February 28, 2010

Why I Love Berkeley, Part 38

Berkeley Post Office

The Post Office — a luminous, beautiful mediteranean building dating from when Californians still cared about civil architecture and took pride in their public buildings.

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January 19, 2010

Down The Drain

Outside, on 29th, a homeless woman who's inhabited the area around the 7-11 for the last few months has built a small fleet of origami boats that she's placed in the gutter and on the grate over the storm water drain next to the street. The effect is desperately sad: this woman is quite crazy — she talks to herself, she sleeps on the bus stop benches in elaborate cardboard-and-umbrella structures, she wanders into the traffic, she verbally attacks you if you show any interest in her — and the sight over the past week or so of these little scrap-paper things sailing away in the garbage-strewn gutter just underlines too much about life in a society too drained of decency.

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November 13, 2009

That Positivist Eschatology

Along with a handful of other people I spent an enjoyable few hours last weekend showing John Wilkins the Sights Of The City (and Berkeley). John's a real philosopher and historian of science, a field I really only dabbled in at university, and the various conversations over lunch or bagels or out in the streets ranged from mathematical models used in cladistics through species concepts and the storybook version(s) of science history taught to scientists, to what a positivist eschatology might look like (OK, that one was inspired by a previous comic non sequitur over a beer, but never mind), to Australian accents (his accent's noticeably more authentically Australian than mine; I think my accent's sui generis now, it doesn't belong to any country or region any more, which is a little unsettling). And he knew who the real Jimmy Little is, which was somewhat impressive for a philosopher (I was there as the Real Me, fortunately).

John's book Species: A History Of The Idea has just been published here by UC Press. One of John's arguments (at least as I understood it), which got aired on the weekend, is that the notion within biology that earlier scientists or philosophers — Linnaeus or Aristotle, for example — used essentialist conceptions of "species" is wrong, and that the notion that they did use such conceptions is itself a modern misconception, one that's been rather influential in modern biology and history and philosophy of science (HPS). A more nuanced look at what earlier scientists and philosophers actually meant when they used the term "species" suggests that few if any earlier such usages were essentialist.

That intrigues me, and might help explain a few things that have puzzled me about the history and sociology of modern biological; but I guess what I've always been most interested in with things like this (and what motivated me to do HPS at university) are the sociological and psychological reasons how and why such an idea might spread and take hold in intellectual circles (and anti-intellectual circles, for that matter) — and how such ideas die out or marginalised. History and sociology often only make sense to me when taken with a healthy dose of psychology (tempered with a great deal of skepticism); I can't help feeling this is one of those cases.

I've ordered his book; it turns up in the mail today or tomorrow; let's see how much of it I can misunderstand or misconstrue….

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November 09, 2009

Mahler and Glass

I finally get to see Hitchcock's Vertigo (in the restored version on DVD) … and now I can make sense of la Jetée and Sans Soleil (sorry, in-joke).

But I'm puzzled by the critical responses to this film (or what I know of them): this slightly-garish, overheated, implausibly-plotted, over-acted creaking sprawl of a film is surely quite a lot of fun, but to me it felt more like watching an extended soap than a top 100 movie. At least this is one film where San Francisco isn't a character so much as just a backdrop (to this long-time Bay Area resident it feels like a home movie; it's funny how little has changed in the City over the years, except how white everyone is in a film about a city that even then was all over the map color-wise, and how strangely easy it is for Jimmy Stewart to park his car in parts of the city historically choked with parked cars).

The real pleasure for me was the score, which sounded like a tonally-conservative Mahler crossed occasionally with sprinkles of Glass; a joy to hear loud. Otherwise, I found myself counting The Simpsons references and wondering about the possibilities of a subdued form of Camp.

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October 24, 2009

Unclear On The Concept

Our local upscale supermarket is having a weekend "Buy Local" promotion with all sorts of stalls and counters outside in the parking lot. Right in the middle there's a stall selling some sort of organic drink with a whole bunch of claims about how it helps the body; bang in the middle of the other signs there's one saying "Made In New Zealand!!".

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October 13, 2009

Don't Rain On My Parade

Today, another early first rain. At least this time it tries to be convincing, but it's never rain enough to match the media hype, the scrolling "Stormwatch!" crawls on the TV newscasts, and the breathless live news reports of sundry battening-down and sandbagging across the region after the long dry season. But at least it did rain, and while (as always) there was no "storm" in any sense recognisable outside coastal California usage, there was a bit of wind and low cloud with the rain, and the puddles were fun to walk through. In my experience early first rains tend to presage a dry wet season; we've had three or four dry seasons in a row, and if I have to go through another rainless wet season with people cheerily commenting on the "beautiful weather" again, I think I'll scream. Water crisis? What water crisis?

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September 04, 2009

What's Going On?

In the hot dawn air on that ragged block of East 7th up past 23rd, someone's playing Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" loudly through the open windows of a parked car, that smooth deliberate fluid propulsive drive and repeated gunshot crack reverberating off the idling trucks and half-lit cinderblock workshops and ramshackle houses, sending shivers up my spine.

One of those Oakland moments, I guess…

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August 18, 2009


I sit across the desk from the friendly-but-reserved sales guy trying to sell me a new car (he succeeded), dying to ask him the obvious question while he rattles on about accessories and options: what was it like growing up black in the suburban Arizona of the sixties? Instead, we smalltalk about local politics (a much safer topic). A few minutes later S. (from Ethiopia via London) finalizes the finance deal with a quiet but heart-felt rant about Americans and their (our) idiotic health care system and our self-destructive populist politics; it's all I can do to stop myself from asking how a ruthless uber car salesman and finance guy like him can profess such views in an industry like his. He shakes my hand and tells me I'll like my new car (I do). Damn the car, though — it's much less interesting than the stories lurking in the salesroom….

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July 21, 2009

Two Anniversaries

Everybody above a certain age here seems to want to do the big one (all those noisy "Where I was forty years ago…" articles and postings), but fifty years ago today unsung local lad Elijah "Pumpsie" Green became the first guy to break the color barrier at the (then) notoriously whites-only Boston Red Sox. Only ten years before the moon landings, only ten years before Woodstock (and ten years before that local love-fest, Altamont, for that matter), you couldn't play for the Red Sox if you were black, no matter how good you were. Getting to the moon, getting to Boston… worlds apart.

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July 18, 2009

Big Digger

I live in a tug spotter's paradise, with sea-going tugs, tractor tugs, barges, lighters, floating construction cranes, etc., moored on or working the Estuary a few minutes walk from my studio. It's common to see barges in from Seattle or Alaska or LA, but every now and then you see something home-ported at a place you've never heard of and wonder how the hell it got here. For the last week or so there's been a heavy construction barge and associated floating crane moored here from Evansville, Indiana, somewhere deep in the midwest. I'm still nerd enough that this sort of thing always amazes me: this barge has presumably been tugged down the Ohio and the Mississippi, across the Gulf, through the Panama Canal, then up the rough cold west coasts of Mexico and California (at least), to end up moored a block from my front door. Half makes me want to visit Evansville (the long way).

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June 04, 2009

Can't Someone Else Pay For It?


"'It shocks the conscience that we have to throw sick children off of welfare to satisfy Wall Street,' said Assemblywoman Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), the budget committee chairwoman. She added: 'This used to be the Golden State, and now it is a sorry state and it is not my California.' (from a recent article in the LA Times on our Governator's plan to cut a mere 5 billion dollars from California's budget).

