Part 2 — Danger as ambience: The gang over at Spruce want to take a walk on the wild side (among other items we might want to take a long look at.)

So let’s envisage an alternate outcome for the Saratoga building’s vacancies and others like it throughout the Tenderloin.

The motif for site-usage should be unhesitatingly straightforward: The search for investment that enables the full participation of the residents of the area. These investment ideas ought to be initiated by TL residents, ideally, and of necessity staffed by them. And more: the approach incorporates the intention of conferring a designation of economic autonomy and sovereignty to the district.

The kicker, of course, is nothing less than the belief in the shocking notion that poor and low-income people can eviscerate the stigma of welfare dependency, and can do so by actually creating wealth. And that the ensuing financial gains be distributed primarily as wages and be spent by its resident-workers in similarly indigenous commercial ventures in the community. Obviously implied in all this is the idea of cooperatives; starting on the shop floor and combining as networked co-op entities, and finally coalescing as a producers’ business-district confederation, on as stringent a labor, social, and environmental standards-of-practice basis as is feasible.

* * * *

I’m visualizing one group in particular rightfully inhabiting Neveo Mosser’s Post and Larkin space. I go back with this group a long ways.

I worked out of Hospitality House as a community organizer in the late 1960s, starting three months after the facility opened. About that time someone anonymously contributed a large pallet of art supplies. Within days the brushes and clay had found the hands of runaways, drug addicts, gays and gender-transitioners, and the assorted traumatized, as the room became a cathedral-like respite from the streets. I remember thinking how remarkable the work was; untutored young people drawing solely upon instinct, dreams and the pain of their lives.

They’ve endured from that seedbed, these artists. And over the years the Hospitality House Community Arts Program has been accorded its due recognition.

Today there are some 300 artists living in the Tenderloin, mainly in the SROs. They display their work through the various CAP shows, one of which is the yearly greeting card sale.

I’ve wondered for a long time why that greeting card event hasn’t been rolled into a formal greeting card business. The pool of artistic talent in the Tenderloin is enormous, and of proven quality. And the scope of the operation needn’t be only local. There’s no reason why with an online presence it couldn’t easily go national and worldwide.

As a first step to that occurring, there are ample resources at hand. Among them, for instance, former mayors who regularly exhibit a willingness to be useful, and a number of prominent locals with the pedigree for championing worthy causes.

The novelist Danielle Steele chaired Hospitality House’s annual auction a few years ago. One can readily imagine the impact of Steele and her Pacific Heights friends opening their Rolodexes as Park Avenue, Beacon Hill, Georgetown, Bel Air, Belgravia and 16th Arrondissement answering machines record and herald the news: We have hundreds of terrific artists in our Tenderloin district who live in 8×10 foot rooms on very low incomes or at a subsistence level. Many of them have been here for years enduring the grime and the hopelessness. And now they’re starting a greeting card business. The city has stepped in and helped them lease a building long-term. The artists will run it themselves and share the profits and pay the bills. This isn’t a charity case. It’s exactly the opposite. And that’s the whole point. They intend to turn their lives around. And in the process they hope to turn their neighborhood around, too.

* * * *

The city’s Central Market/Tenderloin Strategy, published last month, speaks rather emphatically about the need for business investment and workforce development in that target area. The plan, an update of Mayor Lee’s 2011 Central Market Economic Strategy, is a belated acknowledgment of the interdependence of Sixth Street and the Tenderloin with mid-Market.

To date, the city’s preoccupation with Central Market is obvious: the tax-break windfall to the tech companies, and the subsequent 12,000 jobs, 5,600 housing units and new arts and business ventures opening along Market and the boundary of the Tenderloin. There was clearly an inevitability to the Turk/Taylor area commercial buildup once the tech onslaught began, as the expected spillover into the eastern Tenderloin will likely comprise an amalgam of tech, tourists and patrons of the new theaters on Market.

How willing the city is to venture deeply into the remainder of Tenderloin, however, remains to be seen. What does its vision of “shared prosperity” entail, and how does it foresee that playing out within this demographic? Will it rely on conceptually static, rote examples for fostering development and a renewed prosperity there, or is it truly prepared to innovate, to risk, given the reality of the staggering income disparity between the populations of Central Market and the historic Tenderloin? What are the undergirding cultural assumptions for this hoped-for “mixed-income” eventuality? How might that proceed day-to-day, and what sort of long-term prospects does it offer?

Lots of questions. Ones we need to be pondering. At stake is the city’s last affordable neighborhood. And if that neighborhood goes, you can be sure, so goes any remaining notion of the San Francisco that’s been a welcoming beacon for successive generations arriving here to build a life.

* * * *

As we’ve come to learn, real estate and commercial interests aren’t the slightest bit shy about encroaching on the urban landscapes they once couldn’t wait to flee. They approach this new “wilderness” from the outside-in, nibbling at the borders, in much the same way our pioneering forebears in their transcontinental expeditions executed a bison hunt: work the outside edges in hopes the herd doesn’t stampede.

Larkin St. is the perfect example. Only the two blocks below Geary stand between the ten businesses in Little Saigon that have lost their leases or been priced out during the past year from linking up with the similarly transformed northern end of the corridor where the Spruce group will implant.

A block south of the Saratoga in Geary’s 800 block can be found two recently opened establishments featuring the now–de rigueur wide windows, impeccably finished woods and soft, precise lighting. The wine bar Tender dispenses 21 wines via brass taps and offers an assortment of cheeses and charcuterie which can be-enjoyed on red tufted-leather banquettes in its upstairs lounge. Owner Miriam Lipton describes her place as one “pouring outstanding grape on tap for patrons in the raw but ripe Tenderloin.”

