earth, journalism

Line in the Sand

Over the last 140 years, give or take, San Francisco’s Ocean Beach has been a sort of boxing ring, pitting the optimism (or hubris) of humankind against the relentless power of the ocean.

We’ve moved sand around, we’ve imported beachgrass and iceplant, laid concrete, set down boulders, dumped actual, used tombstones from a cemetery evicted to make way for development in good San Francisco fashion on the beach—all this to defend against the water as it pounded our western shore.

And, like so many other natural phenomena that kick our butts and blow up best laid plans and remind civilization that we aren’t the only forces to reckon with on this planet, climate change makes it worse. As sea levels rise, so does the pressure on those coasts, which are naturally worn away by the seas and naturally replenished by rivers and streams that deposit bits of sand and rock. Except when we disrupt that dynamic by laying down houses and asphalt and all this built environment on the natural one.

These days the latest move on the part of planners is to strike a sort of compromise with nature at Ocean Beach. You can read more in my article for California Magazine.

[Image above of men laying concrete at the Great Highway, which runs alongside Ocean Beach. June 19, 1919. From the always great OpenSFHistory (OpenSFHistory / wnp36.02175.jpg).]

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photography, San Francisco

Maiden Lane

A lot of text, lately, on this blog, so I’ll keep this brief. This is a picture I took after some rain in downtown San Francisco. This is Maiden Lane, near Union Square, a stretch of high-end boutiques and shops. A pair of opera singers used to set up at one end and sing, but I haven’t seen them for some time.

Once called Morton Lane, the street housed brothels back when San Francisco was wilder. They were destroyed in 1906, but the pursuit of lucre remains.

streetview

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Photo of kite photography at Crissy Field.
art, cool

Trip the Kite Fantastic

It’s fun to take pictures from high up. A few years ago, a friend working as a wedding planner let me roam around the top floor of the Bank of America building as she set up someone’s wedding ceremony. These were the best sustained views of San Francisco I’ve ever had.

northpoint.jpg

In the picture above, you can see hundreds of boats clustered on the Bay. They were out watching the annual Blue Angels airshow. Whenever the jets buzzed past the tower, the wedding party, killing time until the ceremony, would rush to the windows.

a view to the north

It was around this time, I think, that I stumbled across the work of Cris Benton on Flickr. I didn’t know who he was or how, exactly, he did it, but he was taking great aerial photos. Over the years, I discovered that he is a professor of architecture at Berkeley. (Even later on, I’d find out that one of my closest friends actually worked for him at the school.) But I kept coming back to Benton’s photography, and his multidisciplinary Hidden Ecologies project.

Benton makes his own radio-controlled camera rigs and then hoists them into the air with kite-power. I wrote about Benton’s work in the latest issue of California magazine, in a story titled “A View from Above.” That’s him in action in the photo at the top of his post.

That picture was taken at Crissy Field last Easter Sunday, a popular spot for windsurfers (and kite-flyers) because the wind blows so powerfully through the Golden Gate. The kite at this moment is still relatively low, compared to the altitude he’d reach a few minutes later. But it gives a good sense of what he’s doing. I drew this up to help illustrate:

benton_diagram_crop

Over the next 40 minutes or so, dozens of people stopped to watch. Eventually, so many came by to ask questions that I was answering on his behalf as he worked to keep the kite under control. (He later told me that when someone stops to ask what he’s doing, he’ll explain and then ask them to stick around and act as a docent, handling all the gawkers who inevitably follow).

Benton’s been doing this for about 15 years, but kite photography has been around for a lot longer. One of the most compelling historical images of San Francisco was taken soon after the 1906 earthquake, and it was taken using kites. The photographer George Lawrence fashioned his Lawrence Captive Airship from a train of kites and a huge camera (I’ve heard something like 50 pounds, with a negative suitable for 18×48-inch prints). He took what I think of as the iconic picture of San Francisco in ruins — from 2,000 feet up.

SFLawrence_6a34514r

Benton’s an incredibly sharp guy, a great interview and a lot of fun. If you’re curious about kite photography or how to get into it, check out his Notes on Kite Aerial Photography. It’s a few years old, but the message boards continue to be a active, a lively set of discussions and a good resource for anyone looking for tips or guidance from the kite aerial photography community. His work put him on the cover of the first issue of Make magazine, and if you have eight minutes or so, I urge you to watch Make Television’s video of him doing his thing:

Story: The View From Above
Outlet: CALIFORNIA MAGAZINE
Issue: May/June 2009

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journalism, money, San Francisco

A Note on the Bloomberg San Francisco Office

On Monday morning, I got to see a glimmer of Bloomberg’s San Francisco office. The office, on the second floor of a converted pier on the Embarcadero, was highlighted in August 2007 as the largest leasing deal to come along in San Francisco since the dot-com boom eight years earlier.