California's been living so far beyond its natural and financial means now for so long that when it's time to pay up and face the consequences, I guess it's no surprise that we Californians turn to blaming anyone else but ourselves, and to bemoaning how badly the Golden State has lost its way. But California hasn't lost its way — it's right on track for a course set decades ago by the anti-government whackos, and helped on with varying amounts of gleefully-populist and self-satisfied gusto by voters over the years. And pace Ms Evans, it's not (primarily) Wall Street that got us here; the current deadlock and paralysis aren't an act of god, but the fairly predictable results of California voters quite deliberately voting to tie the hands of politicians with mandates for this, mandates for that, super-majorities for budgets and tax increases, etc. — and then sitting back and saying they (the voters) just aren't going to pay for it all when the bills come due (i.e. now). And then blaming the increasingly powerless politicians for not being able to do anything about the results. It's a classic self-fulfilling prophecy: politicians are useless money-grubbing bastards, so let's tie their hands with impossible voter-mandated propositions, then wait for the inevitable failure, then blame the politicians even more and restrict them further, then blame the politicians again… all while furiously denying any responsibility as voters for getting themselves into this mess.

(From the cozy confines of arty Little Jingletown, things sometimes still seem OK, but walking through the landscape of garbage-strewn streets, burned-out cars, and graffitied trees of my greater neighbourhood, or slinking past the shambling mentally ill and the homeless beggars on (and off) the sidewalks in Berkeley, or driving past the boarded-up malls and empty construction sites in suburbia, and negotiating the unrepaired roads and axle-breaking potholes of local streets, or waiting through the unanswered phone calls to City Hall and the two hour delay (yes) on the police response to the 911 call for last month's serious car accident near my place, it's hard not to think it's the long-awaited California Apocalypse. Hollywood's always loved the California destruction trope in movies, but giant quakes and alien invasions taking out LA to the squealing enjoyment of audiences everywhere doesn't quite catch the banal reality).

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May 25, 2009

Blue Gum Blues

"The hated Tasmanian blue gum tree — better known as a variety of eucalyptus — has been blamed for virtually every evil short of snatching babies out of strollers […]" (the lead sentence from a front page story in today's SF Chronicle).

To an Australian, that seems a little rough, but it's essentially true (if nothing else the blue gums certainly contribute disproportionately to bush fires (brush fires) here due to the way they drop their branches and bark, and the various flammable oils they produce). Out here in the SF Bay Area, as the article says, gums "breed like rats", and you can't help noticing gum trees are everywhere, especially on the hillsides. That little thrill of recognition and familiarity disappears after a while when you realise they're deeply destructive alien species brought over here during and after the gold rush, and have basically taken over the coastal hills in large parts of California — even the native coastal Redwoods don't do as well as the gum trees. So you learn to grit your teeth and ponder your loyalties every time you walk through the many beautiful tall groves of blue gums here, and not to get too bent out of shape over your breakfast bagel or laptop latte by articles like that.

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April 18, 2009

Cal Day

It's Cal Day at the university, and Berkeley's being overrun by good cheer and sunny futures. At one of the stands a young guy's hawking silly hats with floppy ears and a big Cal bear on them: "Cal Hats! Cal Hats! Get your Cal hat here! All proceeds to charity!" He locks eyes with me as I wander past and says "Sir! A Cal hat for you?!" I can't help smiling and responding with "Do I look like the kind of person who wears a silly hat?!" He squints at me, pauses, then grins back, doing a pretty good imitation of my Anglo-Australian accent "Yyyyeeeeeessssss... why yes you do, mate! You could wear it while lecturing!"

A decade or two of being mistaken for a professor while walking through Berkeley does the ego a lot of good; I buy a hat. Surely the right thing to wear while reading Baudrillard at The Milano; an Irony Hat in mufti, I guess.

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April 11, 2009


Downtown Berkeley, 11am, an older white woman (at least 70, I'd say), dressed in classic expensive Californian upper-middle-class clothing, stands beside me waiting for the lights to change on Shattuck. Apropos of nothing at all she looks up at me and says "The last time I was here it was full of people protesting gay marriage!" I look around at her, smile sweetly (wondering where this was leading), and say cautiously "Yeah, it's Berkeley…". She goes on: "They're nuts! They're bigots! Can't they see even their god created everyone, straight and gay! I had a great time screaming back at them. If anyone thinks being gay's a choice I'll scream at them too!". She smiles broadly, steps off the street as the lights change, and strides off towards Wells Fargo.

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March 21, 2009

My Oakland

All afternoon as I lounge around my studio recovering from two debilitating weeks of bronchitis and more there's a more than usually-urgent stream of sirens and rushing police cars and ambulances past my place on the freeway and along the Embarcadero, but I don't think too much of it: that's my Oakland, I guess. Ditto the helicopters.

And then the news, three OPD officers shot dead, a fourth dying, all in the same extended incident: just another day in Lovely East Oakland. I guess.

From the NYT's current take on the story, the other side of this same Oakland: "The Associated Press reported [...] that people lingered at the scene of the [...] shooting. About 20 bystanders taunted the police." Nothing to do with the police is ever simple here.

In other news, an unnamed man was shot dead here in the Fruitvale district earlier this morning. No one's too clear on the story; I doubt they ever will be (his body was found by a woman retrieving her garbage bin from the street). Last week another man was shot dead in broad daylight near Fruitvale BART in a brutal street robbery on a route I walk occasionally. Unbelievably, the shooting stats are actually somewhat better so far this year than last.

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March 01, 2009

Power To The People

Reading Peniel Joseph's "Waiting 'Til The Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America" (Henry Holt, 2006), I'm often struck by just how central Oakland was to the Black Power movement in the late 1960's and 1970's, and vice versa: you keep stumbling over sentences like "[Eldridge] Cleaver [in exile in Algeria] lashed out at [Huey] Newton [in Oakland] during a televised international conference call [...] which had been originally designed as a show of unity between Oakland and Algeria.", and there's the detritus of those years all around Oakland, the attitudes, the power structures, the odd little murals and shopfronts in West Oakland or downtown, the ghosts of Huey and Eldridge in West Oakland and Berkeley.

Oakland as it is now really doesn't always make much sense without knowing about the Panthers and the whole Black Power struggle. And it's not just the lost, broken legacy of the Panthers' social activism (as Joseph points out, in Oakland as with so many other places, Black power (lower-case "p") became a reality just as the associated cities descended into dire financial and social straights, and became identified with failure), it's the attitudes (and attitudanalising) behind so much City Hall politicking and cultural pushes.

If there's ever a place that once took — and still takes — the idea of "unity between Oakland and Algeria" (where Algeria is being used in a broader sense than just shorthand for "the Black Panther camp currently exiled in Algeria") seriously, it's Oakland. Never mind that, inevitably, Algeria's a place most Oaklanders couldn't locate on a map of the world, and that the African touches here are so confused and, well, American.

But as for many Oaklanders (and as with California at large for many decades now), my Oakland is largely Hispanic and Asian nowadays, at least on a daily basis, and that's a fact that's caused increasing resentment in Oakland's black communities. Oakland's on the verge of no longer really being a Black majority town, and we're starting to see the same sort of politics of resentment playing out in local politics in particular nasty and coded ways.

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February 02, 2009

Rudderless Oakland

An already-tainted and overwhelmed police force under FBI investigation, with the police chief suddenly resigning in a hissy fit; a huge and unexpected budget shortfall (over and above the normal recession problems) due to incompetence or fraud (no one's quite sure which just yet); continuing destructive riots and civil unrest downtown in reaction to a brutal shooting that's got almost nothing directly to do with Oakland; the predictable (and predicted) bungling of the case against the alleged assassins of Chauncey Bailey; a deepening recession that not even the Port can help us with now; a drought that's breathing hotly down our necks; allegations of rampant nepotism in the city's workforce; and an ineffectual mayor who doesn't bother to come in to his office except when he feels like it (tying up business for days on end)… at least the homicide rate is down compared to last year.

