Sunday, March 25, 2012

A ramble re: Dogpatch and change in cities

The author of the Dogpatch Howler blog has written a generously thoughtful response to a rant I posted here several days ago about the vehicular residents who were kicked out of the Dogpatch neighborhood on the San Francisco waterfront to make it into the designers' enclave it is now.

Dogpatch 2012 is fashionably edgy but no longer the kind of place where you ought to know where you're going if you go there. There are good things to say about that, but then a lot of people who used to live in vehicles in Dogpatch were forcibly put elsewhere, and that makes me sad.

Not to say it was all quaintly nice before. It wasn't. My work as a legal advocate for Dogpatch and Bayview campers led to some lasting friendships. It taught me a lot of respect for self-reliant outlying campers who resist the city's pressure to accept dependent lives in the semi-carceral downtown SROs. It also left me with substantial unhappy memories and a scar on my left leg. So, "wistful," yes, about some things. But not nostalgic. There's a difference.

And I'll admit being a colonist myself South of Market. Or that's what the guy next door called us when we moved in fifteen years ago. He has been here since 1977, back when the big building on the corner was a bathhouse, not a shelter. He's one of the renovators who started fixing up Victorians on the alleys around Folsom in what was then a mostly Filipino neighborhood. In the 1970s, a big extended family, leaders in local neighborhood life, lived in our building. Now I think just one member of that family remains on our street. And all of us from all the earlier waves of arrival now find ourselves trying to socialize these short-term newcomer renters who think their apartments are dormitories and these condo owners whose party guests throw firecrackers from their castle balconies onto the wooden houses below. (This really happened right here, Fourth of July 2010. In fairness, the condo association leadership were energetically contrite.)

Cities change. Moments in neighborhoods change. That happens. It has to happen.

Max Page, a guy I knew in high school back East, became a professor of architecture and wrote a great book, The City's End, about the cultural meanings behind fictional destructions of New York City -- not just Planet of the Apes and Escape from New York, but a surprisingly huge list of symbolic dramas dating back as far as the 1860s. Max's book expresses a love for that city, and for cities in general, that recognizes them as living organisms with a need to change organically to stay properly alive. I think often about a quote Max pulled from Colson Whitehead's Colossus of New York: "No matter how long you have been here... you are a New Yorker the first time you say, That used to be Munsey's, or That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge.... You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now." He has something there.

It's just, when change happens properly in a democratic society, it happens with the consent of the changed, not as imposed by one group on another. The value in change doesn't make it right that, in Dogpatch, Bayview Station officers acting under the heading of "code enforcement" engaged in selective enforcement of the laws, acting pretty much openly on behalf of developers and their condo buyers to change the social shape of the neighborhood. Instead of performing their sworn function as everyone's public servants, the police became representatives of the higher-level property owners against the poor. That left vehicular residents themselves powerless to claim the protection of the laws when they themselves needed help. Some sad things happened as a result, especially to women.

I heard recently that the campaign to remove poor people is still going on farther south along the waterfront in the form of code enforcement campaigns to prevent metal buyers from doing business with homeless scrappers on the (frequently if not always unfair) theory that small-scale metal scavengers are thieves. Upsetting to hear. It's true scrapping is a notorious legal gray area, but there ought to be efforts to regulate the business of scrapping so that poor and sometimes eccentric people can practice this independent, socially undemanding, ecologically useful profession within the law, and maybe in a way that doesn't involve wrecking their shoulders and spines by pushing carts for long distances on foot. Instead, the intention seems to be to rid the landscape of scrappers themselves.

So, the city changes. It has to change. But it ought to change democratically, in a way that accommodates poor people as members of society instead of pretending they can be swept under the rug or banished.

By the way, Dogpatch buffs may be interested in this good history of Pier 70, once the home of the Union Iron Works, now sadly become the city's long-term tow yard -- a debtors' prison for the vehicles of people who can't afford to ransom them. I wonder if Pier 70 has yet exported as much auto scrap as it once produced in girders and ship components.

Gray Brechin's Imperial San Francisco has much more to say about the Union Iron Works. It's good stuff if you can get through this Robert Caro kind of tendentiousness that can be a weariness to read, though maybe I say it as shouldn't.

Chris Carlsson's FoundSF is also a great resource.

It really would be nice if the city would get on with the Pier 70 redevelopment that keeps getting discussed. Of all the redevelopment projects that hurt people, I kind of think that remaking Pier 70 would do more good than harm. Nobody would lose a home if that place were to be fixed up. If it were turned into a nice mall a la Ghirardelli Square, the former residents of Dogpatch might be turned away at the door by security sometimes, but, well, right now few people are allowed into most of that space anyway -- it just sits there. And it would be nice to see the old Iron Works used for an honorable purpose again.

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