Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

Category: Urban development

Mission Mumbles: Donuts, Trucks and the past of Potrero Avenue.

200 Potrero Avenue, and across the street, 198 Potrero, the former sites of Stempel’s Bakery, and Moore’s Cocktails, respectively.

Here’s a small story about a big building: 200 Potrero Avenue, a building that looks like a Gothic church, sits on the west side of the Avenue, just before 16th. To the east is Potrero Hill, and to the west is the hill that once held Seals Stadium, and is now the location of the Potrero Center, a strip mall with a Safeway and a Ross Dress for Less. Behind all this and to the east is Brannan Street, a portal to SOMA.

To me, Potrero Avenue feels like SOMA lunging desperately into the Mission, but failing to get all the way there.  The San Francisco Planning Department confirms this feeling of mine somewhat by declaring the area to be a historic district, albeit a non-contiguous one, that encompasses both neighborhoods.

The “Showplace Square / Northeast Mission” historic district sprawls from the southern hills around 19th and Pennsylvania, heads west across the 280 freeway, continues in a jagged line between Shotwell and Folsom, and then veers east on 20th Street, where it meanders back to Pennsylvania. Within the district are 600 buildings that, though they may be blocks apart, share enough construction features and history to link them together through time and space.

They time travel, in their own solid way, from a era when the Mission was relatively empty and open. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad built rail lines and spurs throughout this district, creating a transportation grid that made a district suited to PDR, planning parlance for “production, distribution and repair.” This district boasted large brick buildings which boasted huge “slow burn” wood timbers. These timbers didn’t ignite as eagerly as the ramshackle wood buildings that lined the streets and alleyways of SOMA, which were fated to burn in 1906. Those scrambling buildings held mere humanity: the slow-burn brick and reinforced concrete buildings that crept up Potrero before and after the quake were sites of industry and so they were built to last. And they have.

An advertisement from 1935 for the Bleachers Family Nite Club, located at 198 Potrero, which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Across from 200 Potrero is a smaller building, 198 Potrero, which is mostly identifiable by a faded sign positioned over the sidewalk that reads “Moore’s Cocktails.” These two buildings, radically dissimilar in design—198 Potrero was built in 1906 with no apparent design ambitions—contain the cultural and commercial history of the Avenue between them. For a time, 198 Potrero held a blacksmith, wagon shop and auto repair. After that, it became the Bleachers Family Nite Club, so-called because of the stadium around the corner. Bleachers did business in the mid-thirties. An ad for Bleachers placed in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1935 informed families that they could drink and dance, and spend a “pleasant evening with the whole family,” a neighborhood-serving kind of place if there ever was one.

This may have changed three years later when the club manager, a man named Fred Engelbrecht, applied for a liquor license, although one does hear stories from old Missionites who will tell you that “in those day” kids could be found at bars and nobody thought much of it. (The bar’s license was suspended in 1947, so perhaps that’s not true.)

Described as a “dance hall” by the planning department, Bleachers Nite Club was a commodious place. It had an orchestra platform, a dance floor, and a fireplace and could hold 150 people. It wasn’t so small that a crowd couldn’t gather and wasn’t so big that the intimacy of the neighborhood—the chance of seeing someone you knew—was snuffed out.

The Moore family purchased it at some point in the sixties and carried on the tradition of running a neighborhood bar. It seems to have been a mostly peaceable place: in 1983, the staff suffered the indignity of being held up. Owner William Moore died ten years later. Since then, the former dance hall has been vacant. It has a surviving counterpart in the Double Play bar on the corner of 16th and Bryant, the last space that survives as a testament to the heaving crowds that poured into Seals Stadium to watch Joe DiMaggio and the other Seals do their stuff before it was demolished in 1959. A mural, painted by artist Dan McHale, which is on display inside Sport Basement, shows Bryant Street back then, and a young fan running with the Seals pennant.

Across the street is 200 Potrero, a building that commands your attention, even though it’s painted the exact shade of a San Francisco summer, a color I call “August grey.” No less than three businesses have left their mark on the building: the name “Golden Bear Sportswear” is embossed on the panels above the first floor. Another sign shaped like a button is affixed to one of the angular parapets that line the second floor. It reads “gizmo” in lowercase letters, the low-key style that the tech community seems to love. (Do uppercase letters embarrass them?)

The last business name is not up, but down: the name “Stempels” is outlined in brass on the terrazzo tile threshold of the Potrero Avenue entrance. It’s a real Desilu production: the “S” is designed to look like a treble clef sign. Back when Stempel’s Bakery—which was one of the businesses here—was in operation, customers would have no problem figuring out how to enter the building. The name is meant to direct, as well as identify: step over me and walk inside. In contrast, Gizmo Art Productions’ sign, hanging high above the sidewalk, advertises itself but does not invite you in.

An July 8th, 1928 advertisement from the San Francisco Chronicle announcing the grand opening of the International Harvester Company’s Motor Truck branch at 200 Potrero Avenue.

In 1905, the Sanborn-Perris fire map showed three buildings at 200 Potrero, two of them dwellings and the other an athletic club. In January of 1928, James Hansen Hjul, a busy and prolific architect in a city full of busy and prolific architects, purchased the property from the San Francisco Seals, with the help of Coldwell Banker, and drew up blueprints for a 2,800 square foot building. “Embodied in the building are all the most recent features,” a Chronicle story exclaimed, which was true, but not perhaps immediately apparent.

Though he designed for the future of industry, Hjul had a marked preference for the past, specifically the ecclesiastical past. The two-story building had “unusual Gothic ornamentation,” including clerestory windows, which functioned exactly as they were designed to do. (They let a lot of light in.) This building became the home of the International Harvester Company’s Motor Truck branch. International Harvester enthusiastically sold trucks from this location for at least two decades. And then, in a space that had been scented by the odor of rubber and petroleum fumes, baker George J. Stempel took over the space and began selling donuts.

Smell beckons memory like nothing else. A little-known fact about the Mission District is that, in the past, this neighborhood has often smelled deliciously of freshly-baked bread, or vanilla, or (less pleasant, but still memorable) vinegar fumes emanating from the Best Foods factory at 1890 Bryant Street. Stempel’s Quality Doughnut Shoppe was a contributor to this olfactory district. They opened for business in 1921 as a small donut shop and restaurant at 2140 Mission street in the building that now houses the Sycamore bar. The paneled Dutch door is a holdover from its time as a small restaurant, but that alone could not make this building historic, in the opinion of the planning department’s Historic Preservation Commission. Nothing eventful happened there, just Missionites eating Stempel’s “warm, tasty” donuts.

A March 4th, 1955 San Francisco Chronicle advertisement alerting San Francisco to a Free Donut Day at the new headquarters of Stempel’s Bakery, located at 200 Potrero Avenue.

Stempel opened two more branches at 316 Fell and 1616 Bush Street, before demand for his excellent donuts drove him to add a third. “Free donut day today at Stempel’s!” exclaimed an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1955. “Come on out, Mr. and Mrs. San Francisco, and see our new bakery at 200 Potrero Avenue.” The “huge, street-level picture window” let customers and passers-by watch the donuts being prepared, and let his customers see the cleanliness of the bakery. They were in on the action of the neighborhood, which was at that time, unionized: in 1938, the Bakery Workers International Union, Local 24, which represented about 500 workers, negotiated a two-year work contract with San Francisco bakers, including Stempel’s. The union and the bakery stayed together until the bakery closed sometime in the mid-seventies, after George Stempel’s death in 1971.

So that’s what happened. Like many building-based histories in the Mission, this history is a simply a series of small stories and vivid memories of the goodness of the baked goods. No constitutions were signed inside; no one rich or famous slept there. Trucks and donuts were sold, and the neighborhood hummed along, producing, distributing and repairing.

This neighborhood isn’t totally post-PDR: things are still Made in the Mission. Gizmo Art Productions makes exhibits and helps install sculptures. But what’s missing in the Mission in the 21st century is the boastful pride in the built environment that characterized urban development in San Francisco after the earthquake. In the palmy days of  post-1906 construction, the city was re-conceived and builders and architects alike advertised their visionary design and construction plans in trade journals like The Architect & Engineer of California and the Pacific Coast.

Today, construction and design work are obscured–literally– from the public gaze.  Mission Street is lined with plywood these days. The work being done on the old buildings, modernized in the thirties, and awaiting their next star turn, is obscured from the public gaze, and shrouded behind the wooden walls and padlocked doors. Permit details are (sometimes) available on the planning department’s site, but often there’s no choice but to wait and see, while the skittish developers argue with the planning staff. This is especially true with “adaptive re-use”, the art of rehabilitating San Francisco’s inventory of cranky historic buildings.

The reasons for this are varied but they range between the following: (a.) there’s often little agreement on what should be preserved and why. Nostalgia assigns meaning and value, as much as the date of the construction, to buildings that have outlived their designed purpose. Even those of us most concerned with preservation and historicity can regard old buildings with doubt. Take auto liveries: they have an ample footprint, a doubtful future –cars are disappearing from this city–and design features that are only skin deep. Every time I see a barely-used auto livery, I wonder, irritably: do we really need this?

(b.) Adaptive reuse and historic conservation is expensive: it’s all stick and no carrot, these days. I have no love for the deep-pocketed property owners of this city, but am sympathetic to the steep costs of rehabbing tattered buildings with friable cement exteriors, and sunken foundations. In sharp contrast to the period of Depression-era modernization, there’s no Federal Housing Administration insuring low-interest loans for lending institutions, and no splashy, and optimistic public relations campaign to encourage adaptive re-use for buildings that are approaching–or have exceeded– their centenary.

(c.) because of the above, developers and land owners have little interest in historic preservation. And sometimes, the history of the building is a moving target. Buildings that were constructed a century ago have often undergone multiple alternations in the interim and have, therefore, erased some (or all) traces of the past. The old Majestic theater at 2065 Mission Street was built once and re-designed twice, both times by different, but equally well-regarded, architects. Which year matters more?

A great rendering of James Hjul’s Gothic-style “machine shop”, later to be the home of the International Harvesters Truck Shop, Stempel’s Bakery, Golden Bear Sportswear Leather and currently, Gizmo’s Art Production.

It’s fraught territory. But I do think our built history matters, and I’ll tell you why: people should be able to lay claim to a place, and falling in love with an old building helps that process along. It’s hard to form an attachment to a condo that was built in the fall of 2017. Historic buildings make possible some public claim on city space, which is becoming increasingly featureless, private and covert.

