Murals, mosaics, sculptures, and street art— Susan Wels’ San Francisco: Arts for the City: Civic Art and Urban Change, 1932–2012 has it all. Lushly illustrated and deeply researched, Wels gives readers the story of the San Francisco Arts Commission from its creation in 1932 up to the present day. The commission was initially formed to to help put San Francisco on the map as a world-class city—to compete with (and maybe become a a little bit similar to?) the SoCal cultural capital, Los Angeles.
Wels then delves into a more familiar story about the city’s art scene, when, after World War II, San Francisco became a space for a racially, economically, and politically diverse movement to emerge and produce art that pushed the boundaries of mainstream western art. This movement continued into the 1970s and ’80s, Wels argues, but was taken out of concert halls and museums and into the streets, inspiring communities and neighborhoods to engage with art. Although an economic downturn that lasted until the early 1990s made it difficult to get funding and created restructuring, by the mid-1990s, arts were flourishing again and moving to new spaces—both in the city and online.
In many ways, Wels’ work is a history of an institution: the San Francisco Arts Commission and the way that it allowed artists to use public funds to push the boundaries of art. But what comes through best are the personalities of the artists that populate the pages, through their words, their lives, and, most importantly, their artwork. Arts for the City contains an enormous number of stunning photographs of paintings, murals, architecture, performance art, infrastructure, sculpture, mosaics, and much more. Readers interested in art in city spaces shouldn’t miss the stories Wels tells and the urban artworks she shows us.
Annie Powers is an assistant editor at Boom and a graduate student in history at UCLA. Images from Arts for the City courtesy of Heyday.
Author Event: “SF Art: Past and Present,” Thursday, July 25, 2013, 6:00 PM, Mechanics’ Institute Library 57 Post Street, San Francisco. Susan Wels, author of San Francisco: Arts for the City, will give a history of the San Francisco Arts Commission. Tom DeCaigny, San Francisco Arts Commission Director of Cultural Affairs, will talk about current and future projects.
Cartographers and historians have long mapped the vast body of water inside the Golden Gate that enabled San Francisco to become a major port connecting California to the world. However, few authors have looked as closely as Matthew Morse Booker looks, in “Down by the Bay,” at the fascinating frontier where land meets sea. Moreover, no one has demonstrated as clearly as he the operation of the law of unintended consequences in our own backwaters and backyards.
For example, Booker shows that the planting of Atlantic oysters in San Francisco Bay altered the bay’s ecology. He also argues convincingly that hydraulic mining for gold in the Sierras sent millions of tons of soil and rock rushing down streams and rivers, such as the Sacramento and San Joaquin, then into the bay, where habitat never recovered.
Booker is certainly familiar with his subject. An associate professor of history at North Carolina State University, he also leads the Between the Tides project at Stanford’s Spatial History Lab.
From beginning to end, his colorful yet unsentimental history delivers a dire message: For almost every action that humans have taken in and around the bay, there have been equal and opposite reactions, usually detrimental to fish, fowl and the fecundity of the environment. “What seemed like good ideas in the nineteenth century created a cascade of consequences in the twentieth century and impossible choices in the twenty-first,” the author writes in a chapter titled “Reclaiming the Delta.”
Dredged and polluted, its shape and depths altered by the hands of men and machines, the bay has shrunk in size while streets, sidewalks and malls have spread. Commuters who cross by bridges and ferries take our greatest treasure for granted, the author suggests, and rarely realize that it’s a construct of both nature and human beings. With ocean levels rising rapidly, time may be running out, Booker warns, for communities that crowd our damaged waterways.
By focusing on the waterfront and on the tidelands, marshes and swamps, Booker gives the city a fresh face; the familiar becomes strange and wonderful. Early on, he traces the demise of sleepy Yerba Buena, a distant outpost of Mexico, and conjures up the rise of raucous San Francisco as the commercial heart of an empire within an empire. Booker allows facts and stories to speak for themselves.
In 1835, he explains, President Andrew Jackson tried to buy the port from Mexico for $5 million. Two decades later, when California was part of the United States, the banker, William Tecumseh Sherman – who would lead Union troops through Georgia – noted of San Francisco, “Everybody seemed to be making money fast.”
Not everyone – as Booker shows. Chinese laborers dredged rivers, constructed levees and carved farmlands from swamps. They didn’t make money fast. The land speculator George Roberts, who hired 3,000 Chinese men to build his levees, observed, “I do not think we could get the white men to do the work. It is a class of work that white men do not like.”
Perhaps because he’s an academic with an eye on learning, Booker sums up his main points as though getting students ready for finals. Then, too, prejudices occasionally interfere with his story. “The symbol of the West,” he writes, is “the pile of tin cans in front of a shanty or the extravagant imported items on the menu of a gold rush restaurant.” Surely, the West is also the majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, the Golden Gate itself and the San Francisco Wildlife Refuge that Booker touts as a “precious island of waterfowl habitat in the midst of one of the world’s great urban areas.” Indeed, in the superlative and inspiring penultimate chapter, he recounts the dramatic rise of the ecology movement that helped save the bay for future generations.
For those who remember legendary Chronicle reporter Harold Gilliam and his outstanding books about San Francisco and its waters, “Down by the Bay” is a genuine pearl in the sea of contemporary environmental writing.
Jonah Raskin writes regularly for Boom. He last reviewed two new books on the artist Richard Diebenkorn. This review of “Down by the Bay” originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. Photo of oyster beds in the San Francisco Bay in 1889 courtesy of National Archives.
Richard Diebenkorn, From the Model, 117 pages, edited by Chester Arnold and Bart Schneider, and Abstractions on Paper, 123 pages, edited by Schneider. Kelly’s Cove Press, $20.
