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San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



February 1964

Neglected Parks
What to Do with the Fine Arts Palace?
Drug Addiction and Synanon
More on Race Relations
Symphonic Progress
Government by Celebrity
Ralph Stackpole and the Coit Tower Murals
Sex Education




Neglected Parks

San Francisco is one of the strongest Democratic cities in the country, yet for the first time in more than a generation, we have a Democratic administration in City Hall. Is this going to mean revolutionary changes in the way we’ve been doing things? Or is the massive inertia of our civic structure more powerful than any man or administration?

It is sure massive, and it is sure inert. San Franciscans are certainly amongst the world’s most self-satisfied citizens. We are so smug that we refuse to recognize that the power blocs that control the city’s policies have been deadlocked for years, and that under the protection of this deadlock both the life and the structure of The City have steadily deteriorated.

If there is going to be change, it is going to show up in tangible, physical changes. If these outward physical signs of inward conversion to a new spirit don’t appear within the next few months, it will mean that the dead hand of the long outdated power structure has prevailed again.

We don’t have a machine in San Francisco. We are untroubled by things like Tammany Hall, the Prendergast machine, the Vare machine that kept Philadelphia in the Dark Ages all of my youth, the Purple Gang, or the Organization. We are ourselves the machine.

When I sat down to write this bit, I had just been for a walk in Buena Vista Park near my home. This is one of the three parks the Blythe-Zellerbach Report suggested selling to the developers, because forsooth, nobody use it, they just looked at it. I am strong for parks for looking at. Buena Vista Park is lovely to look at. Nothing much has been done to it in many years, and it has reverted to the condition of a wooded hillside in the Coast Range.

It is in a neighborhood that needs all the recreation space it can get, yet it is close to unusable. It is dangerous. It is so thickly wooded that it is a mugger’s paradise. Weekends it is so popular with homosexuals it is almost crowded around the parking space at the top. Otherwise it is empty except for the rare brave soul walking a large dog.

I have nothing against homosexuals, I am all for the Wolfenden Report, and the Mattachine Society, and the Daughter of Bilitis, and the Quaker study of contemporary sex habits and the remarks of the Bishop of London. I am well aware that they are not sex fiends and do not attack children or exhibit themselves. But they get attacked themselves and often killed in just such places as Buena Vista Park. More important, they scare off everybody else.

I am not sure how this problem can be handled. You can’t arrest men for loitering in a public park; parks are for loitering. Nor can you arrest them for ogling each other. Anybody has a perfect right to ogle. If the police go further, they lend themselves to charges of entrapment and false arrest — cures worse than the disease.

Anyway, this is not the problem — the problem is to get the parks the Blythe-Zellerbach people considered surplus back into use. I love the bosky obscurity of Buena Vista Park, but when I walk there I carry a heavy wild cherry walking stick. I see no other way of making it useful to the community than clearing it. This would cost very little money, comparatively — although it should doubtless be gone over by a good landscape architect to prevent it from being spoiled by rash clearance.

The second largest park in the city is McLaren, off in the forgotten southeast corner of town. Have you ever visited it? Don’t bother. It is an immense wasteland and a clandestine public dump. It too is frequented by dubious characters who look as if they might do more than ogle.

I know its development depends on money which doesn’t exist. Yet it seems to me something should be done, some kind of start could be made. As it is, it is a hideous memorial to the great man who created Golden Gate Park. The neighbors are inert and show no desire for a park. It seems to me that this is an excellent argument for providing them with one. Parks are supposed to do wonders for the will-lessness and namelessness that afflict the depressed areas of great cities.

These are just suggestions of tangible, visible changes that could be initiated by City Hall. They don’t require much money, but they do require initiative. There is not a department of our city government that isn’t bristling with such opportunities. Each one is trivial in itself, but the total, if all were attacked with decisiveness, would be far more massive than that massive inertia that has held us down for so long.

[February 2, 1964]



What to Do with the Fine Arts Palace?

The music goes round and round, oh, oh, oh. It goes in here and comes out there, oh, oh, oh. I, for one, am getting tired of all this.

