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September 21 - 25, 1998

Monday, September 21, 1998

Get a job!

It's going to seem awfully quiet in San Francisco during the next couple of weeks, with 200 local panjandrums traipsing off to China in the company of the mayor. Like the supercargo of an 18th-century sailing ship, Willie Brown will travel to Shanghai and Canton in search of advantageous trade deals. But on this particular trip, he'll hardly need to use a jet plane, so buoyant he must be after his recent triumphs in the business world on this side of the Pacific Rim.

He and his hard-working staff have many reasons to feel exhilarated. To be sure, Muni is still following its own idiosyncratic schedule, but it's acquiring something of the aura the Mets had during their first few years of existence, when New Yorkers proudly proclaimed their hatred for the team. And our own Prodigal Sons, the 49ers, have returned to the fold with promises of consultation and construction.

But the greatest grounds for self-congratulation are three events that occurred during the past few weeks, which play off one another like pieces in an intricate boardgame.

The most dramatic was a five-hour meeting, culminating at least fifteen years of turbulent discussion, in which the Planning Commission and the Redevelopment Agency unanimously approved a new-and-improved Mission Bay project. The Big Guys, Nelson Rising and the black-clad troops from Catellus, have listened like lambs; they have endured endless negotiations and committed to unprecedented compromises with the City and citizens' groups in order to come up with an acceptable plan. Catellus has promised to contribute $3 million for job training and $5 million to alleviate the stink of sewage treatment in Bayview--Hunters Point. It paints rosy pictures of restored wetlands, more-than-required affordable housing, bustling biotech offices and labs, a vibrant city-within-a-city.

The magnitude of Mission Bay is mind-boggling, and the Big Guys know they need lots of Little Guys to make it succeed. In an about-face since the Proposition M campaign of the late 1980s, many small-business supporters like Calvin Welch now find themselves allied with, rather than opposing, the proponents of growth. Different era, different concerns. To make sure that the city's thousands of small businesses are invited to the parties at Mission Bay and countless other venues, Mayor Brown and Mark Leno concocted a bash of their own. The one-day Small Business Forum turned into multi-ring circus of ten workshops where entrepreneurs discussed a wish list of issues such as access to capital, healthcare and workforce development, compiling recommendations that the sympathetic mayor and his Office of Economic Development have promised to pursue.

But promises come cheap. An occasional penny tossed down a small-business wishing well doesn't pay the mortgage or the electric bill. Requiring the City to give preference to locally owned businesses --- and especially to minority- or women-owned businesses --- in its own contracts, does. It also spits in the face of the people of California who passed Proposition 209.

In a carefully worded, legally vetted statement of rebellion, the Board of Supervisors proposed to restore and expand San Francisco's affirmative action program. To prove the action is necessary under federal law, which requires the end of discrimination in contracting, a parade of business owners and claims investigators from the Human Resources Commission poured out a litany of horror stories. Of token joint ventures where the majority partner received all the payments. Of minority-owned businesses nominally granted contracts but never given work. Of delays in payment. Of racist and sexist slurs. These are the kinds of affronts that Amos Brown's legislation is designed to prevent.

A colossal development project, a flotilla of eager small businesses and an explicit public policy that supports them --- all in all, this is a package that Willie Brown can justifiably take pride in.


But this package is also likely to reconfigure the face of San Francisco to the detriment of a large segment of its population. What's that old saying about the devil and details? One of the details turns out to be a damnation in disguise: Catellus estimates that Mission Bay will create 42,000 new jobs. Forty years ago, such a statement would have meant a blessed leavening of working wages. But not so in 1998.

The problem is that, for Americans, the meaning of the word "job" has changed. It is no longer the key that locks shut the doorway to poverty. A recent study by the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute entitled The State of Working America 1998-99 documents the transformation, laying out the excruciating, fiendish details of a trend that we can observe in our own city. Entry-level wages are declining. So are regular, long-term, full-time positions. So are health and pension benefits. White-collar workers feel the pinch of this downward slippage as they work longer hours, take home smaller paychecks and pay higher taxes. But it's really the blue-collar workers who lose out, as their high-paying manufacturing jobs give way to low-paying service positions. And according to the EPI study, the availability of new hi-tech jobs has not significantly reversed the situation.