Reviewed by Jonah Raskin
Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) achieved success as an artist in his own lifetime, but 20 years after his death, a big Diebenkorn moment has finally arrived with two major exhibits of his work and two new, lavishly produced books published by Kelly’s Cove Press that highlight his diverse styles and showcase his irreverent philosophy of art. Novelist, poet and publisher Bart Schneider edited both books with help from the acclaimed painter Chester Arnold, who’s known for his wry sense of humor and grim landscapes of environmental disaster. The quality of the color reproductions is excellent, though the size of the books — 6 inches by 8 inches —don’t do justice to the size of Diebenkorn’s canvases, some as large as 121 inches by 93 inches. Still, there are pleasures in holding these two small, elegant books in the palms of one’s hands and viewing work that has never been previously published or exhibited.
Abstractions on Paper includes two-dozen works that Diebenkorn did in Ocean Park, California, from 1967 to 1988, when he taught much of that time at UCLA. The lavish colors and the sharp lines are spectacular. Abstractions on Paper also offers work that Diebenkorn created in Albuquerque, Urbana, Berkeley and Alexander Valley, California, where he died in 1993. Like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, his literary contemporaries, Diebenkorn made art almost any place and at almost any time, albeit with less bravado than the self-dramatizing Beats.
“Diebenkorn was an artist of quiet generosity and enormous creative energy, both visible at every level of his work,” Chester Arnold writes in an inviting introduction to From the Model that is both personal and historical. Arnold adds, “The charged artistic environment of the Bay Area in the 1940s and 1950s, combined in a creative nexus that stood in opposition to the prevailing Abstract Expressionist winds from the East.” A cultural throwback and a pioneer as well, Diebenkorn looked anew at familiar California landscapes. The most abstract of his paintings often suggest colorful cityscapes and urban forms. The human touch isn’t ever far removed, even when it’s only hinted; his canvases feel more peaceful and less frenetic than Jackson Pollack’s.
The front cover of From the Model offers an ink and gouache sketch of a seated woman, arms folded, eyes looking straight ahead. Inside there are three stark portraits of women, followed by two-dozen intriguing nudes most of them either ink or charcoal on paper, many of them strikingly original — not an easy feat. Erotic, sensual, and perhaps pornographic by the standards of 1955 and 1956, when many of them were completed, they seem now like tributes to the grace of the female form, though they might be deemed obscene today in communities that still outlaw nudes and nudity.
In the color portraits of women fully dressed, which follow the nudes, Diebenkorn pays homage to Henri Matisse, the modern French painter, friend and rival of Picasso who covered his canvases with the brightest of Mediterranean colors. In the 1960s, Diebenkorn studied Matisse’s work, first in Moscow and later in Los Angeles. The influence of Matisse shows up in the “Ocean Park” series that helped to revolutionize American landscape painting and that still captivate the eye.
Publication of Abstractions on Paper and From the Model coincides with “Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966,” an exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco from June 22 through September 29, 2013, which has its own sumptuous catalog. Another exhibition, “The Intimate Diebenkorn: Works on Paper, 1949-1992,” opens at the College of Marin on September 28 and runs through November 14, 2013. And Bart Schneider will be in conversation with Chester Arnold and Peter Selz on July 10 at University Press Books in Berkeley.
The books and the exhibits offer a rare opportunity to reexamine the creative life and the experimental work of a California artist who showed that there were many ways to be an innovative abstract expressionist, and that one could live and work far from New York and still make breathtakingly beautiful paintings that invigorate forms and feelings.
Photographs courtesy of the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. “Untitled,” 1978, Cut-and-pasted paper, manufactured colored paper, printed paper, gouache, and graphite on paper, 13 1/4 x 9 1/4 in. (33.7 x 23.5 cm), Estate no. 1604.
“The best academics and smartest journalists should be natural allies in the effort to bring new ideas to the public square,” writes John Mecklin in the Columbia Journalism Review. And “Boom has made a nice start toward fostering such an alliance.” Boom is an example of a promising new model in the growing nonprofit publishing ecosystem, Mecklin writes in a wide ranging article that recounts the origins and history of the journal, probes its business model, and examines the visions of editor Jon Christensen and University of California Press publisher Kim Robinson for the quarterly journal.
“Boom was conceived as an interdisciplinary ‘scholarly magazine’ that would translate the best ideas of academics in the UC system, making them accessible to the general public,” Mecklin writes. “Boom includes journalists and photographers among its contributors because it is consciously ‘not just another academic journal,’ Robinson says. ‘It is this hybrid, but it’s still an experiment.’
“Boom started as a way for researchers to converse with the public about California studies,” Mecklin writes. “But, Christensen says, he hopes to expand the magazine’s reach, so it speaks to people outside the state as well, addressing the idea of ‘California in the world.’ He also hopes the journal can help break down, if not do away with, the mutual suspicion—some might say disdain—that often characterizes the relationship between academics and journalists.”
Songs in the Key of Los Angeles, by Josh Kun (Angel City Press)
Last year the L.A. band Best Coast appropriated an image from “I Love You California,” a song published in 1913, for their album “The Only Place.” A grizzly bear stands on its hind legs warmly cuddling the state on the cover of Best Coast’s CD as well as the sheet music published a century ago. History doesn’t repeat, it turns out, but it does rhyme. Best Coast’s song “The Only Place” is a catchy burst of boosterism worthy of joining the great catalog of music that has been asking essentially the same question — “Why would you live anywhere else?” — for a very long time.
Josh Kun — an editorial board member and contributor here at Boom — has mined the sheet music collection of the Los Angeles Public Library for a multiplatform project called “Songs in the Key of Los Angeles” that explores this musical love affair. One product of the project is this lavish book featuring colorful evocative covers of dozens of songs spanning just over a century from 1849 to 1959. Six songs are featured in their entirety, including lyrics and musical notation.