Take Harrison Street, between 20th and 23rd, as an example: I walk down it almost every day, and know it less each time. Previously, Harrison had a variety of buildings, in a variety of heights and widths, that were leftover from its days as a mixed-use, Southern Pacific railroad corridor. They have been demolished and now the west side of the street is faceless and impassive, due to the residential four-story buildings lining the west side of the street.

The visible imposition (or absence) of post-earthquake architectural styles on city streets is a reminder of what architects and urbanists thought the city was or might be: this includes the hostility and racial animus of redevelopment. The architectural ideas in play after 1906 carried big ideas about what was happening for San Franciscans and how people would live. San Franciscans were tutored by these styles: Streamline Moderne didn’t just articulate the consensus of urbanists that life was being lived fleetly: it helped push America past the fear of Depression-era decay.

The period of re-building after the quake and modernization during the Depression have left us with all the mute reminders of that perilous, but oddly confident time:  the business names and signs carved into lintels or embossed in brass. What’s that, one may think, stepping over the name of a long-dead merchant, on the way into the bar or restaurant. The signs and names are claims on permanence, and our scattered attention, which –if paid– can be  reminded that there was a “before” to our hurried present.

The threshold of the former Union Furniture Company, located at 2075 Mission Street. Ironically, this furniture company, owned by brothers Sol and Simon Kauffman, locked out striking union workers, organized under the AFL Master Furniture Guild, after refusing to submit to arbitration in June, 1949. After a 31-day strike, the union prevailed and secured wage increases, improved vacations, and time and a half, according to a July 8, 1949 San Francisco Chronicle article.

 

Finished September 4th, 2018, one day after Labor Day. All Hail, Francis Perkins, 1880-1965, an architect of the New Deal.
Usefulness in a building is good, economy in a building may be necessary, yet how many cheap and useful buildings would not mankind exchange for a Parthenon?” The Architect and Engineer, November 1933

 

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The Role of the Newport River in Shaping the Upper Newport Bay

 

The Upper Newport Bay looking east, with Saddleback in the distance.

If you grow up on one of the mesas on the coast of Southern California, like the one that overlooks the Newport Bay, you’re told something about it. I was briefly instructed in geological history in elementary school. Costa Mesa was once two places: a settlement called Harper, named after Gregory Harper, a grain farmer, and the town of Fairview, which was famed for its hot mineral baths. They failed after an earthquake stopped the flow of hot water. In 1920, when civic boosters decided to get serious about city building, they renamed the place Costa Mesa in recognition of its geological structure. The name means “tableland on the coast.” That was about all I knew. We lived on a tableland on the coast, perched about 100 feet above sea level. Curiously, the history of Newport Bay, both its upper and lower parts, was not taught. Maybe this was because the natural history of the lower bay had been obliterated and the future of the upper bay was still being debated.

That changed after 1973, when I was in third grade. A twelve-year battle between conservationists Frank and Fran Robinson, the state, and the bay’s landlord, the Irvine Company, concluded. The Robinsons won. The bay’s waters, tidal marshes and uplands, was saved from becoming a monotonous urban landscape made of boat slips, rip-rap, yachts, and bay fill. The preservation of the Upper Newport Bay ensured that the bluffs and the bay that were created long ago, by forces mightier than even the most influential Newport Beach developer, stayed reasonably intact.

The mighty force that carved the river canyon and delta of the Upper Newport Bay may have been a river that doesn’t exist any longer, according to Ivan P. Colburn, Emeritus Professor of Geology, California State University, Los Angeles. He gave this “antecedent” river a name: the Newport River. In a talk he gave for the Society For Sedimentary Geology (SEPM), at their Western Regional Joint Meeting, in Long Beach in May 2003, and in a 2006 paper entitled “The Role of Antecedent Rivers in Shaping the Orange/Los Angeles Coastal Plain” Colburn says very plainly that he doesn’t think that the Santa Ana River made the Upper Newport Bay. Colburn theorized that the Newport River, fed by eleven tributary creeks and flowing west from a confluence formed by Peters Canyon, San Diego, and Sand Canyon creek, made the canyon that contains the Upper Newport Bay.

Colburn theorizes that the antecedent Newport River shoved its way through a changing landscape as tectonic forces lifted a ridge that stood several hundred feet above the coastal plain. After passing this hurdle, the Newport River made a capacious river delta, which housed all the habitats of the current bay, including the friable marine terraces, the uplands, the tidal marshes, and the basin that the tides flow in and out of.

(In our time, the tidal process is often so unhurried that the footprints of raccoons and other foraging mammals are undisturbed and can be seen inches under the water at low tide, clearly imprinted in the grey marsh mud.)

The Santa Ana river in its floodplain.

In Colburn’s telling of the making of the Orange and Los Angeles coastal plain, the Newport River was one of six “ephemeral” rivers that ran during the interglacial Sangamon age, 125,000 to 75,000 years ago. At that time, the climate hit the pause button in between periods of glaciation, and water coursed down from the San Gabriel, San Bernardino and Santa Ana mountain ranges, and from the weird little stumpy hills scattered among the Los Angeles basin: Puente, Coyote, Repetto, Elysian and San Jose Hills. The six ancestral rivers dribbled and flowed down, and then snaked onto the basin that Los Angeles County sits on top of, creating a series of deltas much further inland and much higher. Sea level was about 100 feet higher than it is now.

These six rivers multi-tasked as they descended, carrying rock and sediment from the mountains and hills that got dumped whenever the flow of the rivers was checked, both taking from and giving to the earth, as all rivers do. This created the Los Angeles Basin where later extractive industries flourished, like the petroleum and the film industries.

The Sangamon age gave way to the Wisconsinan age, 75,000–11,000 years ago, the last glacial period before the Holocene, the age we live in now. The transition between a very warm age to a very cold one trapped some water in ice. The coastline accordingly withdrew. At about 17,000 years ago, the coast of Los Angeles County was about eight miles away from the Port of Long Beach.

Some water became more available. The Wisconsinan age was glaciopluvial, that is to say, that there was much more rain. Southern California had a climate that was “comparable to the Pacific Northwest,” according to Colburn, and may have received over 80 inches of rain annually. This “transformed” the ephemeral creeks and streams into rivers, with more erosive power than they’d ever had.

The power these rivers had is still visible. Imagine that you’re standing on the west bluff of the Upper Newport Bay. Looking east, you see Saddleback, with its twin peaks. (If you’re lucky, the moon is full and the sky is clear.) Directly in front of you is Eastbluff. Looking down, you see roughly 100 feet of eroded cliff, with cactus digging itself into the loose soil. Put your eyes in the back of your head, and travel west on 23rd Street, past Irvine, Santa Ana, and Orange avenues, to Newport Boulevard. Now you’re crossing into Westside Costa Mesa, the former working class neighborhood with the city’s only grange hall, now classed up with high-density condos.

Travel down Victoria Street, still heading west, until you stand on the Victoria Street overpass. What is it over passing, exactly? Why, the west side of the Newport mesa. You have just traveled between two points in an ancient landscape, from the water gap carved by the Newport River to the water gap made by the Santa Ana River.

1935 quadrangle (cropped) of the Newport Mesa

There is no natural might that goes unchecked. Even as the Wisconsinan rain was swelling the rivers and watering the coastal plain, the earth kept its hand in, too. The Newport-Inglewood Fault, which was responsible for breaking some of my grandmother’s china in the late eighties, was active during this late stage in the Pleistocene era. It ruptured and produced a ridge, the Newport-Inglewood Ridge, presenting a challenge to the rain-engorged rivers. Before this, when the climate was drier, their deltas were further inland and easier to reach. But the rising ridge, which ran from the Santa Monica Mountains to the San Joaquin Hills, posed a threat to the free movement of the water.

The rivers, Colburn says, matched this power with great power of their own. They could move the earth, if not the heavens, and “entrench” themselves inside their beds, and flow at rapid speeds, too. So they did. Five of the rivers—the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, Bolsa Chica, Santa Ana and Newport rivers—bum-rushed the upwarping ridge that threatened to trap them inside the Los Angeles Basin. They were able to match in speed and might the rising earth because of their sheer velocity and scouring power. They lengthened and deepened their beds to bring themselves into equilibrium with the new location and level of the ocean. And this made all the difference.

The ridge was transected, leaving behind water gaps and mesas where the water did not surmount the ridge. This explains the Dominguez and Signal hills, which always looked sadly orphaned to me, as I flashed past them on the 405 as a child. They are mesas that were formed during this period. So are the Bixby Knolls in Long Beach and Landing Hill in Seal Beach. Only the Los Cerritos River did not make it. It became a wetland, and ultimately suffered the indignity that many wetlands in the 20th century suffered at the hands of private landowners and commercial interests.

Ivan P. Colburn’s rendering of the location of the water gap channels on the LA/Orange County coastal plain.

The Newport River did make it. Colburn estimates that its drainage basin was 260 square miles, and its length, 20 miles. But this power came with a trade off: the entrenchment that allowed the rivers to drop to new sea levels, and allowed for higher volumes of water in their beds, also demanded a new commitment from the rivers to stay put.

Rivers wander; watch a rivulet of water run down a window someday, and you’ll see in miniature the motion of a meandering river. Geologists other than Colburn have supposed that the Santa Ana River wiggled back and forth between its normal course, cutting not only the Santa Ana water gap between Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach, but the Newport water gap, too. This is the going theory and is, today, widely accepted. An oft-quoted study entitled “Marshlands at Newport Bay” published in 1958 by scientists R.E. Stevenson and K.O. Emery, was influential in shaping theories about how the Upper Newport Bay was formed; it’s cited in the city’s “Upper Newport Bay Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study, Environmental Impact Statement,” published in 2000, and appears in the footnotes of dozens of articles in scientific journals.

This is where Colburn departs from his peers. “The geologic reasoning needed to support these assertions was not included in the articles,” he states, going onto to assert that the antecedent rivers were straight-jacketed by their deeply incised beds, making this sort of riverbed-hopping impossible for them to do. Stevenson and Emery are not the only scientists to favor this theory; Colburn quotes two other papers that theorize that the Santa Ana River created not one, not two, but no less than four water gaps between Los Angeles and Orange counties. This is a lot of work for one river, no matter how much water is propelling it across a plain.