Where does this leave San Francisco, as Mission Bay and its accompanying developments unfold? The city had better lay in a whole lot of bleach to keep those collars nice and white, because its workforce is going to need them. But without a conscious policy of promoting blue-collar jobs that pay a living wage, it's going to drive the working-class segment of its population away. Or worse yet, simply out onto the streets.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

Wednesday, September 23, 1998

Divorce, American style

I must say it's taken some balls, in a manner of speaking, for Clinton to have maintained his stance on what constitutes the definition of sex. For a brief moment there I thought he might cave, the way he's done on most of his policy positions, but as the grand jury videotape reveals, that's his story and he's sticking with it. You can surely attribute this constancy to the long night of groin-and-eye gouging out in the alley with Ken Starr, where Queensberry rules are suspended and you either walk out under your own power or you are stomped senseless. And perjury is that sort of whupping. But you also have to include what we have long surmised are the atypical personal beliefs of Clinton about sexual matters. Those views, as I ventured last week, quite likely include the corresponding convictions of his wife.

So it appears he's going to scrape by, and there may be no need for Hillary to proceed with the speech she's hinted she would give in his defense. That speech would require her to lay out the parameters of their understanding on what constitutes fidelity, and the limits of extra-marital activity. I suspect it would be delivered in a most regal and modulated fashion, and might be all the more electrifying because it would certainly be uttered in the guarded language reminiscent of her husband's testimony. She would say just enough, which is about all the public now wants to hear, but the intended target of her remarks clearly would be that pocket of self-anointed sanctity, the leadership class.

Credit the majority of the American public for its perspicacity in realizing that the real prurience of this cause célèbre has been its aftermath. All amorously inclined couples with young children scampering about the house know what it means to be "alone." Good sex --- as distinct from bum lays, a charge for which even the most renowned among us are held accountable --- presupposes an environment with a measure of time, comfort and amenities, not the least of which is the ability to become supine, or prostrate, as events dictate. We also decline to be shocked in the knowledge that innumerable couples have had experience with sex toys --- many, doubtless, with the similar symmetry of a Cohiba --- and that, at last count, the number of young women (and no, I won't leave you fellows out) who once introduced inanimate household objects into their persons during the rites of puberty now must approach tens of millions.

The crew who've appointed themselves custodians of our social and sexual mores quickly point to the 1960s as the origin of the country's current moral crisis. And while there's supreme irony in noting that the individual they've vilified as representative of that era has so ably catered to their engorged ecclesiasticism with his own V-chip contribution, the salient characteristic of the Clinton-Lewinsky trysts was how redolent they were of the 1950s. What we've seen disclosed is furtive, groping, awkward, mostly unconsummated physical contact, presided over by the old censorious collective superego which was midcentury America. Bill's dilemma about whether or not to "go all the way" is almost touching. You can almost imagine Elvis acting in a similarly honorable manner. In lieu of intercourse, Clinton's willingness to be fellated is, as many of us recall, a staple of 1950s life, a subphylum of "heavy petting," reserved usually for partners "in love," and one which left virginity intact, both technically and psychologically.

In other respects, the ambiance and values of the sixties very much color Clinton's predicament. Quite apart from the nature of his marital arrangement, which only his wife can illuminate, that decade was marked by the notion of fraternity. The young in concert, growing into adulthood very fast; the young on an equal footing with their elders, challenging them on their own terms and turf, and besting them in integrity and discourse. Age was no impediment in matters of state, and 25 years later Clinton won election by virtue of the work of James Carville's cadre of college students. If Clinton's demeanor suggests anything, it is that hierarchical gradations mean little to him --- and indeed, his openness and amiability are often difficult to stomach. Lewinsky possessed enough worldly maturity to remark upon Clinton's boyishness, which probably further bolstered the nullification of any age disparity the two might have initially felt.

In effect, what we're going through is a divorce between the nation's opposing cultural wings, with a custody fight over the Constitution. The tiresome warhawks of acceptable behavior are in full throat and panting as only the repressed can. They've been subdued since Clinton eclipsed the right's program by selling out workers and the poor, and I'd heard nary a regurgitation from them over the past nine months about the Clintons as symbols of the libertine sixties. Pat Buchanan ended the drought yesterday when he offered the suggestion that the president was the embodiment of a "humanistic manifesto."

We can expect much more of the same from now on. When the Senate declines to consider impeachment, the rush will be on. In a way, it would be refreshing to hear Hillary spell out definitively the intricacies of her marriage, if only to officially establish the terms of the privacy debate for the rest of us. Liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it could be argued, means never having to say you're sorry.

    --- Copyright John Hutchison 1998

Friday, September 25, 1998

Ay, there's the rub

There's an eerie old Japanese tale about the slipperiness of "truth." Once upon a time, the story goes, a wig maker crouched near Rashomon Gate, picking hairs off cadavers and eavesdropping on a strange conversation. She listened as two men discussed the recent trial of a bandit accused of raping a woman and murdering her samurai husband. Each of the participants in the event had testified --- the dead samurai spoke through a medium --- and each had presented a different scenario, in which he or she acted honorably and the others were sniveling cowards. Was it actually rape or seduction? Murder or suicide? Who was telling the truth? It was impossible to tell. Enter a surprise witness, a woodcutter, who debunked them all. But, the wig maker thought, maybe it wasn't so simple. Maybe all four accounts were right, each in its own way.