The adjoining restaurant, Huxley, brings veterans of Saison, Bar Agricole and Outerlands to its kitchen. Diners can savor a rabbit entrée for $42, a price the SF Chronicle’s Michael Bauer felt was “justified,” although it “[made] me wonder how it will play to the neighborhood crowd.” Foie gras is also frequently available, and those at the window tables are graced with a superb view of people expressing their good fortune at the varied hand-me-downs they’ve found at the Goodwill outlet next door.

Both Tender and Huxley have an agreement for bread deliveries from Jane, a recent addition to Larkin a half-block below the Saratoga. The breakfast/lunch café’s founder and chef Amanda Michael — like Spruce’s Tim Stannard, a native San Franciscan — opened her flagship Jane on Upper Fillmore in 2011 and has seen it become touted as a new power lunch venue, frequented by the likes of Stanlee Gatti, Apple and Google execs and Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman. Michael’s “on-trend” white-tiled-walls industrial-chic Larkin location, opened 15 months ago, sits mid-block and its side window faces the Cedar Street alley. As a consequence, customers dawdling over their $9 bowls of granola and $11 salads are prone to notice the block’s homeless using the alley to urinate. One Yelp reviewer offered this helpful bit of advice to anyone thinking of visiting the cafe: “There are … tons of homeless people and don’t be alarmed if you see someone staring right back at you. Maybe distract yourself with their beautiful indoor mural instead. Or … you could also talk to your companion.”

This attitudinal seepage into the neighborhood certainly ought to have been predictable. It’s reflective of the financial and cultural assumptions that have driven the past ten years’ buildout of high-end condos along Van Ness (and beyond) and that typify the classic elements of follow-on boundary erosion: calculating, furtive, insidious, and ultimately destabilizing. As these restaurants and clubs pop up, avidly proclaiming their own preciousness, they’re abetted by landlords within the targeted area salivating over the financial accrual from a more prosperous commercial tenant base. In the attempt to attract a tonier caliber of tenant, some landlords offer below-market-rate initial leases, betting on a turnabout for the neighborhood and the promise of much higher rates for subsequent leases.

The affluent, peering across the other side of the line, invariably find the mix of hipness and menace there to be alluring enough to want to incorporate it as another of their leisure-time playgrounds, simultaneously re-enforcing the conviction that they can go anyplace they want and lay claim to it.

The victim, in this instance, is mainly the Vietnamese community and those first immigrant waves from the 1970s and 1980s who founded small businesses and restaurants along lower Larkin as their sole means of surviving. Despite lacking the necessary language skills and having to cram large families into studio apartments, they witnessed their neighborhood flourish over the decades as their children navigated the alien streets, became acculturated and achieved in ways that no one could possibly have imagined. By any measure, Little Saigon has been the most prominent example of the Tenderloin’s post-1970 heritage, and the past year’s displacements seem to signal the end of an era.

Given the plethora of available resources in the Strategic plan, one would be led to believe that Little Saigon’s denouement is far from imminent. Larkin St., designated as Action Zone H in the plan — one of the Tenderloin’s nine such zones — has tasked a point person to coordinate resource programs for multilingual small business retention and stabilization, lease/legal assistance, financing, marketing, relocation funding, opportunities to acquire master leasing, and policy solutions to ensure that small businesses in the zone “stay and grow.”

The plan mandates tracking the implementation of those objectives, and will publish timely Report Cards from each zone. If you were perhaps wondering if anyone in the city was responsible for monitoring this area before the Zone H point person was assigned — and were curious about where that person might have been for the past year — in due course the report will let us know, presumably. Doubtless the report will also detail the city’s response to last month’s announcement from developer JS Sullivan that the company intends to raze a building on one of those two blocks below Geary and construct an eight-story, 42-condo complex with 22 parking spaces and 1,400 feet
of retail space made available by the elimination of the three previous businesses. It appears that the Van Ness corridor mindset is poised to make a great leap forward. Or westward, to be properly specific.

* * * *

It’s of some significant interest that from one quarter of the Tenderloin — the upper echelons of the nonprofit sector, in fact — comes the insistent contention that the changes we are currently witnessing don’t qualify as gentrification. The argument goes that since the wealthy aren’t interested in living in the studios or one-bedroom apartments that predominate the non-SRO housing stock, the word isn’t applicable. Moreover, the protected status accorded three-fourths of the Tenderloin’s units has minimized tenant vacancies and attempts at eviction.

In effect, we can only infer from that premise that the word and what it conveys is essentially meaningless in the Tenderloin; for commercial displacement, as well. Business owners affected by turnovers to wealthier tenants are thus entitled to little more than a cursory, but surely polite, “Gee, tough luck, pal.” Of course, the added component of such situations is the stark reality that if you live and work in this city and have a business taken out from under you, you’re not likely to be housed here much longer.

In observing the changeover in Tenderloin commercial sites, we’re forced to conclude that since gentrification has no meaning here, whatever re-appears in those storefronts is fine. No problem. Just fill them up. With whomever. Disregard whether or not they’re truly neighborhood-serving. Let it slide. Brighten things up. Make it prettier. Make it smell better. Just end the long scourge of disinvestment. Implore them and they will come appears to be the mantra. And indeed they have, as we’ve seen.

I’m not talking about someone like Roy Choi. As Choi launches his Loco’l restaurant and competes head-to-head against the fast food chains at their price point and with superior food, he’ll provide even the lowest-income Tenderloin resident the chance for a once or twice a month celebratory meal in a setting graciously unlike the usual sterility of a fast-food venue. That bequeathing of dignity would understandably come naturally to Choi. He grew up in environments like the ’Loin, and he’s evidently here to give back. Of even greater import, the cooking school he’ll be incorporating into the operation offers the prospect that those kids will emerge from those lessons and carry their dreams back into the neighborhood, dedicated to what their own storefronts could deliver: dispensing quality food, creating wealth but remaining conscious of the necessity for affordability and scale, hiring from the neighborhood and drawing strength from the history, tradition and inherent generosity of the people of these long-suffering 33 city blocks.

