Monthly Archives: January 2015

All the News That’s Fit to Print

I work in a public media newsroom that doesn’t have unlimited resources. We need to be somewhat selective in what we cover, and we often discuss whether this or that story rises to the level of assigning a reporter to cover it or giving it some air time.

That guy arrested in an arson case that was worrying a couple San Francisco neighborhoods? Yeah, we’ll do that one, as well as the six-alarm wild land fire in Pacifica — emblematic of the continuing drought, maybe — and Klay Thompson’s historic 37-point quarter the other night for the Golden State Warriors. The latest report of homicides in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose. No, we’re probably not going to report on that unless we have something to add to the mere report of the crime.

One only has to peruse news organs of the past, though, to enter a world in which editors were not and perhaps didn’t need to be so choosy. Their ad departments gave them X number of pages to fill with tidings of world and community affairs, and they’d be damned if they didn’t fill them some way.

Here’s an example uncovered while browsing the Dec. 31, 1890, number of the San Francisco Morning Call for a work project:

Screenshot 2015-01-26 08.31.51.png

I’m just wondering how the affray at the ferry landing came to the attention of the Morning Call’s editors. Was it an anecdote overheard at a bar? Did an ambitious copyboy bring this item in after witnessing the near-altercation? Was it a tale told at the police precinct house and passed on as a tidbit to a reporter? Or is it entirely fabricated?

I don’t believe we’ll ever know, but it reminds me of the sort of episodes millions of us send out in 140-character messages every day.

For the record, the ferry landing item is followed by this nugget, three sentences dripping with irony and pathos.

Blind and Friendless

John Miller, a negro, 30 years of age, was recently brought from Victoria, B.C., on the city of Puebla. He had no friends in Victoria, and the charitable people of that city having grown tired of supporting him paid his passage to this city. He is being taken care of by a generous policeman, but neither the Collector of the Port nor the Commissioner of Immigration know what to do with him.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Current Affairs, History

King Day: ‘I Come Not to Bring Peace, But a Sword’

Well, I’m posting past midnight, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is just past. But in doing some reading on the Montgomery bus boycott, I came across a sermon he gave in March 1956. His point of departure was a recent court decision that ordered the University of Alabama to admit black students and the violence that met the first enrollee. King reacted angrily to the university’s decision to ask the student to leave school to restore peace to the campus.

It’s hard to choose an excerpt because the entire text is full of truth and fire. But here’s where he gets to the heart of his subject:

Yes, things are quiet in Tuscaloosa. Yes, there was peace on the campus, but it was peace at a great price: it was peace that had been purchased at the exorbitant price of an inept trustee board succumbing to the whims and caprices of a vicious mob. It was peace that had been purchased at the price of allowing mobocracy to reign supreme over democracy. It was peace that had been purchased at the price of capitulating to the force of darkness. This is the type of peace that all men of goodwill hate. It is the type of peace that is obnoxious. It is the type of peace that stinks in the nostrils of the Almighty God. …

In a very profound passage which has been often misunderstood, Jesus utters this: He says, “Think not that I am come to bring peace. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.”

Certainly, He is not saying that He comes not to bring peace in the higher sense. What He is saying is: “I come not to bring this peace of escapism, this peace that fails to confront the real issues of life, the peace that makes for stagnant complacency.”

Then He says, “I come to bring a sword” — not a physical sword. Whenever I come, a conflict is precipitated between the old and the new, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. I come to declare war over injustice. I come to declare war on evil. Peace is not merely the absence of some negative force–war, tension, confusion, but it is the presence of some positive force–justice, goodwill, the power of the kingdom of God.

I had a long talk with a man the other day about this bus situation. He discussed the peace being destroyed in the community, the destroying of good race relations. I agree that it is more tension now. But peace is not merely the absence of this tension, but the presence of justice. And even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have positive peace. Yes, it is true that if the Negro accepts his place, accepts exploitation and injustice, there will be peace. But it would be a peace boiled down to stagnant complacency, deadening passivity, and if peace means this, I don’t want peace.

If peace means accepting second-class citizenship, I don’t want it.
If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it.
If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don’t want peace.
If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace.

So in a passive, non-violent manner, we must revolt against this peace.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Current Affairs, History

Berkeley Chickens: Friends and Would-Be Roommates

chicken141213.jpg

Among other happenings in 2014, Kate and I became chicken farmers. Or at least fowl cohabitants.

