Chairs on the walls | This old house | The blessings of Friday | Home | Current issues | Back issues |

November 30 - December 4, 1998

Tuesday, December 1, 1998

Chairs on the walls

SAVANNAH --- A quiet city dotted with statues and grassy parks. Live oak trees draped with gray-green cobwebs of Spanish moss, and stucco houses with French doors that open out onto wrought-iron balconies. No, Toto, we're not in Kansas any more. Nor in San Francisco.

A good tourist, I've been reading the plaques and brochures: Savannah was settled in 1733 by James Edward Oglethorpe, under a charter that excluded --- don't laugh! ---  papists, blacks, lawyers and purveyors of liquor. Contrary to a prevailing myth of American history, it also excluded convicts, although Oglethorpe, a passionate reformer, had dreamed of making his colony a haven for the detritus of English debtors' prisons. After a shaky start, the thirteenth British colony and fourth U.S. state of Georgia prospered, and the city perched on a bluff near the state's southern edge became a one of the new nation's busiest ports.

The downtown area, which Oglethorpe had laid out over a grid of 24 landscaped squares (21 are still there), acquired a well-deserved reputation for gracious Southern living --- "that gently mannered city by the sea," Margaret Mitchell called it. Even Sherman refused to add it to his pyre, instead wiring President Lincoln, "I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah." Today, King Cotton has been deposed, but Southern hospitality has tempered grim reality, creating a gentle haven for card-carrying travelers.

In the journey that ended at Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, New York writer John Berendt entered the Coastal Empire along its northern shore, crossing the Savannah River on Talmadge Bridge, where delicate suspension cables fan out into one of the city's recognizable landmarks. I came from the upstart city of Atlanta, inland to the northwest, and arrived first at the old railroad station that now serves as a visitors' center. Like Berendt, I found myself swept into the magical, only-partly-real realm that Sir Robert Montgomery, an early advocate of settlement, called the "most delightful Country of the universe."

And so, naturally, I thought of home.

How on earth, I wondered, do prospective visitors envision our city by the bay? I began to imagine a travelogue.

First, we hear the sound of waves, broken by the dull trombone-blast of a foghorn. Words s-l-o-w-l-y emerge --- Welcome to San Francisco: The Best Place on Earth --- superimposed on a shot of the Marin headlands and the Golden Gate Bridge. The title fades out, and the camera lovingly pans across the water, caressing Alcatraz and Angel Island. Close-up: A group of laughing people in bright T-shirts watching the seals at Pier 39, as fishing boats float idly in the background. Close-up: A sign reading "Hunters Point Naval Shipyard," against a background of dilapidated wooden buildings. Cerise letters flash on and off: Dioxin. And then the picture crashes; the screen goes dark and silent. A moment later, background music swells, a rhythmic series of dull clicks punctuated by the squeaks and squawks that accompany online connections. The camera focuses on the city's skyline, with the Transamerica Pyramid prominent in the middle. Close-up: The windows of the Marriott gleaming in the morning sunshine. Close-up: Thousands of men and women, wearing name tags, milling about in front of the snow-white entrance to Moscone Center.

Fade out to a new title --- San Francisco: A City of Diversity. Horns honk and engines roar as the camera sweeps along Market Street, creating a vivid panorama of varied faces against a sea of traffic sounds. Dissolve to a line of men standing outside St. Anthony's Dining Room, another vivid panorama of varied faces against a sea of traffic sounds. The cacophony rises: zoom in on faces at Grant and Clay, at Mission and 24th, at Haight and Ashbury. Suddenly, the quiet purr of cars: the Marina. And near-silence: 3rd and Oakdale.

