Near Views from Afar
Schoolboys of my generation learnt one thing that stuck in our minds about San Francisco : earthquakes. The frequent earthquakes which devastated large parts of the city had something to do with the San Andreas fault and meant inhabitants went about in daily dread of the world collapsing about their ears. Later, watching the eponymous Hollywood movie featuring the great 1906 quake plus Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy, confirmed this impression of a city living dangerously, on borrowed time, yet with a magical capacity to renew itself : at the end of the film the ruins dissolve into a modern rebuilt urban landscape.
Fast forward to the 1960’s and San Francisco is again the epicentre of an upheaval, only this time a cultural one. To those of us who grew our hair long, went on CND marches, and hit the road with a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl in our back pockets, San Francisco, and in particular the City Lights Bookshop were the fons et origo of the Beat Scene, a source of inspiration at once poetical and political. The bookshop is nowadays a shrine to the beats, and like many a pilgrim I was delighted to come across texts I had thought long out of print as well as to sample the work of contemporary poets who are doing their best to move out of the long shadow thrown by Ginsberg, Corso, McClure, Snyder, Ferlinghetti, Rexroth and the rest. They – or their avatar manuscripts – can all be found in Beat Museum just down the road from City Lights, and perhaps fittingly it is a rather ramshackle affair, the faded photographs and battered typewriters evoking, nostalgically enough, a pre-digital world we have all but lost.
The mutation of beat culture into the hippy ‘youth quake’ of the late 60’s shifted the action from North Beach to Haight Ashbury and invested the city with a psychedelic ‘New Age’ aura which it has never entirely lost. Much of the creative energy released during that time was channelled into making capitalism hip and cool, as exemplified by the growth of the corporate Info-tech giants in Silicon Valley in the 1990’s and, more recently, by the creation of enormous wealth through the farming of marihuana now that the drug has been legalised in California. Perhaps it is not entirely coincidental that in a recent survey 16% of the local population claimed to have been abducted by aliens and to have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. There is clearly more than one way to get high. This is a city that has consistently lived up to its zany SF reputation.
Laurence Ferlinghetti, the doyen of the beat poets, still lives in the city and has played a leading role in organising opposition to its sweeping gentrification. This process started in the old port area and its immediate hinterland, but now affects most of the Bay area, rendering it uninhabitable for people on low incomes and resulting in mass homelessness. In his famous early poem, Pictures of a gone world Ferlinghetti a vividly describes the scene of his childhood and youth growing up in what was still a largely working class port city:
Away above a harborful
of caulkless houses
among the charley noble chimneypots
of a rooftop rigged with clotheslines
a woman pastes up sails
upon the wind
hanging out her morning sheets
with wooden pins
Half a century later, in his inaugural address as the city’s Poet Laureate, Ferlinghetti writes: ‘All that made the city so unique in the first place is in danger of going down the tubes, it is a city undergoing radical transformation from a diverse metropolis what welcomed immigrants and refugees to a wealthy homogeneous enclave’.
This will shock readers of the Tales of the City, the series of novels by Armistead Maupin which depict San Francisco’s gay and alternative culture from the 1970’s through to 2008 in such a positive light. We are used to thinking that the city which elected Harvey Milk as the first openly gay civic administrator in the USA, someone with strong roots in the local counter culture, must be bulwark of opposition to the onward march of corporate and rentier capitalism. However, as I was to discover when I visited the Castro district, the gay presence can actually accelerate the process of gentrification, not only because the growth of the city’s creative industries is concentrated here and nurtures gay entrepreneurialism but because the power of the pink pound serves to inflate rents.
Much more recently I read a collection of essays and maps by local writers and artists which Rebecca Solnit has assembled into a San Francisco Atlas. The book’s title is ‘Infinite City’ and Solnit makes the point in her introduction that an atlas, however comprehensive, can never be more than a highly selective exercise. But what a selection! This is how the frontispiece sets out its stall:
‘Of principal landmarks and treasures of the region, including butterfly species, queer sites, murders, coffee, water, power, contingent identities, social types, libraries, early morning bars, the lost labour landscape of 1960, and the monumental cypresses of San Francisco, of indigenous place names, women environmentalists, toxins, food sites, right wing organisations, World War 2 shipyards, Zen Buddhist centres, salmon migration, and musical histories of the Bay area; with details of cultural geographies of the Mission district, the Fillimore’s culture wars and metamorphoses, the racial discourses of United Nations plaza, the South of Market world that redevelopment devoured. And other significant phenomena, vanished and extant.’