I see almost none of that sort of gesture from this batch of recent newcomers to the commerce of the district. What has been conspicuously in evidence instead are the attitudes of proprietors who’ve previously made their mark elsewhere, to considerable acclaim and monetary gain, and who feel impelled to push the envelope. In the context of their presence in the Tenderloin, they face off against a community with negligible disposable income, folks who will never be able to enter their premises and taste their food, but who will look on from the outside, observing the kicky rituals of slumming and voyeurism, self-promoting upscale self-absorption versus “ the other,” locked in a potentially endless, odious and poisonous Dickensian embrace.

Let this stuff continue and flourish and any notions and exquisitely calibrated official schematics we may have about ameliorating the Tenderloin’s longstanding and persistent problems will remain a pipe dream. Count on it.

* * * *

So what might the remedies be, becomes the question. For starters, a re-visiting of our CAP artists at their humming Saratoga space seems to be in order (we’ll speak of that as a reality since it’s so eminently well-deserved). The aspects of their orientation — hiring from within the Tenderloin, co-op/collective profit sharing, eco-friendly production, and collaborative and mutually supportive business contacts throughout the district — provide us a model for small business development that’s proactive, “paintbrush ready,” and enthusiastic.

As I read the brochure-resplendent Strategic plan, it comes across as dense with detail, its abundant listings of resources often overlapping and duplicative among the fiefdoms within the bureaucracy and its external partners. The word “action” is peppered throughout the document, but its application tends almost totally to safety and beautification projects, and low-income resourcing. Although economic development is dubbed “a priority,” the impression you get is of a strategy limited to city and community groups competing with each other, each with their own job-search information and procedures and little else.

The overall effect in terms of small business creation in the Tenderloin is, unfortunately, one of supplication: as if waiting, sitting back, relying on someone to approach you could possibly prove to be successful. As you read the data on the commercial vacancy rate, the nub of the issue becomes clear and glaring: vacancies in the Tenderloin have plummeted from 21% to 4% during the past four years, and only slightly more than 100 remain. Yes, it’s all about infrastructure and infill and who controls it; and that fact will largely determine the economic future of the Tenderloin.

Fortunately, as was noted earlier with our CAP artists, ample resources are at hand to intercede and address the problem. In this case, Mayor Lee himself can be expected to step nimbly to the fore. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to us; the mayor’s raft of programs and proposals dealing with neighborhood investment and the revival of manufacturing should have furnished the necessary clues.

In preparing to address the situation in the Tenderloin, one can imagine the mayor sitting down for a long chat with, say, Willie Brown. I can almost hear it now: “Willie, I have a job for you, if you’re interested. It’s a big job, one of the toughest the city’s ever faced, and I think you’re the man who can get it done. First, you’ll need to change your last name from Brown to Loman, because you’ll be going door to door in the Tenderloin, on a ‘shave and a shoeshine’, and you’ll also be carrying authorization from the city and its partners to ask building owners down there how much they want for their properties. If I could, I’d give you permission to whip out a checkbook and cut deals right on the spot. … You’re laughing. You like the Loman thing, don’t you. Yeah, it’s funny, but to do it right that’s the way it has to be done. Mixing that approach with the fact that you’re well known, should get us results. You’ll need to concentrate on the largest commercial buildings. Auto repair shops and garages, for instance. We don’t want to see a former repair shop ever again become a holistic spa, like what happened on Eddy St. last year. Any workers that are displaced, we’ll find jobs for them, with no loss in salary, and we’ll do it immediately. And I’m certainly not forgetting those 100 or so remaining rental vacancies down there. Of course we want them, that’s the primary objective; every last one of those leases if it’s humanly possible, with or without the buildings that go along with them. We want to make the infrastructure of the Tenderloin ours. It’s that simple. Secure it. Hold it. Make sure it only goes to companies that are right for the community. Create a one-stop intake process and invite businesses to make their pitch. Stipulate that what goes into these storefronts has a workforce drawn from the Tenderloin. Seek out the wealth of hidden talent there and enable it to prosper. Market that. Brand it. Maybe call it ‘Tenderloin Industries: living, working, producing, spending — right here’. I recently created a Small Sites Acquisition Program to protect endangered housing. Now, I want a Work Sites Protection Program to protect the Tenderloin. … So there you have it, Willie. It won’t be easy to save this neighborhood, but I’ll just assume you’re in. Keep your head up down there. I know you’ll keep your hat on.”

I must say, in hearing this from Mayor Lee I would seriously have to consider voting for the man. I mean, the misgivings I had about the city’s willingness to delve into the deep recesses of the Tenderloin now seem so … so incredibly wrongheaded. What could I possibly have been thinking?

* * * *

Let me finish up here by mentioning a couple of young men who represent the sort of entrepreneurs Mayor Lee’s budding economic development intake-system should be on the lookout for.

Justin Aguinaldo is a bike builder. From 2010 to 2012 he operated the Bamboo Bike Shop in the Tenderloin, conducting classes for people who wanted to build their own bikes, until the company’s N.Y. office began to cut costs and decided that the SF shop was expendable.

While he was still in business, Aguinaldo briefly traveled to Ghana with his two N.Y. partners to train bike builders and oversee the construction of a bike factory. That factory, run by the Ghanaians, produced 20,000 bikes the following year.

Now back in the city, he’s interested in bicycle production in the Tenderloin again. He has since sourced a superior type of bamboo that he will use in his 16-lb. single-speed basic model. “These bikes are as strong as steel and will last forever,” he says.

