Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Real SF Lives Talk Real: New Series!

First Stop/Last Stop photo by Denise Sullivan

If you read the national news- or even some of our local papers – you might think San Francisco is beyond redemption. I blame it on seven dollar coffee and toast (the fourteen dollar snack). Some will tell you it’s the corruption inside city hall, the mishandling of affordable housing, and the public school system, and I would believe them: All of it part of the unfinished jigsaw of our city’s story and there is more to it than that. But one thing we handled, and handled well, was the pandemic. So thanks for that, to the medical professionals and city officials, essential workers and everyday citizens who did their part to mask up and slow the spread. Though it might be fair to say the statewide reopening on June 15 felt hasty and confusing to those who adhered to the guidelines for the duration -no non-essential travel, social or business activity, six feet of distance, masking and no gathering. The mask off and the rush back to life is stress-inducing and no-wonder: There is so little known about the mutation of the virus, the variants; as it is, hospitalizations are up in some California counties…

In an effort to air some of the public’s immediate practical and emotional concerns and to feel uplifted during the transition, on June 13, a couple of days before “reopening,” we kicked off a livestreamed discussion series with our fellow San Franciscans, hosted by Bird & Beckett Books and Records. Our first guest was artist Anna Lisa Escobedo, an extraordinary San Franciscan with an LA background and a story to tell. Our second guest was columnist and independent publisher, Kelly Dessaint. Future guests will include many of the subjects of my column, SFLives, which runs every other week in the San Francisco Examiner: The folks I cover and tend to want to speak to in-depth are our on-the-ground leaders and everyday workers in arts, culture and various essential jobs that make San Francisco the place we call home.

In recent columns, I’ve covered the controversy surrounding the opening of the Great Highway from a very personal perspective; I’ve spoken to photojournalist/filmmaker Lou Dematteis, musician/composer Jon Jang, artist/urban farmer/community historian Lisa Ruth Elliott and Japantown community leader Grace Horikiri (You can peruse nearly 100 columns at the Examiner’s website).

Porthole photo by Denise Sullivan

In some of these talks we take on gentrification issues, the ways in which the city has ceded the people’s interests to newly minted tech barons and their minions and pretty much successfully destroyed our international reputation as a sanctuary for artists and outsiders. Yes, that. But mostly in 2020 and beyond it, we confronted pandemic issues, how we coped and how our hometown did that aforementioned exemplary job at keeping the spread under control, even though we as a city continue to fail our most vulnerable — those without homes, seniors without families, and developmentally and physically disabled folks. As for the rocky “reopening,” we’ll be talking about that too: Nobody really knows how to handle the summer rush. There are no workers for low-wage jobs. And as the unvaxed and unmasked descend upon us, the most committed lovers of this place are at the brink: There are stories we’re moving out in droves, moving to Tahoe (and ruining the way of life there). A recent New York Times story about organized shoplifting crimes at Walgreen’s is the latest outrage, meanwhile, children remain out of school while a dysfunctional school board (we voted for) squabbles over….don’t ask, most of us have lost the plot; discontent –no, rage–directed at the district attorney (we voted for) has degenerated into moms shouting down other moms at the neighborhood farmer’s markets. Finally, the web of deep corruption within city hall and other city agencies continues to be investigated by the feds. These are just a few of the challenges confronting us in perilous times. Yes, this place is for the birds. And where isn’t right now?

What I feel like I’ve failed to put into words, ever, but especially in these times, is there is nowhere else I would rather be. This is that elusive place called home. There is something about waking up in the City and County of San Francisco seeing the sun (or at this time of year, fog), and feeling in your bones it’s the right place to be; that there is something to be said for enduring our cold summer winters, days like these. And on other days, one peek at the sky, if it’s that particular shade of blue I have not yet found words to describe, with clouds that seem to move as I go, the contentment and acceptance that I’m in San Francisco turns to deep joy and gratitude that I’m San Franciscan. In the blue, I can breathe more deeply, though why that is I haven’t yet discovered. So until then, I’ll keep talking about this place with you. And taking photos. And writing about it. Here’s to another day in the beautiful city. I have so much left to learn.