Solnit’s inspiration for her Atlas project is Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, with its surreal cartography of a multitude of possible – and impossible – urbanisms, all of them loosely based on Venice. But the rich mosaic of themes selected for the San Francisco Atlas are far from arbitrary. They are designed to trace and inter-connect the lines of force, both hidden and visible, economic and political, ecological and cultural, that have shaped and transformed the city over the last century. This is done through a series of judicious juxtapositions, bringing into sudden and surprising alignment fragments of the past, present and even future. My favourite is the map which accompanies Chris Carlsson’s magisterial essay on the industrial archaeology of the city; it shows the spatial distribution of the now vanished shipyards and their close proximity to the surviving early bird bars which the workers used to visit after they came off the night shift, and which are now patronised by the denizen’s of the 24/7 city. This brings home with graphic immediacy the impact of de-industrialisation which Carlsson’s text so cogently dissects.
Re-Orientations: a tale of more than two cities
As readers will have gathered, San Francisco has for a long time held a special place in my personal cultural geography, albeit one overlaid by what academics call ‘ social imaginaries’. So when I was invited earlier this year to visit the city by the publishers of my new book, PM Press, who are based in the Bay area, I jumped at the chance. Yet none of the prior mappings I have just described prepared me for the culture shock when I actually arrived.
I stayed initially with an Irish landlady in the Sunset district on the edge of Golden Gate Park, and got a crash course on the American Dream, which, after all s a narrative of successful immigration,of people coming from difficult circumstances elsewhere in the world and making a better life for themselves and their families. Mary Daley and her husband emigrated from Cork in 1958 when times were hard and the Celtic Tiger economy still a distant dream. Their building business prospered during the post war housing boom in San Francisco and they were able to send their two sons to private Catholic schools. Their photographs and trophies on the sideboard in the front parlour pay tribute to all American boyhood and constitute a shrine to sporting and academic success. Mary was a fierce republican in both the Irish and American sense. In the first case she was mightily impressed by the fact that my son had married the daughter of the head of the IRA Army Council in Belfast and worked as a Press Officer for Sinn Fein. However as a keen Trump supporter, she was much less enthusiastic about my own political biography, although she insisted that I give her a signed copy of my book, Archive that, Comrade, despite the fact that it wears its Leftist credentials on its cover, if not its sleeve.
There was still a Catholic church and social centre in Sunset but the neighbourhood was overwhelmingly Chinese , including all the restaurants, shops and businesses. Given that San Francisco has been home to the Chinese diaspora for more than a century I was surprised to discover that few of the older folk spoke any English, until I realised that many of them had emigrated quite recently from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Sunset was a prosperous and solidly settled area but if you were to construct a map of San Francisco showing the population distribution by ethnicity and class, in many areas it would show a high degree of correlation, the poorest neighbourhoods – and the ones most ripe for gentrification- being invariably inhabited by Latinos and African-Americans.
It is always interesting to find one’s way around a strange city and I had no trouble in following Walter Benjamin’s injunction to get lost in order to do so. Given the city’s rigorous street grid system it is easy in theory to get one’s bearings with or without out the help of a map. However mental maps are analog not digital homing devices and work their navigational magic by drawing on phenomenological or landscape space, not Cartesian co-ordinates. My points of reference, a local community café and supermarket, a convenient ATM, the bus stop for downtown, were not easily locatable on a Google map, but in any case it was their relations of contexture and contiguity that were important. Downtown I found the cavernous grid of the CBD oppressive, and the fact that some of the main streets went on for miles meant that translating the scale of a map designed for cars into a viable pedestrian route was hard work and I often arrived late. Given the erratic public transport system, and ubiquitous traffic jams it is no wonder so many SFers get around on electric scooters; these can be picked up and dropped off almost anywhere and tackle even the steepest hills. I ended up overcoming my ideological squeamishness and using Uber. This works brilliantly until the Sat Nav system breaks down and the drivers, who have little or no locally situated knowledge, do not have a clue where to go. In one instance I had to get someone at my bookstore destination to give the driver directions on his mobile phone, and had the difficult task of translating these onto a Google map the driver could follow, since he spoke little English. So yes mobile privatism rules OK and yes the map is not the territory. On the other hand the Bay Area rapid transit system still does the business, not least in providing a moving platform for the city’s break dancers who made commuting out to Berkeley a real pleasure.