We are back where we started with the Fine Arts Palace. Nothing has happened except the building has continued to fall down. It is obvious we are going to have to take the whole question apart and start all over.

Let us bear in mind, when we do, a few salient points. Restoration of the complete building is prohibitively expensive. If restored, it would be useless, because it is quite impossible to provide either access or parking facilities for the crowds that would use so large a structure — even if it were an exhibition hall.

Furthermore, the building is so shaped that it is almost impossible to invent uses for it. It is thoroughly impractical for any imaginable purpose.

The dome and rotunda, however, have great charm and are amongst the finest relics of a fleeting period in the development of modern art, which are exceedingly scarce anywhere. The cubist-classicist international style that came after this period was the direct opposite in taste and most buildings of this sort have long since been torn down as old fashioned.

Preserving the Fine Arts rotunda is comparable on a minor scale to preserving Gaudi’s Church of the Holy Family, now once more the proudest possession of the City of Barcelona. The peculiarly bent barn behind the rotunda we are not going to know what to do with if we do save it.

And once again we are on the merry-go-round of height limitations along the waterfront, and the 16-1 height-to-site ration for office buildings. Roger Boas is to be commended for throwing these issues back into the Board of Supervisors. We have got to get a clear ruling that will stick legally pretty soon. As it is we are deadlocked and The City continues to deteriorate.

I am all for the strictest and lowest limits myself. San Francisco is, as a whole, the extremely valuable piece of real estate it is because of the unmatched mingling of hills and water and sky — vistas down hundreds of streets like none anywhere else in the world. If these are destroyed by speculators, the goose that laid the golden eggs will be dead and the permanent, non-speculative investment in the town will be lost.

There is one place where I think most planning suggestions have been ill advised. Why keep Chinatown as it is? It is a slum with fake curlicue eaves and green tile false fronts. It is emphatically NOT Chinese architecture.

Why not tear it all down and start over with the finest buildings in China as models? The Chinese Americans of San Francisco are not creatures in a zoo and they have a right to decent housing, a right to demolish buildings that are ideal dwellings indeed, but for rats and TB bacilli, not for humans.

[An exhibition of the paintings of Kenneth Rexroth is now on display at the Peacock Gallery, 1906 Union St.]

[February 5, 1964]



Drug Addiction and Synanon

It is always a great pleasure to meet someone who is doing what he wants to do and who believes in his work passionately.

Bill Crawford, who has come to San Francisco to establish a Synanon House, is such a man, dedicated and enthusiastic. Furthermore, he is a genius at human relations. Not only can he lead a house full of people who have been insoluble behavior problems both to themselves and to others, but he has rounded up wholesale support, much of it as enthusiastic as he is, from the city’s elite.

This is no small accomplishment, because Synanon is concerned with drug addiction, a subject most people prefer to keep swept under the rug.

If there is one thing we have found out after years of trying every sort of approach, it has been that the problem of drug addiction in America has remained insoluble. Upon retiring from his job as head of the country’s largest “rehabilitation” center, one of the leading administrators of our anti-narcotics program once said, “All we have found out about drug addicts after spending billions is that they shoot dope, they lie, and they like candy.”

For a generation, we have had a ruthless, punitive policy, federally and locally. It has not worked at all. It has simply made the narcotics traffic immensely profitable, and it has created what the sociologists call a drug addiction subculture. Ever wider circles of youth are being drawn into a way of life based on drugs. Whether he takes drugs or not, the Beatnik, the hipster, the stereotyped voluntary outcast now so common in our society, patterns his behavior on the addict and borrows the special language of addict society.

I am personally a very strong advocate of decriminalizing addiction. I feel that before we can get anywhere we have to get the problem out of the hands of the police and into the hands of doctors. Dope has spread so rapidly in America since the last war because it has become big business. It has become one of the most important causes of crime because, being illegal, it is so expensive. It costs around $100 a day to support a first-class heroin habit and few people can do that with honest money.

The American Medical Association and the American Bar Association spent a lot of money to work up a joint report a few years ago. It is published by the University of Indiana Press and I advise everybody interested in the problem to read it. There are two titles, Drug Addiction: Crime or Disease? and Narcotic Addiction in Britain and America. There also is a new book coming up, The Road to H (Basic Books), a comprehensive study of a selected sample of young addicts in New York.