Colburn’s research is quoted mistakenly in the current version of the Wikipedia article for the Santa Ana River: his idea that the Santa Ana River didn’t create either the Newport water gap, or the Upper Newport Bay, is ignored in favor of retaining the Santa-Ana-River-did-it-all theory.

He doesn’t take issue with the role of the Santa Ana river in the making of the Newport sandbar/peninsula and its ephemeral mudflats, which became Linda, Lido, Bay, Balboa and Harbor islands. The lower bay is far younger than its sister embayment. Colburn allows that the “anecdotal” reports of the Santa Ana River flooding in the 19th century and entering the head of the upper bay through the entrance created by the Newport River are probable. Since there was more water in the oceans after the glaciers melted, saltwater intruded at least 2 miles up the river channel, slowing the rivers, which caused them to drop sediment further inland from the coast, raising their beds.

If the rivers ran their courses at the time the ridge was rising, it follows (if I understand Colburn’s argument) that the depth of the bed and the volume of water had to be deep enough, full enough, and fast enough to beat the uprising earth at its own game. Leaving its bed and weaving laterally over the plain to make more than one gap was not possible, Colburn states. And that’s where he leaves things.

It’s hard to visualize the kind of titanic power Orange County’s creeks had when they joined forces. Today, the Upper Newport Bay has only one major source of fresh water, San Diego Creek. The rest of Orange County’s creeks are contained in culverts. This keeps them from knowing each other as they did back in the good old glaciopluvial days when their polyamorous nature—creeks and streams like to take many partners—created a river.

The 23rd street creek in late afternoon, as it drains into the Upper Newport Bay.

Colburn’s research on the antecedent rivers is hypothetical, and this paper, as far as I can tell, was unpublished and has not been peer-reviewed, although other papers have. His work as a sedimentary geologist has been rewarded–and lauded–by his peers, most notably in 2017, when he received the 2016 A.E. Fritsche Lifetime Achievement Award “for his accomplishments to California geology” from the Pacific Section of SEPM.

If you want to see a remnant of the awesome geological past of the Newport Mesa, go to the Upper Newport bay, and scramble down the eroded sides of the 23rd street creek, which comes out of a culvert at the foot of 23rd street where it hits Irvine Avenue. The creek delivers urban runoff from the surrounding streets to the bay.  Sometime before 1952, that creek and what is now called Cherry Lake, which was once a 40-foot deep spring-fed ravine, supplied fresh water to the Upper Newport bay. Both are both artifacts of an old hydrological system that was spread along the northwest bluff between Santiago Drive and Santa Isabel Avenue. All of it is gone, replaced by modern modes of place-making, like landscaping and the wholesale containment of natural systems, which—should they roar to life, unexpectedly—may yet surprise us all with their ancestral, epochal determination to create.

San Francisco, June 11, 2018. Dedicated to Lizann Bassham, 1959-2018, a mighty work of creation, indeed, and a lover of humanity and nature.

Elizabeth Ann Bassham, 1959-2018

The study “Marshlands at Newport Bay, California.” by R.E.Stevenson, and K.O. Emery, is available from the Allan Hancock Foundation Occasional Papers at the University of Southern California: https://libraries.usc.edu/locations/special-collections/allan-hancock-foundation-occasional-papers  
Let me know if you order it.
With thanks to Professor Ivan P. Colburn for writing something a citizen scientist could read and learn from. Here’s a list of his published articles, as archived by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists

The Mission, marketed: the Glossier pop-up at Rhea’s Cafe.

The large pink wall on the side of Rhea’s Café can be seen from the intersection of Bryant and Mariposa. I’m near-sighted, so the fact that I can see a pink wall three city blocks away means something, mostly that the marketers at Glossier, which is staging a pop-up cosmetics store in Rhea’s Cafe until April 15th,  got what they wanted. Visibility. Some local outrage probably helped with that, too. A Missionite posted on Nextdoor that she wanted the sign “legally” removed. Half the posters on Nextdoor sympathized, half told her she was being ridiculous, some informed her that they’d be heading over to the pop-up. The argument moved from there to No Eviction Mission, a Facebook group, where it continued inconclusively.

As I walked down Bryant, the pink blob resolved into the image of a pink rose. At least fifty people were queued up along the wall. Well, that’s an invitation for a blogger if there ever was one, I thought. People who stand in lines are sitting ducks for writers. I moved in.

A  man with a funny look on his face—was it guilt? sheepishness?—loitered underneath the street sign. “What do you think of all this?” I asked him. He shrugged and smiled. “I’m waiting on my girlfriend,” he said. “She’s in line.” He told me they had driven from Sacramento for a day in San Francisco, which included a stop at the Glossier pop-up.

“She read about it,” he said. “Got really excited.”
“Don’t you want to go in? You drove all that way!” I said. He looked horrified.

“It’s not really my thing,” he said.

Glossier, so you know, is a venture capital backed, online cosmetics company, valued at millions of dollars, which has been described as the “Estee Lauder for Millennials”. It makes low-coverage makeup for a wide range of different skin tones. In contrast to the vividly-hued makeup I spent many hours applying to my face in the eighties, the Glossier brand is diffident, almost introverted. The names are the tip-off: not eyeshadows, but “eye glows”. Not blush, but “seamless cheek colors” inspired “by gradient pink NYC sunsets”. And Boy Brow, which is kind of like mascara for your eyebrows, but less brash, almost undetectable.

What caught me off-guard, when news of the pop-up broke, was the weird combo of make-up and food. Rhea’s cafe is famous for their chicken sandwiches, but in my experience, chicken sandwiches and lipstick don’t go together.  My shock was complete when I saw the re-design: the interior looks like a big seashell, and a distinct scent of rose absolue wafts through the air, outside. How did you do it, Glossier? I didn’t see any diffusers , but I’m not the only one who’s noticed the scent. Jim on Nextdoor  did, too. He thought it was “nice.” And about those “gradient pink NYC sunsets”—what colors might Glossier be inspired to use as a result of its stint in the Mission? It’s really more about smell here: how about a new scent?  Any suggestions, readers? Take your bright ideas to the pop-up. You have five days to let them know.

The spectacle of the Glossier pop-up is the most attention this locale has had since July 1917, the year that the Wickersheimer Brothers saloon, which occupied the building 100 years ago, was targeted for robbery by the “White Mask” gang, a group of Irish-Americans who had been robbing saloons in the Mission District. William King and James Kennedy entered the Wickersheimer saloon, pulled out their guns and tried to get down to brass tacks. Joseph Kraus, the president of the Anchor Brewing company, who just happened to be in the bar, enjoying an after-work brewski, pulled out his gun and shot Kennedy. The robbers stumbled out of the saloon, King dumping Kennedy on the corner of 19th and Bryant, before running back to their flat. Kennedy was arrested and taken to General Hospital. Later, the police arrested King and their molls—Agnes Sullivan, Hazel Moran and Florence Cumming, plus another accomplice, a man named Henry Starkey.

Things have been quiet since then. A series of restaurants popped up in the building: the New Bryant Restaurant in the forties, the Home Plate restaurant in the sixties and Hazel and Jim’s restaurant, which lasted until at least 1980. And now it’s Rhea’s, run by James Choi, who opened it to great fanfare in 2013 and reportedly has had a struggle staying in business.

“James listed this space on Craigslist,” the Glossier “showroom editor” minding the line told me. She meant James Choi. (Glossier calls its salespeople “showroom editors”. Glossier really loves playing with language.) She was good-natured and answered all my questions.

“How much are they paying you?” I asked. “Minimum wage?”

“More,” she replied and then whispered conspiratorially: “sixteen”. They were paying her 16.00 an hour. She was wearing a pink coverall, like a repairman. This puzzled me. Did Glossier want people to think that she could spackle a wall if need be? Or that makeup equaled repair? And why pop-up at all?

“They don’t really have a store,” she said. “That’s not their thing. They open pop-ups from time to time. This is the longest one they’ve done,” she added.

“How many of these people are from this neighborhood?” I asked her. “Can you tell?”

“There’s definitely been neighbors who came and checked this out,” she said. “There’s a lot of locals, but also right now there’s a lot of people from Southern California. It’s spring break.” She turned around and smiled sweetly at the people queuing obediently along the pink wall. “You can go in now,” she told them. Turning back to me, she said “We’re trying not to get too crowded in there.”

“But food and make up? How does that work? What does one have to do with the other?”

She laughed. “Everyone says that,” she said. “But it’s worked out. You know, the owner said he was having trouble staying open…they had weird hours, like 11 to 3, I think? So he posted an ad on Craigslist looking for partners and Glossier was like, ok!”

“Are there always people in line?” I asked.

“Mostly. When we opened there was a huge line. Went down the entire block.”

“Have there been any …conflicts?”

“No,” she said. She knew what I meant. “It’s been quiet.” She liked working for Glossier. “We have a diverse staff, and people like that: they really notice it. Glossier has a range of products intended for all skin tones.” She repeated: I really like this company.

We chatted some more. She was a nice twenty-something, with clear skin and well-groomed eyebrows (Boy Brow!). She lived in the Mission District above a noisy restaurant and was having a hard time with the noise produced by the construction across the street from her apartment. The hard concrete walls effortlessly lobbed noise around her neighborhood. “Oh my god, it was earsplitting with the jack-hammering but now, after two years of construction, it’s gotten even louder.” The large underground garage made everything echo, she told me.

I got a quick psychic hit of her, sitting in her apartment, trying to contend with the unfamiliar sounds of a growing city; the hardness of the new Valencia Street, that has more concrete walls than before. There is a history of sound in all places, and that history has changed in the Mission. The acoustics I encountered at the age of twenty-five on Valencia Street in the nineties were softer. There was more weathered wood and fewer hard surfaces and more room, in general, for sound to travel and dissipate. The fog, which used to roll in regularly, muffled everything: car horns, people talking. The Mission could, at times, almost be inaudible.  It’s not like that anymore.

I thanked her and got on my way, walking past the line of Glossier fans who were busy taking selfies, and doing that thing they do when they crook their knee, sling their hip to the side, and smile guilelessly up into their phone. My upstairs neighbors Chava and Nick walked by and saw me taking pictures and tapping notes into my phone. Chava laughed. She knew what I was doing. “You don’t want to know, Elizabeth!” she said. “You don’t want to know.”

