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Posts from the Chris Carlsson Category


Back to Civilization

norrebrogade_bike_traffic_both_sides_2872.jpgA wet late afternoon on Norrebrogade in Copenhagen... bikes fill the lanes on either side of the street and a bus is in the near background. Not many cars!...

Returning to Copenhagen after some years away is always a pleasant shock. Few cities in the world feel as properly scaled as this lovely old Danish capital. My mother was born and raised here, so I've been visiting off and on over the years. No doubt my own visions of what San Francisco could be, in terms of a bicycling city, have always been shaped by my experiences here in Copenhagen.

The city is not a sprawling urban environment of single-family homes. Most buildings are five stories and the vast majority of the city's residents live in apartments. The density feels cozy rather than crowded, though. The streets are full of pedestrians, and after several decades of building a citywide system of dedicated side paths (few streets don't feature a pedestrian sidewalk, a curb down to a wide bike path able to handle two and three abreast, then another curb down to the street) Copenhageners are famous for being big bicyclists (20-40% of daily trips in the city are on bike, whether one is 8 or 88 years old!). At every intersection bicycles pile up in their lane awaiting their own phase of the signals, and often enjoy well-marked blue pavement as they cross the street. As a recently arrived guest, it takes a bit of adjustment to realize that you cannot blithely step off the sidewalk because there are usually bicycles approaching at a good clip.


Take Two Peaks and Call Me in the Morning!

feb_08_poppies_and_downtown_7470.jpgView from top of south peak in February 2008.

With the rain falling in late November, and soggy unemployment statistics haunting our lives too, the idea of Depression lurks just below the surface. Depression has multiple meanings like so many concepts in the English language; in this case, I’m taking two of them: 1) mental depression that results from bad weather, personal trauma, emotional turbulence, etc., and 2) economic depression. I have a good coping mechanism for both kinds! It’s to take our local K2, i.e. Twin Peaks, by bike!

I was recently speaking with a close friend who is going through a break-up and gave her the advice that saved me the last time I faced a similar circumstance: develop a regular regime of walking or cycling every day. Get out of the house and out of your normal mental space and breathe the air, see the views, enjoy the beautiful city that is at your fingertips.


The Copenhagen Moment

IMG_2393.JPGOctober 24, 2009, Bay Street in San Francisco: Riders traverse one potential future shoreline

I'll be leaving in ten days for Scandinavia, and will be sending reports to sf.streetsblog on the upcoming Climate Change conference (known as COP15) and the massive demonstrations that are expected to surround it. I've been to Copenhagen (my mother was born there) so I'm excited to return to a place where bicycles reign and the political culture is surprisingly reasonable compared to anything here in the U.S. COP15 will be joined by most of the world's nations, while outside its perimeter, a range of political organizations and ad-hoc political cultures will also converge, bringing memories of Seattle a decade ago, and the half dozen other dramatic confrontations between protesters and police at G8 or IMF summits since then.

Anthropogenic climate change is well underway, with polar ice caps, glaciers, and arctic tundra all melting at unprecedented rates. In San Francisco's mild climate, where we still enjoy abundant fresh food, water, and easy transportation and communications, it's hard to feel climate change as an imminent disaster. In fact, according to recent polls, U.S. residents are increasingly skeptical about climate change and more resistant to remedial actions. (On a local note, I was distributing my new red global warming bicycle license plates at the last Critical Mass and had two unrelated young men go off on me, each claiming that global warming is a government hoax! Apparently we get some Glen Beck fans on bikes even at Critical Mass!)


What We Don’t See: China Miéville’s ‘The City & The City’

not_seeing_people_9140.jpgInvisible people are all around us!

Once you start thinking about it, what we don't see is a much bigger category than what we do see. But what we don't see ON PURPOSE is a really interesting category. When you add to the mix mobility, walking or riding or driving through city streets, not seeing can become a mysteriously dangerous stew indeed!

