SF's pasts and futures -- and Chris Carlsson's Nowtopia
ESSAY In a journal entry dated Dec. 27, 1835, from his 1840 book Two Years before the Mast, student-turned-seafarer Richard Henry Dana recorded his first impressions of the area we know as the City, while his ship, The Alert, traveled through the Golden Gate:
We passed directly under the high cliff on which the presidio is built ... from whence we could see large and beautifully wooded islands and the mouths of several small rivers ... hundreds of red deer, and [a] stag, with his high branching antlers, were bounding about, looking at us for a moment and then starting off ...
Dana arrived in the Bay Area after one era had ended and before another began. Until the coming of the Spaniards a generation earlier, some 10,000 people, members of around 40 separate tribes, lived between Big Sur and San Francisco, in the densest Native American population north of Mexico. Despite the existence among them of as many as 12 different languages, the people collectively referred to now as the Ohlone lived in relative peace for some 4,500 years.
On his first visit, Dana predicted that the Bay Area would be at the center of California's prosperity. When he returned more than 30 years later in 1868, he discovered that his hotel was built on landfill that had been dumped where The Alert first landed.
Then in middle age, Dana wrote, "The past was real. The present all about me was unreal." Making his way through the crowded streets where the new city he'd predicted was being built, he remarked, "[I] seemed to myself like one who moved in 'worlds not realized.'" Thus Dana became one of the first to articulate the peculiar San Franciscan combination of nostalgia for a lost past and despair over an unrealized future.
The past and future are always alive here. On his first visit, Dana wrote in his notebook about the great city to come. But like many residents of SF today, he slept on the cold, hard ground.
In George Stewart's 1949 science fiction classic Earth Abides, a mysterious disease has killed 99 percent of the Earth's population; the main character, Ish, roams the City and East Bay until he finds a wife. Stewart's book ends in a Twilight Zone scenario, as an old, feeble Ish now the last living pre-plague American watches in dismay while his illiterate offspring hunt and frolic like the Ohlone, wearing animal skins and fashioning arrowheads from bottle caps.
After a wildfire, Ish notices that a library has been spared. All the information is still in there, he thinks. "But available to whom?"
Perhaps the knowledge Ish once begged his children to learn can be found in 1970's The Last Whole Earth Catalog. Its 450-plus yellowing Road Atlassize pages contain terse recommendations of publications about plant identification, organic gardens, windmills, vegetable dyes, edible mushrooms, goat husbandry, and childbirth, while also sharing the fundamentals of yoga, rock climbing, making music with computers, space colonization, and of course! the teachings of Buckminster Fuller.
The initial Whole Earth Catalog sought to reconcile Americans' love of nature and technology. In Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (University Press of Kansas, 303 pages, $34.95), author Andrew Kirk credits its creator, Stewart Brand, with bringing a sense of optimism to environmentalism. A character in Tom Wolfe's 1968 Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Brand embodied the cultural intersection of acid and Apple at mid-1960s Stanford University. Kirk examines Brand's 1965 "America Needs Indians" festival, his three-day Trips Festival in 1966, and his time riding the bus as one of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters.
Counterculture Green correctly suggests that Brand's utopian lifestyle has a hold on our imagination. But Brand was a leader of the counterculture, not a revolutionary. He believed that the market economy, not political change, would usher in a better world. While today's market at the behest of individuals has started to demand renewable energy or sustainable growth, it also has brought us the SUV, suburban sprawl, and the highest fuel prices in history. Apple may empower the individual or want consumers to believe it does but at 29, Silicon Valley has the highest concentration of Superfund sites in the country.
Brand deserves credit for intuiting the peculiar "machine in the garden" Bay Area we live in today, a place perhaps more "California Über Alles" than utopian. It's far from the postmarket SF envisioned in Ernest Callenbach's 1975 novel Ecotopia, which is set in 1999, nearly 20 years after Northern California, Oregon, and Washington have seceded from the United States to form the titular nation. A colleague of Brand's, Callenbach bases his society on ideas from the Whole Earth Catalog, but for one major difference Ecotopia comes into being not through the free market but through an environmental revolution. (I won't spoil it, but here's a hint: it starts in Bolinas!)
While Callenbach's future sometimes resembles a mixture of the Haight Street Fair and Critical Mass, there are twists. Ancient creeks have been unearthed, and on Market Street there is a "charming series of little falls, with water gurgling and splashing, and channels lined with rocks, trees, bamboos and ferns." Ecotopians have instituted a 20-hour work week that involves dismantling dystopian relics such as gas stations. There is a surplus of food produced close to home. Materials that do not decompose are no longer used. This new world is no wilderness it reconciles civilization and nature. Yet perhaps its most radical idea is that humans can create a utopia without help from a plague, apocalyptic war, or earthquake.
The 1906 San Francisco earthquake leveled 4.7 square miles or 508 city blocks. It destroyed 28,188 structures, including City Hall, the Hall of Justice, the Hall of Records, the County Jail, the Main Library, five police stations, and more than 40 schools. Yet strangely, many apocalyptic tomes including recent ones such as the speculative nonfiction best-seller The World Without Us and the born-again Christian Left Behind series are reluctant to imagine a totally destroyed San Francisco.
In contrast, Chris Carlsson's 2004 utopian novel, After the Deluge (Full Enjoyment Books, 288 page, $13.95), suggests the City is at its most charming when at least partially in ruins, like the old cities of Europe. In Carlsson's post-economic SF of 2157, rising sea levels from global warming submerge much of the Financial District, yet the City adapts by serving old skyscrapers now converted into housing with a network of canals.