But it is not the music that grabs you here. The covers steal the show. Kun writes that images of southern California on sheet music covers are “nearly indistinguishable” from historical images found on orange crates, tourism pamphlets published by the Southern Pacific railroad, and the brochures of real estate boosters. The product for sale on sheet music covers was not just a song, but Los Angeles itself, Kun writes, a product made up “of Mission myths, Spanish romance, endless orange groves, and the promise of a healing Mediterranean climate.” Oranges abound, of course, along with flowers, beaches, cozy cottages, lots of sun, and, naturally, plenty of pretty girls. “Summer ever lingers on the air” in one song — “Glorious Southern California” — from 1907. “This is now the only place for me,” the song says. Was Best Coast listening? “This is the only place for me,” they sing more than a century later.
Despite the vivacious art of the sheet music covers, however, the songs in this book seem sadly inert simply sitting on the page in an age when we mostly consume music directly through our ears, often without any text or artwork at all, the album cover having now become a historical artifact, like the sheet music cover before it, with CD covers likely to suffer the same fate. What do these “Songs in the Key of Los Angeles” sound like, then? With the help of arrangers such as Van Dyke Parks, who has an essay in this book too, Kun will be bringing some of these songs to life in a series of events this summer in Los Angeles, including a concert July 18 with the band Quetzal at the Mark Taper Auditorium at the Central Library, and a free concert with the band Ozomatli in Grand Park on August 2. Tune in to Kun’s Tumblr blog — http://songsinthekeyofla.com/ — for news of other events and regular postings of additional archival musical finds from the Los Angeles Public Library’s sheet music collection and elsewhere.
These short stories by Vietnamese-American essayist Andrew Lam open doors on unexpectedly intimate scenes, moving stories, told in surprising voices. In his nonfiction, Lam has plumbed the depths of his own experience as a refugee who came to the United States as a young boy and grew up gay in San Jose’s conservative Vietnamese émigré community. He has used his own hard-won insights to write widely and wisely about immigration, culture, politics, identity and so much more. His own voice is a true gift to California and the world. Here he brings to life other Vietnamese-American voices, their Californias, their worlds. Lam’s fiction weaves the pitch-perfect perceptiveness of his nonfiction, with slightly cracked characters all the more believable for their idiosyncrasies, and a touch of magical realism that may or may not be the result of living fully, simultaneously between worlds, with the past ever present.
In late 2011, the Occupy movement quickly became one of the most visible and viable means of sheltering and sustaining people who have been displaced by the unemployment, foreclosures, and evictions resulting from offshoring and rampant financial speculation. Violent police raids on Occupy encampments throughout the country bear witness to how difficult and vital it is for disempowered groups to access and lay claim to living space in US cities. Brando Skyhorse’s first book of fiction, The Madonnas of Echo Park, covers two historical moments that underlie contemporary struggles over public space in and beyond Los Angeles: the withdrawal of jobs, tax revenue, and services from the inner city caused by suburbanization and “white flight” in the decades following World War II, and the return of real estate speculation and middle-class residents to urban centers in recent decades. In addition to dramatizing the lives of characters caught between languages and cultures, Madonnas is a story about how gentrification affects the Mexican/Mexican American community in the transitional neighborhood of Echo Park.
First developed by real estate investor Thomas Kelly in the 1880s, Echo Park (then called “Edendale”) was a center of the LA film industry during the silent era and a middle-class neighborhood in the early twentieth century. As many middle-class white residents relocated to the suburbs after World War II, Mexican Americans moved into the area’s affordable homes, becoming Echo Park’s majority, along with smaller populations of Chinese, Filipino, and Southeast Asian immigrants. Brando Skyhorse has an unusual relationship to the neighborhood’s ethnic and cultural diversity: abandoned by his Mexican father when he was three-years-old, he grew up believing he was the son of his mother’s Native American boyfriend, a man named Paul Skyhorse Johnson. In interviews, the author explains that even after learning of his true genealogy in his early teens he continued to hide his Mexican identity because his mother, who was Mexican, was passing as a Native American (he did not publicize his Mexican identity until after his mother’s death in 1998). Drawing on this personal history of “passing,” Skyhorse’s novel offers an engaging meditation on displacement and its effects on a complex cast of characters.
The Great Wall of Los Angeles by Judy Baca and SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center) commemorate Chavez Ravine and the division of the barrios with freeways. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF THE CITY PROJECT.
An author’s note establishes the connection between the author and his characters by narrating Skyhorse’s own (possibly fictionalized) encounter with a girl named Aurora Esperanza at a grade-school dance. When Aurora asks him to dance to the tune of Madonna’s “Borderline,” the young protagonist refuses, saying “You’re a Mexican,” and Aurora leaves the school in shame. In the stories that follow, Skyhorse attempts to make restitution for that moment of unwitting self-rejection by creating a diverse group of nine Mexican American narrators, each of them facing identity crises associated with the challenges of assimilation: middle-class jobs, learning English, college educations, stereotypes in Hollywood films, cross-racial dating, and the messages of popular singers like Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and Morrissey.
The identity confusion featured throughout The Madonnas of Echo Park is complicated by the fact that there is no “authentic” culture or neighborhood to which these characters can return. Skyhorse exposes the fantasy of an authentic Latino ‘hood by repeatedly referencing the video for Madonna’s “Borderline”:
… Madonna, dressed as a classic “Low Rider” chola in a forties-style hair bonnet, white wife-beater, long drape coat, and baggy pants that came up past her waist, had been kicked out of her gringo photographer boyfriend’s fancy loft for spray-painting a streak on his sports car. Out on “her” streets again, Madonna walks past El Guanaco and is welcomed into the arms of her cholas hanging outside, who realize she has not abandoned her chicas or her ‘hood. They walk into the Mercado, and after a selection at the jukebox, Madonna dances into the arms of her former boyfriend, a young Mexican guy who has pined for her throughout the video and represents the Mexican roots, the Mexican life she cannot turn her back on (p. 47).