What I found most dis-orienting was the fact that the ecology of San Francisco is made up of very discrete districts, in demographic and sociological terms,but they do not feel or behave like the kind of ‘urban villages’ I was used to in London and other European cities and which you also find in New York. They are more like micro-cultures that have taken temporary root in the interstices of a very tightly planified urban structure. The one exception was Haigh Ashbury which still trades off its ‘flower power’ past and has cultivated a kind of retro-psychedelic chic, complete with some aging but still decorative hippies.
However San Francisco is not Los Angeles. It has a recognisable centre now dominated by elegant skyscrapers, supposedly quake proof, (although a scandal was brewing because it seems that many of them did not in fact conform to building regs ). Between 1960 and 1980 the downtown skyline was transformed by 30 million square feet of new office space and there were many further large scale developments between 1994 and 2011 in formerly industrial, warehouse, and railroad areas.
Take Mission Street for example. Once the heart of Boholand, a working class district, with small businesses, workshops, lodging houses and cheap cafes, it fought off early attempts at gentrification but is now in the throes of rapid hipsterisation, another front line in the ongoing confrontation between real estate interests ( the so called ‘coalition for growth’) and long established resident populations. The result has been mass evictions, as landlords rush to exploit the rent gap and hike rents beyond the reach of those on low incomes. Mission Street is now a home from home for the homeless, accommodating a pop up tent encampment of several hundred people of all ages and ethnicities. It was the sheer scale and blatancy of this accumulation by dispossession that was shocking. San Francisco is the richest city in the richest nation in the world, yet in places it looks like a refugee camp in some benighted ‘third world’ country. And indeed with the rapid deterioration of its infrastructure and public services, including transport, SF can be regarded as a failed local state. A local newspaper put it like this : its becoming impossible for a lot of the people who have made this a world class city, from the fishermen and pasta makers and blue collar workers to the jazz musicians, beat poets, hippies and punks – to exist here any more. And when you’ve lost that part of the city, you’ve lost San Francisco’.
Nevertheless the city is not quite gone. The boho community still manages to hold on and find niches for itself amidst the tightening net of gentrification, living neither fully on nor totally off grid. I experienced this possibility for myself when I moved from my Air BnB digs in Sunset to a houseboat in Berkeley marina. The boat was owned by an artist friend of my wife and consisted of a wooden shed- like structure perched somewhat precariously on a concrete floating pontoon salvaged from the second World War. The locals nicknamed it, appropriately enough, The Ark, and it was moored on the dock sandwiched between two gleaming million dollar yachts. The Ark was one of many such, housing what is left of Berkeley’s alternative society. This is a community which traces its roots back to the campus movement of the 1960’s; some of these once -upon- a – time student radicals have become intellectual luminaries of the New Left and successful academics well able to afford the inflated house prices. But many continue to eke out a precarious existence on the margins, and like our host are being put under pressure by the threat of rent increases designed to make the marina an exclusive safe harbour for the wealthy yacht owning classes.
From the other side of the tracks
There is also resistance to gentrification from community activists. The most visible sign of opposition is be found in an alleyway off Mission Street which features a display of stunning street art, providing a dramatic graphic narrative for the many community campaigns and struggles for social justice which have taken place in the city over the past decade.
It was here that I came across the work of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project in the form of a mural wall map and arranged to meet up to interview one of the members of the collective. What follows is a brief summary of information provided:
AEMP uses digital cartography for the purpose of data visualization and analysis, and combines this with narrative interviews documenting the dispossession and resistance of San Francisco Bay Area residents to the process of gentrification. The project not only documents the displacement of people and but intervenes politically to try to halt evictions and to put pressure on unscrupulous landlords. The investigative focus is on the relationship between speculation, high tech corporations‚ property flipping, racial profiling, and luxury development. To guard against the danger of producing statistically based maps that reduce complex social and political worlds to simple dots, in 2013 the group began an exercise in narrative research, collecting numerous stories from a range of groups, those evicted by shell companies, those who have experienced increased racial profiling, and those who have fought their evictions through direct action and sometimes won.