Kate has a work friend who last spring needed to find a home for two chicks. We had thought about getting chickens — we have a neighbor who has three and several friends who have them, too and poultry is probably the fastest growing segment of the Berkeley population — so we said yes.

I won’t go into the chickens’ full joint biography other than to relate their names, Millie and Rhoda (it’s a pretty straightforward ’60s-’70s pop culture reference, if you want to play). Kate found a coop on Craigslist and designed a nice little enclosure for the birds, and they’ve been enjoying what seems to us a fairly happy chicken life out in our backyard. Most days, we give them the run of the backyard, and we’ve discovered that one of the things people say about chickens is true — they crap everywhere.

But they’re also surprisingly personable, and it’s way too easy for them to get the idea that they are pets instead of farm animals whose highest calling is to meet our demand for protein. We started giving them rolled oats as a treat, and they caught on right away: As soon as they saw us walk out the back door with the bag, they’d come running over in a manner that is both charming and insistent. “Look at how we run! It’s kind of funny! What’s that in the bag? When are you going to give us some?”

Right, I’m anthropomorphizing.

But so are they. They’ve noticed that we go in and out of the house, and they appear to be very curious about what goes on inside. At first, they’d track our movements through the house, running from door to door as they saw us walking back and forth past windows and doors. We generally leave the back doors open a crack when we’re home, but the chickens have shown a desire to explore the indoors. They’ll come into the back hallway and look around, maybe enjoying the relative warmth. I’ve tried to get them out as quickly as possible when they come inside. And I don’t leave the door open anymore, because we’ve discovered they’re just as likely to crap indoors as out, and you have to draw the line somewhere.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Berkeley

San Francisco Real Estate Angst, 1855 Style

I’ve been doing some reading on Gold Rush history for a work project — looking specifically at some of the Bay Area’s economic ups and downs. I came across this piece in the June 20, 1855, edition of the Daily Alta California, one of the state’s oldest papers (and one that continued to publish into the 1890s, I think). I picked up the text from a machine transcription of a digital image from the California Digital Newspaper Collection. Apparently, the CDNC is having a hardware issue and the digital image itself is not displayed at that link. So I’ve cleaned up the machine text as best I could, though there are a couple places I couldn’t divine what the original said.

I found this essay, which is a critique of ongoing property speculation in San Francisco, to be interesting in its condemnation of out-of-control speculation as ruinous to the public good. “In a word, it has vitiated the morals of the whole community,” it says. Even if the moral focus of that statement is coming from a Victorian concern about the deleterious effects of speculation — gambling, in effect — it resonates in a present where social justice activists are fighting gentrification taking place amid crazy-seeming spikes in property prices.

Here’s the Alta California piece in full:

One of the greatest evils which has ever overtaken the city of San Francisco — the greatest because the parent of many other evils — has been the overvaluation of property. It has not been properly confined to the city, but has manifested itself ail over the State, and its results are to be noted throughout the length and breadth of the land.

Now that Real Estate is “down,” it may not be improper to say a few words concerning a subject which is of unusual interest to every permanent resident of California. The available area of the pueblo of Yerba Buena for business purposes was very small. It extended only from about Pacific to California and from Montgomery to Dupont streets. We indicate the boundaries by streets which were laid out after the pueblo became the city of San Francisco. This space, although ample to accommodate the limited trade of 1846-7, proved wholly insufficient to meet the requirements of the wholesale immigration incited by the gold discovery.

By a natural law, the working of which never deviates, the price of lots within the available area of the town, after those discoveries, rose enormously. Thousands of people were rushing into the State, the most of whom landed in this city. Thousands of tons of merchandise were poured in upon us, which had to find storage in town, and had to be disposed of here. Rents naturally rose to the most extravagant rate, and the price of land advanced with equal rapidity, although not in a proportionate degree. There was no telling where the thing would stop, particularly as money was most abundant, and there appeared to be no end to the immigration. So far the speculation was a legitimate one. Afterwards it assumed another character.

It was evident from the first that this state of things could not last forever. The capital which had been introduced into the country in the shape of merchandise was quickly turned to enlarging the limits of the city proper. Wharves were extended, and the water invaded on the one side, while hills were cut down and streets graded on the other. All this time rents still kept up, if not to their original point, at least to one which proved highly remunerative, and the immigration still continued larger. It still appeared that there was more room wanted, until at last San Francisco attained her present size. But the tide had turned, and rates at last, after a long period — unexampled, indeed, for duration in California — began to decline. They have been declining ever since.

