Tag: Culture


Living in a Fool’s Paradise

by Mark Hogan

From Boom Summer 2014, Vol 4, No 2

San Francisco must change

When I moved to San Francisco in 2003, I found a place to live in one weekend. A property manager had three or four apartments for rent within a five-minute walk of each other in Lower Nob Hill, a dense neighborhood uphill from the Tenderloin and Union Square that was still rough around the edges at the time. It was exactly the type of neighborhood I was looking for, as my budget didn’t stretch to dining at fancy restaurants and I wanted to be within walking distance of a BART station.

Ten years later I went back to look at apartments in the same neighborhood. So many people showed up to look at one miniscule $1,700-a-month studio that half of the crowd was asked to wait on the street because the grand old lobby of the post-quake apartment building wasn’t big enough to hold them. Now, a year later, prices on 350-square-foot apartments have topped $2,000 in some buildings. At another open house in 2013, in a relatively unhip western neighborhood, the realtor showing the unit asked the crowd in attendance to make offers higher than the price shown on Craigslist if they were serious about signing a lease.

The lack of housing availability and affordability during the late nineties dot-com boom is legendary. No-fault evictions soared as the population of San Francisco grew and higher-paid workers in new industries moved into formerly low-cost parts of the city. After the boom ended, many people left and rental prices dropped significantly. While San Francisco was still not affordable for a lot of people, it seemed possible to live here without dot-com money. Once I accounted for the savings of not owning a car, my cost of living wasn’t much different than it had been during the previous year I’d spent living in Ohio.

Janet Delaney, View of the Financial District from south of Market Street, 1983.

Yet in the second tech boom, things are even worse than they were in the late 1990s. San Francisco is now the most-expensive large city in the United States. Protests in front of tech company shuttle buses have made front-page news around the country, housing costs dominate casual conversations, and San Francisco’s already strong antidevelopment sentiment is growing angrier. Yet, common sense and a basic understanding of economics suggests that building more housing is probably the only way out of staggeringly high housing prices in the long term. In the short term, though, we’re stuck right where we are in an increasingly untenable position.

To fully understand what’s happening here, let’s zoom out and take in the wider picture. San Francisco is a relatively small part of a much larger nine-county metropolitan area of over seven million people. Within this area, governance is fragmented at the county and city levels and it is served by a slew of separate transportation agencies, including six separate but overlapping bus agencies and four regional rail or light rail agencies. There are three major airports, run by separate agencies, and while regional housing policy is supposed to mandate that all municipalities provide their respective shares of housing demand, based on employment patterns, this is often undermined at the local level. Public policy is often not coordinated in any meaningful way at the regional level. With many of the surrounding cities and counties abdicating their responsibilities to the region as a whole, San Francisco must, unfortunately, now decide on its own what role it wants to play in providing the Bay Area’s balance of housing and office space. It must also come to terms with its own troubled history with development.

The Bay Area has also led the country’s economic recovery over the past five years, making it a very attractive place for job seekers—especially those in high-paying industries such as technology and biotech. While many of those jobs are within San Francisco city limits, many more—including those with big name behemoths like Apple and Facebook—are in suburban Santa Clara County, that is, Silicon Valley. Although cities in the Valley, such as Google’s home of Mountain View, have been eager to approve the construction of new office space, they’ve refused to allow new housing construction to provide places for employees to live near their offices.

Google, for one, has proposed to build housing near its campus in Mountain View, but the city has rejected those plans. In fact, the city of Mountain View expressly forbade housing in its citywide general plan for the area around the company’s Bayshore campus.¹ Google’s plans would have put large numbers of its employees within walking distance of work, while also building a walkable neighborhood near a light rail station. The truth is that suburban municipalities don’t want to build more housing—there’s no undeveloped land to build on, and density is anathema to many residents in these communities. After all, single family homes with big yards are what suburban living is all about. A housing shortage also benefits homeowners, who see the value of their homes increase and have little to fear from rising property tax bills thanks to California’s Proposition 13. Even if Google, Apple, and Facebook employees all wanted to live closer to work, they could never find enough places to live.

Many communities also set limits for vehicular traffic that employers need to comply with as part of transportation management plans that must be submitted alongside planning applications. Aside from being a recruiting tool, company shuttles are a primary way of complying with these regulations. Why not subsidize existing mass transit? For most people public transportation to peninsula office park destinations is incredibly time-consuming or impossible, and Caltrain lacks the capacity to take that many additional riders because it is already standing room only on many rush hour trains. Caltrain will be upgrading in the coming years with high-speed rail funds, but that is still in the future.

At the same time, limits on development in downtown San Francisco stalled office construction in the city for years. San Francisco currently has the lowest office vacancy rate in the United States, and although some companies have moved into the downtown area, and some have satellite offices in the city, there currently wouldn’t be enough space for a huge company like Google or Apple to move its headquarters into the city even if it wanted to move there.²

It is this failure of regional planning and development that has brought about the “Google bus” crisis. Operated by most of the major Silicon Valley tech companies, these large motorcoaches run on set routes around the Bay Area picking up employees and taking them to their jobs at corporate campuses on the Peninsula. Seen by many as symbolic of the changes that have come to San Francisco since the recession, the buses were elevated to a major topic of discussion when writer Rebecca Solnit published a column criticizing them in the London Review of Books in February, 2013.³

Solnit lives in the Mission District and she sees the tech boom and the buses as “changing the character of what was once a great city of refuge for dissidents, queers, pacifists and experimentalists.” She portrays the Google bus riders as outsiders who are displacing the city’s residents. “My brother says that the first time he saw one unload its riders he thought they were German tourists,” she writes, “neatly dressed, uncool, a little out of place, blinking in the light as they emerged from their pod.” It’s not just Solnit who sees things this way. This is the tone of a now-dominant narrative among the city’s progressives—that workers in the technology industry do not belong here and are not the type of people who are supposed to be in San Francisco. It is a strangely unprogressive attitude for this open-hearted city.

Solnit’s article brought a lot of attention to the phenomenon of technology workers commuting from San Francisco neighborhoods to the peninsula to work, and it spurred larger discussions about class and displacement. The buses are a symbol of change, and this has made them an attractive target for protests as San Franciscans struggle to find a tangible outlet for their frustrations about how the city is changing. On several occasions, beginning in December of 2013, protesters blockaded the coaches in the street with banners decrying evictions and rising house prices that they blame on the tech industry. The buses aren’t really the problem, though. They are a symptom of a long term transition in San Francisco’s role in the region—from being an employment center to becoming one of the region’s and, indeed, one of the world’s most coveted urban residential areas.

Janet Delaney, Mercantile Building, Mission and 3rd Streets, 1980.

Across the country, young people are flocking to walkable neighborhoods and urban centers. Current twenty-somethings live in urban areas at a higher rate than Gen X’ers or Baby Boomers did at the same age and “88% of them want to live in an urban environment.”4 This represents a fundamental change in the way cities are viewed within the United States. San Francisco lost population for much of the second half of the twentieth century; its population peaked in the 1950 US Census and declined until 1980, similar to most other urban centers in the country. It didn’t reach its 1950 population again until 2000, and it has continued to increase since then. Cities are no longer places to be abandoned; urban properties near public transportation now hold their value better than homes in new outer-suburban areas.

It is easy for recent arrivals in San Francisco to assume it was always a desirable place to live, but San Francisco’s history is not dissimilar to much of the rest of North America: many white, middle-class San Franciscans fled the city for the suburbs, encouraged by new freeways and government-backed mortgages. This was coupled with new arrivals seeking an affordable place to live. Mexican, Central American, and Asian immigrant groups moved into areas that white residents moved out of in the decades following World War II and started businesses and community organizations.

Counterculture movements also flourished in San Francisco (and other American cities like New York) in the mid to late twentieth century. From the Beat poets in North Beach in the 1950s, to the hippies and the Summer of Love in the Haight, to the gay culture that developed in the Castro in the 1970s, to punks and artists living in the Mission alongside a large lesbian community in the 1980s and early 1990s, the city attracted outsiders. Perceived as dirty and dangerous (which in many cases they were), cities were not places mainstream, upper middle-class white America wanted to live. As a result rents were cheap and space was plentiful.

The 1980s brought changes to San Francisco as the city began to recover from a loss of blue collar jobs and attracted higher-paying white collar industries. Writers lamented that long-time residents were being forced out by yuppies who were flowing into the city from elsewhere to work downtown; it was dubbed by one “perhaps the most gentrified large city in the nation.” Dean Macris, the city planning director at the time, called it the “boutiquing of San Francisco,”5 though the gentrification mostly focused on downtown and nearby areas like North Beach.

The increasing economic power of downtown and the growth in construction of office towers in this era set off political battles over “Manhattanization.” The phrase conjures a nightmare vision of looming towers blocking the city’s sparkling light and beautiful views of the bay. It is red meat to San Franciscans, who hate to see their city compared to anywhere else, much less Manhattan.

This antidevelopment sentiment led to the strictest set of planning guidelines in the United States, rules that capped office construction to a set amount each year, required review of all designs, and economic justification for any new building’s construction. The cap on square footage was later halved to 475,000 square feet per year by a ballot referendum in 1986, smaller than the floor area of many individual skyscrapers (the Transamerica Pyramid, as a comparison, contains 530,000 square feet on forty-eight floors).6 This massive increase in bureaucracy successfully limited the construction of offices, so developers started building large hotels instead. Some absolutely awful buildings went up in this era, including the infamous Marriott Hotel, also known as “The Jukebox” owing to its vast expanses of poorly detailed mirrored glass arranged in decorative arches high above the corner of Mission and Fourth Streets. To this day it “remains as grating as the sound of fingernails on chalkboard,” in the infelicitous words of San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic John King.7 The guidelines also had other unintended consequences.

These restrictions on development helped to change San Francisco’s role in the regional economy during the late 1980s. San Francisco lost 27 percent of its employment share in the Bay Area between 1980 and 2005 while at the same time gaining residents. Office space was constructed in greater amounts in suburban areas, where developers faced fewer restrictions, and jobs left the city while the regional economy grew.8 San Francisco went from 572,100 jobs in 1989 to 508,650 in 2005 while the rest of the Bay Area grew substantially, from 2,824,400 to 3,227,650 jobs, in the same period.9 Despite recent cries that San Francisco is becoming a suburb to Silicon Valley, thanks to tech company shuttle buses, this process has been developing for more than thirty years. Preventing Manhattanization by preventing office construction did little to prevent people from wanting to live in San Francisco—indeed it may have contributed to making the city an even more attractive bedroom community, as many people are willing to commute to work outside the city’s limits in order to live in the city. The recession of the early 1990s helped to temper fears of gentrification, and neighborhoods like the Mission continued to attract artists seeking cheap rent. Writer Michelle Tea recounts her experience of moving to San Francisco in 1993: “It’s not that it was a particularly cool neighborhood, although I later found out that it was. This is just where the cheap rents were. I moved here in 1993, and when the bus let me off on Valencia, I remember the street felt deserted—like almost all of the storefronts were closed.”10

Janet Delaney, Saturday Afternoon on Howard between 3rd and 4th Streets, 1980.

Within a few years, everything changed. The dot-com boom of the late 1990s saw a vast increase in wealth in the Bay Area in a short amount of time, as young workers flocked to San Francisco to work at dot-com startups fueled by venture capital and soaring IPOs. Many of these companies had no profit model and defied basic financial logic, but the mentality of the time was to grow as quickly as possible and figure out how to cash in on it later. Between 1998 and 1999 housing prices increased a staggering 40 percent, bringing the price of the median condominium in the city to $410,000 and the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment to $2,000 a month.11 The hand-wringing over gentrification at that time sounded remarkably similar to what we are hearing today: the gap between rich and poor increased by 40 percent in the mid-1990s, the percentages of Latino and black residents in the city decreased, and as Paulina Borsook put it so eloquently in late 1990s slang, “the result is a city whose unique history and sensibility is being swamped by twerps with ‘tude.”12

The Mission bore the brunt of this series of changes in the late 1990s, along with the South of Market area where many live-work lofts were built and many of the technology startups were located. Still, areas like Twenty-Fourth Street retained their Latino identity, even as some members of the community moved out and wealthier residents moved in. The city soon got a reprieve from rising prices when the economy tanked shortly after the turn of the millennium and the NASDAQ composite dropped 78 percent between 2000 and 2002 as the dot-com bubble popped. Rental prices dropped 40 percent between late 2000 and early 2003, as people left the Bay Area when their jobs disappeared.13

The ad-hoc nature of development in the nineties left a bad aftertaste. Cheaply built “lofts” had sprung up all over, taking advantage of live-work laws that allowed construction of housing units in industrial areas. These units—often cheaper to build because they had more lenient open space and parking requirements and incurred lower development fees to the city—were intended to provide housing and studio space by artists and small-craft artisans. But in many cases, developers used live-work projects to make an end run around the city’s planning process and build luxury units in industrially zoned areas for the city’s newly rich technology workers that were priced far above the means of most of the city’s artists. In the process, the city also missed out on at least $8 million in fees.14

When a progressive majority took over the Board of Supervisors in 2001, in a backlash against pro-development mayor Willie Brown, legislation was passed to put a moratorium on live-work to stop the abuse of the program, and the city’s affordable housing program was revised. Hoping to clarify the development process in former industrial areas to make better use of underutilized land, the city planning department set up the “Eastern Neighborhoods Project” to create a long-range framework that would encourage and guide responsible development. A community planning process began in 2001, and the individual area plans within the Eastern Neighborhoods Project were approved by the Board of Supervisors in January 2009. This finalized the rezoning of 2,200 acres of San Francisco for reuse, nearly a quarter of the city, primarily as housing and mixed-use, but it also reserved space for light industrial uses.

This project did broad-based planning for a large area that included parts of, the Mission, and Potrero Hill, in an effort to balance the needs of current residents with the city’s desire to add new housing stock in a central area well served by public transit. Years of meetings and outreach were held, and planners studied the needs of the area extensively. Affordable housing requirements for new buildings were increased, a new type of zoning to protect small businesses was included, and design guidelines were issued to allow higher density while at the same time promoting a more pedestrian-friendly environment. Most importantly, area plans for each neighborhood in the plan were written and an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the area was created, making it unnecessary for individual projects to write their own reports if they complied with the new planning regulations.

Because San Francisco takes a particularly aggressive approach to interpreting the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires the environmental impact of potential projects to be measured against alternatives, having blanket EIRs for entire neighborhoods should speed up the planning process considerably. CEQA was created in the 1970s with the intention of ensuring large-scale development projects were studied for potential impact prior to approval. Originally applied only to government projects, a court ruling extended the legislation’s reach to private projects shortly after its implementation. In subsequent years, it has become a favorite tool of people looking to block projects they don’t like for a wide variety of reasons. Preparing a detailed Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to comply with CEQA generally adds at least a year and a half to a project timeline and is costly. A prominent anti-bicycle activist managed to stop the implementation of San Francisco’s bike plan for years by filing a lawsuit requiring the city to prepare an EIR before any improvements could be made, meaning the city was legally prevented from performing even simple functions such as installing sidewalk bicycle racks.

But CEQA is not the only obstacle to new development. A Byzantine system of regulations and zoning laws that permits only one or two family homes in the majority of the city contributes to a chronic shortfall in the production of housing units while the population has continued to increase in recent decades. By 2011 the city’s economy was roaring back from recession and added over 36,000 jobs. All those people needed places to live,15 yet less than 300 units were added to the market.16

The resulting shortage has done a number on housing prices. Small one-bedroom apartments near the Twitter headquarters at Civic Center, or mid-Market as it is now being called, are renting for $4,400 a month. Not that long ago, this was one of the last neighborhoods in San Francisco where one could find an apartment for under $1,000, and now high-rise residential towers are leased out before construction has even been finished for prices that were unthinkable five years ago. The median price on a two-bedroom home is hovering near $1 million, making San Francisco the most expensive city in the United States.

Janet Delaney, 10th St at Folsom, 1982.

It is often said that “the best thing about San Francisco is that everyone has a say, and the worst thing about San Francisco is that everyone has a say.” Making any sort of major decision involves scores of public meetings, mailings, and a vast amount of public input. Most cities allow planning staff to make over-the-counter approval of projects that comply with the existing regulations, meaning that development is fairly predictable. This is known as “as of right” development and is allowed even in some other Bay Area municipalities. In San Francisco, all permits are discretionary, which means that it’s nearly impossible to build anything without both a series of public notifications, meetings, and a design review by the planning department. Even after a building permit is granted, project opponents may file an appeal and have a construction project stopped within fifteen days.

At some levels, this is a vast improvement from earlier eras when decisions were made behind closed doors and imposed on the populace. On the other hand, even public projects get held up in years of expensive bureaucracy. A bus rapid transit project for Geary Boulevard has been in planning since the passage of a local ballot measure authorized funding in 2003, yet eleven years later construction hasn’t even begun as a handful of people in the neighborhood fought for years to preserve each and every parking space.

Neighborhood plans similar to the Eastern Neighborhoods Project have been successful in other San Francisco neighborhoods, such as Hayes Valley, but there are signs that opposition to development is growing and any plan to add much-needed housing in the Mission is likely to meet stiff resistance.

