Posts Tagged 'san francisco'

Thoughts on American Gentrification, from the Absurd Location of Hanoi

Hipster girls make me say “awwwww’

So I’ve been thinking a lot about gentrification. American-style gentrification. Which is absurd, right? I’m living in friggin Vietnam, a developing country, and “developing” is not at all the same thing as “gentrifying.”

But, just as Paris was where David Sedaris moved to write about America, it seems as though SE Asia is where I moved to think and write about Oakland, about growing up in Oakland and getting sober in Oakland, in a time when Oakland and the Bay Area as a whole were gentrifying like crazy—the Dot Com Boom and Bust, when my brother and I got dinner in SF one night when I was 18, were walking down Market to the Church Street Station, down sidewalks lined with cute little shops and tons of white yuppies, and we turned to look at each other and exchanged this moment of “What the fuck has happened to SF?”

Of course it was different in Oakland. Oakland’s gentrification is kinda a fascinating beast (covered well here) cause it’s taken so long to happen, given Oakland’s geographic proximity to SF, but more because despite all the chi-chi restaurants (one of which I used to work at) and trendities (one which I used to be) and despite the rising rents and how clean and nice and urban-chic certain parts of town are, two of the biggest upshots of gentrification haven’t come yet: the public schools are still abysmal and the crime rate is, while better, still un-fucking-real.

You can blame a lot of this on the incompetent/corrupt city government. At least I do. There’s probably a whole slew of factors I’m not aware of, can’t be aware of cause I’m too close to it, have always been too close to it—how I stood on 40th and Telegraph every day during high school, waiting for my bus transfer, and watched the neighborhood change like a time-lapse photography project: first the junkies, then the punks, then the indies, then the yuppies, then the cafes that catered to the yuppies.

So. Some book came out. It’s called The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, and it’s by Robert Anasi, and I probably won’t read it. Not because I don’t care or don’t want to, not even because it’s not on Kindle (cause I just checked and it is) but because I have to be mad choosy about what I buy on Kindle—cause $10 still ain’t cheap and my Kindle account is linked to my US bank account, which is damn hard to get money into, cause it’s damn hard to get money out of Vietnam, cause all those $25/hr teaching gigs only pay in cash. #luxuryproblems

But it didn’t stop me from reading reviews of the book, this one more scathing than that one, and this one only tangentially a review. But it’s enough for me to decide that I’ll save my Kindle pennies for Bolano or Bissel or OMG will they ever get O’Conner or old Didion??

But the fact that I haven’t read the actual book hasn’t stopped me from having plenty of thoughts and opinions, perhaps not about the book, but about the questions raised in the reviews and commentary: the role of the gentrifier in relation to his (cause it’s mostly dudes who ended up writing about this shit) context. Or more specifically the gentrifier in relation the “natives.” I thought the more scathing Book Forum review addressed this pretty well, while the Salon review danced around the issue, mentioning it only at the end:

This sort of description, however, throws into relief the awkward relationship that such bohemian enclaves have with the destitute neighborhoods they nestle into — ebullient painters with their Jacuzzis who celebrate the surrounding grit and decay living side-by-side with people who probably don’t find the rubble so endearing.

I guess this is heart of it for me, since I straddled the line, had one foot in both worlds—always did, really, as I suppose you could say my family was pre-1st-wave gentrification, arriving in Oakland about 20 years too early. Or maybe that doesn’t count. The thing is, I looked like all the gentifriers: I had the tattoos and the skinny pants; I liked the expensive coffee (fuck it’s good); I went to the rock shows; I worked in one of the fucking flagship restaurants (great place, btw). It was the way I’d always looked like an outsider, mostly because of my race but also because I was prissy little white girl who, it turned out, really loved Nirvana and Johnny Cash. I was okay with that, cause I had to be—with the way other Oakland natives would be surprised at the fact that I was an Oakland native, and not one from the hills either.