AEMP is staffed by volunteers , many of them working in what is left of the city public services and with both access to official data bases and the skills to analyse them. There is little doubt that their strategic location coupled with their political commitment is the reason for their success.
As it happens on my way to do this interview I ran into a street demonstration which had been organised by a Bay Area coalition of housing and environmental action groups. It was taking place outside a five star hotel because inside the mayor and other city officials were being wined and dined by real estate companies , the so called coalition for growth, as part of their campaign to win planning consent for further major developments. The influence of the Black Lives Matter campaign was evident in many of the placards and talking to some of the organisers it became clear that racial profiling was not just about discrimination by the police and courts, but was a practice being actively pursued by landlords.
The current situation in SF is the culmination of a much wider process of globalisation and de-industrialisation and to get a sense of both its local impact and long duree I went to talk to Chris Carlsson, the eminent labour and social historian of San Francisco, who has established an archive focussing on just this theme. What follows is a summary of the interview:
“Shaping San Francisco adopts a nonlinear, multi level approach to telling the history of the city. We wanted to develop a data structure for the project that was independent of a particular piece of software . The project brings together labour history and ecology , tries to make connections between those two silos . There is no mapping interface as such, because this would have meant having to geolocate thousands of texts and images and there simply was not the resources to do that. The site is organised thematically , for example , into decades, neighbourhoods and populations.
My involvement with Rebecca Solnit’s atlas was minimal; I was just commissioned to write a chapter and she picked my brains about a lot of stuff, but it was essentially her project, she was the hub and the rest of us were the spokes. The problem I have with a lot of counter mapping is that it is very beautiful to look at but there is not much you can do with it . What do you actually learn from many of these maps which you could’nt get in greater depth elsewhere. Some of them are very dense with data but they are also very time specific, they are snapshots of particular moments . You can show before and after quite dramatically , but the actual process of change, how you get from then to now, from there to here, remains largely invisible. And as a historian it is that process I want to capture.
We are witnesses a commodification of history , its organisation into fragmentary byte size packages for easy consumption. Shaping San Francisco is a living archive, it is a public utility that relies heavily on community participation. The funding bodies don’t like it because it does’nt fit neatly into any of their categories. But there is a broader problem to do with the impact of neo-liberalism, and the privatisation of social experience. This has led to a de-historicising of everyday life. Most people do not think of themselves as historical agents . The idea that they can shape history rather than merely be subject to it has come to feel strange , even ‘unAmerican’ .There is a large reservoir of popular participation that remains untapped, and which this archival project is attempting to reach. For example, we need to expand the notion of labour history to include all the work that people do for which they are not paid. Not just housework or do-it yourself home improvements , but the countless ways in which people seek out non alienated forms of manual and mental labour, collaboratively and voluntarily. This not only contributes to the reproduction of society and creates an improved sense of well being.”
Leaving Cal’s house and just around the corner I walked straight into an example of what he was talking about. It was a warm Friday night and a large parking lot had been commandeered by a local DJ and rap crew . Hundreds of people, mostly young, mostly black or Latino , were standing around chatting and chilling out , taking in the vibe , listening to the music and smoking spliffs. Apparently this was a regular community event, which moved around the neighbourhood to a different spot each week. People heard about the location by word of mouth or social media and so it stayed ahead of police interference . No-one got paid for organising it, and you won’t find it on any of the tourist maps or entertainment guides. But it spoke volumes about what is not quite gone in San Francisco.
Left Fields Forever
The main purpose of my visit to SF was to give a series of talks, readings and signings of my new book. The book is published by PM Press, a small and very energetic outfit based in the Bay area, and through its presiding genius, Ramsey Kanaan, I met some very interesting local lefties, many of whom had a long track record of engagement in community and national politics, dating back to the 1960’s. It was certainly an immersive experience which at times I found rather overwhelming. In my day job, as an urban ethnographer, I do not spend much time talking politics with activists, but rather with what might be called the inactivists, getting them to tell me stories about their lives and trying to figure out why their evident sense of social injustice about what has happened to them, and others like them, manifests itself either in self destructive behaviour or in lashing out at scapegoats.