A perfect example can be found at 1050 Valencia Street, formerly home to a KFC restaurant and surface parking lot. A proposed twelve-unit condo project here fulfilled all of the city’s planning guidelines: no on-site car parking in a transit-rich neighborhood, bike parking, on-site affordable units, and ground floor retail. Development of the site was fiercely opposed by wealthy homeowners in the Liberty Hill Neighborhood Association. After narrowly surviving a CEQA appeal to the Board of Supervisors by one vote, the project was cut down to nine units (removing the affordable housing requirements) by the Board of Appeals, which called it “out of scale in the neighborhood,” despite its compliance with the neighborhood’s fifty-five-foot height limit and its proximity to a number of similarly sized public and private mixed-use buildings within a few blocks on the Valencia corridor. Only when the Board of Appeals was charged with violating California’s Housing Accountability Act, which forbids local agencies from reducing the density on a site to less than what is allowed by law, did they reverse their vote and allow a fifth floor to be added, restoring the previously dropped affordable housing units.

Janet Delaney, Flag Makers, Natoma at 3rd Street.

San Francisco has had a very strong tendency to try to stave off change through regulation and legislation. Limiting growth artificially usually has many unintended effects, however, as there is no way to prevent people from moving in, and we probably wouldn’t want to if we could. For individuals who want to live in walkable neighborhoods with reliable access to public transportation, there are not that many places in the Bay Area that are as attractive as San Francisco. The city is at or near the top of this list regionally, nationally, and even globally. The demand for such beautiful city living is not going away. It’s only going to increase.

Janet Delaney, One Rincon from Perry Street, by Janet Delaney, 2013.

Caution is warranted when considering construction projects in such a beautiful place. But the current state of permitting regulations for building and the glacial pace of infrastructure projects in San Francisco benefit very few people and risk turning it into a caricature of its former self for tourists and residents rich enough to live in a fantasy, not a living city. If there was ever a time when San Francisco needed to embrace a dynamic, expansive policy for building housing, offices and transportation, it is now.



Photographs from Janet Delaney’s “South of Market” and “SoMa Now” series, featured in the exhibition Now That You’re Gone. . .San Francisco Neighborhoods Without Us at SF City Hall, February 25 – May 23, 2014. COURTESY OF THE SAN FRANCISCO ARTS COMMISSION GALLERIES AND JANET DELANEY.

1 Egon Terplan and Benjamin Grant, “The Corporate Campus Embraces Urbanization,” The Urbanist 519 (December 2012), http://www.spur.org/publications/article/2012-12-18/corporate-campus-embraces-urbanization.

2 J.K. Dineen, “San Francisco Has Lowest Office Vacancy in U.S.,” San Francisco Business Times, 25 July 2013, http://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/blog/2013/07/jll-san-francisco-has-lowest-office.html (accessed 7 March 2014).

3 Rebecca Solnit, “Diary,” London Review of Books 35.3 (February 2013): 34-35, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n03/rebecca-solnit/diary.

4 Jordan Weissmann, “Why Don’t Young Americans Buy Cars?” The Atlantic, 25 March 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/03/why-dont-young-americans-buy-cars/255001/ (accessed 25 February 2012).

5 Dan Morain, “Gentrification’s Price: S.F. Moves: Yuppies In, the Poor Out,” Los Angeles Times, 03 April 1985, http://articles.latimes.com/1985-04-03/news/mn-28445_1_san-francisco-s-skyline (accessed 5 March 2014).

6 Paul Goldberger, “For San Francisco, ‘Cure’ Is Worse Than High-Rise ‘Disease,'” New York Times, 5 December 1987, http://www.nytimes.com/1987/12/05/us/for-san-francisco-cure-is-worse-than-high-rise-disease.html (accessed 5 March 2014).

7 John King, “If Only We Could Wave a Wand and Make Them Disappear. Alas, Our Ugly Buildings Are Here to Stay.” SF Gate, Updated 14 Feb 2014, <http://www.sfgate.com/default/article/If-only-we-could-wave-a-wand-and-make-them-2632288.php#page-2&gt; (accessed 6 March 2014).

8 Richard Hu, “San Francisco’s Urban Transformations Since the 1980s,” (UC Berkeley IURD Working Paper, September 2009), 4-6, http://www.iurd.berkeley.edu/publications/wp/2009-08.pdf.

9 Ibid., 39-40.

10 Heather Smith, “My Mission: Michelle Tea, Writer,” Mission Local, 13 July 2010, http://missionlocal.org/2010/07/my-mission-michelle-tea/ (accessed 6 March 2014).

11 Paulina Borsook, “How the Internet Ruined San Francisco,” Salon, 28 October 1999, http://www.salon.com/1999/10/28/internet_2/&gt; (accessed 5 March 2014).

12 Ibid.

13 Jim Forbes, “Guesses for the New Year,” San Francisco Apartment Magazine Online, February 2003, http://www.sfaa.org/0302forbes.html (accessed 7 March 2014).

14 Robert Selna, “How S.F.’s Live-Work Development Boom Began,” San Francisco Chronicle, 18 August 2008, http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/How-S-F-s-live-work-development-boom-began-3272818.php.

15 Jonah Owen Lamb, “Tech Job Growth Is Booming in SF, But Other Industries Still Dominate,” San Francisco Examiner, 19 November 2013, http://www.sfexaminer.com/sanfrancisco/tech-job-growth-is-booming-but-other-industries-still-dominate-san-francisco/Content?oid=2629996 (accessed 16 January 2014).

16 San Francisco Planning Department, “San Francisco Housing Inventory,” (May 2012), http://www.sf-planning.org/ftp/files/publications_reports/2011_Housing_Inventory_Report.pdf.


What’s the Matter with San Francisco?

by Eve Bachrach and Jon Christensen

From Boom Summer 2014, Vol 4, No 2

We’re not arguing about what really matters.

So many columns filled, so much hand wringing, but no one seems to be able to answer: What’s the matter with San Francisco?

Reporters have parachuted in from far-flung locales to poke and prod and pass judgment. Residents respond with horror stories from the house-hunting frontlines, dispatched from bus stops blocked by idling private coaches. The city is changing in ways no one seems to understand and growing faster than it can handle, its residents by turns ready for revolt and terrified of change. Some insist there’s nothing to see here, but each week brings a new story declaring that yes, there really is: San Francisco is the most expensive city in the country, San Francisco has its lowest-ever unemployment rate, San Francisco is on the frontlines of a new culture war between techies and. . . well, what’s the opposite of a techie when we’re all up to our eyeballs in technology?

This question of what’s wrong has been asked before of other places, and at least twice of Kansas. Both William Allen White in his 1896 editorial and Thomas Frank in his 2004 book came to the same conclusion: the people. Specifically, the people who act time and again against their own interests, people who adhere to a narrow political line, whether it’s antipopulist in the nineteenth century or antiprogressive in the twentieth. By focusing on one set of values, this analysis asserts, the people don’t notice what they’re really losing until it’s too late—and San Francisco is no different.

But for all that’s troubling San Francisco today, much has been right with it for a long time. In fact, a glass-is-half-full kind of person could argue that the problem with the city is that it’s much too wonderful. Too many people want to live here, too many people who have been captivated by its views and energy want to fashion the city just a little bit more in their own image, and themselves in the image of The City, as they like to call it in initial caps.

The City, as we know it, has been shaped by generations of activists who have fought to preserve a charming urbanism that they like to think is European in style—though many European cities have developed in a very different direction—surrounded by nature, the bay views, and green hills ringing the scene. They didn’t win every battle, but they won enough that San Francisco has remained for many years diverse, welcoming, and easy to love. Its small size and pedestrian-friendly scale make it the kind of place where one can be easily at home. The whole picture makes it easy to conclude that it is truly the best possible place to live in the world.

It is these qualities that make San Francisco the favorite American city of just about every European we know; New York leaves them a little overawed, LA a little lost and lonely. To the Old Worlders, San Francisco is familiar and just right. Maybe that’s because it feels something like their past too. This resistance to change served the city well for a time, but that time has ended.

A study released earlier this year examined the 2011 and 2012 incomes of people born between 1980 and 1982 in 741 “commuting zones” across the country to measure economic mobility. (Commuting zones are similar to metropolitan areas, but also include a metro area’s rural locales from which people commute to work.) Its aim was to determine where children born to parents whose income fell in the bottom fifth for their city had the greatest chance of winding up in the highest-earning quintile by the time they were thirty years old. In other words, which areas foster upward mobility and which don’t. The Equality of Opportunity Project researchers at Harvard, UC Berkeley, and the US Treasury found that San Jose and San Francisco were number one and two for upward mobility in large American cities during this period, on par with some of the most mobile societies in the world, like Denmark.

These researchers also found that segregation and inequality were the top two factors affecting a child’s chances to rise through the income ranks, followed by quality of schools, social capital, and family stability. Another study from the Pew Charitable Trust in late 2013 adds an interesting dimension to these conclusions, finding that economic diversity within neighborhoods has been the driving factor of economic mobility in the country’s largest cities.

While fostering economic mobility is an achievement that San Francisco and San Jose—and since we’re talking about commuting zones, really the whole Bay Area—should rightly be proud of, what is in store for children born in the city since the early 1980s? Or say, this year, 2014?

Income inequality is often measured by the Gini coefficient—a number between zero and one that indicates how far from perfectly even income is distributed. The closer to one, the more uneven the distribution. In 1980 the Bay Area and California as a whole had a nearly identical Gini coefficient, both lower than the rest of the country as a whole. The inequality gap actually shrank in the Bay Area until the mid-1990s. So far, so good. But as a result of a large increase in high-paid workers and a drop in middle class jobs, inequality has skyrocketed since then. The United States is less egalitarian than it was in 1980, but the trend in San Francisco has been even more remarkable; the region’s Gini coefficient is now higher than the state’s and the country’s. The Bay Area and San Francisco proper are now among the most unequal places in the nation.

The Equality of Opportunity Project and Pew Charitable Trust studies focused on metro areas or commuting zones rather than changes within a city’s limits because metropolitan regions are so deeply intraconnected now. San Francisco is no different, as we see Silicon Valley workers commuting from San Francisco, or San Francisco residents priced out of the city and moving to the East Bay. Anyone looking to fix what’s the matter with San Francisco must look at the wider region or risk failure or simply relocating the problem, or most likely, both.

Unfortunately, when people talk about the current upheaval in San Francisco, likely as not they’re talking specifically about the 47 square miles of the city itself. And the biggest upheaval of all has been the vertiginous, eye-popping, just plain crazy leap in the price of housing. San Francisco is in the throes of a profound housing shortage, which has now driven home prices past their pre-recession peak. Mayor Ed Lee is hoping to add 30,000 residential units to the city’s supply by 2020, but others say it would take an additional 100,000 units to meaningfully affect housing prices now. To put that in context, 100,000 is the number of residential units added to the city between 1920 and today—a period in which the city’s population grew from roughly 500,000 to over 800,000. But whether 30,000 or 100,000 is the magic number is academic to people who need affordable housing right now and those who will need somewhere to live in the next several years.

While certainly not their primary objective, activists who have been unwilling to sacrifice San Francisco’s medium-density character and good looks have made it considerably harder for the city to grow sustainably. So it is growing unsustainably—at least for its current residents. The basics are familiar: evictions are on the rise, rents are zooming up when apartments hit the market, and houses are selling fast, way above asking prices, often for all cash. So the only people who can afford to move to San Francisco now are almost by definition quite different from the ones who live there now or are having to leave.

Longtime San Francisco residents who fought for so long worry that the city they love is disappearing. They’re too late. That city is gone and they, in some ways, have aided its demise. Cities are like living organisms, not flies trapped in amber. Protestors long fought the “Manhattanization” of San Francisco—not wanting to see their mostly low-rise city dominated by high rises and dark urban canyons. Instead they’re getting the other kind of Manhattanization—a playground for the rich with little room for the artists and regular folk who held down the fort for so long.

But lest we fall into the “us versus them” trap that has plagued too much recent writing about San Francisco, consider a recent survey of likely voters in San Francisco that gauged attitudes toward the Google buses that have become such a potent symbol of the changes sweeping the city. More than half of the respondents had positive feelings about the shuttles. Nearly 80 percent believe the tech boom has been good for San Francisco. But a majority also believe that controlling the cost of living and preventing evictions and neighborhood gentrification is important. While the survey isn’t perfect—it would be useful to see all residents polled, not just likely voters, and to include Spanish speakers, not just English and Cantonese—it is a reminder that many of San Francisco’s immediate problems stem from too much good. The local economy is doing well and too many people are turning up to get in on the action. This is a problem much of the rest of the country would love to have.

Does San Francisco have the resources to find a way out of these seemingly vexing contradictions?

Clearly, the way to fight change you don’t like isn’t to pretend it’s not happening. Just saying no isn’t a strategy that can work forever either. It may be time for San Francisco to harness what’s inevitable and bend it as best it can before it’s too late.

This progressive city has been so focused on staying in place as the world changed around it that it may have lost something profoundly good and important—the conditions that made San Francisco one of the few places where the American dream and the California dream were actually possible.

That’s something worth fighting about, but there’s no sense blaming the Google buses or the Twitter millionaires or the even the libertarian political predilections of many techies these days. Today, they may be the ones driving up real estate prices and making San Francisco unaffordable for mere mortals. But San Francisco has been on a path toward inequality since at least the last tech boom, and the seeds of the housing shortage that are contributing to the growing inequality were sown even earlier.

In 2014, San Francisco was declared among the best places in the country for a person to rise out of poverty because of conditions that prevailed in the Bay Area back in 1980. It will be a long time before we fully understand how the current boom will echo through time. San Francisco will be a different city by then, but there’s still time to figure out and even fight about how it will be different. Let’s just try to fight about the things that really matter.


Photo collages by Rian Dundon.


The Boom Interview: Rebecca Solnit

From Boom Summer 2014, Vol 4, No 2

My imperiled city.

Editor’s note: Rebecca Solnit is an impassioned voice for San Francisco—around the world. And she comes by it honestly. She grew up in the Bay Area and has lived and worked in the city her entire adult life. She has made it her city, while becoming one of the city’s—and, indeed, the world’s—most gifted, insightful, consistently relevant, and provocative writers, independent scholars, and public intellectuals. Many of her books have taken a hard look at San Francisco and at the same time celebrated the city, from Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism to Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, and many others. In the last couple of years, her columns on the perils the city faces—most notably symbolized by the great white Google buses—in the London Review of Books and elsewhere have made her an international voice for what’s at risk in San Francisco and other cities in our new Gilded Age. And that has made her a lightning rod, too. Here at Boom, we wanted to step back from the byte-sized debates and flame-wars that have raged online around Solnit’s views and take the time to listen to her concerns in full and in the context of the diverse voices in this issue exploring what’s the matter with San Francisco. We spoke with her across the kitchen table in her home in the Mission District.

Photograph of Rebecca Solnit by Sallie Dean Shatz. Courtesy of Viking Books.


Boom: What’s the matter with San Francisco?

Solnit: You can imagine San Francisco as full of dynamic struggle that’s been pretty evenly matched between the opposing sides since the Gold Rush. There have always been idealists and populists and people who believe in mutual aid in the City of San Francisco. And there have also been ruthless businessmen and greedy people: the “come in and get everything and be accountable to nobody and hoard your pile of glittering stuff” mentality has been here since the city was founded. But it has not been so powerful that it has rubbed out the other side.

Now, however, it feels like Silicon Valley is turning San Francisco into its bedroom community. There’s so much money and so much power and so little ability to resist that it is pushing out huge numbers of people directly, but it is also re-creating San Francisco as a place that is so damn expensive that nobody but people who make huge amounts of money will be able to live here. Of course, San Francisco has been a really expensive city since the 1980s. It has been steadily getting more and more so. Or not steadily. It has really been more like “punctuated equilibrium,” to use a Clarence King geological term. Whatever equilibrium we had after the last inflationary spiral of both the housing boom and the dot-com boom is over. And now we’re in the midst of a huge boom. And with each boom, we’ve lost a little more of the affordability and economic, ethnic, cultural, and maybe professional diversity of the city. It has become more like a resort community: the rich live here, and the people who service them and perform the vital functions are going to have to live somewhere else.

There are ways in which Silicon Valley now is absolutely unprecedented in human history. It is this bizarre, new, corporate, global power center with no accountability. It’s also just a new phase of San Francisco’s increasing gentrification and unaffordability, its housing crisis. That’s an old story. Or you can tell the story yet another way as a more intensified clash in the global conflict between the haves and have-nots as the economic middle gets hollowed out, and we have rising economic inequality. And it’s a clash of values. In a way, it’s all those stories and more than you can tell. I don’t think one framework explains the whole phenomenon.

So what’s the matter with San Francisco? It’s becoming a bedroom community for Silicon Valley, while Silicon Valley becomes a global power center for information control run by a bunch of crazy libertarian megalomaniacs. And a lot of what’s made San Francisco really generative for the environmental movement and a lot of other movements gets squeezed out. And it feels like the place is being killed in some way.

BoomIs this different from the situation you wrote about in Hollow City?

Solnit: This feels different for a number of reasons. We lost so much in the dot-com boom. A lot of cultural organizations and nonprofits, ways of life got pushed out. And the city became much more exclusionary. We have already lost so much. We can’t afford to lose anymore. It’s like, okay, you lost one limb, but you can still walk with a prosthetic. How many more cuts can this death of a hundred cuts, a thousand cuts sustain?

There is a lack of meaningful conversation about what’s happening in the Bay Area. You don’t hear newcomers say, “Well, maybe we shouldn’t be the engine of mass displacement. Maybe we don’t want to be completed hated in this city. Maybe we don’t want to run so many tech buses that they’re displacing public transit from its public bus stops,”

I’m just somebody who sees the Google bus go barreling by every day and sees my city changing. How can I not look at it? I think it’s everyone’s business.