I kinda don’t. “Gentrification” has less to do with how things look, and more to do with what things—lip gloss, chicken sandwiches, dwellings and wages—cost. Neighborhood-serving businesses like laundromats, dry cleaners, repair stores, small restaurants like the Sunrise café on 24th street, constitute some sort of affordable consumer normalcy, a long tradition in the Peterite village of the Mission District. There’s something creepy in the way that pop-up’s like Glossier appear out of the blue –the pink?–luring people into its rose-scented store. They’ll vanish into the ether on April 16th,  taking their business with them. None of that money will circulate through the Mission.

Except for the wages that the showroom editor takes home. Boy Brow* is $16.00 for a little more than a tenth of an ounce. For $16.00 an hour, Glossier gets a human being to sell that item. For $16.00 an hour, our neighbor, the Glossier showroom editor, pays her rent, buys her food, and does all the things one does with wages. She probably doesn’t save much. But more importantly, she costs Glossier $16.00 an hour. I wonder if Glossier, which prefers the ephemeral to the enduring, will extend this preference to their employees. How close are we to robots who monitor lines, speak clearly and pleasantly and function without the requirements of health insurance, rent, food and the regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Agency?

A 2013 paper by Oxford scholars Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne entitled “The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?” wastes no time in informing the reader that fully 47% of “total US employment is at risk.” The low-wage and low-skill jobs that they say will vaporize under the impacts of computerization, and AI, too, undoubtedly, perfectly describe the job of the Glossier showroom editor. The next time Glossier, or any other structure-eschewing business decides to pop-up in San Francisco, their staff may be REALLY diverse.

It’s true that online undertakings which flirt with, monetize and cheapen the 200+ years of history and culture** in the Mission are obnoxious. But I’m anxious about the showroom editors of this world. Five years ago, it would have been hard for me to write that last paragraph: my fear of laboring robots would have seemed like credulous paranoia. Now it’s not only plausible—it’s in play. Why, then, must we be human? How can our simple hands keep pace with the arid efficiency so treasured by the designers of robotic labor?

I’m late to the game. But I had to think this issue through.  I was less upset by the silliness of the pop-up, and more pre-occupied by the showroom editor: her existence in this city, and the entirely human way she subsided into silence and leaned against the wall, after I stopped asking questions, looking weary as she waited for the end of her workday.

 

 

*(hint: you don’t have to spend 16 bucks to tame your brows. Combine a dab of Vaseline & your preferred mascara, or eyeshadow to hold your brows in place. Don’t use shades with a warm undertone- go for a cool taupe brown. Play with the exact amounts, and you’ll get more or less the same results. )

** I’m using the founding of the Mission. Which date am I supposed to use?  You can argue with me if you want. I had to start somewhere.

 

Finished on April 11 at 9:32. It’s never too late to read Rilke’s Duino Elegies, no matter how many Zen workshops & self-help sessions they’ve endured.  Here’s to Jupiter in Scorpio and the deep up-welling of secrets and treasures.

 

Chronicles of Ubo: the Osprey of the Upper Newport Bay

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Looking east from the Shellmound Island Science Center

I went kayaking yesterday with my cousin Elizabeth and her lovely daughter Becca, the youngest Creely. “How’s the bay?” she asked innocently. She was saved from my natural long-windedness by the appearance an osprey, one half of a mated pair, now living and loving in the Upper Newport Bay. The considerate folks at California Department of Fish and Wildlife built a roosting platform for the raptors and their growing family, and the osprey are using it. One fledgling is in the nest.

I first saw the osprey three or four years ago, sitting in the middle of a mud flat. I never saw these birds, these mythic sea eagles, growing up. Now I am. The osprey tells you what you need to know about how the bay is, I think I finally said.

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Looking at the osprey nest from the path.

Seeing them, I explained, means some assumptions can be made. The first assumption you can make when you see ospreys reproducing in the Back Bay, is that the bay is doing better.

You can assume things about the water quality. It’s far better than it used to be,  back in the fifties and sixties when half of the bay was diked off for salt production and the other half was water laced with petrochemicals that leaked from the ostentatious yachts parked around Linda, Harbor and Bay Islands. I remember the rainbow sheen of the water very clearly, as a child. The snazzy motor boats and jet skis that used to race around the bay are now forbidden to do so. Consequently, there is less disturbance, and probably more fish to catch.

You can assume things about the quality of their food supply. The fish they catch and eat don’t have as much DDT bio-accumulated in their oily flesh, and therefore do not compromise the osprey’s reproductive system.

You can assume things about noise. The airplanes that take off from John Wayne airport were forced by the angry people living under the runway to take off at a steep angle so as to gain altitude quickly. This diminished the roar of the airplane. I can all but guarantee that the good people of Santa Ana Heights were not thinking about ospreys, but they managed to do them a good turn anyhow.

Anthropocentric noise ruins avian habitat, plain and simple: the sweet song of the sparrow as it quests for a mate cannot compete with the roar of a chainsaw. I’ve written this sentence, and it’s one of the truest things I know. The high, thin cry of the osprey can’t compete with the huge sound of an airplane. A bird’s habitat exists in this airy atmosphere, and ideally, that aether should be as free as possible of man-made noise.

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Papa Osprey keeping an eye on his fledgling.

You can assume things about predators. Raccoons are going to have a tough time getting up the platform. Other raptors–bald eagles, golden eagles and some owls– prey on eggs, fledglings and sometimes adult ospreys. These predators are not in evidence. Corvids are: they’re a big problem. They love to eat chicks and eggs. I watched the parent osprey chase three ravens away, very efficiently. There’s an explosion of corvids in California. They’re efficient generalists and will eat anything from an egg in a nest to garbage lying on the ground. Corvids get a lot of attention for their mythic qualities. They perch on Odin’s shoulders, muttering news of the nine worlds to him, and turn up in the Táin Bó Cúailnge croaking about death. But in the state of California, they are ubiquitous, and rapacious ,and have lost their mystery.

In the small and special world of the Upper Newport Bay, the lives of the osprey mean everything. They are mythic: an apex predator, they live at the top of their food chain, and as such, increase my understanding of ecology and life, a phenomenon best understood in the aggregate, not the singular. (That’s an idea that belongs to theocrats.) My understanding becomes both tightly concentrated and widely diffused when I see ospreys. I don’t just see them: I see all the systems under, adjacent and above. I see the web.

A last word on assumptions. Many things are knowable, like this fact: the Upper Newport Bay was saved because of action by individuals, institutions and flat-out governmental fiat. In the late sixties and early seventies, hard-working citizen activists and scientists saved the Upper Newport Bay, which was left undeveloped. Since then, some ecological balance has been restored because of the intervention of Fish and Wildlife, and the EPA. When I was a seven-year old, the EPA banned DDT in 1972, clearing the way for raptors like the osprey to begin their comeback, which was helped along by the passage of the Endangered Species Act. All of this protection transformed the bay into a refuge. 

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The fledgling tests its wings.

I kayak every chance I get. As I do, I think about the bay ecology that supports the ospreys and the fact that this tiny little circle of life is situated in an old river delta, the bit where the end of the river meets the beginnings of the sea. This river, an antecedent river of the Santa Ana river, rose and ran west during the last glacial period of the Pleistocene, a rainy, fluvial/pluvial epoch that made Orange County look more like the Pacific Northwest (think big wet trees). It made a gap in the Santa Ana mountain range, ran over the Tustin Plain and emptied into the Upper Newport Bay.

When I paddle my kayak upstream into the wildlife refuge, I move backward in time, into a space made by that old, old river. Somewhere below the muddy bottom of the bay is a still older passage.  It’s the world beneath ours, the one you see in a puddle on a stormy day, when the small, silvery pool of wet dissolves into pure transparency and you are invited to jump in and through. (I saw these puddle worlds often when I was a kid.)

I would jump, if I could. I assume things are better there; no revanchist government; no theocrats, no supremacist, belligerent patriarchs with their handmaids. I don’t know this. I shouldn’t assume. It’s not wise. Ask the questions–Is the bay better? Will it continue to gain in health? Will the ospreys stay put? Will the fledgling fly?–stay put and remember to consider the osprey in its hybrid habitat made by ancient rivers and human intervention.

It’s at rest in its world, the one next to ours.

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This is Mama Osprey who landed carrying a silver mullet in her talons, which she proceeded to eat there, on the marsh plain. Wish I had a better camera.

The Witch sees the Tail of Newt and knows that it is Spring.

Yesterday was the first day of spring, and after a cold hard winter, I welcomed it. The wildflowers of California are out-performing themselves in terms of bloom. Pictures from California’s 58 counties show streaks of pure poppy orange coloring the hills and plains, and mountain meadows, punctuated by purple, pink, blue, white, and red. Every color and every flower I’ve ever seen is punching its way to the surface, encouraged by the water that’s been pouring from the sky and the heat of the sun. It works, this relationship between sun, seed and rain. It’s amazing to see a system do the work, like clockwork, of seasonal production.

I went hiking with my best friend Elyse in Tennessee Valley, one of the many glens—I counted at least 51 on a map between the Marin Headlands and Point Reyes station—that run from the ridges of the Marin hills down to the sea. These long narrow spaces usually have water running through them that forms a lagoon which drains into a pocket beach.  You could almost describe this system in a pictograph.

As you can see, dear reader, I did exactly that and while it wouldn’t be the simplest pictograph to hammer into a rock, it gets the job done of describing what a person could reasonably expect to find in terms of landforms at the bottom of the ridge line of a coastal range. My pictogram has the added benefit of some totally accidental symbolism: the lines depicting the creek, the lagoon and the lagoon’s outlet to the ocean look like a snake. Which you could reasonably expect to find in a natural system like this.

Of course, reasonable expectations get thwarted all the time. The natural system of a glen/creek/lagoon/ocean outlet are often waylaid by the non-natural system of urban development. People just love building houses in beautiful natural spaces, and Marin for all its love of environmental 501 © 3’s is no different. The hills above Muir Beach are thick with expensively designed homes, modest and sleek, all of which depend on urban systems, like sewers and power lines, to house their owners in comfort.

The lagoon that drains into Muir Beach is but one part of the Redwood Creek Watershed. The total system is composed of the creek, the wetland, the lagoon and the tidal dunes, and ultimately, the ocean. It’s all one piece and as such responds to disruption and connection systemically, which is to say that if the water is stymied in its flow, there will be floods, fish will be blocked from building their redds and depositing their cache of eggs, and native plants and animals will lose habitat. If the water has the room it needs, it will run over and through undeveloped land, and create a floodplain, which gives the water that space it needs to spread and meander.