So it was a refreshing change to present my arguments about Left memory politics to sympathetic audiences which ranged from anthropology students to radical archivists, and included a very Young Trotskyist group ( who actually laughed at my Jewish joke about the Lenin/Trotsky debacle) and a very old Marxist Study group, many of whose members had great difficulty in hearing what I said but nevertheless asked some very pertinent questions.
One highlight of my visit was an event at Green Apple Bookstore downtown, where I shared a platform with Dick Walker who was launching his new book Pictures of a Gone City which explores the impact of Silicon Valley and what he calls the dark side of prosperity in the San Francisco Bay area. The book is a tour de force by a Marxist geographer who is a political activist as well as an emeritus professor at Berkeley. Dick’s approach was not at all academic, and while he marshalled an impressive array of facts and figures in support of his argument, his informal style of address was full of quips and telling anecdotes. Imagine Michael Moore explaining the theory of surplus value to a bunch of teenagers or David Harvey illustrating rent gap theory by telling a joke ( he famously has absolutely no sense of humour) and you will get some idea of Dick’s performance. The one thing that was missing from his analysis was the voices and stories of the people to which all this had happened. Geography without ethnography gives us the city in stone but not in the flesh.
Another highlight was an event at the Prelinger Archives, an independent film collection and library housed downtown and run by a remarkable couple, Megan and Rick Prelinger. The library where we met is huge room with floor to ceiling bookcases – so much so familiar – but the 50,000 books which explore different aspects of San Francisco’s history are arranged in a unique fashion designed to promote browsing and serendipity. For example, the section on “Suburbia” is next to the section on “Domestic Environments”, then “Architecture”, which becomes “Graphic Design”, which in turn leads to “Typography” and “Fine Arts”, and then “Advertising” and “Sales”. There is no Dewey Classification system or card catalogue and the distinction between digital and analog texts is deliberately blurred. Megan conceives of the library as “a local workshop, not an institution. We serve tea, and we encourage photography and scanning and any other form of non-destructive appropriation. That kind of environment is very natural to people in the millennial generation and people who have grown up during the resurgence of craft and DIY spaces.’
If every archive is implicitly or explicitly a kind of map, then this is one that encourages you explore the territory in your own way without having to slavishly follow directions. But if you are in a hurry to get from A to B in the quickest possible time, as many researchers are today , then you will find a visit to the Prelingers’ archives a frustrating experience.
Being interviewed by Sasha Lilley for her KPFA radio programme ’Against the Grain’ has definitely got to be one of my best memories. Started by a pacifist after World War 2 , the station has gone through many changes in personnel over the years, but has consistently broadcast dissenting voices : writers, artists, public intellectuals, political activists. It is owned and controlled by its listeners, is strongly embedded in the counter culture and remains a thorn in the flesh of the West Coast corporate and political establishment . Its continued existence in the age of social media is a small miracle. There is no equivalent in the UK , Resonance FM is the nearest we get and that is primarily an arts station. So it was a real pleasure and privilege to be interviewed by Sasha Lilley, the station’s chief programme animator. Her shrewd and knowledgeable questions about contemporary memory/identity politics and their relationship to the Left forced me to dig deep to come up with replies that were worthy of them. 
On my few free days, I checked out some of the city’s many museums and galleries. There were two shows that made an impact on me. Tiffany Chung is a Vietnamese American artist who makes delicate cartographic drawings exploring the different ways in which natural and man made disasters transform the ecology of urban spaces and their inhabitants. Much of her work depicts the displacement of populations through war, famine, and poverty but she is also concerned about the potential destructive effect of global warming. In ‘One Giant Great Flood’ for example she super-imposes the existing and future transport network in Ho Chi Minh city , where she lives, as the authorities try to anticipate the impact of sea level rise.
Another show which explore ecological themes features a giant ‘Fog Machine’ . San Francisco, of course, is famous for its fogs, ( although I enjoyed brilliantly sunny days throughout my stay), but in this installation the fog is treated as a benign natural phenomenon that actually protects the city’s animal, plant and even human ecology. This show was sponsored by the Future Farmers of America, a student youth organisation based in agricultural colleges across the country , which takes a very progressive and pro-active stance towards environmental issues.
