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San Francisco in the Sixties

Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns and articles from the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967),
the San Francisco Bay Guardian (1967-1972), and San Francisco Magazine (1967-1975)

 

 

San Francisco Magazine

1973

Nixon’s New Cabinet
A Visit to Japan
What Happened to the Movement?
Merchandise of Death
Return of the Booboisie?
Requirements for a Performing Arts Center
Destroying Our Architectural Heritage
San Francisco’s Smug Corruption
Old Chinatown
The Redevelopment Wrecking Machine
Bohemian San Francisco Between the Wars
More on Bohemian San Francisco

 

 


 

Nixon’s New Cabinet


I prophecy that the Second Nixon will be known as the Ali Baba Administration. He’s already pulled the boys out of the jars. It is as though Hoover had been reelected instead of Roosevelt, and had made Thomas Fortune Ryan, the wildcat speculator, and the heads of Auburn Motors, and the Bank of Italy, members of his cabinet — the leaders of the October 1929 collapse, to usher in the prosperity he guaranteed was just around the corner. At least Hoover had a program and his boss, old Andy Mellon, was head of one of the very largest functioning financial and industrial empires. The Democratic Congress simply refused to buy his bill of goods.

What Nixon plans to pull on the country with the gang he has lined up beggars the imagination. Health, Education and Welfare has gone to Cap Weinberger, the avowed enemy of welfare, health and education, who established his reputation in California by taking money from the aged, the feeble-minded, the young and the sick and hungry and giving it to the land and oil barons.

The most comic of his appointments is Roy Ash, president of Litton Industries, as director of the Office of Management and Budget. Litton is probably the worst-managed large business in the history of American industry. Litton’s creditors have met in the past and threatened to pull the rug from under it if the adventurers who run it didn’t mend their ways. Ash’s outstanding characteristic is his passion for wildcat budgets and piratical management. Anyone who has ever worked for Litton knows that from the top to the lowest echelons its management is characterized by instability, adventurism, and a personal policy that produces a dizzying game of musical-methedrine-swivel-chairs. Thomas Fortune Ryan was a Quaker grocery man in comparison with Roy Ash.

One thing you can say for Tricky Dick, from now on he’ll be remembered as an historical practical joker. Claude Brinegar of Union Oil, the befouler of the Santa Barbara Channel and the Public Enemy of public transportation, becomes (of course) Secretary of Transportation. A corporation lawyer, James Lynn, goes to Housing and Urban Development and promises to rent out the building, the Department’s headquarters. He believes that “damn near everything the government does could be done better by private industry,” especially housing and urban development.

For Commerce, Frederick Dent, president of a little textile company in America’s most backward, noncompetitive industry in one of its three most backward states — South Carolina, where nothing has happened since they fired on Fort Sumter. Since in the next four years it is essential that the United States work out an economic modus vivendi with Japan if we are to avoid another war, this man, a fervent preacher of the Yellow Peril and rabid protectionist (the U.S. textile industry would go out of business overnight if it were not for its tariff protection) may turn out to be the most dangerous appointment of all.

It would be hard to find a more reactionary trade union fakir than Peter Brennan for Secretary of Labor. He organized the hardhat riots in New York and is notoriously anti-black, anti-Latin but pro-Mafia. The New York construction trade are the highest paid — in legal wages — in the country, and at the same time the most criminal. Large-scale construction projects, even those taking place directly under the public eye like Lincoln Center, have always been characterized in New York by utterly shameful looting. Brennan is a real dinosaur, a survivor from the days of Gompers, Green and Hutchison, before the CIO opened up organized labor to ordinary working men.

Richard Helms goes from the CIA. I devoutly hope that something nasty happens to any and every man who has been, is, or will be head of the CIA. But Helms, an unworldly intellectual, another one of Shakespeare’s “honorable men,” and purely a front man in his job, is supposed to have been profoundly shocked by the revelations of the role of the CIA in international organized crime and heroin traffic, and to have promised to do something about it. The connection of the Nixon administration with organized crime is another long and complicated story — but is this why Helms is dumped?

When in Japan I read of the first of these appointments I agreed with the editorial writers in the Japanese press, that Nixon was turning toward a rigid deflationary policy with forced unemployment and high tariffs, liquidation of the welfare state and, except for the highly skilled trades, union smashing. Back to Herbert Hoover and Andrew Mellon — a standard, hardboiled, conservative policy. But taken as a whole Nixon’s new GHQ does not represent conservatism. It is not even reactionary. It is plain wholesale crazy defiance, coupled with the payment of long-standing debts to the robber barons who have financed Nixon’s career from the days they hired him to run for office in Southern California by means of a newspaper ad.

“I’ll show you,” says Dicky to the electorate. “You’ve been so nasty to me in the past, now that you’ve given me a bicycle for my very own, I’m going to smash everybody who gets in my way.” At first I expected an orgy of deflation and unemployment, with billions siphoned off from the common people into the military-industrial complex. That may well be, but what the new administration promises is an orgy of defiance and spite. Little Dick’s final temper tantrum.

Congress should not okay a single one of these appointments. Unfortunately it does not have the power to pass on all of them.

[January 1973]

 


 

A Visit to Japan


I just came back from a trip to Japan — the Japanese P.E.N. Club’s International Conference of Japanologists. I didn’t know I was a Japanologist, but apparently I am. I’ve written a lot about Japanese literature, and have a book, One Hundred Poems from the Japanese. As a conference I guess it was okay, but it’s not my dish of tea — inescapably locked into block bookings in grand deluxe Western-style hotels and group tours, and hundreds of brief papers which would be better read in a book. Since I live almost exclusively on Oriental food, and have a kind of modified Japanese home, I ate more Western cooking in two weeks than I normally do in six months, and was given a chance to enjoy The American Way of Life, something I detest. There is a missing canto of Dante’s Inferno. The scene is the lobby of a grand luxe international hotel, anywhere from Istanbul to Taiwan to Pago Pago to Buenos Aires, and those wonderful bedrooms that cost $50 a night and are indistinguishable from those in a $10 motel on the outskirts of Manteca. However I did manage to escape for a while, by fits and starts, and I met some very nice people and there were some beautiful parties, one in the vast gardens of the Nomura family in Kyoto, who are by way of being the Rothschilds of Japan, with the finest geishas in the Gion, the best orchestras and koto players, a fine Noh play in the estate’s theater and booths of lovely Japanese food and lots of sake and as Kyoto’s best koto player played Auld Lang Syne as the twilight dimmed, basket torches were lit around the edges of the lake and reflected in the dark water. Then I had five days by myself in Kyoto and Tokyo, with late afternoons in the theater, and banquets in my honor by Japanese writers, and through it all a chaste and cultivated Japanese girl as interpreter and amanuensis. Oh yes. And besides all the temples and Noh and Kabuki, visits to automobile and electronic plants and lengthy interviews by magazine editors. All very Japanese — that is, crowded — but as I’ve often remarked, the Japanese know how to crowd. And then it’s always nice to know you’re famous.

It’s five years since I’ve been in Japan and everything that was happening then is happening more — and worse. The great conurbation has pretty well devoured the central and south East Coast of the country. There is scarcely an open space between Kyoto and Osaka, or on the plain between Kyoto and Nara, and there’s not very much between Kyoto and Tokyo except where you go over the hills. And what occupies it? Spanking new slums of both dwellings and factories, the latter largely of corrugated iron, and the houses jerry built, or rather, built by Jerry-san, who’s a lot more jerry than his English cousin. Unless the country permits itself to be strangled by this slurb, the Japanese are going to have to spend the rest of the century tearing down and rebuilding. “Ecology,” as the term is misused in America, has suddenly become very popular in Japan, and the Japanese may just do it and rehabilitate their country before we do the United States. It was a big plank in Tanaka’s election, as for sure it wasn’t in Nixon’s.