That’s what water does. It also creates topography, which is great for animals that need water to reproduce but also dry land from time to time. The water has the added responsibility of disseminating and germinating native seeds which—at this location anyway—don’t have to compete with invasives for the land and the water they need to grow.

This refreshing lack of competition comes courtesy of some volunteer, or volunteers, more likely, who worked tirelessly to clear it of nasty things like Himlayan blackberry and its whip-like canes, which will take over an area in no time at all. Land management is a critical element in habitat restoration.

Thus it was that a ceanothus bush greeted me and my friend Elyse as we descended from the trail. It might have been planted, but it’s more likely that the seed bed in the soil yielded it up naturally and it survived because of the management practices described above.

“A ceanothus!” I yelled when I saw it. I see them in the city all the time. There’s one blooming right now just down the street from me, a ceanothus foliosus, from the looks of it. But I never see them in the wild. I was so was excited to see it because of where I was seeing it. It was a Ceanothus thyrsiflorus, a thrilling name for its Dionysian connotations. It made me momentarily ecstatic, anyway. My friend, Elyse also recognized it, but had to wait for my rapture to die down in order to tell me that.

“I know this plant because someone called it a see-you-know-us,” she informed me. We laughed at her silly friend.
“You never see this plant here. But this is exactly where you should expect to see it,” I said, proving that it takes more than a rainy two-mile walk uphill to knock value judgements out of me.

We walked across the small bridge that spans Redwood Creek and its floodplain. I heard the croaking of frogs almost immediately. The interpretive signs advised me that these were probably, hopefully, the endangered California Red Legged frog (Rana draytonii)which, again, you would —should—expect to hear in this location, because of this creek, this lagoon and the wetland. Where else would frogs be?

Almost immediately, I saw something large moving through the bushes in the wetland, something big enough for its silvery grey-brown fur to be visible above the low-lying shrubbery. There were some other hikers on the other side of the bridge looking at the animal intently. I walked across the bridge with the chorus of frogs croaking away, and asked one of the hikers what he was looking at.

“A coyote,” he replied. The coyote, as if on cue, stepped out of the scrub and into a small clearing. It was a big one, probably a young adult, with a thick bushy tail and the narrow muzzle that coyotes have.

What you could reasonably expect to see and hear was exactly what we saw and heard all within twenty minutes: a ceanothus, one of the most common plants of coastal scrub, a red-legged frog once incredibly populous and now federally listed as an endangered species and a coyote. I reacted to all these with delight, but surprise.

I say “but surprise” to acknowledge how bereft California’s natural history is of the “history” part. The frog, the coyote and the ceanothus bush were common elements in places like Tennessee Valley before 1849. The frog’s habitat contracted and worse, people developed a taste for its legs.

I don’t have the evolutionary history of any of these animals or plants to hand, but it’s safe to assume thousands of years of habitation in the bay area. The bay itself is 9,000 years old and its baylands developed about 3,000 to 2,000 years ago. It took less than 200 years to make the bush, the frog and the coyote strangers in their own land and novelties for hikers like me to encounter. It’s taken about seven years for the staff and scientists of the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to put the pieces of the Redwood creek ecology back together. And guess what? It’s working. The moral of the story…well, there’s more than one, but one of them is this: restoration works and it can be a mighty work.

We left the lagoon and walked a trail that edged the cliffs and then dropped down into another glen. And that was the final surprise, final proof of a ancient system working to produce life. I started seeing newts, many newts, all with knobbly skin and bright orange undersides. They scrambled off the path at our approach, away from the peril of our heavy feet. I squealed. I’ve only ever seen newts (a type of salamander) once on a hike. And that was a long time ago (and I wasn’t walking. I was swimming) Again, the question danced in my head. What do you expect to see? I took a picture of the first few little beasts I saw, assuming I wouldn’t see any more, and then continued to see them at such a rate that I knew I would find at least one dead. (I did.)

By the time we walked out of Tennessee Valley, I’d seen at least 40 salamanders. They were endearing, the way they moved: they threw their short stumpy limbs up and out, as they left the path and clambered into the damp underbrush. The salamanders with their glistening, toxic skin seemed inseparable from the environment that they started life in. It was as if the water flowing in Redwood creek had changed into thousands of watery little gods, running like rivulets down the muddy path.

I was surprised by my surprise the entire time I was walking by the things that were there. After all, the “there” that I’m thinking of is made of them. The animals and plants of Tennessee Valley, as they blink in and out of existence, and as scientists and land managers struggle to rebuild ecologies from scratch in order to give amphibians like the Rough-skinned and California newt a home, are the valley as much as the crumpled chert formations that give it form or the water that flows through it.

I do want to be surprised, though. I don’t want to tour natural spaces with animals and birds and insects and all the rest appearing at punctual intervals to assure me I’m outside.

I want to continue to be surprised by everything I see everytime I venture out: the uncontained, the rebounded, the natural, the wild.

Written in the muddy muddy month o’ March, the greenest month we have. These newts are out now and about….

This little guy made right for me and walked steadily between my feet….

They are so dear. And they don’t have much space. So if you go walking the Marin Hills, step lightly and look out for them. 

San Francisco,March 21st, 2017

Riding with Mary.

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Mary above the Puerto Alegre restaurant at 25th and Bryant

I went riding with Mary today, on my bike, through the neighborhood and hailed her every time I saw her. She’s a constant in the neighborhood, a genius loci, who’s been up in everyone’s business in the Mission —the Ancient Hibernians, the Latinx, —for a long time. (sometimes I think people think the Mission has only ever been either Irish or Mexican.) During my marathon Irish Walking Tour someone asked me what had changed in the mission …really? They posed this question to me sotto voce. I don’t know why: were they hoping for secret knowledge? I said It’s not that the Mission used be Irish…it’s that this place used to be about family. Multi-generations in one house. That’s what the Mission used to be.

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The Virgin of Guadalupe above El Farolitos on 24th Street

(The Mission was always a place to party. During prohibition, the Mission had speakeasies called “blind pigs”. The Quinn family who hailed from Cork, lived above a blind pig on the corner of 24th and Alabama. A shot of moonshine went for about 25 cents, according to Frank Quinn. Wonder what the operators of the gambling den/brothel in Lilac Alley charge? )

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Mary at the south end of Balmy Alley

I had this slightly surreptitious conversation while standing in front of an image of the Mary of La Reyna Panaderia on 24th street. Mary is one thing that hasn’t changed. She’s always been here and people have always worshipped her and loved her I told this person, who really needed to know that things are not so simple. People have been talking to Mary in Irish, in Italian, maybe in German, obviously in Spanish, obviously in English, for a long-ass time. Right? There’s a good reason that sightings of her are so common. All the prayers, all the fervent petitions to her, all of the apologies that stern Irish priests in the olden days of the Mission made you go down on your knees to say (I’m not catholic, so I don’t know how this goes, exactly.): all of this has left an imprint on the neighborhood.

St. Peter’s was founded in 1867, which means people in this “Peterite village” (so-called by Rev. Nicholas Farana, assistant pastor at St. Peters) have been talking with Mary for nearly a century and a half.

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Lourdes Mary and Mary with a fabulous Crown, also in Balmy Alley.

Sé do bheath’ a Mhuire, atá lán de ghrásta. Tá an Tiarna leat. Is beannaithe thú idir mná

(Oh, speaking of sightings. We had an actual, un-official Marian visitation in July, 1996. I was living on Precita Avenue, which is down the street and around the corner from the Chapel of Immaculate Conception. This chapel—which is gorgeously adorned with mounds of glazed terra cotta fruits, flowers and cherubs with round cheeks, blank eyes, and mouths frozen in a perfect “o”— has had a couple of mystical things happen: the current priest is an exorcist, an altar boy began excreting oil of rose through his pores and may have been in the early stages of developing stigmata. Also: Jesus was caught smoking a cigarette in the bathroom. Mary made an appearance on the brass roof of the chapel and the devout answered this unexpected visit by appearing in the hundreds each night for a week, holding candles, clicking beads, murmuring prayers and staring at the intersected scratches on the brass panel that became a hooded figure with a drooping head the longer you looked. The panel glowed softly but distinctly. I saw this with my own eyes.)

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Our Lady of La Reyna Bakery and coffee shop on 24th street, between Folsom and Shotwell.

Hail, Mary. If there wasn’t so much talk between her and the people who lived here, she wouldn’t hang out. There are at least 13 different images of her in the neighborhood, with different expressions: patient, bland, stern, muy doloroso, kind of annoyed, kind of bitchy with raised eyebrows. I know better than you she seems to say, like an uptight church lady, and I’m like well, yeah, you’re the mother of Jesus, so you better! She bridges cultures, she leap-frogs over history. She’s everywhere: in back alleys, in store windows, on bright yellow awnings. All the Marys: the Lourdes Mary, the Medjugorje Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe Mary.

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This is a Mary who got invited to Chata Gutierrez’s going-away-party mural on 24th street. She’s so serene.

 

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This is a stealth Mary, who is hard to see. She is painted on the side of 899 Capp street, which is diagonal to accommodate the Southern Pacific’s San Jose Railroad, which used to run through the Mission.

Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women.

Prompted by my friend, I muttered these words to her in Balmy Alley on the night of Dia de los Muertos. My sister was having a health care crisis, and I was like a child in the face of my fear. Mary was all over the place that night, not just in paintings, but in the faces of people and their shining eyes. The procession was quiet this year: everyone was holding their breath a bit because of the election, and there was something else going on, too, some other event that had drawn people away. The mood of the crowd felt more settled, more calm, as if the celestial blue of Mary’s mantle had settled on us all.

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I think this Mary of Lilac Alley. She’s pretty close to the blind pig.

(one note, written 2 days later: six of these Marys are versions of Our Lady of Guadalupe, or “Reina de Ambas Americas”, or, Queen of both Americas. The popularity of this version of Mary speaks to that time when the Mission transitioned: older immigrant groups, the Irish, mostly, headed into the hills of Noe Valley, Glen Park and the western parts of the city, as “large scale immigration” from Central and South American increased. There was conflict in the parish. The old Irish Peterites were unhappy with the changes sweeping through their little sráidbhaile and the immigrants from Mexico, Salvador and Nicaragua contended with each other. Father Leopold Uglesic, pastor at St. Peters in the fifties, and survivor of fascist violence in Eastern Europe, worked with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in an effort to unify the parish.*

 

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Mary, holding her own in a shop window on Mission Street.

