Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Great Divide

Panhandling on Market Street

I’m milking the San Francisco trip for all it’s worth. And what’s left is the chaff. Well, maybe not chaff but certainly a hodge-podge of images that have little to do with the accompanying text. Much has been written about the stark competition for the soul of San Francisco and what has been described as a dystopian divide between rich, high tech millennials and the homeless population riven with poverty, drug addiction and mental illness. The disparity is exemplified on every street where the anointed stride confidently, eyes averted, past the unfortunates. The homeless have become an indelible symbol of a city basking in its own good fortune.

Silhouettes with the Sausalito Ferry in the background

Gull and Bay Bridge

The divide will get worse before it gets better as the nouveau riche with young children who would have left the city for the suburbs a decade ago are electing to stay in the city by creating suburbs within it. So, four-bedroom 2,000 square foot condos starting at $4 million per are proliferating. That puts more pressure on both the availability and the pricing of residential real estate. It’s also why workers are commuting 1-1/2 hours each way from Sacramento or Stockton. Having already lost its working-class San Francisco is pricing the middle class out of the market, too. What may be left are vertical country clubs in a festering slum.

In Los Angeles and elsewhere the idea of building dense multi-family, moderate income housing near transit hubs has been proposed and the logic of same, given the paucity of affordable housing in coastal cities and the plague of traffic congestion, is irrefutable. Yet, the voices of single-family homeowners recently won the day in LA. The proposal to concentrate housing near rapid transit didn’t get out of committee and has been tabled for two years. And two years after that one imagines. Seventy percent of housing starts in California are single family. That’s not sustainable on the face of it but the American Dream abides.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Wine Life

The last day of the annual Plein Air Painters Convention in San Francisco was actually a paint-out at the glorious Viansa Winery in Sonoma, just 35 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. On a sun-swept 70-degree day it was a quintessential California wine country retreat and a welcome counterpoint to the bustle and blight that plague the city where I left my heart. Paint brush in one hand and a precocious little Pinot Noir in the other I painted my way through a charcuterie plate, a panini and a cucumber-lemon grass gelato before decamping for our hotel at the airport. Wait a minute. It was Peggy doing the painting and that was with a sprightly Chardonnay. I tend to conflate.

Anyway, I recommend a sojourn to Viansa on such a day. It’s best enjoyed with a three hundred of your best painting buddies as was the case on this stunning and memorable April 28.

Sitting at a table, Pinot at the ready, I inhaled a tiny measure of the life that I love. The gestalt of wine culture, the farm to table lifestyle and pura vida from the land has me hooked as it has for more than fifty years. Above the vineyards with San Pablo Bay and the Mayacamas Mountains in the distance the sweep of the vistas and the depth of its pleasures was magical.

My mission was to photograph the start to finish sequence of Peggy painting the farm across the highway from Viansa. Since the painting took a scant 1-1/2 hours she called it a field study which I gather is something less than a painting. Couldn’t prove it by me. At the time she thought it was her best of the week and later thought it was not. Eyes of the beholder.

From my vantage point at a sunlit terrace table these happened.


Don or consiglieri?

Painter Albert Handel

And in the window of the tasting room sat this prize.

Floral in window

Despite half a century of wine lust I had never heard of Viansa. It is not in the pantheon of Sonoma legends. But it’s blood line is not to be trifled with as it was founded in 1989 by the grandson of Samuele Sebastiani, you know the name, an Italian immigrant who purchased his first vineyard in 1904 after making cobblestones in San Francisco when he arrived from Tuscany in 1896. Lawrence Ferlinghetti would be proud.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The fog of fifty years

Farm in Fog, Mendocino, 1969

The Fog Series was launched 50 years ago though I didn’t know it at the time. I got the one memorable shot shown above and didn’t think about it for almost forty years. In early spring of 1969 we took the first of many drives up the coast to explore the magic of Big Sur, Carmel, the stretch of Highway One from Monterey to San Francisco and the real draw, the Sonoma and Mendocino Coast. In LA for barely a year we were already concocting ways to live the artistic life on the jagged shore where the redwoods meets the sea.

Our ten-year old VW purred proudly as we left Bodega Bay and the road rose steadily till the frothy surf crashed hundreds of feet beneath us. Soon we were abreast of Fort Ross, the early 19th century Russian outpost I first visited in 1948 when I was a camper at Camp Cazadero just over the hill above the Russian River near Guerneville.

Leaving Fort Ross, we continued to Mendocino where we turned inland on Fort Bragg-Willits Road toward Highway 101 and Ukiah. Moments later I spied a sagging farmstead in the dense fog. We stopped immediately and I made the image I called “Farm in Fog.”  An accurate if uninspiring title.

Silent Running, Putney, Vermont, 2006

It wasn’t until I was photographing the Putney Regatta on the Connecticut River in 2006 that the nascent Fog Series had two images. The photograph entitled “Silent Running” is of the over seventy year old national rowing champion on the placid river caressed by fog. It became the second image in the slowly developing portfolio. There’s an eerie calm and the look of total silence.

