June 29, 2006

The Streets Of San Francisco

There are no emissions-free vehicles, just those whose emissions are elsewhere (like at the business end of a power plant's smokestack…).

June 25, 2006

Why I Love Berkeley, Part 43


The churches. There's a lot of 'em, especially for such a supposedly godless place...

June 21, 2006


"We [were] overlooking perhaps the most grand and affecting natural landscape in the world" — Constable describing a visit to the South Downs, quoted in a recent Grauniad.

It's hard to imagine a world so claustrophobic that England's South Downs can be the "most grand and affecting" landscape, but there you are. Did "landscape" mean something more like "landscaped" in those days?

June 17, 2006

Do You Know The Way... ?

California had become, she said then, "all San Jose". — Didion's mother in Where I Was From.

And San Jose has (inevitably) become all L.A.

June 14, 2006

Straight Outta Compton

Yeah, they had nothing but contempt for soft middle-class intellectuals like me, but after not having heard it for nearly a decade, listening to it still electrifies everything it touches in me, still drives the thoughts along in uneasy rhythmic lurches.

(In the early 90's I covered the Peoples Park riots in Berkeley as a freelance photographer; late on the night of the worst of it all we'd been coralled into a small quietly seething crowd on Bancroft up near College, fenced in by lines of out-of-town police just itching to beat up the Berkeley students and punks pressed together in the heat. Suddenly someone started looping "Fuck Tha Police" loud as hell from a speaker propped up in an upper-storey window overlooking the crowd; suddenly the night had clarity and focus. A loud voice from somewhere in the police ruck shouted "Get that fucking thing turned off!", and within a minute or so a news cameraman had been dragged from the lines, clubbed, arrested, and hustled away out of sight. Over it all the loop just got louder).

June 06, 2006


I live next to the Estuary, on the border of the Jingletown and San Antonio districts of Oakland, near Union Point and Fruitvale (yes, that Jingletown, more or less…). It's a part of Oakland that's not well known even by many Oaklanders, an uneasy mixture of heavy industry, wholesale markets and suppliers, specialist small businesses (boatyards, propeller manufacturers, sailmakers, precision machinists, blacksmiths, body shops, etc.), artists, artisans, and offices. It's an area commonly referred to as "transitional"; what this really means is that people like me, who've helped make it a livable (almost, urgh, trendy) place, are being paid for our foresight and pioneering efforts with eviction. The lifestyle lofters are moving in… (the flip side of this gentrification is the emergence of places like the new Union Point Park, a genuinely pleasant place just a few hundred metres from where I live, built on an old set of fields once mired in toxic waste and littered with dumped fridges, syringes, car parts, etc.; the park's now full of kids and dogs and people actually enjoying themselves in a thoughtfully-landscaped and well-thought-out place. I can't complain about that…).

For years real estate agents have been trying to rename part of my neighbourhood "Embarcadero Cove", which evokes something a little more rustic or gentle than the reality of a heavily-polluted industrial area where the dominant visual icons are the sea-going salvage and construction cranes moored along the sides of the Estuary, the "dogs" (container gantries) of the Inner, Middle, and Outer Harbors, the masts in the marinas, the (working) drawbridges over the inner Estuary, the old Cotton Mill buildings on both sides of Interstate 880, the bread trucks and semi-trailers double- and triple-parked on small side streets, and the ConAgra grain silos looming over everything. There are few houses or apartments in my immediate neighbourhood, and there are usually more heavy trucks parked on the surrounding streets than cars. Older Oaklanders will mostly know the place as the home of the Wonderbread factory, now reborn as EarthGrains Organic (probably still a wholely-owned subsidiary of Wonderbread). Older Sydneysiders would probably find the area somewhat like Rozelle used to be in the 1970's and early 1980's — rough, industrial, noisy, dirty, and (probably) destined for better things…. My guess is that within five years I won't be able to afford to live here any more.