In The Botany of Desire food scribe Michael Pollan gives a history from the point of view of four plants: the apple, the tulip, the potato, and marijuana. In his description of human response to marijuana he describes what he calls the "cannabinoid system," a system of nerves and chemicals in our brains (somewhat analogous to a nervous system) that serves to screen out extraneous information. I had always been puzzled by the effects of marijuana on most people, but this helped explain it. Not only does it make you feel good, it also tends to make it difficult to multi-task for most people. Your ability to concentrate is impaired. Or is it? Pollan suggests that marijuana's psychoactive ingredient, Tetrahydrocannabinol, enhances the effects of the cannabinoid system, screening out even more than usual, leaving us with all our senses filled with whatever is front and center-a bowl of ice cream, sex, a visually stimulating movie or art show, or what have you…

"Miéville has given us an extraordinary meditation on otherness. Whether we gaze out from our nation on the peoples of the world and see something less than we are (we're #1?), or we walk past the homeless person sprawled in their own vomit, we are all adept at not seeing."
But there's more to the mysteries of perception and actually seeing than that. A great number of art critics have addressed these issues in ways far more sophisticated than I can (not to mention that perhaps Streetsblog is an odd place for such ruminations!). But I found a great novel recently that cleverly brings these questions to the forefront, science fiction author China Miéville's The City & The City.

Miéville is a much-honored writer best known for his mind-bending trilogy set around a weird imperial city called New Crobazon, full of humans and other creatures including a horrifying array of bioengineered "remades." If you haven't checked out Perdido Street Station or The Scar or The Iron Council, I highly recommend them.



Nature’s Unsung Helper

stephen-obrien_2287_1.jpgStephen O'Brien, gardener at Transbay Terminal since 1958.

Stephen O'Brien has been coaxing an oasis out of a most unlikely environment for a long time: the small green patches at either end of the ground level Mission Street frontage of the Transbay Terminal. He started back in 1958, when the old Key System train tracks that used to bring East Bay electric streetcars to the Transbay Terminal were being torn out. The Transbay Terminal in those days was a crucial commuter hub, bringing passengers from all over the East Bay. If you've ever ridden the F bus from Berkeley to San Francisco, you've ridden on the descendant of the same-lettered streetcar that once transported you from downtown Berkeley to downtown San Francisco just a minute longer than BART does today!

O'Brien is having his last day working his gardens at the Transbay Terminal today. His company's contract with Caltrans has ended, and he has been transferred to the State Building or the PUC building grounds. He's almost 80 years old and if he doesn't like his new posting, he'll probably retire soon. It'll be hard to match the half century he's spent cultivating the quiet, almost invisible oases at the Transbay Terminal. I heard about O'Brien from my friend Susanne Zago:

"Every morning I step out of the Transbay Terminal, one of the ugliest places I've ever been, and I notice this small green space as I leave. Sometimes it was completely trashed, but the next day I'd look in and it would be restored to its pristine condition. I looked at the trees, surprisingly mature, wondering what was planned for them as they build the new Transbay Center. I started asking around, and no one knew. One day I met this man who was in the space and it turned out to be Stephen."



A Cycling Congress in Mexico

tambien_soy_trafico_2129.jpgRespect me: I am also traffic!

Guadalajara, Mexico was host this month to the 2nd annual Congress of Cyclists in Mexico, a national gathering of bicyclist activists from around the country. I was invited to give a speech, which I somehow managed to do in Spanish (thanks to my media naranja for translating and coaching me!), detailing the history of cycling and Critical Mass in particular. I loved being at the Congress, meeting people from all over Mexico, a few old and new friends from the U.S., and one remarkable woman from Quito, Ecuador.

The city of Guadalajara is an ironic place for this conference. It is a town overrun with SUVs, streets jammed with cars, 6-lane, one-way boulevards, sprawling suburbs in five other municipalities making a metro area of 6 million or so. In spite of its obvious car-centrism, Guadalajara has a number of beautiful public plazas, several pedestrian-only zones closed to cars, both in its downtown and in a gentrified artsy-touristy neighborhood some distance from the city center. They've even installed a real European-style bike lane (or ciclovia as they're generally known in Spanish) on one of its major thoroughfares, with plans to extend a network of such lanes in several directions.


San Francisco is Sinking!

un_plaza_fountain_1639.jpgUN Plaza, Market and 7th, the waters from the subterranean "Mighty Hayes River"!!

Famously, we live on a crack in the earth. The San Andreas Fault gets most of our attention, followed not too far behind these days by the equally ominous Hayward Fault. A major earthquake on either of these could alter local landscapes forever, and will certainly damage or destroy freeways, bridges, and the water system. That's one of our catastrophes waiting in the wings, and it's good think about preparing for such eventualities.