Boom: It’s a horrible metaphor, but it seems like this bus kind of ran over you and you had to respond. As you said, it’s in your face. It’s in your life.

Solnit: It’s kind of amazing to me that my most recent very San Francisco book, Infinite City, my atlas from late 2010, has so little to do with Silicon Valley. I would be mapping a very different Bay Area if I were doing that atlas four years later. And it’s interesting, because we had really kind of stopped watching Silicon Valley nervously, the way that we had at other times, and then it just exploded again. I’m a San Francisco watcher, and now that Silicon Valley has decided to annex San Francisco, I’ve got to watch Silicon Valley. If the crazy billionaire who wants to divide the state into six new states has his way, the whole Bay area will even be called Silicon Valley, which is a kind of ugly, weird name on top of everything else.

Boom: In a sense, Silicon Valley is becoming the synecdoche for the Bay Area and even California. You travel around the world and you say you’re from San Francisco, and people’s eyes light up.

Solnit: Yeah.

Boom: Do they do that for Silicon Valley?

Solnit: Hell, no. It’s interesting, because I used to always say that I was a San Franciscan and a Californian rather than American. Schwarzenegger kind of ruined your standing as a Californian in Europe.

I was in Reykjavík last summer. And everyone has got iPhones and MacBooks and is using Google and Yahoo! and Gmail and stuff. And you realize this is not just some local thing. This is what the world looks like. This is where the new world is, and a very sinister new world. I keep using the word “unaccountability.” We are not in an era of antimonopoly. Google has left a whole host of antitrust lawsuits in its wake. They are the dominant search engine and they skew results in very weird ways. They are the dominant mapping entity and have attempted to buy up and rub out other mapping entities. They buy up robotic corporations like crazy. And it feels like they have a drive towards monopoly with everything they do. And that’s really scary.

BoomSo what happened? What was it you didn’t see in Infinite City? And then in the last couple years and even in the last few months, what happened that made this explode?

Solnit: Silicon Valley keeps getting bigger and bigger and creating new billionaires and becoming more powerful. Twitter moved to San Francisco. Google keeps enlarging and buying up more corporations and expanding its clutches. And more and more crazy things keep coming out of the mouths of billionaires. And they keep messing with politics in more and more weird ways. The fact that Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, and some of the others all belong to ALEC, the deeply antidemocratic, pro-petroleum industry American Legislative Exchange Council, is really creepy.

There is good journalism. But the picture is so big, it feels like the blind man and the elephant. You’ll get a great report on the leg or the trunk or the tusk, but do we even have an overview of what it all adds up to?

Boom: One of the reasons that this kind of relationship in part became visible, I think was because of the map that Stamen did. So then this relationship became visible, and it was like a very old mapping technique. It’s like the Minard map of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.

Solnit: I don’t think it was that influential. San Francisco just kept seeing the damn Google bus every day. When Stamen’s map came out, somewhere in the middle of it all—and I would circulate it on Facebook and stuff—I did not see it widely circulated on Facebook or referenced a lot elsewhere. Actually, MUNI, the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority, put out for public comment maps showing where the 200 bus stops are that the buses are now stopping at. It’s so much more scary than Stamen’s map, which kind of makes it look like they’ve got a few big arteries and a few stops. They’ve got 200 stops now, and they are really running a major transportation system inside the infrastructure for public transit.

I think it’s about the experience for us of literally seeing the Google bus. I’ll be sitting at a window in a café or a bar or in a restaurant anywhere in central San Francisco, and they will roll by every few minutes for hours. And part of what makes them sinister is they’re unlabeled. The double-deckers are usually Google buses, but how do you tell an Apple bus from a Yahoo! bus—you know, there’s just tons of them out there.

They couldn’t have chosen a better vehicle to be kind of scary and sinister, these things that look like, as I put it in another interview, a cross between armored personnel carriers and limousines, except that they’re much bigger than either of those. They are bigger than—they’re so fucking huge. So I think that we just responded to what’s actually out there on the street.

One of the big mysteries for me is I got really interested in this because I live here, but Europeans and people all over the world seem really interested in this. Is this because they are all being governed by Google and Facebook and Twitter? Or is this because San Francisco seems like a bellwether for the new economic divide or the new hipster Stasi or what?

BoomSo how did the Google bus become a kind of meme or a synecdoche for what’s the matter with San Francisco?

Solnit: Google is the biggest, and it runs the most buses, and so Google became the shorthand for all the tech buses. And I think Google is also the biggest corporation of them all, in terms of power and financial and political and a personal kind of presence. You may not use Facebook, but you probably use the Google search engine. There’s a good chance you also use Gmail and Google Groups and Google Maps, and that it’s on your phone and your computer and iPad. Google has become so pervasive so quickly.

I don’t know if I played a role in the emblematicness of the Google bus. My piece in the London Review of Books in February 2013 was entitled “Google Invades.”

Boom: What happened then and how did it feel to all of a sudden be in the middle of this?

Solnit: Well, the piece circulated like wildfire. And I think a lot of people had been observing it and feeling nervous. It was the first really widely seen and circulated piece to articulate what was happening and why it was creepy and scary and upsetting, though David Talbot did a really great piece the fall before. So it circulated really widely from the outset and got discussed really widely outside of San Francisco.

The buses gave us this very visible kind of symbol, and as my friend, the poet Aaron Shurin has said, you couldn’t have stumbled onto a better symbol, this big, scary, bland, blank, and intrusive behemoth cruising the city streets with its tinted windows. And these people who are just so not there getting in and out.

There isn’t a meaningful conversation about what’s happening to San Francisco. There are just these attacks on people who don’t think it’s wonderful.

And Tom Perkins referring to it as Kristallnacht is about as articulate—I feel like now I’m defaming middle school students—as junior high. It’s this really lame discourse. And maybe I shouldn’t say lame. That insults the disabled. Let’s choose a better word than “lame.” Let’s just call it “wanker discourse,” if that doesn’t insult penises everywhere.

I’m not seeing people say, “Well, actually, this is why it’s good and productive.” You just get these billionaires calling everyone who doesn’t love them a Nazi, as though you should not only be able to buy everything in sight, but everyone should worship you like the king or something. It really does feel like a dictatorship or a monarchy where they are shocked and upset that the peasants have a right to their own opinion. So the discourse is just really—well, it’s not a discourse. It’s like hostile tweets and libels and slurs. And there’s an irony within: that the new technologies have created these debased discourses within which we have to try to articulate what’s debased about the discourse.

Then there are also these mountains of magic mantras that don’t have anything to do with anything. For example, Silicon Valley is very libertarian. There’s this idea, unfettered housing development would solve the housing problem, except that we need about 100,000 new units. Do we even have room to build 100,000 new units of housing in San Francisco? How long would it take? Would it really solve the housing crisis before anyone was evicted?

In my most recent LRB piece, I quote a Silicon Valley kid who said we should just deregulate development and raise the minimum wage and we’d have no problem. I did the math on that. Housing prices would have to fall to a fifth of what they are now for a $10 an hour minimum wage to make housing affordable at market rate, because market rate housing now, you’d have to make $50 an hour to be able to get in the gate. And I don’t see us raising the minimum wage to $50 an hour. That’s a world I might like to see. But that’s not actually the world you think you’re advocating for, because you haven’t actually done your research, and you don’t actually know what you’re talking about. We’re not getting really insightful counterarguments.

Boom: What would such a conversation look like?

Solnit: It would look like democracy, but you can’t really have a democratic conversation when you have the very opposite of democracy economically—so it’s not the conversation that matters; it’s the economy. Silicon Valley is this dark star that’s come along with an enormous gravitational pull that’s kind of pulling everything out of its orbit. And there’s no accountability. I’ve seen other people use the phrase, too, but I’ve been calling it the “military tech industrial complex,” because it feels like it’s a quasi-governmental body now. And there are a lot of overlaps with government and military; Silicon Valley arose from military contracting and was never the bohemian entity it likes to portray itself as, Think Different Land.

Boom: Do you think this is a product of the libertarian ideology that dominates Silicon Valley, or is it a product of the constraints and tendencies of the media, the 140 characters of a tweet, the toxic culture of commenting online, or is it a toxic stew of those two things?

Solnit: It’s a perfect storm. When Harry met Sally, when libertarian megalomania met semi-anonymous name-calling. It’s a kind of discourse that doesn’t deserve the name of “discourse.”

There has been good research from the SPUR Urbanist and others since I started to write. Somebody at UC Berkeley mounted a major study of the Google bus and its impact and confirmed that it’s actually not green carpooling. It’s displacing a lot of people. A lot of tech people wouldn’t live in San Francisco if they didn’t have free shuttles that count their long commute as work time. A lot of them would actually take existing public transit, et cetera. But you get these memes. New technology is good at creating these things people think are true, because they’ve been floating around, and they haven’t really checked them.

Boom: What did San Francisco mean to you as you were growing up? And what did it come to mean to you as you fell in love with it as a young writer?

Solnit: Well, the funny thing about growing up here is that this is normal. It’s like our weather is normal. You have to go someplace else to understand what’s particular to here. You know, San Francisco has been a wide-open town. It was really a city of refuge. It’s named after St. Francis, the man who was kind to animals and the poor, who was really an inclusive, empathic figure of mutual aid. And I think that there are some real resonances there, despite the brutalities of the Gold Rush. It was an unusually diverse city from the Gold Rush on. We had Chinese and Chileans and European refugees from the collapse of the revolutions of 1848 and free thinkers and people like Henry George the socialist, great union movements. It was a place where women were able to have a public presence, and Jews were able to have a public presence and participation that they weren’t able to have in the East. There was a real sense of freedom for people and inclusion. It was a place where people came for refuge as pacifists during World War II, and for long before as openly gay and lesbian and transgendered and cross-dressing people. And it was a port town, so it had the same wildness other port cities like New Orleans have. And it has been a great city of literature and the arts.

The f/64 photographic movement is often described as though it was really based in Carmel and Monterey. Edward Weston was there. But Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham went back and forth. And it was as much San Francisco as anywhere.

Maybe “San Francisco Renaissance” is a better term for the incredible explosion of poetry here in the forties and fifties that never really ended but may be ending now. There are probably not so many young poets in San Francisco, though there are still a lot of old ones.

But it was also a place that created new institutions. And I think the Sierra Club in 1892 was really paradigmatic. It was a bunch of businessmen and lawyers who thought you could do well while doing good—and John Muir. They really were turning the idea of the private mountaineering club, which had been a very elite entity in Europe and the East, into something more populist and radical and engaged. And I think the global environmental movement, if it starts anywhere, it starts here.

And all these experiments in lifestyle and the expansion of rights for women and people of color and gays and lesbians and farmworkers and disabled people, that comes out of the greater Bay Area. It has been a place that has produced a lot of new ways of living and doing things, with liberatory and egalitarian and inclusive ideas for the whole planet. It has been a kind of a beacon and a laboratory. And that’s what’s at stake. That’s why San Francisco matters.

You think of so many individual people who have been absolutely amazing and done wonderful things. And I don’t see that in the new San Francisco, where it just costs so damn much to live here, you either have to have a trust fund or be working really hard at making money. You can’t be doing what people have been doing in my tenure in San Francisco, which is to do something part time for a living, but do for free with no expectation of return what you’re passionate about, whether it’s human rights or environmentalism or painting or poetry or scholarship. That scope to be poor and idealistic no longer exists, and it was those poor idealistic people that made the great culture of San Francisco. They are portrayed as slackers in the mainstream conversation, and there have always been slackers, but also people working on AIDS issues, on environmental justice, on human rights, on after-school programs for at-risk kids, and not getting rich at it.

One of the great misunderstandings in our society is that wealth is culture. That’s ridiculous. The Fillmore District, a poor African American district, was the Harlem of the West. It was tremendously culturally generative. It was a place that was rich in culture. And the Batman Gallery, which was a great gallery for artists like Bruce Conner and Joan Brown, a kind of avant-garde gallery, had tremendous empathy and connection to the Fillmore. It was at 2222 Fillmore Street. When I started working on my book on it, in the late 1980s, it had become a classical music store. And, okay, a classical music store is just selling culture made elsewhere, but it’s a pretty nice cultural entity. Since the nineties, it’s been a Starbucks. Now I think it’s a Lululemon yoga clothing store. And you can see from an art gallery giving really radical, outspoken, experimental artists a place to show and strengthening a community, to a place selling classical music, to a Starbucks, which is still a café where people can hang out and read and write, to a yoga clothing corporate chain with $90 pants, is a trajectory of gentrification in a nutshell, all at 2222 Fillmore Street. While the space that the Six Gallery was in—where the great “Howl” reading happened in 1955, one of the great landmarks in American literature and the rebirth of poetry as a spoken participatory live thing rather than just something you read—that place became a kind of wonderful Middle Eastern rug store that felt like it kept that spirit alive in some way through the nineties. And now it’s a boring, upscale restaurant, wine bar. So wealth is not where culture comes from.

Megan Wilson, who is one of the Clarion Alley Mural Project artists, got harassed under the sit/lie law that was forced through by people like Gavin Newsom and the more gentrifying supervisors, the law that criminalizes sitting and lying in public. She’s a muralist who has made that alley—which was a kind of drug alley, full of piss and shit—into this beautiful place, full of brilliant, evolving murals. It’s not a static museum of the murals that were there in the 1990s. She was painting a new mural, and the police came and hassled her. Here’s one of the people who has given the most to the community. And the police are serving a version of community that doesn’t tolerate people like that.

René Yañez—who Guillermo Gómez-Peña calls the “capo,” the godfather of the Mission—has been evicted while his wife is being treated for cancer. Who does those things? And who moves into their homes when they’re vacated? The brutality and the indifference to the culture, with so much money sloshing around like a tsunami! Why has nobody bailed out Adobe Books, which was evicted, and is now sort of limping along as a nonprofit? Why has nobody bailed out Modern Times, the great bookstore that was also evicted, and is now deeper in the Mission on Twenty-Fourth Street and possibly going to go under? Why has nobody bailed out Marcus Books, the oldest black bookstore west of the Mississippi that’s also got housing troubles?

That is one of the big questions of Silicon Valley: with that much money, where is our golden age? You think you’re the Medicis. Where is your patronage? We’re not seeing great cultural patronage. Not that I like the word “patronage,” but that’s what the Medicis did. We’re not seeing giveback. We’re not seeing engagement. We’re not seeing people saying, “We’re the great innovators. Here’s how we’re going to solve the housing problem.” They’re just like, “Oh, you just need to deregulate, and things will magically become beautiful and inclusive.” And it’s like, “Yeah. We’ve heard that story before with free trade and corporate globalization and stuff.” It was incoherent then, and it’s incoherent now.

The San Francisco that we all cared about always had bankers and corporations in it. The San Francisco I moved to had Bechtel and Chevron and Bank of America headquartered here. Chevron has moved to the suburbs. Bank of America has moved to Delaware. Bechtel is still here, a great war profiteer in the war on Iraq, deeply involved, like Chevron, in the global oil economy and other kinds of scary developments. So there have always been many faces to San Francisco. It’s always had businesses and corporations and conservatives and massively affluent people and ruthless people and things like that. I don’t know what the future looks like, but the present magnified is a homogenized, de-cultured, denatured San Francisco.

And I also feel very strongly that one of the things that make a place meaningful is cultural memory and continuity. It’s something I’ve learned very deeply from New Orleans, which was the least mobile population in the United States before Katrina—that when you have cultural memory and continuity, you really build community. You can start to build practices and conversations and institutions that require long-term involvement. No matter how lovely people are, if they’re transient, if they all got there last week, there’s no cultural memory. You cannot truly understand change if you don’t even know that things were different.

Boom: You have written that in addition to being a refuge, San Francisco has been an anomaly. Is it no longer an anomaly?

Solnit: I don’t know. It’s weird, because it’s now becoming a bedroom community for Silicon Valley, and more and more being assimilated into Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley is an anomaly. But it’s also not an antithesis to the status quo—despite their sentimental fantasies about themselves. It is creating and enforcing and marketing and profiting from the status quo, which is the new world of digital technology, communications, media, et cetera.

BoomIn that sense maybe it’s the capital of the twenty-first century?

Solnit: Yep. I’ll take that. It’s funny because it feels like the way Europe has the city of culture that rotates, America has the city of crisis that rotates. LA after the riots was the dystopian vision of the future. And then Detroit has had its moments being the vision of a post-industrial, post-capitalist future. New Orleans has had its moment being the poster child of the city of the future with climate change and catastrophe and a city of government failure.

In that sense, I don’t think that every city will be like San Francisco. I think every city may end up getting controlled from San Francisco in a way. Twitter and Wikipedia are here. Facebook, Yahoo!, and Google, which owns YouTube, are down the Peninsula, and that’s five of the six biggest websites in the world.

San Francisco used to be this very left-wing city that is an anomaly within the United States. That seems to be ending, or it seems to becoming another kind of anomaly, the global capital of technology, the fraternity house of the junior members of the new technocracy.

And then the other way it ceases to be an anomaly is that cities all over the world are becoming increasingly divided between the haves and the have-nots as we polarize economies and the middle class gets eliminated. Then you have the masses of poor and precarious and struggling and debt-burdened and desperate people and the new overlords, and that’s happened to London in a very intense way.

Boom: A lot of your work is filled with a love of place. Are you falling out of love with San Francisco?

