Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

To Boom or To Bust: The Long Story of San Francisco

Author David Talbot was making the rounds of San Francisco’s booksellers earlier this month during California Independent Bookstore Day, though the author of Season of the Witch and Brothers wasn’t promoting a new book; rather, he was using the community-oriented bookstore scene as a platform for his insider knowledge of City Hall to promote someone’s– anyone’s– significant bid for a mayoral run against Ed Lee in November. Talbot believes the need for new leadership in San Francisco is so dire, he joked he would run himself were it not for the personal and fiscal demands of entering a campaign. “I don’t want my wife to divorce me, which she said she would do if I did,” he laughed. cvr9781439108246_9781439108246_lgOther potential candidates like former Mayor Art Agnos, State Senator Mark Leno, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, and State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano have all opted out of the race after being rumored or considered as runners; former Supervisor Aaron Peskin is also nolo contendere since announcing his wish to fill an opening on the Board of Supervisors (as its few remaining progressives term out). Talbot says there may be one more viable candidate out there for mayor, but his sources have made him promise not to drop any hints. Meanwhile, Lee and his chief backer, venture capitalist Ron Conway, will stop at nothing to win the race, so we shall expect the usual vulgarities once/if reasonable opposition appears on the scene before the June 9th nomination filing date.”So what we lack and need is leadership, a media outlet and a progressive think tank,” Talbot concluded from his opening remarks on Saturday at Modern Times Bookstore. Then he opened the floor to the assembled crowd of activists, attorneys, homeowners, and young journalists for comment. One long-time community organizer was near tears as she contemplated the prospect of another four years for Lee. “You think it’s bad now. We’ll all be gone by then,” she said, referring to the drift of long-time San Franciscans and natives away from the city they call home. “I share your pain, but don’t leave!” the author responded. “We need you here as an advocate.” 

Talbot believes an institution devoted to educating future political leaders, as well as voters, would be a longer-term solution, and again he asked the crowd to speculate how such a venture, as well as a much-needed media outlet, could be funded. That question remained largely unanswered, though the one name that consistently comes up in these conversations is Marc Benioff, a tech billionaire and serious philanthropist intent on doing good with his wealth while encouraging others in his business to do the same.

Talbot’s overview of city governance and his depth of understanding of public versus privately funded projects here, as well as of the more general role media plays in democratic society, is owed to his background as a journalist: He’s worked for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, and the San Francisco Examiner, and he founded Salon, one of the Web’s earliest full-service magazines/news destinations. He was raised in Los Angeles, and his father, Lyle Talbot, was a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild. Talbot’s self-proclaimed obsession with the Kennedys led him to write Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years; he followed with Season of the Witch, a cultural and political history of San Francisco and how it came to be the city it’s known to be versus the city that it is (on Saturday he revealed that Season of the Witch will be this fall’s One City One Book).

In recent years, Talbot has followed the story of changing San Francisco and has delivered a series of talks, including “Don’t Be a Stanford Asshole,” which implores new and future Stanford elite to be mindful of the dehumanizing nature of technology. A transcript made the rounds on the Internet earlier this year when it was picked up by 48 Hills, the one-man operation helmed by former SF Bay Guardian editor Tim Redmond, who Talbot believes is creating the kind of deep investigative journal we need in light of the long-insufficient San Francisco Chronicle, and in the absence of SF Bay Guardian, which was abruptly closed last year.

“We are a city, a world, in a boom and bust cycle,” asserts Talbot, and of that there is no doubt, though he notes the strange mood here as most of us await the next bust more fervently than more boom.

Last month even the historically nonpartisan 58th San Francisco International Film Festival got into the spirit of imminent change by hosting a program titled “Boomtown.”  Redmond delivered a PowerPoint presentation providing an overview of the housing crisis in progress, though it was cultural expressions like Vero Majano’s heart-stopping spoken word and found film from the Mission District, Melorra and Melodie Greene’s interactive tribute to the LGBTQ/Black Lives Matter movement, and The Last Black Man In San Francisco, a film in the works by Talbot’s son Joe, which if seen by wider audiences could potentially change hearts and minds. Joe Talbot’s film is based on real events in the life of its co-writer and lead actor, Jimmy Fails (whom Talbot the elder considers an honorary son).