At the time, the media company rented 30,000 square feet at $100 per square foot (triple-net), while most office real estate at the time was about $50 per square foot. The deal nearly doubled Bloomberg’s footprint in the city as reporters and salespeople moved into a sleek waterfront place. Again, the Times:

The offices have floor-to-ceiling glass walls, natural lighting, operable windows, historic trusses and views of the bay, Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge. The development’s bayside history walk wraps around the building and boats will be able to pull up to the dock.

And, true, it’s all there–ferries docked below the desks, stunning bay views, and the lavatory is positively space-aged. One analyst suggested they got a great deal, saying:

“I feel anyone who has not locked up their space for the next couple of years should do so because rents are going higher,” she said. “In recent years, there has been a move to get away from fancy offices, particularly among the law firms. We seem to have passed that.”

What a long, strange trip it’s been. Eighteen months later, San Francisco, while not lacking for lawyers, might have fewer than expected after the collapse of Heller Ehrman and Thelen; and a casual glance at rental rates shows even for Class A office space as low as $25, suggesting that now might be the time to lock up space for the next couple of years.

***

I wish I had a photo of the Bloomberg office to show you. Scores of twinned screen Bloomberg terminals in long rows, all facing Treasure Island; a glass-walled conference room, full of more twin-screened terminals facing a pair of large screens embedded into the wall; a full, free cafe with coffee, juice, and cappuccino machines, fresh fruit, and rotating silver snack stands full of Kettle Chips and Swedish fish. This is the life, no? Still, during the hours I was there, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in a supervillain’s lair, the control room from which a plot for global domination is hatched and executed. All that was missing was the classic Mercator projection map of the planet, outsized letters spelling SPECTRE, and, of course, Ernst Stavro Blofeld in one of his various guises, along with his fluffy cat.

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anticipation, irony, journalism, San Francisco

Chronicle of a Death Foretold?

This little news piece from 1981 is making the rounds. As the reporter notes, “this is only the first step in newspapers by computer”:

So many things to love here:

  • the “estimated two to three thousand home computer owners in the Bay Area”
  • the newspaper guy saying “and we’re not in it to make money. We’re probably not going to lose a lot, but we’re not going to make much either.”
  • that the newspaper vendor is safe in his job, “for the moment”
  • that the reporter could be seen as believing it’s just the vendor who has to be worried
  • or maybe just that these two minutes of reportage, seen from a contemporary perspective, are shot through with a dreadful kind of irony.

Welcome to the future.

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San Francisco

Back to San Francisco

ocean beach

In San Francisco this week, and back for a while, I think. I spent a chunk of November traveling: the Upper Valley in New Hampshire, Boston, and New York City. In the process, I accumulated a good amount of material, some of which will appear here.

It’s easy to get frustrated with San Francisco, particularly its tendency to be costly (in many respects). But the food is good, the air is clean, and the weather—today it was nearly 70 degrees, and we caught a nice sunset at Ocean Beach, a few minutes before five o’clock. Here, sometimes, there is a kind of quality of living that shouldn’t be overlooked.

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San Francisco

The Martial, Ubiquitous

Last week was Fleet Week in San Francisco. The most obvious element is the weekend air show, featuring the Blue Angels.

I grew up among martial displays–air shows, uniforms, decommissioned jets and other combat vehicles sprinkled around military installations like garden statues. But I still get a kind of thrill seeing the Blue Angels and other military aircraft buzz the city. No doubt they do, too. Granted, there is also the creepy realization, tugging from the inner spaces of the mind, that remind me that in many places over the last century, a plane flying low overhead was reason for fear.

blueAngels.jpg

Still, the jets aren’t a constant presence, though it sounds like it as they practice their runs. This can be contrasted with a short video inspired by San Francisco’s Fleet Week that made its way around the internet last August. An exercise in motion-tracking in the service of some kind of geek fantasy, we find a montage of vérité-style clips from a San Francisco occupied by the Galactic Empire.

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India, international, photography

Everyone Loves a Parade

A band pauses during a parade held during a Sikh holiday.

I’ve run into parades by chance in several places, including a Shriners parade in New Hampshire, a children’s parade through Quepos, Costa Rica, and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City. In the picture above, a band pauses during a parade in New Delhi, held as part of the events observing the birthday of Guru Gobind Singh last January.