Aguinaldo is looking for 7,000 to 8,000 sq. ft. of space, and at a two-shift full-production run could accommodate some 30 builders and an undetermined number of marketing, HR and accounting personnel. He would hire from the Tenderloin, operate as a cooperative, and utilize environmentally friendly production techniques. He will also include a bike-building shop in the factory for low-income locals who can’t afford to purchase a bike, providing them access to tools and materials and some initial supervision.

He says he can train someone to be basically proficient in two weeks and two frames, and can train a pro in one month or four to six frames.

Julian Dash is the owner of Holy Stitch, an apparel business in the Tenderloin. He specializes in denim and wants to expand his production run. He’s looking for around 8,000 sq. ft. in the area and anticipates that in time he can employ 50-75 people in a profit-sharing arrangement and turn out 150 pairs of jeans a day. His factory will be a seed-to-finished-product operation, and he has recently sourced his own cotton supply in Sonoma.

He holds jeans-making classes for neighborhood residents — “social entrepreneurship” he terms it — and conducts them as both on-the-job training for his employees, and general skills workshops for those just entering he workforce. Kids in the neighborhood who can’t afford to buy a pair of his jeans, can come in and make them themselves.

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Danger as ambience: The gang over at Spruce want to take a walk on the wild side (among other items we might want to take a long look at).

The Bacchus Group’s flagship restaurant, Spruce, considerably burnished its Michelin star rating when it hosted President Obama in February. It joined with Chez Panisse, La Folie, Great Eastern Restaurant and the now-closed Hawthorne Lane in the pantheon of local eateries that have served recent U.S. presidents. Obama was cosseted in Spruce’s Laurel Room, which rents for a minimum of $3,000, and dined seated on a faux ostrich chair against a backdrop of chocolate mohair walls. To be sure, such soothing fixtures are thoughtful managerial gestures for salving the rigors of wading through a wine list of 90-plus pages and 2500 selections.

Spruce is set to bring its latest iteration to the Tenderloin corner of Post and Larkin. Scheduled to open this fall, the Saratoga will occupy 4,200 square feet on two floors and be the sixth Bacchus restaurant property. It takes its name from the building that houses it, a former hotel and SRO that has been extensively renovated. Owner Neveo Mosser, a landlord whose notoriety long precedes him, was sued by the city in 2002 for failure to pay back taxes and for practicing “musical rooms,” where landlords move tenants to a different room every 28 days in order to deny them permanent-tenant status. Mosser is also offering two ground floor storefronts flanking the Saratoga site, priced respectively at $7,500 and $7,750. Both come with triple-net leases, requiring tenants to assume all the building’s taxes, insurance and maintenance.

Another recent Mosser-owned renovation is 57 Taylor, which corners at Turk. An online brochure describes the location as “the explosively transitional tech driven Mid-Market area.” A row of spanking-new storefronts gird the building, one of which has been leased to restaurateurs Daniel Patterson (Coi) and Roy Choi of L.A. truck food fame. Their 3,200 square foot space will be called Loco’l.

Surveying the present-day churn of the Tenderloin, Mosser has remarked, “This is what Brooklyn looked like 10 years ago.” Presumably he’s referring to the borough’s northern neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Lefferts Gardens and Gowanus, storied immigrant districts whose generations of inhabitants worked at livable wages in its factories and warehouses and who could manage a mortgage on one salary. Today, Williamsburg is all but unrecognizable in a welter of theme-park gentrification, with the $269 per square foot costs of home ownership 10 years ago having risen to $1,160. Meanwhile, its mean rent for a studio has become $200 higher than a comparable unit in Greenwich Village. Apparently Mosser views this trend as a good future fit for San Francisco, and for the Tenderloin specifically. Enticing three high-profile restaurant organizations to grace his commercial premises has doubtless markedly enhanced the value and desirability of his buildings.

Spruce’s Executive Chef, Mark Sullivan, set the tone for the Bacchus move to the ’Loin in an interview with 7×7: “Sure it’s a tough neighborhood, but there’s something exciting brewing around here.” Assuredly, it’s a far cry from the decidedly more apt locales the group has utilized: outer Sacramento St., Union St., and Woodside, among others.

The incongruity of founder and managing partner Tim Stannard ferrying his group’s food and beverage lineage into the Tenderloin provides cause for concern, to say the very least. It’s rather sad that the sort of professional, financial and social cachet he has achieved is somehow personally insufficient. We might have expected some deeper consideration from the son of an academic, an American Studies graduate of Cal, and more pertinently, a San Francisco native, something along the lines of: Is this move really appropriate? Appropriate these days, in these times, and in this city, in particular?

Apparently, those questions are moot. In the restaurant industry’s preoccupation with newness, competition and acclaim, an endless subservience to “concept” holds sway. The gambit, the action, the wager, rule the day. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the novelty of an “edgy” and “gritty” Tenderloin stage-set would prove to be so very appealing for a new venture.

The surrounding proscenium for this drama is, of course, globalism’s hollowing-out of American cities in the neoliberal quest for the planet’s cheapest labor. As an ironic corollary, the overclass eventually seeks to reclaim the urban core it had abandoned, embarking on a journey to “tame” the “wilderness” and recast it in its own image and likeness.

As the SF version of this menacing urban wilderness witnesses the arrival of Bacchus’ Saratoga incarnation, we can expect that the group’s hefty vitae of cuisine and terroir will furnish a scintillating added component for it’s faithful customer base.