Solnit: My wonderful friend, Stephanie Syjuco, has been writing as though she’s having flings with places and they’re betraying her. She actually wrote a breakup letter to San Francisco that’s just tremendous. I joke that I’m not leaving San Francisco; San Francisco is leaving me. Rupa Marya—the band leader of the band Rupa and the April Fishes—used to live in the Mission. So did a lot of her band members. So did a lot of the musicians they played with. They got their start at Red Poppy Arthouse on Twenty-Third and Folsom. And she comes here now and says it feels like a ghost town. All the musicians are gone. They’re all in Oakland, which doesn’t have the same kind of density that allows for the same kind of easy mingling. You have to get in your car and drive someplace. There are a lot of wonderful things about Oakland, but I know Oaklanders feel like they’re being invaded.

I love the same things I love. They’re just thinning out and relocating. And I love the physical geography of San Francisco and the Victorian houses and the weather and the farmer’s markets and things, and there are still a lot of wonderful people and institutions here. I had drinks with Paul Yamazaki at City Lights Books last week. City Lights is here for the long haul. The Sierra Club is still on Second Street, and it will be for the foreseeable future, although a lot of environmental groups are also moving to the East Bay.

There have always been things here that I didn’t love, including ruthless greed. And there’s a lot of that now. And I don’t love Silicon Valley’s culture as it’s manifesting. There are programmers in my family. And I don’t think that people who are in technology are inherently evil or anything like it. I know well that there are software people and website managers and things at institutions like the Sierra Club. And somebody is running the website for San Francisco Zen Center. But we have an overwhelming number of newcomers coming from a homogenous culture with fairly weird beliefs, libertarian philosophies, a gaping lack of philanthropy in ways that matter, an apparent wholesale willingness to destroy its host community. And that’s not pretty.

Boom: You once wrote about Walter Benjamin’s angel of history and imagined an angel of alternative history. Could you imagine an alternative history for the possibilities that didn’t play out as we have had this technological revolution and it has gone down this path?

Solnit: The utopian narrative is that we realize that the rise of digital communications is the rise of a new sphere that we declare as a public commons and that will be regulated for the public good by publicly accountable people, for the benefit of the public. Your privacy is protected. We come up with a great pay-per-view model for newspapers and keep newspapers in business, where you pay a penny or something for each article. If I made a penny for everyone who looked at my pieces on TomDispatch, I’d be making thousands on some of those pieces instead of $100 while Arianna Huffington is making a fortune off reposting my content and everyone else’s on the Huffington Post. We’d have models where content providers get paid for investigative journalism and good journalistic sites get support.

Search engines would also have to be a public commons, run for the public good. So how searches are ranked would have to be decided by law, because it’s such a tremendously influential thing. And the fact that it can be determined by money, and you can be made to disappear by a search engine that doesn’t happen to like you, is really totalitarian. They disappeared human beings in Argentina. Now they can just disappear information or ideas. I think we regard it—as we once regarded the airwaves before Reagan—as a global public commons that has to be regulated for the public good. And “regulated” isn’t a very charming word, but governed by democratic means. I think that would make a tremendous difference.

I think we would also have a tremendous conversation about whether we want to spend all our lives being wired. Consciousness is changing. We haven’t made a meaningful decision that, yes, that’s the road we want to go down; yes, that’s what the good life looks like. Iceland had a massive conversation about what its constitution should look like. What if we had a massive conversation about what communication and entertainment should look like and what we want and who controls it? And not even getting into the misogyny of so much online communication and online gaming and things like that. There are so many arenas.

BoomIs there hope in the dark, to quote one of your book titles?

Solnit: Absolutely. I don’t know what the future holds, and I don’t think there is a simple, obvious, near-term change coming, but I don’t believe any of those adjectives are impossible to apply. I don’t know what’s going to happen.

One of the things that’s really interesting is the new way that Silicon Valley is being described. Apparently lots of young banker and MBA types are coming here because this is the new money machine. And people are starting to think about Silicon Valley with all the passion and enthusiasm and respect they have for Wall Street and bankers. Occupy Wall Street was a movement against Wall Street. That’s why it was called “Occupy Wall Street.” We may see some form of Occupy Silicon Valley.

When you want to understand how the world works look at what your enemies are frightened of. If they are frightened of you, maybe they know better than you do that you have real power. And those billionaires are really nervous. And I think people around the world know at some level that when you return to the nineteenth century, a world where the great majority is desperate and a few are insanely wealthy robber barons, you return to a world of revolution and revolt and class war and class conflict and resentment and rage. A lot of what the twentieth century was about was creating social democracy in Europe and the New Deal and Great Society in the United States and similar solutions in other countries to quell class war. Because they have no memory, they have forgotten that that’s what their stake was in our having a nice life. I don’t think they have any stake in us having a nice life. But they take away our nice life, and we all go back to the nineteenth century and go back to class war.

The fact that people have gone from having a crush on Silicon Valley to hating and despising it in a year, I think is kind of auspicious. Who knows where that will go?

And I think there are very positive things about the new social media. My major political outlet is TomDispatch.com, which is a little electronic wire service run through The Nation Institute, and that has tremendous power. And I think the fact that we have counter-media is the best part of the new tech landscape. It is creating room for the Glenn Greenwalds and Snowdens and Chelsea Mannings and WikiLeaks and TomDispatches and a host of radical voices that are actually quite powerful. So that’s what’s hopeful for me in this landscape. And I do feel like there’s a global critique of capitalism and neoliberalism, corporate globalization and Wall Street bankers, et cetera, that’s very different than it was before the collapse of 2008. A lot more needs to happen to act on it, but it’s really interesting.

And who knows what’s going to happen? Hope for me has never been optimism, which like pessimism thinks it knows what’s going to happen. It’s been uncertainty, and I think the very volatility of Silicon Valley could implode, backfire, give rise to revolutions and counter-revolutions and backlashes, be used against the overlords, et cetera, et cetera. The fact that the United States through all the new technological abilities to spy on everybody is pissing off everyone right and left, and may weaken American power, which might be a good thing for the world and might be a good thing for getting other countries to say that, actually, we want to close these privacy loopholes. It’s like all these dominoes are falling. And we can’t see into the mist, or, since we’re in San Francisco, the fog, to see what’s going to get knocked over. It’s a period of tremendous upheaval.



Google Streetview models created by Coll.eo. COURTESY OF COLL.EO.


Serigrafia: A Reflection

by Carlos Francisco Jackson

Posters, art, and the Chicana/o consciousness.

Serigrafia is an exhibition of Chicana/o posters from California that is touring California, and has already been exhibited at the UC Davis Design Museum, Arte Américas in Fresno, and the Pasadena California Museum of Art. I served as one of the cocurators of Serigrafia. Recently, I stepped back from the exhibition and contemplated the significance of this collection of Chicano posters from 1969–2011. In doing so I was reminded of my initial encounter with Chicano social serigraphy (screen printing) through a class I took with Malaquias Montoya, professor emeritus of Chicana/o Studies and Art at UC Davis. Malaquias Montoya was one of the founders of Chicana/o social serigraphy, and his posters are well represented in the exhibition. He developed a Chicana/o community-based art curriculum that included a poster workshop and a mural workshop. Malaquias instituted both of these courses in the newly created Chicano Studies Program at UC Berkeley in 1969. The poster and mural classes are still taught today, where I teach, in Chicana/o Studies at UC Davis, which is a direct result of this curriculum created in 1969. The work on view in Serigrafia charts the work of some of the most prominent printmakers to have emerged from the Chicano Movement and the development of a Chicana/o consciousness. The posters on view are representative of a “space” where Chicana/o identity and consciousness have been explored, expressed, and challenged while simultaneously serving the community through advocacy and engagement. Chicana/o identity has often been framed as an essentialist category for which people are either included or excluded racially. Yet, like the posters on view in Serigrafia, Chicana/o identity has been transforming ever since the initial idea for its framework was written in 1969 in the founding document of Chicana/o Studies, El Plan de Santa Bárbara. The posters, as “spaces,” mirror Chicana scholar, Rosa Linda Fregoso’s framework for Chicana/o identity as she defined it in 1993 stating, “Chicano refers to a space where subjectivity is produced (p.xix).” If the posters on view in Serigrafia are spaces where subjectivity is produced, then Chicana/o consciousness and identity has, since its inception, been overwhelmingly forward-thinking and visionary in representing a more just future for communities that have been historically marginalized and underrepresented.


“Festival de la Raza” mural in Tijuana by Malaquias Montoya, 1986. COURTESY OF MALAQUIAS MONTOYA.

I initially encountered Malaquias Montoya in the fall of 1996 when he came to give an evening presentation to a group of Chicano students at a theme dorm called Casa Cuauhtemoc on the UC Davis campus, where I was a first-year student and resident. Malaquias Montoya had come to Casa Cuauhtemoc to give an hour-long slide presentation on his work. He presented on a mural that he had conducted and completed in Tijuana in 1986 as part of the Festival de la Raza. His slide talk outlined the entire mural process from conception to completion. The swiftness in which he painted the mural is what I recall being the most striking thing about the presentation. The actual painting of the mural took no more than a few days to complete. He spent as much time engaging with the community before he began the scaled drawing as he did working on the actual painting. His prep work included scanning the environment, meeting with residents in the nearby community, talking with community leaders and activists, and entering into dialogue with community educators and cultural workers. Fundamentally, the slide talk—and I didn’t realize this until later—emphasized that the work of a Chicano artist is rooted in community engagement through culture as a means to empower, educate, and foster transformation. Malaquias engaged the community, a community he was a member of, and yet he also challenged that community to reimagine itself through the imagery in this mural. The mural ultimately was a discussion of the historical legacy of colonialism, imperialism, and the struggles that the Mexican, Mexican American, and Latin American diasporic communities had faced through multiple layers of conquest.

It was because of this presentation that I sought out Malaquias the following year. As a nineteen-year-old second-year student, I was active in several Chicano student programs and would spend quite a bit of time in the Chicana/o Studies department. In the fall quarter of 1997, I introduced myself to Malaquias while he was standing in the hallway of the department after a faculty meeting. I asked him if I could enroll in his upper-division course titled Chicana/o Poster Workshop. This course was quite popular with many of the active Chicana/o students. The class was designed to teach students how to create silkscreen posters by requiring them to represent prescient topics in posters, which would ultimately be distributed within the local community or a community-serving organization. Students were widely aware of the importance of this course, which is why the course would fill its enrollment cap within the first few hours of open registration. When I saw Malaquias in the Chicana/o Studies department hallway and walked up to him to ask his permission to enroll in the poster workshop, I did so because enrollment was restricted with a prerequisite that students needed to have taken Survey of Chicana/o Art. If you had not taken that course, you could enroll but you had to seek permission of the instructor first. I introduced myself to Malaquias and quietly asked for his permission to enroll. When Malaquias asked if I had taken the prerequisite, I responded that I had not. Hoping to convince Malaquias that I was worthy of enrollment, I explained that I was a member of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) and active in several Chicano student-serving programs. Malaquias was not swayed and said that if I was to enroll in the poster workshop I would need to take Survey of Chicana/o Art. I walked away defeated, as I had no intention of taking an introductory course on Chicana/o art. I did not understand how Chicano art related to my interests in community-engagement and activism. Clearly, I was naïve and uneducated regarding the history of the movement’s importance. Malaquias’s denial of my request to enroll in his poster workshop turned out to be a gift, one that would transform my life.

When I approached Malaquias, I did not understand why it was important for me to take Survey of Chicana/o Art before enrolling in the poster workshop. At the time, I was interested only in raising my consciousness, political activism and engagement, and enrolling in classes to help me understand the reasons inequality existed back home. To me, these were found in lectures and seminar courses in Chicana/o studies and in departments such as history, political science, and sociology. I was not aware of any value the arts would have on my educational path at the university. But, to ultimately enroll in the poster workshop, which I was anxious to do, I needed to take Survey of Chicana/o Art. So, in the fall of 1998, a little less than a year after I initially asked for permission, I enrolled in Malaquias’s survey course. The only way I can describe the experience of that course is to say that I left it completely transformed—transformed as a person in every way.

The Survey of Chicana/o Art course led students on a path to understanding the influences and context in which the Chicano Art Movement emerged. Malaquias’s students had to read articles about the importance of representation and resistance to the dominant culture that had structured inequality for marginalized communities, and he shared examples of community-engaged art practices such as colectivas and talleres. The class ultimately left students with an appreciation of why the silkscreen poster and community mural were two unique Chicana/o visual art forms and why these practices were still taught within a Chicana/o studies department like that of UC Davis. In this course, Chicano identity was never presented as a race-based category. Rather, in the context of this course, being a Chicana or Chicano was to be a person committed to community engagement, social justice, antiracism, and equality. Had I not been required to take the survey course first, I would not have developed a full appreciation of the significance of the Chicana/o Art Movement and the role of the poster within it. A poster would simply have just remained a poster. For me, I know that the poster would not have developed into what it has become, a space where Chicana/o consciousness is recorded and expressed.


“Constitución del 17″ by Elena Huerta, ca. 1935. Relief print. COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME, SNITE MUSEUM OF ART.

My transformation began during the survey course when Malaquias showed the first set of what would be several sets of slides of Chicana/o artists. I most looked forward to the days when Malaquias showed slides of the artists’ works we were discussing in the readings. The slides that Malaquias showed initially were about the influences to the Chicana/o Movement, which included images of the Mexican Mural Movement, Jose Guadalupe Posada’s broadsides, the Taller de Gráfica Popular, and printmakers from revolutionary Cuba. As the quarter went on. Malaquias showed more and more work by Chicanas and Chicanos. I remember Malaquias sharing drawings and prints by Ester Hernandez and Yolanda Lopez. I was incredibly moved by their work and by the respect with which Malaquias presented it. Malaquias was a towering figure to me and many of the Chicana/o students on campus. It was incredibly powerful to see him humble before the work of Ester and his contemporaries. I now understand that this humility was an expression of respect for those who are engaging culture within the framework of the Movement. I remember looking at the images that were projected out of the slide carousel in our darkened classroom, wondering why I had not seen these images before, wondering why they were not part of my upbringing. Today, as a faculty member in Chicana/o studies, what I most often hear from students who are engaged in our curriculum is, “Why didn’t I know this earlier? Why wasn’t I taught this before I arrived on campus?” The common frustration is one that I experienced as a student. Why did I have to come to UC Davis, 400 miles from home, to learn about who I am? The knowledge and history of who I am and where I come from rightfully belongs to me. There is a feeling of frustration and anger that more people haven’t had the opportunity to learn about this heritage and see these images.


“La Retirada” No. 16 from 1973 XX Aniversario portfolio by Rene Mederos, 1973. COURTESY OF THE CHICANA/O STUDIES DEPARTMENT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, DAVIS.

These images represented my family, my mother, my uncles, cousins, grandparents, and community. The works were not simply mirrors for their likenesses; they were images that transformed their likenesses to represent gods, heroes, leaders, and monuments. Yolanda Lopez’s Margaret F. Stewart: Our Lady of Guadalupe and Ester Hernandez’s Virgen de las Calles presented as people what I saw represented in their work—my family and community. These artists represented who we are. They revealed to me the extent to which I, and my family, had not been properly represented in the dominant culture and even in the daily encounters of the Mexican American experience. I thought to myself, “Where were these images? Where could I find them? How could I make them my own? How can I share them with others?” To discover the answers, I went to the library and looked for books. In 1998, very few library books had reproduced images of Chicana/o art. I found the CARA catalog, checked it out, and carried it with me wherever I went. I found the 1969 edition of El Grito that had a portfolio of images of the newly formed Mexican American Liberation Art Front. One night when I was at LA Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley I found two copies of Malaquias Montoya’s Adeline Kent Award Catalog for sale for $15 each. I bought both copies. I leafed through these catalogs so much that I wore down the edges of the paper and had started to wear down the quality of the reproductions. Words cannot express how important those images were to me.


“Margaret F. Stewart: Our Lady of Guadalupe” by Yolanda Lopez, 1978. COURTESY OF YOLANDA LOPEZ AND THE CHICANO STUDIES RESEARCH CENTER AT UCLA.

Malaquias did not present his own artwork in Survey of Chicana/o Art until the end of the quarter. On the second to last day of class, he showed a full slide carousel of artworks that described his trajectory as an artist, from the earliest Yo Soy Chicano posters created in San Jose and Berkeley between 1967 and 1969 to his most recent series of pastel drawings on paper that commemorate the recent passing of Cesar Chavez. On the last day of class, we discussed and debated Eduardo Galeano’s article, “In Defense of the Word.” I recall, quite vividly, the emotion in our classroom as we attempted to comprehend Galeano’s words: “We are what we do, especially what we do to change who we are: our identity resides in action and in struggle. Therefore, the revelation of what we are implies a denunciation of those who stop us from being what we can become (Galeano, p.190).” I left that day knowing that my identity had the opportunity to be defined not by what I am, but rather by what I do. At the time, I did not have the language to describe what I felt inside or what I knew about myself and what I needed to do. Retrospectively, I can say that at that point I knew I wanted to contribute to this movement of cultural workers. I didn’t know how. I simply knew that in some way my life was going to be dedicated to fostering the expansion of the arts to represent the breadth and weight of the Chicano experience so that the broader community would have access to the arts, not as an activity of leisure but rather as an indispensable part of creating equal representation for a community that has been, too often, rendered invisible.


“La Virgen de las Calles” by Ester Hernandez, 2001. COURTESY OF ESTER HERNANDEZ.

