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May 24 - 28, 1999

Tuesday, May 25, 1999

Playing Jeopardy

The signs are everywhere: the incessant construction din and the equally endless media hype proclaim that San Francisco is on the move. With the throttle set at Full Speed Ahead, the city is steaming straight into Tomorrowland, where the magical Metreon and the magnificent Zeum happily share space with waterfront parks and sparkling downtown plazas. As the artist depicting Mission Bay made clear, this is a place forever bathed in Crayola-yellow sunshine.

The physical foundations for this new metropolis are just now being poured, but its airy towers have been floating overhead for some time. Late additions alter the conceptualized skyline very little, for each creatively financed project seems to use a common central boilerplate in presenting its anticipated effects to the public. Different architect; different function; same picture. There's a whole lot of mythmaking going on.

It's not a bad myth. One of the most recent vehicles to cross my desk is a video put out by the Bay Area Council/Bay Area Economic Forum touting its proposed high-speed ferries. Designed to amass a fleet over the next 10--20 years that will transport more than 20 million people annually to about 40 "leading-edge" terminals, the water transit system will, the video announces, relieve traffic congestion, safeguard the environment, foster economic vitality, generate hundreds of jobs and improve the quality of daily life for the diverse population that inhabits the Bay Area. What diversity this video presents. A Caucasian businesswoman works en route, with a laptop and a latte on the window-side table in front of her. An African-American businessman grabs his suitcases and makes his way to the airport by hydrofoil. A Caucasian father and an Asian mother take their three children on a weekend outing. A young, well-scrubbed, fair-haired man and woman in baseball caps stand at the bow and watch the scenery go by. An older Caucasian couple attends the opera and returns home on a romantic cruise across the bay. They're all part of a "world-class" system that allows them to avoid present-day traffic and mobility "challenges."

Back on dry land, Sunday's Chronicle ran a long editorial describing the merits of Walter Shorenstein's plan for the Presidio, a mixed-use complex of apartments and profit-making offices, showcasing the CNET Internet news service. The proposed structures are low-slung exemplars of environmental friendliness and good neighborliness. In accord with the principles of sustainability, they provide for recycled wastewater and building materials. In contrast to the job-generating ferry system, this plan boasts that it requires relatively few employees --- only about 1,500, compared to the competing plan of George Lucas which needs 2,500 --- to minimize strains on housing and transportation.

And Ken Garcia reveled on Saturday in the glories of the new China Basin ballpark. Privately financed to the tune of $319 million, PacBell will be a model of engineering brilliance. "One of the best baseball parks ever constructed," crowed the ecstatic Garcia. "No wind." Inside, the layout will be "intimate." Outside, the stadium is already "turning the South Beach area into an economic gold mine, with skyrocketing real estate prices and a burgeoning nighttime scene."

A revived ferry system. An attractive parkland setting for high-tech businesses and residences. A downtown baseball stadium. They arrive wrapped in an aura of environmental responsibility, economic stimulation, and technological transcendence. They project an irresistible energy, a power to sweep away old, outmoded ways of life and replace them with new, better ones. How can we fault them?

But we can.

Take a closer look at the "bold new visions" we are being asked to accept. Their "diverse" rainbow coalition of genders and ethnicities becomes monochromatic when viewed through economic glasses. Generate jobs? Once the construction is finished, these projects will be inhabited largely by well-paid office workers and poorly paid service staff, interspersed with insecurely employed temps. Tread lightly on the earth? The environment would be better off without friends like these --- ferry terminals that converge existing land-based transportation into new knots of congestion; a park area that increases street traffic and reduces recreational space; a ballpark without a traffic plan.

These are not public service organizations out to save the city. They are businesses, very big businesses, with their eyes firmly fixed on a big financial prize. The Bay Area Council promoting the ferries is a forum for local CEOs and government leaders. The company behind the Presidio Village is the city's biggest downtown landlord. Financing for the new ballpark comes from at least ten corporate sponsors who have contributed millions of dollars apiece in exchange for "signage" --- advertising space that will presumably earn them many millions more.