Some of my best friends were gentrifiers. #winkwink Gentrifying doesn’t necessarily make you a shitty person, the same way that gentrification isn’t solely a bad thing—hell, look at the lakeside by my parents’ house these days. But there’s this way some people would talk about the neighborhoods, talk about Oakland or Williamsburg—this possessive, anti-yuppy way that in and of itself smacks of a certain starry-eyed colonialism. Like, most of the people arrested in the Oscar Grant riots weren’t from Oakland—had come to Oakland specifically to riot and break the windows of small, independent stores, had even spray painted “Oakland is our amusement park tonight,” which had summed up everything. Cause it wasn’t just that night; for a certain breed, Oakland was their playground every night. Oakland was a game they played at and that they could leave whenever they wanted. It wasn’t their home; they weren’t invested; they hadn’t grown up with the gun shots and crackheads and street violence; they didn’t love Oakland. Oakland was an affectation.

But again, I straddled the worlds. There was this punk house I used to go to shows at on Apgar Street. It was in my dad’s old district, before he retired from the Oakland Fire Department. We were having dinner one night and he was complaining about a run he’d gone on, “some entitled fucking kids” in “some filthy old Victorian” who’d been having a party in the backyard, burning shit and making a ruckus. When his crew had arrived at the house, the kids had been hostile. “‘Look, man, we’re not bothering anyone,'” my dad had related. “‘Well, actually you are,’ I told him, ’cause someone called in a disturbance. We sure as hell didn’t feel like getting out of bed to come down here and deal with you.'”

But it’s that kind of attitude, right?—the no-one-cares, we-can-do-whatever-we-want attitude. The reviews of the book are right: it does create a sort of freedom. You can look at the art happening now in Detroit, or at one of my all-time favorite bands, Hickey, who grew out of the 90s Mission District. But fuck, there’s gotta be a line, right? A line between using the cheap rents and lack of police control to explore and create and do cool new shit, and using it as a venue for self-serving debauchery.

I suppose it’s not so different from all the Gap-Year backpackers tubing in Vang Vieng. Or from the way certain travelers will moan about a place being “touristy,” forgetting they themselves are tourists—they way they’ll talk about how fucking cool and real it used to be. As though they owned it. As though there weren’t some weird capital in having been there first, having seen this shit when it real.

Like this

Cause the truth is, sometimes “real” sucks. Sometimes “real” is walking past malnourished ten-year-olds huffing out of plastic bags in Phnom Penh. Sometimes “real” is the smell of the dead fish floating in the lake near your apartment in Hanoi, cause the lack of environmental laws means there’s arsenic and god-knows-what-else in the lake that’s literally killing the fish, and despite that fact the OG residents are still fishing outta the lake and eating those fish cause it’s free and what they’ve always done. Sometimes “real” is not being able to sleep at night when you’re a kid cause your alcoholic neighbors, whose apartment balcony is next to your bedroom window, are having another one of those screaming 3am fights where they throw furniture and break windows and it takes the cops till dawn to arrive cause they’ve been busy at some homicides a few blocks away.

Which of course, still happens in Oakland. But maybe doesn’t happen in Williamsburg anymore, which might be what everyone is so bummed about. “Everyone” being those with a mouthpiece: the privileged crusaders nostalgic for a by-gone grit that most of them only had a surface relationship with, didn’t have the deep-rooted conflicted relationship you have with a place you grew up in, that you love and that’s also robbed half of your friends at gunpoint.

Which is a totally shitty assumption to make, especially considering I haven’t read the book and am on the other side of the planet, in my bathrobe with the lights dim and the AC blowing, hiding out from another torturously hot Hanoian day, made slightly more torturous by the fact that it’s a holiday and the air is thick with the burning of offerings. #real And all of this might be an expat version of Mansplaining, since all I can really do is read free essays online and sit around and mouth off like I know what I’m talking about; since I’m surrounded by other expats who do the same thing, and who may or may not know if I’m full of shit or not.

Which I might not even know either.