Please join the conversation with San Francisco’s artists, essential service providers and and everyday people as we talk about this place we call home. Coming up, Sunday August 8, 10 a.m. live from Bird and Beckett, filmmaker Eric Goodfield.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, photography, San Francisco News, serial, Tales of the Gentrification City, , ,

San Francisco: Where there’s hatred, let love rule

Sometimes there are coincidences that can’t be ignored. That’s what I said to the Reverend Roland Gordon and author/activist Benjamin Bac Sierra who echoed similar ideas when I interviewed them individually about their San Francisco lives and times for my San Francisco Examiner column, SFLives: Both men preach love and tolerance, Gordon (pictured below right) from the pulpit at Ingleside Presbyterian Church and Bac Sierra (pictured below left) from the podium in his classroom at City College of San Francisco (though for the past 365 days of the pandemic, their work has been done virtually). Both men are situated a matter of blocks from each other, coincidentally or not, just blocks from where I lived for the first several years of life with my parents, behind the restaurant and home of my grandparents. But when both Bac Sierra and Gordon conjured St. Francis, namesake of our city, I had to pause and acknowledge the source outside ourselves at play: A higher vibration that sometimes goes by the name of Love.

photos courtesy of Ben Bac Sierra and Kevin Hume for San Francisco Examiner

In this pandemic year, I’ve made fewer trips across town, had less in-person contact and left reporting from the frontlines to those who receive the hazard pay to do so. My writing has been more from the armchair and virtual perspective due to my own limitations; I’ve relied more than ever on my files and list of ideas and contacts — the ones I’d been meaning to get to but hadn’t, for one reason or another, than unearthing new discoveries. But then, that’s been the experience for many of us – exploring the great indoors, whether metaphorical or metaphysical, has been some of the work of our pandemic lives.

It’s said timing is everything and in the case of these two profiles, I can’t agree more: The stories crossed my desk/came to mind/dropped in my lap at the one year mark of the pandemic and our shelter-in-place orders. It’s been a watermark, a time when people and The City (as we call it) are suffering from the fatigue of isolation and light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel anticipation, mixed with COVID-anxiety and variant dread. For some of us, the vaccine is not yet available. It hasn’t been an easy year: Not for the families who have lost members and not for people with disabilities and high risk conditions, including those who suffer the pain of depression due to isolation. It’s been hard on essential workers, healthcare professionals and especially for Black and Brown communities disproportionately impacted by the virus. And there is an additional layer of distress on Asian American Pacific Islanders, who for the last year have been targets of an appalling number of hate crimes here — yes here, in the city of St. Francis, where over one-third of our population identifies as AAPI.

For Bac Sierra, a combat vet with an incredible backstory of survival and an evolving story of reclamation and redemption as an writer and educator, this time of year not only marks the anniversary of the pandemic: It’s been 30 years since he returned from the Gulf War and seven since his friend, Alex Nieto, was shot 59 times by SFPD. This is a solemn week in San Francisco as we once again remember those lives that were taken by police violence. Bac Sierra continues to honor his friend with Amor For Alex, an ongoing demonstration of love in action, a movement “beyond justice,” he said.

As for Rev. Gordon, the idea behind his Great Cloud of Witness, a giant building-sized collage mural devoted to Black excellence he’s crafted over several decades, is to inspire youth toward greatness. He established a basketball league and community center to develop community engagement and has been an advocate for over 30 years. Extending beyond his neighborhood, he offers the San Francisco World Peace Affirmation, based on the words of the prayer commonly referred to as The Prayer to St. Francis, but tailored so as to affirm peace in the now. “If you’re talking about love and honor and respect for everybody, San Francisco could be a microcosm of the world,” said Gordon. We still have quite a bit of work to do, thus the prayer and affirmation.

Francis of Assisi was born late in the 12th Century. By the turn of 13th Century, his visions of Christ drew him deeper toward living a life more like Jesus, renouncing his family and worldly goods and tending to the sick and poor (this is of course a general and capsule take on one of the most important figures to all of Christendom). He honored the elements, all creatures, and is the patron saint of nature and animals. It is probably needless to say that some thought he was mad. There are others, even those outside the faith, who believe in the prayer named for him, though not written by his hand: It is the prayer that begins, Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace; where there is hatred let me sow love… You may’ve heard it. If not, I encourage you to look it up, if you’re the praying kind.

