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March 15 - 19, 1999

Tuesday, March 16, 1999

A tale of two cities

For Paris in the 1870s, it was neither the best of times nor the worst of times. The city had long since abandoned the anything-goes attitude that marked the turn of the century, and the bantam rooster from Corsica had left the throne. His respectable nephew reigned instead, presiding over one of the most massive makeovers in metropolitan history. Recently, as I re-read British architectural historian Mark Girouard's description of the changes wrought by Napoleon III and his prefect of the Seine, Baron Haussmann, I was struck by their obvious --- and perhaps simplistic --- similarities to the transformations being played out in San Francisco today.  Will this city be able, I wondered, to create a new City of Light on the western shores of the United States? More important, will its residents be willing to pay the price that the project will extort?

The new Paris of Louis Napoleon was magical. It possessed, in Girouard's words, "its own unmistakeable flavour, to be found in the gilt and glitter of the opera house, in the lush cast iron of lamp-standards, kiosks and urinals along the boulevards, and in the bedded-out flowers that filled its parks and gardens." Small wonder that an American mayor, more than a hundred years later, would look toward the French capital for inspiration in laying out his own urban monument. He may have lost something in the translation, however, by selecting JC Decaux as his muse, because our forest green port-a-potties and newspaper stands resemble giant desk accessories more than streamlined street ornaments.

Before the change Paris was, like any other large city, the gradual accretion of functions and forms as time and circumstances demanded. Narrow alleys exploded suddenly into the bright sunlight of the Seine and the Place de la Concorde, and ancient artisan arrondissements jostled impudently against major centers of industry, transportation and finance. But the 19th-century powers-that-were saw caches of francs lying beneath the bumpy cobblestones and embarked on a treasure-hunting expedition to unearth them all. Funding flowed effortlessly, and favorable legislation eased the process. Yes, poor people were displaced, and even rich ones had to endure the noise and dust of seemingly endless construction. But civic pride and profit presumably rewarded anyone who was still around when the building stopped.

The result was a city that provided countless opportunities for residents and visitors to part with their money in the pursuit of pleasure. Long before we made the phrase into the watchword of our own fin de siècle, Paris ran a service economy par excellence. Members of the served class gathered in cafés and restaurants, eating, drinking and watching the passing promenade, in a real-life re-creation of Impressionist scenes. They sought and found entertainment everywhere, in the parks and at the opera, and the boulevards bustled with pedestrians and vehicles on the move. (Here, the parallels with San Francisco stop abruptly, for the redevelopment of Paris included a new efficient traffic system.)

One of the most popular venues was located at the east end of the Champs Élysées, a traditional area for recreation. Girouard tell us that the complex included, besides an exhibition hall, "a circus, a building for displaying panoramas (the embryo prototype of the cinema show), two restaurants, three cafés concerts (outdoor cafés at which music and singing was put on), two ice-cream stalls, a cake stall, an open-air refreshment buffet and a bandstand, in addition to fountains, flower-beds and numerous cast-iron urinals." Eat your heart out, Sony Metreon.

It was "exhibitions" that greased the wheels of travelers from all parts of the world, just as present-day conventions entice participants to come to San Francisco to expand their professional horizons while enjoying the amenities they find nearby. A person leaving the Palais de l'Industrie --- or the Moscone Center --- could savor the work of a fine chef, attend a play, or simply enjoy the cosmopolitan atmosphere of a great city, thinking all the while, like the Italian Eduardo de Amicis, "of those solitary, silent little cities from which we started, called Turin, Milan and Florence."

The business of Paris was business, perfected in the elegant retail bazaars that served as the spiritual ancestors of today's department stores. Often a carefully designed central space provided the visual focus for a number of small shops that surrounded it, drawing customers ever deeper inside just as the escalators in the San Francisco Shopping Centre carriy crowds ever upward, past J. Crew, Benetton and Ann Taylor into the rarefied heights occupied by Nordstrom's. Such establishments --- "burning," Zola said, "like beacons" --- made shop-till-you-drop a quasi-sexual experience: "Women pale with desire" responded both to the goods they found there and to the city outside, "a city so vast that it would always be able to supply customers."