The idea of “genuine Mexican roots,” it seems, can be co-opted by white artists (and in this case an Italian-American pop star) who identify ethnic minorities with exotic neighborhood cultures and then commodify those cultures. But when Mexican characters look to Madonna to teach them about the appeal of Echo Park’s street culture and the importance of roots, the notion of a pure ethnic identity seems naïve. Instead, the novel’s central scene—which ties together most of its ensemble cast—features Aurora and several other girls dressed up as Madonna (that is, as Madonna disguised as a chola) dancing to the tune of “Borderline” in front of El Guanaco market, where the street scenes of the video were actually shot. In the world of music videos and their fans, there seems to be no borderline between Echo Park and Hollywood, Mexican and gringo, a rock star and neighborhood girls dressing up as the “Madonnas” of Echo Park because their parents cannot afford other forms of entertainment. But on a more material level, Skyhorse frequently stresses the effects of neighborhoods and national borders: one of the girls dancing in front of the market is killed by a stray bullet; Aurora’s father is deported at the end of the first chapter; and a city bus driver, though acutely sensitive to the racial dynamics of the different neighborhoods traversed by his route, is pushed to extremes.
All of this makes The Madonnas of Echo Park a strange instance of the LA ensemble narrative—a genre of fiction that fantasizes about personal encounters that counteract the isolation of sprawl and suburbanization. In the films Grand Canyon (1991), Short Cuts (1993), Magnolia (1999), and Crash (2004), and in novels such as T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain (1995) and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange (1997), characters from different racial and ethnic groups encounter one another despite the fact that the layout of LA and its suburbs and its history of “white flight” have substantively minimized such encounters. In the wake of the 1992 LA uprising, these stories often feature interpersonal meetings that cross boundaries and heal racial fissures: random encounters and car crashes teach characters that everyone is connected.
With its cast of nine first-person narrators who cross paths in the neighborhood of Echo Park, The Madonnas of Echo Park certainly reads like an ensemble narrative—but it refuses to close with an upbeat lesson about interconnectedness. Instead of assembling characters through significant coincidences, Madonnas shows how the characters, most of whom are Mexican American and many of whom are related by blood, become so disconnected that they can continually miss opportunities to recognize and communicate with one another. In the novel’s climactic scene, Aurora encounters her estranged father, her half-sister, her mother, her grand-uncle, and her estranged grandmother at the annual Lotus Festival without recognizing (or being recognized by) any of them.
By organizing his book around moments where subplots and characters’ lives intersect without the characters being aware of their mutual connections, Skyhorse evokes the social and emotional distances intervening among broken families, provisional erotic relationships, and an increasingly scattered community struggling to maintain a cultural foothold in the gentrifying neighborhoods of Echo Park.
Madonnas traces the attrition of cultural identity and community ties to the actual eviction of Mexican American families from affordable housing in Chavez Ravine in 1959. Aurora explains that “My first name comes from the last woman evicted from the ground that would become Dodger Stadium” (p. 150). Skyhorse bases the character of Aurora’s great-grandmother, Aurora Salazar, on Aurora Vargas, whose forcible eviction from Chavez Ravine is the subject of several iconic photographs (she was fined and jailed for disobeying the eviction order). Growing up in the aftermath of LA urban planners’ assault on black and brown neighborhoods, the younger Aurora has no direct knowledge of the dirt trails and rustic hillside community of Chavez Ravine. She says, “I didn’t know those hills; I didn’t know that woman. What I knew were tunneled-out highways that unfurled like streamers tossed off a balcony from atop Dodger Stadium and endless days of riding my bicycle through its saucer-tiered parking lots, flat and featureless …” (p. 152). In documenting the aftereffects of the evictions at Chavez Ravine and the division of the barrios by freeway construction, Madonnas extends the explorations of recent works such as Helena Maria Viramontes’s TheirDogs Came with Them, Heather Woodbury’s Tale of 2Cities, and historian Eric Avila’s Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight.
Most of Skyhorse’s book is set in the present, as gentrification gradually extends the earlier displacements epitomized by Chavez Ravine. As an anonymous flier titled “GENTRIFICATION” posted in an Echo Park laundromat explains, “People that grew up in echo park, had family and friends here, were forced out of there [sic] homes to welcome the new european invader. The Christopher and Christina Columbus of our time … The HIPSTER …” While boutiques, cafés, and other evidence of gentrification appear with gradually increasing frequency throughout the book, the chapter entitled “The Hustler” takes the measure of urban renewal by depicting a convict’s disoriented return to Echo Park after nearly twelve years in prison:
“Angustian Family Evicted from Home in Chavez Ravine, Los Angeles.” Los Angeles Times (May 9, 1959).COURTESY OF UCLA, SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, CHARLES E. YOUNG RESEARCH LIBRARY
On the starting tip of Sunset Boulevard (which is now called César Chavez Avenue—when did that happen?) I survey my territory—the new apartment buildings and stores, the fresh coats of paint on the doors and window frames on abandoned shops, new storefront signs in English covering the old sun-bleached Spanish ones[,] the odd presence of young bearded white men with coffee, not six-packs, on the street corners. Where are the Chicanos? Or the Chinos? (p. 113)
Freddy finds that a “white woman with short black hair and a tight T-shirt that somehow makes her look like a man” has moved into his lover’s home; notices a house being renovated “by some Mexican day-laborers”; is surprised to see graffiti in English in his ‘hood; and finally settles down to hustle a sucker at pool table. His mark—“a white guy in his thirties with thick Buddy Holly-style glasses, a short-sleeve shirt that changes color depending on what angle I look at it from, baggy black pants with a chain dangling from his right pocket, and spotless black ‘work’ shoes”(p. 120)—seems like a naïve hipster. But after Freddy wins some money and attempts a different hustle, the white man beats him up and takes his cash.