Ave María, llena de gracia, el Señor es contigo, bendita tú entre las mujeres

I took these pictures today because I think when you start noticing things—like the prevalence of Marian iconography in your neighborhood, or horrible things, like white nationalists holding meetings in Washington D.C., throwing the fascist salute—ya oughta notice that you’re noticing, and talk about it a little, in the middle of your fascination. Or your panic.

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This is a fierce pagan Mary in Balmy Alley.

I’m not Catholic. I don’t intend to be Catholic, either. But I’m noticing Mary because I’m noticing my neighborhood, toda la gente, the laborers, los trabajadores, the Fenians, the Sandinistas, both of whom ran military drills in the Mission, both of whom perfected the art of resistance in the Mission, before returning to Ireland or Nicaragua to kick out oligarchs and pinche shitheads.

I rode with Mary today, in my neighborhood, because I love my neighborhood and people love her and because she knows all these the families, the Quinns, the Gutierrezes. She’s something that hasn’t changed.

I addressed her the way she’s used to, with desperation which can be equally composed of hope and fear and probably said over and over again something like Hail Mary, full of grace. Lady, hear us in the hour of our need. Her face looked at me from the center of her labial corona, her hands folded together patiently or spread apart in entreaty.

Come to me, talk to me. I’ve heard it all. I want to know what’s happening. Lay it at my feet. I’ve seen you before.

Talk to me.

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I am including this, because it feels like a Mary. All that beautiful blue, plus the cherubs. This is at 24th and Mission, right next to the intersection of 24th and Lilac Alley.

*When I write about the Irish, or St. Peters, I depend upon Jeffrey M. Burns’s excellent essay entitled “St. Peter’s Parish in San Francisco: The rise and eclipse of an Irish Parish, 1913-1965” which is included in the anthology “The Irish in the San Francisco Bay Area: Essays On Good Fortune”, published by the Irish Literary and Historical Society.

 

Written from the 22nd street Crossroads on a dim November day, the 22nd to be exact, in the year 2016, during the last quarter of the old moon. Everything is cuspy: planets, people’s understanding of the political system and their place in it, my heart.
In eight days, a new moon comes. Prepare your work.

Meeting the Empress, part 3: Return to Manzanita Mountain

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Arctostaphylos, common name Manzanita, is a shrub (or a small tree—more on that in a moment) with at least sixty known species, several sub-species and an ability to crossbreed in the wild, which produces still more subspecies. Manzanita means “little apples” when translated into Spanish. It’s a euphonious and affectionate word. I invite you: take a moment and sing out the quartet of syllables. You will find that the third syllable naturally stretches out into an operatic warble. If you are in a place with excellent acoustics, the EEeeeee vocable will be snatched up eagerly by the ether and will float away, blending into all the other sounds of this earth.

Last week, I sang the name of the manzanita species I found four years ago on the grounds of the Four Springs Retreat Center, outside of Middletown. Here is some science that will ground this ethereal essay in stolid Saturnine science: the name of the manzanita of Four Springs is Arctostaphylos manzanita, ssp. konocti, named for the nearby volcano. It grows in “closed pygmy forests” in the mountain ranges above Napa and Lake Counties according to the Forest Service. Lacking the conclusive agreement of a field biologist, I believe it does just this on the Lindquist ridge, which is the south-east-facing ridge that encircles the retreat grounds. This USGS topographical map details the area. I gotta say: All hail the USGS and their indefatigable surveyors and map makers! This is the great thing about the witchy gaze: with the right tools to hand— memory, personal mythos, gut understanding and science-based information— all modes of knowledge may be reconciled.

The pygmy manzanita forest of Four Springs begins on a trail which leads to the top of Lindquist Ridge, which is about 1,500 feet above sea level. It’s one of the lower ridges of all the volcanically constructed ridgelines of the Mayacamas, but a beautiful one with a view to the southwest. It’s hard to tell how old the trees are. One of the manzanitas had a 29-inch diameter trunk, which indicates age. The retreat was founded in 1955. So maybe the trees are sixty years old? Or maybe some of the trees have lived a solid century.

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Measured in urban development years, a century-old manzanita, whatever the species, is a very old and very venerable plant indeed. Many manzanitas have gone missing in the last 100 years, as development has increased. Lester Rowntree, a female botanist who disguised her gender to assure the publication of her field work, lamented the almost certain fate of A. franciscana, the sole native manzanita of San Francisco which used to grow plentifully among the San Miguel range in the middle of San Francisco. “Almost in the heart of San Francisco grows another creeping Arctostaphylos,” she noted in her 1938 book Flowering Shrubs of California. A rare serpentine endemic, A. franciscana grew on Mount Davidson and in the Laurel Hill cemetery, the site she chose to document its existence, which at that point was tenuous.

“The manzanita has been there longer than the buildings and longer probably than the oldest graves. None of it grows on the graves (which are unmarked, neglected, and usually encircled by rickety old wooden palings) though nothing,” she averred, “could be more suitable and enduring.” She knew she was looking at one individual plant where there had been many. The old cemetery had been slated for destruction. The human bodies were disinterred and shipped to Colma and the bodies of the plants had been scraped from their rocky beds and tossed, probably, on a pile of brush. Rowntree said of the ghost plant that “…the manzanita and the dead belong to another era…Now it is being regarded impatiently by the folk to whom any land is just so many building lots. If they can, they will eradicate it as a cemetery and that will be the last of an old San Francisco record and certainly the last of Arctostaphylos franciscana.”

This story has a happy ending. A lone A. franciscana was re-discovered marooned on a median strip on Doyle Drive during a construction project in 2010. It was subsequently listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and moved to the Presidio. It’s a great story, the finding and rescuing of this plant, and one that I think demonstrates the tenacity of the native plant seedbank in San Francisco. (It also demonstrates the willingness of the Republican party to spiral into a pearl-clutching tizzy at the slightest provocation—always so gratifying to watch, I feel.) I urge you, gentle reader, to watch this video and discover the true story of A. franciscana.

Within the precincts of Four Springs, there has been no development, other than the construction of the small wooden cabins that dot the meadow and ravine. Enormous trees ring the retreat buildings, which made the grounds “indefensible” in the opinion of Cal Fire, but very defended indeed for the manzanita groves, the madrones, oaks, conifers and probably many more trees I took no notice of. I imagine that in the early spring, the grounds and ridgeline are probably incredibly fragrant, with that beautiful warm, leathery-lemony smell of coastal range chaparral and maybe the smell of the fruit of the manzanita. I once walked among patches of Greenleaf manzanita (A. patula), a species Rowntree would include in the “the low-growing” manzanita of California. I noticed it swarming over the granite, but had not associated the plant with the ripe odor of berries that seemed to be everywhere. After absently mindedly sniffing the rich smell of fruit—raspberry? Strawberry? Someone’s highly scented lip-gloss? —I finally asked my friend Cypress what it was. “You’re smelling manzanita berries,’ she replied.

Manzanita is a tree of fire, especially as it occurs in Lake County. A. konocti is growing in the pulverized igneous rock of Lake County, rocks that were formed in the Great Magma Chamber of the Clear Lake Volcanic Region and spat out during the eruptions that ended 200,000 years ago. The fires of the earth, made manifest in these rocks, became friable under the softening influence of water and air. The formerly inhospitable became positively welcoming under the influence of the sibling elements, becoming soil first and later a whole environment, in which many hundreds of plants species, including manzanita, rooted themselves and began to grow, synchronistically and symphonically (the sonic quality of the trees under the influence of wind waving and moving all the branches is absolutely mesmerizing.)

It is because of California’s fiery belly that an environment for manzanitas exists and the design and look of the manzanita seem to acknowledge this infernal DNA. Manzanitas are famous for their ruddy suppleness. Their burgundy-red branches wave away from the truck in formations that look like flames emanating from a fire. Manzanita treasures its beauty and ensures that no one can take advantage of it by means of losing its vivid color and smooth skin when the plant dies. The red branches roughen and turn as grey as fire ash. Acquisitive hoarders looking to collect beautiful objects from nature must look elsewhere for their trophies. “People used to cut manzanitas down to make furniture,” my dad told me on one of our walks in the Santa Ana mountains, probably in response to my own covetous response to the plant (I would have been about seven or eight when we had this conversation.) “But they learned the hard way that it wasn’t suitable.” I looked at manzanitas ever after, knowing that to maintain their beauty, they must be left alone. It’s interesting how the mundane gets transformed into the magical. I glanced at a plant once as a child and my father’s words made it into something visible but unobtainable, untouchable.

Fire destroys most manzanitas. (Those with burls can re-sprout, but most manzanitas don’t have burls.) But fire breaks seed dormancy, and allows the native seedbanks, California’s landscape-in-waiting, often buried under invasives, to re-establish plant communities. Fire may make seventy-five year old manzanitas rare for a year or so, but ideally, the grove will reemerge as seedlings after a fire, often in greater numbers than before. But this re-growth depends on time. The interval between fires must be long enough for the seedlings to grow. Californian’s who care about the native landscape will often nod their heads knowingly when fire is mentioned and talk about fire’s role in creating the conditions necessary for the California’s floristic province to thrive in. But for that to happen and for the old-growth manzanita groves to thrive, fire must be, if not exactly rare, certainly not everyday, (or every week, or every month.) The question facing us might not be can we contain fire, but more can we manage time?

Because time, that scarce resource, is what the manzanita (and the oak, and the madrone and all other plants of coastal and montane chaparral) needs the most. The manzanitas of the Four Springs Retreat Center are old-growth manzanitas. And we should term them as such; give them this distinctive endowment, this charismatic identity. The ongoing destruction of California’s chaparral—of which manzanita is a indicator species—is further justified by characterizing California’s chaparral as fire-prone and dangerous to urban development, an inversion of logic painful to hear and depends, in part, on the dismissive words “brush” or “scrub”, used to describe this endangered landscape. California used to be covered in a lot of old-growth chaparral, a term usually reserved for the big trees of the North Coast and the interior. It surprises people to hear the term “old-growth” applied to a system described, rather brusquely as “brush”. Even those parts of California where chaparral is protected, such as the Cleveland National Forest in San Diego county, the inaccurate term “forest” is used to describe a landscape that is dominated by old-growth chaparral. That probably isn’t semantic laziness: just try getting the public to fund the conservation of a bush or a shrub. I have never seen a bush beloved as a tree.