Until the addict has been pulled out of the underworld and put in a clinic, and until the big-time merchants of death who exploit him have been locked up, we will not have even faced the problem.

Meanwhile, a voluntary activity like Synanon has not only faced, but has begun to solve the problem. In America, at least, addiction is a kind of epidemic of social sickness. Our problem is the ever-growing subculture of the outraged and alienated, the people whose basic response to society is resentment, truculence or defiance — what the books call the addiction-prone personality.

Neither doctors nor police can cure this illness, only the patient himself. The essence of the enduring cure of addiction is that it must be voluntary. In all our billion-dollar narcotics control activities, this has been the one element lacking. The addict is or has always been under coercion, either locked up or threatened with being locked up. This is the reason we know so little about him — we put him in a position where he feels he has to lie.

When you come to a Synanon House you come of your own free will. Usually you have to wait, because there aren’t enough accommodations to go around. Once you have been accepted, you are part of a community who have been through everything you have. They understand you. You can hide nothing from them because they have nothing to hide. You are met with understanding, not myths, neither the myths of the squares, nor the hippies, nor the Narcotics Bureau, nor the sociologists.

It is extraordinary how well this kind of mutual aid works. It is not 100-percent effective. There are still lapses, but there are incomparably fewer than any other method can show . . . in fact, our expensive plants at Fort Worth and Lexington are almost totally ineffective. All but a tiny handful of their discharged patients return to drugs, most of them as soon as they possibly can.

For hundreds and hundreds, Synanon has not only broken the habit, it has thrown it away for good. And this hasn’t cost the taxpayers a cent. The dope fiends have done it all themselves. Which points the moral that just possibly mutual aid might be the solution to any number of other insoluble problems besetting the human race.

[February 9, 1964]



More on Race Relations

The race problem is still with us. I don’t like to write about it nowadays very much, simply because everybody else is. A few years back hardly anyone was and I felt my voice was needed. Now it seems as if everything has been said a thousand times. Still, some recent events have prompted me to speak up once more.

First, the National Conference of Christians and Jews gave a plaque and an award of merit to my friend Police Lieutenant Andreotti for the work he has been doing in his human relations detail. The remarkable thing about this activity is that it is not just a safety valve to take pressure off the cops — it’s an ethically active outfit that really tries to do something positive and practical about interracial conflict.

That is the only way any change that means anything to people personally is ever going to come about — by doing concrete things, detail by detail, at the grass roots. Race relations is just an abstraction. What is real is each single relationship between one human being and another. If that relationship is fouled up, it isn’t going to be changed by the NAACP, it is finally going to be changed by an awakening of conscience and a resulting change in concrete action in persons — each a separate, unique, never to be repeated individual.

If the police force has to take the lead in this kind of action, so be it, and more power to them.

The Western Addition District Council has embarked on a whole battery of projects aimed at the heart of the problem. We have hundreds of youngsters in our schools who are not part of our society. They are completely unprepared to take advantage of the opportunities that already exist, simply because they cannot find their way around in a 20th-century Northern city.

Some friends of mine are busy with a drama demonstration project, organizing youngsters into dramatic activities that will give meaning to their school work and their lives generally. Others are busy with a cultural enrichment program, taking junior high school kids to shows, museums, the zoo, factories, TV and radio stations, teaching them the ropes of contemporary opportunity.

The greatest need in this field is the concern of the Negro middle class, the talented tenth who have escaped from the limbo of the deprived and who are none too anxious to return to it.

Last Sunday Mrs. Rosa Gragg, president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, spoke on the Negro women who have contributed to American progress. Many of these women were friends of my mother’s — Mary Church Terrell, Ida Wells-Barnett, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin — they were Negro leaders, yes, but they were primarily leaders for women’s rights, against child labor, for political reform, for increased freedom and opportunity generally. As a child I was never aware that they were any different from any of my mother’s feminist friends.

When I listened the week before to James Baldwin unload his personal problems onto the backs of the race from which he has come I was immeasurably saddened. Nothing is going to be accomplished by making truculence chic. Baldwin says, “White man, you can never know me.” Maybe so, but if so, there will never be an answer. I don’t believe it. My mother and Mrs. Ruffin knew each other pretty well.