Overall, Madonnas does not take a one-sided stance against either cultural assimilation or gentrification. Aurora, too, feels disoriented upon returning to the neighborhood, “as if an antimatter explosion had detonated high above Echo Park, reconstructing decay into a glittering faux affluence, a Willy Wonka neutron bomb coating the landscape in radioactive smiley face yellows and Wellbutrin blues.” But she does not flee from the new condos, cafés, and boutiques although. she admits she feels lost, she concludes, “I guess it’s good for the neighborhood” (p. 189). After accidentally—and to her, miraculously—running into the singer Morrissey (who once said “I wish I was born Mexican”) at the Lotus Festival, Aurora decides to cast her lot with Echo Park. Popular culture and gentrification may have dislocated the cohesive Mexican American community, but Aurora believes it to be “a land rich with roots that grow, thrive, burn, are razed, heal, then grow again, deeper and stronger than before.” Only the reader knows—from assembling the threads of other chapters—that she has just walked past several family members without knowing it, and that her father is in the process of being deported at the very moment she thinks “This is the land we dream of, the land that belongs to us again” (p. 199). With such ironic dissonances filling the gaps between its chapters, The Madonnas of Echo Park records the promise of new forms of belonging as well as the loss that attends the violent uprooting of the old.
California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.
—Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Skateboarders in Fresno ride the drained-out insides of foreclosed swimming pools. Silicon Valley tech nerds join fight clubs to punch each other, bare-knuckled, in suburban garages. A man in San Marcos, some thirty-five miles north of San Diego, sculpts made-to-order, anatomically correct, life-sized plastic dolls. A mariachi musician in East Los Angeles polishes his trumpet and says wistfully, “Mexican music is like a fever.”
Photograph courtesy of Zackary Canepari
These are just some of the haunting video portraits in a series of web videos by filmmakers Drea (pronounced Dray) Cooper and Zackary Canepari. The growing collection of three- to ten-minute video vignettes is called California Is a Place. The project has attracted more than three million viewers since the first videos went online in early 2010. Widely distributed across the Internet, the videos have won awards and been featured on news sites including PBS’s NewsHour, the New York Times, The Atlantic, and the Los Angeles Times. “People are craving honest stories,” Cooper says. “They want stories that are unmitigated by the television structure of dramatic moments.”
One of their films, the ten-minute long “Aquadettes,” was chosen for the Short Film program at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Set in a southern California retirement community called Leisure World, “Aquadettes” tells the story of 76-year-old former nurse Margo Bauer, who takes up medical marijuana to ease the nausea of multiple sclerosis, enabling her to continue with her synchronized swimming team. “This year is the first year I’ve been aware of my disease in the water,” Bauer says. And while her voice contains the aches of age and illness, the camera captures a gaggle of tan, elderly ladies in ornate swim caps turning graceful flips in chlorine-blue water.
Photograph courtesy of Zackary Canepari
California is not an easy place to conjure up. The country’s most populous state is home to over thirty-seven million people. It is a tangle of every kind of person and every imaginable aspiration—a mash-up of poverty, opulence, beachside mansions, suburban sprawl, technology, farming, ocean, deserts, the broken-down, and the over-built. While California Is a Place is no summation of California as a place, the videos do evoke something elemental about the stories and obsessions that play out on this particular hunk of land.
Cooper, 34, and Canepari, 33, met in 2005 on a shoot for a Sega video game commercial in San Francisco. They were production assistants armed with walkie-talkies who became friends. They shared a visual aesthetic and for years talked about making “something” together. Four years later California Is a Place started to take shape. “We had this idea that we wanted to do short things, but what were those short things?” says Cooper. “At first we thought they would be about America. Then we thought they’d be about the West. Then we were like, ‘No this is about California.’”
Canepari, who had been freelancing as a photographer in India, moved back to California in 2009. Cooper quit his job teaching multimedia skills to high school students in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. He had just completed a master’s degree in film at San Francisco State University.
That June, the duo set off carrying Canon 5D cameras capable of shooting high-definition video. They filmed four stories over three summer months. “The great thing about documenting the state you live in is that nothing is that far away,” says Canepari.
Photograph courtesy of Zackary Canepari
Their first piece, “Cannonball,” took them to Fresno, where they the hopped fences of foreclosed homes to film skateboarders bent on draining backyard pools to ride their smooth, concave surfaces. Sometimes the pair go into a story already knowing who their central characters will be, but for other films they just go somewhere and trust that they will find someone with a tale to tell.
For “Borderland,” which was shot along the California-Mexico border, they knew their geography but didn’t yet have a central subject, so they gave themselves a few days to hang around filming different people until the right ones emerged to tell the story of illegal border crossings, volunteer militias, and drug smuggling.
Finding their film subjects is part luck and part a keen ability to filter through news, overheard conversations, and images for tidbits of information that lend themselves to moving pictures. “We’ve got similar tastes,” says Canepari. “We’re always passing along different things to each other that might work within our palette.”
Photograph courtesy of Zackary Canepari
Cooper spotted the used-car-salesman character from their film “Big Vinny” driving around Alameda, his childhood home. They found their synchronized swimmer, Margo Bauer, mentioned in a small, online news story. Even before they met her, they could visualize underwater shots of aging bodies, lithe legs, and pointed toes. “At the end of the day, this is a visual medium,” Cooper says. “What we make needs to look beautiful.”
Cooper (who lives in Oakland) and Canepari (who calls Los Angeles home) research, shoot, and edit the videos on their own dime and in their extra time. While that independence is sometimes a challenge financially, it also allows them to make the films they want to make, to maintain complete control over aesthetics and content, and to capture their California the way they see and experience it.
On occasion, the two get caught up in the visual potential of something only to find there is nothing in it to make a story. They spent a few days filming a women’s roller derby team in Santa Rosa and toyed with the idea of following some Berkeley unicyclists. But the stories felt flat—full of motion but lacking narrative tension—and so they moved on.