Anything which the West does the Japanese try to do better. Los Angeles has smog; Tokyo has smogissimum. The four leading hotels in San Francisco are expensive; those in Tokyo are damn near twice as much. Between the drop in the dollar and the rise in Japanese internal prices Japan may well be the most expensive country in the world for any American traveler who wants to live at the level of the Fairmont or the St. Francis. But even if you want to live in simple Japanese inns, prices are high, and characteristically Japanese merchandise can be bought cheaper in San Francisco’s or Los Angeles’s Nihonmachi, due to the covert subsidization of exports, practiced by all nations. The Japanese ryokan (inn) in Tokyo that I recommended in this column some years ago has deteriorated badly, but just behind it in a residential embayment of Ueno Park is an absolutely marvelous one with an excellent little restaurant attached, called Yama Moto, run by Grandma-san, Mama-san, and two lovely daughters, a clean and efficient place with lots of soul. Yama Moto, 5-8, 4-chome, Ikenohata, Taito-ku, Tokyo. Telephone: 03-828-8101. Ueno Park is a long, long way from white man’s Tokyo, but if you want to get out of the world of the Ginza, Shibuya, Shinjiku and be near the museums, Tokyo University, the zoo, the art school, scads of temples and shrines and never see a Caucasian, this is the place. It’s the largest unbombed area in all greater Tokyo. Over a quarter of a mile away the main street past Ueno station is a kind of crazy 42nd and Broadway and 14th Street in New York combined, so you’ve got that, too, and prices in the big department store are cheaper than in the main store on The Ginza, and off in the back streets beyond the station is a forest of little bars inhabited by bar girls uncorrupted by R & R, which of course doesn’t mean they are not corrupted at all. This is not my dish of tea, either, so I can’t guide you there. The wonderful little Rakucho Bekkan in Kyoto is still as good as ever and people recommended by Kenneth-san are given a princely welcome, but it’s only got three rooms.

It was quite a culture shock after five days living exclusively with the Yellow Peril to come back to the airport and see the typical, massive, six-foot-three, 250-pound generals and millionaires and their wolfish wives, comporting themselves like Roman pro-consuls in the hinterlands of the Danube or Asia Minor. It has yet to penetrate their rhinoceros hides that they have been defeated by what their great president, Johnson the Second, called `“a yellow dwarf with a knife” and their days as Lords of the East are over. Thank God I never see this kind of American except when I go abroad. `“Maud, Maud studied abroad / Every time she sang Tannhauser / Everybody ran ouzer the room.” Mor2cum.

[February 1973]

 


 

What Happened to the Movement?


In the last few months there have been a number of articles in magazines and newspapers about the new college generation, which seems to be as apathetic as ever were the students in the first ten years after the Second War — “The Silent Generation.” The commentators and sociological journalists have come up with a variety of explanations, most of which are right, but all of which are limited.*

In all the years of the Vietnam War and the struggle for civil rights, massive confrontation and personal militancy have accomplished nothing, and these tactics have been abandoned with nothing else to take their place.

This is not true. From the first great marches in Birmingham, which brought Martin Luther King to leadership, to the final flooding of Washington with thousands of demonstrators, the position of Black Americans has steadily improved and the struggles are now to implement the rights acknowledged in law. There is still plenty of conflict in the northern cities but one reason for this is that there is nothing but conflict on all fronts in the northern cities. As machines for living they have broken down. The gains in the South, considering the point from which they started, have been unbelievable to a person of my generation, who remembers even the South of 30 years ago. As for the Vietnam War, the administration has at least been forced to give the appearance of trying to stop it.

Students, after all, are immature and however much they think they are revolting against their parents, really accept their values, and so, being bourgeois kids from middle America, have followed them into the camp of Nixon; the Nixon vote in the colleges surpassed the fondest hopes of the Republican campaign managers.

This is based on a fallacy of observation. The majority of American students are always conventional and conservative. Smoking marijuana and listening to rock music does not make anybody a revolutionary. Student activity of any sort, but especially radical action, is sparked and led by a tiny minority and except at rare peaks when the interest of the militants and a usually inert majority coincide, the tiny militant minority influences and leads what is itself only a substantial minority, just as in history most human beings are occupied cheerfully making bricks without straw. What has to be accounted for is the isolation and shattering of the tiny minority and the passivity of the larger.

“The Movement” has been destroyed by a combination of police terror, agents provocateurs, co-optation and drugs, a cooperative effort of the CIA and the Mafia.

This theory has something to be said for it. The trouble is no Establishment, however ruthless, can totally suppress dissent and rebellion when the time is right. No corruption can be that thoughgoing. There are always dedicated people who prefer to stick with their principles rather than become TV personalities or government bureaucrats. Also, most conclusively, the same inertia prevails in countries where these factors do not operate.

The movement has gone elsewhere. Nobody wants to be murdered for trying to get an education. People coming up from the high schools who would have been leaders are not going to college but to communes far off in the more inaccessible party of the country or, in the cities, live in little communities dedicated to spiritual rather than political revolution.

This would be nice if it was true, but I doubt it.

Nixon has done away with the draft and at one stroke done away with mass opposition to the war on the part of young men of draft age, many of whom now support him because, like Woodrow Wilson, he is keeping us (me) out of war.

This probably accounts for quite a number all right, but not enough to make so great a difference.

A similar theory — most of the faults of the education system against which students rebel have been corrected.

This is absurd, most of all in California, where everything has got much worse, but where students appear more passive than in the New York State University system, where things actually have improved. The most militant students of course are still in the most far out, small, progressive colleges.

Television has finally conquered the mass mind and most especially of this, the new younger generation, the boob tube babies. If it’s not on prime time and in the top ten they don’t care anything about it, don’t know anything about it, and don’t want to know anything about it.

But this applies only to the inert majority. Tom Hayden, Mario Savio, and Bettina Aptheker watched television when young, too.

At the Japanologists’ conference I went to last fall in Kyoto there were academicians from all over the world. The oldest generation of orientalists are perhaps the most stuffy, uptight Herr Doktor Wissenshafts you could hope to find, but somewhat like anthropology, Far Eastern studies seem to attract nowadays the hip, the radicals, the bohemians of academia. They all agreed that something inexplicable was happening. A man of 50-odd years, one of the most prominent French critics, and the most prominent professor of comparative literature, and a scholar in half a dozen languages besides Chinese and Japanese, said to me, “What is happening? During the May Days of ’68 we all said ‘Wait till the students in the lycées get here.’ They were even then running errands on their bicycles all over a Paris in the grip of an aborted revolution. Now they are here and I am the most radical person in my classroom.”

A professor from one of the “People’s Democracies,” a dedicated, lifelong Communist and a friend of most of the people at the top of the government, said, “What is happening? We expected trouble on the anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Nothing at all happened. We expected manifestations of support for the writers and intellectuals who have been arrested or harassed in the Soviet Union. Not a whisper. I was recently in Tashkent and Irkutsk, once hotbeds of discontent. The students weren’t even restive. The only place there is any action at all is in Zagreb, where radical new Marxists have turned into reactionary petty nationalists. Now I discover that the same thing is going on elsewhere, from Sweden to Australia. What is it? Sunspots?”