Presidio Pines #1, The Presidio of San Francisco, 2010

Then in 2010 while waiting for my tardy model Nima Shiraz at the Presidio of San Francisco the fog rolled in from the Pacific as if on cue. As it moved eastward it nearly obscured the Golden Gate Bridge two hundred yards from where I was photographing Battery Godfrey, World War I battlements build to protect the entrance to San Francisco Bay. The fifteen minutes I waited for Nima are among the most photographically rewarding of my life.

Canopy, Point Reyes National Seashore, 2015

Five years later after a visit to Point Reyes National Seashore I could see that a body of work had emerged. I walked toward Point Reyes Light which was cloaked in fog. I passed under a canopy of Bishop Pines that were dripping as if it were raining. I could hear fog horns in the distance and the faint sound of the surf breaking below.

The Golden Gate Bridge from Crissy Field, 2019

Children at Crissy Field, 2019

Then three weeks ago at Crissy Field in San Francisco I was able to add these images to the Fog Series. At this rate I’ll have book by the time I’m 140.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Lost in Translation

The Bay Bridge and Yerba Buena Island from the Ferry Building

We just got back from San Francisco. As reported on these pages more than once, The City (please note that San Francisco is referred to as THE CITY in the Bay Area just as Manhattan is THE CITY if you live in an outer borough and even though Oakland across the bay is the larger entity it will never be THE CITY. And, further, San Francisco may never be called Frisco unless you’re a rube) has been one of my favorite places in the world since I started visiting there as little more than a tot in the mid- forties. It was the scene of my first ballet, first foreign film, first musical theatre, my first Welsh Rarebit at Townsend’s Restaurant and first high tea at the City of Paris Department Store. My mother took me to Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf and to midnight mass at Saint Mary’s Church. I got my first Ivy League threads from a haberdasher on Market Street. The pants even had the superflous buckle in the back.

Saint Mary's Church and the entrance to Chinatown

Even after we moved to Arizona in 1952, we came back to San Francisco for vacations especially at Christmas. There’s nothing like a real city during the holidays. And San Francisco is a world city.

The ballet was Swan Lake and the play was The Prince and the Showgirl with a young Shirley MacLaine and Francis Lederer at The Curran Theatre near Union Square. The theatre was home to the San Francisco Light Opera at the time. The film version of the play starred Marilyn Monroe. The aforementioned film was a heist flick named The Lavendar Hill Mob with Alec Guiness and Stanley Holloway. The year was 1951. Quiz later.

I’d give the city by the bay mixed reviews on this seventieth (more or less) anniversary visit. At its best, like the Embarcadero on the sunny afternoon or Crissy Field shrouded in fog San Francisco thrills like no other. Yet the absurdly high costs of existing there and the unavoidable blight of homelessness detract greatly from what may be the most beautiful city in the country.

Homeless on Turk Street in the heart of the Tenderloin

At the turn of the new century Lawrence Ferlinghetti observed. “I certainly was surprised to be named the Poet Laureate of this far-out city on the left side of the world, and I gratefully accept, for as I told the mayor, I’d rather be the Poet Laureate of San Francisco than anywhere because this city has always been a poetic center, a frontier for free poetic life, with perhaps more poets and more poetry readers than any city in the world.

But we are in danger of losing it. In fact, we are in danger of more than that. All that made this City so unique in the first place seems to be going down the tube at an alarming rate.”

Then he quotes a Bay Guardian survey that “reveals a city undergoing a radical transformation – from a diverse metropolis that welcomed immigrants and refugees from around the world to a homogeneous, wealthy enclave.”

He concluded in 2001 that “The gap between the rich and the poor in San Francisco has increased more than forty percent in just two years recently.”

Even the prescient Ferlinghetti, now 100, could not have predicted that the trajectory he saw in 2001 would accelerate and San Francisco “may become the first fully gentrified city in America.”

He further quoted Daniel Zoll of the Guardian. “Now it’s becoming impossible for lot of people who have made this such a world class city - people who have been the heart and soul of the city for decades – from the fishers and pasta makers and blue collar workers to the jazz musicians to the beat poets to the hippies to the punks and so many others – to exist here anymore. And when you’ve lost that part of the city, you’ve lost San Francisco.”

Gesticulating wildly at the corner of Geary and Powell, Union Square

Pretty close. Set against the postcard backdrop of The City and the wrenching contrast of moneyed millennials to the huddled homeless is a city at odds with itself. It’s a city, it seems to me, too full of itself and its good fortune. The Emperor’s New Clothes is afoot in the too perfect, too wonderful city of my dreams. The home of the $35.00 breakfast and $140.00 plus tip Thai dinner at Kin Khao believes its own press. You are special San Francisco but not that special. Get over yourself.