Another title --- San Francisco: A Paradise of Fun and Food. A series of images and sounds appear in rapid sequence, blending into a rich composition of inviting activities. Ice skaters cling precariously to one another with gloved hands as they circle Kristi Yamaguchi Rink, cheerful music disguising the traffic noises on the Embarcadero behind them. Wide-eyed children sit soberly astride gloriously refurbished carousel horses, riding round and round, oblivious to the cars and buses just below. A crowd in black wildly applauds Mötley Crüe at the Warfield; close-up of the price on a ticket stub. A crowd in red madly cheers Steve Young at Candlestick; close-up of the price on a ticket stub. Well-dressed audiences clap enthusiastically at Miss Saigon, the symphony, Turandot; more ticket stubs. The clink of crystal, the clatter of knives and forks: Masa's, Jack's, Stars. A group of men and women recline in sleeping bags near a makeshift wall of shopping carts, passing around a large bottle and laughing boisterously, as a line of police officers watch in the distance. Flashback: Dan White munches a Twinkie. Flashback: In Jonestown hundreds of San Franciscans guzzle Kool Aid.

At this point,  the film trails off into the sunset. Violins soar. Rays of red and orange pierce towering banks of fog, as the final words appear --- Visit San Francisco: The City of Tomorrow.

A bitter fantasy? Yes, but one born out of great love and great disappointment. This is the city that many prospective visitors see. And it's not incorrect. But where, in its frames, is there a glimpse of what really makes San Francisco special? The panoply of people who have walked its streets and made it truly fun to be here --- the likes of Oofty Goofty and Wavy Gravy, Lillie Coit and Mary E. Pleasant. The genuine scoundrels, like Boss Abe Ruef, and the genuine heroes, like Joe DiMaggio. San Francisco is indeed a city unlike any other, particularly in the scope of its imagination. Where else could a chair-studded building, like the one at 6th and Howard, teach an entire neighborhood the meaning of "defenestration"? A silicon casing may keep the elements out; it may also smother the life inside.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

Wednesday, December 2, 1998

This old house

SAVANNAH --- If ever a city embodied a Yankee's vision of the Old South, it must be Savannah. It's easy to propel yourself back into the 19th century and imagine bales of cotton lining the wharves along the river, waiting to be shipped up the coast or across the Atlantic. Even in November, the nights are often warm. Suggestions of Chatham artillery punch (Savannah's potent equivalent to mint juleps) float down Bay Street, mingled with the scent of pralines. And if you look carefully at the handsome old homes that line the city's park-like squares, you might almost catch sight of a ghost or two.

Savannah is a beautiful city, attracting visitors from all over the world to its fine architecture and lush gardens. But it's also a city reborn. After the boll weevil destroyed Georgia's cotton crops in the 1920, the local economy faltered and the bustling port became a waterfront derelict. As in many other cities, affluent residents moved to the suburbs, turning the downtown into a low-rent district that gradually fell into disrepair. Photographs taken in the 1940s and early 1950s show rows of unpainted houses with sagging steps and shutters hanging askew. Then something happened --- a series of somethings --- that turned the process around and established Savannah in the forefront of what we usually regard as successful urban renewal. It also established the city as an example of what happens when preservationists ignore broader social and economic problems.

I first heard of the Historic Savannah Foundation from a San Francisco city planner when I asked about alternatives to the instant-city concept fueling our projected Mission Bay construction. In the 1950s, the story goes, developers began to tear down once-splendid buildings in central Savannah and replace them with bland commercial structures. A few individual voices remonstrated, but the spree continued with little real obstruction until somebody decided to rip out the very heart of the city. A public market had occupied a site on Ellis Street since 1763, first in the open air and then in a huge covered building. Farmers transported their produce by wagon or truck for sale there; it was also the center of trade for local Gullah basketweavers. But in 1954 the market was demolished and replaced by a multistory concrete parking garage.

The sound of the market's crashing bricks apparently served as a wake-up call, because a group of seven women got together and began to plan ways of preventing the next raid on their city. The world has obviously got to watch out for middle-aged ladies. These women with carefully waved hair and flower-print dresses looked more like members of a canasta circle than embryonic revolutionaries. But their determination and organization reversed the course of Savannah history, just as a group of women led by Catherine Kerr stopped the filling in of San Francisco Bay in the early 1960s.