It's no sin to run a successful business. But a business is deceitful when it pretends it's a philanthropy. And members of the public are naive when they forget that profits motivate businesses, when they unquestioningly swallow the dreams that businesses dish up.

On August 4, 1997, the San Francisco Business Times noted a generally overlooked anomaly in the promotion of the Giants' new ballpark. The referendum campaign had proudly paraded a banner proclaiming, "No Public Funds." But the city was indeed preparing to lay out funds --- for a new pavement on Seventh Street, new sewer and power hookups, a new ferry terminal and a variety of other peripheral amenities. "Of course we are spending public money for the Giants' stadium," the mayor acknowledged in a speech before a group of business executives. "The voters didn't ask us about that part. So we didn't tell them."

No, the myth surrounding the city of tomorrow is not a bad myth. It's not even an inaccurate one, as far as it goes. But it is incomplete. Like the handkerchief that is repeatedly dropped onto a table in the old topological math problem, its contact points with the real city of San Francisco are limited and recurrent. The danger lies in believing that they describe the true topography of the city. The danger lies in hearing the same answers so often that we forget there are other questions.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

Wednesday, May 26, 1999

Mere slippage of the tongue

On Saturday, Al Jolson came to town --- in the form of a Jolson impersonator anyway. One hundred members of the Al Jolson Society descended on the Marines Memorial Club to observe the 49th anniversary of Jolson's death. This is where Jolson was scheduled to sing the night after he died. The highlight of the evening occurred when a psychic attempted to reach the spirit of Jolson. A connection was made, but the seance was broken off when Jolson's ghost demanded half of the box office receipts.


* * *

I was playing with the TV dial and, on a small cable station, there was a program identified as "News in Latin from Radio Finland." And it was, indeed, the news in Latin. Just the audio. There's something poignant about hearing the news in a dead language. I was hoping to hear how the battle of Actium turned out. All this has possibilities: The Dead Language Network. It might feature segments such as, "Aramaic for Singles," "A Senior's Guide to Old Norse," "An Introduction to Conversational Goth."

Meanwhile, the networks are contemplating programming changes amid all the incidents of school violence. ABC has shelved plans to air a made-for-TV movie about students seizing control of a high school cafeteria until the ingredients of the Salisbury steak are revealed. CBS has dumped an episode of "Touched by an Angel" where Monica hocks her wings at a pawn shop to buy ammunition for high school students who are willing to take up arms against Satan.

The WB network is showing its sensitivity by dumping an episode of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" until after high school graduations have passed. The show depicts a mayor morphing into a serpent (and running for U.S. Senate?). The more graphic scenes will be edited out --- and sold to Hillary Clinton's "exploratory committee." Also, "America's Most Wanted" is preparing a riveting season finale, titled "Has Anyone Seen Elizabeth Dole?"

Which reminds me that years ago I used to write a faux advice column for radio, performing it with Sedge Thomson on "West Coast Weekend." Entitled "Ask Averill," it provided "advice for the lost, the lovelorn, and for those incapable of forming a cohesive foreign policy." One such bit might enable the star of that perennial rerun, "Danny Boy Live," to avoid any political fallout over the current Chinese espionage issue. (Sedge): Averill, a listener in Hillsborough wonders --- Does Dan Quayle have a chance to win the presidential nomination and go on to the White House? He seems to know so much about China. Averill (Bruce): Dear Hyperbolic in Hillsborough --- Dan Quayle's knowledge of Asian affairs is above reproach. Why, just the other day he took his kids out to pet the Dalai Lama.


* * *

In Florida, a lawsuit was filed against Dollar Rent-A-Car because the company should have known a driver in a fatal accident was likely to be drunk because he's from Ireland. After being deluged with phone calls, the plaintiff's attorney apologized to the Irish people and deleted all references in the suit to the sodden of the Old Sod. But you should know that the actual item is that Myles O'Reilly is getting ready for this year's Bloomsday at his O'Reilly's Irish Pub and Restaurant in North Beach. James Joyce's novel "Ulysses" took place in one day --- June 16, 1904 --- as the protagonist, Leopold Bloom, maundered about Dublin. Myles will feature a stable of actors reading from Joyce's work and will linkup via the Web with Bob Joyce, the writer's grandson, who'll be at the James Joyce Center in Dublin.