[February 12, 1964]



Symphonic Progress

There is no question but what the San Francisco Symphony is picking up. Josef Krips is teaching it discipline and gumption.

We are so proud of ourselves as the New Athens that we seldom face the fact that we have never had a first-class Symphony. I will never forget the first time I came to hear Hertz conduct. We were late, and out into the lobby poured the strains of the Flying Dutchman Overture, sounding for all the world like a suite for a hundred half-inflated hot water bottles walked over by cows. Monteux was incomparably better, but (1) all Frenchmen believe it is bourgeois to keep time; (2) the repertory reflected a narrow and rather sentimental taste; (3) too many chairs were vested interests rather than parts of one orchestra.

I doubt if Josef Krips will ever produce a team as strictly marshaled, sounds as finely honed as George Szell or Serge Koussevitsky, but maybe, if everybody works hard, we will cease to have a provincial band that can’t make up its mind. I am tremendously impressed by the progress so far.

I do hope, next year, we loosen up the repertory a little. This is one place where emphasis on local talent would be the opposite of provincialism. We can afford to be confident about at least a few Bay Area artists and composers.

If the Symphony has picked up since it changed hands, I am not so sure about the De Young Museum. The appointment of a new director always results in a certain amount of demoralization amongst the staff, but an undue number of people seem to be angry and upset.

It is not a question of cutting out dead wood. Walter Heil created a first-class small museum out of what had been a random collection of unwanted heirlooms, administered with no apparent policy. In the process he trained a loyal and efficient team of curators and assistants. I do not think we can allow this structure, which has worked so satisfactorily, to be dismantled.

Furthermore, I think it most ill advised to curtail the program of one-man shows by local artists. Even if they were not very good, it would be the responsibility of the community to ensure its artists a chance to be seen. That would be the only way they could be improved.

It so happens that the Bay Area has been, ever since 1940, and continues to be, one of the major breeding grounds of significant change in modern painting. You may not approve of some of these painters (I actively dislike some of them myself) but the fact is that they are known all over the world.

It is a long time since I have written anything about the Health Department. For years it suffered from massive inertia. It’s motto seemed to be Don’t Make Waves. Then, after Dr. Ellis Sox and Mayor Christopher got through rowing with each other, things began to pick up. The hospital services, for instance, are in better shape than they have ever been.

There is a lag, a serious one, in the building of new health centers. They are authorized, federal funds are available, but nothing seems to happen. The present facilities are completely inadequate. Whenever the department launches a special campaign, for instance, of immunization shots, people stand in line down the street. Inside, all the time, everybody works in everybody else’s lap. Nothing is worse for morale, both of staff and patients, than traffic congestion in medicine. If you don’t believe it, read one of the doctors’ commercial trade journals. It is a problem they are always talking about. It seems to me this is a place where the new Mayor could exert a little leverage. I don’t really know the reason for the delay and nobody does, or at least wants to say.

There is another public health problem that could be solved by imaginative administrative initiative — just to use three five-syllable words at once. We have in San Francisco five distinct secular organizations giving home service to the sick — the Visiting Nurses, the Health Department, the County Hospital, Kaiser Hospital and Mount Zion Hospital — if Mount Zion can be called secular — as well as an assortment of religious groups who carry on some activity of this sort. There is no real coordination of these activities. When the groups get together, they fight rather than plan and delegate work.

In other cities home nursing is all under one authority. True, a shared authority, but certainly a coordinated one. Here is another of those little details in community life where a decisive step in the right direction requires only a little courage.

[February 16, 2014]



Government by Celebrity

From the day he announced his availability until he went out of office, the Democrats never tired of pointing out that President Eisenhower appealed to the electorate not on his qualifications for the job, but because he was a folk hero, the Father Figure Who Won the War.

The revelation that Richard Nixon had embarked on his career by answering an ad for a personable young man willing to run for office stirred up a storm, allayed only by the combined efforts of the nation’s television masterminds.