This essay began when, as I was walking through Serigrafia experiencing the posters on view, I recalled feeling the same as I did when I attended an exhibition that was recommended in the Survey of Chicana/o Art syllabus. Malaquias had placed several local and regional Chicana/o art exhibitions in the course syllabus so students could see and experience the artwork being discussed in class. I was able to attend one of the exhibits of Malaquias’s posters at Laney College’s art gallery in Oakland. I drove with a friend to Oakland to view the exhibition. I was not able to attend the exhibition opening, which undoubtedly was a powerful event with historical activists and cultural workers as attendees. Laney was the community college that Malaquias and Manuel Hernandez worked with to support their community art silkscreen centers in East Oakland during the 1970s. I visited Laney during the week on a normal business day. The gallery was empty. My friend and I quietly walked around and experienced the artwork in a very private and quiet manner. On view at Laney were twenty of Malaquias’s most iconic screen prints: his poster addressing Wells Fargo’s support of the dictatorship in Chile in the 1970s, Argentina’s dirty war, and the Bakke decision. All of the posters were framed in simple, natural-colored wood frames with basic mats laid on top to crop out the very outer edges of each poster. The uniform nature of the frames created a consistency among the works that was not present in the diversity of imagery and wide breadth of topics represented in the posters. Malaquias created each of the posters, so he is represented in each poster. But, as a whole, they were diverse as a collection of artwork. The exhibit included posters using oil-based inks and other posters using acrylic inks. Some were created using only an X-Acto knife, creating hard edges throughout the imagery, and some were made using loose drawing techniques and hand-cut lettered stenciling. Posters addressed the inhumane conditions of farmworkers in the Central Valley and valorized the decolonizing efforts of activists in Angola. The works were transnational yet rooted in a Chicano perspective. The posters were largely historical, yet there were contemporary issues confronting the Mexican American community. The work represented Third World solidarity, which spoke to my developing understanding of community.


“Calavera Campesino” by Malaquias Montoya, 1993. Acrylic, pencil, and pastel on paper, 30′′× 22′′. COURTESY OF MALAQUIAS MONTOYA.

As a student in 1998, I sensed a thread, an expression of consciousness among some Chicano students that was highly exclusionary. There were Chicano students, especially those who were politically active, who had very strict notions of what constituted inclusion in the category “Chicano.” Chicana/o community membership among many of my fellow classmates fell along rigid boundaries defined by politic, dress, and language. Malaquias’s work was liberating because it crossed boundaries and borders. What unified his work was a commitment to speak against injustice and make these images and ideas available and accessible to a broad community constituency. The work on view at Laney College affirmed the idea that to be Chicano, or to be a Chicano artist, was to be someone committed to a life of approaching social justice through community collaboration. From the very beginning, the work was about community self-determination and social justice. Cultural nationalism, while sparsely representative through indigenous iconography, was not a force within the works on view at Laney. Cultural nationalism, a very prominent ideological force at the outset of the Chicano Power Movement, would eventually be widely critiqued for its rigid boundaries and essentialist racial framework. Malaquias’s work was only essentialist in that it was essentially antiracist, preferring resistance to injustice. This was something that I tacitly or internally understood while viewing the show at Laney College, but it was not something I had the language skills to fully articulate until now.

The Serigrafia exhibition presents a selection of the most iconic, historic, and significant Chicana/o posters created from the outset of the Chicana/o Movement. The significance of this exhibition is not that a diverse collaborative team of cultural workers curated it or that it is one of the few national, traveling exhibits of Chicano posters to be organized. Nor is its primary significance due to the inclusion of several generations of artists, including those who created this cultural form of engagement and emerging artists in their twenties and early thirties who were mentored or inspired by the pioneers of the movement. Although these are unique and highly significant aspects of this traveling exhibit, I believe the most unique aspect of Serigrafia is that it demonstrates the trajectory of the Chicano Art Movement, specifically Chicano social serigraphy as being informed and defined by a productive quality based on antiracism, decolonization, and community self-determination. The Chicano Art Movement and the self-designated category Chicano were not race-based alignments where inclusion or exclusion was based on narrowly defined qualities outside of people’s control. Chicano art and Chicano identity are not simply politicized markers for Mexican Americans or the culture they create. Rather, as Ian Haney Lopez states in his book Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice, Mexican American activists in the 1960s invented the category Chicano. This invention was to represent a “productive quality (Fregoso, p.xix).” Rosa Linda Fregoso, in the introduction to her book The Bronze Screen, states that Chicanos did not “invent” themselves but rather “reinvented (imagined anew) a ‘community’ of Chicanos and Chicanas (p.xix).” For those new to the Chicano Movement and, specifically, the Chicano Art Movement, their first question when encountering this might very well be, Why is it be necessary to create “anew” a group of people who already exist? The answer is readily evident in the posters on view in Serigrafia.

Significant portions of the works represented in Serigrafia were made at the outset of the Chicana/o Movement. The beginning of the Chicana/o Movement in the mid-1960s represents a rupture—the point in history when the Mexican American community began to view inequity and underrepresentation as evidence of a society that had structured inequality along racial lines. The era before this rupture has been described as the “Mexican American Generation.” The Mexican American Generation produced socially oriented organizations such as the GI Forum and LULAC that advocated on behalf of the Mexican American community. Despite this, it was an era that largely sought community self-determination through assimilation into the dominant culture. The assimilationist efforts of the Mexican American Generation were largely built around deficit thinking discourses: the notion that there were shortfalls within Mexican American culture and those shortfalls were the reasons inequity and lack of resources existed.

For Mexican Americans during the post-war period, this framework subsequently necessitated assimilation into the dominant culture as the only path for self-determination. This “deficit thinking” discourse, as Martha Menchaca states in Recovering History/Constructing Race, largely grew out of an effort “to blame Mexican Americans for the social and economic problems generated by Anglo-American racism (p.15).” Menchaca charts how in 1968 Octavio Romano-V, an early anthropologist and Chicano scholar, explained that the dominant culture had “ignored the way in which racism historically had been used by Anglo Americans to obstruct the social, economic, and political mobility of Mexican-origin people,” and he described how “Mexican Americans were studied ahistorically in order to ignore the vestiges of Anglo-American racism—such as segregation, employment discrimination, racist laws, and police violence.” In this case, the term ahistorical describes Mexican Americans as an “immigrant and peasant-like group who had not contributed to the nation’s infrastructure culturally, technologically, or architecturally (Ibid.).” This perspective marked as invisible the Mexican American community’s historical legacy in the Southwest and their contributions to the growth of the nation’s economy and infrastructure.


“Yo Soy Chicano” by Malaquias Montoya, 2013. Screenprint. 30′′× 22′′. Reprint by Jesus Barraza from the 1972 original. COURTESY OF MALAQUIAS MONTOYA.

Ten years after I initially took Malaquias’s survey course, he retired from UC Davis, and I, a recently hired assistant professor in the department, had the privilege of organizing his retirement celebration. In thinking about the construction of the Mexican American community as ahistorical, I now refer back to a profound statement shared on the day of Malaquias’s celebration. Greg Morozumi (long-time activist, organizer, cultural worker, and former student of Malaquias Montoya at UC Berkeley between 1969 and 1971) was the last of many speakers celebrating Malaquias’s impact as an educator and artist. When Greg came to the podium, he said: “When the Third World Solidarity Movement and Chicano Movement began, we didn’t even know who we were. The significance of the cultural movement was to create a new understanding of who we are.” Greg, in his tribute to Malaquias, talked about the significance of Third World cultural movements in the Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Greg’s statement that “we didn’t even know who we were” highlights the degree to which communities that had been historically marginalized had internalized the dominant culture’s ahistorical perspective. The significance of the Chicano Art Movement lies in the productive quality in which a new identity and consciousness was realized and expressed within its activity and cultural production. In this way, each Chicana/o poster historicizes, repairing the damage an ahistorical perspective has wrecked over generations.

Serigrafia presents two types of Chicano posters, both similar but with important distinctions. The first type of poster represented is that which primarily addresses an issue of culture or what I would call an expression of Chicano consciousness. These posters visualize new empowering images of what would represent a new Chicana/o identity. Posters such as Barbara Carrasco’s DOLORES are examples of works that visualize representations of an identity not fixed within a cultural nationalist, racial, or ideological framework. These works are created not necessarily for a specific event, rally, or organization. Rather, they serve as artistic representations of some ethos or cultural figuration that enhances our understanding of how the community is being “imagined anew (Fregoso, p.xxiii).”

The second type of poster represented is more issue driven (politically, socially, economically, etc.). This second type of poster is primarily represented in Serigrafia. These posters address issues affecting a dynamic, ever-expanding, and changing transnational community. Therefore, through posters for a community clinic, boycott, rally, fundraising drive, or political action, the ever-changing and growing understanding of Chicana/o consciousness is revealed. These posters bridge the development of new representations of consciousness with tangible applications. Posters are often categorized as design, propaganda, and/or didactics. They are very rarely categorized as art. Within the Chicana/o Art Movement, there is no distinction between a fine print and a poster. There is no high or low culture: there is simply the invention and subsequent creation of a space where subjectivity is produced, all in the service of community self-determination.



Therefore, the poster can be a tool for social purposes and an ever-changing and developing space for the expression of consciousness. In this respect, the poster itself serves as a metaphor for the category Chicana/o. The category Chicana/o has, since the outset of the Chicana/o civil rights movement, vexed individuals who have tried to define the parameters of its definition. Chicana/o ultimately is a category or identity that is fundamentally self-designated. Chicano has most often and regularly been stated to be another racial classification for Mexican Americans. This is understandable because the term “Chicano” emerged through the Mexican American civil rights movement of the late 1960s. Despite this specificity, the term Chicano from the outset was developed to represent a category of cultural politics that challenged racial constructions. As stated in El Plan de Santa Bárbara, “Chicano, in the past a pejorative and class-bound adjective, has now become the root idea of a new cultural identity for our people [emphasis added].” This document, drafted by students and community activists in 1969, outlines “community self-determination” as the essence of Chicano commitment. In this respect, Chicano is an idea that is informed by a commitment to community. The idea, then, is manifested through various methods. Rosa Linda Fregoso addresses the issue of what constitutes Chicano cultural production by stating: “The quandary in the self-designation Chicano undergirds the cultural category, Chicano cinema, because what to call the people of Mexican origin (“Chicano,” “Latino,” or “Hispanic”), or whom to consider for membership into the Chicano nation, depends on one’s politics and the context of the term’s usage (p.xviii).” I would swap the word “art” for “cinema” within the context of Fregoso’s essay. I would even go so far as to say the words “politics,” “identity,” and “culture” could be swapped for the word “cinema.” Fregoso states that she handles the problem of self-designation or classification of Chicano cinema (culture, art, politics, identity, etc.) by “de-emphasizing the biological claims to authenticity, yet accentuating its productive quality. In this respect, Chicano refers to a space [emphasis added] where subjectivity is produced (xix).” The poster serves as the subjective space described by Fregoso. Within the designated image area of the paper or substrate, you have representations of transnationalism, gender equality, international solidarity, and decolonizing practices where antiracism and social justice serve as the common denominator. Within this space, this subjective space that is the poster, we can see an opening up of access and expanding conceptions of social justice and equality that begin at the onset of the movement and become more prevalent as we move closer to our contemporary context.

In 1999, viewing the exhibition at Laney College was the equivalent to someone telling me where I’ve come from, who I am, and where my community is headed. The great absence of Chicano history, culture, and art from the K–12 educational curriculum and its absence from representation within the dominant culture has, for generations, created alienation. The experience of standing in the empty gallery at Laney was profound. As Gloria Anzaldua states, before something new can be created to truly foster a new way of relating to each other “our mothers, sisters, brothers, the guys who hang out on street corners, the children in the playgrounds, each of us must know our Indian lineage, or afro-mestizaje, our history of resistance (p.86).” The posters at Laney and the posters in Serigrafia demonstrate the internal process Chicano artists have gone through to understand the root idea that forms Chicano identity. Anzaldua explains this by stating that the “struggle has always been inner, and is played out in outer terrains. Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads (p.87).” Malaquias, Ester Hernandez, Yolanda Lopez, Juan Fuentes, Barbara Carrasco, Rupert Garcia, Ricardo Favela, Jesus Barraza, Melanie Cervantes, Favianna Rodriguez, and Ernesto Yerena are a few of the artists represented in Serigrafia who have taken on that important work of imagining anew our collective experience and its relationship to the tangible issues of the day, be it forty years ago or yesterday. The expression of Chicana/o consciousness and the aspirations of this movement have been imagined and vocalized through the process of printmaking.



by Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello

From Boom Spring 2014, Vol. 4, No. 1

Borderland Dreams

Since 2000, we have been traveling along the United States–Mexico border, collecting memories and stories of the places and people we have met, and documenting a series of scenarios, real and imagined, along the border wall.

Together they tell a very different story of what has been the largest construction project in twenty-first-century America—a story that is different from what you see in the news. Almost exactly the distance of the Grand Tour, the tourism route for upper-class Europeans that went from London to Rome, this journey stretches for 1,931 miles along the border with the United States. This Grand Borderlands Tour traces the consequences of a security infrastructure that stands both conceptually and physically perpendicular to human mobility. The artifacts that Grand Tourists would return home with—art, books, pictures, sculpture—became symbols of wealth and freedom. Our border wall has become a barrier to movement that would create art, books, pictures, sculpture, wealth, freedom.

On this journey, our collected experiences are represented in the form of snow globes: souvenirs, or recuerdos—a Spanish term that defines both the trinkets one might purchase at tourist shops and memories. The recuerdos gathered along our border are tragic, sublime, and absurd, occasionally hyperbolized, but in all cases based on our own experiences and actual events in the liminal space that defines the boundary between the United States and Mexico.

Cemetery Wall.


Confessional Wall.


Climbing Wall.


Volley Ball Wall.


Burrito Wall.


Wildlife Wall.


Xylophone Wall.


Teeter Totter Wall.


All images courtesy Rael San Fratello.


My Father’s Charreria, My Rodeo

by Romeo Guzmán

From Boom Spring 2014, Vol. 4, No. 1

A paisa journey.

Ramón Ayala and Los Bravos del Norte opened their set at Arena nightclub in Hollywood with “Que me lleve el diablo” on that night in 2004.¹ As the heartwrenching lyrics and Ayala’s melodic accordion reached every corner of the club, Adrián Félix, at the time my roommate at UCLA, motioned with his eyebrows and index finger to two young women sitting at a table across the dance floor. Before we had even asked them to dance, sweat accumulated on my palms and a pool of moisture formed in my lower back. I knew how to dance about as well as many newly arrived Mexican immigrants are able to speak English. Instead of striking a beautiful balance of smooth, graceful, and intentional movement, I awkwardly jerked my partner forward, back, and to the side, occasionally bumping into other dancers. To make matters worse, the boots I borrowed from Adrián were one size too large. The double socks that I wore to rectify the situation only added to my tenuous footing. My pants for the night, also his, were the tightest I had ever worn, and the black Stetson hat and long-sleeve button-down shirt were just a little too big. The only thing that was mine, by way of my father, was a shiny nickel and brass belt buckle.

My first attempt to crossover into the regional Mexican music scene was about a decade before my days at UCLA. I grew up in Pomona, California, a predominately working-class neighborhood composed of African Americans and migrants from Mexico, Central America, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Vietnam. At school I played soccer on the playground, after school in the streets and our backyard, and on Sundays on worn, hole-filled soccer fields. I hung out with children of Mexican migrants like me, who mainly spoke Spanish as well as those who preferred to speak English like I did. At home, I listened to my older brother’s music: Green Day, Nirvana, and Stone Temple Pilots, as well as classic bands like The Velvet Underground. It wasn’t until I entered junior high, in the early 1990s, that I actively sought out music and dances.

Like many second-generation Mexicans in Southern California at the time, I fell into banda music’s raucous embrace. Futboleros, rockeros, Morrissey aficionados, and even rappers like Akwid, donned paisa outfits and attended bailes.² Both young men and women wore tight pants, cowboy boots, cintos piteados, and leather vests adorned with regional hometown or home state identification as well as paisa imagery—a cockfight, bull riders, horses. Usually silk crema de seda shirts, often intricate Versace knock-offs that incorporated paisa designs, were worn solely by young men. To complete the outfit, young people hung a correa, a miniature leather horsewhip, from their belt loops. Lacking money from a part-time job, I used all of my available resources to put together a passable outfit. In my father’s closet, I found solid-colored silk shirts and more stylized ones that clearly dated themselves to the 1980s, though they lacked paisa motifs. Aside from being made of silk, they had very little in common with the crema de seda shirts. From the corner of my father’s sock and underwear drawer, I dug out a shiny belt buckle featuring a man astride a bucking bull. I was out of luck in the shoe department: my normally cool-looking Adidas Sambas stuck out pretty badly on the dance floor. I attended a few backyard parties and quinceañeras, but ultimately felt too awkward in my pseudo-paisa outfits. In high school, I continued to listen to Banda El Recodo, Banda El Limon, and the norteño band Los Tigres del Norte, but at dances sported soccer jerseys and T-shirts, always with the classic black-and-white Adidas Sambas.

In both of these two periods and outfits, however, my father’s belt buckle remained at the center of my clumsy and piecemeal efforts to enter the Los Angeles banda and norteño scenes. My father told me it was a gift. A friend had given it to him after he rode his first bull. But that was about all I knew. For many years, I imagined him learning to ride bulls on a small ranch in Jalisco or in La Ceja, Zacatecas, where he grew up, under the mentorship of a wise old viejito, a charro guru. Maybe I, as his son, with the belt buckle as my center of gravity, could conquer dancing, and through this movement claim for myself a direct connection to the Mexican countryside and thus Mexicaness.