SF in 55, From PP: 10 Thoughts

Workin hard

Yesterday I was sitting on the electric white cushions at Blue Pumpkin, eating a sundae and streaming full episodes of the Colbert Report (hey, gotta stay informed). While it was buffering and stalling and generally annoying me, I checked my FB feed and saw a link to this video: “1955 San Francisco Footage Shows City As It Once Was.”

I clicked on it. It was, for a Bay Area native, immediately captivating—an old-timey travel video, the narrator’s voice like something off a grainy old variety show. The camera’s strapped to the hood of a car, as it rolls through streets I knew, but suddenly didn’t know—that seem too wide, too clean, gleaming in a way that seemed too stereotypically California.

I watched all 20 minutes, headphones on, the riverside stretched out behind the glass windows—from the corner of my eye, even that looked too clean, too sunny, too picturesque, from two stories up and behind a wall of glass. Was San Francisco ever really as quaint as the 1955 video made it out to be? Was it a rouse, or is it something the city lost somewhere? Is it a little of both?

I wondered that, and other things. Such as:

1. How’d they get rid of all the fog? How’d they manage to film this on that one clear day? They must have been waiting weeks.

2. Where are all the homeless people at Civic Center? What ever happened to those flowers?—they look so cute.

3. Is it still that green? Is the sky really that blue? That’s changed, right? Or have I just forgotten already?

4. The buildings are shorter and whiter, lay on top of the land like powdery snow.

5. Fisherman’s Wharf when there were still fishermen there, boats docked behind the grottoes. That must have been really cool. Do tourists still expect to find it that way? Is that why so many people still go? Are they disappointed? Do they feel like something’s been lost? Like they’ve been cheated, and they’re not sure by who? Cause I do.

6. Playland by the Sea—like Santa Cruz, but in San Francisco. How cool would that have been? Why did they tear it down, again? Did it burn down, like the Sutro Baths? God, the Cliffhouse sucks now.

7. People in dresses and suit jackets and head scarves and hats—everyone so well-dressed. Was it really like that, or did they just pick the money shots? Was the city really that white, or did they just edit out everyone else?

8. Old cars: like a clean Cuba. The narrator keeps saying one of the best things to do in the city is “drive its many thoroughfares.” Was that really a highlight, or could they just not think of anything better? God, SF traffic sucks now.

9. A ride down Market Street, the Ferry Building at the end of the road. It stands out, doesn’t get dwarfed behind the skyscrapers and trash and clutter. Old marquees and shop signs and street cars—at least they’ve kept one thing.

10. Why have I still never ridden a cable car?

But at the end of it, I was sold: I wanted to leave Blue Pumpkin, leave Phnom Penh, hop in my time machine, strap myself to the hop of an old car like some kind of fucked-up, wind-tossed hood ornament, and cruise through a city I know, in time when I didn’t know it.

So I guess the ad worked.

If No Man Is An Island…

Alcatraz Night Tour—wandering around the haunted empty of an old institution, relighted and relabeled, black signs with white letters. All hard lines and sparse materials—cement and steel—littered with the footsteps of tourists, the little echoes we carry in our shoes and our voices and, in some of us, our hearts.

Because you live here, you’d never done it—because there was always some other chance, some other day, any day, it turned into no day, never. So when Nick said he was going to Alcatraz, fuck it, you said you were going too.

So you roved, like everyone else roved, wearing your headset and listening to the gravely voiced narrator of the audio tour, a well-cast choice by any measure. Former prison guards and inmates read their recollections, giving the tour more weight, more significance than it would have otherwise had.

You stopped in front of the steel doors to the solitary confinement cell, and listened to the weathered voices recall what they’d done to wait out the time in the blackness:

But if you would close your eyes—like right now, close your eyes, seal your eyes off with your hand—with a little concentration, you can see a light. And pretty soon that light will get brighter. And you’ve gotta concentrate on it—not a short while; it takes time and practice—but pretty soon you can almost put your own TV there, and you can see things and you can go on trips—and that’s what I did.