Less obvious, but just as much a part of our local natural landscape (largely obscured by asphalt and buildings), are the old waterways on which the city is built. The evidence for these underground waterways is in plain view as well as being represented in various public documents. Joel Pomerantz wrote "San Francisco's Clean Little Secret" a few years ago (first appearing in a book I edited "The Political Edge" City Lights: 2004) wherein he found in SF Water Dept. official reports the saga of the "Mighty Hayes River." Starting deep underground somewhere near Lone Mountain, the subterranean river flows southeast under Civic Center, and as you can see on this map, once surfaced around 7th and Mission.


Gentrification, Livable Streets and Community Stability

mission_east_w_planter_and_busstop_in_distance_1670.jpgPlanters and a tree on Mission between 9th and 10th... Planktown Neighbors effort to beautify this central city area.

Cities don't stand still. Going back at least to WWII, U.S. cities have been radically altered again and again. Economic restructuring has been part of it, as urban areas have shed manufacturing in favor of the so-called service sector: FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) and Tourism (restaurants and hotels plus retail and entertainment). Transportation changes have played a big part too, with the suburbanization of the 1950s-60s fueled (literally) by the interstate highway system and intraurban freeways, and the inexorable expansion of private cars at the expense of public transit. The populations that occupy various neighborhoods in cities, once relatively stable for generations, have moved away, leaving behind spaces whose character has changed with the arrival of new city dwellers, whether from other countries or just elsewhere in the U.S.

It's a long story, and every neighborhood in every city has its own tale to tell. During the past generation a populist opposition to urban gentrification has emerged. It probably starts with the bitter struggles to prevent the 1960s "urban renewal" programs from displacing whole populations (in San Francisco's Fillmore it became known as "negro removal," a precedent well-remembered by those now opposing the Redevelopment Agency in Bayview/Hunter's Point). But during the real estate booms of the 1980s and again during the dotcom boom at the end of the 1990s, right through the historically unprecedented housing bubble that finally popped in 2008, many progressives have worked to confront the forces of gentrification.

Gentrification as a term tends to conflate different "facts on the ground" though. Sometimes it defines a process of social displacement, usually class- or race-based, wherein a poorer population is forced out by rising prices and the steady influx of new residents who can pay those prices. To acolytes of the market, this all seems perfectly reasonable and fair, and the idea that there should be some kind of social restraint on such "efficient" "self-organizing" market mechanisms is anathema. To leftists and housing activists committed to defending the downtrodden and the poor, this system is a thinly disguised process of ethnic cleansing most of the time, and when the outcome isn't blatantly racist, it's still another chapter in a long saga of the rich screwing the rest of us.



A Public Space Renaissance in San Francisco

dolores_park_slope_cu_0757.jpgCrowds gather on eastern slope of Dolores Park near 18th.

One of the ongoing dilemmas for landscape architects, city planners, and yes, even transit geeks, is the chicken-and-egg question regarding public space. If you build it, will they come? Is there a “public” demanding wider sidewalks, public squares and plazas, pocket parks, and depaving, and who, exactly, are they?

Starting several decades ago, San Franciscans began to reassert a public life, famously highlighted by the early San Francisco Mime Troupe getting arrested in 1965 for performing free in public parks (initially permitted, the Parks Commission revoked the Mime Troupe’s permit when they disapproved of the play’s content). The Mime Troupe’s legal battles led the city to recognize a new notion of public commons with respect to its parks. This logic was extended further by the Diggers, an anarchic group that emerged from the Mime Troupe to make theater out of everyday life. They began by distributing free food in the Panhandle, and within a few months, a whole culture of “free” was proliferating a year or more before the “Summer of Love” put the Haight-Ashbury on the national map. Free stores, free concerts, free dope, free food, and for some, free love, pushed past the boundaries of the capitalist society.


The Ghost Streets of San Francisco

castro_duncan_ghosts0803.jpgGhosts cavort where Castro Street should be!

Intrepid explorers of San Francisco regularly stumble upon the many ghost streets that still hide all over town, rewarding the patient pedestrian for their diligence. Mostly they are on hillsides where steep grades impeded road building at earlier moments in history, but they're still presented as if they were through-streets on the maps.

A tour begins with an old map and lots of photos below the break.