If highly trained Marxists, always ready with a theory to account for social change, and professors in continuous contact with students in several countries don’t know the answer, I don’t either. The old methods have not worked as well as the young and hopeful expected, but it is not true that they have not worked at all. It is true that movements of irrational desperation like the “Red Army of Japan,” the Weathermen, and similar urban guerrilla movements like the Robin Hood gang in Germany, or even the more sensible Tupamaros in Uruguay, have failed disastrously and have widely discredited the more militant Left, but except for the Tupamaros, they were an infinitesimal minority, and probably in most instances the creation of agents provocateurs. One thing is certain. The youth revolt as the agency of significant social change is, for the moment, exhausted. Perhaps somewhere people are seeking new methods, planning new strategy and tactics, but certainly they are not very visible and their potential followers, if not content, at least are quiet.

[March 1973]

__________

*For the sake of clarity, I have set the various limited theories in italics, followed by Rexroth’s comments.

 


 

Merchandise of Death


As the electioneering mask drops from its face, we are beginning to realize the ruthless cynicism of the Second Nixon Administration in all its horror. It had no sooner started than the final, massive bombing of North and South Vietnam and Laos were puzzling even the Republican editorial writers and columnists.

Why this Christmas present? Anybody who knew anything about holiday merchandising should have been able to tell them. Get rid of your inventory before you’re caught short with the ending of the season. “Dump all this junk on the gooks so we can give the boys some nice, new, fat orders.” So it turned out. We have to have a whole new red hot line of the merchandise of death for the next killing season. The Christmas bombing was a clearance sale. The more bombers destroyed, the better.

Orders for new bombers mean a lot to the boys who first hired Little Dick to run for office with a newspaper ad so long, long ago. He’s a big boy now and from now to 1976 he’s going to pay handsomely for all favors received. Of course he’ll pay with the milk of babies, the education of youth, the opportunities for blacks, and the very lives of the aged.

Under Eisenhower and Johnson we had an ever-widening credibility gap. Today we have to find our way through an all-enveloping blizzard of lies. Nineteen eighty-four has arrived early, and Newspeak is all the language our masters know. Anything the present Administration says can safely be taken to mean the opposite. The business community follows suit.

Immense public relations campaigns are mounted which are pure fraud. The L.A. paper that ran the headline “Nixon Devalues Dollar in War on Inflation” the first time, went right on talking about Nixon’s war on inflation while the dollar collapsed, and he devalued it again, 10 percent, with the power of nothing more than his signature. And even the Wall Street Journal, which makes an effort to inform the business community of what’s really happening, has discussed the devaluation almost entirely in terms of the balance of payments — that is, as an across-the-board protectionist tariff.

The fact of the matter is that the United States has emerged from its drunken orgy in Southeast Asia on the verge of bankruptcy, with many of its resources depleted, and with its major businesses shifting their base, covering their bets, becoming supernational conglomerates, no longer dependent on the possible collapse of the country they have looted.

On the other side of the world the long-term prospects are even more ominous. The British Empire, too impoverished to hold any part of the Indian Ocean littoral, invited the Americans in. As a parting gift the British fought a cheap and successful counter-insurgency war in Malaysia. But the Americans didn’t learn. The superprofits of a major war were too attractive.

All those billions thrown away on bamboo bridges, rice paddies, and jungles meant millions in profit. So today the ever-growing commercial power in the Indian Ocean is Japan; and the profiteers of the Vietnam war have used those profits to establish foundations in safe countries of economic refuge.

The run on the dollar that began in January had nothing to do with the balance of payments. It was engineered by the great international banks, American quite as much as German or Japanese or French.

Inflation is like cigarettes or masturbation. Once the habit is established it is almost impossible to break except under deep hypnosis.

Deep hypnosis? It was Hitler who stopped German inflation. It was de Gaulle who stopped the French. Poor Mussolini could never control the lira. For all the racket, his hypnosis wasn’t deep enough.

Runaway inflation is not yet. What we have is an increasingly heavy protectionist tariff, what amounts now to a 20-percent duty on all imports. This is already higher that most of the items in the notorious Hawley-Smoot Tariff which precipitated the 1929 world economic crisis.

However, the effect of Hawley-Smoot was deflationary, as was the economic collapse. What will happen if we get 20-percent unemployment, utility stocks dropping to $10 and hamburgers rising to $5? God only knows. The only solution the 1873 robber-baron capitalism represented by the Nixon Administration knows is more war, a real war this time. The war is there waiting. American business enterprise cannot reclaim the areas already lost to the Japanese by peaceful means, and in a showdown, as was proven last time, the Japanese are completely vulnerable.

The Russians refuse to believe that public opinion in the United States is not directly manipulated by secret government orders, emanating from the bosses of the great banks and corporations. Since they have had to struggle for over 50 years and kill masses of people to keep a potentially pluralistic society from blowing up in their faces, they cannot conceive of a population which enjoys totalitarianization by mutual consent.

A wonderful example is the current “energy crisis.” There is no energy crisis. There are many sources of energy ultimately cheaper and less wasteful and destructive than the fossil fuels, but their use would involve a complete retooling of the technology — a more profitable enterprise, incidentally, than a Third World War, and less polluting.

But there is no energy crisis in the fossil fuels. The propaganda is pure lies, covering a demand for still greater superprofits, tax write-offs, special privilege to rape the environment.

[April 1973]

 


 

Return of the Booboisie?


When I was a young lad, when H.L. Mencken was at the height of his popularity with the fraternity-to-stockbroker set, us young intellectuals thought he was already out of date. George Babbitt’s flowering time we thought was the Harding-Coolidge administration. Mencken’s booboisie were the species threatened with extinction. I went along, minding my own business. I didn’t bother them; they didn’t bother me. “Live and let live,” said I, “they’re going down the long, long trail with the Red Man, poor things.” Recently I looked around, over my shoulder, and lo, they had bred and turned carnivorous. Were two hundred million of them sniffing at my heels, and threatening to encircle me? But there was a change. Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt was a little, unhappy man. There’s nothing little about the Big Bad Babbitts who’ve grown up around us today.

Something is happening to the American lifestyle in 1973. There’s a quite conscious and deliberate attempt to return it to the famous “American Way of Life” of the twenties. All the wizards and shamans and haruspexes along Madison Avenue have suddenly become fascinated, not by the uprising of Middle American but by the Electoral College vote. They seem to think that the proportion of hips to squares, liberals to reactionaries, in the United States at present is as the proportion of the populations of Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. to the rest of the country.

This of course is not true; there has not been a mass wave of reaction and conventionality sweeping over the American public. McGovern lost the election because he was McGovern and because of the antics of some of his more unbridled supporters, particularly on camera at the convention, and because of the desertion of the hard-core Left who moved obedient to international considerations. Almost any responsible Democratic candidate could have won. I am inclined to think Eugene McCarthy could have won. The significant thing about the McGovern vote is its immense size. That many million people were willing to vote for a left liberal who had revealed himself as anything but stable personally. That’s a lot of people to approve of Willie Brown and Women’s Lib and even accept Gay Lib on camera if it’s in the small hours of the morning. But there is every indication that the commercial opinion makers can see only that little handful of electoral votes. “We have to reorganize our priorities and redefine our targets.”