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January 08, 2009

14th and Broadway

Massed TV news helicopters in the skies over Oakland are never a good sign; especially when they're over your neighbourhood. Last night, sporadic rioting, arson, vandalism, and protests in response to the Shooting (it's increasingly being capitalized around here); tomorrow? Who knows. What I think I most worry about is what's going to happen when the officer either isn't charged or is found not guilty after trial. That won't be sporadic….

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January 04, 2009

On Home Ground

At about 2am New Year's Day, at my local BART station (Fruitvale), BART police shot and killed a passenger while he was face down on the platform in custody and being stood over by several BART police officers; he was not at that point apparently being violent, nor was he armed; the guy had been in a fight in the train. BART stonewalled about the shooting. So far, so normal.

But since it all happened in front of a BART train full of people, cell phone videos of the actual shooting and the associated mayhem have started to emerge, and dozens of witnesses have come forward saying essentially the same thing — that the victim was shot fatally in the back once by a police officer who was standing behind and above him while he was on the ground, in custody, and not being violent. You can see the mayhem yourself on YouTube without a lot of effort: this is the "semi-official" version (taken from a KTVU interview with the woman who took it)), but the more incriminating video also shown on TV news last night (where you see the actual shooting itself, with both the cop involved and the victim quite visible) doesn't appear to have made it to YouTube. BART's still stonewalling — something that's not so smart in the age of cellphone video and YouTube, maybe.

(Fruitvale BART station has a long history of violence, and shootings there aren't exactly novel, but I think what I don't understand is why there wasn't a riot at that point and why the police officers weren't simply ripped to shreds or thrown off the raised platform by the crowd…).

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December 23, 2008

Advance Notice

[Note: edited 09-01-05 to reflect new start date — JL]

A bit of advance notice that my real-life self will be having a small art photo exhibition at Kefa Coffee (a really good local cafe / coffee shop) for a month starting sometime early February; details when I know 'em (including whether or not there'll be any sort of opening reception, something that currently seems unlikely given the lack of notice and the small size of Kefa…). Today, West Jingletown; tomorrow the world…

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December 20, 2008


Upstairs in the Milano a skinny young junky with stereotyped glassy eyes, greasy hair, and tats down both arms twitches in the corner badly out of place bent over a weeks-old newspaper. After a while he starts trying to hit up the nearest tables for money for a bagel, people look the other way or move downstairs, he slowly makes his way my way until he's close enough that I can see the letters "J U N K" tattooed across the knuckles of his left hand in gothic script. Just before he gets to me he stumbles and knocks someone's glass onto the floor, looks around startled, and flees past me downstairs and out onto the street. Upstairs we start relaxing again. Outside, the vendors on Telegraph keep on setting up the stalls for the holiday bash. In Moe's there's a row of art books on urban graffiti; one of the covers has a photo of a 1980's New York subway train, the graffiti along its length looking like the tats on the junky's arms, right down to the gothic script of one of the tags.

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November 29, 2008

The Novelist's Talent

Elif Batuman's rather delicious skewering (or shoveling, for those who've read it) of Elisabeth Roudinesco's "Philosophy In Turbulent Times: Canghuilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida" in a recent LRB does the near impossible by making me relish the thought of reading the book itself (a book I just know will send me into reveries of "how could they think that?!"). And all those incantatory titular names, so familiar from a world away, another century away (I mined the relatively-sane Canguilhem for ideas for an undergrad HPS paper a long long time ago, and Althusser was, for reasons that never made the slightest bit of sense, a bright star in the somewhat confused and distant philosophical firmament at Sydney)….

"Roudinesco has a novelist's talent for distilling the scattered nonsense of a certain sociohistorical milieu into pithy soundbites." Indeed. That novelist's sense (intentional or not) is just what's needed….

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November 22, 2008

Game Day

In The Milano the radio's playing a glacial rendition of the third movement of the Brahms violin concerto; it's the sort of thing that gets called stately, but it sends me out early onto the street, where a surly-looking guy in a wheelchair is begging on the sidewalk with a hand-written cardboard sign saying "Family kidnapped by ninjas need $$$ for karate lessons chop chop". You do what you can, I guess; most in the red-and-gold crowd streaming up Telegraph for the Big Game just turn away. On lower Sproul the cheerleaders gather in the gleaming cold surrounded by beached sousaphones and trumpets; one day I'll finally capture the surrealism strewn around so casually here.

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November 19, 2008

Jonestown (Bringing It Home)

Thirty years ago this week more than 900 people killed themselves (or were killed) in Jonestown under the orders of the Reverend Jim Jones (who died along with his victims). Like most people, I guess, before I moved to the Bay Area it seemed a fairly abstract and distant event — classic Americana, an occasion for a cynical or even ironic riff on American religious and cultural delusion, a mostly-forgotten source for the phrase "drink the Kool Aid" — but around here it's hard to escape the human dimension behind the story, and the cynicism's hard to maintain in the face of the obvious and strong local connections and scars, even thirty years down the line.

Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple were intimately connected to San Francisco, the Bay Area, and California as a whole — the Peoples Temple had its headquarters in San Francisco (well within my memory you could still see it down on Geary if you knew where to look); Jim Jones himself was a larger-than-life and often-feted presence in liberal and leftist political circles here; and relatives of the dead (many of whom came from San Francisco and Oakland) are easy to find locally (my neighbourhood contains several people who had relatives who died there). Jackie Speier, now a high-profile local congresswoman, was one of the group of US congressional representatives and journalists shot by Jones's supporters at the local airstrip while attempting to leave Jonestown after a tense fact-finding mission (most of the other members of the party she was in, including local congressman Leo Ryan, were killed at the airstrip); Jones's son (who wasn't at Jonestown at the time, despite being a then-Believer) still lives in the Bay Area, grappling well (by the sounds of things) with the personal legacy of a father he apparently hated for decades afterwards. What seemed like a typically American (or more specifically Californian) weird and distant story from the distance of London or Sydney turns out to have a human dimension — imagine that.

Nine days after Jonestown, Dan White killed Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone in City Hall, sparking off another long-running thread in local history….

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November 10, 2008

Soundtrack For A Future Short

Click here for a lightly-edited and only slightly mashed-up mp3 I did of an Ivesian short stroll around Sproul Plaza last Saturday while the University of California band warmed up for a game (listen to it with headphones and loud to get the full effect).

I take my surrealism where I can get it, I guess.

(There's a much larger and higher-quality audio-only Quicktime version here for those of you with the bandwidth).

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November 06, 2008

Scott Reilly At The Compound Gallery

Scott Reilly, an artist friend of mine in Oakland, is having a show at The Compound Gallery on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland November 1 through December 1. I went to the opening last Saturday — it's a small deeply-affecting set piece on his brother's death as a young child in a car accident, quite unlike any other bits of Scott's stuff I've seen over the years — and if you're local, drop in some time (The Compound is worth a visit even if you don't get to see Scott's stuff). That Man Fantastic will be playing there this Friday (November 7) at 7pm as well. You may (or may not) get to see this fake Jimmy Little there behind the cameras….

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November 02, 2008


That might be the word on the street around here (especially up towards East 14th), but even with all the loose pundit talk of landslides and crossover states, the reality on the ground beyond the Bay Area's cozy self-absorption is difficult to judge, and I still have bad forebodings…. It's not so much that I distrust the people (I don't put much store in the supposed applicability of the Bradley Effect, for example), it's that I distrust the pundits and the polls and their ability to see beyond the incestuous news cycle bubble. We shall see.

(One of the most interesting things about this campaign has been how two politicians I once rather admired, or at least thought interesting in their own ways — Hillary Clinton and John McCain — were for me both irreparably soiled by their own words and actions in this campaign. It's difficult to credit just how poorly both came off compared to what I expected from them, and just how effective and even subtly tough Obama has been made to look by comparison. That took some doing…).