President Kennedy was criticized for the glamour with which his public relations people enveloped him and his family. “Government by celebrity” was what one of his own most articulate liberal supporters called it.

As things worked out, these three men proved to be representatives of the people: not the same people, but real people with real convictions. Nonetheless, public relations techniques have invaded politics to a degree unimaginable a generation ago. Today the candidate must present an image, not a program. In fact, the more specific the program, the more dangerous it is — promotionwise, as they wisely put it.

Of course this has always been true. Julius Caesar took good care to project an image, and urchins still study that projection in schools. But there is a point beyond which a political party is not supposed to go in choosing a candidate. It is acceptable to put retired generals and movie queens on boards of directors of corporations, but if a political party were to run Frank Sinatra or Audrey Hepburn, most seriously minded citizens would consider it vaguely unethical.

We sense instinctively that the celebrity in office is there for no good reason, but bought on impulse like a brightly packaged box of corn flakes. He may be unobjectionable himself, but the electorate has acted in a fashion that exposes it to worse than demagogy. A people that chooses its leaders in this way is in process of turning into a mob. If the office has any power, the time will surely come when fancy wrapping will conceal the worst tyranny. Of course it is always possible that the office has been emptied of meaning.

Neither of these alternative is pleasant to contemplate, yet they are questions that spring to mind on reading of astronaut John H. Glenn Jr.’s announcement that he is a candidate for the United States Senate.

There is no evidence that this young man has any qualifications whatsoever for public office. He has never shown any interest in politics before; he seems to be devoid of opinions, much less program; he is purely and simply a celebrity. If he needs opinions to win, they will be processed and fed to him by his PR staff and by the anonymous men who picked him to run.

True, it is all far away in Ohio, and no immediate concern of ours. But it is an ominous symptom of a spreading frivolity in our political lives. And never forget, we’ve got more celebrities in California than we know what to do with. If we ever start running them for office out here, it will mean the breakdown of all social order — the very prospect beggars description.

[February 19, 1964]



Ralph Stackpole and the Coit Tower Murals

The other night the phone rang and who should be in town but Ralph Stackpole. The next day we had lunch with him and his family at a nameless North Beach restaurant, one of the very few left that in food, service, wine and atmosphere has remained just like the old days. The years slipped away and I might just as well have been having lunch with a young and frisky Stackpole at Beguine’s the day after I arrived in San Francisco in 1927.

He isn’t young any more, but neither am I, but he, for one, is certainly still frisky. He was full of ideas and enthusiasms and gave every indication of living to be a hundred and ten. San Francisco has had several heroic ages, but talking within Ralph, one of the better of them, the years between the wars, came back to me in an overwhelming living recollection.

Who is Ralph Stackpole? Probably today only a small percentage of the readers of this column will know. He was for 20 years or more San Francisco’s leading artist. Quite a bit of his sculpture can be seen around town, notably the figures on the steps of the Stock Exchange.

For old timers he is best remembered, however,for a vast array of monumental sculpture that lasted for a year and then vanished like the dew — the statues of the last San Francisco World’s Fair [1938]. They were not all by him, but most were by younger people whom he had taught or influenced, and they were dominated by his mammoth figure of Pacifica, the embodiment of the theme of the Fair.

Nothing is left of all that work. It promised to become a new, characteristic San Francisco style, a blend of influences from the whole Pacific basin and yet truly indigenous. How clearly the courts and fountains of the Fair come back to mind — all those noble figures, full of grace and sunlight. They certainly made it one of the most gracious and urbane of all world’s fairs. And they bespoke a joy, a faith and hope for the future of a quality we shall not live to see again.

They were hardly in place before war once more had swept over civilization. When the lights were lit again in Europe, art had taken a new turn toward alienation, defiance and disgust with civilization itself and all its values.

Before we went to lunch, I took my secretary up to see the murals in Coit Tower, also done under Ralph’s leadership. For years I remembered them as conveying something of the sensation of waking up with the funny papers over your face.

I was amazed to discover that they really are pretty good. They were painted by most of the leading artists of the community, under an emergency program that preceded the WPA and which was designed primarily to get money into circulation, not to accomplish anything. Yet they are a very solid accomplishment indeed.