Within days of uploading their first stories to the video-sharing site Vimeo in early 2010, thousands of people were watching and sharing them. “All of a sudden it was like, ‘Oh, there is a real community online where people want to watch interesting stuff and not just another freakin’ cat video,’” Cooper says.
Although they are not paid for the videos, the viral success of California Is a Place has won them commercial work. Just like individual viewers, companies are drawn to Cooper and Canepari’s brand of visceral, visual storytelling. The two now make commercials for major corporate clients such as Toyota and Ray-Ban. “We do the commercial work in order to fund the personal work,” Canepari says.
Photograph courtesy of Zackary Canepari
Shot with professional actors, studio lights, and big budgets, their commercial work contains residues of the filmmakers’ core aesthetic—a flicker of blown-out sky, a shallow depth of field, a camera mounted on a bicycle, fading light through dry grass, a sense of place.
Thus far, California Is a Place is comprised of nine videos, but the duo has a long list of possible Golden State stories and issues they want to explore including Indian gaming, water, the agriculturally rich Central Valley, and subcultures like gangs and the cultish fans of the hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse. Following their participation in Sundance, they are considering expanding “Aquadettes” into a feature-length documentary.
Someday Canepari and Cooper want to take their cameras across state lines and film stories elsewhere—an “America Is a Place.” They talk about maybe moving east from here, finding a handful of stories to tell in each state, a kind of documentary road trip. But that would require time and funding. For now they are keeping to this stretch of land between the Siskiyou Mountains and the Tijuana River Estuary, from Bishop to Cape Mendocino. “The state is endless,” says Cooper, “and there are stories forever.”
In the late 1960s, U.C. Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design lay at the crossroads of two temporarily aligned forces: leftist radicalism and empirical social science. Some professors became, for a time, ‘participant-observers’ in a form of grassroots design process that precluded, indeed disdained, conventional architectural practice. Thus, in Design on the Edge Professor of Architecture Sym Van der Ryn recalls the famous People’s Park experiment, an impromptu occupation and landscaping of a vacant university-owned lot: “I brought my students to the site to watch like a group of anthropologists. (And, I admit, to goad folks on.) As a young maverick professor from the university, I was inadvertently named arbiter.” (p. 152)
This is but one of dozens of recollections recounted in this sprawling, centennial biography of architectural education at U.C. Berkeley. Part documentary history and part collective memoir, Design on the Edge ranges from 1894, when Bernard Maybeck taught the first courses there in descriptive geometry, to the early 1990s, when the Department of Architecture had assumed something close to its present form. With its 76 separate essays and historical documents, the book presents the reader with a kaleidoscopic array of narratives and sub-narratives, loosely ordered by chronology or theme. However, the bulk of the writing focuses on the critical quarter century from the 1950s—when architect William Wurster replaced the Beaux Arts curriculum with a modified Bauhaus approach and founded the present College of Environmental Design—to the 1970s, when the curriculum was re-vamped to accommodate the turbulent political and disciplinary shifts of the previous decade.
This also seems to have been the period when the Berkeley architectural curriculum was most “on the edge,” as the title suggests, of innovative approaches, interdisciplinary experimentation, and ideological debate. Many of the themes of this critical period will seem familiar to contemporary architectural education: the emphasis on “ecology”; the search for innovative technologies to solve social and environmental problems; and the belief in interdisciplinary approaches to architectural knowledge. For the historian sifting through the material in this book, one question becomes: whatever happened to these earlier iterations, and what lessons have been forgotten?
Mendelsohn and students: Well-known European Modernist Erich Mendelsohn, pictured here with his students, taught at UC Berkeley from 1948–1953. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF GEORGE KOSTRITSKY.
The stage for modern architectural education at Berkeley seems to have been set by the vision that William Wurster and his wife, Catherine Bauer Wurster, constructed for the future College of Environmental Design. Some of this background is nicely summarized by former dean Roger Montgomery’s posthumous essay, “Architecture on the (Cutting) Edge.” Having arrived at Berkeley from MIT, Wurster brought with him a modernist belief in the efficacy of scientific knowledge in solving architectural problems, leading him “to appoint non-architects to his faculty and through them to establish sub-units with links to accrediting, evaluation, and most importantly, to the international community of scholars in that particular subfield or discipline, rather than architecture as such.” (p. 109)
Internationally famous housing advocate Catherine Bauer Wurster, who came out of urban planning just at the moment when that profession was seeing itself as a version of applied social science, seems to have been particularly interested in bringing sociologists into the architecture program. Reading between the lines of the various essays that follow, one has a sense that the belief that scientific expertise could lead to a better built environment (meaning, variously, more cost-effective, healthier, more humane, more socially equitable) ran headlong into the problems of conflicting aesthetic, cultural, and political values. Cultural and urban geographer Clare Cooper Marcus, who taught within “Area E” or “Social Factors,” describes, somewhat bitterly, the rise and decline of this area as studio faculty members systematically failed to assimilate social scientific expertise and research into their studio assignments. Social scientists seem to have been exasperated that architects made what they deemed fantastic and unproven claims concerning the effects of their buildings on users, while design methodologists on the faculty cast doubt on the translatability of raw scientific data into design; in part, by pointing out that many of the decisions were inherently political ones, with potential winners and losers.
During the political unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s, faculty became increasingly ambivalent towards both technology and academic theory. On the one side, social scientists and socially concerned architects increasingly saw themselves as advocates for overlooked minority groups and the poor, and often employed scientific knowledge toward specific advocacy goals while becoming suspicious of (other) architectural theory. Revealing such activist ideals, Clare Marcus reproduces a departmental document that she co-authored in 1976 entitled the “Habitat Manifesto,” which concludes with the following emphatic denunciation: “The world’s problems are not going to stand idle while we theorize!” (p. 143)
Some professors attempted to escape “the system” in its various forms of alienation—the formal classroom, the construction industry, the architectural profession—and, in the process, rejected the technocratic and scientific assumptions of their colleagues. This was the path followed by Sim Van der Ryn after the People’s Park episode, which ended in a violent retaking of the university land. In 1971, he ran an experimental studio in which students collectively designed, constructed and lived in their own village, using found materials and recycled chicken coops, thus producing a studio equivalent of People’s Park in the semi-Arcadian rural space of Marin County.