Trouble seems to be an occupational hazard for Celt wordsmiths: At the Book Expo America in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, independent booksellers took "Angela's Ashes" author Frank McCourt to task for appearing in a TV spot for Barnes & Noble. As Michele Caprario points out, it's fruitless to wage war on authors when building solidarity among the writers and the marketers would provide better resistance against the chains. is now offering a 50 percent discount on all New York Times Best-Sellers, and and quickly emulated this policy. The independents are outraged, though it seems there's nothing illegal about this predatory practice. In response, independent bookstores might have to put in salad bars or something.

The good news, Pat Holt reports, is that there's a little Oprah Winfrey snobbery afoot. Some reading groups shun Oprah's recommended reading list and consider her selections a little déclassé.

I still wistfully recall the old Book Plate here in the Marina, before Waldenbooks moved in across the street. The owner of the combination cafe and bookstore, Svain Arber, is a great character. I used to love his tirades: "You goddam yuppies with your takeout coffee! Get the fuck out of here!" And the terrified youngsters in their jogging shorts and their Styrofoam cups would go running for their lives out the door.


* * *

And how about the news that cell phones and their electro-magnetic impulses may be causing tumors in their users? We're already aware of their more immediate threat.

Last month, a woman driving down Chestnut Street and holding a spirited conversation on her cell phone, plowed into the back of a parked garbage truck. At the All-Star Donut Shop, Golden Gate Disposal driver Alfonso Reynoso described the collision. "Her car was smashed up so bad, they had to tow it away. I'm glad my partner and I weren't in the truck at the time."

The woman was treated for acute humiliation and released. Other Marina denizens chimed in with accounts of how people, driving with cell phones glued to their ears, run stop signs, ignore red lights and occasionally knock pedestrians down.

I once encountered a young couple tearing around the corner in their obligatory four-wheel-drive sports utility vehicle (you need that heavy equipment around here to negotiate the treachery of double-parked cars outside the Gap). I had to jump back on the curb to avoid serious injury. I noticed that he, in the driver's seat, was on a cell phone. On the passenger side, she was also on a cell phone. I couldn't help but wonder: Were they talking to each other?


* * *

Speaking of Marina-like conversations, I look forward to a debate between Dan Quayle and George W. Bush. I imagine the exchange like this: Quayle: "I knew George Bush. George Bush was a friend of mine. Sir, you are no George Bush." Bush: "Yes, I am." Quayle: "Oh."

--- Copyright Bruce Bellingham 1999

Friday, May 28, 1999

Chip shots

I'm looking at the headlines in this week's "Circuits" section of the New York Times. "The Omnipresent Chip Has Invaded Everything From Dishwashers to Dogs." "Reaching Out to Really Chat, Even With 10 Friends at a Time." "Coming Era of High-Speed Net Access Is Here and Now on College Campuses." And so on.

Particularly for people whose back-door neighbors live in Silicon Valley, this kind of news is hardly news at all. And even unfortunate folk residing in other, less wired parts of the country comfortably engage in discussions of megabytes and RAM. But just as Web-surfers rarely peer into the arcane depths of their monitors, they also avoid looking at the processes --- and the people --- that manufacture their electronic equipment. In the popular imagination, computers are magical instruments, conceived by scientific Peter Pans and delivered fully formed by storks sporting Microsoft logos.

Not so, according to a timely reminder by NYU professor Andrew Ross in the spring issue of New Labor Forum. In fact, the technological revolution of the 21st century is leaving the same kinds of muddy pawprints as the industrial revolution of the 19th: unhealthy working conditions and environmental pollution. The only difference is that a hundred years ago, we called them sweatshops; today, they're "clean rooms." Activists drawn from labor, religious and human rights groups have been stirring up students to protest the pernicious if somewhat old-fashioned practices of companies like Nike and The Gap. Perhaps because microelectronics comes equipped with a utopian aura, its newer-fangled factories have generally remained impervious to criticism.