These aren’t the first musicians I’ve featured on this site, though probably the first marching band. A couple of years ago, I stumbled on a Chinese night market here in San Francisco. That’s where I saw this band. I’ve posted this photo before, but why not once more?

A band plays at a Chinatown night market in San Francisco.

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journalism, San Francisco

Matthews calls it.

Not the primary. Chris Matthews on why San Francisco isn’t a newspaper town:

“It looks like an Eastern city,” he says. “But it’s pretty hard for people to read newspapers when they’re riding a bike.”

From last Sunday’s Times Magazine profile of Matthews. One of the funnier pieces of reporting I’ve read in any magazine. Mark Leibovich does great work. 

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development, dissipation, lost, San Francisco

The crashing down.

There are several interesting stories coming out of the crane accident in New York City. One was Susan Dominus’s portrait of the typical scene at Fubar, which occupied the ground floor of the destroyed townhouse on East 50th. Although the occupations of the regulars comes as a surprise (advertising, television cameraman, programmer) and doesn’t exactly square with the vision of a neighborhood bar, remember, this is Manhattan, not Boston circa 1982. Not too many house—painters or mailmen in that crowd, anymore.

But what I found particularly resonant were points like these:

And yet for the people who live there, it’s an unusually tight-knit neighborhood, filled with longtime residents who experience the city as a place to live, not a stage set designed to highlight Manhattan’s millennial glamour. . .

It’s hard to miss the symbolism: Old-time neighborhood hangout literally crushed by the force of development run amok.

These sentiments are so resonant because they are so relevant. This is San Francisco, too.

San Francisco is my first city. I moved here about six years ago (six years, one month, six days), and though I arrived at a relatively more affordable time, post dot-com burst, I still felt ten years too late. No doubt I engage in some idealization—San Francisco as a working city, where dock-workers actually live and work, same for skilled tradesmen and artisans; where commercial fisherman tie up at Fisherman’s Wharf (see the opening of Gay Talese’s “Silent Season of a Hero”). Even that exercise in anomie and post-modernism The Crying of Lot 49 made San Francisco seem more real, less posed. But that’s all gone. The smithy on Rincon Hill, if it exists anymore, is nothing but an anachronism, shorthand for lazy Chron reporters and lazy so-called-blog writers. I have friends moving into the goliath tower, nearly complete, at the top of Rincon Hill, the one that hulks over the approach to the Bay Bridge and interrupts the San Francisco skyline like an obnoxious interlocutor making his most onerous demand first—and getting it. “In five years, it’s going to look like New York,” one new resident of that tower told the Chronicle. He also said:

“Some people want to live in a funky Victorian until they see this,” he said. “I think San Francisco has changed and it’s changing faster.”

“I represent the new guard.”

The new guard.

And it was about six years ago—when I got to know parts of the city by walking through it each weekend—six years ago when I stepped into Vesuvio, the bar with the famously literary pedigree. And, sure, it trades on that reputation, the Kerouac and red wine mystique next door to City Lights. And, yes, that tends to attract the tourist crowd and those who, in Ms. Dominus’s words, want the city to be a stage set. But not always.

I ducked in there on a Sunday afternoon, seeking escape, profoundly self-conscious from walking alone through North Beach’s jazz festival. There was a guy named Bruce at the bar, who kind of looked like Dave Barry, talking to his friend Jack (Jack the Hat), who was tending the bar. We talked about how expensive it was anymore. And I bought Bruce a beer, and asked how the city had changed in the 30 years he and Jack had lived here, and Bruce said there was all kind of change but these days the thing is that everywhere you go there are frat guys. Just everywhere. They ruin every cool bar, every event. We talked a little more before Bruce left. I ordered another drink and talked to Jack. And wouldn’t you know, a few minutes later the festival let out and in poured a bunch of guys wearing board shorts and pink polo shirts with upturned collars and visors and flip-flops with beautiful bouncing girlfriends clamoring for attention. The frat guys were upon us. So I let Jack get to work and finished my beer and made to settle up and Jack said, forget it, no charge.

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environment, unfortunate

Lovely As a Tree: All That Remains

There it is. Or was. All that remains.

A pile of soggy sawdust and a few lost leaves. When I wrote about watching this tree being cut apart, I cited a useful Christian Science Monitor article on the value of trees in urban areas. And I am recently reminded of a terrific song called “The Trees,” by Pulp, an old favorite band from way back. In the refrain, Jarvis Cocker croons, “Yeah, the trees, those useless trees produce the air that I am breathing.”

Sort of a strange line.

My tree has probably been reduced to pulp.

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