The Saratoga’s broad expanse of windows will afford diners a superb view of the transgender prostitutes shuttling between the Divas nightclub a block west on Post, and the west side of Larkin, where they work the street from Post to Bush and the alleys in-between. In similar fashion their johns can be glimpsed in their slow nightly circling route along Sutter, Polk and Post. The straight-shot panorama down Larkin reveals homeless men and women bunched against the walls on both sides of the street and the in-your-face-rawness tableau of the Hartland Hotel corner at Geary. Had the Saratoga been in operation earlier this month, its view would have included someone attempting to murder a homeless man in front of the hotel. It appears that for patrons who may be in keen anticipation at the prospect, the distinguished fare produced in Mark Sullivan’s kitchen will soon be accompanied with a side of ecstatic titillation and presented on a bed of delightful mayhem.

Clearly the Saratoga customer demographic is not one to stroll these streets and arrive as walk-ins, and it’s a fairly safe bet they won’t be waiting on a MUNI ride from their nearest Presidio Heights stop. Nor will they drive their own vehicles and chance having to leave them parked in the neighborhood, even if they’re daring enough to walk the remainder of the way. Taxis become the option, and that presents a significant problem in itself.

The Post and Larkin cross streets are both three-lane and one-way, east and north respectively. These are major arteries and the flow is voluminous and rapid (read: habitual speeding). The Saratoga will be open from midmorning every day for 12 to 14 hours. Loading and unloading passengers on either side of this corner will demand the utmost caution, and would seemingly necessitate that a number of parking spaces on both streets be removed in order to alleviate cabs double parking and possibly obstructing the intersection as they queue. Even if valet service could make the process somewhat more efficient and less hazardous, available garages are many blocks away, close early, and make retrieving cars too time-consuming. Looking ahead, as the Polk St. bikeway and the Sutter Health hospital project on Van Ness commence, traffic on Post and Larkin will expand accordingly, as will safety concerns.

With Bacchus’ February confirmation of its plans, Inside Scoop’s Paolo Lucchesi breathlessly exhorted his readers to “file this one away as a potential blockbuster.”

Blockbuster, indeed.

What we see reflected in the Saratoga deal, in short, is a frightening abuse of scale and proportion, and a project that will conclusively cement the gentrification of upper Larkin St.

Over the past nine months the block of Larkin between Post and Sutter has undergone complete displacement. The Mr. Holmes Bakehouse and two side-by-side art galleries have already opened. They await the renting of the former chiropractic office at the top of the block ($5,000 monthly) and the two high-end storefronts flanking the Saratoga site.

The Saratoga buries the final nail into the lid. The north-south pincer onslaught against the entirety of Larkin St. has begun.

The Tenderloin Economic Development Project’s Anh Nguyen has been tracking the displacement numbers throughout the Tenderloin. Within the past year, 10 commercial businesses in lower Larkin’s Little Saigon have closed or are in danger of closing. The showpiece district that defined and celebrated the immigrant/refugee experience now finds itself in jeopardy. And the traditional welcoming of arrivals bent on forging a life that’s always been the Tenderloin at its best, withers by the day.

This fall, amidst the swirl of the grand opening of the Saratoga, when that esteemed gathering peers out those wide windows, the question isn’t what they might see, but what if anything they might feel.

(First of two parts)

Appeals to the Board of Supervisors about whether this project is “necessary or desirable to the neighborhood” remain open thru Monday, April 20 (415-554-5184).

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All the branding and Brandons you could imagine

“Attention to detail” is the way KNBR’s Ray Woodson recently summarized the 2014 Giants’ success. GM Brian Sabean’s off-season implanting of his wish list was precise and customarily budget-conscious. He got the big bat, the quality starter, and a second baseman who could possibly offset the absence of Marco Scutaro.

The Giants’ marketing department under senior vice president Tom McDonald appears to be seeking similar long-ball impact this season. Their output is rife with all manner of hammy promos, utilizing the team’s playfulness and abundant camaraderie.

What’s lacking in the marketing effort, perhaps, is the sort of precision that marks the care that went into shaping the current on-field product.

So, let’s see what we can come up with to illustrate that discrepancy. Clearly, team nicknames are the place to start. A number of players have had nicknames conferred upon them; a couple of those names are spot-on, others aren’t particularly exacting or are outright clumsy. Indulge me as I hit away here.