And it was an echo, the sound of a memory reverberating from some place inside. It was a night you’d stored away: summer, warm, the window open, the leaves cutting the streetlight into a thousand broken, dancing pieces. He laid on his side, held you under his arm, and you said you couldn’t sleep.

“Let me show you a trick.” And he said it softly—strangely soft, you’d thought, the way we’d whispered as kids in our hiding places, the places only children can fit.

“I used to do this when I was little, when I couldn’t sleep.” He rolled onto his back. “You put your thumbs against your eyes—you’ve got them there?—and you push. Not hard, but not light either. And keep pushing; don’t stop.”

You didn’t. You didn’t stop pushing.

“And eventually you see it.”

“See what?”

“Lights. Shapes. Anything. You go on a trip.”

And he got real quiet, and you listened—listened to the horrible silence and waited for your own show, your own little light parade. You saw only faint traces, dim colors, a couple gray buzzing lights.

He rolled back on his side, towards you. “Where did you go?”

You looked down, ashamed, though you weren’t sure why. “I don’t know. I don’t think I went anywhere.”

And he didn’t say anything, just traced your belly with the tips of his fingers—the fullest part of your belly, the part you hate and pinch and suck in in front of the mirror—and you felt so fucking lonely you thought you might die, that some part of you might die.

And it was the same feeling, standing there, alone with your headset in a silent group of wanderers. Like being a tourist in someone else’s loneliness—or rather, the ruins of someone else’s loneliness, what was left after the guards had gone and the light—now strange and harsh—had returned. Listening to their tricks, the little games they played (Your dad telling you, “Sometimes I’d bite the inside of my cheek, slowly, until it’d start bleeding and I’d play with it.”)—the ways they’d learn to escape, if only for a moment, into some place so deep inside that some piece, it seemed, never came back.

You blinked. You pushed the rewind button and the voice stuttered, restarted, and you listened again. And it was his voice, inside this other voice, and you remembered how you’d put it in a poem—or, you’d tried to put it in a poem, but it’d never amounted to anything, never quite fit, a parenthetical metaphor you weren’t quite sure related, or how it related, until right now, here, under the institutional glare of a tourist attraction, Alcatraz.

You half-smiled—what else was there to do?—and continued on with the tour, walked through the door in the steel bars into another emptied room.

Painting the Town: Street Artists Bomb the Bay

One of the nice things about living in the Bay Area is that people come here. Just, you know, to visit. We’re coming up on the high season, when the streets swell with tourists, clicking their cameras and speaking their different languages, hanging limbs off cable cars and sharing undoubtedly brilliant commentary in the halls of museums. We don’t complain so much about tourists in the Bay Area—aside from the fact that they spend a shitton of money (and have hopefully read the part in their guidebooks about tipping), it makes us feel good: we live somewhere people want to come to.

It makes us feel especially good when those people are street artists who leave us little gifts.

The Bay Area has been freaking out over the past few days about 6 Banksy pieces that have surfaced in San Francisco. We’re a medium-sized city, so it makes us feel special that an artist that big would come out and leave his mark. I, for one, had to take advantage of a sunny spring day and go on a taco-fueled, MUNI-powered mission across the city (cause, you know, why not?) to see as many as I could. But here on the quieter, slower side of the Bay, a couple other street artists/collectives have made visits. They may not be as big as Banksy (who is?), but spotting their work made me feel, I’m not gonna lie, a little warm and cozy about my hometown.

The blogosphere has been abuzz over Banksy lately. With the release of Exit Through the Gift Shop, everyone’s favorite British recluse has been hitting up spots where the film’s debuted. (His recent work in LA caused quite the stir when it was physically removed to be sold in a shady art gallery.) The San Francisco debut of the film went down recently, and we were all waiting, holding our collectively aerosol-stained breath, to see if any Bay Area pieces would surface.