Finally there was my visit to the Retort Collective, a network of radical intellectuals convened by the redoubtable Iain Boal,a leading figure on the SF scene, as part of his commitment to keeping alive the spirit of critical inquiry which characterised 1968 at its best. The group includes the art historians TJ Clark and Anne Wagner and other luminaries of the New Left. Iain is one of the co-editors of West of Eden, a study of Utopian communes in Northern California and as a welcome weekend break from the promotional grind, he took me out of town to Mendocino County, a major area of settlement by the Hippie ‘back to the land’ movement in its exodus from Haight in the late 60’s and 70’s. We stayed with Cal Winslow, a distinguished social and labour historian of the West Coast and one of the contributors to the book. Cal still lives and works there and runs the Mendocino Institute which promotes communitarian values. He told lots of stories about the pioneer days of the Sixties and I was intrigued to learn that some of the established farmers took the hippy city kids under their wing and showed them the ropes. One of them had been an IWW activist in the 1930’s so his long haired ‘apprentices’ got a lesson in labour history as well as in how (not) to let the grass grow under their feet !
Another surprising link between the alternative society and the labour movement came from discovering the poetry of Philip Levine in the Mendocino bookstore. He was a working class poet who grew up in Detroit, when it was at the heart of the American car industry and in his posthumous collection The Last Shift he chronicles with humour and anger, but also great lyrical precision the culture of blue collar workers and the destruction of their labourhood as Capital fled to more profitable locations abroad.
The fact that it was 50 years after 1968 was brought home during my trip to Mendocino by the arrival of a TV company who wanted to make a series of programmes looking at what had happened to the original hippy settlers. As Cal stressed to them, the importance of 1968 for today is that it offered a glimpse of a civil society founded on principles of co-operation not competition, and built on networks not hierarchy.
Political Cartography Revisited
This whole SF experience made me think about how political cartographies are constructed. We are all too familiar with the Left/Centre/Right distinctions which today no longer correspond to much of political activity . Their logic derives from a historical and now outdated image of the body politic institutionalised in the spatial arrangements of parliamentary assemblies. It certainly does not adequately represent the full array of ideological positions and practices now emerging outside the domain of party politics, and rooted in specific sites of conflict in civil society.
In depicting the demographic distribution of such phenomena we need to take much more account of the spatial dimension. It is not just that a lot of community politics focus on issues of identity and belonging, but that these issues are strongly indexed to place, and to narratives of place. In the UK we used to refer to ’red villages’ or towns, which had a tradition of labour militancy. Nowadays we talk about these same places as ‘left behind areas’ whose populations are attracted to populisms, whether authoritarian or libertarian – and vote with their feet for Trump or Brexit.
The presence or absence of a critical mass of activist organisations and support networks can certainly make a difference to political outcomes in such areas. In San Francisco the sheer scale of population displacement means that activists are always fighting a rear guard action, yet their embeddedness in the social fabric of the city remains a source of strength. There are lessons to be learn here for what is happening nearer home in the UK. In London, the 2050 development plan has identified 36 ‘opportunity areas’, where major regeneration projects are scheduled to take place. In many of these areas there is little or no tradition of community activism, and a mix of elderly and transient youthful populations. One of the key challenges for the Citizens Atlas of London which Livingmaps is currently developing is to reach the inactivists and to engage them in a form of participatory mapping that will empower their involvement in popular planning and local decision making. The Shaping San Francisco project and the Anti -Eviction Mapping Network are encouraging examples, demonstrating that given the determination to ‘keep on keeping on’, it is possible for small groups to make a big difference.
If ‘counter-mapping’ is to develop as part of a strategy of politically effective community action then it has to develop a methodology that moves from capturing purely reactive responses – stopping a fracking project here, a luxury housing scheme there, the destruction of public amenity everywhere, to a pro-active one: the envisagement of the kind of neighbourhood, the kind of city that people want to live, work and play in. This not just a question of converting Nimbyism into Yimbyism but of changing the rules of the game. If this cannot be done , then we are all in for a bumpy ride. In his talk at Dick Walker argued that San Francisco is the city of the 21st century in that it represents the true trajectory of digital capitalism, providing a utopia for a small wealthy elite and a savage dystopia for the rest . In order words Blade Runner 2049. Even that film suggests that life is not a video game. The problem is that the imagineers and planners who are now in change of mapping out our urban futures, increasingly act as if it was.