We all have some catching up to do—Californians and their understanding of how fire creates and destroys the landscapes of our state, and what plants we prize as memorable, charismatic and worth conserving. And especially the trees and shrubs that were undoubtedly lost in the great triad of Lake County fires: the Jerusalem, Rocky and Valley fires, all likely to make repeat appearances in the years to come. The seeds of future Great Manzanita Forests lie in the ancient fiery soil of Lake and Napa county, having been released from their stiff jackets by fire. Now they are waiting for the rains to come and, once wetted, will try to catch up to the venerable elders lining the ridges of Four Springs.

With love to the California Chaparral Institute. They deserve your funding. Written while Mars works with Uranus and dedicated with love to journeying Fools everywhere.

Step quick, step light.

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Elizabeth C. Creely in an old-growth manzanita grove at the Four Springs Retreat center in Middletown, CA.

Crisis at the laundromat

A Clean Slate

It’s Monday, December 15th, and it rained hard all morning. The clouds cleared at about two. I went to the laundromat to wash my clothes, walked in, and saw a crowd of people standing in the smallish space. My heart sank. Nobody loves a crowded laundromat, especially not when you have a week’s worth of washing to do. A man sat slumped on the metal folding table. Earlier, he’d walked past me on 22nd Street and greeted me with a low hello. Now he was munching a bag of Fritos and watching man pile clothes into a large front-loading washing machine.

I eyed the top-loading machines, the one I like to use because you get a 30-minute wash. The man who was piling his clothes into the washing machine stopped me. I don’t know if you want to use those, he told me, because the display wasn’t on. I think it’ll eat your quarters. This is how you know who your neighbors really are, as opposed to those taking up space in the neighborhood: do they care about your quarters?

Thanks, I replied. Shit. The Frito-eating man said, You could use those other machines, indicating the row of top-loading machines against the northwest wall. But I don’t like them. They’re 3 bucks a wash and you only get fifteen minutes of a half-hearted swishing. I have sensitive skin. I need all the soap to be washed away. Eh, I said. Those machines are sketchy.

Another woman walked in with a bag of clothes on her back, looking determined.

The clothes washing guy said to me don’t try to use the soap dispensing machine either. It’s broken. I had detergent, so it didn’t matter. But this laundromat, which always has something wrong with it, suddenly seemed unusable. Three washing machines down. A broken soap dispensing machine. An older man, wearing a beret at a rakish angle turned around and said the dispensing machine is broken ? in tones of dismay and disbelief.

I have to leave, I thought. There are too many people in here, and too many mechanical failures to accommodate us all. Before last week, I might have staggered with my heavy laundry load to 23rd and Bryant street to the spacious Super Lavar laundromat. But it was gone. A new restaurant was opening in what is now an empty space under construction. The commons are shrinking, I thought, with a surge of irritation. The enclosures are being built.

SAM_3800I saw the new red awning while walking down Bryant Street with my husband a week before. We stopped and scoffed at the name of the restaurant: “Buttermilk Southern Kitchen”. We stood there for awhile, feeling dismayed that the laundromat had closed. We use A Clean Slate, the overcrowded, mechanically challenged laundromat at 22nd and Alabama, because it’s close to our house, but in a pinch we knew we had the option of walking two blocks to do our laundry. Not any more, said my husband grimly, as we stood on the corner. Now there’s just another expensive restaurant.

Laundromats are basically external domestic spaces for urban dwellers. I grew up in suburbia, and had to adjust to them. Even after 23 years of living in San Francisco, laundromats still seem like a major pain in the ass, and indeed, A Clean Slate is a major pain in the ass. I have had to call the number tacked up next to the change machine several times. Your dryer has eaten my money! I’ve barked. Your washing machine just stopped in the middle of the cycle! I want my money back, I’ve said curtly, acting the part of the entitled consumer whose panic over losing four quarters belies that facade.

Laundromats always meant to me that I had a place to live but with some contingencies: in my case, no washer and no dryer and a weekly walk down the street to the closest laundromat. What is the closest laundromat isn’t down the street? What if the closest laundromat is several blocks away?

And what is the meaning of Buttermilk Southern Kitchen, a restaurant whose owner has described it as not expensive? (Most dishes will average 15 dollars, which is, in my opinion, fucking expensive, especially when you’re talking about a cuisine heavily dependent on green leafy vegetables, legumes and corn. Do you know how much cornbread is per serving? About four cents. Hopping John? Two bucks.) This: the domestic spaces of the Mission are changing to accommodate a work force which is highly paid and rarely at home. The restaurant is perhaps, the most relevant external domestic space right now. Whipping up a meal of oven-roasted sweet potatoes finished in sage-garlic butter and walnuts and served with farfalle is, I guess, out of the question. This is what I’m cooking now, as I write this. The traditional coming-home time of 6 or 7 doesn’t exist any longer, so instead of making a dish like this, most people are trooping off to the nearest restaurant, and paying 18 staggering dollars for it. The contingency of not having access to a kitchen with which to cook because of insane work hours seems far worse to me than the contingency of an apartment with no washer and dryer. But not having a laundromat would really suck.

Anyway. I just went back to A Clean Slate and started my laundry. The man who was eating the Fritos was asleep on the floor, his face soft and childlike in repose. When I went back to throw my stuff in the dryer, I brought him some of my farfalle/sweet potato/sage-in-brown-butter sauce with a sausage added to it.

He thanked me and said yeah, I saw you leave earlier.
I was annoyed, I told him. There was too much going on!

Laundromats are a pain in the ass, but they have this going for them: the comfort of domestic labor, and evidence of family relationships, hearth and home. I see children’s clothing being washed by adults and watch as mothers chase their scrambling, squirmy children around, barking at them to watch their sister— ver su hermana! Get down off the washing machine! Everyone is working together, however unknowingly, as we bend to the demands of the material world and the traces it leaves on our clothing, food, shit, baby puke and stubborn ink stains. There is nothing seamless, nothing not real, as we wash together, dry together, fold together, moving in the unconscious rhythm of the body at work in an atmosphere rich in the polyglot language of Mission laundromats.

Once, the gentleman who ran Super Lavar gave me a small scented candle at Christmastime. Para ti, he said. Gracias, I said. Yep. I don’t think I’d get anything for free at Buttermilk Southern Kitchen.

Super Lavar, by Sarah Newton http://www.sarahmnewton.com/

Super Lavar, by Sarah Newton. Go to  http://www.sarahmnewton.com to see more of her work.

This is a good recipe for a squash/pasta/sage dish. Make it some night. Feed yourself.

Displacement strikes like a man-eating shark.

shark

This morning, at 10:30 am, I saw four busy people congregating on my corner. The first, a tall thin woman dressed in casual-corporate garb, scurried around to each of the four cardinal points of the 22nd/Florida crossroads with her camera, taking pictures of 992 Florida street, a six-unit apartment building that houses hipsters, immigrant families and long-time Missionites. She walked off. Three men, dressed in banker’s drag, ambled up the street behind her and stopped below my window. They were mid-conversation, but it was clear that the subject of discussion was my little corner of the world: The East Mission, or as Jay and I privately call it, the Ea-Mi. (Everyone else makes up stupid names for old neighborhoods. So we did, too.)

I heard one of the men say to the other two, “San Francisco is the one place where you can get away with doing what you do- selling apartments without…” before a noisy Honda drowned out his words. They talked some more but the street noise prevented me from hearing what they said. The men walked off. My heart beat fast. I sat down to digest what I’d seen, and what I’d heard. Pictures being taken. Casual conversations on street corners. The neighborhood reviewed, assessed.

And as I sat thinking, another guy wearing a white shirt and a blue tie walked into the middle of the crossroads and raised his phone. Snap. Snap. Snap. Snap. You could hear the soft warble of the tiny camera capturing 992 Florida Street and swallowing it whole.

I’d had enough. “Excuse me,” I called to him in a hoarse voice. (My voice is barely audible because I’ve been ill.) “Excuse me!” The man looked startled, but, upon seeing me, pocketed his camera and walked over to my window.

“Why are people taking pictures of this neighborhood?” I asked him in a nice voice. He looked like he was preparing to dissemble.

“Oh, well…we’re doing an inspection of the neighborhood,” he said.

“An inspection? Who are you with?”

“The Bank of Guam. We’re looking at buildings.” He clearly wanted to leave.

“Are you looking at that building?” I pointed to 992 Florida.

“Uh, yeah. Yep.” His face was much younger than mine, but his stance and expression were solidly middle aged.

I looked at the 6-unit apartment building, my neighborhood nemesis. Its inhabitants have kept me awake for more nights than I care to remember. I’ve called the police on Sophie, the tenant who lives in unit 992, at least six times to bust up her MDMA-fueled late night raves. I’ve yelled at Manny the affable house painter, who loves to blast the stereo in his truck to shut the fuck up, man, it’s 11 o’clock at night, some of us are trying to sleep, where the hell is your sense, etc…

(…sometimes, early in the morning, the tenant in the lower unit will open the window, particularly if it’s a sunny day, and play dreamy love songs in Spanish. She wakes me up. I feel cranky. Then I look at her, bustling busily around apartment with her capable arms and know it’s time I was awake.

…..another time, late at night: the same woman opened her window to a young man on the sidewalk who was pleading his case. “Te amo,” he said in a stage whisper over and over again. She laughed and told him to go home.)

I’m pretty sure that the ex-gang member who used to live in on the second floor threw a firecracker through my window on the 4th of July because I asked him to stop blasting music for hours on end from his bedroom. (I was born here, he told me.)

I looked back at the nervous guy below my window, a mere foot soldier in the campaign to dislodge the Mission of its long term residents. “Thanks,” I said flatly. He walked off.

So he was taking pictures for the Bank of Guam. Really? Is that tiny country really looking for profit in the streets of the Mission?

I called the Bank of Guam at their office on Montgomery Street. The nice lady told me they weren’t looking for residential properties to purchase in San Francisco, only commercial properties.