  • Brandon Crawford — This young man’s instincts and creativity are unsurpassed. And with his hitting he’s fast becoming an all-tools performer (as he’s always insisted to the faint of heart that he would). But it’s his glove work, of course, that has continually roused our amazement. It shouldn’t be the slightest bit difficult to award him an appropriate sobriquet. A convenient clue is that his given name could be easily mistaken for that of veteran actor Broderick Crawford. And there you have it. Brandon is HIGHWAY PATROL. And you can 10-4 that.
  • Hunter Pence — Post-2012, references to Pence as “preacher” were to be expected. After all, this is the evangelist who was miraculously instrumental in parting the waters for the Giants in the most perilous skein of games most of us have ever witnessed. The aquiline features and lean, kinetic fervor perpetually on display from Pence eerily brings to mind another renowned revivalist. You watch the respective footage on these two originals, and the resemblance is uncanny. Hunter Pence is MARJOE GORTNER.
  • Hector Sanchez — The league has become aware of Hector Sanchez. He’s no longer thought of as a defensive liability, and his switch-hitting ability off the bench has been duly noted. His bourgeoning talent is clearly in evidence, and opponents regard him as a significant threat at the plate, as his late-inning pinch-hit heroics this year have attested. Echoes of Bengie (“Big Money”) Molina shouldn’t be thought of as premature with regard to Sanchez. And there isn’t a more positive attitude on the club than his. It would be a surprise if he doesn’t fully live up to his nickname, LATE NIGHT (with Hector Sanchez).
  • Sergio Romo — What you first notice is an aura of menace. Of something subterranean and sinister, yet evasive and cautious. The pulled-down cap obscures the eyebrows and makes the eyes appear to recede back into the skull. The thick brush of facial hair rolls upward into the face. And then the movement begins: hunching, fidgeting, darting, stamping. The effect is            that of a many-legged land crab, calculating and furtive, seeking the terrain’s best vantage point. Once positioned, there’s a price to be paid for confronting this creature. It’s stinging and it’s lethal. There’s a Spanish word for what Sergio Romo embodies — “alacran.” And it translates as SCORPION. (Thanks to my long-time colleague Betsey Culp for this idea.)
  • Joaquin Arias — You’ll never see Arias shuttling back and forth to Fresno. That’s because he’s invaluable. This is the most versatile player on the team, adept at all infield positions, and someone who came up in the Yankees system as an outfielder. He’s confident, calm, reliable, with superb athletic skills. Few bench players hit consistently when they don’t get regular at-bats, but Arias has proven that he can be productive. There are plenty of other teams that would love to have him, because THE HANDYMAN can.
  • Angel Pagan — No historical figures or comic book superheroes are adequate here. Nor do any zoo identifications make for a fit. Something else is going on here with Pagan, more like a force field, if you will, a zeitgeist of sorts. That’s what the man brings to his endeavors. And the simplest way to characterize this phenomena is to attempt to infer its essence: PAGANISMO!!
  • Madison Bumgarner — Calling him MadBum doesn’t seem terribly inventive. His formidable skills, approach and maturity already evoke intimations of a legend. Given his arm slot, his whip-like delivery, and the slicing trajectory of his pitches, you could conclude that a name that better typifies him would be something along the lines of SLINGBLADE.
  • The Willie Mays Wall — It’s of passing interest that before anyone went and named any outfield walls after Mays, no one happened to notice during the past 15 seasons the small pocket just beyond the fence in straightaway center. Had they, might the words and notion, MAYS’S BASKET, have sprung to mind?
  • As McDonald expands his promotional inspirations he could surely make use of manager Bruce Bochy. The skipper, as we know, has become quite practiced and proficient in giving commercial endorsements. Certainly the developing motif of this season deserves to be properly addressed. The spot might have Bochy hunched forward and peering intently over the dugout railing as he intones: “Bottom of the ninth. They’re ahead. They’ve got two outs on us. The poor bastards.”
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America, they’re panting for you

There’s a hallowed homespun admonition known to many across the American landscape, that cautions against ever buying anything from a man who’s out of breath.

In these final hours before the election, as the candidates’ words gush forth in gasping, 11th-hour paroxysms of beseeching and vituperation, we can finally pause and take stock of the extent to which these past 18 months measure up on the ledger of political repulsiveness.

And where in fact do we find ourselves? Well, we’ve clearly witnessed the spectacle of two of the biggest chameleons in the history of U.S. presidential politics. Both of whom are unsurpassed at turning on a dime on matters of principle, and who exhibit, as well, an uncanny ability to marinate in total denial about it.

In short, what we’ve witnessed in highest focus resolution is the ludicrous pageant of a pair of Rockefeller/Javits/Hatfield/Bill Scranton Republicans strenuously avoiding being tagged with that label.

The abysmal Mitt Romney’s rightward trek has of course had the effect of giving rank expediency a bad name, and his shift back to the center has likely come too late to save the day. I suspect that his handlers at some point realized the efficacy of the old political maxim, In a race between two Republicans, vote for the real Republican. Had Romney subtly eased into that moderate posture a little earlier, with a willingness to trumpet his gubernatorial vitae, most of the perceived discrepancies between his and Obama’s policies would have been rendered moot, and possibly to Romney’s advantage, as their first debate suggests.

Alternately, the sad spectacle of Obama trying to keep intact his base has had him attempting to rejigger the bountiful notions of “change” he formerly proffered to his adoring flock in the days before they began shaking their heads in mass dismay, or went off to the Occupy sites, shamed by the manner in which they’d been taken in and played. The degree to which those kids now despise him is impossible to miss in the frenzied whirl of Obama’s countdown campaigning, and the campaign slogan “Forward” looks like a reflection of that concern. It feels as if it was tacked on late at night when no one was around, and forward was just another word for nothing left to lose.

Bill Clinton’s riding to Obama’s rescue should come as no surprise. There’s an obligatory continuum to their relationship, born of Clinton’s ego, his titular leadership of the Democratic Party, his squiring of Hillary’s 2016 presidential prospects, and his recognition that Obama is the second link in the chain of the Clintonian methodology. However much their pitched squabbling in the past might still have Clinton believing that Obama is a mere acolyte by comparison, it matters little at crunch time.

Writing about the 2008 campaign on the eve of that election, I was certain that the basic thrust of Obama’s governing style would be a rehash of Clinton’s. And that, along with the impression I got years earlier that Obama bore a welter of familial personal conflicts he had yet to remedy, defined him for me.

My sense of him was immediate. I also once worked as a community organizer in the inner city, and perhaps that has afforded me some added perspective. I glimpsed a mix of things in Obama: a carefully constructed public persona, a marked hint of dilettantishness, the incipient signals of a grifter, an unsettling aura of vindictiveness, and an ongoing undercurrent of smugness and dismissiveness. He struck me as a bright, driven young man who over the years had become quite adept at manipulating white liberals, and who well knew how consummately good he was at it.

My unease about Obama was pronounced. Indeed, I’d not felt as much trepidation about any other presidential candidate, and I had seen them all, stretching back to the 1950s. Those others were either predictably forthright, or yielded reliable-enough clues as to who they were, and even in the instances when any of them chose to utilize the “run to the left in the campaign, then govern from the center” approach, the process was nuanced and detectable. In Obama’s case, his campaign took its prompts from his fabled 2004 Democratic Convention speech and never stopped building upon it.