Here are some brief pen portraits of the people who made my trip possible and worthwhile, and who in another context would be acknowledged as an ethnographer’s ‘key informants’.
Iain Boal epitomises the spirit of critical intellectual engagement with the world that characterises the 60’s political counter culture at its best. He describes himself as an antinomian and an enemy of the present ( or at least presentism ) . He has a restless quicksilver mind, and can move in a single utterance from the history of the bicycle to the bio-chemistry of the post-industrial body, and on to the impact of digital media on environmental perception. He can be hard to keep up with at times but his genial expansiveness wraps everyone around him in its warm spell.
Chris Carlsson .I interviewed Chris in his beautiful old house in a vibrant but poor inner city neighbourhood which would now be called ‘hyper diverse’ and is ripe for gentrification. He was easy to interview, except that he had to dash off from time to time to supervise the cooking of a fantastic dinner, to which I was invited along with one of his collaborators, before going out for a party on a boat in the Bay with a group of local historians. Like all creative archivists he has put his obsessions to work in a productive, and in his case very political end.
T.J.Clark I knew Tim when I was (briefly) at Cambridge in the 1960’s and then through his links with the English Situationists and King Mob Echo. I have watched his stellar rise to become one of the leading art historians of his generation with seminal studies on Courbet, Cezanne, Davide, Picasso, Tim is all of a piece in the sense that whether he is giving a lecture to a large audience or having an intimate tete a tete he talks in the same reflective manner , taking an intricate line of thought for a walk to often unexpected places . I remember him doing this in front of what seemed to me a rather boring 19th century English landscape painting, but which he populated with acute observations that transformed the canvas into a window on a now vanished world.
Ramsey Kanaan started publishing books in his teens and has never stopped. He co-founded PM Press in 2007 and for such a small outfit they produce an extraordinary number of very good books every year. He is a man of many parts and for once his profile is not exaggerating : teenage punk rocker, middle-aged folk singer, centerfold pin-up, anarchist book fair founder, vegan all-you-can-eat enthusiast, midfield amateur soccer player, At my book launch, when the books didn’t actually turn up- they were stuck in the airport- he made up for the potential financial loss by persuading me to buy ten titles off the table, at author’s discount, of course. I remember driving back with him at night from a gig in Sacramento when the faster the car went ( and Ramsey drives fast) the more intense and speedy the conversation about contemporary politics became. It made be feel that I was after all living life in the slow lane.
Anne Wagner is a leading feminist art historian with an encyclopaedic knowledge which she wears lightly, and combines with a passionate curiosity about everything outside the artworld . She worked with Tim on a ground breaking exhibition of L S Lowry at Tate Britain which rescued his work from the sentimental and condescending plaudits of the art establishment. She can be seriously funny , especially about artists and others whose work she finds is pretentious. She does’nt suffer fools gladly but is generous to anyone who is struggling to make real meaning though their work, however clumsily.
Iain Boal et al West Of Eden Communes and Utopia in Northern California Retort PM Press2012
Chris Carlsson Ten Days that Shook the City 1968-1978 City Lights 2011 / Reclaiming San Francisco 1995-98City Lights 2014/ Shaping San Francisco: A guide to lost landscapes, unsung heroes and hidden histories City Lights 2019
Phil Cohen Archive that, Comrade Left Legacies and the Counter Culture of Remembrance Retort PM Press 2018
Lawrence Ferlinghetti San Francisco Poems City Light Foundation 2001
Philip Levine The Last Shift Alfred Knopf 2016
Rebecca Solnit Infinite City A San Francisco Atlas University of California Press 2010
Dick Walker Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the dark side of prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area PM Press 2018
Cal Winslow Rivers of Fire :Commons, Crisis and the Imagination 2016
Anti Eviction Mapping Network https://www.antievictionmap.com
Future Farmers of America : https://www/ffa.org
Prelinger Archives: https://archive.org/details/prelinger
PM Press http://pmpress.org
Shaping San Francisco Archive: https// www.shapingsf.org
 This article is accompanied by a gallery of images which provide a supplement of visual ethnography. It is recommended that readers access this at the same time as the text.
 The interview can be heard on my website : www.philcohenworks.com