They did. Warholian broke the news, spread the word and even got himself on TV:

I had to wait a few days, for a full day off (new waitressing gig = mucho trabajo) to embark on the mission. Luckily, Warholian posted exact locations on his Flickr stream (along with far better photos than I took). Oh, the digital age…

What was funnest about missioning around to find the pieces wasn’t really the art; it was seeing all the people come out. Folks were really excited to see the work, like a treasure hunt where the reward wasn’t some crappy Easter egg but sick-ass stencils that spawned social commentary—and a nice dose of civic pride. One guy I met was super stoked that a piece ended up abutting his soon-to-open bar (“It’s like free publicity!”). A group of European kids posed for photos by the Native American stencil while a hip dude explained in Spanish to a passer-by what all the fuss was about. On Haight Street, I met an old dude with a serious camera—miles of lenses and clicky gadgets—who told me, “I’ve never been that into this whole street art thing. Always looked like a bunch of scribble to me. But I read about this in the paper and thought, well, that’s pretty cool. So I wanted to come out and document it.”

Doubt this one will be winding up in a gallery

Yeah, my camera sucks. You should really just Google this shit.

Say what you will about Banksy—publicity stunt conspiracy theories and cries of being too mainstream—but that Bristol boy got San Francisco juiced, taking pictures and making missions and actually chatting with each other (usually a more Oakland phenomenon). And at least one cool old dude seeing street art as something other than vandalism.

But I’ve been noticing more cool pieces around lately, on my own side of the Bay. One of my favorite street art blogs alerted me to that fact that Feral was in town, and I spotted one of his pieces (now gone) by the MacArthur BART station.

Abandoned furniture and trash-feasting pigeons: that's my town!

And up on Telegraph, the epicenter of gutter punks and flip-flop-wearing bros, I spotted one of TrustoCorp‘s guerilla street signs. These have been making me giggle for months, and I was stoked to see some stuff locally.

I’m not sure who did this piece, but I liked the placement of it—a busy intersection across from a Whole Foods—and its stark insistence on being noticed.

I’m continuing to think a lot about street art and what exactly it is that draws me to it—what exactly it is that seems so undeniably related to travel. It’s got something to do with place, with the insistence of place, the immediacy and intimacy of interacting with a place on such a visceral, physical level (the subject of one of my first ever blog posts). The words are forming, the drooling gibberish shaping itself into discernible sounds under my wet pink tongue (“mama,” “dada”).

In the meantime, I’m thinking a trip to Italy for Fame Festival might answer some questions and cure some wanderlust. Just in case the Bay doesn’t receive any visitors for awhile…

Relatives and Revelations: What My Brother’s Wedding Taught Me about Travel

Photo booth fun

“What can I say? When you’re children get married, it’s one of the happiest days of your life.”

That was my dad, toasting at my brother’s wedding two weeks ago. Simple, but true: celebrating my brother’s marriage to a rad lady will definitely go down as one of my happiest days. Aside from the awesomeness of why we were all there, it was a gorgeous event at the Julia Morgan Ballroom in Downtown San Francisco, complete with caviar and a five-tier chocolate fondue fountain (that’s right, you heard me). I was surrounded with life-long friends and far-away family, flown in from the Midwest and East Coast.

Of course, as a travel person, my antennaes were perked by all the out-of-towners. Watching them all come in—arrive at the hotel, rent cars, hang wrapped dress clothes in closets—I realized I only travel a very specific way, and it’s lent a very limited perspective.

I’d argue that most Americans travel the way my family did two weeks ago: domestically, in hotels, either shelling out for a rental car or attempting to traverse poorly funded mass transit systems. It’s pretty far-off from the international ramblings I do on second-class buses and cheap pensions/hostels/couchsurfing. The weekend resulted a series of travel revelations—“light bulb moments,” as I’d once heard them described on Oprah.

Before the guests arrived

What shocked me most was the sheer expense of it all. Even at an off-season rate, further discounted for the wedding party, staying in Downtown San Francisco is not cheap. Renting a car is not cheap. Eating at the restaurants and cafes Downtown is also not cheap. No wonder people ask me “But how can you afford to travel so much?” I used to feel that travel within the US was kinda a rip-off. I don’t take it that far now, but I will say you get a lot more bang for your buck elsewhere. (That being said, I have done New York City on $40 a day, so maybe I’m just a cheapskate.)