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October 30, 2008


Barack Obama Bread from the Feel Good Bakery, Alameda, CA

Obama bread, the very latest in comfort food from the guys at the Feel Good Bakery just across the bridge in Alameda's Marketplace. Yes, I just had to buy a loaf (this one's about a foot (30cm) across); they sell out early in the day, with Obama outselling McCain something like nine to one (big surprise there).

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October 24, 2008

Guerrilla Gigging

Some friends of mine playing as That Man Fantastic, live on the street in Oakland's Grandlake district. No, I'm none of the people in the video — I'm behind the camera (and in the edit suite), as always.

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October 12, 2008

What A Difference A Month Makes…

I had lunch with a bunch of techie friends and colleagues in Silicon Valley late last week; as usual with these things, none of us was US-born, and I was the only native English speaker (and, for that matter, the only white boy (or girl)) in the group. A fairly diverse set of people, in the way of the Valley, and (given the middle-class Indian, Asian, and African immigrant experience), a fairly conservative bunch as well (more so than me, especially). What amazed me was that everyone in that group supported Obama; no one could manage a good word for McCain (and some went a lot further than that, with some serious scorn for McCain and his more rabid supporters). Almost no one there could imagine McCain as an enlightened and effective president; everything in this discussion revolved around "character" (rather than identity), and about seriousness, credibility, and believability — Obama has it all, if you listen to this bunch (even if many of us believe it won't make much short-term difference just how good the new president will be). I was astonished: even four weeks ago this lunch would have had a very different tone to it.

But then none of us at that lunch lives in "America"; we live in the Bay Area, a very different place. All of us have founded or helped found startups or businesses (successful or otherwise), but for all the financial conservatism that tends to go along with that, most us around the table are pretty comfortable with things like gay marriage, socialised medicine, or government-led anti-global warming initiatives.

In other words, we're not typical. Nobody out there beyond the Valley cares less what we think. And in any case, it fundamentally just doesn't matter how we vote: we nearly all live in some of the most Obama-centric electorates in the nation. And what scares us isn't what scares the US populace as a whole Out There: stupid scare stories about Obama's supposed connections to aging domestic terrorists don't scare us nearly as much as the feeling that out there beyond the bubble, the US has lost the plot completely, that the US populace just doesn't understand what's hit it (or what it hit itself with again and again over the past decade or so). What scared us most at that lunch was the idea that the US electorate as a whole might actually fall — again — for all the same sort of idiotic scaremongering that produced the real problems in the first place. What scares us is the still-prevailing attitude Out There that things will just go back to the way they used to be and everything will be OK again without anyone having to make any sort of real sacrifices or changes to their lives. Now that's scary.

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October 09, 2008


For years we Estuary locals have thought it mildly funny to refer to our neighbourhood as being "on the Oakland Riviera" (well, there's water there, isn't there?). And then a few days ago a new local restaurant put up a sign in front of its parking lot with the catchphrase "On The Oakland Riviera". OK, the owner's being a little ironic, but then the first uses of "The Jingletown Arts District" were ironic, too, and look where that got us….

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October 04, 2008

Waiting For Rain

Another early first rain, even earlier than the previous earliest I can remember, the first rain at all in at least six months. Big news: it topped the local broadcast TV news last night with dramatic scrolling "Stormwatch" graphics and even beat out the Bailout for the first five minutes. As always, there was no storm, just some light overnight rain; but we need every bit we can get, and self-absorption tends to be its own reward. Early first rains here tend to be harbingers of dry years; we shall see….

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September 19, 2008

Es Mi Barrio

Es mi barrio

Why I have tremendous mobile phone coverage in my studio… (the view from my front door).

(Click on the image to see a much larger version).

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September 06, 2008

Aim Low

Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf at Alameda, 2008

There's been a new Coast Guard cutter (the Bertholf) docked in the Estuary just down the road from my studio for the past month or two; I've taken a bunch of photos of it during that time (natch). It's a good-looking vessel, and I've rather admired what I've seen and read about it (neighbouring Alameda's a Coast Guard town and you see and hear these things as part of daily life).

So it's a little depressing to read in an article in a local rag that one of the ship's engineering officers claimed the Bertholf's "the Cadillac of cutters". The Californian in me cringes: so it's bloated, over-priced, inefficient, unreliable, proudly embodies mediocre design and engineering values, is a status symbol only for people who'll never have status — and seems to be driven mostly by old or poor people? I think I'd rather it were described as the Toyota, Honda, Porsche, or even Ford of cutters, myself.

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August 17, 2008

Stunt Ballet

"Once again The Crucible sets the dance scene ablaze with a fusion of classical ballet, fire performance, aerialists, acrobats and break dancers to create a fiery and funky interpretation of Stravinsky’s masterpiece. It’s definitely ballet with an industrial edge provided by Crucible artisans, a cameo appearance by a Pontiac Firebird, and a ballerina’s graceful pas-de-deux with a motorcycle stunt rider." (from a flyer promoting local arts and craft outfit The Crucible's latest song and dance).

In other words, NASCAR in drag for hipsters who wouldn't be seen dead at a NASCAR event (both demos have tats; it's just that one group thinks of them as pictures, the other as "art"; and for one group, "industrial" is an edgy aesthetic; the other, a way of life). That great herd of independent minds, again, I guess. See you at Burning Man. Boom!! Bang!! Crash!! Dude, the Flames…

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August 01, 2008

In Search Of Lost Times

It's telling and (for me, at least) depressing that the ethnic and racial makeup of the residents of the large old building I live in in Jingletown has changed markedly over the past few years. Right up until about two years ago it often came pretty close to reflecting the larger surrounding Oakland neighbourhoods in that a near majority of us were African-American and Latino; the rest of us (myself included) were an assorted hodge-podge of white, Asian, Indian, and (as one neighbour put it), "Lord-knows-what". Nowadays we're almost completely white and Asian.

The change coincides almost exactly with the change in the immediate neighbourhood from being a mostly-anonymous industrial area dotted with shabby artists' studios, working lofts, the occasional large industrial plant, lots of odd small businesses, little islands of public housing, and bad karaoke bars, to being an officially-proclaimed "arts district" with new lifestyle lofts, galleries, hipster cafes, and hordes of self-righteous cyclists riding through the 'hood in their bright spandex clown suits.

It's also telling that right up until about two or three years ago the majority of the residents of my building — a place explicitly zoned live / work, where you're supposedly legally required to have a business license in order to live there — were artists, musicians, graphic designers, art restorers, etc.; nowadays they're almost all just lifestyle lofters. I think there are only three other tenants (out of nearly two dozen) besides myself who actually do anything creative in their units or who actually have businesses now. The new residents are the sort of people who will probably protest the return of what some of us fondly remember as the Jingletown Express, lumbering laboriously down Glascock Street a couple of times a week until fairly recently.

People seem to be taking the whole slightly-ludicrous Brooklyn West thing seriously: the newest two tenants are both actually straight from New York; their cars still sport the Empire State license plates, and they seem oblivious to the life around them much beyond the obvious. Plus ca change and all that, I guess. Time to move on before I'm moved….

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July 30, 2008


Barbara Holmes, an artist friend of mine here in Oakland, has a six month internship as artist-in-residence at San Francisco's trash recycling plant (aka "The Dump"). Which is really cool in itself (it's the sort of thing I'd kill for), but even more cool is the art she's building from the stuff that comes in (I've seen some of it up close and personal lately). She's got a blog, Re(f)use, describing it all as it happens. Check it out, as they say….