I’d been lied to. The foot soldier had dissembled: made some rapid calculations (how much should she know?) and done some fast talking, which would make sense, since real estate speculators in contested areas like the Mission must develop a keen sense of how to obscure, disguise, confusticate and deny. To lie- at first. Later on, there’s no need to lie.

Be careful what you wish for is the moral of this story. I have wished, fervently for quiet. And this is okay: there’s nothing wrong with needing sharp distinction between the noise of the day and the lovely hush of the night, even and especially in a big city. As San Francisco strains towards density, living arrangements between its projected 969,000 inhabitants will have to undergo a series of re-negotiations; between motorists and pedestrians, between locals and newcomers, light and dark, noise and silence.

But the people who have lived in these spacious multi-unit apartments for many years- for entire lifetimes and many generations- need protection. And the machinations of real estate speculators must be exposed to the bright light of scrutiny.

Today, I glared at the foot soldier. In the larger scheme of things, this is a meaningless action, free of consequence for him (it was nice to see him so visibly nervous) but, conjoined with my still-in-the future-action of contacting Eviction Free San Francisco, my momentary intervention into the speculator’s seamless act of swallowing whole neighborhoods may prove to be challenging (to them).

I feel good about stopping his smooth shark-like movements on the streets of my neighborhood and asking him a basic question: what are you doing? And why?

The above image is my re-working of a metaphor-rich WPA poster I found in the Library of Congress archives earlier this week: Displacement strikes like a man-eating shark led by its pilot fish the common speculator.

And as for my frequently expressed umbrage regarding the occupants of 992 Florida Street? I’ll let Sondheim have the last word:

Careful the wish you make/Wishes are children
Careful the path they take/Wishes come true, not free

Careful the spell you cast/Not just on children
Sometimes a spell may last/Past what you can see
And turn against you

Careful the tale you tell….
That is the spell

See any pilot fish in your neighborhood? Contact your local housing activist.

 

Notes from the field: The seedbank of Mount Sutro.

My essay “The seedbank of Mount Sutro” has been published: it appears in The Fourth River, a journal of “nature and place-based writing” according to Chatham University, which publishes the journal. This was my first serious attempt to work with the biologists and their findings to describe and explain the bizarrely fraught conflict between California’s native plant advocates and those who prefer non-native plants. The piece straddles two genres. It’s both a traditional feature article with an interview as a framing device and an attempt, which is the true spirit of essays, I think, to understand and explore the murk of public sentiment as it relates (or chooses not to) to ecological restoration in California. And trees. Eucalyptus trees, specifically.

I like eucalyptus. I’ve been looking at them my whole life, first from a car window speeding down the 405 freeway in Southern California. There, standing in straight lines on the flood plains that sweep down from the Santa Ana mountains, stood eucalyptus trees, frozen in their role as wind breaks for the now-vanished farms of Irvine. My father told me of the folly of the men who imported the eucalyptus. “They brought ‘em here for wood,” he said. “They didn’t know the wood was no good!” He laughed openly at the idiots who spent lots of money making this mistake.

The lesson was clear: know what you’re getting yourself into. The guys who brought these trees here didn’t.

But California are generous and so they decided to love the newcomer trees and also, there’s an idea that …well. How do I say this delicately? Eucalyptus trees were and are considered more attractive than California’s native plants, which are apparently ugly. Take a look at some of the public comments on UCSF’s draft Environmental Impact Report which was intended to describe the university’s long-term management plan of Mount Sutro. They demonstrate a surprising negativity reactions to form, not ecological function, of California’s native plant life. One opponent warned UCSF that those who favored restoration didn’t know what they were getting into.[1] “They do not realize,” the writer intones, “that this city looked like the Marin headlands,” before the eucalyptus were planted.

“Ugly” is a word that occurs four times in the public comments, always with reference to native vegetation. “Barren” is another favored adjective. “Virtually bare” is still another pejorative description of California in her native state. “Please don’t tear it down for scrub and grasses…” pleads yet another commenter [2] (“scrub” and “grasses” being synonymous, one may assume, with the words “barren” and “ugly”.) In a state that prizes beauty, persons, trees and shrubs alike are ranked according to looks.  The cries, lamentations and warnings of the anonymous commentators to stay away from California’s ugly plants should not be underestimated. Beauty has brought mighty men trembling at her feet; she can do the same thing to entire swatches of California’s last-remaining native grasslands and coastal shrub communities as well. Last fall, UCSF abandoned their plan to restore less than eight acres of the sixty-three acre preserve to native plants. Only one acre was going to be planted with native plants.

What do Coyote bush or Coast Live Oak contribute, really, to the beautification of this state? Our native trees and shrubs are small, modest in shape and outline. They cannot compete with other trees and shrubs on the image-obsessed coast of California. In Newport Beach, coconut palms line the bluffs above Corona Del Mar Beach, a landscape inspired by western notions of the hot blue nights of Araby and Scheherazade, instead of what was probably there. That would be California’s Live oak, a tough little tree, with many different bio-realms dependent on it, larval, avian and mammalian.

To the indigenous peoples of the San Francisco peninsula,” declared historian Pete Halloran in the excellent anthology Reclaiming San Francisco: History Politics, Culturethe Coast live oak was more than a symbol; it was perhaps the single most important plant species.”[3] The same is true for the acorn woodpecker and numerous microlepidoptera, or the tiny moths. Fifteen different species have been shown to be dependent on Coast live oak leaves on Mount San Bruno[4]. This tiny Yggdrasil was cut down across California  as colonial settlements were transformed into sprawling coastal cities. The acorns could find no purchase in the soil shaded by the new, tall, dramatic trees, real drama queens, with huge canopies that kept the ground underneath them dark and the sun out of the blinking eyes of California’s settlers, many of whom hailed from the deciduously rich East Coast. They were unused to the sun’s frank regard. They needed shade. California with its lush spreads of coastal scrub communities was derided as “barren.” And so the acorns were deprived of the future as mothers-to-many, as trees from all parts of the world were pressed into service.

Today, San Franciscans need a different sort of shade: privacy, a get-away, refuge from city neighborhoods that are getting more crowded as more people pour into the seven square and inflexible miles of the city. San Francisco can be an extroverted city, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t introverts amongst us who want away from the madding crowd. That’s where Sutro Forest comes in. “It is a quiet, secluded introspective space,[5]” writes one San Franciscan. “Loss of such a space will be detrimental to the emotional health of San Francisco.” In order to escape, some San Franciscans need the deception that Mount Sutro (which is really a hill) is an actual forest (it’s a “forest” in much the same way that a reservoir is a “lake”) in order to be soothed.

Mount Sutro is a tree plantation masquerading as a “cloud forest”, a definition used only by its boosters in defiance of the scientific definition of a cloud forest: a delicate ecological space that boasts of a dense display of fog-fed plants with a species denseness that often numbers in the thousands. Mount Sutro, which has little biological diversity, is a place with a falsified past (old growth eucalyptus trees! A forest that is hundreds of years old!) and a thoroughly marketed present. It is a site to wander wrapped in a dream of illusion and no-whereness, a place that is virtual rather than actual.

As a teenager in Southern California, I loved spaces like these, places I could co-exist with my fevered, racing brain. So, too, the adult inhabitants of San Francisco still seek “reposeful places” for “solace, sweet and inspirational, in the song-haunted shadows.”[6] (Can a bush do that for you? Who can hide in coastal chaparral with its frank regard for the open sky?)

You can live in the city and yet leave the city, be not of the city. This is what the landscape of Mount Sutro guarantees, assuming the people who live in the expensive neighborhoods that rim the perimeter of Mount Sutro accept your presence. “I can see no benefits from this action…” says a man named Michael of the proposed management, “only distress to the local residents…and general peace and quiet and enjoyment of our homes.”[7]

Acorns can’t grow in this private, shaded space some call a forest. Funny, that. What makes a forest a forest is its diverse nature. Actual forests make room for all kinds of plants.

Like a manzanita. The manzanita is the first plant that identified for me by my father when I was young. I admired it and wanted to snap off a branch to take home with me. He didn’t let me to touch it. “That’s what everyone wants to do,” he said. People liked its glossy burgundy red wood, he told me. They liked it too much. “They used to cut it down to make furniture from it,” he told me. “But the wood’s not good for that,” he said. Manzanita has grown in the Presidio- in fact, a remnant stand of Franciscan manzanita, a species long thought to be extinct, was discovered during the re-build of Doyle Drive back in 2010. A few may have once grown on the flanks of Mount Sutro. On Mount Sutro’s Draft EIR there are five arctostaphylos (manzanita) species listed as “potentially” occurring in the reserve[8]. Two species grow in serpentinite soils. Since Mount Sutro is made of Franciscan chert, these species are not expected to be present. Three other species (A. imbricate, A. montaraensi and A. pacifica) could grow, but probably won’t grow “due to the density of competing non-native vegetation.”

I think Manzanita wins on looks. It is beautiful, this shrubby and sometimes tree-like plant with its glossy oxblood-red limbs. But beauty, of course, is in the eye of the bedazzled beholder. In the case of Mount Sutro, Beauty has a tenacious grip, with public opinion clutched firmly in one hand and an entire ecosystem held fast in the other.

 

Elizabeth and an Arctostaphylos densiflora outside of Calistoga

Elizabeth and an Arctostaphylos densiflora outside of Calistoga

For more information about the Sutro Stewards and their vision of  ecological restoration, go to: http://sutrostewards.org

[1] http://campusplanning.ucsf.edu/pdf/MtSutroDEIRCommentLetters.pdf, Comment # 4

[2] http://campusplanning.ucsf.edu/pdf/MtSutroDEIRCommentLetters.pdf. See comment #48

[3] Holloran, Pete. Seeing the trees through the forest: oaks and history in the Presidio. Reclaiming San Francisco. Brook, Carlsson and Peters. City Light Books San Francisco CA

[4] http://jeffreycaldwell.blogspot.com/2004/12/plant-diversity-supports-animal.html

[5] http://campusplanning.ucsf.edu/pdf/MtSutroDEIRCommentLetters.pdf. See comment #387

[6] http://www.sfmuseum.net/sutro/bio.html

[7] http://campusplanning.ucsf.edu/pdf/MtSutroDEIRCommentLetters.pdf. See comment #115

[8] http://campusplanning.ucsf.edu/pdf/Mount_Sutro_EIR_1_18_13_with_Appendices.pdf