Fails’ African American family experience is the most extreme example of a community’s disproportionate displacement here, and yet the feelings speak for many of us when the character says,  “My grandpa came West…Sometimes I feel there ain’t nothing left of me here. But where am I supposed to go? Ain’t shit west of here but water.” It’s an apt observation for a city lost at sea without a captain, but in these young filmmakers’ art and music (which Joe Talbot also composed) there is also light and hope–things we natives and transplants can all use a bit more of right now.

A version of this post appeared May 5 at Down With Tyranny

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, column, , , , , , ,

Love Your Local Bookstore

4344631_origThis week, KQED-FM, San Franciso’s NPR- afffilate and longstanding listener-supported radio station aired my Perspective on the economic boom and resultant gentrification situation here in San Francisco specific to how it impacts small business and in particular, bookstores.  Longtime readers know that since I moved home following a decade-in-exile in Southern California, I’ve become more than a little concerned about the changing book scene here.  I observed as two beloved West LA community insitutions, Midnight Special and Dutton’s, closed their doors. Citing emerging technology and real estate development as part of the complex, the closings left an area arguably already culture-spare without an accessible, substantial independent bookstore. Believe me when I say readers were bereft, though they were at a loss at how to turn things around without the assistance of major donor intervention or legislation.

And yet, a question I’m often asked is, what’s my personal stake in the matter of San Francisco bookstores? As an author, my livelihood depends in a small part on the sales of my books. I review books. Many of my friends are authors and I want them to succeed:  I support their work as I can—much of our work goes on in bookstores and on the backs of each other’s books.  I like bookstores.  I work parttime for a bookstore. Without bookstores, my husband wouldn’t know what to do with his spare hours when he isn’t working tirelessly; they feed him with more inspiration and fuel so he can work some more (books are part of his creative process and ability to earn too).  Children need books so they may learn how to read. People learn languages, new things, chart new paths, and cure diseases thanks to the knowledge found in books. Must I go on? I could, but you can just as easily listen.

This small effort in San Francisco, from the campaign to support 50-year-old Marcus Books to the ongoing progressive mission of 43-year-old Modern Times Bookstore Collective has resulted in the formation of United Booksellers of San Francisco (UBSF).  We have a long way to go, but I hope you will tell your friends what we are doing and that you will join us in the struggle to keep our small bookstores and the literary culture to which they contribute strong and vital.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, column, Editorial, income disparity, It's Personal, , ,

Tales of the (Gentrification) City: Tom Heyman and Deirdre White

I’ve been working on a new column series based on real life stories from the heart of Gentrification City. The first one concerns songwriter and recording artist Tom Heyman and visual artist and community college instructor Deirdre White, a couple of longtime Mission District residents who’ve found a way to survive in high-tech town as working artists.

That Cool Blue Feeling album by Tom Heyman. Cover photo by Deirdre White

That Cool Blue Feeling album by Tom Heyman. Cover photo of sunset in the Outer Richmond by Deirdre White

Debuting this week at Down With Tyranny, I’m seeking a permanent home for the serial (it might be here, there or elsewhere).  Until then, please find the first installment here and let me know what you think:  The story is just beginning. Turns out this 49(ish) square mile patch of scenic beauty is smaller than ever before. The lives of those of us who remain here are all very much interconnected.

I look forward to sharing the stories of 21st Century San Francisco with you and am exceedingly grateful I’ve been given the opportunity to do so.  Until the next installment, I’ll be here riding the waves and the ropes, too. Stand strong people:  They can’t take away our souls or the songs in our hearts…

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, column, serial, Sunnyside Up, Tales of the Gentrification City, , , , , ,

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