The night of the wedding, my parents decided to not add battling the Bay Bridge to the day’s ledger, and booked a room, which I piggy-backed on. Which brings me to the next travel revelation I had: looking good on the road is a major hassle.

As far as hassles go, mine were pretty minimal: the morning of the wedding, I dropped my shoes, dress and fancy jacket off at my parents’ house in Oakland before taking BART out to the city to get my hair and make-up done. I toted with me my overnight bag, in which I carried more make-up and hair products, as well as jewelry, nail polish, etc. My parents brought my dress clothes; I met them at the hotel and changed. The next day they took my dress clothes back to the East Bay while I hung out with my cousins. Not bad at all, considering I didn’t even have to negotiate riding the train with a hanger of dress clothes.

Classy as shit

But considering the way I normally travel, this jaunt across the Bay was complicated exponentially by the need to wear something other than jeans and sneakers. When I travel, all bets are off: I bring my most utilitarian clothes, no makeup, a dabble of hair gel and loads of sunscreen. I look like a total ragamuffin—handy, since it tends to decrease the amount I’m hit on. Wanting to look not just presentable, but my drop-dead best, is tricky enough; doing it out of a bag was even harder. I garnered a new appreciation for business travelers, beauty pageant contestants and all other non-backpacker/dirtbags travelers.

Here’s another thing I learned: logistics are tough. Organizing big groups of people, getting them here and there when they don’t know where they are, is really hard. No wonder tour companies charter buses. And no wonder people trundle on them happily.

I’m the kind of traveler that loves transit. I grew up riding buses and trains, and I get a kick out of figuring out new metro systems: where train lines connect, what lines run where, the fastest and easiest way to get from Point A to Point B. There’s a skill to transit, and I’ve honed a kind of sixth sense for the rhythm and order of it. So when my dad started to fret over how we’d get everyone from the Downtown hotel to a Sunday night pizza dinner at my brother’s house on 27th and Dolores, I responded, “We’ll have them take the J-Church.” Easy, right?

Well, it was easier than shuttling loads of people back and forth in the couple of rental cars, but not as easy as you’d suspect. I played transit tour guide, leading everyone to the Montgomery Station, through the turnstiles, down to the platform, on to the train (luckily, we all got seats). I alerted everyone to our stop, got us all out of the back doors (although almost lost my grandfather in the process), and down the two blocks to my brother’s house.

There’s not a lot of hand-holding or coddling on MUNI, and I like it that way. MUNI’s not most intuitive system—you can only pay station turnstiles in coins, have to retain a transfer ticket, and all lines eventually come aboveground, where stops are unmarked. But it’s still cheaper and more comprehensive than BART, long-distance commuter trains that double as mass transit for the Greater Bay Area, with a pathetic number of inner-city stations and a whopping $7 round trip fare from my neighborhood in Oakland to Downtown SF. In my mind, this makes BART infinitely inferior to MUNI. Who needs plush seats and timetables anyway? I’ll take hard plastic and a vague urine smell over a $7 fare any day.

iPhones have no flash, but you can still kinda make out five tiers of fondue.

But riding the train with my relatives, I realized that transit can be damn stressful. If you’re not already in the groove of it, or don’t share my nerdy obsession with maps and routes, it’s really just a pain in the ass. The potential to get lost is huge: you could get on the wrong train, get off at the wrong stop, end up god-only-knows-where. It’s confusing, station agents are exasperated, locals impatient. My relatives that rented cars were hit with overnight parking fees and having to traverse a maze of one-way streets, but when they got lost, they were warm and dry, and could easily turn back around. I realized why, despite the costs, so many travelers opt to rent cars over riding transit. Guiding everyone through the process, I also realized why tour guides carry those little colored umbrellas.

In the end, everyone got to and fro and everywhere inbetween safely. We gussied up, boogied down and had a killer time. And that’s what weddings are all about, right?


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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