On the outskirts of the reconfigured city lay remnants of the city it had uprooted. Small workshops, ugly warehouses, and mom-and-pop stores employed less affluent workers --- some immigrants, some merely marginalized --- who watched the Rue de Rivoli from afar, much as the inhabitants of Bayview and Hunters Point keep an eye on Union Square. Closer to the center, a working-class quarter flourished for a while in Montmartre, where artists and gangsters rubbed elbows in inexpensive restaurants and counter-culture cabarets. But before long --- did Paris have its own version of Metropolitan magazine to publicize what was hip? --- the area was discovered by thrill seekers, and the previous residents found themselves pushed toward the perimeters, leaving the equivalent of SOMA and the Tenderloin to tourists.

It's not a bad fate, to become the new Paris. Perhaps, in fact, the French experience merely marked the beginning of an inevitable transition that all cities have subsequently followed, from a society anchored in production to a floating island of commerce. Perhaps no alternative exists where cities can prosper globally and retain their local working-class base. Perhaps the ultimate avatar of Baghdad-by-the-Bay should be a Disneyland for Deadheads. Or perhaps Charles Dickens was right: Bah, humbug!

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

Wednesday, March 17, 1999


One of the usual suspects, an Internet civil libertarian from the Forum on Labor in the Global Economy, passes along a Reuters story: "U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno has asked a federal commission to study the legality of taking DNA samples from everyone arrested instead of just sex offenders and violent felons. Such widespread testing would essentially place the genetic fingerprints of millions of Americans into state crime databases, even if they were never convicted of a crime."
And our correspondent reminds us of some other extant gems:

1. Repeated attempts to get manufacturers to include in all computers a data encryption chip (Clipper Chip) that "law enforcement" could decode after obtaining a court order.

2. The effort to suppress the widespread public and commercial use of really secure (128 bit) data encryption. The excuse is that terrorists might be able to keep secrets. The real reason is that ordinary citizens will be able to keep fascist security geeks out of their business. The Commerce Dept. has classified such software as "armaments" and made it illegal to send it out of the country by any method.

3. Attempts by the FBI and other agencies to get telephone equipment manufacturers to modify their equipment so that digital eavesdropping would be easier.

4. The recent incident where the Secret Service was caught fronting for a private company that wants to buy up driver's license photos from several states and create an ID database.

5. A "Know Your Customer" proposal by banking regulators that would require banks to track the normal account activity of a customer and report any abnormal deviation. It would require banks to report deposits or withdrawals over a certain amount, and require them to obtain a picture ID and social security number before opening an account.

6. Picture IDs are now required to book and board a flight.

7. The gutting of the Miranda Rule that required that arrested people be read their right to remain silent and avoid self-incrimination.

8. A new expanded list of federalized crimes.

9. Electronic ankle bracelets to track criminals under house arrest.

10. A satellite can now pinpoint your location within three yards by a chip imbedded under your skin or otherwise attached to you.

11. Police are increasingly posting video surveillance cameras at intersections, shopping areas, parks, and any public area that they want to monitor from their desks.

12. Driver licenses now have a magnetic strip so that a cop can go to his car and have a readout on whether there are any outstanding warrants on you, and do this within minutes.

13. Buy a car for cash and the cops will know about it before you get home --- probably before you take delivery.

14. By now everybody knows that "law enforcement" can reconstruct your life by accessing your phone records and your credit card purchases.

15. Cash money can be confiscated from you under the pretext that it is suspected drug money and you will have a helluva time getting it back, even after establishing that the money has no connection to drug transactions.

