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Fissilingual Predictions 

Chewing on the past and future is a New Year's cliché that no word-loving breedbate can resist

Wednesday, Jan 1 2003
With 2002 emitting death rattles and 2003's cervical mucous plug just popping out, it seemed again time to fustigate(1) that reliable bromide: New Year's reflections and predictions. In 2003, will Aaron Peskin, Matt Gonzalez, or Sophie Maxwell become the next president of the Board of Supervisors? Who will be our next mayor: Tom Ammiano, Gavin Newsom, or wild card Carole Migden? During the new, post-anti-Willie era, what will S.F. fustilarians(2) talk about? Anything?

For answers, I needed to speak with a psychic. I imagined that these soothsayers would have meaningful insights into the careers of Peskin, who just carried legislation requiring local psychics to pay a licensing fee; Ammiano, who helped the legislation along; and district attorney and local fadge(3) Terry Hallinan, who used the psychic-licensing bill as a soundbite op. (Hundreds of unlicensed S.F. psychics stand ready to defraud good San Franciscans, was the gist of Hallinan's latest aboiement(4).)

I gave a friend a half-dozen psychic phone numbers from the S.F. Yellow Pages, with instructions that the psychics be told to phone me. This way, the seers could say they "sensed" my need and therefore called. This is known in the psychic world as etiquette.

As it turned out, though, Mrs. Marlo had a disconnected phone, as did Mrs. Bogart. Mrs. Betty's phone rang, but nobody answered. Mrs. Celina's listed number now belongs to someone else, sadly, a nonpsychic. Mrs. Helena's was disconnected, too. And Mrs. Helen's number produced a fax machine squeal. My 1998 phone book, while replete with dozens of San Francisco-based psychics, was proving as useful as coprolite(5) . And the 2001 version, with only three psychics with a 415 area code, proved just as useless. Most local psychics seemed to have moved over to the East Bay. (That's the last time I listen to Hallinan's debacchating(6).)

At the last possible moment, a Mrs. Mariah called from Marin County, which wasn't San Francisco, but was good enough for a desperate columnist working the day before Christmas Eve.

Whither Willie, Aaron, and Tom?, I asked.

"It would be irresponsible to say things about events in people's lives without their direct involvement," Mrs. Mariah demurred. "Sometimes more harm than good comes in odd ways."

Not wishing to become infausting(7) , I abandoned my quest. Better, I thought, to reflect than predict.

And there's no better time for reflecting on San Francisco. According to calendrists' convention, the 21st century of our era began on Jan. 1, 2000, or Jan. 1, 2001, depending on personal taste. Here, though, the century is finishing only now, with the end of San Francisco history and the final demise of the progressive era.

For much of the past decade, San Francisco occupied a privileged place in world history. We were the heartland of the most massive and rapid accumulation of wealth ever. Then came the backlash, rising from a sensibility that had always existed here: tune out, turn on, drop out, and resent the rich (particularly if you came from wealthy stock yourself). But the anti-dot-com movement injected xenophobia into the mix: Adherents stridently rejected newcomers and the new things they brought.

The city's mayor, a famous liberal, saw in the dot-com boom a chance to promote the kind of economic development craved by supporters in disadvantaged neighborhoods like Bayview-Hunters Point. And he, and more specifically his planning director, became a catchall political target.

So the end of 2002, and the end of the S.F. "progressive" era, seemed a perfect time to catch up with Gerald Green, who, as Willie Brown's appointed director of planning, spent most of the dot-com era as San Franciscans' scapegoat of choice.

Green recalls going to a meeting 2 1/2 years ago at Horace Mann Middle School organized by a group calling itself the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition. Five hundred breedbates(8) had come to vilify Green as the water carrier for Willie Brown and his developer friends. Dozens lined up to call Green a bloodsucker, and worse.

"People were hungry to have someone to blame. We went through an era of blame," is Green's assessment.

At the height of the Internet boom, San Franciscans elected a new Board of Supervisors that promised to erect stiff boundaries against the development that the boom was fueling. The board instituted an interim freeze on construction in the Mission, Potrero Hill, and South of Market areas. Board members sponsored a ballot measure giving the supes veto power over mayoral Planning Commission appointees. The board gave itself the privilege of hearing permit appeals, and then listened to picayune appeals of individual permit applications for hours on end.

In a move that had the appearance of the final anti-dot-com-era showdown, the board last summer blocked all of Mayor Brown's Planning Commission appointments. This parliamentary maneuver had a deeply ironic effect: Because no Planning Commission had been seated, Green was put in the position of making all the Planning Commission's decisions. The very Board of Supervisors that had been elected condemning Green had now made him absolute planning czar.

"I thought I must be on acid," Green jokes, noting the backward-world aspect to his erstwhile role.

Brown subsequently appointed new planning commissioners more amenable to the Board of Supervisors. And Green tells me his own relationship with the board has improved dramatically. Last month San Franciscans elected two new supervisors, Bevan Dufty and Fiona Ma, who are presumed to be sympathetic to the mayor. Later this year, Willie Brown will leave the Mayor's Office, taking with him the political shouting matches that represent the last vestiges of the dot-com boom.

Thus ends a millennium.