Buckminster Fuller with faculty and students: Buckminster Fuller, pictured here (center), collaborated with UC Berkeley students and faculty on his “Fly’s Eye” project. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF PROF. EMERITUS CLAUDE STOLLER.
At other times, this escape involved theorizing a return to an imagined pre-technocratic, in fact pre-Enlightenment, wholeness. This type of reaction, and the sharp critique it received from empirically minded colleagues, is illustrated in the exchange between architect Jean-Pierre Protzen, known today as a leading expert in Incan architecture, and Christopher Alexander, whose treatises have inspired a broad, popular following of non-architects who are alienated by architectural modernism. Protzen’s scathing review of Christopher Alexander et al’s 1977 book, A Pattern Language, reproduced together with Alexander’s response, exposes a fissure between scientific detachment and neo-romantic calls for healing the rifts of modernity.
Protzen accuses A Pattern Language of being prescriptively rigid, essentially of being a pattern book, and methodologically unscientific, having no grounding in anything other than Alexander’s own cultural and subjective preferences. Alexander’s response is a critique of both scientific objectivity and cultural relativism. Sounding very much like a latter day Victorian critic of industrial modernity, Alexander intones: “In the great medieval period of Christian art and in the great period of Islamic art, the artists were able to express such immense feeling because they worked day after day, modifying what they did … able to come closer and closer to ‘the One’ …” (p. 177). From an empirical, scientific point of view, such statements amounted to nothing less than mysticism, veiling the cultural distinctions, material conditions, and political disagreements among actual users, designers and clients.
It is clear from such exchanges that the immense quantity of interdisciplinary work produced at the College of Environmental Design never led to any identifiable “Berkeley School” but rather to a fascinating set of opposing responses to the economic, political, and technological complexities of architectural practice. While the book as a diverse compilation of discourses makes no unified argument concerning the main episodes, legacies, or failures of the various Berkeley experiments, several moments seem to stand out. First, in the critical period of the late 1960s, there seems to have been an irreconcilable contradiction between the deeply anti-authoritarian, anti-professional ethos of the Counterculture and the ever more highly specialized expertise and methods developed by the various architectural researchers. Second, the reaction against modernism in the 1960s and 70s seems to have taken two opposing directions: towards an advocacy-based immersion in the social scientific study of various users and the development of an anti-modernist (including post-modernist), increasingly formalist design methodology.
Finally, the failure, implied in the book, of Berkeley’s utopian attempt to combine social science with social concern avoids what certainly seems to be at the political and economic center of this failure: namely, that the sophisticated research methods developed at Berkeley added yet another layer to the professional cost of architecture, a cost more likely today to be wielded by international corporations than by under-served community groups. A history has yet to be written on the legacy of the Berkeley experiments in the context of global, and increasingly corporate capitalism.
Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel
Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, 2010)
Many members of this year’s multiethnic college-freshman class were born in 1993, the year before Newt Gingrich and John Boehner’s Contract with America, the blueprint for today’s interlinked and seemingly unstoppable abandonment of the public welfare investments of the New Deal, the civil rights achievements of the 1960s, and the sexual revolutions of the 1970s. Even the most precocious and politically aware of these students will likely date their political awakening to sometime during the second term of George W. Bush. They will not be able to vote in their first national election until 2012. When they arrive on campus, however, many will encounter syllabi in American culture and politics courses shaped by the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, that bitter era of reckoning with the new attitudes toward race, class, gender, and sexuality that bloomed with the coming-of-age of the Baby Boomers. What their older professors regard as existential questions about the validity and utility of the multicultural accommodation forged in those years, today’s freshmen are likely to view as a mystifying archive of arguments with few clear connections to their own historical context of national economic decline, global warfare, and the surveillance state. For them, the New Left might as well be the Wobblies.
Although few would suggest that the new generation should simply get with the Aquarian program, the loss of political and personal memory from one generation to another presents a serious challenge for the fragile American tradition of leftist political dissent, and the gap between the Boomers and Generation Z is one that must be carefully bridged in the few years left before the Boomers retire from public life. This is not a question of persuading freshmen to declare allegiance to the politics of Soul on Ice (Eldridge Cleaver), Sexual Politics (Kate Millet), or The Revolt of the Cockroach People (Oscar Zeta Acosta); rather, it is the more difficult task of freeing them from the flattened and narrowed representations of their parents’ politics as retailed in pop culture while encouraging them to imagine themselves as similarly empowered political agents.
So, despite the evident surplus of superficial and self-congratulatory Boomer memorials to their youthful radicalism, there is still a crucial place for writing that captures both the feel and the historicity of a politically open moment. Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel, in a genre all its own somewhere between historical fiction and creative nonfiction, is an inventive attempt to re-present such an era in a way that is simultaneously heuristic and available to the imaginations of the young.
The historical core of the book comes out of Yamashita’s decade-long research into the rise of multicultural politics, particularly the Asian-American Movement, in the San Francisco Bay Area of the late 1960s and early 1970s, gathered out of various libraries, archives, geographies, and living memories. From that material, Yamashita has produced a sort of roman à clef of the major and minor figures responsible for the consolidation of Asian-American identity and political power from 1968 to 1977. Readers knowledgeable about the place and time will easily recognize many of the figures thinly disguised behind her pseudonymous and composite characters (Ling-chi Wang, Takeo Terada, Florence Hongo, Richard Aoki, Mo Nishida, S.I. Hayakawa, and dozens of others) as well as actual events (the student protests at San Francisco State, the demolition of the International Hotel, the occupation of Alcatraz, etc.). Those for whom this history is new will be drawn toward traditional historiography of the period (Erika Lee and Linda Yung’s Angel Island; Michael Liu, Kim Geron, and Tracy Lai’s The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism; and Estella Habal’s San Francisco’s International Hotel would make a great trio of background reading).