This story kept coming to mind last Tuesday, as I listened to the testimony and discussion surrounding the Supervisors'  ban on new massage parlors in the Tenderloin. The air dripped with acrimony. It might be worthwhile to pay a return visit to the meeting. This is not simply a TL issue, but one that is likely to tear apart many other neighborhoods as well.

The dramatis personae in the Supervisors' chambers could have come straight from central casting. Fifteen speakers, mainly young women, rose to represent the massage parlor employees. Margo St. James, perennial defender of sex workers' rights, pertly first-named the Supes as she invoked the support of the U.N. Resolution on the Status of Women. Nancy Drake Gonzalez, a queer activist from the Western Addition, loped to the microphone to compare the ordinance's limits on "certain massage establishments" to anti-gay attacks on the East Coast. Others --- Rachel West from the U.S. Prostitutes Collective, Lori Nairne from Legal Action for Women, Daisy from the Exotic Dancers Alliance --- argued that restricting the operation of massage parlors would force the employees, often single mothers, into more dangerous, illegal occupations.

Fifteen speakers, many of them men and motherly women from other parts of San Francisco, took a communitarian tack to support the ordinance. Brad Paul, former director of the North of Market Planning Coalition and long concerned for the well-being of the Tenderloin, spoke eloquently of neighborhood preservation, of creating "legitimate foot traffic" by filling empty storefronts with shops, not massage parlors. The indomitable Ana Bolton-Arguello, director of Adopt-a-Block, emphasized the months of grassroots community planning that had preceded official city action. Others --- Espinola Jackson from Bayview--Hunters Point, Marsha Garland from the North Beach Chamber of Commerce, Hilda Bernstein from the Mission --- spoke of their desire for "safe and wholesome" neighborhoods filled with businesses run for the benefit of the local residents.

How can you criticize workers for their efforts to earn a living? How can you criticize neighborhoods for their efforts to create vital comfortable places to live.

Time for a third version: the police.  The new captain of the Tenderloin Task Force, Susan Manheimer, used social service words like "empowerment" and "revitalization" as she spoke, serious and concerned, on behalf of the community. Sgt. Frank Palma --- tanned, fit, no-nonsense, the epitome of a Vice Division officer --- played the tough cop: Massage parlors are "nothing but fronts for houses of prostitution" that exploit non-English-speaking female employees. No benign places of adult entertainment, they are part of a gang-related network of gambling, murder and drugs that extends over the entire United States.

Zowie! How can you criticize the police for trying to prevent crime?

In this drama where everyone is right, is it possible that each of them is also wrong? That these individual versions of reality combined into a mishmash of missteps, misinformation and miscommunication that actually did a disservice to the causes they espouse? An urban woodcutter watching from behind a telephone pole might have noticed some things that muted the black-and-white story each participant told.

The employees of the massage parlors complained that they were not informed about the wheels about to grind them down until it was almost too late. It's hard to believe that none of the revitalizers, in the true spirit of community activism, approached them. But it's even more painful to think that none of the activists in the sex worker community thought to bring them into the picture until the last minute. If ever an occupation needed a union to protect workersí interests, this is it.

The revitalizers expressed concern for children waiting for a schoolbus in the baneful shadow of a massage parlor. But testimony against the ordinance suggests that many TL children already know massage parlors as the place where their mother works. The revitalizers repeatedly faulted these employees for not seeking out organizations that could retrain them for other lines of work. But testimony against the ordinance suggests that they prefer the security of a known job to venturing into an uncertain world that labels them as undesirable.

Sergeant Palma spoke with pride of the "integrity of all members" of his unit, but testimony against the ordinance was laced with bitter suggestions of sting operations. The officer's public safety statement was only the latest salvo in an ongoing battle over sex in San Francisco, which includes a cool-it resolution by the task force on prostitution three years ago and an angry protest at a Police Commission meeting last April.

The press --- which might have acted as a helpful woodcutter --- made matters worse by presenting garbled versions of the ordinance. Many otherwise well informed people, including some in high places, did not realize until the final hearing that their fears of citywide clamp-downs on existing establishments were unfounded.

What's the poor confused wig maker to make of these conflicting stories? She'd probably say, "You're right, and you're right, and so are you. Now would you please get back to the real problem at hand? Work together, all of you, to revitalize the Tenderloin, and a new image will emerge, of a neighborhood that respects all its people."

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

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