The overheated rhetoric was obviously the foundation of his candidacy. At turns gauzy, condemnatory, trite (“the road is long, the climb is steep”), soaringly histrionic and inconceivably promissory, it proceeded to massively woo enraptured, weepy, often delirious youthful adulation that would roll into Iowa, overwhelm the caucus primary and be the key to Obama securing the nomination.

I found it all incredibly chilling. My take on Obama’s speechifying was that it resembled an endless valedictorian address, and as the crowds grew and became even more transported, to watch Obama summarily double-down on the gait, the bounce, the patter and the repertoire of an arena-rock celebrity, was to behold a willful puppetry that was scarifying in its implications.

Many of us to the left of Obama had no problem assigning cult status to his campaign. And that opinion was confirmed in June of 2008 when Obama suddenly and blatantly veered rightward on a dozen of his positions without any significant protestations from his followers or any attempt at accountability from the candidate himself. At that point the real Obama was on view for anyone who cared to look.

To be sure, the Republican right wing, for one, happened to be looking.  And they saw the same thing the left did: Scratch a neoliberal Democrat and you get a Republican moderate. Having essentially dispensed with its moderates in a putsch that began with eliminating the mid-1970s Nixon détente mindset, the Republican right realized they had Obama over a barrel and they knew they could squeeze him. Sure, they all concurred, Obama could impersonate a lefty on the hustings, but he don’t fool us. Obama could now only maneuver further to the right. And they could gradually pull him in that direction and chortle as his befuddled base of liberal faithful, ever-laden with the fulsome remnants of their hero’s pretty verbiage, began to awaken to reality.

There’s been much made of the “Chicago style” of the Obama White House, in particular the hog-butchering power-politics mode of a Rahm Emanuel. I would presume that the Republicans actually had another aspect of the city’s style in mind in appraising Obama: specifically the stuffed envelope slid deftly across a tabletop. It’s known as The Combine in Chicago, a thoroughly bipartisan arrangement the city’s political machine uses to ensure the utmost municipal efficiency.  Appropriately, Republican opposition research surely delved into Obama’s connections with people like slumlord Tony Rezko in order to gain a more textured portrait of the new president. So, evidently, I’ve not been mistaken in recent years in thinking I’ve been hearing a tiny, squeaky undertone emanating from Obama: “C’mon, fellas, why so difficult? Can’t you see how much alike we are?” Obama, in short, has long been groomed to deal.

Apparently we’ve come quite a ways since Newt Gingrich evaluated Bill Clinton’s brand of triangulating with the succinct statement, “Let’s allow him to take the credit for advancing our agenda.” Such civility has yet to be extended to Obama, as the Republicans continue to enjoy toying with him, but that could soon change. The post-election grand bargain that Obama has already offered to negotiate appears to be imminent. In jeopardy are the foundational basics of the social safety net. The consensus on the left is that once that deal occurs Obama will jettison any remaining opposition within his ranks. Anyone who has carefully looked at Obama’s track record can’t help but conclude that he has always regarded people as useful up until the point that they are no longer of any use.

The rancor between respective wings of the permanent government borders on the absurd. Dick Cheney periodically reaffirms his belief that Obama is keeping George W. Bush’s legacy intact. Others among the right wing’s coterie have no qualms with Obama’s drones blowing apart children as they sleep in their beds. Nor is the right fazed by the multiple ways in which constitutional guarantees are undergoing evisceration. One might readily surmise that Obama’s “opponents” would find great solace in Obama’s having abandoned or reneged on two-thirds of his promises (including all of the major planks in the 2008 Democratic platform), thus helping to erode the blind faith the party’s Obambots retain for what may evolve into a politically-isolated presidency. Similarly, Obama’s silence on climate change (that will be changing post-Andrew, you’re convinced?), his backing down on a host of other environmental issues, his mania for corporatizing education, and his undercutting of organized labor at every turn, are seemingly the sort of things that dreams are made of for those situated across the political aisle.

Assuming an Obama victory, were the Republicans to finally reciprocate with a circa-1995 Gingrich-like welcoming overture to Obama, where does that leave those who place themselves outside duopoly politics? Progressive policies have been set back decades by Obama, and the specter and certainty of him tutored and governing via retro Clintonian dialectics affords us no choice but to step outside the system irrevocably. Five percent of the vote certifies third parties for future federal matching funds, so there’s no reason a ballot should not be cast accordingly, and in swing states as well. We’re perilously close to that precipice in America that Gore Vidal described, only half-jokingly, as a one-party state with two right wings. There’s simply no longer any “lesser” in the considerations of the “lesser evil” that marked our past electoral choices.

Forward, indeed.

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Regaining the title

Barack Obama has weighed-in for his rematch with the country’s destiny. He spent last week brashly declaring his eagerness to fight for the public, but last night ditched the verbal haymakers for speed-bag lingo intended to merely nick and pile up points on the scorecards. Ringside wise guys will tell you today that as this putative champ of the American people prances through the political apron ropes, it appears any bit of fight he ever had in him may have been left back in the law library, and he’d be wise to listen for the bell to sound, because it’s maybe tolling for him.

Would that we still had the likes of old masters such as W.C. Heinz, Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon around to relieve me of having to pitifully channel an imitation of their post-fight newspaper ledes. But the president’s bite-sizing, tidbit-for-everyone State of the Union performance seemed to demand a reminder of the sort of elements that comprised their columns: no-nonsense, dramatic, florid, empathetic, streetwise, wry, and often unselfconsciously sentimental. Think of it, if you wish, as an example of the frank but kindly working-class language and attitudes of the 1930s through the ’50s; you know, a harbinger of the populism-with-real-teeth that you might have been anticipating Obama’s SOTU address would finally introduce, although he did pointedly extol the virtue of “common sense” and decry Washington’s “deficit of trust,” without the slightest irony, to be sure.