The end of the dot-com era also seemed to be a particularly good time to stalk the Planning Department, so I did something I almost never do -- attended that brand of public anoia(9) known as the Official Unveiling. After months of workshops, seminars, architectural charettes, briefings, and more workshops, the Planning Department earlier this month had the Official Unveiling of its Market and Octavia Neighborhood Plan. If the plan fulfills its potential for encouraging transit-friendly housing and commercial development in the rest of the city, it could mark the beginning of a fortuitous new era for San Francisco.

Anyone who's lived in San Francisco during the past 10 years or so has noticed the host of ugly, parking garage-oriented buildings that have gone up in what used to be some of the city's more beautiful areas. And anyone who's lived here must also have noticed a growing choke of traffic that's arrived with the thousands of new parking spaces. Partly as a result, neighbors have fought the construction of new apartment buildings block by block. Now, despite a severe recession, housing has become so scarce that two-bedroom condominiums sell for $700,000.

The Market-Octavia plan served as a sort of thinking person's dot-com backlash, an academically sophisticated response to the late-1990s development boom. Using special funds allocated to the city's Better Neighborhoods Program, the Planning Department enlisted the aid of UC Berkeley professor and former S.F. Planning Director Alan Jacobs, with the aim of building a Parisian-style boulevard along Octavia, which until lately was doomed to sit in the barren shade of the Central Freeway. Under the direction of former interim Planning Director Amit Ghosh, also a nationally known thinker in the world of urban design, planners set about the daunting task of convincing residents of the Octavia and Market area that it was parking spaces and the cars they stored -- not new apartments, or stores, or offices -- that stood to make their neighborhoods miserable.

Nowadays, academic planners all over America look to S.F. neighborhoods built before the 1920s as the modern ideal. Parking-scarce, population-dense areas such as Pacific Heights, Nob Hill, and Chinatown are now taught in schools of planning as the eco-friendly benchmark.

With this in mind, the Market-Octavia plan proposes buildings that provide fewer parking spaces than current rules require. Though it uses the euphemistic language of academia, the new Market-Octavia plan reads like an anti-car manifesto.

"Encourage diverse and affordable housing," the plan says, leaving unmentioned the reality that it's impossible to build enough housing to lower prices, if one must also build spaces for cars.

"Create choices for movement -- foster alternatives to the car," the plan says.

"Repair and enhance the neighborhood's urban fabric -- build on strengths," the plan continues, remaining silent on the neighborhood's greatest weakness: its location under a freeway and astride the Van Ness-Mission traffic nightmare.

The plan calls for valuing "residences, shops, and active uses over automobile parking." It calls for the city to tear down the Central Freeway and build the new Octavia Boulevard.

To convince neighbors that it's possible to build dense, beautiful, livable neighborhoods as long as you don't accommodate more cars, planners went to remarkable lengths. They hosted walking tours and constructed displays bordering on dioramas. They held dozens of community meetings, and, by and large, have brought the neighborhood on board.

It must be noted that the Market-Octavia plan represents only a tiny portion of San Francisco. In other areas of town, planning-oriented discussion still consists of the same fissilingual(10) gardyloo(11) that characterized the dot-com backlash. In the Mission, an interim freeze on zoning that limits possibilities for erecting residential and commercial buildings may become permanent. Similar controls are under discussion for SOMA: In the Showplace Square area, planners are resisting developer proposals to build hundreds of apartments.

But the Octavia Boulevard plan is a great start to reversing this trend. It holds promise of spreading to other sections of the city. Already there are Better Neighborhood plans afoot in Balboa Park and along the central waterfront. And the ideas behind the Octavia Boulevard plan could spread even farther. Builders who comply with the plan's goals can avoid costly permit battles; these reduced hassles alone are enough to warrant charging developers an extra fee, which could go toward applying the Better Neighborhood concept to other areas of the city.

In the idealized future envisioned by some San Francisco planners, San Franciscans would welcome dense, well-designed urban in-fill development, as long as it didn't cause increased auto traffic. The city would become more affordable, more diverse, more livable, and more beautiful, these planners said during interviews earlier this month. Perhaps, among the less cynical of the dot-com-backlash protagonists, anti-development sentiment would soften into anti-bad-development sentiment.

Perhaps this will happen. But I'm not making any predictions.

What do you take me for: a psychic?

(1) Fustigate: to beat with a stick or club.

(2) Fustilarian: one who pursues worthless objects or aims.

(3) Fadge: clumsy oaf.

(4) Aboiement: involuntary blurting out of animal noises, such as barking.

(5) Coprolite: fossilized dung.

(6) Debacchate: to rage in the manner of one who has drunk too much liquor.

(7) Infausting, adj.: inflicting bad luck upon others.

(8) Breedbate: one looking for a fight or argument.

(9) Anoia: idiocy.

(10) Fissilingual: speaking with forked tongue.

(11) Gardyloo: exclamation, of the sort formerly given just as one throws a pot of scraps or excrement out the window.

(12) Old English words found in The Columnist's Friend, also known as Matt's Most Excellent Christmas Present, and known in bookstores as Depraved and Insulting English, Novobatzky and Shea, Harcourt, New York, 1999.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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