The inner Estuary extends into the main container terminals of the sprawling Port of Oakland, and for much of the early history of Oakland the inner Estuary (around Jack London Square and further upstream towards Park Street) was actually the main port area. Up until about the end of the Second World War there was also a large ship repair yard on the Alameda side of the Estuary, and the now transformed Alaska Basin area used to be the California terminus for the constant stream of clippers and (later) steamships that carried people and raw goods up to Alaska and back in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Even today there are large scows (hundreds of feet long) moored off Union Point that — judging by the names and home locations on their sterns — come and go to and from Alaska every few weeks. Until the 1950's shipbuilding was a major part of Oakland's existence, with shipyards at various places along the Estuary and outer Estuary areas; you can still see evidence of some of the large slips used to launch the new vessels on the Alameda side of the Estuary. There are still railway sidings and sheds all over the area that were obviously once used for dockside storage or transport, but these are fast disappearing in the rebuilding and redevelopment rush going on now.

The inner Estuary's channels are too shallow for the deep draft container vessels, so after about 1950 it's been mostly used to berth the ocean-going and harbour tugs, scows, barges, etc. that support the main Port on the outer Estuary; there's also a bunch of marinas for smaller sailing and power boats, and boatsheds here and there for the rowing crews (early mornings and late afternoons on the Estuary you can often see fleets of eights, fours, and sculls in training). It's also the Coast Guard's Pacific Area HQ, and you can watch from the opposite shore as large ocean-going cutters get worked on or re-tendered on Coast Guard Island, up Embarcadero a bit from my studio. The area is bisected by both Interstate 880 (a major freeway) and the main railway out of the Port; at any time of the day or night you can see or hear long freight trains slowly blasting their way through here on their way to Texas or Chicago or Bakersfield or Atlanta or wherever. I walk past the intriguingly-named ILWU Local 91's "Walking-Boss's Union" office on the Estuary every week or two (if you don't know what a "walking-boss" is, and want a truly-interesting short explanation and history, click here for enlightenment).

On the other side of the freeway and railway lines is Fruitvale, an Oakland district that's also transitional. Little more than a decade ago it was dirt poor and very dangerous; it's still dirt poor, but it's not nearly as dangerous. And, since it contains some beautiful old Victorian and later buildings and houses, it's ripe for redevelopment and gentrification. Fruitvale's nowadays often described with the overworked adjective "vibrant", but there's a lot of truth behind the cliche: Sunday afternoons on East 14th, Fruitvale's main drag, can be a sunny crowded mixture of families out for a stroll and street vendors selling ice cream, DVDs, and bad T-shirts, spruikers hectoring and pleading in a Spanish I can barely follow, drunks staggering out of seedy bars, live Mariachi music and canned conjunto. The majority language in most of the surrounding Jingletown / San Antonio / Fruitvale area is Spanish; Vietnamese is also increasingly dominant in the inner East 12th and East 14th areas. By one count, native monolingual English speakers make up less than 15% of the population here. Fruitvale's almost completely Hispanic, with few English-language signs or billboards on the streets, and a lot of small immigrant-owned businesses and shops lining well-walked streets (a bit like Sydney's Newtown before it became gentrified in the 80's). Fruitvale's my local BART station, and the BART station itself reflects the changes in the past decade: shiny new parking structures, a walkable open-air mall next to the station itself, hybrid buses parked in the bus area, and, above all, lots of people actually walking around the neighbourhood. It's still not close to being gentrified (too many still-working factories for that at the moment), but my guess is it can't be too long before outsiders start to notice the combination of excellent transport facilities and relatively-cheap housing….

(Click here to see gallery of snapshots I've taken over the years in the neighbourhood, mostly within an easy walk or short bike ride of my studio, but sometimes from a little further afield).

June 04, 2006

Going Down To Liverpool

Hearing The Bangles doing Katrina And The Wave's "Going Down To Liverpool" again after all these years: this bright sunny enjoyable Californian reworking of a song about unemployment, grey skies, 1980's England — did they miss the point, or is it just another of those fruitful reworkings that criss-cross the Atlantic all the time (like 10,000 Maniacs' version of "Every Day's Like Sunday" — did they know what "Sunday" might imply to Britons of Morrisey's era)?

"I'm going down to Liverpool to do nothing... all the days of my life". "I'm going down to Liverpool with a UB40 in my hand…". Goes with all those palm trees in sunny Kirkby, I guess.

June 01, 2006

Short Shameful Confession

When I read the original NYRB article mentioned here, I immediately thought "'lectors'? Don't they mean lictors…?".

(More seriously, for a thoughtful meta-review of Elon's review (and more), see Gualtiero Piccinini's Italians and Fascism).

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