After the Deluge's vision of reduced work, free bikes, and creeks unearthed from beneath streets borrows from Callenbach's Ecotopia. Yet Carlsson seems to have his most fun imagining a city transformed by ruins: take a subtle comment on the Federal Building at Seventh and Market streets. In Carlsson's map of SF circa 2157, the monstrosity that some call the Death Star is simply labeled "The Ruins."
Similarly, the photographs in After the Ruins 1906 and 2006: Rephotographing the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire (University of California Press, 134 pages, $24.95) appear to delight in the City's impermanence. Mark Klett presents famous images of the smoldering city in 1906 alongside carefully shot contemporary photographs from the same vantage points. 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. Some 17,500 African American and Japanese American people saw their homes bulldozed.
With their dreams of "urban renewal," the heads of SF-based corporate giants such as Standard Oil, Bechtel, Del Monte, Southern Pacific, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America reimagined the City as a utopia for big business. The language of a Wells Fargo report from the '60s evokes the notebooks of Dana: "Geographically, San Francisco is a natural gateway for this country's ocean-going and airborne commerce with the Pacific area nations." Likewise, Prologue for Action, a 1966 report from the San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association, might have been written by dystopian visionary Philip K. Dick:
If SF decides to compete effectively with other cities for new "clean" industries and new corporate power, its population will move closer to "standard White Anglo-Saxon Protestant" characteristics. As automation increases the need for unskilled labor will decrease.... The population will tend to range from lower middle-class through upper-class.... Selection of a population's composition might be undemocratic. Influence on it, however, is legal and desirable.
This dream of turning San Francisco into a perfect world for business required that much of the existing city be destroyed. First, the colorful Produce District along the waterfront was removed in 1959, its warmth and human buzz replaced by the four identical modern hulks of the Embarcadero Center. Beginning in 1966, some 87 acres of land south of Market including 4,000 housing units were bulldozed to make way for office blocks, luxury hotels, and the Moscone Center.
The dark logic of the Redevelopment Agency's plans are projected into the future in the profoundly bleak science fiction of Richard Paul Russo's Carlucci series from the '90s. Russo's books are set in a 21st-century SF entirely segregated by class and health. The Tenderloin is walled off into an area where drug-addicted and diseased residents kill each other or await death from AIDS or worse. Access to all neighborhoods is restricted and even the series' hero, stereotypical good cop Frank Carlucci, submits to a full body search in order to enter the Financial District because he lacks the necessary chip implant to be waved through checkpoints.
Russo's nightmares have their real side today, and many dreams found in Ecotopia and the Whole Earth Catalog composting, recycling, widespread bicycling, urban gardening, free access to information via the Internet, Green building design have also come to pass. (There is even a growing movement to unearth creeks like the Hayes River, which runs under City Hall.) Pat Murphy's 1989 novel, The City Not Long After, imagines these opposing visions of the city will continue even after a plague wipes out all but one-thousandth of SF's population. In Murphy's book, those still alive turn the City into a backdrop for elaborate art projects, weaving ribbon and lace from Macy's across downtown streets and painting the Golden Gate Bridge blue. This artists' utopia is threatened when an army of survivors from Sacramento marches into SF. But the last forces of America, unlike the dot-com invaders of the '90s, prove no match for the artists, who use direct action tactics and magic to rout Sacramento in an epic showdown at Civic Center Plaza.
In Carlsson's After the Deluge, several people enter a bar called New Spec's on Fulton Street. The walls are covered with old SF ephemera. One character explains to Eric, a newcomer, "Its all about nostalgia, a false nostalgia." Was the City a better place before the war, before the earthquakes, or before it was even the City? So many utopian visions of the future evoke a simpler past that one wonders if believing in one is the same as longing for the other. It's a question that would make sense, once again, to Philip K. Dick.
Perhaps no fiction about a future SF captures utopian yearning as well as Dick's decidedly dystopian works, because his stories, though full of futuristic gadgets, are really about the ways human characters relate to them. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) is set in a radically depopulated postwar SF of 2021. The air is filled with radioactive dust and the streets are hauntingly empty as humans race to colonize Mars. Main character Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter assigned to "retire" humanlike androids, yet he's mostly concerned about his electric sheep. Because there are almost no animals left on Earth, owning a fake one helps a striver like Deckard keep up appearances.
In 1962's The Man in the High Castle, Dick imagines life in SF after the Nazis and Japanese have won World War II. Nostalgia haunts this story, too. Protagonist R. Childan makes his living selling rare prewar Americana to rich Japanese collectors. Not much has changed in this alternate SF, though. Market Street is still a place of "shooting galleries [and] cheap nightclubs with photos of middle-aged blondes holding their nipples between their wrinkled fingers and leering." While most utopian futures look to the past, Dick's dystopian futures are all eerily about the present.
So how does Mr. Childan deal with the pain of living in a world where Nazis have won the war? How else? "To inspire himself, he lit up a marijuana cigarette," Dick writes, "excellent Land-O-Smiles brand."
Erick Lyle is the editor of Scam magazine. His book, On the Lower Frequencies: A Secret History of the City, is out now on Soft Skull Press.
NOWTOPIA BOOK RELEASE PARTY
Wed/9, 7:30 p.m.; $20 suggested donation (includes book, reading/discussion, and contribution to site)
1310 Mission, SF