The city of San Francisco is to-day out of all proportion to the State. Where we originally did not have enough room, we have now a superabundance, not merely for today or this year, but for years to come. The Real Estate speculation, which was originally a [legitimate?] one, has for the last two or three years [become?] merely a bubble, liable to burst at any time, and kept [abreast?] of inflation merely by the activity of those interested in it.

There is no reason why, with the present population and prospective increase of our State, fifty-vara* lots two miles from the Plaza should command thousands of dollars, particularly when they are so situated as not to be available for purposes of agriculture. They should have a value, of course, and a vary considerable one. They may and do furnish legitimate objects of permanent investment for those who look forward to a return for their capital years hence; but their intrinsic value is not to be rated by thousands. We have been going too fast. We have followed out the speculative [?] to its full extent, and now we must stop.

It is an indisputable fact that nearly all the prominent operators of 1852-3 are now bankrupt, and the mass of smaller men are utterly ruined. A year or two ago they thought themselves rich — they lived extravagantly, kept their horses and carriages, furnished their houses magnificently, and now — they have nothing. Some few still hold out, and, with retrenched expenses, are waiting impatiently for a “rise.” They will probably be sick at heart before it is realized.

But this system of overvaluation has not merely ruined those engaged in Real Estate operations: It has to a certain degree debauched the whole community. Parties who saw futures in land have neglected their legitimate callings to squat on fifty-vara lots, and drag out unprofitable years waiting for a settlement of titles. A recklessness of human life has been engendered, which has told very badly on the interests of the State at large, preventing many who would have made excellent citizens from coming to these shores. It has kept rates of interest extravagantly high, thereby eating out the vitality of the republic. A disposition to speculate desperately — in other words, to gamble — not merely in land, but in everything else, has been fostered by it, and manifests itself in the frantic effort to “get whole” which have led men of high social standing to the commission of the most debasing Crimes. In a word, it has vitiated the morals of the whole community.

The Real Estate market is at present in a curious position. The asking and offering prices for land show no approximation whatever to each other. Outside lots are unsaleable except at a ruinous discount from cost prices, while in some parts of the original plat of the city rates still keep up. The lot at the corner of Washington and Montgomery streets on which Burgoyne’s building stands sold, a few days since, at auction, for $39,000, or about $1,000 a front foot. At the same time, fifty-vara lots on the hill, which were valued eighteen months ago at $15,000 to $16,000, to-day only command about $2500. It is a singular fact, that a person owning a lot in the business part of the city, on which a brick building has been erected, can to-day borrow more money on it than it would sell for!

It is time that we began to awaken to the real value of property here. San Francisco is not New York, a city of half a million of inhabitants, with an immense population behind it; it is a small place — an important one, it is true, and destined one day to be the central point of the Pacific, but nevertheless a small one — the entrepot for a population of less than four hundred thousand people. There is no reason why property in it should rule at New York rates, and any attempt to force them up to such prices can only be a purely speculative movement which must, like all gambling — be it with dice, or cards, or Peter Smith titles — redound to the injury of the community at large.

*A vara was a Spanish unit of measure widely employed in parts of the Southwest that had been part of Mexico. According to sources I find, the vara in San Francisco was equivalent to 2.75 feet, or 33 inches. Fifty varas would have measured to 137.5 feet, and a 50-vara lot would have been 50 varas square, or 137.5 feet by 137.5 feet. That’s 18,906,25 square feet, just a bit over four-tenths of an acre. What would that land go for today? Well, here’s a listing in the city’s rough Tenderloin neighborhood, about one-third the size of a 50-vara lot, going for about $3.2 million.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Current Affairs, History

First of 2015

web150101a.jpg

We made it to another completely artificial and arbitrary dividing point in time, which by widely accepted convention we’re calling 2015 (or 2015 CE, if you want to get ecumenical about it). But what the heck: Happy New Year all, even, as is increasingly likely the case, we haven’t met or spoken in a long time or, thanks to Googlers landing here looking for something they may or may not find, ever.

Resolutions? I have none to announce. I’m looking forward to seeing what the world brings our way in the coming arbitrary slice of months, weeks, days (12/52/365) and to seeing what meaning there is to glean from their passing.

And to say goodbye to 2014, here’s a look at one of the last shots of the year, taken last night from the Seaview Trail in Tilden Park.

sunset141231.jpg

Leave a Comment

Filed under Berkeley, Family