Pictures from a not quite gone city: A field  trippers rambling guide to San Francisco

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. [2]

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



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[1] 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.

[2] The interview can be heard on my website :