The future of San Francisco, and the rest of the world, is still untold. Some would say we are at the point in our so-called civilization that only a divine source, the power of a miracle or some higher force outside ourselves is going to turn around this mess we humans have gotten into. But where there is love there is hope. I hope you will read the stories of Rev. Gordon and Ben Bac Sierra in the column and love what they have to say as much as I loved being reminded by them of the saint meant to guide our city and its actions, and the words to the prayer that bears his name: Grant that we may not so much seek to be loved as to love.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, California, San Francisco News, , , , , , ,

Columnist Nabs Greater Bay Area Journalism Award

For the first time since I was in high school (which was a really long time ago), I’ve received acknowledgement for my work as a reporter. This month, I was awarded third place honors in the columnist category for my biweekly column, SFLives, for the San Francisco Examiner, by the Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards, held by the San Francisco Press Club and judged by members of the San Diego, St. Louis, Cleveland and New Orleans Press Clubs. Among the 70 columns I’ve written for the San Francisco Examiner since early 2018, I have my personal favorites to be sure, and all of them were made possible with the participation of some extraordinary San Franciscans who make our city what it has been historically and what it is in these unprecedented times. Our people are freethinkers, visionaries and lionhearted beacons who lead the rest of the country in their respective pursuits and professions. Whether working in the arts, activism or as essential workers, we simply could not endure, survive and thrive in these times at the edge of the world without the everyday people who make The City extraordinary (the tagline of SFLives). Congratulations to all of the great journalists and photographers who participated and received acknowledgement and thanks to all who voted. But the biggest thanks of course belongs to the subjects of SF Lives: There is no column without San Francisco and our people. My recognition from the San Francisco Press Club belongs to all of us – thank you.

Read the latest San Francisco Lives columns

Filed under: Arts and Culture, column, San Francisco News, , , ,

How to support small presses, indie films and theaters during the pandemic

Notes, Contacts, Name CQ's here

Liam Curley, warehouse manager at the Small Press Distribution, Berkeley, CA. During the high season of the pandemic’s shelter-in-place orders, it was lonely in SPD’s warehouse where Curley worked by himself, receiving and shipping orders by hand at a fraction of his usual pace.(Photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle)

During the early phase of the coronavirus shutdown, small publishers and the Northern California distributor that ships those books to market were doing all right, operating with scaled down staffs and shipping customer orders direct. But as the fall publishing season approaches, with no end to the virus in sight, the closures indefinite, and college course texts and bookstore futures shaky, the small press industry is navigating the same uncertain future as everyone else. If there is a silver lining to this catastrophe, small presses are generally more attuned to matters of race, gender and class than the big five publishing houses: There is a demand for books authored, edited and published by Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). I wrote about the longstanding spirit and principle of intersectionality in small press publishing for the San Francisco Chronicle. I hope you’ll read the full story here.

SFE-SFLives

Documentary filmmaker Anne Flatte stands outside the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Her film,  “River City Drumbeat,” is about a year in the life of drum corps in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Some of the changes from digitization that impacted publishing even before the pandemic also reverberate through the art of producing, making and presenting independent film – a corner of the film business where woman traditionally find more opportunity than they do in Hollywood.  For the small art houses that regularly show movies by and about subjects that might not otherwise be seen on the big screen, the pandemic closures threaten to wipe out old time cinemas and movie-going entirely, though the best makers and curators are adapting.  Here in San Francisco, we can stream directly from our beloved Roxie, Balboa and Vogue Theaters, among others.  Filmmaker Anne Flatté is screening her latest work, River City Drumbeat, via virtual cinema. She and her co-director chose a youth drum corps as their compelling subject and made a visually captivating and emotionally powerful film about cultural legacy and survival. As a viewer, you can choose to watch indie films like River City Drumbeat in a way that supports local businesses instead of using your typical streaming services. Why would you? Well, the main multi-media/marketplace exploits its workers.  And the business models of the big streaming services also steal a disproportionate amount of revenue from the people who actually make the art. Those fat cats don’t need your money and artists need to be compensated for their work. Read more here.

Please support a small local press, filmmaker, theater or business today or this week: They need us – and we need them – if ever we’re going to get through this mess.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, film, San Francisco News, , , , , ,

One of The Survivors: 75th Remembrance

190202-sfe-sflives-005Jack Dairiki is an old-time Californian: His maternal grandfather was a hotelier and grocer in Sacramento. But in 1941, as a firstborn son, he was called with his father to the rural village outside of Hiroshima where his father was originally from.

“We received a letter in the mail that my grandfather was ill,” he explained. “We planned a summer vacation trip.” Traveling by ship to Yokohama, they proceeded to Tokyo and into the lush, green countryside where aunts, uncles and cousins he didn’t even realize existed eagerly awaited the arrival of their American relatives.

“My experience of seeing Japan for the first time was I noticed everything was petite: The cars, the railroad,” said Dairiki, while pouring into crystal glasses water and green tea for us to share. He recalled the culture shock upon his arrival.

“The only time I ate with chopsticks was in Chinese restaurants,” he said. He was unaccustomed to taking off his shoes and sitting on the floor, to the sliding doors and the tatami mats.