In 2007, as I prepared to leave California for graduate school, I asked my father more about the belt buckle. I was surprised to find out that he learned to ride bulls in Santa Barbara in the 1980s. A white man named Tom taught him. Tom, as a gesture of friendship, gave him the belt buckle after he rode his first bull. The buckle, like Tom, is American. I placed the belt buckle in my suitcase and didn’t think much more about its history.

When my father passed away on 13 August 2013, the buckle became the most significant object linking me to my father, to his past. I was consumed with a desire to know more about it and my father. I pored over photo albums in the garage, watched American rodeo competitions on television, asked my mother about my father’s bull-riding days, and read about American rodeos and charrería. I came to appreciate that the belt buckle’s narrative, including my own imagined one, is a quintessentially migrant, Mexican, and Californian story. Let us start at the beginning: before the United States–Mexico border was erected, before the rise of the US and Mexican nation-states.

Nicholas Guzmán, shown here in his blue goalie’s jersey, with his soccer team.

Rodeo’s roots go back to the Spanish conquest. Scholars aptly describe the conquest as an encounter between two distinct civilizations, noting the arrival of new diseases, technology, and animals to the Americas. John Lockhart, Caterina Pizzigoni, and other historians document the movement of ideas and practices between Spaniards and indigenous populations.³

They highlight the transformation of language, the changing layout of indigenous homes, and perhaps most emblematically, the forging of a new Catholicism. These new practices, of course, took place within a strict racial hierarchy and rigid monitoring of social practices, where Spanish priests often prohibited indigenous populations from practicing their own religion.

The collective practices known as charrería, notes Mary Lou Compte, are a product of this complicated and nuanced dynamic, with the fiesta as its main source. Colonial society celebrated “anniversaries of saints, local traditions, pagan gods, special fairs and markets, and patriotic holidays” by dancing, listening to music, gambling, drinking, engaging in sport, praying, and attending mass.4

In the sixteenth century, sporting activities included fighting on horseback with lances as well as grabbing bulls by the tail and throwing them to the ground.5

The growth of ranching during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contributed to the evolution of charreria. As rules prohibiting non-Spaniards from riding horses eased up and more and more indigenous and mestizos began working on haciendas, a “uniquely Mexican sport” emerged: charreada or charrería, events that showcased the skills of charros, the horsemen.6

Nicholas Guzmán riding a bull, date unknown.

Nueva España, a colony of Spain, extended well into the present day US Southwest, with ranching reaching California by the mid-eighteenth century. As late as the 1860s, the culture of the charros maintained a strong presence throughout California. In Santa Barbara, the pastoral economy connected classes and helped create community identity and cohesion, argues historian Albert Camarillo.7

The Mexican-American War of 1848, dubbed La invasión norteamericana by Mexicans, brought many changes, among them an influx of white Americans. As Mexicans and white Americans worked together on cattle ranches, the latter adopted many of the skills and techniques of Mexican charros or vaqueros. It was during this period that white Americans began to host events that “featured most of the very same contests that continued to be part of the traditional Hispanic celebrations,” writes Compte, “including bull fights, bull riding, corer al gallo, sortijas, picking up objects, steer roping, team roping, and bronc riding.”8

The American cowboy was on the horizon, but the charro was still the main man in the arena.

From 1883 to 1916, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows toured throughout the United States and presented Americans with a romantic and gloried image of the American cowboy. At the same time that the cowboy became ingrained in the American imagination, the political, social, and economic decline of the Mexican community in Santa Barbara was solidified. During the 1860s and 1870s, the local pastoral economy slowly lost out to the capitalist economy, which produced new jobs in tourisms, construction, and commercial agriculture. By the 1890s it was not uncommon to find entire Mexican families working in fruit canneries, in the almond industry, and harvesting walnuts. Along with these changes came a loss of political power and the creation of Mexican barrios. By the end of the century, 90 percent of the Mexican population lived in a seven-block radius between Vine and State Street, known as Pueblo Viejo. These changes, writes Camarillo, established the social, political, and economic conditions of the twentieth century. With the onset of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, and especially World War I, newly arrived Mexicans entered a segmented labor system and helped form a second barrio on the lower eastside, between Milpas, Ortega, and State Street.9

As the Santa Barbara that we would recognize today took form, the American rodeo moved away from its Mexican past and into the realm of sport. In 1922, the first World’s Championship Cowboy Contest took place at Madison Square Garden in New York. By 1936, practices now associated with rodeo were organized into a single sport and, according to Compte “promoted the myth that their sport came directly from informal contests among Anglo cowboys, ignoring the Hispanic influence along with the theatrical.”10

South of the US-Mexico border a similar consolidation took place. After the Mexican Revolution, there was an effort by the state, intellectuals, and citizens to define Mexico’s past and present as well as to make Indians, peasants, and other corporate groups into “good Mexican citizens.”11

In 1933, the same year as the founding of the Federación Mexicana de Charros, President Abelardo L. Rodríguez declared charrería Mexico’s national sport.12

As the century progressed, the image of the American cowboy and Mexican charro grew in strength while they grew apart, ensuring the divorce of American rodeo from its Mexican influence and past. By the 1990s, when I was in high school, Clint Eastwood was an all-American cowboy and Vicente Fernandez was Mexico’s favorite charro—and they had next to nothing in common in my mind.

Nicolás Guzmán was born on a small ranch called Los Pozitos in La Ceja, García de la Cadena, Zacatecas, in 1958. He was the third child of José María Guzmán Castañeda and María Arellano Prieto de Guzmán. The family worked a small plot of land and subsisted by planting corn, beans, and other vegetables. Like many other Zacatecano families, they migrated south, to the developing state of Jalisco.

The Guzmán family in 1982 with Nicholas wearing the belt buckle.

In 1966 José María, his wife María, and their three children Santos, Manuel, and Nicolás settled in the Colonia Santa Margarita, a poor working-class neighborhood near the city of Guadalajara. During this time, José María supported his expanding family by working in the United States for a few months at a time. My grandmother recalls that he first migrated in 1958, as a contracted bracero. Like other men, he overstayed his contract and found other work. But even with the dollars he sent south, his family struggled economically. Led by Manuel, the oldest son, they did their best to scrap together a living. Manuel sold insurance; the younger boys sold gum on city buses and shined shoes just outside of Guadalajara’s Cathedral. María took in other people’s laundry and, along with the girls, maintained a tidy home.

These were challenging times for the family, but the boys, my uncles, have fond memories of their youth. There was little that Manuel, Nicolás, and the two younger brothers, Lupe and Ismael, loved more that playing and watching soccer. They cheered for America, a Mexican national club team from Mexico City, and the bitter rivals of Guadalajara’s Chivas. Indeed, their love for the game has transcended time and space, and imparted the new generation with a poetic appreciation of the game and some skills to play it. In our most-recent small-sided game, Maylo (short for Ismael) told us why my father decided to become a goalie. During a hard-fought match at Estadio Jalisco, America’s goalie Prudencio Cortes made numerous saves, including a set of three consecutive shots on goal from close range. Nicolas was hooked.

His first goalie jersey was an American high school letterman sweater that his father bought at a second hand store in the United States. The goals he defended were all on hard dirt fields with rocks scattered throughout the pitch. At only 5 feet, 7 inches and 130 pounds, Nicolás was not the strongest nor most athletic youngster. Luckily, in the goal, measuring and calculating one’s position is as important as one’s athletic ability. The difference between a save and a goal is often contingent on shuffling one’s feet no more than a foot or two before the opposing player takes a shot and then, of course, the actual dive. By diving at a slight forward angle the goalie can meet the ball early on in its trajectory, cutting it off before it moves farther and farther away from one’s body and hands. My father imparted these insights to me during drills and penalty kicks in our backyard, directly in front of a makeshift soccer goal that we constructed using white PVC pipes. By his own admission he never mastered diving at a slight forward angle. Yet the careful observation and meticulous calculations required of a goalie fit well with Nicolás’s appreciation of math and his often neurotic tendencies. Untied shoelaces, unmade beds, and carelessly scattered toys troubled his sense of, and need for, order. I suspect this is why he enjoyed the responsibility of being the last man and having a type of horizontal bird’s eye perspective of the field. From the goal, one can see all the offensive plays develop and more importantly, can yell out instructions to one’s fellow players. And of course, he also enjoyed the acrobatics of being goalie. He loved that whether he was diving up to block a shot near the top of the cross bar or down to the ground, he had to consistently fight and defy gravity, all while ensuring a safe and soft landing.

At home in Pomona many years later, Nicholas Guzmán wearing the belt buckle.

During the week, Nicolás spent his days and evenings working at Música Lemus, a record store in downtown, Guadalajara. This provided him access to all the latest music and a future playlist for his car, truck, and home stereo: English giants like the Beatles, French divas like Francoise Hardy, the international and trilingual star Jannette, Dan Fogelberg, Don McLean, John Denver, and others. Nicolás did not know French or English, but this did not matter; like others of his generation, he sang along, making up the meaning of each word, refrain, and chorus. His pants, like his hair were long, flowing out at their ends.

This modern urban sensibility was coupled with a romantic idealism for the countryside. From his childhood, Nicolás retained memories of large open spaces and a rugged simplicity. These visions of Zacatecas were layered with portraits of the American West from films, particularly those of his favorite cowboy, Clint Eastwood, whom he preferred over John Wayne. Nicolás didn’t buy Wayne’s portrayal of cowboy life, finding it inauthentic and Wayne himself a few pounds too heavy to be a “real cowboy.” In both the American West and rural Mexico, Nicolás found simplicity, dignity, and directness. One of his most common expressions, often evoked as a demand for clarity, was “vamos al grano.” The English translation for grano is grain or bean, and the expression vamos al grano is understood to mean “let’s get to the point,” or “let’s get to root of it.”

Romeo Guzmán in 2013.

In the summer of 1977, Nicolás met Francisca. She was born and raised in Guadalajara, but had moved to Mexicali and then later to South El Monte in the San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles, where she completed the last two years of high school. That summer, she, along with her siblings, lived in the Colonia Santa Margarita, just a few blocks from the Guzmán household. After only two weeks of going out and very much al grano, Nicolás confessed to Francisca that he wanted to marry her. After that summer, they sent dozens of postcards and letters and visited each other in Guadalajara and South El Monte as often as possible. A year later, they got married in Guadalajara and a year after that migrated to Los Angeles.

Desperate for work and without much luck in Los Angeles, Nicolás reached out to his father. At the time, José María was working for a landscaping company in Santa Barbara pruning trees and living near Milpas Street, in the historic Mexican barrio of Santa Barbara. José María found Nicolás a job working as a field hand on a ranch in Montecito, a wealthy city near Santa Barbara. Nicolás worked alongside several white Americans, including Tom. It was with these white American men and not a Mexican vaquero that he learned to ride bulls.

The key to a successful ride lies in careful attention to detail, split-second decision-making, and purposeful and graceful movement as much as strength—much like guarding the goal in soccer. Great bull riders make this all look easy, but the various factors to consider are pretty daunting. Bulls use their speed, power, and movement to throw off a bull rider. They can change direction, buck and kick their legs in numerous directions, and drop the front of their body. To stay on, bull riders use their inner thigh muscles and legs to embrace the body of the bull, move their groin and upper body in response to the bull’s movement, and try to maintain a center of gravity. Hitting the ground, of course, is inevitable for every bull rider. As the cowboy saying goes, “There was never a horse that couldn’t be rode; there never was a man that couldn’t be throwed.”13

Tom taught Nick, as they affectionately called him, the basics on small bulls in the open range and gave him the belt buckle after he successfully rode his first bull. Nick wore it to formal and informal bull-riding events throughout Santa Barbara County. On one occasion, with José María in the audience, he successfully rode a bull for eight seconds, scoring the highest points and taking home a small pot of money. Nick rode bulls from 1979 to 1981, leaving bull riding when he took his wife and three children, including me, back to Guadalajara.

Although he never returned to bull riding, the belt buckle remained a mainstay in his wardrobe. He wore it with regular T-shirts, polo shirts, and long-sleeve dress shirts. For Nicolás, the buckle was a point of pride, as it is for many rodeo riders. The history of rodeo buckles is relatively recent, and tied to the recent history of rodeo. In the late nineteenth century, cowboys wore suspenders instead of belts. With the rise of organized rodeo competitions, belt buckles were awarded as trophies. As the twentieth century progressed, it became easier to mass-produce belt buckles, increasing their popularity and use.14

Today, buckles continue to be awarded as prizes at rodeo competitions and worn inside and outside of formal events.

Approximately 2 inches in circumference and made of nickel giving it some heft, my father’s belt buckle has at its center, in brass relief, a man on top of a bucking bull, the man’s right hand waving in the air. It can pass for Mexican, but more because of the great diversity of Mexican belt buckles than for its own intrinsic qualities. Mexican belts and buckles vary in size, material, and imagery. One of the most common belts is the cinto piteado. Pita, a fiber found in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, is stitched into leather to form floral, charrería, prehispanic patterns and imagery, and individuals’ initials and hometown. This artisanal practice has its roots in Spanish leather handcraft, with noticeable Arab influences. Interestingly, the mecca for cintos piteados is Colotlán, a small town at the northern tip of the state of Jalisco.15

Due the state of Jalisco’s strange configuration, Colotlán, is 75 miles north of my father’s birthplace, García de la Cadena, Zacatecas, and about 125 miles north of the city of his youth, Guadalajara. In addition to the cinto piteado, there are large, oval, buckles, made from a variety of metals and sometimes the horn of a bull.

The narrative I have now constructed about the origins of my father’s belt buckle, particularly where and how he learned to ride bulls, fits well within what we know about Mexican migrants and migration. Yet, Nicolás’s story also illustrates how much the lines between rural and urban and Mexican and American blur into and layer on top of each other. More importantly, my father and I, just like other migrants and children of migrants of our respective generations, used available resources—like the rodeo buckle—to connect with Mexico and identify as Mexican. I believe that bull riding was an expression of both my father’s romantic and idealist vision of American cowboy culture and his place of birth, La Ceja, Zacatecas. His vision of both these places was mediated through his experience as a young man in the urban city of Guadalajara. Some of the skills that bull riding required were fostered in the goal on dirt soccer fields. That he learned to ride a bull from a white American, speaks to the movement of people, popular culture, and everyday practices across the US-Mexico border. The belt buckle contains and represents this complex and nuanced narrative. This is why my father cherished it so much and why it has served me as a type of amulet. It came with me when I left California to attend Columbia University, in New York City, for doctoral studies in History. I wore it to my first graduate seminar, to the first lecture I gave on migration, and to my discussion sections with undergraduates. And, I wear it now, as I sit in a Mexico City coffee shop, writing out its history.


All images courtesy of Romeo Guzmán.

1 The literal translation is “may the devil take me.”

2 Josh Kun, “California Sueños,” Boom: A Journal of California 1 (Spring 2011): no 1, 62.

3 James Lockhart, The Nahuas After the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994). Caterina Pizzigoni. The Life Within: Local Indigenous Society in Mexico’s Toluca Valley, 1650–1800. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).

4 Mary Lou LeCompte, “The Hispanic Influence on the History of Rodeo, 1823–1922,” Journal of Sport History 12 (Spring 1985): no.1, 22.

5 Compte. “The Hispanic Influence.”

6 Compte. “The Hispanic Influence.”

7 Albert Camarillo, Chicanos in a Changing Society: From Mexican Pueblos to American Barrios in Santa Barbara and Southern California, 1848–1930 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979).

8 Compte, “The Hispanic Influence,” 33.

9 Camarillo, Chicanos in a Changing Society.

10 Compte, “The Hispanic Influence,” 21.

11 For an introduction to Mexican nation-building after the revolution, see Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent, eds., Everyday Forms of State Formation (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994) and Mary Kay Vaughan, and Stephen E. Lewis, eds., The Eagle and the Virgin (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006). For case studies, see Christopher Boyer, Becoming Campesinos: Politics, Identity, and Agrarian Struggle in Postrevolutionary Michoacán (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003) and Alexander Dawson, Indian and the Nation in Revolutionary Mexico (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004).

12 See Autry Museum’s online text for the exhibit “Art of the Charreria: A Mexican Tradition,” http://theautry.org/explore/exhibits/charreria.html.

13 Quoted in Mody C. Boatright, “The American Rodeo,” American Quarterly 16 (Summer 1964): no. 2, part 1, 195–202.

14 Lauren Halley, “A Short History of Cowboy Buckles,” American Cowboy, http://www.americancowboy.com/gear/short-history-cowboy-buckles.

15 See Autry Museum’s online text for the exhibit “Art of the Charreria: A Mexican Tradition,” http://theautry.org/explore/exhibits/charreria.html.


Postcards From the Future

by Kristin Miller

From Boom Winter 2013, Vol. 3, No. 4

Utopian north, dystopian south

Touring around California you could be forgiven for thinking you’re living in the future, and not just because of the Silicon Valley wizardry that surrounds us all. We also have to thank Hollywood’s movie magic, which has turned the state into a backdrop for countless science fiction films presenting futures both terrible and wondrous. It’s not just that so many are filmed here—writers and filmmakers have been exploring the future through California sets for decades.

In the early days of big-budget sci-fi, New York often embodied the worst fears about society, urban living, and technology: Soylent Green (1972), Escape from New York (1981), and others capitalized on New York’s bankrupt and crime-ridden nadir—a genre that Miriam Greenberg refers to as “New York Exploitation.”¹ With the city’s campaign to reposition itself in the 1990s, Los Angeles became the symbol of urban blight, perfectly demonstrated by John Carpenter’s relocation of his Snake Plissken sequel, Escape from L.A. (1996). While dystopian sci-fi also has a home in the United Kingdom (thanks, George Orwell) and has been used for self-reflection by most of the world’s filmmaking cultures, there is something about the frequency with which California and “the future” are used synonymously.