And until recently, few Don Quixotes had emerged, willing to tilt at these cyber-windmills. But the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, based in San Jose, has been carefully monitoring the safety of semiconductor plants in Northern California and --- working with affiliated groups --- throughout the world. SVTC executive director Ted Smith offers a quick take on the "dark side of high-tech development":

Environmental Destruction.

* Silicon Valley has more Superfund contamination sites than any other area in the country, and more than 150 groundwater contamination sites. A State Health Department study found a threefold increase in birth defects in a neighborhood where leaking chemicals contaminated the water supply.
* High-tech plants discharge tons of toxic air pollutants from their manufacturing processes.
* Semiconductor manufacturing uses more highly toxic gases than any other industry.
* Semiconductor plants use huge amounts of water --- millions of gallons per day.
* More than 700 compounds are used to make one computer workstation, which is designed to become obsolete immediately. More than 12 million computers --- amounting to more than 300,000 tons of electronic junk --- are disposed of annually.

Workers Bear the Brunt.

* Hundreds of chemicals are used in electronics manufacturing, subjecting the workers to a massive experiment in low-level exposure to multiple toxics.
* Semiconductor workers suffer from industrial illnesses at three times the average for other manufacturing jobs.
* Three separate miscarriage studies (at DEC, IBM and an industry-wide study sponsored by the Semiconductor Industry Association) all found significantly increased miscarriage rates among women working in chemical-handling jobs.
* There are no unions in Silicon Valley high-tech companies, and the industry has vigorously fought against efforts to bring union-scale wages and working conditions into the industry.
* High-tech industry lobbyists have been leaders in efforts to undermine the existing protections of labor laws.

Santa Clara County may be where it all started, but the homeys are rapidly leaving their happy valley and heading out to populate the rest of the planet. Electronics executives envision dozens of new semiconductor plants popping up like toadstools, each costing between $1 billion and $3 billion. And they'll go out into the world with official blessing: Silicon Valley has occupied a special place in the heart of the present Democratic administration ever since the 1993 campaign, when Clinton charted his economic course by announcing that the region's industry "will move America forward to a stronger economy, a cleaner environment and technological leadership."

Sensing a quick fix for pervasive economic problems, cities and states have complacently allowed their traditional unionized, regulated industries to disappear while eagerly concocting wonderful combinations of "strategic incentives" to attract the new industrial superstars. To ride this particular wave, it helps to paint your boogieboard with subsidies and relaxed requirements. It helps, too, to proceed cautiously, because the wave of high-tech business is likely to change course and flow elsewhere, to another state or even another country, at the first sign of a logjam in its path.

I wonder if industrialists from the year 1899 would find our present-day fascination with technological developments reminiscent of their own excitement over the inventions of the horseless carriage and the incandescent lamp. "Good luck," I can hear them say. "We tried to sidestep the rules, too, but eventually the American people found us out."

In the case of Silicon Valley and its offspring, the honeymoon may be far shorter than it was for Mellon and Carnegie because the mechanisms for supervision are already in place. We've seen the damage that poor working conditions and environmental irresponsibility can cause, and we know how to organize to prevent it. Movements such as the Campaign for Responsible Technology are already beginning to confront enthusiastic electronic expansion by mobilizing community, environmental and labor organizations in countries where it occurs. Children of the electronic age themselves, they're not out to destroy but rather to reconfigure. As devoted to globalism as Intel or Hewlett Packard is, they're insisting that high-tech companies take a long-range, world-wide approach, setting work and health standards everywhere to ensure an efficient labor force and a population of happy consumers.

Test new chemical substances, they say, as thoroughly as pharmaceuticals are tested now. Watch out for workers in computer-chip shops as vigilantly as garment sweatshops are watched now. Urge companies to redesign procedures for greater safety and efficiency. Probe, publicize, pressure.

In other words, take high tech off its high perch and treat it like any other industry.

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition maintains a Web site at

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

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