After the ruins - Page 3

SF's pasts and futures -- and Chris Carlsson's Nowtopia
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Cleverly, these images are arranged in a manner that suggests the ruins aren't just the past but also an inevitable future.

The aftermaths of SF's earthquakes are often described in utopian terms, as if cracks in the landscape revealed the possibility of a better world. In After the Ruins, a 1906 quake survivor remembers cooperation not seen since the days of the Ohlone:

A spirit of good nature and helpfulness prevailed and cheerfulness was common. The old and feeble were tenderly aided. Food was voluntarily divided. No one richer, none poorer than his fellow man.

In an essay accompanying After the Ruins, Rebecca Solnit recollects the 1989 earthquake similarly:

The night of the quake, the liquor store across the street held a small barbecue ... I talked to the neighbors. I walked around and visited people. That night the powerless city lay for the first time in many years under a sky whose stars weren't drowned out by electric lights.

Greta Snider's classic early '90s punk and bike zine Mudflap tells of a utopia for bicyclists created by the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. Until torn down, a closed-off section of damaged Interstate 280 became a bike superhighway where one could ride above the City without fear of cars. Earthquakes are seen to have utopian potential in SF, because, like protests or Critical Mass, they stop traffic. In 1991, Gulf War protestors stormed the Bay Bridge, shutting down traffic on the span for the first time since the 1989 quake. Perhaps in tribute to the utopian possibilities of both events, William Gibson's 1993 book Virtual Light imagines a postquake-damaged Bay Bridge as a home for squatter shanties and black market stalls.

Carlsson's new nonfiction book, Nowtopia (AK Press, 288 pages, $18.95), explores new communities springing up in the margins of capitalist society. Subtitled How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-Lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today, it looks for seeds of post-economic utopia in places such as the SF Bike Kitchen and the Open Source software movement. According to Carlsson, these communities "manifest the efforts of humans to transcend their lives as wage-slaves. They embrace a culture that rejects the market, money, and business. Engaging in technology in creative and experimental ways, the Nowtopians are involved in a guerilla war over the direction of society."

A founder of Critical Mass, Carlsson praises the biofuels movement and bicycle culture for promoting self-sufficiency through tools. With its optimism and endorsement of technology, Nowtopia occasionally evokes the Whole Earth Catalog. Yet unlike Brand's tome, it focuses on class and how people perform work in today's society. Carlsson finds that in their yearning for community, people will gladly perform hours of unpaid labor on behalf of something they love that they believe betters the world.

Within today's SF, Carlsson cites Alemany Farm as an example of nowtopia. Volunteers took over an abandoned SF League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG) farm next to the Alemany Projects, farming it for several years before the City gave them official permission. "Instead of traditional political forms like unions or parties, people are coming together in practical projects," Carlsson writes. "They aren't waiting for an institutional change from on-high, but are getting on with building the new world in the shell of the old."

Ironically, the only literature that truly envisions the complete destruction of large areas of the City are the postwar plans of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. In 1956, it began the first of two projects in the Fillmore, slashing the neighborhood in two with a widened Geary Boulevard and demolishing over 60 square blocks of housing.

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