In all the years of the New Deal nothing to compare with them was done anywhere in the country. In fact, the only WPA Art Project job that comes anywhere near them is again right here in San Francisco — the murals by Hilaire Hiler and his associates at Aquatic Park. No better picture of California in the ’30s exists anywhere. True, there are masses of strikers and demonstrators and unemployed brandishing copies of the Western Worker, but they are inconspicuous really, alongside the harvest workers and factory hands and longshoremen and just plain people, all suffused with the most extraordinary buoyancy — joy, hope, faith in the future, once again the mood of San Francisco even in the very depths of the depression.

Ralph is still that way, full of beans. For 15 years he has been living in France, most of those years in one of the wildest parts of France, the Massif Central. His French wife takes good care of him and he spends his time sculpting. His work is growing and changing every year. The last show he had in Paris created a sensation — amongst the French — and gained him a new bevy of young followers. Most remarkable thing about it was its simple originality in a period when everything looks disparately up to date and yet all alike.

Now he says he is doing something quite different again. I am sure it will be full of the same passion for living. As Edgar Lee Masters said in Spoon River of somebody very like Ralph Stackpole, “It takes life to love life.”

And, just to make the story complete, where had he been? Down in the jungles of southern Mexico visiting Leo Eloesser, another 5-foot-tall giant of the days before the Deluge, another old man crazy about life — but he is another story I’ll tell you sometime.

[February 23, 1964]



Sex Education

I guess I’ll never make a good newspaperman. I just ain’t timely. All over the country, at the beginning of each semester the city desk tells somebody, “Go see what the kids have to say.” Headlines blossom with adolescent opinions about Cuba, Russia, the latest books, Negroes, peace and teachers’ nasty looks. The immortal dog bites the unkillable man. “Sex Bothers Students!” I was going to write my piece about it a month ago, but I’ve just got around to it.

It is not really the same old story. For two generations now there has been a steady wasting away of the social controls that once governed the relations of young men and women. Except for the lucky members of some closed little society within our larger one — Jehovah’s Witnesses or Amish or such like — these controls are in effective practice all gone, totally vanished.

This is true even for members of larger groups with strict principles in this regard — for instance the majority of Catholic youth.

The ethics with which they arrange the day-to-day conduct of boys and girls together, the morals with which they govern their own individual responsibilities, are no longer given them by their society, at least not in any automatically convincing manner. They have to generate these controls from within themselves.

Least of all do they come from within the home. The youth of other societies have always been prepared to become men and women by the fathers and mothers. The contemporary adolescent girl — of enlightened parents — is lucky if her mother leaves a pamphlet from a manufacturer of feminine hygiene on her dresser. Sexual education, except on the most fatuous physiological basis, is not imparted by the schools.

We live in a culture where you can take a PhD in engineering and another in physiology and never learn how to drive a car or fulfill the responsibilities of a husband or wife. And then we are outraged by the conduct of young people whom we have thrown into puberty with no preparation and told to sink or swim.

We are sinking, true enough, and not just adolescents. Houses of prostitution and call girl rings in the tonier suburbs and the perambulator faubergs are not due to the penetration of the Mafia into middle-class domesticity. “Everybody else does it, why shouldn’t I? And why shouldn’t I get paid for it?”

True, these remarks are diagnostic signs of the sociopath. But they are also questions for which the covetous and lustful society in which we live has less and less convincing answers. If parents abdicate responsibility, and fewer and fewer young people are accessible to the churches, where is education in the harsh realities of sexual responsibility going to come from?

I believe that the family is the place for sexual education. But the family is not doing it. So, like it or not, it devolves upon the schools.

When is somebody going to have nerve enough to propose frank, realistic courses in the subject at the junior high school level, where it is needed? And not courses only, but discussion groups, both mixed and of separate sexes? And not discussion only, but counseling which is sane and trustworthy, even in the gravest emergencies?

Oh yes, I know, worried kids should go to their mother or their clergyman — but far too many have neither that they trust. There is a sane sexual ethic which is valid quite independent of religious sanctions and it can be taught. We’d better start teaching it before everybody forgets what it is.

[February 26, 1964]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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