In sci-fi movies and the books that serve as their inspiration, the future of the Golden State goes something like this: 10 to 150 years from the present, California has succumbed to natural disaster/economic and governmental collapse/a pandemic, which leaves Southern California a corporate-fascist-military state with gross financial and racial inequality and urban squalor—while Northern California rips up its pavement, learns permaculture, gets spiritual, and models better living through technology and communitarian diversity.

This binary began in the 1940s with Earth Abides (1949), a book about a scientist starting over in Berkeley after a global pandemic, while in Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence (1948) Los Angeles slouches toward the apocalypse. The movies Planet of the Apes, The Terminator, Escape from L.A., Star Trek, and the books Ecotopia, The Fifth Sacred Thing (soon to be a feature film), and Snowcrash all play variations on this theme. Collapse and division is almost a foregone conclusion at this point—not just a future that might happen, but one many almost expect and therefore accept.

“Every American city boasts an official insignia and slogan. Some have municipal mascots, colors, songs, birds, trees, even rocks. But Los Angeles alone has adopted an official nightmare,” writes Mike Davis in Ecology of Fear.² Hollywood has perpetuated this dystopian vision of its own home in the southland. From the Planet of the Apes series (1968–1973) on, future LA has been routinely trashed by nuclear, technological, and automotive catastrophe, police brutality, pollution, and crime. A Malthusian nightmare, the city is dark, filthy, and collapsing under the weight of its immigrant population, or barely held in check by totalitarian government and structural inequality—what Mike Davis called LA’s “spatial apartheid.”³

Downtown Los Angeles in 2154 in Elysium, TriStar Pictures, 2013.

Davis notes that this was so accepted as a likely trajectory for the city, that it was written into an LA redevelopment plan as a warning of what could happen were the plan not adopted. The plan, LA 2000: A City for the Future, calls this “the Blade Runner scenario: the fusion of individual cultures into a demotic polyglotism ominous with unresolved hostilities.”4  While it might be tempting to dismiss this as the fever dream of the bad old days, before hipster gentrification, smart growth, and downtown redevelopment, Southland Tales (2006), In Time (2011), and Elysium (2013) have done little to alter its imagery.

Northern California-as-utopia, on the other hand, is strongly linked to the countercultural movement of the sixties, with its guides for technologically advanced back-to-the-land living. One can read Ernest Callenbach’s influential novel Ecotopia (1975) as the possible future seeded by Whole Earth Catalog. Ecotopia is a fictional “field study” of a future Pacific Northwest society that has split from an apocalyptic United States and is governed according to ecological principles. While much technology has been abandoned, the Ecotopians have selectively retained public transit, electric cars, networked computers, and improved recycling (Callenbach was a longtime resident of Berkeley). Ecotopia‘s themes were later picked up and elaborated in the eco-feminist tales of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1985), a cultural anthropology of latter-day Napa Valley-ites who have returned to indigenous ways; Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993) about a pagan, nonviolent San Francisco threatened by southern biological warfare; and Octavia Butler’s Parable books (1993, 1998) where refugees from the LA wasteland grow a new eco-religion, Earthseed, in the forests of Mendocino.

These texts depict Northern California as central to both speculative and practical visions of sustainable survival. While Bay Area research parks, universities, and experiments in urban living serve as laboratories for near-term development, the region is also a visual and narrative shorthand for distant, alternative, and ideal futures. The twin giants of popular sci-fi, Star Trek and Star Wars, both used Northern California as a location—for the headquarters of the United Federation of Planets in the Star Trek universe, and as site of the water and forest planets (Naboo and Endor) of Star Wars‘ “galaxy far, far away.” Wired published a paean to San Francisco upon the release of the latest Star Trek film, explaining why there couldn’t be a more perfect location for its technologically idyllic future:

“What sets Star Trek apart is the attention it pays to one little city, barely seven miles across, when the other points on its journey are not cities or countries, but planets and star systems…And it’s a city whose culture of curiosity, craftsmanship and tolerance have left an indelible mark on one of the world’s most successful sci-fi franchises.”5

In the frontier myth of American history, California represents the completion of a manifestly destined expansion across the continent. It’s easy to see Utopian San Francisco and “Hell A” as twin land’s-ends for idealists and cynics. In the north, beyond the Golden Gate there lies only “space, the final frontier.”6 Conversely, in Richard Kelly’s apocalyptic Southland Tales (2006), the Santa Monica pier is where the world ends “not with a whimper, but with a bang” taking LA’s palimpsest of corrupt politicians, soulless celebs, activist porn stars, and deranged cops with it.7

A third, smaller, but consistent vein of sci-fi unites both utopian and dystopian futures without mapping them onto a Nor Cal–So Cal binary, and dispenses with the quasi-biblical tales of Sodom and Eden. More importantly, it allows the possibility of multiple futures for rethinking the present. A number of films depict the north as a dystopia-within-utopia: Gattaca (1997) set in a near future where genetic modification is cheaply available, and earlier films such as THX 1138 (1971) and Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), in which developments that promised well-being and peace surveil and threaten human civilization, speak to an unease with the promise of information technology. Similarly, the rebooted Planet of the Apes films have replaced fortress LA with the sleek research complexes of Silicon Valley. In William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, San Francisco suffers the noir-ish malaise of Blade Runner LA; this time due to free-agent capitalism run amok, with a community of squatters inhabiting the rusting hulk of the Bay Bridge, and bike messengers, data pattern analysts, and a rogue pop idol with artificial intelligence in the lead roles. In the south, Kim Stanely Robinson’s Three Californias trilogy (1984–1990) posits three possible directions for Orange County: The Wild Shore follows nuclear apocalypse, The Gold Coast extrapolates a 2027 “autopia” from 1980s suburbia and hyperconsumption, and Pacific Edge allows that even the OC might have access to a sustainable future, as communities reclaim the coast from cars and concrete.

The sci-fi imagination has a strong link (one might even call it a feedback loop) to the tech and entertainment industries that drive California’s economy, and therefore, its very real, near-term growth. Sci-fi narratives are, after all, allegories for the times in which they are created, but they also generate a nostalgia for past images of the future, which shape communities’ actions as they build and plan—and as those communities experience their lived environments. Some critics have made much of the fact that Ridley Scott originally planned to film Blade Runner in New York and the studio requested a location change. But this is largely irrelevant, as the movie’s imagery and subject matter have resonated with audiences, and played a huge role in how LA is viewed and how the city has imagined itself over the past few decades. On the day I visited to photograph the atrium of the Bradbury Building, the only other people present were fans of the movie looking for traces of that elegantly distressed future. Repetition of the tropes of urban decay versus ecotopia might become self-reinforcing in a way that precludes thinking differently about the present, or even seeing that the future that we’ve come to expect might not be the one we’re likely to get.

Fredric Jameson argues that the value of utopian/dystopian sci-fi is not that it delivers images of possible futures, but instead is its ability to “defamiliarize and restructure our own present.”8 The photographs in the slideshow above show how filmmakers have taken familiar California locations from downtown Los Angeles to Berkeley to do just that.

Download the embed code to share Kristin Miller’s slideshow on your website.


Image at top: San Francisco in 2259 in Star Trek: Into Darkness, Paramount Pictures, 2013.

1 Miriam Greenberg, Branding New York: How a City in Crisis was Sold to the World (New York: Routledge, 2008), 157.

2 Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear (New York: Picador, 1999), 359.

3 Mike Davis, City of Quartz (New York: Verso, 2006), 230.

4 As quoted in Ecology of Fear, 359.

5 Ted Trautman, “Why Star Trek Made San Francisco the Center of Its Futuristic Utopia,” Wired, 21 May 2013. Accessed online: http://www.wired.com/underwire/2013/05/star-trek-san-francisco/? cid=8173514.

6 Carl Abbott, “Falling into History: The Imagined Wests of Kim Stanley Robinson,” Western Historical Quarterly 34 (Spring 2003): 29.

7 Richard Kelly, Southland Tales, 2006.

8 Frederick Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future (New York: Verso, 2005), 286.


Future of the University

We asked Alessandro Duranti, author and distinguished professor of anthropology and dean of social sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, how universities will intersect with society in 2050.

Boom: Do you think that many of the disciplines that we inherited from the nineteenth century will still be around, and will they look the same in the future?

Alessandro Duranti: When I started doing this work as a dean, my first idea was: Why don’t we just forget the departments? Why don’t we just think: Who do you want to play with? Who do you want to be with? That should be where you go. And then let’s see what happens in the twenty-first century. But that’s a really hard thing to do. And I didn’t want to be Gorbachev. I didn’t want to destroy the whole thing before we figure out where to go. So my solution has been to say, well, OK, let’s create a parallel universe inside the university that is much more flexible. Let’s play with that and let’s leave the old structure the way it is. That’s the idea behind our innovation lab—to take examples of collaboration and innovation that work and say: Let’s do that. That will be our play place. And let’s find money to do that. And donors are very excited about that. They like this idea of interdisciplinary collaborations.

Boom: Innovation is not a new mantra in some parts of the university, but in others it really is. How do you see bringing the spirit and practices of innovation into disciplines that have been analytical and contemplative?

Duranti: All the young people who have made millions of dollars—and come to give talks to the students who participate in our Startup UCLA— tell these stories about failure. It’s a mantra. You’ve got to fail before you learn how to do the thing you’re trying to do. We don’t have this model. We have the idea that you do the thing, and it should be good, and then you stay there forever and ever. The community that’s interesting to me is one that is much more flexible, that reacts in a shorter time, that is well funded. Faculty come together; they invent something new. It could be they invent a new method, a new model, a new way of working together, a new way of teaching, a new way of collaborating with people outside of the academy. It will be that kind of space that will allow something that builds on what you know but that is different.

Boom: How is thinking of ourselves as engaged in constructing a future together with business, government, nonprofits, society, or communities changing what we do?

Duranti: Hanging out with business people, which these days I do more than I ever did before in my life, one of the most interesting things I’ve found is that they’re interested in people who are creative—that means that the humanities is very important for them —but they are also interested in people who can work together with other people in teams. So much of scholarly work traditionally is Lone Ranger kind of thing. The model of the lab in the sciences is very useful to think with and to use in the humanities and social sciences. And we have a few good examples of that in the social sciences, but that’s not the usual way of doing research and solving problems. So that’s why when I think about the future, I think about these other models, these other ways of doing things that are built on collaborations that might have been unthinkable ten or twenty years ago.

Boom: You’ve recently written a manifesto of sorts about how your discipline of anthropology should change to meet the challenges of the present and the future while recognizing that from the beginning it has been dependent on being engaged with the world outside academia, from donors who supported the first anthropologists at the University of California to employers who hire graduates today.

Duranti: We have always been engaged to some extent. And engagement with people who are outside of academia—and people who are not the state or the federal government—means that we actually need to be able to talk to the public at large. When you convince a potential donor to give you some money, you have to explain why it’s a good idea. And that actually makes you think, what is a good idea? What is it good for? Is it good for society? Do we really improve the human condition? Do we do something useful for people? So there’s that side of fundraising, for example, that has all kinds of implications about the relevance of our work for people outside of academia, which is something that often gets forgotten, not only in the social sciences, but everywhere in the university. Faculty need to be able to publish where they’re going to be recognized as scholars by their peers; that’s very important. But at the same time, we also need to write in a way that the public at large can understand. We have to be good at telling stories. And do it in a way that people outside academia hear the story and see the pictures and understand what it is that we do, because then they can see themselves.

Boom: What would you include in a time capsule for 2050?

Duranti: It would be interesting to look at the students coming to campus in the morning. What is that they carry in their backpacks? Will people still be carrying things in 2050? That’s an interesting question. We know now that they carry their phones and they look at them all the time. That we hadn’t seen before. They also carry some books, which we had a long time ago. But in 2050, what will they be carrying, if anything at all?


Image at top: The contents of a backpack belonging to a third-year, double-major UC student, 2013. PHOTOGRAPH BY JILLIAN KERN.


Speculative Infrastructures

by Michael Ziser

From Boom Winter 2013, Vol. 3, No. 4

Reading our present dilemmas in science fiction’s past.

Science fiction is often charged with naïve technological optimism and historical amnesia. But for present-day Californians struggling with a wide range of environmental and social problems, science fiction might just provide the perspective we need to successfully pivot from the boom times of the twentieth century to the messy prospect of the century ahead. It won’t be the techno-futurist elements of science fiction—miraculously clean energy sources, flying cars, off-planet factories—that are going to save us, though. The classic works of science fiction have a different, more fatalistic side that speaks more usefully to our current condition, awash as we are in the environmental and social consequences of the Golden State’s postwar boom.

Even as they lived through and contributed to an era of unbridled technological optimism, the giants of postwar science fiction in California brooded not simply over the negative consequences of technology—a common anxiety in the Atomic Age—but also over deeper philosophical questions about what it means to be dependent on and even determined by the technologies that made life in postwar California possible. In the works of three postwar California writers in particular—Ray Bradbury (1940s and 1950s), Robert Heinlein (1950s and 1960s), and Philip K. Dick (1960s and 1970s)—we can watch the rapid development of dams, aqueducts, interstate highways systems, suburban sprawl, and their consequences as they are digested in the speculative cultural form of science fiction. Bradbury dramatizes the personal difficulty of adjusting to the radical novelty of West Coast civilizations carved out of the desert. Heinlein is less haunted by the loss of tradition and more interested in the new political and economic possibilities created by the very artificiality of the postwar environment. And Dick—perhaps the most useful guide to our present—gives full expression to the uncanny sense of being lashed to the decrepit infrastructure of the past. It is this complex exposition of how it feels to be a creature of civic infrastructure—and not teleporters, psionic readers, and hyperdrives—that turns out to be the most prescient vision of California science fiction.

Postwar science fiction is to a surprising degree a phenomenon of the western United States. With a few notable exceptions, the major figures in the development of the genre’s Golden Age and New Wave eras (together covering the late 1930s through the 1970s) all had significant biographical connections to the West—and this at a time when the western states accounted for a small fraction of the total US population (around 10 percent in 1930, rising to 17 percent in 1970). A.E. Van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kim Stanley Robinson are but the most celebrated of the hundreds of significant science fiction writers to live and work in California and the far West during this period.

As the producers of Golden Age sci-fi were lured to the region by the new economic opportunities available to writers in the pulp, television, and film industries of Southern California, they were also drawn into an imaginative relationship with California’s physical novelty as a place sprung de novo from the plans of hydraulic engineers, road builders, and tract housing developers. Many of the major themes of science fiction in this period—the experience of living in an arid Martian colony, the palpable sense of depending in a very direct way on large technological systems, unease with the scope and direction of the military and aeronautics industries, the navigation of new social rules around gender and race—can be read as barely veiled references to everyday life in California. For sci-fi writers, teasing out the implications of an era in which entire new civilizations could be conjured almost from nothing through astonishing feats of engineering and capital was a form of realism. They were writing an eyewitness account of what was the most radical landscape-scale engineering project in the history of the world.

By the 1940s, Ray Bradbury’s set of collected stories, The Martian Chronicles, signaled definitively that science fiction had largely moved on from its prewar fixation on interplanetary romance and gee-whiz gizmo stories. While Bradbury drew on an extensive tradition of Mars fiction, the stories have almost nothing in common with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom novels of the previous generation. They are better understood as explorations of postwar suburbia: John Cheever rocketed to the deep-space exurbs—or rather the dusty precincts of southern California. Instead of playing heroic roles in traditional planetary romances through the conquest or liberation of alien civilizations, Bradbury’s colonists get entangled in far more mundane passions. The first violence arises not from a clash of civilizations but from the jealousy of a Martian husband whose lonely wife dreams of being rescued from her constricted domestic sphere by a space-helmeted courtier from Earth in Bradbury’s “Ylla.” In “The Earth Men,” when human beings first arrive on the red planet in small numbers, they are greeted not by a phalanx of alien troops but rather by the Martian psychiatric bureaucracy, whose flummoxed doctors finally decide that the only way to deal with the peculiar, untreatable aliens who show up claiming to be visitors from another planet is to euthanize them. A subsequent wave of colonists succumbs to a fatal form of mass nostalgic delusion that causes them to mistake the precincts of an alien landscape for their own Midwestern American childhood homes in “The Third Expedition.”

The persistent evocation of arid suburbia is one of the first clues that Bradbury is writing about something more historically specific than a lost prewar America. Although his stories sometimes recapitulate the broad terms of North American colonization—the plague that decimates the native Martian population, the travails of pioneer women on an agricultural frontier, the wholesale emigration of African Americans relieved to be free of the racial hierarchies of the South—they all point toward the western culmination of that colonization along the shores of the Pacific. The stories with the greatest detail reflect the infrastructural and environmental dimensions of the postwar colonization of California. “The Green Morning,” a brief sketch about a Johnny Appleseed figure who successfully converts the arid landscape of Mars into a lush forest, is easily read as an allusion to the irrigation and conversion to agriculture of the desert Southwest, in particular the orange groves of Southern California. A later tale, “Locusts,” follows up this fable of the blooming desert by describing the rapid population of the newly verdant landscape by colonists who arrive, like new Californians stepping off of Santa Fe and Southern Pacific passenger trains, to reshape the landscape into a replica of their Midwestern hometowns. No writer of the period takes as many pains as Bradbury in detailing the material and psychological consequences of the explosion of residential construction in California after World War II.