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July 10, 2008

Everybody Loves A Parade

For a little good-natured state-sanctioned surrealism, check out the eight minute video take on Alameda's 4th of July parade I did last weekend. You'll need a quicktime player (your browser probably already has one), and the soundtrack's kinda crucial (so don't turn it down), and it's probably a little large for some tastes, but other than that, what's to say? Amazingly, it's the first 4th of July parade I've seen in all the years I've lived here, and the strange mixture of NRA floats, Peace Now pink ladies, the Oakland Back Cowboys Association, and the various Mexican dancing horses all felt about right to me, but I guess I expected more marching bands and whackos on floats. Still, it's not so bad for a small urban town still struggling with the loss of the military and rapidly-changing demographics. (Alameda is just across the Estuary from where I live).

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June 25, 2008

Signs Of The Apocalypse

Oakland Middle Harbor

The air over the Bay's a murky reddish orange, thick with the smell of burning from Northern California's eight hundred uncontained wildfires; close to home, both Cody's and De Lauer's close permanently within a week of each other.

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June 16, 2008

Carrots Scream Too

"It's hypocritical, too, to pretend that existence is not violence. It's hypocritical — the way vegetarians are hypocritical. They think they aren't harming anything, but a carrot screams too." — from "Let us hold high the banner of intercommunalism and the invincible thoughts of Huey P. Newton minister of defense and supreme commander of the Black Panther Party", in one of the interminable official Panther communiques / newsletters collected in a recent celebratory history.

You can't go far in Oakland without hitting a living ghost of Huey or the Panthers, especially if you've got more than a smattering of local historical knowledge. Even if (like the vast majority of Oaklanders nowadays) you have only a vague idea who Huey or the Panthers were, you can't miss the murals and the place names, and, above all, the surviving attitudes. And that mixture of mordant realist humour and strident turgid authoritarian self-importance, especially, still marks so much of Oakland's African-American and "Progressive" politics, serving much the same purpose it always has: to mask powerlessness and to make damn sure nothing actually gets done (or at least to ensure that nothing gets done without referral to a massive round of self-important committees). But history and demographics seem to be passing Old Oakland by, and, in common with a lot of inhabitants nowadays, my Oakland's largely Hispanic, and the politics and culture don't refer back to the golden age of the Panthers (who, to be fair, had some truly positive social programs in West Oakland, especially), but to something maybe a little sunnier and more forward-looking. And in a part of the world where identity is so often defined in terms of resentment, that's leading to a deep backlash from the older identity politicians as Oakland slowly turns from being a black-majority city to being a hispanic town. A subdued Viva la evolución from me, I guess.

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June 12, 2008

Wall and Piece

Kennedy Street, Oakland, CA

I've got a real soft spot for Banksy. (Assuming "Banksy" is a "he", and is just one person, which seems a dangerous assumption, but never mind) his stuff is smart, witty, funny, thoughtful, clever, well-targeted, visually appealing, and (for me, anyway), motivated by just the Right Stuff. As he puts it in Wall and Piece, "Mindless vandalism can take a lot of thought". And that's kind of the key, no? Living in a neighbourhood increasingly suffocated by gang (and wannabe-gang) graffiti, his stuff often makes me ache for something other than the omnipresent thoughtless scribbled dog-piss graffiti 'round here.

He says "People look at an oil painting and admire the use of brushstrokes to convey meaning. People look at a graffiti painting and admire the use of a drainpipe to gain access." (in his "Advice on painting with stencils"). Well, maybe. Of course, 'round here people look at graffiti and wonder whether it means they're in norteño or surreño territory, or whether that little bit over there is E14th gang graffiti or A-town Runners graffiti, or wonder whether the huge gang sign graffiti repeated endlessly along the wall on E 7th means there's a hope in hell their car won't be graffitied the next night, or wonder why they have to clean the graffiti off their windows every damn week for the rest of their lives...

"Crime against property is not real crime." (ditto) But a lot of graffiti isn't resented by the graffitiist's targets because it's a property crime (the most graffitied neighbourhoods rarely have many property owners who are directly affected by it), it's because it's a visceral reminder that most of us have little control over our external visual environments, and a scary sign that gangs control the streets late at night (I'm guessing Banksy doesn't live in a place where gang-related gunshots are heard every night, but never mind, it's the thought that counts, right?).

Graffiti's no more inherently subversive than painting (or, for that matter, Frisbee golf). Graffiti's a medium, not a coherently-motivated and targeted act. It's OK to take a positive or at least indulgent attitude to graffiti when it's either thoughtful and clever (think "Banksy", of course…) or somehow subversive, but when its intention is simply to make us feel unwelcome or intimidated in our own environments, or to mark territory, it's a little disingenuous to proclaim it as a revolutionary or liberating thing as such. Sure, there's graffiti and there's Graffiti, and I sometimes long for the witty (or at least provocative) political and anti-commercial graffiti that used to pop up in inner-city Sydney and London, but that's not the reality most of us live.

(There's just no way to write something like this without sounding Pooterish or school-marmish, is there?).

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May 09, 2008


Death and destruction in Oakland: the SF Chron's map of homicides in Oakland, 2007 and 2008 (so far, anyway; you have to check the 2007 box to get the 2007 icons to show up as well).

As one of the news items linked to a North Oakland shooting on the map for this year puts it, "[Oakland] Police on Monday were investigating a string of weekend shootings in Oakland that killed seven men, and authorities tried to reassure residents that the city is a safe place to live and work". Riiiight. At least there was only one homicide in my immediate neighbourhood, a very recent and rather unusual once-off, luckily enough (I walk past where it happened almost every day). There hadn't been any before that since the Brinks guard shooting in 2006 (which was big news even in Oakland), then none before that for quite a while, at least on this side of the railway.

Just to (once again) put this into perspective: the area covered on that map is physically about the same size as inner Sydney.

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May 05, 2008

Here And There

Thousands — maybe tens of thousands — of people are dead after a typhoon runs rampage in Burma; food riots break out in Sudan, Bolivia, and sundry other places; Zimbabwe's deadly electoral contortions continue…. But that's all there. Here, by contrast, the first thirty minutes of the broadcast TV news this evening is about a small local chemical spill, sundry acts of local violence, a new airline luggage checkin policy, and the inevitable Cinco de Mayo celebrations. It's another world Out There. Who knew? Who knows?

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April 28, 2008


Getting coffee this morning I (almost literally) stumble into local Oakland council legend (and my council member), Ignacio de la Fuente. He's sitting in a corner, out of the way, with a rather dark "don't bother me now" scowl on his face while he reads a bunch of papers, so I don't bother him. But it's definitely kind of funny (or maybe just odd) seeing this very high profile and famously-controversial political animal utterly ignored in the corner of an obscure local coffee shop (and it's not like there'd be too many people within five miles who wouldn't immediately know who he was). If I didn't know better I'd say he was actually just out getting breakfast….

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April 20, 2008

Come To Your Happy Place

The wildlife of West Oakland

Local wildlife, West Oakland.

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April 02, 2008

Brooklyn West

Last Sunday's NYT had a typically lightweight and slightly twee piece on the cultural and social parallels between Brooklyn and the East Bay (especially, funnily enough, Lovely Industrial East Oakland), and even the personal connections between the two. I've long claimed that Oakland plays Newark to San Francisco's Manhattan, but Brooklyn's a more positive role model, no? The truth is, pretty much only rich kids or Boomer Grownups who got in early can afford to live productively in either Manhattan or San Francisco now (with the emphasis on "productively"), and while people looked at me a little strangely all those years ago when I first started rabbiting on about Oakland being the new art centre of the Bay Area, no one seems to think it's odd now. I don't so much feel vindicated as apprehensive: when your neighbourhood gets mentioned favourably in an NYT Styles section article, and the phrase "Arts District" gets bandied around unironically, you just know you won't be able to afford the rent in a few years' time, and you'll join the long (and already started) exodus of artists in search of new pastures further afield.

San Leandro, here I come….