What is usually considered to be America’s most successful magazine has moved far to the right, now that its lead time since November has caught up with its contents. There are still beavers on the gatefolds, plenty of bawdry in the cartoons and jokes, and illustrated features on porn movies, but the fiction and the think pieces are very clean, and the front matter has become definitely, consciously conservative. The famous interviews are no longer with people like Huey Newton or Jerry Rubin, even the people in show business and sports chosen for a yak session are characters of the Right, or political illiterates. As for the magazine’s competitors, they compete by being pornier and beaverier and most important, positively reactionary, except one, the magazine’s own sister which it has budded off to take care of the audience developed by the better underground press. Correction! As we go to press, the current issue of Playboy is running an interview with Huey Newton himself. Maybe “times they are a-changin’.”

This may sound trivial. Indeed it is not. It is in this era of communications that the major male advertising targets are defined and the synthetic lifestyle of the year is manufactured. Here is determined the image of the man who buys expensive sound systems, octuple, or duodecimal, or whatever they are now, the better whiskeys, the high-powered slinky cars and the nifty threads. Just so the great array of housewives’ magazines defines the image of the other great target, the American family, and here too the shift to conservatism in political, racial and social, but not sexual, matters is readily apparent.

The great exceptions to this shift have been the middle-of-the-road, dignified newspapers like the New York Times and the two leading newsweeklies, which have been specifically attacked by name by the administration as though they had been edited by Leon Trotsky. They’re mad. Their background stories on the moral climate of contemporary Washington and the skullduggery of Watergate, ITT, and assorted scandals sometimes do sound a little like they’d been written by some of the more talented contributors to The Militant. Of course they’re justified by the facts, and the editorial policies of the New York Times, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post reflect very accurately the week-to-week temper of their readers. They, far more than the smart boys on Madison Avenue and in the old Palmolive Building in Chicago, are experts at continuous polling; their fever charts are accurate.

We seem to be sliding rapidly into a new Harding administration without even anybody like Herbert Hoover to say, “Face the music, and then straighten up and fly right, and preserve your integrity.” Maybe in the most fashionable restaurants and cocktail parties in Washington the conversations sound like everybody has gone crazy for the fast, crooked, and almighty buck, but this is something just taking place at the top, and it isn’t just cream that rise to the top; sometimes it’s scum.

America’s once largest movie company may be taken over by a conglomerate, every serious picture in production junked and all money and effort concentrated on cheap, quick-money, grade B films where B stands for boob as in booboisie, but this is just exploiting a neglected pocket. It doesn’t represent a New Wave either in films or in the population. The highbrow film audience, like the highbrow record audience, goes on increasing geometrically. It’s still there and it isn’t really underground. So too, what’s going to happen as we slide into a Second Harding administration, but more ruthless and more shameless and without good old whiskey-drinking, secretary-bottom-patting, poker-playing Warren Gamaliel Harding to keep up the Gemütlich, and Coolidge and Hoover to speak up for the Ten Commandments? The opposition has not been driven underground.

[May 1973]

 


 

Requirements for a Performing Arts Center


Hang onto your coonskin caps, boys, here we go again! This is the second time around for a major push for a Performing Arts Center. Already it is being fought tooth and nail by a rapidly forming coalition of the left, left liberals, and the far right. There is no question but what the City needs such a complex of buildings. The private legitimate theaters are old and rundown and would cost far more than a million apiece to rehabilitate. People who think that this is a solution have very little idea of what a modern, properly equipped theater costs. The electronic equipment on the bombers we so lavishly expended on Vietnam costs as much as an entire World War II bomber. Theaters are like that. Their hardware and software today cost more than our antiquated theaters cost when they were built.

The Opera House is inadequate for a large variety of modern productions. Furthermore, it’s all there is — it is impossible to book two musical or theatrical events, or large ballets, which require the same facilities in the City at the same time. There is no modern, flexible, dynamic stage — of the sort to be found in any large German or Scandinavian town — whatsoever in the City. There is no small theater like the Mark Taper in Los Angeles which lends itself to contemporary theatrical techniques.

The Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium was planned for such use. The Veterans’ Memorial is suitable for the recitation of “The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck” by the elocution club of the high school graduating class of 1905. In other words, it is practically worthless. I once heard the Budapest Quartet play in the Nourse Auditorium, the old, rundown, dirty, acoustically absurd assembly hall of the long-defunct Commerce High School. There was no other place for them. Since they were second only to Pablo Casals as the greatest string performing artists of the 20th century, this was a shame and a disgrace. And there is not even a permanent home for the City’s own Chamber Music Society. There should be a small, acoustically perfect auditorium for such events.

So it goes. The performing arts are starved for showplaces and none that exist are adequate, properly designed, much less up to date in either architecture or equipment. Moreover, there is no point in building anything at all unless it is built right. The entire complex should first be planned by the experts in the arts who will be using it. This does not mean architects, nor does it mean cranks, like the man who designed the totally unusable, ridiculous and incredibly expensive theater at the California Institute of the Arts, or the man who did the copulating clams of the Sydney Opera House (another design full of permanent insoluble problems). The most competent representatives of theater, opera, ballet, symphonic, chamber and concert music should form the initial committee, agree on exactly what they want and function from then on as the most watchful of watchdogs. Modern architects from the days of Frank Lloyd Wright are devoted to the principle “the hell with the client” and are much more interested in rearing sensational façades, or at best constructing immense pieces of Bauhaus sculpture, than they are in doing what they’re told. Anyone who ever listened to Richard Neutra fight with a customer would never trust a modern architect. Certainly no firm or no employee of the firm should be trusted with such a commission who has not already built more than one completely successful performing arts complex. There’s no trouble finding them. There are hundreds in northern Europe and several, perhaps more interesting, in Japan. The existing structures, like those in New York and Los Angeles, should be carefully, exhaustively studied and every negative criticism taken into account. God knows they, especially Lincoln Center, are full of bugs.

Now comes the question of financing. It is not true that the building of such a central complex will take money away from decentralized activities in the neighborhoods — the first being for the idle rich and the second for the industrious and ethnic poor. On the contrary. Once we get enough seating capacity in the City it should be possible to provide cut-rate tickets and special performances for students and everybody else who can’t afford first-night prices. Furthermore, an increase in the quality of the performing arts would stimulate activity everywhere in the Bay Area.

That touches a larger aspect of the problem. San Francisco is the entertainment center for about three million people. It’s as though the residents of the island of Manhattan alone had to pay for Lincoln Center. There should be some way to raise the money from the entire area. We need an octroi, customs gates on all the entrances to the City and a head tax on all visitors. What a pity it’s illegal. The use of federal funds, although opposed by the opponents of the plan, does spread the cost over “foreign” taxpayers, and some way should be figured out to get state funds, despite the solid Southern California voting bloc, which will vote no money for Northern California except to take away its water. Most importantly, as in Los Angeles and New York, a substantial, perhaps the principal source of funds should be private. The analogous theater in Pittsburgh was mostly financed by one check from one man who was frightfully embarrassed when it was suggested that the place be named after him. Fleishhacker Pool and Zoo on the other hand are named after a Park Commissioner who was one of the richest men in the West and who as far as I know contributed nothing to their construction except resistance to the employment of that Communist Roosevelt’s W.P.A. The San Francisco rich believe that “give” is a four-letter word. They simply have no conception whatsoever of the massive patronage characteristic of the Eastern establishment or the third generation of billionaires who are rebuilding Pittsburgh or even the great rich of Los Angeles who were rounded up for their performing arts center and made to give by the strong-willed Buffy Chandler. Somebody’s got to learn them. San Francisco taxpayers will never vote for such a project. They won’t even vote to keep the schools from tumbling down on their own children.

