Sign on, Root in, Branch Out
He skirted Market Pond and made his way up to the Wiggle. Passing through a green arching gate he rolled along next to a long aging wall that had seen better days. On the other side of the wall used to be some kind of warehouse or big store. Now it was a grassy knoll sloping down to Market Pond.
On the crumbling 110-meter long wall was an old mural from the late 20th century. A clever mural within the mural showed the city, starting from a pre-deluge downtown full of cars and bikes and heading past itself to show Hayes River turning into a path to the west to the beach where a huge snake became a bicycle tire track. The mural was considered a civic treasure from the time before and a lot of trouble had been taken to save it after successive quakes and major storms.
At the end of the wall he went over the rushing creek and the high-arching Sans Souci Bridge, steering clear of oncoming cyclists. The veloway followed the winding course of the Hayes River, willow and laurel trees studding the banks, along with impatiens and lupine bushes. Many spots along the creek were open to the surrounding homes, mostly old Victorians that had elegantly stood along this waterway since it had been buried in cement culverts long ago. The lush gardens that filled the small valley gave off a wild variety of sweet and organic smells in the moonlight.
--from After the Deluge, A Novel of Post-Economic San Francisco (Full Enjoyment Books: 2004)
I wrote that passage in my novel a few years ago, set in San Francisco 150 years in the future. Imagine my pleasure when I found out that an ornamental portal to the Wiggle is the first project envisioned by some activists along our much-loved route. A week ago I sat down on the Wiggle at Bean There Café with Morgan Fitzgibbons, one of the instigators behind the new Wigg Party, whose mission is to have the folks who live and ride and eat along this route “become the leading community in America in the transformation to sustainability.” Recognizing what more and more people are coming to grips with, that we’re on the cusp of a dramatic change in how we live in cities, and on earth, the Wigglers want to lead the way, taking action one community at a time, anchored in place. Given the high mobility and transience of so many young San Franciscans, a focus on a local neighborhood as a site of transformation is immediately encouraging.
The incipient Wigg Party doesn’t yet have a website or an office, but about 15 people have come together after Fitzgibbons started some sustainable business consulting, and the ideas snowballed. It started to become a more comprehensive vision just this past July, as the group is organizing more consulting, an educational effort they’re calling the “Great Re-skilling,” a “Gateway to the Wiggle,” and a local currency effort (wigg-bucks? Tender wiggles?).
Fitzgibbons has drawn his influences from the rising tide of permaculture, the Transition Towns movement, and the spreading idea of resilient communities.
"I’ve read the Transition Handbook, Rob Hopkins’ work. I’m familiar with the movement. We’re not connected with them even though I should… I kind of disagree that we have these twin peaks of peak oil and climate change and that’s where it all comes from. I took the Permaculture Design course in the fall with Kevin Bayuk… "
Imagine a transformed Wiggle:
“An edible foodway, sculpture gardens at some spots, see if we can get people on the Wiggle to participate in window box programs, and if we can get the Panhandle recognized as part of it. Then we can put all sorts of things there. If we can get the whole roadway opened up for art, maybe stencils…We’re going to take a lot of inspiration from City Repair (in Portland)… Maybe we could get the entire Wiggle closed during Rush Hour!”
Unlike a long tradition of San Francisco radicalism, Fitzgibbons, sees his own agenda as compatible with the business world. I pressed him on this, skeptical as I am of any future for the buying and selling of human time. Perhaps he is representative of his generation of post-Left, post-neoliberal activists, or maybe his youthful optimism hasn’t yet been tempered by years of frustration with the stupidity of the modern work-a-day world.
“I come from a social entrepreneurial world in a way. I try to overcome these distinctions between nonprofit and for-profit. There’s this new model emerging, and the idea is to be able to turn a profit on a business that is performing a social good. Then we can bring in money for some of these other good projects we have… the profit businesses are a backyard garden business and a home audit business…”
To be sure, we’re all compelled to make compromises with respect to surviving in a capitalist economy, and there’s nothing new (or wrong) with taking the money we DO make at work and channeling it towards something more humane and worthwhile. I’ve done as much throughout my life. But I balk at the notion of profiting from doing social good, the bedrock concept of “social entrepreneurialism.” In my opinion, profit is derived from one of two sources: squeezing the paid employees, or externalizing costs to the greater public. If you are in a new market niche where there is little or no competition, you can charge high enough prices to escape the iron hand of the market for a while… but once competition enters, the path towards profitability and survival is invariably lowering labor costs and lowering costs of materials, waste, distribution, etc.—what gets called “efficiency” in capitalism, but is as often as not a brutal process of reducing people’s standards of living, and/or dumping costs (transit, waste, etc.) on to an acquiescent public sphere.
The success of the Reagan/Thatcher neoliberal transformation going back well over a generation was to discredit government and the public sphere, to the point that a concept like “social entrepreneurialism” can sound progressive. But it reinforces a society that frames owners of wealth as social/historical agents and the rest of us as the silly putty with which they attempt to achieve their goals. In any case, Fitzgibbons and his cohort are very well-intentioned, and certainly in tune with a rising social movement towards Transition and Resilient Communities. I’ll give him the last word:
“That’s really the whole game, is to get people to reorient their priorities and change the world… I’m a philosopher, and I have a new world view that allows for a new kind of faith that makes sense, based on evolutionary metaphysics. I think we’re in an evolutionary process. The question is where is it going, and more specifically what are we to do? And the answer is we don’t really know what the telos is. We don’t know the ultimate answer, so all we know is we have to create sustainable cultures, so the people can come behind us and have a better answer than we do. And that gives our lives meaning, to create that culture, that’s what we have to do.”
Wigg Party meetings on 2nd Wednesdays, next: February 10, at 1571 Fulton Street, the “Sunshine Castle,” social 8:30, meeting 9… firstname.lastname@example.org