The first Savannah skirmish set a pattern. The target for destruction was the Isaiah Davenport House, an architecturally significant building dating from about 1820. In recent years, eleven families had crowded within its rundown walls until a lack of repairs forced them to move out, setting in motion a pattern familiar to SOMA residents: blight and abandonment, followed by redevelopment. But the ladies --- or rather, their foundation --- said no. They raised $20,000, bought the house themselves, and renovated it, turning it into a museum and rented office space. The previous tenants were lost, but the building was saved.

Restoration fever reigned, and stopping the bulldozers became the latest craze. The foundation learned to use federal urban renewal money; it set up a revolving fund to subsidize purchases and spread financial risks among a large number of people. A proud new Savannah blossomed --- "such a nice place to live." Tourism revived, followed by other businesses.

That was only the beginning. Step by step, preservation moved forward, charting a course in Savannah that cities across the country would follow.

The next challenge lay in the Victorian District, where the ramshackle houses in need of renovation were still occupied. Would it be possible to make necessary repairs, often expensive because of the buildings' elaborate trim, without displacing the families living there? In addition, the district is home primarily to African Americans, and the white members of the foundation found themselves confronting a group of resolute citizens, activated by the Civil Rights Movement, who insisted on participating in the decision making. Many of the original restorationists refused to get involved. Ultimately, in 1974,  Leopold Adler II --- a puckish white-haired Southern gentleman whose mother was one of the flower-dressed women --- organized a racially mixed nonprofit corporation devoted to buying out slumlords and renovating the district.

But the story doesn't end there, nor does its relevance to the fate of other cities. As other sections of Savannah present themselves for redevelopment, low-income residents are increasingly aware of disparities in their housing. They have discovered that, for them, preservation often preserves an unwanted way of life. Why, they ask, should renovation mean simply a change in landlords? Longtime black activists like postal worker W. W. Law and the Reverend Thurmond N. Tillman of the First African Baptist Church have begun to raise economic issues, insisting that urban renewal of any sort must include low-interest mortgage programs to enable tenants to buy their homes. They make a connection between housing and employment, arguing that without adequate jobs poor people will never truly take part in the rebirth of their city. White alderman Gary R. Gebhardt concurs, in an interview for the video Savannah: The Death and Rebirth of a City: "I don't think we're doing enough....Our housing programs are public-relations-oriented, rather than product-oriented."

The new crisis in Savannah housing is phrased in racial terms, although given the city's social composition, it's hard to know where race ends and class begins. It carries a message of distrust: "Historic preservation to an African American," W. W. Law says, "is a history of loss." Houses are easy. The real trick is to preserve people.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998


Friday, December 4, 1998

The blessings of Friday

There's turmoil in Great Britain. Unelected aristocrats might be stripped of their right to vote in the House of Lords. This follows the startling move to change the traditional garb of the Lord Chancellor, and it's away with the tights and the wigs. Can the mascara be far behind?

The conservatives vow retribution. Has the Lord Chancellor been hoisted by his own leotard?

Meanwhile, across the pond, Moaning Becomes Electra: Dennis Rodman, the NBA court jester, has filed for an annulment from his nine-day marriage to actress Carmen Electra. The basketball star says he was drinking all night before the wedding ceremony and he "didn't know which end was up."

Funny, that never was a big problem before. Rumors that the denied bride tore Rodman's lingerie to shreds could not be confirmed.

* * *

Some people are already tearing their hair out over the possibility that the world will be thrown into chaos by something called "Y2K."

Or is it "KY, too"?

I'm not sure but I think it means that either computers will go haywire on January 1, 2000 or, worse, we'll be out of lubricating jelly by that spring.

That might be an issue in some neighborhoods. For old time's sake I wandered up Polk Street over the holiday weekend. The Grubstake is still in business, though they've made some concessions over the years --- like closing from 3 a.m. until 5 a.m.

"That's probably so they can hose the place down," suggests Norm Howard. I think it's more likely they hose the customers down. Farther up Polkstrasse, as the gay lads used to call it back in the 1970s, I noticed that Kimo's, the transvestite bar, was still in place. The act on the marquee: Fauxgirls.

I laughed out loud all the way to Washington Street. Incidentally, I got thrown out of a bar over the weekend --- for not drinking.