[June 1973]

 


 

Destroying Our Architectural Heritage


Last month’s column about the planned San Francisco Performing Arts Center ended with the question of expense. Every column concerned with the financing of the City’s improvements and service and cultural infrastructure from here on in could end with that question.

Ever since the end of controls after World War II we have grown increasingly familiar with a wide variety of inflations, and will grow more so. Perhaps the most extreme of all is the mounting expensiveness of municipal, and for that matter state and federal, building and other construction. There are many former activities, for instance, of the National Park and National Forest Services which have long since been discontinued because they are prohibitively expensive. Anyone who remembers San Francisco a generation or two ago can recall all sorts of civic activities that have been discontinued. We can no longer afford them, nor can any other city. Though it is true that public demand changes and other things have taken their place, today’s civic services are relatively cheaper.

Public buildings are the most obvious example. The secret of modern architecture (especially the stripped-down, purely functional, Bauhaus improvement on the International Style) is that it is vastly cheaper than, for instance, the Federal-Renaissance-Beaux-Arts style of the San Francisco City Hall, Opera House and Veterans’ Memorial. Not only would such a complex of buildings be prohibitively expensive today, but a great deal of the work would be unobtainable. Highbrows may think the architectural ornamentation of City Hall a lot of gimcrackery, but where would you find people able to do it today, and how much would you have to pay them when found?

In the past ten years or so we have lost three quite usable public monuments “to get them on the tax rate.” These are the old Fox Theater, the Montgomery Block, the Hall of Justice and City and County Jail. All have been replaced by skyscrapers, one of them of a most shocking ugliness. The Montgomery Block was essentially an historical monument, both as a civic building of various uses in the past from state capitol to jail, and as a studio building which at one time or another had housed almost every writer or artist or musician of any importance who ever lived in San Francisco. It wasn’t ugly, though as a piece of architecture it was no great shakes. But, far from being a highrise, it was still eminently usable (and it, at least, would not even be very expensive to build today).

The Fox Theater was one of the greatest of the huge movie palaces built in the ’20s. Again highbrows scoffed at its style when it was built, but these buildings were a perfectly authentic development of Baroque architecture, as much a culmination of a style as is St. Peter’s in Rome. Its passing removed a wonderful piece of artistic fantasy from the city as well as precisely one of the buildings we need so badly in a new Performing Arts Center. The expense of duplicating it today would not just be prohibitive, no one would dream of even considering it.

The expense of duplicating the old Hall of Justice beggars the imagination. Green marble panels without and marble walls and floors within, bronze hardware, hand-carved rare wood paneling — where would you get such stuff today? Besides, it was an almost exact replica of one of the most beautiful Medici palaces in Florence: as I remember, the one the houses the British Embassy. Derivative it may have been, but at least it was derivative of one of the greatest possible exemplars. The new courthouse building is one of the ugliest public buildings in the world, not even interestingly ugly, but utterly sterile.

This is the problem. San Francisco has all the apparatus — planning commissions, zoning authorities, art commission, even a city plan of sorts, and a small highly civilized elite of great wealth who certainly think of themselves as models of civic responsibility — and yet increasingly we are producing a city that will look like that house in Gertrude Stein’s Making of Americans. I can no longer remember the exact quotation, but it goes something like this: “The homes of the upper class of people in the different cities of America take on the character of the cities in which they are built. The home of the so-and-so family in such-and-such a town was like a large canvas carefully painted all over, but painted to represent empty space.” Ironically, she was writing about a family who still survive at the top of San Francisco’s elite. If there isn’t an all-pervasive imagination and creative will in a community, all the authorities and commissions in the world cannot save a city. Tokyo has suddenly awakened to the fact that it started off after World War II with a clean slate and has managed to commit every conceivable sin of urbanism.

Unless the economy falls completely apart, San Francisco is going to have to tremendously update its cultural infrastructure in the next ten years and at far greater expense than it cost to do it after the great earthquake and fire. If we create any more thousands and thousands of cubic feet of “empty space,” we will cease to have “the city all the world loves.”

[July 1973]

 


 

San Francisco’s Smug Corruption


Now that everyone has written a Watergate column or editorial, I suppose it behooves me to speak my piece, and to speak it in terms of the San Francisco community. Years ago Herb Caen remarked, “San Francisco City Hall is riddled with honesty.” It is true that the kind of bribery, corruption and direct participation of politicians in vice and crime so typical of many American cities does not exist to anywhere near the same degree in San Francisco. The corruption of San Francisco politics is the corruption of ordinary business enterprise, of American human relations generally — business as usual. But that’s precisely what the public has said about Watergate: “That’s the sort of thing all politicians do. Those guys were just so inexperienced, inept and arrogant that they got caught.” That’s probably true. The whole thing was unbelievably amateurish.

In San Francisco we do things differently. Almost never can anyone get near the top of the political structure without being pretty cool, pretty hip. Old-time hustlers had a word for it: “smart.” A much cooler thing than hip. “Keep your nose clean and don’t volunteer.” “Know the answers, but first know the questions.” What this leads to is smugness, not the adolescent cockiness of the White House janissaries.

In recent years, corruption has obviously penetrated San Francisco. All you have to do is walk down the street. The same people control the joints on Broadway — once the most honest, least “clip” entertainment district in the United States — as control Vegas or the French Quarter or once controlled Calumet City. San Francisco’s homosexual prostitution district is almost as big and busy as Bombay’s. There are few places in the world where it is easier to purchase hard drugs. Almost all the whores, male or female, roll their tricks if they get a chance. One thing that’s still pretty tight is gambling. And it’s the tightness of this single racket that indicates as much as anything else the existence of corruption. The gamblers want that money spent in Nevada, where they can wash it quickly and dump it into their enormous cash pool.

Yet most of this change in San Francisco in the past 15 years is due to the presence of those very virtues on which the City prides itself: tolerance, sophistication, imperturbability and unlimited permissiveness. Many years ago I said that San Francisco was the last home of la vie Méditerranée, of laissez faire and dolce far niente — virtues certainly no longer characteristic of the cities on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea itself. Unfortunately the easiest thing to be smug about is broad-mindedness. San Franciscans like to think of their city as a modern Athens, but they don’t care to do much about it. They have an inordinate civic pride, but very little civic responsibility.

Remember those ads with that big insurance company located in a little Wisconsin town, featuring the cultural advantages, community pleasures and fruitful social life of a place about the size of Harvard? There’s another series of ads that feature Des Moines, Iowa, which really is a civilized place, whatever the “natives of California” whose parents came from there may think of Iowa.

There are a lot of little places in the hinterland that try harder. It’s supposed to be unsophisticated to bother. Only hicks worry about where the money went for BART, or if the infrastructure is efficient, the streets properly paved, the sewers working, the Bay being depolluted and whether or not the schools are safe and provide quality education.

This has always been true of San Francisco. As a well-planned efficient community it has never existed. Like New York City, it is civically one of the most backward great cities of the world. Even that immense madhouse called Tokyo is operated with greater responsibility.

All this was fine once. It was possible to agree with Jefferson, that “government which governs least governs best,” or with Lincoln Steffens, that “bad” government is better than “good” government. This is no longer true. The technology of modern urbanism, the demands of the people, and the breakdown of universally accepted public morality have brought all the big cities of the world to the brink of a most severe crisis. Perhaps its very lethargy has saved San Francisco from some of the worst aspects of the urban crisis. We don’t have quite as much vice, quite as many muggings, quite as bad slums as some places, though we do have the highest suicide, VD and alcoholism rates. What we lack is concerned action.