The nascent environmental misgivings expressed throughout The Martian Chronicles are particularly salient. In the stories “—And the Moon Be Still as Bright” and “The Settlers,” which are sometimes combined into a single tale; the most sympathetic figure, Jeff Spender, bemoans the reckless destruction of the Martian environment, especially the pollution of its scarce water resources, and foresees further degradation by future waves of colonists. “We Earth men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things,” he says, before attempting to kill his fellow colonists to prevent the destruction. The most powerful evocations of environmental unease, however, come not in these flashes of direct preservationism, but in the persistently developed motif of unsettling artificiality in the Martian colonies.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” moves the setting back to Earth (specifically Allendale, California, situated along a significant irrigation canal) and to the modern marvel of the automated home that was the promise of the postwar suburb. The catch is that all of this automation is being carried out in the absence of the intended human inhabitants—a nuclear family—because they have been incinerated in a nuclear holocaust. This story calls attention to the degree to which the terraformed civilization of the postwar West is at once minutely tailored to the material needs of its human residents and at the same time utterly indifferent, if not inimical, to the broader terms of their existence. Modern Californian civilization is but shallowly rooted and easily erased even if its infrastructure persists. The mystifying title of the story—”There Will Come Soft Rains”—connects this existential critique to an environmental one. It is drawn from a World War I–era poem of the same title by Sara Teasdale, which imagines the indifference of nature to mankind’s self-induced extinction. “Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree, / If mankind perished utterly,” the poem reads.

Bradbury’s use of this sentiment complicates it, however. The indifferent cycles of nature that Teasdale invokes are refigured by Bradbury in the automated household, as if all of the technological achievements that were intended to insulate human beings from the environment have become just another implacable form of indifference to human well-being. In this story, long a staple in high school classrooms, Bradbury gives voice to a feeling, which appears again and again in postwar science fiction, that by massively transforming their physical environment, Californians traded exposure to the cycles of “first nature”—the natural world—for a more profound dependency on an equally demanding infrastructural “second nature” made by human beings.

Bradbury’s use of the interlinked story form points to another significant development in the history of science fiction: the shift away from magazine publication toward long-form fiction marketed as novels. Though this was driven by a variety of economic and cultural factors, it dovetailed well with the need for a broader fictional canvas to accommodate the infrastructural ambitions of writers in the 1950s and 1960s. Such longer forms allowed for more thorough evocations of place and deeper critical development of the consequences of speculative infrastructures in the western United States.

Robert Heinlein’s arguably best novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, published in 1966, uses the extra space of a long-form novel to craft a story ostensibly about the struggle waged for political self-determination by Loonies, the residents of the moon, which has been turned into a penal colony. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress can be read as a brief for a form of libertarianism (called “rational anarchism” by the chief ideologue in the book) tinctured with the frontier ideology of the nineteenth century American West. But Heinlein is equally alive to the ways in which individual initiative is supported and constrained by technology. The plot to free Luna, as the moon is called, from its earthbound overlords hinges on the sympathies of a self-aware supercomputer nicknamed Mike that can accomplish what the human plotters can only dream about. When the war of independence heats up, it is Mike’s manipulation of the freight catapults that ultimately wins the day. Independence from earthly political and moral authority—the loosening of marital strictures is one major social component of the lunar society—turns out to be deeply dependent on specific infrastructures of transport, communication, and computation. Where Bradbury concentrated on how humans might lag behind in an era of rapid change, Heinlein’s novels depict the slow processes by which cultural practices adapt in response to their transformed material technological conditions.

What is most remarkable about Heinlein’s fictional universes is that his novel technologies are allowed to have shifting histories and contingent futures. Instead of indulging in the engineer’s fantasy of a design that fulfills its specifications to perfection, Heinlein’s worlds are filled with technologies that always produce some form of deficiency or excess that can be turned to unforeseen further use by the processes of history. It was an accident of accounting and computer science that allowed the supercomputer Mike to develop a consciousness that enabled “him” (the gender is actually the subject of some debate in the novel) to evaluate the political status quo for fairness and thus become subject to political persuasion by the human revolutionaries Manny, Wyoh, and Professor de la Paz. And the existence of a mothballed and forgotten wheat-catapult provides the means for the lunar rebellion to escape military suppression. Even the triumphal moment of lunar independence is no stable event: its architects (Mike and Professor de la Paz) die or disappear immediately, and the erosive forces of history immediately start gnawing away at the new state. At the end of the novel, we are left wondering from what corner of the technical zone the next chapter in lunar history will evolve.

Heinlein’s novels on the whole reflect the basic optimism of his era about the potential to remake human civilization by creative reuse and development of technological infrastructure, reflecting a moment in western US history when large state investments were as likely to be seen as liberating new social forms as they were to induce fears of oppression. But they also betray unease about the degree to which the future is determined by technological factors that are nearly impossible to predict or even rationally assess.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress may well have been inspired by a lunar rebellion novel from another California science fiction novel, Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint, published in 1959. While Heinlein rarely allowed his doubts about the knowability of the future effects of technology to derail his certitudes about the politics of daily life, Dick carved out his distinctive niche among sci-fi authors precisely by bodysurfing the new waves of socio-technical innovation as they crashed into the politics of daily life in California. Dick’s short stories from the 1950s register in a direct way the prevailing geopolitical concerns of his time: the war of ideologically opposed factions; the threat of autonomously escalating military conflict, often culminating in complete nuclear annihilation of the Earth’s surface; time travel as a means of confirming, preventing, and sometimes triggering apocalypse; and Mars colonization. But after a great burst of short story production in the early 1950s, Dick returned to many of these materials in a cooler and more metaphysical mode. He focused not just on the threat of cataclysmic violence but on the way the disintegration of modern civilization’s fantasy about itself possesses its own form of productive power. The whiff of atomic panic and red scares that wafted through the stories of so many of his peers remains in Dick’s work, but he places new emphasis on the ideological and material infrastructure that invisibly determines the imaginative horizons of his characters—hence the stories of suburbia that emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s in his non-science-fiction work and the relentless attention to colonization in his major sci-fi novels of the 1960s.

A key harbinger of this turn is the brief but powerful early story, “Survey Team,” which features a crew driven by the nuclear annihilation of Earth to attempt a desperate colonization of Mars. As the story opens, the main character reflects on the despoliation of his home in terms that recall the wistful reminiscences of Californians coping with the rapid development of their state:

“It was a lot different from the way he remembered it when he was a kid in California. He could remember the valley country, grape orchards and walnuts and lemons. Smudge pots under the orange trees. Green mountains and sky the color of a woman’s eyes. And the fresh smell of the soil…. That was all gone now. Nothing remained but gray ash pulverized with the white stones of buildings. Once a city had been in this spot. He could see the yawning cavities of cellars, filled now with slag, dried rivers of rust that had once been buildings. Rubble strewn everywhere, aimlessly….”

As they explore the planet, the crew finds no useful resources for human life but plenty of evidence of an ancient Martian civilization that is surprisingly similar to the wreckage they left behind: “Ruin, heaps of rusting metal. Bales of wire and building material. Parts of uncompleted equipment. Half-buried construction sections sticking up from the sand.”

It slowly dawns on them that the Martians deliberately abandoned the planet after despoiling it 600,000 years before, evacuating all of the useful resources with them. An examination of the ruins reveals that their target planetary colony was Earth itself. Thus, the Martian-cum-human species was responsible for the destruction of two hospitable planets. “A closed circle,” one crewmember observes. “We’re back where we started. Back to reap the crop our ancestors sowed.”

This story marks the shift in Dick’s work from the fixation on the extrinsic nuclear threat to the internally generated infrastructural and environmental threat, and it begins the major phase of his career in which a doubled focus on space colonies as representations of western American developments gives Dick’s major novels the hallmark, uncanny Californian dimension that has made them favorites of Hollywood.

The twin culminations of this theme in Dick’s work come in his novels of 1964 and 1965, Martian Time-Slip and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. A dramatization of the self-enclosure of the American West, the novels explore the interrelation of imagination and materialism. Martian Time-Slip in particular is packed with references to the landscapes of the postwar boom in California and the Southwest. Grand plans for the building of a Martian canal system to enable food production and residential development echo Pat Brown’s California Aqueduct, begun in 1963, right down to an allusion to the aqueduct bikeway that follows the maintenance roads alongside the canal. The plotting for control of land where a huge retirement community will be built to house elderly colonists from Earth recalls the meteoric rise of Del Webb, whose Sun City development was built in 1960 atop a ghost town near Phoenix, Arizona. A subplot about the education of an autistic boy details a university system much like the one established in California under the Donohoe Act of 1960. (The school’s faculty of robotic historical figures eerily anticipates the educational-automation debates of the present.) From air conditioning to anti-immigration sentiment, the world of Martian Time-Slip is a thinly veiled portrait of 1960s California. To the extent that its byzantine plot can be boiled down to a single message, it is carried by the figure of Manfred Steiner, an autistic boy who finally carves out a place for himself in the way all Californians must: by going native—befriending the native Martian Bleekmen—and by adopting a set of life-giving technological supports to make existence possible.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, a considerably bleaker novel from the same period, provides the deepest allegorical portrait of California’s predicament. The first of Dick’s theological novels, its eponymous main character is less a human figure than a force of nature that takes various historical shapes in order to survive and grow. One of Eldritch’s main gambits in forcing the colonization of deep space is the use of infrastructural fantasies called “Perky Pat layouts”—miniaturized civilizations, board games that denizens of the outer colonies can purchase, customize to their liking, and then psychically enter and enjoy through the use of a hallucinogen called “Can-D.” Part Barbie and Ken playset, part Pat Brown–era three-dimensional planning tool, part dystopian nightmare, the Perky Pat layouts offer an image of a California in which fantasy, civil engineering, and the real environmental conditions of existence in a dry colony have become a single story with an ending as yet unwritten. Philip K. Dick’s trademark interest in the ways that humans become trapped in the real consequences of their fantasy lives plays out not simply as a puzzle about virtual versus actual reality but as an analysis of the feedback loop between imagination, infrastructure, and daily life.

It may be worth pausing for a last moment here to consider that our present condition is, in fact, the result of the shared infrastructural hallucinations of previous generations, and that California’s future depends on accepting the constraints, intended and unintended, that resulted from those realized dreams. And we might consider trading in less effective forms of California dreaming in favor of speculatively rearranging the state’s material layout and getting on with the next phase of the shared delusion that will be twenty-first-century California. A little science fiction might just help.



PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF THE J. PAUL GETTY MUSEUM, LOS ANGELES. ESTATE OF WILLIAM A. GARNETT. Grading, Lakewood, California, 1950; Trenching, Lakewood, California, 1950; Foundations and Slabs, Lakewood, California, 1950; Framing, Lakewood, California, 1950; Plaster and Roofing, Lakewood, California, 1950; Finished Housing, Lakewood, California, 1950.


The Future of Futurism

by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

From Boom Winter 2013, Vol. 3, No. 4

A view from the garden, looking to the stars.

“In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Once California was, in the eyes of invaders arriving by ship, horseback or wagon, something like pure future into which they carried their past. I’m not standing on some Marin County promontory overlooking the Pacific as I think these thoughts, gazing out at the horizon line the ocean forms with the sky. I’m sitting in a place remade at great cost to resemble the past of other places: the Japanese and Chinese gardens at the Huntington Library outside Los Angeles. The brilliant green stands of bamboo glimpsed through an imported Japanese gate remind me of all the world history that money and immigration have brought here over the years, all the works of art and architecture, all the music and languages, all the traditions, as if Californians have been desperately trying to keep up with the past at the same time as their eyes were supposedly fixed on the future.

In previous generations, California served as a geographic focus of “Go West!” optimism, and California currently enjoys what we might call a “futures boom,” offering opportunities to thinkers and dreamers who imagine decades and centuries ahead. The new devices of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs set off instant reverberations throughout our networked world even before they are real. Their visions of the future are praised or, just as often, mocked by a public that’s struggling to deal with a present infused with an insistent future. But sitting here in the garden at the Huntington, I want to take a deep breath and think through this frantic futurism, for the key to understanding and coming to terms with this rush to the future, I believe, lies in the past, in the history of futurism. This “futures boom,” after all, has been going on for decades now in California and is now merely taking on new forms.

Most people with a professional interest in the future talk about it with care, partly out of fear of being associated with bearded Methuselahs announcing the immanent end of the world. Even in California there has always been something “fringe” about displaying excessive optimism or fear for things to come. But futurism in California has enjoyed increasingly frequent and successful bids for mainstream attention. The rise of organized and professionalized forms of futurism, beginning in the 1960s, was coeval with the rise of the computer and consumer electronics industries. Along with the acceleration of technological progress, we’ve seen a commensurate increase in the volume of tech-talk and futures-talk. Ideas with their roots in technology are deployed to address nontechnological concerns. Consider the terms “hacker” and “to hack”: as recently as the 1990s, they carried associations with the criminal violation of government or corporate computers, but now are thrown around beyond Silicon Valley to conjure cleverness and the ability to solve problems either digital or analog. Entrepreneurs searching for talent hold “hack-a-thons”; activists speak of “hacking” democracy, and they mean opening up new avenues for participation within it, rather than rigging elections. Hacking enjoys a vernacular association with breaking the symbolic “code of the world” and clearing a path toward innovation.

The temporal future itself is “virtual reality” in the most literal of senses, and whether we imagine ourselves rushing toward it or it rushing toward us is an individual matter. In the sense that we all think about our personal futures and the futures of our communities, futurism is everyone’s constant and quotidian practice. But futurism as I use the term in this essay means a professional interest in helping people think creatively about the risks and opportunities ahead. Sometimes this means selling them a particular vision of the future; and sometimes, more laudably, in my view, it means “the liberation of people’s insights.”

There are experts and consultants who offer predictions, forecasts, and scenarios to help us understand where a given financial market, environmental crisis, or technology trend may be headed, and others who make it their job—sometimes, notably by writing science fiction—to imagine entirely different worlds ten, twenty, or a hundred years in the future. While talking about climate change is technically just as much a form of futurism as talking about robots, the term is most conventionally used to mean conversations about technological progress and the way it could reshape society, for good or for ill. This may simply be due to money. Predictions about the future of technology have substantial financial implications; and, indeed, this dimension of futurism resonates with one prominent element in California’s history, the promise of quick wealth by capitalizing on a newly discovered resource. Futurism is many things, but its California variation often plays between the promise of the boom and the fear of the bust (sometimes, a refusal to accept the reality of busts). The anxious desire to be part of the next big thing and not be left behind courses through California futurism.

We can trace many elements of contemporary futurist practice back to the think tanks and consultancies that developed during WWII and grew increasingly important in the decades after. Herman Kahn, perhaps the most important American futurist of the mid-twentieth century, whose persona inspired the titular character in the film Dr. Strangelove, worked at the Santa Monica–based RAND Corporation. There he developed scenario-planning and game theory techniques with direct application to the Cold War. Even more ambitiously, his RAND colleague, the mathematician Olaf Helmer, sought to extend customary planning horizons into “a more distant future.” Helmer, along with other members of RAND, developed a method of forecasting called “Delphi,” which involved the collection and cross-referencing of predictions by experts in a given scientific field. “Convergence of opinion” translated into “accuracy of prediction,” writes historian Jenny Andersson. Despite his invocation of the Oracle at Delphi, Helmer’s goal was to render “fatalism a fatality.” Like many futurists after him, he wanted to eliminate utopianism and dystopianism from the culture of futures thinking while devising an ultimate scientific theory of prediction, a general theory on the model of physics that would be aided by the data-gathering and processing power of computers. He acknowledged the powerful incentive offered by the Cold War, which made American planners wonder how the United States could grow and survive in competition with the planned Soviet economy. The planning-oriented futurists of RAND and other institutions were expected to help contribute to policy recommendations. In his 1972 The Futurists, Alvin Toffler—coauthor with his wife, Heidi, of the most widely read late-twentieth-century futurist text, Future Shock—called for futurists to serve as the newest version of that classic twentieth century figure, the intellectuel engagé or public intellectual. All such ideas about futurist practice and the responsibilities of futurists, of course, were subject to a question: Whose future were they trying to predict? A global future or a national one? An elite or a popular future?

Some say that you simply can’t predict the future and that talk about what might happen is empty. In fact the impossibility of perfect prediction may be the secret of futurism’s appeal. This is its “dark matter” or the binding element that makes futurist work endlessly interesting and worthwhile. Consider the model of the bet, a familiar, everyday sort of forecasting in which we engage without thinking of “the future” writ large. San Francisco’s Long Now Foundation, which is most famous for its efforts to construct a clock that will run for 10,000 years (roughly the length of time our species has been practicing agriculture), maintains a registry of “long bets” about future events. Anyone with an Internet connection can offer predictions, and most are backed by moderate financial commitments. Many of these bets are very short term, when compared with the 10,000-year timescale the Long Now encourages the public to think about. One bet hinges on whether the average number of miles driven by Americans will rise or fall over the next ten years. Another asks whether political parties will hold their traditional conventions in the future or acknowledge that these have become nothing but theatrics. The fantasist in me imagines a world five hundred years from now in which our early twenty-first century longshot bets on the distant future have been passed down from one generation to the next as a matter of sacred trust. But why should they care how we bet on the future, which will be their present?

To continue reading click here to access the full article on JSTOR, where we’re delighted it will remain free for 60 days. Then click on a link to view the PDF and agree to JSTOR’s terms.


All photographs by Jon Christensen.