Reminiscent of her two previous historically-based works about Japanese diaspora communities in Brazil, Brazil-Maru (1993) and the Circle K Cycles (2001), I Hotel naturally lacks the zanier plot elements of Yamashita’s early magical-realist novels, Through the Arc of the Rainforest (1990) and Tropic of Orange (1997)—no mysterious plastic substances, trialectics, or portable latitude lines here! What I Hotel lacks in the fantastic, however, it more than recoups through its unorthodox form. Composed of ten independent but interlinked novellas, one for each year from 1968 to 1977, I Hotel tells its story through an astonishing variety of technical means, ranging from first-person narration to screenplay to graphic novel (the last achieved with the aid of illustrators Leland Wong and Sina Grace). The multitude of perspectives may preclude the deep psychological insights readers sometime expect from novels, but on the other hand it is not difficult to read I Hotel as a radical form of autobiography (Yamashita was born in Oakland) limning the rooming-house consciousness of the author herself.
Rather than try to locate a single dramatic narrative that condenses the entire experience of the time, as less venturesome novelists might, Yamashita opts to tell ten distinct but overlapping narratives, each involving three different main characters and each told from differing narrative points-of-view, with subchapters delivered in different styles ranging from first-person limited to teleplay script to surveillance file. Each section is primarily set in its given year, beginning with the 1968 tale of a Chinese young man, Paul Lin, whose father has died and left him to inherit the seemingly irreconcilable traditions of San Francisco’s Chinatown and the Bohemian intellectual and political scene coming to prominence in the 1960s. As it turns out—in both Yamashita’s narrative and in the history upon which it is based—the cultures of Portsmouth Square and Sproul Plaza are not so incommensurable after all. This Paul learns when he meets Chen Wen-guang, a Chinese ex-pat professor of Chinese literature at San Francisco State University (then State College). The professor serves as a connection between the young Paul and many of his fellow SCSF students (Edmund Lee and Judy Eng most prominently) and as a link to the radical politics of the 1940s. (After being expelled from the United States for his connections to Communism, Chen headed to China to fight alongside Zhou Enlai during the early Chinese revolution; in the 1960s he remains, despite small misgivings, committed to Maoism). His political experience makes him a natural mentor for students caught up in their own smaller moment of rebellion, and it opens Yamashita’s novel to the broad back-story of the Chinese diaspora in California and its complicated transnational status.
But Yamashita well understands that her story must embrace ideologies outside the Left and Asian-American ethnicities beyond the Chinese. In the first chapter, the complexity of the moment is expressed through the figure of S.I. Hayakawa, the semanticist and traditional Republican Japanese-Canadian-American president of San Francisco State. His crackdown on student protesters, including the infamous incident in which he literally pulled the plug on a student PA system, helped propel him to a single, troubled term in the United States Senate on a wave of the same antiradical and antistudent sentiment that made Ronald Reagan into a nationally recognized conservative leader. He too is a part of the story of Asian California, albeit ultimately a marginal one.
In later chapters, Yamashita goes on to explore the Japan-Town Collective, a radical San Francisco community organization, and the Third-World Liberation Front, a Berkeley student group advocating curricular changes in support of the world’s indigenous peoples. For 1970, we are thrown into the International Hotel of the title, an aging single-room occupancy hotel (at the edge of San Francisco’s old Manilatown and Chinatown) catering mainly to aged Filipino farmworkers and dockworkers. Slated for demolition by its Japanese conglomerate owner to make way for the construction of the massive highrises that now house the firms of the Financial District, it becomes a squat and an important mixing place for Yellow Power and Black Panther radicals. Later chapters range from a highly experimental meditation on the enmity between the twin origins of contemporary Asian American literature, Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin; the connection between the organized Filipino Left and the budding Mexican farmworkers movement; the Native American occupation of Alcatraz; the advance guard of Vietnamese refugees; the Coit Tower murals painted by a Nisei Communist who was for a time the roommate of Paul Lin’s father; and an uproarious pig-roasting contest between Filipino and Pacific Islander cooks.
The novel ends with the forcible eviction of the International Hotel residents and activists and the leveling of the building itself. By this point, the symbolic significance of the hotel is clear: it serves as the crucible in which the many varied traditions of Asian immigrants were temporarily united in defense of the poorest among them. As one activist with a strong sense of the novelty of the “Asian-American” identity produced in that moment remarks: “Goes to show, you can weld anything to anything” (p. 480). Although there is a utopian moment of solidarity, when the I Hotel (wired up with microphones as part of the public protest) becomes a “gigantic organic voice-box of our own making,” Yamashita’s book is equally committed to presenting the shearing and centrifugal forces at work, the divisions and disagreements that remain part of the structure of any particular history and of any individual psyche that emerges from it (p. 580).
And in time we may remember, collecting every little memory, all the bits and pieces, into a larger memory, rebuilding a great layered and labyrinthine, now imagined, international hotel of many rooms, the urban experiment of a homeless community built to house the needs of temporary lives. And for what? To resist death and dementia. To haunt a disappearing landscape. To forever embed this geography with our visions and voices. To kiss the past and you good-bye, leaving the indelible spit of our DNA on still moist lips. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. (p. 605)
Here, as elsewhere in the novel, Yamashita manages to capture the combination of continuity and contingency in the making of cultural and political identities, offering dozens of historical rooms (taken, abandoned, and unclaimed) into which her readers, especially younger ones looking for a way to connect to the political past without being smothered by it, might check the unfinished fragments of their own lives.