“I criticized my father for taking his shoes off,” he remembered. “We don’t do that in the United States, I told him, but my father had grown up in Japan. It was like being home for him.” One summer of running through rice fields and swimming in streams passed quickly. Dairiki was ready to return: to Sacramento, to Lincoln Grammar School, to his mother, his brothers and his sister. And then, World War II.

“My father tried to secure our passage back and was told we couldn’t go,” he said.
At home, his mother and siblings had been rounded up and taken to the Tulelake detention center; his younger brother died while in custody.
Read the rest of my interview with A-Bomb survivor, Jack Dairiki of San Francisco in the San Francisco Examiner as we remember with horror the US attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bomb killed somewhere between 100-200,000 people, most all civilians, this week 75 years ago. “When will we ever learn?”

Filed under: anti-war, San Francisco News, , , , , , , , , ,

Surviving the Pandemic with Frisco Style

Since March, I’ve been devoting my SFLives column in the San Francisco Examiner to people who are taking the virus and caring for others seriously by living their lives responsibly and generously. They are people like Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, who tracks the health of people in Bayview-Hunters Point where airborne toxins put the community at risk of all kinds of respiratory ailments and cancers.  Or Leroy F. Moore Jr, an international disability rights activist who is leading fellow artists in a fight for increased visibility and against police violence. And then there is Ericka Scott, who takes an interest in society’s forgotten and neglected population  – the people who are incarcerated, including her husband – by facilitating discussions among families with loved ones in prison. And there are the small business owners like Tricia Principe of Cal’s Pet Supply, where they took precautions early so the store could remain open for the sake of employees, locals pets and the community. Every neighborhood has its leaders, people like the Cruz family, who not only run a cleaning business but a sewing workshop.  Victor and Ariana call their custom goods and embroidery business Sew Frisco and started turning out masks when they heard of the shortages.

I am so proud of my fellow citizens who are doing their own thing and getting the job done in a way that’s so Frisco in these most difficult times. If you’re interested, you may read all about them in this collection of columns about our SFLives.

If you’re much of a traveler, well, hopefully you haven’t been to San Francisco in awhile. You see, our city, known to locals as The City, is taking quite seriously the shelter-in-place orders during the pandemic, as well as the guidelines to WEAR A MASK (as you will see in the above photos, all by photographer Kevin Hume for the Examiner). Aside from the essentials, only a fraction of our businesses have reopened; cultural destinations like museums have not reopened. Services like salons and barbershops remain closed. Restaurants are take-out only, some have adapted to outdoor seating but many remain shuttered. Some, like historic legacy businesses Louis’s at Seal Rock and the Tadich Grill downtown are closed forever. Sure the orders to close or limit services have been a terrific let down for small businesses and tourism: Without government assistance and cooperation from lenders, our beloved site-specific and characteristic businesses aren’t making it. However, the compliance with the orders has meant that for those of us invested in controlling and eradicating the coronavirus, staying at home and wearing a mask remain the best options. These are confusing, terrifying and disappointing times.

Despite the illness in the air, we must celebrate and breathe in our lives, particularly the lives of folks making a difference. Their devotion to community wellness has a ripple effect: I invite you to be inspired by them to follow your calling and do what you can in your own home and in your own community to make these days a little brighter for someone else. Until next time, I send wishes for you to stay healthy. And if you can are able, stay at home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filed under: anti-capitalist, Arts and Culture, column, Environmental Justice, San Francisco News, Tales of the Gentrification City, , , , , , ,

Writers making change in the pandemic age

This week, and what a week it was, I’m pleased to introduce you to several writers living and working in San Francisco, all of them striving

Poet and activist Thea Matthews in the Mission District on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

toward a more just and equitable society in their own unique ways.  First, poet and activist Thea Matthews is a San Francisco born and raised writer, celebrating the publication of her first poetry collection for a local press. She’s also deeply involved and on the frontlines of the Movement 4 Black Lives. Read more about where she’s been and where she’s going in this week’s San Francisco Examiner column, SFLives.

Also publishing today, a story I was reporting on and off for about five months on the Writers Grotto, a community of authors who found they needed to recreate their organization so that it would be more inviting to writers of color. You can read the full story in today’s San Francisco Chronicle Datebook  (and one day, I promise to a write story about the process of reporting it).