The City has an elite — and how. One of the elitist elites in the world, and do they know it. But they’re not prepared to assume the roles which are the only justification for an elite. The last thing in the world any of them want to be is a guardian of Plato’s republic. Dianne Feinstein is one of the few politicians in two generations to be even remotely connected with the City’s elite. I don’t agree with her all the time, but if everybody on the Board of Supervisors were as civilized as she is, and as much of an activist, San Francisco might take a decided turn for the better.

Leadership in a city’s life is provided by — among other things — an aggressive, concerned press. There is no Washington Post or St. Louis Post-Dispatch or Louisville Courier in San Francisco. Our two newspapers are not just a Siamese-twin monopoly. Unlike Siamese twins, they have worked out a modus vivendi in the most liberal sense of the word: an easy method for keeping one another alive. One has built itself entirely around its city columnist — whom everybody who is anybody has to read with the grapefruit. It’s a very liberal paper. Why? Because it permits its columnist to make off-color jokes and even suggest a four-letter word once a week. The other paper thinks of itself as a kind of Madame Tussaud’s, a historical waxworks museum enshrining a great past when robber barons were robber barons and press lords were press lords. Unfortunately, it’s run by a board of directors around a mahogany table in New York, none of whom know anything about the newspaper business. It is supposed to be reactionary — no dirty words. But when push comes to shove both papers come down on the same side of the fence, a fence with a big sign on it: “Let sleeping dogs lie.” Neither paper has run an exposé of any of the many evils the city is heir to, in over a generation. If you asked the publishers, they’d say there weren’t any such evils. The plain fact of the matter is, neither paper would dream of spending any money like the money spent for weeks and weeks on the Watergate investigation before it began to pay off in hard facts.

[August 1973]

 


 

Old Chinatown


It’s amazing how much San Francisco has changed since I came here in 1927. Legendary old San Francisco is usually thought of as, to quote that immortal epic The Girl with the Blue Velvet Band, “that city of wealth, beauty and fashion, dear old Frisco where I first saw the light” — the wild and glamorous town of the years before the Fire (Earthquake). But it’s extraordinary how legendary and far away the San Francisco of pre-Depression days has become.

To start, as the tourist does, with Chinatown: a majority of the men still wore black sateen suits and little caps and smoked tobacco in the iron and bamboo pipes that all the honkies thought contained opium. Real hip white people called it a yen hock, which in fact is corrupt Cantonese for the needle on which opium is roasted. There were lots of women with Golden Lilies or Golden Lotuses, bound dwarfed feet, teetering along Grant Avenue where some of the signs still said Dupont Street. Big black limousines full of singsong girls shepherded by a solemn fat mama came and went from Chinese banquets, at which all sorts of depraved capers were imagined to go on. Walking along Grant Avenue of an evening you were never out of the sound of rattling mahjong tiles. The stores all had small paned windows, closed at night with wooden or sheet-iron shutters. I remember the first modern storefront in Chinatown, a restaurant on Washington Street below Grant, long since vanished. Crowds of curious Chinese watched the place being rebuilt, utterly fascinated. The next, the first on Grant Avenue, was the Fong Fong Bakery and Ice Cream Parlor, still there. In the little basement and alley restaurants with their menus only in Chinese, chalked on a blackboard, you could get a good meal for 25¢.

The Chinese community policed itself. It had the highest tuberculosis rate, but the lowest delinquency and crime rate in the City. One thing the tourists were always looking for were Chinese girls, but the days of hundreds of little cribs with the girls calling out “Two bittie looky! Four bittie feely! Six bittie doeey!” were long gone. There were still brothels on Bush Street but the girls were Caucasian and the prices were high. The famous Gentleman’s Agreement had given over the policing of Chinatown to the Chinese community and all interracial “vice” was very effectively banned, except for Chinese lottery tickets which were sold by the thousands every morning all over the City. There was a Chinatown Detail of Caucasian plainclothes police, a bunch of Keystone Cops, whose duties seemed to consist of loitering together on street corners, spitting on the sidewalk, and collecting the clout. The best restaurants were Hang Far Low, Tao Yeuan, and the Moon Café of happy memory. An acupuncturist used to operate on the street, and it was common to see somebody sitting quietly against the wall, stuck full of needles. One of the most fascinating characters was a little old man with a sublimely happy face surrounded with, for a Chinese, quite bushy white hair and beard. He was a trapper in the marshes near the head of the Bay, and each week he brought in a raccoon or a possum or a wildcat or a gray fox, two animals at a time, rolled alive in chicken wire and suspended from a yoke over his shoulder. These he sold to customers, who had them killed and skinned (the skin cured and saved for a health vest — for this purpose the wildcat was considered the best). The meat, and especially the organs, and most especially the bile duct and testicles, was cooked and eaten — guaranteed to put lead in your pencil, even if you didn’t have anybody to write to. Usually he also had a sack of snakes, including defanged rattlers, which he sold for the same purposes. In his old, old age he was arrested by the police of the California Fish and Game Commission, and died in prison.

There were three, sometimes four, Chinese theaters, where the entire repertoire of Chinese opera could be seen night after night, and after ten o’clock admission was only 25¢. Since Chinese plays never really get going until halfway through, it was possible to spend every night watching one of the world’s greatest theatrical traditions for little more than the price of a package of cigarettes. Those were the great days of the Cantonese theater, before the old traditional costumes gave way to gaudy things covered with huge glittering sequins, and when Chinese actors were still trained from childbirth not only in flawlessly perfect acting technique but in the most fantastic acrobatics, and the actresses in equally agile dancing. It was also before the years when the Chinese theater became overwhelmed with male impersonators, women in heroes’ roles.

Today such theatrical performances would be prohibitively expensive. There is no longer a full-time Chinese theater in the City (shockingly enough, there isn’t one in Taipei either), and even the heavily subsidized festival performances nowadays cannot compare with what you got for 25¢ admission a generation ago.

With the change in taste, Chinese theatrical costumes and the traditional clothing of the Chinese upper classes were thrown on the second-hand market and “Mandarin coats” and suchlike could be bought for a few dollars from high-piled tables in the two largest Chinese art goods stores. Chinatown was full of bargains of this sort, and it was hard to figure out how the merchandise, food, clothing, hardware, art objects, could be delivered to the customer at such prices. Along the line, nobody could have made more than a few pennies on each transaction, from the Canton pawn shop to the final clubwoman from Des Moines.

There was another side of the coin. When I came to San Francisco I expected to meet all sorts of people with whom I could discuss the great poets, philosophers and painters of China. But classical Chinese culture was a closed book to all but a few old men who could not communicate with a Caucasian, and a Chinese woman doctor and her brother. When C.H. Kwock arrived from Hong Kong and Honolulu to work on the Chinese World, with an enthusiastic knowledge and love of the classical culture, he was the first person of his kind in the community.

Concomitantly, the hidden, deep-rooted prejudice against the Chinese, which prevailed in all circles of the white community, dumbfounded me. I had been friends during his stay in America with the great Chinese poet Wen I-to, later assassinated by the Kuo Min Tang, and had many other Chinese friends. I discovered that even among radical bohemians here, if I said “At the University of Chicago where I went, an oriental student is a preferred date,” it was as though I had made a mess on the floor.

[September 1973]

 


 

The Redevelopment Wrecking Machine


Last month I wrote on Chinatown a generation ago and I had planned to do a short series on the characteristic neighborhoods of San Francisco and the ways they have changed since the years between the wars. This one was to be on the old North Beach bohemia. Meanwhile election time is coming up and people have been writing me about an issue relevant both to the changes in the artists’ quarter of the City and to the general policy of development and “redevelopment” as it has been implemented by the City’s politicians.