There’ll be more than enough criticism along these lines to wade through, and plenty still of the unaccountably fawning variety, too. So let’s talk instead about a real fighter, in deed as well as spirit, a professional whose work we can commemorate on the anniversary of his — to my mind, anyway — greatest fight. Of Muhammad Ali’s three tiffs with Joe Frazier, the 1st and 3d are usually mentioned. But on January 28, 1974, in a 12-round bout someone has termed The Ugly Middle Sister, Ali and Frazier met for the second time. Frazier had lost the title to George Foreman in humiliating fashion; and Ali, coming off two physically arduous and damaging fights with the troublesome stylist, Ken Norton, was at the lowest psychological state of his career, worse than even the period when he was barred from boxing for refusing to cooperate with the military draft.

Ali had avenged a loss to Norton and defeated him in the second fight. But he was unhappy with his performance and for the first time had begun questioning his ring skills — to the point that he seriously considered calling off the Frazier match. He had fought 13 times since reemerging after 44 months of disbarment, and had lost only to Norton. What ultimately propelled him to proceed against Frazier — apart from having been defeated by him in their fabled first encounter — was the obvious fact that it was necessary in order to get a shot at Foreman’s title.

The second Frazier fight, and not his return after his suspension, marked the actual beginning of the second half of Ali’s career. Despite the layoff, Ali was only 28 when he re-emerged in 1970, and had never been seriously hurt. Joe Louis, for example, lost more than four years to WWII and then successfully defended his title four times. It was the damage inflicted by Norton in their two meetings — a broken jaw and a severely sprained right hand, added to the many hits he took— that accentuated the accumulating years for Ali and provided him his initial sense of ring mortality. At his training camp a despondent Ali remarked to a visitor, “You see any people around here? People don’t hang out with losers.”

And yet he trained hard for Frazier and was in shape. The dancing master was in evidence through the first half of the fight, on his toes, circling, sticking and floating. The judges’ cards had him winning four or five of the first six rounds. In the sixth Frazier began scoring with hooks, started verbally taunting and gesturing toward Ali, and only barely lost the round when Ali closed with a spirited last-second effort.

The next two rounds were all Frazier: bobbing, ducking, swarming with incessant headlong rushes, his hooks were landing with staccato thuds. The pressure was relentless, and Ali, now no longer dancing but retreating to the ropes, must have been revisiting the last Norton battle and the way in which he had slowed in the middle rounds and Norton had pursued and scored repeatedly. But there was something else about that fight that was significant, and what Ali had done next plumbed all of his natural athletic instincts and repertoire as a fighter. At the very least it was uncharacteristic of his style, and clearly a stopgap move. In the closing seconds of the final round Ali had practically ceased all movement, planted his feet and traded freely with Norton. It was effective enough to win him the decision.

So late in the eight with the momentum all Frazier’s, from the corner came shouts from Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer: “Stay there! Stay there!” Stop moving, stay in the center of the ring, plant your heels, throw the left, the right, double the combinations if you can, then tie him up. Stay. Plant. Left. Right. Double up. Clinch. Don’t back up. Don’t back up. And Ali listened; and in the ninth round literally commenced the second half of his career. The legs, which had taken him to renown, were now obviously only a part of the arsenal. The voluble, headstrong, mercurial legend with the outsize ego and his own unwavering ideas on the techniques of boxing had, in the exigencies of the situation, incorporated another skill set into the mix. With everything on the line — his pride, his fame, another title shot — all seamlessly rolled into that inimitable self-regard, in that instant he became a complete fighter. Ultimately, the best of athletes become that way because they prove to be coachable, and Ali was no exception.

The ninth, in my estimation, was as fine a single round as Ali ever fought. He went the entire three minutes essentially standing in place and punching, with Dundee continuously screaming, “Stay there!” Watching it was to witness the very best in the lineage of boxing history filtered through one man. Ali’s admitted influences had always been apparent: Gene Tunney’s timing and ability to gauge range; Ray Robinson’s hand speed and lancing jabs; Willle Pep’s incomparable evasiveness and defense. Then in the final minute of the concluding 12th Ali put it — and them— all together in spectacular fashion, landing upwards of 40 times in those 60 seconds with a furious medley of flat-footed combinations.

Styles make fights, Dundee was always fond of saying, and his guy that night sculpted a new one out of the gifts of the gene pool, all that he had learned, and his genius for improvisation. It was a vision of pure will and eclectic combativeness, physicality and prowess honed to a singular moment, without an ounce of awkwardness, and breathtaking in its precision. Perhaps it even rhymed. Long after he named himself The Greatest, Ali had gone one better, and had become the consummate journeyman.

I watched it again right after viewing the chief executive of the United States present an urgent comprehensive policy review as the equivalent of ladling out piecemeal sops to those he would continue to placate and those with whom he would curry favor. It’s worth speculating how Heinz, Smith and Cannon — chroniclers of an era of similar destitution and war  — would decipher our present circumstances. Examples of perseverance, daring, excellence, integrity, as well the lack of same, were their daily encounters, and they distilled them accordingly in their work. Boxing, with its primal attributes, could indeed be a most instructive metaphor; and the hardscrabble times in which they came up and over which they eventually prevailed, forever seared their generation. But as to how they might address Barack Obama? Well, however generous and fair-minded, they were men who wielded language that was as candid and tough as the moment required. I suspect they’d caution him to listen, really listen, listen as if everything imaginable depended on it, hear the shouts and then finally adapt, because to not do so would be to guarantee that he’d get his showboat ass handed to him.

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