* * *

The GATT Watchdog, ever on the alert, reveals that the government of New Zealand is proposing a law which would extend the powers of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) to break and enter into "any place" in New Zealand. It would allow the NZSIS to break into homes, buildings or vehicles and its agents to then lawfully install, maintain or remove "things" if they wished.

The New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Bill 1998 is being rushed through Parliament after the December 1998 NZ Court of Appeal ruling which found that NZSIS interception warrants do not confer the right to enter private property, after two NZSIS agents were caught breaking into the home of GATT Watchdog organizer and anti-APEC activist Aziz Choudry. The break-in took place during an alternative conference on APEC and free trade which Aziz was involved with organizing, just prior to the 1996 APEC Trade Ministers Meeting in Christchurch.

Neither the NZSIS nor its political masters have explained this bungled SIS operation, hiding instead behind a shroud of "national security." Repeated calls from NGOs and labor unions for an independent inquiry have been ignored by the government.

In the past, the NZSIS has targeted a range of movements, organizations and individuals, ranging from the infiltration and surveillance of anti-apartheid activists in the 1970s and 1980s, to anti-Vietnam war organizers and members of numerous left-wing organizations. Since the end of the Cold War, it appears that their new targets include opponents of globalization. Since 1996, the definition of "security" has been extended to include "the making of a contribution to New Zealand's international well-being or economic well-being." The New Zealand government hopes to push through this law change as soon as possible as it is hosting APEC in 1999. <gattwd@corso.ch.planet.gen.nz>

* * *

Kim Scipes of Labor Express forwards excerpts from a La Jornada article from last month: "The Zapatista rebels inaugurated a new form of social struggle that shook the foundations of the Mexican political system by creating extraordinary pressures for democratic reforms, and which has implications in the future for the strategists of U.S. national security at the international level. This is maintained in a study prepared by the Rand Corporation at the behest of the U.S. Army.

"According to the study, Mexico is the laboratory of a new type of conflict that is managed through local and transnational networks, and which uses the technology of the age of computers to promote its objectives. Its authors define this as a new dimension of strategic studies, the 'War of Networks,' or NetWar.

"That model was introduced by the EZLN and it represents a new challenge for those in charge of policies regarding national security, both in Mexico, the U.S. and the rest of the world. The report describes the uprising in Chiapas and EZLN's links with the media and transnational NGOs, and the ability of the latter groups to form highly interconnected and coordinated social netwar coalitions. The authors maintain that the U.S. military must center its attention on the activities of the NGOs and Internet communication."

* * *

Finally, how could we let a day's events pass without the smirking participation of KRON's Pete Wilson. In response to a phone-in caller's obvious consternation about the fulsome Urban Warrior combat exercises in Alameda and its presaging intimation of martial law occurring at some point in the future, the ever-self-satisfied Wilson intoned: "Oh, I don't think so, and I don't think you even believe that yourself." Don't you feel better knowing that Petey and others with such mainstream "perspective" are doing your thinking for you?

In the reportorial steno pools that power cultivates, you get little more than pip-squeak bleats when uniformed would-be tough guys start rampaging. Rosemary Nelson's kids now know that. And so does Amadou Diallo's mother. Tote up some brand new members for the NGOs.

--- Copyright John Hutchison 1999

Friday, March 19, 1999

When the music stops

When you think about it, the rhetoric of demonization is amazingly economical. Once devised, statements frequently acquire a one-size-fits-all character which allows them to be recycled in a variety of other situations. Take the following:

Any [person] able to work, and support himself in some honest calling, not having wherewithall to maintain himself, who shall be found loitering and strolling about, or frequenting public places where liquors are sold, begging or living an immoral or profligate course of life shall be liable to be arrested on the complaint of any resident citizen of the county and brought to any Justice of the Peace [who shall]...hire out such a vagrant within twenty-four hours, to the highest bidder.