Back of Tommy’s Joynt at Van Ness and Geary still stands the large Goodman Building, 1117 Geary Street, scheduled for demolition by the Redevelopment Agency. It was built 104 years ago and is still fundamentally sound, although the agency calls it substandard. It is the last large studio building left in the City and houses a whole colony of artists who have been fighting for almost a year to preserve their home. Their struggle raises most of the issues involved in “redevelopment”: the ruthless destruction of the character of the City, the demolition of significant architecture and historically important buildings, the Redevelopments Agency’s total disregard of the welfare of occupants of buildings in the path of its wrecking machine, and even the financial interests of most of the owners.

The Montgomery Block, probably the most historic building in San Francisco — it had been everything from a jail to the state capitol and had housed at one time or another almost all the important writers and artists who have lived in San Francisco — was an ideal studio building. The ceilings were high, the huge windows gave plenty of light. The rents were very cheap. The tenants formed a real community.

Then it was bought by speculators, torn down, and left as a vacant lot for years. Finally on that site was erected what must be the ugliest skyscraper in the world, a kind of hideous billboard which has circumvented the outdoor advertising ordinances to flaunt the name of an institution which as a guardian of credit for construction should also be the guardian of the beauty and integrity and history of the City.

This raises a very significant point. The major banks of San Francisco control the construction credit and so could control the development of the City if their directors so wished. A very large proportion of these directors consider themselves patrons of the arts, and one specific groups constitutes a highly exclusive dynasty of art patrons. They or their wives monopolize, as far as they can, control of the cultural institutions of the City and do their best to keep anyone who is not socially acceptable out. Yet these are the people who finance the Manhattanization of the City and who, by various pressures, also determine its political complexion. These are the people who avidly support a Performing Arts Center, where they can show off their diamond dog collars and their husbands can make a lot of money. This is why the liberal bloc of the City’s politicians and the voters behind them are so violently opposed to the Performing Art Center, which in fact the City badly needs.

But even more we need homes and studios for artists and writers in which they can live and work comfortably at prices they can afford to pay. This the Redevelopment Agency is quite unable to provide. If there were proper political leadership it might be possible to mobilize funds for subsidized housing for just such purposes. If auditoriums can be named after Zellerbachs and Dinkelspiels and zoos after Fleishhackers, what would be wrong with studio buildings financed by subsidy and patronage and named after the Haases? I for one have no objection to them immortalizing themselves in this way. It is significant that in every big city in the world the artists’ quarters were in Victorian or earlier architecture — modern domestic architecture is so inhumane that no creative person could live in it, or so expensive that only creative personalities like the editors of Playboy or executives for J. Walter Thompson could afford it. The best modern apartments suited for studios in the City at the moment are the corner penthouses at the top of the Golden Gateway. Any idea what they cost? Hugh Hefner himself might find them dear.

We are involved in a far greater issue than the salvation of the Goodman Building, the construction of cheap cooperative studios or the advisability of the Performing Arts Center. The City has all sorts of planning and zoning commissions, pressure groups both expansionist and conservationist. It is one of the hottest speculative real estate areas in the country and is still the center for large-scale credit west of the Rockies. It also has the most progressive electorate west of the Rockies, last time voting for both grass and McGovern, yet it is being planned, zoned and developed out of existence. Even the best planning, if not backed up by a concerned public, cannot save a city. The Wacker Plan for Chicago was the most progressive for any large city in the country and almost all of it has been fulfilled, yet Chicago is almost as unlivable as Manhattan or Tokyo. After the Earthquake and Fire the City fathers hired David Burnham, one of America’s best architects, to plan a new city. He and Willis Polk (San Francisco’s leading architect) got a little shack on Telegraph Hill and spent months there planning an ideal metropolis, a genuine phoenix arising from the flames. But each little “bastion of entrenched greed” clung furiously to its status quo cut of the pie and San Francisco returned to a planlessness as crazy as Boston’s. Nevertheless, San Francisco remained until the last 20 years the place “where everybody wants to live,” largely because it preserved the fabric of an older and more humane time that sheltered an exceptionally humane and liberal population.

Here is the issue. Grass and McGovern are not enough. Even Hongisto is not enough. What San Francisco has to have if it is not to become just another plastic anthill, is creative leadership at all levels. Leadership that shows genuine initiative motivated by well-informed responsibility. At the present time both the power structure and the political apparatus are provincial and impotent.

A big step in the right direction is the candidacy of Bill Roth. He is, if ever anybody was, a member of San Francisco’s elite. He is a highly cultivated man, a true citizen of the world, who in the past has acquired a reputation as a highly skilled international negotiator and is a well-balanced liberal with a profound knowledge of the needs of his city and state.

[October 1973]


 


 

Bohemian San Francisco Between the Wars


Having spoken my little piece about the election, I can get back to the short series of columns I hope to do on San Francisco between the wars, and in this one, to North Beach and Telegraph Hill — The Last Bohemia.

Now that almost a generation has passed since the first Abstract Expressionists and Morris Graves lived here and the San Francisco Renaissance and the Beats started writing and the Tape Music Center began and San Francisco became for ten years the liveliest culture capital in the world and its artists and writers famous from Asunción to Reykjavik and from Irkutsk to Mexico City and the place every young intellectual wanted to go as soon as possible, it is hard to believe how provincial the City was between the First War and the Depression.

I hadn’t been here very long before I got a visit from the leading artist, who looked around the walls and said, “Waall I see you’re experimentin’ with abstract form like Matissey and Picassio.” Folks were nothing if not loyal to local talent. Everybody, but everybody, believed the greatest living poet was George Sterling, the greatest living novelist Kathleen Norris, and that Papa Hertz was an orchestral conductor and the rubbery sounds emitted by his Symphony were music. My wife and I had to admit it was a change of pace after Paris, New York and Chicago.

There were advantages, as there always are to provincialism and cultural lag. The marketplace was far away. It was quite impossible to make a living as an artist, writer or composer in San Francisco, so the practitioners of the arts were in it for love, and they were mostly very poor indeed. This economic situation produced a Bohemia very like that of New York or Chicago from the 1880s to the First War.

Another important factor was that Prohibition simply didn’t exist. There were several bars on Market Street alone where a perfect stranger could walk in and get a full whiskey glass of respectable moonshine or grappa for 25¢, and it was easy to find red wine for $2 a gallon or less. A studio in the Montgomery Block cost $12. Over on Washington and Sansome were even bigger rooms, gaslit, for $8-10 a month. If you had practically no money at all you could get free buttermilk at the Golden State Dairy nearby and in the produce district as the markets closed all the free vegetables you could carry away, and free fish at the wholesale fish market. There was another place where you could get free dried fruit. There was no problem, if you knew your way around, in maintaining a very healthful diet. None of the cheap hotels in North Beach cost more than a dollar a day. The cheapest Italian restaurants served a full dinner and a glass of red ink for 25¢, and you could put together a Chinese dinner at Yee Jun’s for 25¢ a person — or less.

The hangouts were: the Casa Beguine, a wonderful restaurant then entering its decline — Mama and Papa Beguine were growing old, and their customers were deserting Bohemia for the Establishment; the Telegraph Hill Tavern, run by a great cook and great lover and bad poet, a lady who called herself Myrtokleia, after a character in The Songs of Bilitis; and Izzy Gomez’s, at first on Pacific, across from the firehouse, immortalized in William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life. The Casa Beguine in its best days was a genuine artists’ and writers’ restaurant where people lingered long after splendid dinners in passionate discussions or intense chess games, and after many glasses of wine ended up singing until after midnight. It must have been something like the Closerie des Lilas in Paris in the 1900s, when the evenings were presided over by Paul Fort, the “Prince of Poets.”