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March 19, 2008

A Trip To The DVD Store

The local Borders had "Blackadder III" in the Documentary section this evening; Koyaanisqatsi, Man Of Flowers, and Anton Corbijn's collected video works were lurking in the "Foreign Language" section (Koyaanisqatsi is at least plausible, I guess); and a new reissue of Battleship Potemkin sat in the "Comedy" section.

Easy targets, for sure; the really striking thing, though, is that they actually had those DVDs.

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March 11, 2008

Point Blank

"Point Blank": another of those "why haven't I seen this before?" films, a sort of Californian Get Carter (or, more accurately, the other way around, given that it pre-dates the original Get Carter by several years), a relentless LA / San Francisco noir played out in a series of colour- and texture-coded tableaux, doubletakes, prefigurings, repeated motifs (scenes, faces, backdrops, mirrors, bodies, stances, gestures, actions, screens, blinds, curtains, beds, sounds, phrases) echoing across time and place, the laconic Lee Marvin (apparently deeply involved in a lot more than just the acting in this film), the beautiful dark subtly-lit catacombs of Alcatraz, used to give the last scenes a feel of being played out on a stage (without being stagey), brazen ambiguities and little shaded mysteries hanging out in plain sight. With the exception of the music soundtrack and the almost total whiteness of the cast, this is a film that's aged well: it doesn't feel like a film of its time so much as a film about its time (so much so that some of the most authentic period bits set in LA almost looked fake to me, way too true to be real).

(Part of Flix).

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March 01, 2008

Fair Trade

I live in a neighbourhood that's now officially designated an "Arts District". This seems to mean that all the artists have been priced out of the area by an influx of galleries. There's art here alright; just not too many artists any more.

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January 11, 2008


No one's ever accused me of being a sports fan, and I haven't surfed since I was a teenager, but something about the Maverick's competition held here really appeals to me. Apart from the surf and the great surfing — 50 foot waves and a break across a bunch of exposed reefs, surfed by two dozen hand-picked best Big Wave surfers in the world — look at the videos from 2006's competition — well, apart from all that, I'm intrigued by the way it's become locally so well-known so quickly, a strong part of local Northern Californian folklore that people think of as being a tradition 'round here, something quietly celebrated, and attended well-enough to cause a traffic jam on the freeways without any advance notice (it has no fixed schedule; the surfers get 24 hours' notice if they're lucky). But the competition's only been going for a few years, and no more than a handful of people outside the big wave community even knew Maverick's (the break) existed until Mark Foo was killed on the reef there a dozen years ago. For years it was considered a basically unsurfable combination of sharp rocks and huge waves, but it's now a fixture on the competition circuit, and the old Woy Woy / Umina Beach boy in me still just grins when he stands on the bluffs behind the shoreline and sees the break.

Tomorrow's the big day again….

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December 27, 2007

The Big Question

As half the world seems to know by now, a day or two ago a Siberian tiger escaped from its cage in San Francisco zoo and killed a visitor before it was itself killed by police (it also badly injured two other visitors). Even today the local media is full of stories asking what almost every commentator calls the puzzling question: how did the tiger get out of its cage, cross the moat separating its pen from the larger zoo, and break through various fences to get to its victims? But the real puzzle is why on earth anyone would cage an animal like this in a zoo like that (or anywhere as cramped and cold as San Francisco). Zoos are some of the most depressing places in earth for me; I usually can't bear to visit them.

In other news, several people were killed by guns around the Bay. They were barely noticed.

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November 24, 2007

Protest The Impunity!

Inscribed in chalk on the sidewalks of Telegraph, just down from the University: "Stop the Impunity of UC!". Now there's a protest chant that just rolls off the tongue.... (But it's hard not to sympathise with the sentiments behind it, though, no matter how cumbersome the expression: the University of California at Berkeley is a very rich and powerful state institution that is in every sense above local law here, and often does whatever it feels like to and in the city of Berkeley without a second thought. But what would Berkeley be without the university? Just another pleasant urban suburb, I guess).

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November 10, 2007

Back To Normal

It's a home game day at Berkeley (a lopsided USC Trojans vs. The Bears game up in the stadium, apparently), and in the Milano some sort of American Modernist classical piece on the radio competes with the Asian drums out on Sproul and the marching band warming up nearby. The effect's like Ives coliding with a gamelan, something Our Charles would approve of, for sure.

Outside, in the drizzle on Telegraph, a young homeless guy asks me for change for coffee. He looks like he'll actually get coffee with it, so I give him four quarters and terse smalltalk, and a minute later he's disappeared into the Mediteranneum. Me, I disappear into Moe's and end up with Luca Frei's "The so-called utopia of the centre beaubourg — An interpretation", a book full of the sort of throwaway apercus like "Sleeping: is that also part of culture?" and "Of all the insults and the accusations that have been thrown at us, that of parasitism fills me with joy [...]" that I suspect will either quickly get very tiresome or will suck me right in (there's a thin line between attitude and ambition)

Back on Telegraph, Mars is now saying "Fabulous clothes for naked people". With Mars it's not so much an ad as a proclamation, or even a command. I wish I could comply. On the other side of the street the coffee guy's sitting on an abandoned doorstep drinking coffee; he sees me and waves. On my side a tall skinny guy in a yellow hoodie under an immaculately-tailored and buttoned-down dark blue Cal sports blazer topping ironed jeans and a pair of docs sweeps by to great effect. I don't have the guts to take his photo.

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November 06, 2007

Around Jingletown

As some of you already know, I've put up a new photo blog, "Around Jingletown", to document the Jingletown (and Oakland and Berkeley and Emeryville and …) Experience, at least in images (and yes, it's under my real name). Some of it will be familiar if you've seen my earlier Tight Sainthood Jingletown piece, but it will definitely be going a lot further than that, and a lot more obsessively, too. Have at it… (or not), but treat it gently: it's not entirely ready for prime time just yet.

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November 05, 2007

In Local News…

Leave it to The Grauniad to do a thorough, unsensationalist piece on the Chauncey Bailey killing, a piece of one of Oakland's dirtier little secrets, a long-running story that too many around here wouldn't touch with a bargepole until there was one death too many….

The talk 'round here, though, is that the OPD botched the initial interrogations and investigations badly enough that there may never be any real convictions in this or the broader cases (or, as the Grauniad piece hints, the OPD are themselves implicated in some way in all this anyway). If that happens, the revenge killings and recriminations won't be pretty, even by Oaktown's standards….

(Not sure how long the Grauniad link will be valid for…).

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November 02, 2007


Long shadows, a pale sun, the container cranes lost in the mist, the estuary like a mirror, the familiar hum and shudder of the Park Street bridge against the soles of my shoes, the line of concrete trucks outside my studio, the noise next door… home, I guess.

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October 01, 2007

Blazed and Confused

The Bridgeporte Building, East Oakland

A year after the fire, little signs of a slow regrowth, lit by the sky from another fire

(The Bridgeporte Building, 29th and Ford, Oakland; click the image above to see a larger version).

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September 23, 2007

El Cerrito Plaza

"Man", he says, looking at me unreadably from the other side of the checkstand, "you'll never know what it was like for this Oakland boy to walk Black through the Plaza the first time". He mimes the reactions: panicked phone calls to the police and other merchants, squinting shop-keepers following his stroll from behind the blinds and counters. "That's the best reason to go to Wal-Mart — they don't give a shit that I'm black, only that I spend money and I'm middle class. And they don't do none of that bullshit Berkeley 'hug a black man' crap".

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September 12, 2007

Four For The Price Of One

East Oakland

Four local East Oakland / Fruitvale / Estuary icons for the price of one: Nikko's 24 HR Cafe Shop; the friendly guy who stands guard over 880 and East 7th; the old Lucasey factory; and St Joseph's. Just the condensed glimpse I get from the walkway coming off the Park Street bridge on my way home each day, captured with a longer lens….