The passage sounds like one of the proposals recently emanating from City Hall. It's actually drawn from Article 20 of the Act for the Government and Protection of the Indians, passed by the California legislature in 1850. But it's in the public domain and available for re-use.

Unfortunately, although it's economical, the rhetoric of demonization is not particularly effective in solving problems, as an article in this month's Street Sheet eloquently argues. As a method of presenting the issues of homelessness in a place where the preferred local pastime is contemplating one's navel, it merely fosters self-indulgence. The daily melodrama of "We Versus They" blots out any larger context. It bars any serious public examination of this city's position in what is in fact a national crisis.

It won't hurt to step back from the mirror and remind ourselves of how we got to this point. Many careful observers --- from the federal Department of Health and Human Services to the National Coalition on Homelessness --- agree on the essential components of the process. It turns out that the men and women whose lives they trace bear very little resemblance to Amos Brown's "people in America who refuse to take control of their life."

Here's the general scenario. By the mid-1980s, researchers say, there were more people in the United States than at any time since the Great Depression who lacked "a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence" and spent the night in a shelter, non-penal institution, or "public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings." These are the criteria of the McKinney Assistance Act of 1987. In other words, they had no place to lay their heads.

How many people? In this era of sophisticated statistical measurement, several different figures appear consistently, describing slightly different phenomena. One study notes that 600,000 people --- nearly the population of San Francisco ---  filled the nation's soup kitchens and shelters during one specific week in 1988. A national telephone survey reports that some 7 million adults and children found themselves with no home at some time between 1985 and 1990. Another study predicts that as many as 2 million people will be homeless at some time in 1999. The figures all carry the same message: in this land of opportunity, many people know what it's like to be out on the streets. And the situation is getting worse. In city after city, shelter capacity has doubled in the past decade.

The explanation is remarkably simple, without recourse to moral recrimination. First, there are more poor people in America than there were 15 years ago. The labor market has changed. In the rapidly globalizing economy, new service positions at home often pay less than the old manufacturing jobs that were taken overseas. In all likelihood, the largest area of growth from 1994 -- 2005 will be in jobs paying less than $16,000 a year. In addition, the real value of the minimum wage has dropped sharply. And public assistance, particularly for housing, has declined.

But there are also fewer affordable houses than there were 15 years ago. The frenzied redevelopment that razed many poor residential areas removed about a million rental units, replacing them with more expensive homes. At the same time, inner cities across the country lost about a million SRO hotels. And because government funding tightened, applicants for public housing often had to wait two or three years --- or forever.

Less money; less available housing. Add the disruptions caused by an increase in domestic violence and a decline in health insurance. The other, more visible factors, which make the headlines and inspire legislators to pen ever-more-stringent regulations, turn out to be peripheral. About 20 -- 25 percent of all homeless adults are severely mentally ill, but most of them could live successfully in their community if appropriate support services were available. At least half the homeless adults have alcohol or drug problems, which --- again --- appropriate support services could remedy.

It's the less visible factors that should make domiciled Americans cringe. Many homeless adults do not abuse drugs or alcohol; many more are not mentally ill. Many simply do not have enough money to afford a place to live. About 40 percent are veterans. About 15 percent are children. For shame.

In the literature on homelessness, the metaphor of musical chairs recurs. It's easy to imagine poor people marching determinedly around a circle of affordable domiciles, racing feverishly to seize one whenever the music stops. There are never enough seats to go around, and someone is always left standing, either because he was too slow or slightly befuddled or just plain unlucky. Gradually, however, the seats are removed, and the competition grows fiercer. Large players push aside smaller ones. Occasionally they exchange blows. And all the while, a ring of spectators surrounds them, watching from a safe distance and laughing at the desperate measures these frantic people take to in order to get a seat. Now and then, one sticks a foot into the fray, just to see who might trip over it.

Sooner or later, the home-blessed spectators tire of the game and go home. But what of the homeless contestants? That part of the script has not yet been written.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

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