Billy Burnell, the boisterous barman at Delaney's in the Marina, bellowed at me, "Are you gonna have something to drink? If not, then get the hell out of here!"

If he can't stand to be around me when I'm sober, how do you think I feel?

* * *

Turkey Soup for the Chicken's Soul: C-SPAN aired the White House ritual of the annual presidential pardon of the Thanksgiving Turkey. This is the friendly photo-op where the president greets the families of the White House staff. Mr. Clinton petted the fowl and --- I'm not exaggerating --- hugged a young, comely woman (aged 24 or so) and gave her an inordinate amount of time and attention. It's amazing. Doesn't this guy ever learn? His spiritual adviser must have had the day off.

* * *

Pope John Paul II is offering Catholics a chance at saving their souls in the year 2000. Well, with the computers down, will be unavailable anyway.

The pontiff says if one abstains from drinking or smoking even one day, salvation might be attainable. It's unclear if this is part of the settlement the tobacco industry made with the Justice Department.

Year 2000 will be a "jubilee," a year of celebration. This reportedly includes special events, such as, sponsoring Extreme Unction Skateboarding in St. Peter's Square and letting Martin Luther out of jail. But, a church official emphasized sternly, Galileo will not be allowed to use the towels in the guest house.

Critics say the papal decree hearkens back to the old days of selling indulgences. For the first time, a pontiff's face will appear on a Vatican credit card, issued for the occasion. Part of the interest rate goes to tithing and for maintenance on the Pope's Stutz-Bearcat.
In addition, "Jubilee 2000" coffee mugs, baseball-style caps and T-shirts emblazoned with the message, "Have A Nice Dei, Agnus" --- and other sparkling greetings --- will be licensed to local archdioceses.

* * *

Further pardons: A fellow named Tracey Ballou from the Bank of America called the other night. He wants to help me pay off my credit card balance. Awfully nice of him.

"We're starting these pay-off plans because the bank realizes that something must be done about people's accounts," said Tracey.

"You mean that millions of Americans are up to their badoopas in debt, right?"

"Well, yes, Mr. Bellingham," replied Tracey. "But there has been an extraordinary number of personal tragedies in recent times."

"Really. What do you mean, divorce and things like that?" "Yes, but not only that sort of thing --- there has been a very high number of accidents, fires in the home, family crises, natural disasters and so on..."

This gives a little credence to the Millennium doomsayers. "My father was an expert on agriculture and he always talked about cycles," Ballou explained. "He'd would say this is just part of a cycle."

I figured Mr. Ballou would stop short of saying The End was near. After all, that would hardly inspire one to keep up with the credit card payments.

Mike Kemp, who works at Books Inc., is planning a little side business called Apocalypse Insurance. The premiums are rather steep but the policies pay off before the year 2000.

He's assembling a staff. Two qualifications are necessary: a passport and a Swiss bank account.

* * *

Last week I was on the Ronn Owens program on KGO Radio and Ronn had me pontificating about the changes occurring in San Francisco since Herb Caen died.

"The city has been co-opted, put up for sale," I declaimed punditly. "It's becoming a theme park for millionaires. Herb loved to write about wealthy people but they usually didn't provide the talent nor the wit in his column."

Well, I'd better watch it here.

You recall Lady Bracknell chiding her nephew in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest : "Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can't get into it do that."

But we all know there's always a critic somewhere --- just ask Sebastian Faulks, the author who was just awarded the "Prize for Bad Sex." Not through performance, but through description.

In England, the Literary Society said Faulks' book, Charlotte Gray, included the most laughable sex scenes --- sort of the Bulwer-Lytton of Lasciviousness. He clinched the prize by writing: "Meanwhile her ears were filled with the sound of a soft but frantic gasping and it was some time before she identified it as her own."

The character then says: "This is so wonderful I feel I might disintegrate, I might break into a million fragments."

The author, who beat out other works such as The Starr Report did not attend the ceremony.

--- Copyright Bruce Bellingham 1998


Home | Current issues | Back issues |