I love my work, seeking out the stories on the lives of the people and places that show San Francisco at its best. What a privilege it is to be trusted to tell these stories and deliver them to you, especially in these times. As ever, I thank you for taking the time to read and I bid the best to you and your families as the pandemic runs its course. May the moral arc of the universe continue its bend toward justice.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Books, Poetry, racism, San Francisco News, ,

Poetic activism in the pandemic age: Tony Robles writes home

I first heard of the work Tony Robles was doing to stem the tide of gentrification in San Francisco when I returned here, following a decade of living in Los Angeles. A housing advocate, particularly devoted to keeping seniors in their homes, and a cultural worker whose art is poetry, whether in the fight to preserve bookstores or entire neighborhoods, from the Fillmore to the Mission, Robles was a strong presence in the various communities he represented, from North Beach to City Hall and South of Market. Combining community and culture in the spirit and tradition of his uncle Al, one of our city’s beloved poet activists, Robles is a fighter for the city he’s allowed to hate — because he loves it — even though he’s left us for rural North Carolina…

In 2017, I was happy to include Tony’s piece “Conversation With A Buffalo,” in Your Golden Sun Still Shines, the San Francisco story anthology I edited for Manic D Press (and which his open letter to another Tony, Bennett, helped deliver the book’s title, a reference to “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”). Now that Robles has left his heart here for real, having relocated to Hendersonville, he’s receiving some well-deserved recognition for his work as a poet. I hope you’ll read the full story of his life and work, particularly as it relates to the role of artists in the age of the pandemic in my biweekly column for the Examiner, SF Lives. And oh yes, a big thank you to Tony: Mabuhay! Read the column here.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, Poetry, San Francisco News, Tales of the Gentrification City, , , , ,

A Dream of Fillmore Street

People walk by the Clay Theatre in Pacific Heights on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, two days before the single-screen movie house closes its doors after 110 years. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The mood went dark on Fillmore Street three weeks into January as locals took in the news that their cinema, The Clay Theatre, would be closing without a fight or fanfare before the month’s end.

A fixture between Clay and Sacramento streets for over 100 years, “The Clay is a pillar, a cornerstone of the neighborhood,” said Fred Martin, stationed behind the counter of Browser Books, one block down. Noting its great projection and offbeat programming, “there has to be some way to keep it. If they could do it with The Vogue, they can do it here,” said Martin, referring to another historic theater, just a few blocks west.

“This is Pacific Heights. There’s money here.”

The Landmark Theatre chain was tight-lipped about The Clay’s abrupt closure; its press announcement cited “the changing theatrical landscape and challenges to independent exhibition.” But Martin notes, the independently owned and operated Vogue seems to be doing fine, despite the challenges in film markets.

Read the whole SFLives column in today’s San Francisco Examiner

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, column, gentrification, income disparity, new article, San Francisco News, Tales of the Gentrification City, ,

The Painters

For the last several years, my beat has generally been arts and culture: A lot about  books, the City of San Francisco and its people, and of course music, from folk to jazz.  But for reasons unexplained, I ended last year and begin the new decade with three consecutive stories on women who paint. 

Sylvia Fein is a surrealist and a centenarian, living in Martinez. Her enthusiasm not only for painting but for life (she’s an olive rancher, a sailor and a vintner) is an inspiration. The San Francisco Chronicle sent me to her home for the interview; her egg tempera on gesso board paintings and custom frames remain on view at the Berkeley Museum of Art and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) through January.

Deirdre White is a painter and arts educator. Five years ago I talked to her and her husband Tom Heyman about artists and gentrification. At the end of 2019, I spoke to White for my San Francisco Examiner column, SF Lives, when the Spring classes she teaches and others inside and outside her department at City College of San Francisco were abruptly cut just before Thanksgiving.  She has an exhibit opening January 31 at Ampersand International Gallery in San Francisco Her large canvas oil “carts and rigs” are informed by the lives and belongings of people who live on the streets here. Now That My Ladder’s Gone is on view through February.

Anna Lisa Escobedo is among the group of artists, not all but mostly women, who collaborated on the large mural Alto al fuego in la Misión, a tribute to those who’ve lost their lives to police violence in San Francisco and to state violence at the US border. Centered around the figure of Amilcar Perez-Lopez, I spoke to several artists on the project, including Carla Wojczuk and Lucia González Ippolito while covering the story for Current SF. The project was photographed beautifully by Ekevara Kitpowsong; we’ve worked together on several stories together about local muralists last year (including one on Juana Alicia whose work also inspired this newest addition to the Mission District’s mural scene).

Despite what you may have heard, San Francisco and the greater Bay Area still has plenty of art and artists living, working, thriving, creating beauty and making their statements here. Come and see us in the new year.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, San Francisco News, Women's issues, , , , ,

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