guests ever since. It was a true urban gem. I don’t know enough about the legality of the issue to comment much on that dimension of the art’s destruction, but one thing is for sure: the loss of this site is pretty much a major cultural tragedy for New York City. I sort of hope that if there really is 10,000 square feet of blank wall dedicated to aerosol artists’ use in the new development, as has been proposed, it remains mutely white in protest.

Here’s a brief slide show from my first visit to 5 Pointz.

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