(Click on the image above for a much larger version).

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September 06, 2007


Early Morning, Fruitvale Bridge from Park Street Bridge

For the last two days, copper-coloured skies, a weak reddish sun, and the smell of burning hanging over everything from the bushfires both north and south. Beautiful, in its own way.

(Yesterday, early morning, Fruitvale Bridge from Park Street Bridge, Oakland Estuary).

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September 05, 2007

Root Division

A friend of mine, Barbara Holmes, has a couple of pieces in Root Division's Introductions 2007 in the Mission (I'm also vaguely acquainted with one of the other artists in the show, but I don't actually know his work very well). If you're in San Francisco this Saturday and have nothing better to do, come to the opening (7pm — details on the website). I'll be there. I might even remember to answer to "Jimmy Little"…

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September 03, 2007

The Man Behind Starbucks

Alfred Peet, onetime Berkeley resident, founder of Berkeley's original Peet's Coffee and Tea, and the person who almost single-handedly made the Bay Area a source of high quality coffee from the 1960's on, died last Wednesday.

When I first came to Berkeley in the mid 1980's the really good coffee here made an immediate impression on me — you could get excellent cappuccinos, lattes, espressos of all sorts, coffee by the pound, etc. (along with good bagels or pastries) cheaply and easily in any number of small coffee shops and cafes throughout Berkeley or San Francisco; a lot of that coffee was supplied by Peet's or small local companies inspired by Peet's. After London's acidic instant powdered swill, the coffee here was a relief; what made it a surprise, though, was that everyone had told me over and over before coming here that American coffee was just terrible (often enough, they still say that, which is odd, but never mind). But American coffee as I experienced it was just great. What I didn't really know at the time, of course, was that (as with so many things in life) I was experiencing coffee as it was in the Bay Area, not in the US as a whole: coffee Out There beyond the Irony Zone was still swill — as it was in all of Britain and the vast majority of Australia, of course. Good coffee in the Bay Area (and, later, LA) historically went hand-in-hand with the whole California Cuisine thing that also made everyday Bay Area food something to dream of back in the food wasteland that was London in the 1980's; it's no accident that the original Peet's store is only a minute's stroll away from Chez Panisse in North Berkeley.

Peet's death was quite big news in the Bay Area, but it's unlikely to have meant much anywhere else, unless you also knew that he was the source of the raw coffee beans, expertise, and inspiration for the original Starbucks founders, in which case he looms rather large in both US gourmet coffee and cultural history. As someone who can remember when Peet's was still a small local affair (like Noah's Bagels, for that matter), who's watched Starbucks elbow its way into the Bay Area and compete head-to-head with Peet's (which has itself become a small national chain), it's hard not be ambivalent: Peet and Peet's succeeded in raising the level of coffee quality and availability throughout California and then the rest of the US, either directly or through Starbucks (go on, admit it…), but the whole annoying suburban hipster coffee culture that's grown up with it all also owes a lot to its roots in Peet's and Berkeley. And while Peet's still isn't quite Starbucks (Peet's really isn't a chain of sit-down coffee shops in the same sense that Starbucks is, it's more of a coffee retail and wholesale outfit that also happens to sell coffee and pastries over the counter, and its reputation is a lot more benign), the sight of Peet's trying to match Starbucks block by block through the downtowns and neighbourhoods around here can be a little depressing. Peet himself sold Peet's to one of Starbucks's original owners some time ago (there's a tangled history here), and it's been through a series of ownership and management changes over the years, but it's still based here, and I used to pass its main roastery in Emeryville every few days (which is now apparently in Alameda, just across the Estuary).

I think what makes the average aging Berkeley hipster really cringe about all this is just how much Starbucks seems to be the logical extension of the original Peet's experience and aims, with the added "taking coffee to the world" evangelism that's succeeded beyond those hipsters' dreams. Someone had to do it, I guess.

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August 25, 2007


Fleeing through SoMa pursued at every corner by those velvet Elvises of the hipster art world, the omnipresent Frida Kahlo self-portraits…

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August 03, 2007

Chauncey Bailey

I can't claim I knew him, but like more than a few Oaklanders, I knew who he was (he was locally famous for asking hard questions and for a few run-ins over the years with the powers-that-be around here), and I'd run into him at one or more interminable downtown functions (in my case in the newly-refurbished Rotunda building a few years ago, if I remember correctly). He was gunned down in broad daylight at 7.30am yesterday on his way to work as a well-known journalist for a local paper in downtown Oakland. Unusually for Oakland, it's got all the typical hallmarks of a targeted assassination — a carefully-chosen and very public location, a masked gunman, two shots to the back of the head from close range, a pre-planned escape. The news even made the Sydney Morning Herald's web site, which is probably a first for an individual Oakland gun death (at least since the days of the Black Panthers).

The killing was Oakland's 72nd homicide of the year (there have been two more since yesterday). Once again, let's put this into perspective: this gritty little city of Oakland (quite a bit smaller than Australia's Newcastle) will probably have more murders this year than in all of Australia's largest state by population, New South Wales.

(Picture by KTVU news).

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July 11, 2007

Short Shameful Confession

I'm not a Starbucks kind of guy (except in an emergency), but there's a new Starbucks that's just opened on the edge of the Estuary about ten minutes' walk from my studio. Nothing surprising about that, given the way they've sprouted in even the roughest parts of Oaktown in the last few years, but this one's actually a pleasant place to be: it's right next to the water, in a fairly quiet spot, and you can sit in the sun at the outside tables overlooking the Estuary with your feet up watching the boats go by only a few meters away. Not bad. I may even go there again one day.

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June 15, 2007



Just a morsel, an obsessograph from the sublime, a day in my studio last year…

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June 01, 2007

No Respect

One of my favourite local Estuary icons, the tug "Respect", pictured above (and here), apparently keeled over and capsized in the Estuary several weeks ago, without injuring or killing anyone working on it. Few people noticed it existed even when it was visible; now there's just a couple of lighted obstruction buoys floating in the channel a few metres offshore from where it used to be moored, and (for the first few days) a tiny flurry of "respect" jokes in the local media. The owners are going to try to salvage it (again), apparently, and continue on doing what they were trying to do in the first place: clean it up and (somehow) get it up the coast to Oregon under its own steam. We shall see.

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May 14, 2007

Snugly Iconic

Botta's SFMOMA building, snugly familiar after all these years just off Mission, so often (as in the Wikipedia article) referred to as "iconic". But for me it's not the Botta that's iconic, it's the beautiful graceful old Pacific Telephone building behind it that's the icon — the museum would be diminished greatly without that pale tall backdrop setting it off in off-centred contrast, growing out of it organically as you get the canonical glimpse of it from Yerba Buena gardens. Iconic's not the word, then, but there's something nicely generous and self-effacing about the way the museum manages to draw attention to its background (or the way the space around Third and Mission works) rather than to itself.

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March 31, 2007

Hog Heaven

The Hells Angels are in town, a greying sea of greasy-jacketed geezers from around the world celebrating the Oakland chapter's 50th anniversary en mass in downtown Oaktown. Oakland may not be the place where it all started, but its chapter was one of the most infamous (think "Sonny Barger", "Altamont", and "Hunter S. Thompson", at least), and, stripped of all the spin and cutesy / nostalgic / condescending "how times change" commentaries on the local evening news, the local chapter's still not exactly all sweetness and light…

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March 27, 2007

God Bless!

God bless our brave billionaires

Downtown Berkeley, 25/3/07

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March 11, 2007

Gold & Wax

"I found [Gigi's] 'Gold & Wax' in San Francisco. (It's difficult to find music I want to buy in Bamako. […])" — Amadou, in a recent NYT "Playlist" recommendation. The irony: as someone who lives in San Francisco (at least as far as the rest of the world's concerned…) the only damn place I could find (Ethiopian local resident) Gigi's stuff was on iTunes.