Myrto’s was different. The customers were mostly pure Bohemians — people with artistic personalities but little or no artistic talent, who enjoyed many of the pleasures of the rich while sacrificing many of the necessities of even the poor. The atmosphere was one of muted orgy, liable to break loose at any late hour into gay, bedraggled abandon. Myrto and her friends were always getting busted at the annual arts ball for appearing in the altogether or as they say in French, à poil. Myrto’s was more like the Café Dôme in Montparnasse’s craziest days or the even crazier “bohemian tea rooms” of Greenwich Village or Chicago’s Near North Side — Grace’s Garret, the Purple Pup, the Green Mask, the Gray Cottage, all of them dead long before the Telegraph Hill Tavern was born.

Izzy Gomez’s was something else. Unique. Sui generis. It really was as portrayed in The Time of Your Life, except that it was also a favorite hangout for hardboiled, sophisticated newspapermen of the kind that flourished in the good old days when no self-respecting newspaperman, including even the editorial writers, believed a word of the Social Lie, but knew all the real answers. They gave the place a rowdy, slightly underworld character of half-suppressed brawl. Now they’re all dead. The last to go was handsome Pat O’Niall who died, fat and alcoholic, on the Pittsburgh Press, a legend of awe and wonder to his colleagues in what has come to be called “the profession of journalism.” Izzy’s grappa, the best liquor in town, was 25 cents a shot. He served nothing else but home brew. Bootleg big brewery beer was made only by the Organization and not allowed in San Francisco. For meals Izzy served thick, luscious steaks, French fries and salads — a considerable number of meals and liquor free, not just to starving artists, but to people he liked. I was always a little embarrassed to patronize the place because he would never take any money from me. If I brought guests for dinner I had to give them the money and have them pretend to be hosting me. Even so, Izzy would not usually take the money.

More next month.

[November 1973]

 


 

More on Bohemian San Francisco


San Francisco’s Bohemia, between the two world wars, may have been provincial, but in those days there was no question whatever that the laissez faire and dolce far niente of la vie >méditerranée was stronger and lasted longer here than anywhere on that tideless inland sea itself.

San Tropez wasn’t in it with Telegraph Hill. Most of the hill was still unpaved. There weren’t even real streets on the north side and only rickety wooden staircases on the east. Two different old ladies herded goats in the vacant lots and kept them at night in barns that were part of their own homes. The Italians were almost all from North Italy, the largest contingent from Lucca. To this day the Lucchese have the largest town club in the Bay Area, and whenever I have visited Lucca all sorts of people greet me by name and invite me for a drink.

At harvest time the gutters were purple with overflowing refuse from the vine presses, and an atmosphere of wholesome orgy borne on the strains of mandolins, guitars and accordions enveloped the whole hill. This Latin virtú communicated itself most infectiously to the scattered bohemians, who still constituted a very small minority. San Francisco must have been the only city in the United States where intellectuals drank wine rather than hard liquor or cocktails at their parties.

Even the sex was wholesome, though promiscuous. You seldom felt the frustration, tensions and combativeness so characteristic of Greenwich Village. Most parties or even just nightly get-togethers ended with singing. Six months going about on Telegraph Hill would have provided anyone with an immense repertoire of authentic folk songs, old English ballads and the highest quality of classic bawdy songs. Myrtokleia, and after her day the painter Richard Ayer, father of the young woman poet Hilary Ayer, had absolutely unlimited repertoires and could sing all night. So could a man I believe is still alive down in Big Sur, Harry Dick Ross, who had a bellow like the late movie actor Joe E. Brown — which covered the fact he couldn’t sing a note. All Telegraph Hill needed to be the Land of Cockayne come true were those roast pigeons flying around with a knife and fork sticking in them.

There wasn’t much other music in those days. King Oliver had played San Francisco in the early ’20s and so had “Frisco, the American Apache Dancer,” who was the first man to take a jazz band into Palace Time vaudeville.

But this spirit did not last. Perhaps the reason was that the black community in San Francisco was very small. It stretched from Ellis Street to Sutter and from Webster to Laguna, sparsely sprinkled amongst the predominantly Japanese population. Fillmore Street in those days was mostly Jewish. Still, one after another there were wonderful gathering places of the kind that came to be known as “after-hours joints.” The earliest I can remember was a speakeasy called, I think, Timmes’. It was a house, west of Fillmore a few doors, probably on O’Farrell, and it was like an ideal Harlem rent party that never stopped. Timmes’ served excellent liquor, red wine and very good grappo, which I believe he got from the same supplier as Izzy Gomez.

The place had a piano with a fine collection of ragtime rolls, but there was usually somebody around who could play it in an ultra-funky Jelly Roll Morton style. I don’t know where they came from since there was no market for their talents, but all sorts of musicians with all sorts of instruments would wander in and jam until dawn, while between the little tables the customers would roll and bump. After Timmes’ there was a succession of wonderful places. Elsie’s, Blackshears’, Jack Bryant’s in the tiny black district of seagoing folks at Pacific and Embarcadero. Timmes’ and Elsie’s had the friendliest atmosphere of any entertainment places I’ve ever been in. And Jack Bryant had the most beautiful waitresses I’ve ever seen, girls who’d make the chorus line at the Harlem Apollo Theatre look plain and dowdy.

There was, in those days, no hostility directed toward hip white people whatever. Although there were very few of them at the tables, there were always plenty of white musicians jamming, and welcome.

By the time Blackshears’ came along, a faint note of hostility had begun to appear and by the time of Jimbo’s, the most famous of them all, black hostility toward whites gradually became oppressive. When Wilma opened Soulsville a few years ago, white musicians were quietly frozen off the stand — to her distress. I must say that I never felt any discrimination or hostility whatsoever either in the after-hours joints or in regular clubs like Jack’s or the Club Alabam. The latter was pretty funky but Jack’s was very high-class, and although the black community was small, functioned as a kind of black Hungry i. Jack’s introduced a remarkable list of entertainers, even the great bass singer Kenneth Spencer, who went on from Sutter and Fillmore to fame in Bach, Mozart and Monteverdi in Europe.

Years later I came into a Chinese restaurant near the Sorbonne in Paris. Behind me a powerful bass voice was speaking and my wine glass trembled in front of me. “My God!” I said to my wife, “Kenneth Spencer’s in this room somewhere!” So he was. He was with Alberta Hunter, an old friend of mine from Chicago, the first woman to ever sing blues on the concert stage (though the surviving records don’t sound very bluesy). We spent the night talking about the old days.

They were pretty good old days. There was probably less interracial tension and less prejudice against blacks in San Francisco than anywhere else in the world. Private parties, clubs, after-hours joints and big dances were places of pure joy. Something that I have always thought very significant of interracial naturalness, not just tolerance, is the incidence of white male-black female interracial couples. In those days in a place like Jack’s or Timmes’ there were almost as many as the other way around. Alas, today interracial tensions have grown so severe that natural contacts have almost died out — first in interracial organizations like CORE and at last, and finally, in jazz.

[December 1973]

 

 


“San Francisco in the Sixties” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns and articles from the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967), the San Francisco Bay Guardian (1967-1972), and San Francisco Magazine (1967-1975). Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.


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