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March 07, 2007


It's a measure of how fluid and mobile California's population can be that whenever we have a minor quake here (like the 4.2 just up the road last week) and we start talking about previous quakes, in any group of fewer than about a dozen or so local residents I'm nearly always the only person who experienced the Loma Prieta quake first-hand, even though it happened well within the adult lifetimes of most of the people concerned, and was directly (and destructively) felt across an extensive part of Northern California.

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February 16, 2007


Lunchtime, on the steep slopes of Jackson between Grant and Kearny, in front of Pearl City, the Green Street Mortuary Band slowly wends its way downhill towards us, black uniforms, white shirts, hats, the low sad measured steady swing of well-played brass and drums in the sun in front of the sidewalk crowds, foot traffic stopped dead in the narrow streets, three black cars and a hearse behind the band, a dozen or more cars in the procession behind that. The band and the hearse stop in the bustle outside the Pearl, the funeral directors open the hearse's back door so we can pay respects, so the dead can see the neighbourhood again, the mourners gather around and throw yellow money up into the sunshine above the streets and the giant joss sticks and onto us. American tradition: a subdued New Orleans, a Chinatown funeral.

Minutes later, a couple of blocks away at Columbus and Broadway in front of the touristy gelato place, we watch the police escort an exuberant ten-minute-long line of vintage cars and roadsters heading along Columbus for North Beach. People cheer and wave.

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January 28, 2007

Greetings from Jingletown!

Sunset over the Estuary, Jingletown, Oakland California

Inspired by Spike's This Isn't Sydney CafePress.com shop, I've put my own Greetings from Jingletown! shop up at CafePress (under my real name), based (to some extent) on the original Jingletown article I did here last year. There's a bunch of slightly oddball and off-kilter postcards, greeting cards, coffee mugs, etc., for sale with themes mostly from the whole Jingletown neighbourhood thing (it's about bloody time someone gave Oaktown and the surrounding areas the recognition they deserve…).

So take a look… and note that while it's still a bit of a work in progress, you can probably see where it's going (there are also a couple of other shops in store, so to speak, for my other ventures), and there's likely to be a few more images and products added over the next few months. And if you have any requests (fridge magnets or dog shirts or whatever), let me know. And yes, there'll be a Jingletown 2008 calendar available later this year.

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December 29, 2006

Lifestyle Lofting

Yes, I live in a loft. Very passe. But I need the high ceilings and the undivided space for my photo studio and business, and I can (mostly) put up with the noise (it's jammed between a freeway and a major local road, and contains a bunch of extremely loud bands and other 24 hour noise-makers), the pollution (it's in Industrial East Oakland, and also in the middle of the cement-making capital of the Bay Area, and the steady stream of container trucks on the surrounding roads heading for the Port doesn't help, either), the isolation (you can't just walk anywhere — you have to plan things like shopping or visits to friends well ahead of time), and the inevitable taunts about living a cliche.

The loft's in an old box factory down by the Estuary. It's one of the first loft conversions in the area (late 1980's, I think), and unlike the later purpose-built lofts that have started to infest the area, it's got a certain style, and is aimed squarely at people like me who need a live / work space rather than just a trendy home (most of the units around me are inhabited by people who also run businesses or art studios in those units). The flavour of the place comes through in the commercial lease I have for my unit: among the other standard lease items, it prohibits me from having more than 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel in my unit without the owner's written approval, and no lathes, milling machines, or other heavy equipment are to be permanently installed without similar approval; on the other hand, it explictly allows me to do whatever I like to the interior, including installing new rooms, floors, etc, without notice. I've been here for years now, long enough to be considered almost an old-timer by the other tenants, and I have one of the larger spaces — not quite the sun-splashed red brick and redwood beams of the California Cliche, but near enough to be bearable.

More importantly, the location tends to discourage the inevitable lifestyle lofters — that well-intentioned plague that started in the mid-nineties and nearly ruined lofts for the rest of us by pricing us out of the market. Sometime around then people started to see lofts depicted as huge hip bright sunny spaces on TV or in movies, and simultaneously large developers started converting derelict factories or building new purpose-built buildings (a.k.a "loftominiums" and / or "instant tenements") in rougher neighbourhoods to house the hordes of people who convinced themselves that loft living is a lifestyle choice, an accessory to a certain sub-yuppie or wannabe-artist life (i.e. often enough, the sort of people who think art is a lifestyle or choice rather than a calling or compulsion...).

The lifestyle lofters we see typically can't afford to live in San Francisco (no one can), so they end up here in Oaktown, which is now Loft Central thanks to Mayor Jerry Brown (Our Beloved Leader) and people like me (but see this East Bay Express story for some of the pitfalls). The ones we get in our building typically last exactly the length of their initial lease and move out the next day (or even break their leases after a month or two), vowing never to live in a loft again, or moving on to one of the purpose-built luxury lifestyle lofts closer to Downtown or the Warehouse District, a district now almost devoid of real warehouses (or small businesses and artists, for that matter), most of them having been converted into expensive lifestyle lofts over the past few years). They move in here with little appreciation for just how difficult it can be to live in a real loft, little appreciation of just how drafty, leaky, noisy, cold, hot, dirty, and crime-ridden lofts like this are in real life, little appreciation for just how much work you have to do to make something like this a livable space (it took me nearly two years to get this place comfortable; it's still a work in progress).

The guys who moved in across the corridor from me late last year lasted less than three months, leaving in a bemused rush for a quieter, nicer, less-polluted lifestyle loft up the Embarcadero. I guess the sense of space and the high airy ceilings here just weren't enough. Especially after having had your car broken into several times during that time, or having been woken up for the fourth time the previous night by the assault stereos or mini-sideshows on the street outside, or having one of your tires punctured yet again by the industrial debris left behind by an overloaded junk truck, or having had to negotiate your way past the homeless encampment next to the garbage piled up against the freeway overcrossing every other day or so. That's (the) life, I guess.

(For me, there are two fairly reliable indicators of whether a loft is a lifestyle loft or not: firstly, the amount of unused or unusable vertical space, and secondly, whether your lease prohibits the total or large-scale rearrangement of the loft's internal layout and setup. Clearly you need vertical space (at least 4 metres) for a working loft — for lighting, for studio backdrops, for those large pieces you're working on, for storage, etc. — but if the loft is more like an atrium, with lots of vertical space you can't conceivably use or that's just sitting there with no intention of being used, then it's probably a lifestyle loft, more concerned with light and "space" than with working space. Similarly, if you can't just decide one day to rip up the existing internal walls, or put in some new walls, or take down that awful-looking long wide ledge the previous tennants built half-way up the side wall (what were they thinking?), then it's a lifestyle loft. Ideally, you start with a loft that's just an undivided and unadorned space, and make it into what you want it to be, with explicit permission in the lease to do whatever you want — lifestyle lofts, on the other hand, usually come pre-arranged with nice domestic layouts (rooms, stairways, alcoves, etc.), and any attempt to change the layout non-trivially brings the landlord (or community association) down on you like a ton of bricks. Another very telling sign is the flooring: like many working lofts around here, my floor is just a huge grey-painted deep flat concrete slab that extends under the entire factory; you can do whatever the hell you like with it, including bolting heavy equipment to it or moving gear around on it, without fear of damaging the floor or causing structural problems (and the slab in my place tends to moderate temperatures in both summer and winter, which is a plus). Lifestyle lofts, on the other hand, typically have nicely-polished hardwood floors that you can't do anything with or on without worrying about scratches or having that heavy lighting stand buckle the floor).

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